The Times' bizarre economics

Straight outta 2010.

The Times has an economics leader (£) today calling for the cutting of public spending to continue. It's a remarkably sloppy piece, straight out of the 2010 election campaign, and ignoring everything we have learned in the two and a half years since then.

The piece starts by pointing out that the Chancellor will have failed to cut debt as a proportion of GDP by the end of this parliament, something he initially staked his reputation on. It then, accurately, points out the the principal risks to Britain's economic health come from anaemic growth, not a collapse of "confidence".

The leader then runs through the failure, even after the third-quarter growth, of anything resembling the recovery, and comes tot he relatively sensible conclusion that Osborne ought to delay his fiscal targets.

Then it all goes off the rails:

The IMF has argued that increased borrowing should be tolerated rather than tackled with tax rises or further spending cuts. That does not mean that the Government has been wrong to seek a rapid reduction in the budget deficit. Cutting spending does not simply take demand out of the economy. It reduces sovereign risk and the premium that the Government has to pay on its borrowing. As sterling is not a reserve currency, maintaining fiscal credibility is an especially important task in economic management.

The low market interest rates that the UK needs to pay should be counted a success. They are a precondition of recovery.

Where to start. Cutting spending reduces sovereign risk? Are we still having this conversation? The UK controls its own currency, and exclusively issues bonds denominated in that currency. Sovereign risk is infinitesimal. We cannot go bust like Greece; we cannot default like Argentina. The worst thing that Britain could do is attempt to inflate its way out of debt; but that hasn't happened, and isn't going to happen, because spending is manageable, inflation is low, and interest rates are lower.

The leader also claims that cutting spending lowers "the premium that the Government has to pay on its borrowing". Which is again nonsense. As I wrote just two weeks ago, when Conservative MP Jesse Norman launched a bizarre attack on NIESR's Jonathan Portes:

Sovereign debt yields can be low either because investors think there is little chance of the nation going bankrupt, or because there is scant competition from other potential investments pushing up the yield. Since the crash, the chance of Britain defaulting hasn't changed from basically-zero, but the growth rate – and thus the average return on investment from putting your money in the "real" economy – has plummeted.

The status of Sterling as a reserve currency is also weird, inaccurate and slightly irrelevant. Sterling is a reserve currency – it is the world's third most held, after the euro and dollar. It is no longer the reserve currency, true – the dollar took that title after World War II – but that also has little to do with the importance of fiscal credibility.

And while the low market interest rates the UK needs to pay are helpful, they should not be considered a success. If anything, they are a sign of Osborne's economic failure. If the market truly expected a recovery, the first thing that would happen is interest rates would rise, as investors finally priced in the fact that they could expect real returns if they put their money elsewhere in the economy. As it is, returns on investment in government bonds remain close to zero, as investors flee to a safe haven.

Osborne needs, first and foremost, a plan to end this depression. Cutting spending acts against that goal. Market interest rates, and the risk of sovereign defaults, are irrelevancies to that question.

Money. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.