Austerity averted in US

Country hauled back from the fiscal cliff.

At 10:59 PM EST yesterday, the US House of Representatives voted 257-167 to pass a bill originating in the Senate to prevent the government from being forced to implement a damaging mixture of spending cuts and tax rises – popularly known as the fiscal cliff.

To understand how much of a misnomer that title was, consider this: The US had already gone over the "cliff" at midnight on 31 December, 23 hours before the House passed its preventative bill.

The cliff was in fact the date at which the United States would, unless it passed new legislation, implement a series of European-style austerity measures. While these all became law at the stroke of midnight, implementation was to be phased out throughout the next few months. Unemployment benefits would have been cut within a week, while the full tax hikes – caused by the automatic expiration of Bush II's tax cuts – were to have taken several more months to implement. If we must keep the cliff metaphor, then the plummet was slow enough that the House was able to throw a rope down a day later and haul the nation back off the precipice.

Not that everything is peachy. The compromise that the Democrat- controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House came to was 154 pages of legislation, but still involved kicking a couple of hand-grenades down the road.

Included in the bill was:

  • an agreement to return taxes to Clinton-era levels for families with income above $450,000 (a compromise between the Democrats' desire to do so above $250,000 and Republicans' desire to do so above $1m – or preferably not at all)
  • a similar rise in capital gain and dividend tax above that threshold
  • another rise in estate tax above that threshold (although, for no good policy reason, the estate tax threshold and only the estate tax threshold is to be indexed to inflation)
  • a civil service pay-freeze
  • unemployment benefits extended for another year
  • The Alternative Minimum Tax, which was intended to impose high taxes on the rich but has been affecting more and more middle-class families, will be "patched" to prevent any further mission-creep.
  • And an extension of Obama's tax breaks for low-income households.

In other words, nearly every measure extended yesterday was a tax break, with the exception of the three headline tax rises. There were also – because there always are – a host of other smaller measures added to the bill to ensure its passage. Joe Weisenthal finds six, including tax breaks for Puerto Rican rum and market loss assistance for asparagus farmers.

But two things weren't dealt with yesterday, instead booted down the line. On 1 March, the "sequester" will be enacted. This is the bundle of spending cuts agreed to in summer 2011 as part of the deal which raised the debt ceiling. It is similar in degree to the spending cuts implemented by the UK coalition, and most of the American establishment – the Republican party excepted, as usual – appear to have learned from the lesson Cameron provided, and have no intention to enact austerity in the midst of a depression.

The second fight due to come is over the debt ceiling. Exactly the same debt ceiling which was "dealt with" by enacting the sequester. The ceiling was raised – not abolished – and current Treasury projections suggest that it will have to be raised again in about two months.

The battlefields are drawn, in other words. The White House wants the sequester and debt ceiling extended or abolished; the Republicans want the sequester – and probably further spending cuts – enacted, and are prepared to see government spending hit the ceiling to do so. And unlike the "fiscal cliff", the debt ceiling is a real cliff. If the US hits it, a full government shut-down is required to stop it defaulting on its bonds.

The comparison with the UK is fascinating. Much has been made of the fact that the fiscal cliff, which has taken so much effort to avoid, is more accurately called "austerity"; but while the US legislature has been hosting fake debates in which the Republican party pretends it is fine with the whole thing and the Democrats pretend they don't want to negotiate, there is broad understanding in the rest of the US establishment (including the media) that to do so would be a very bad thing. That serves only to highlight how strange the UK right is in persisting in its defence of austerity. So while it's for the best for the US that it prevented the crippling austerity, it does mean that the evidence-based debate in Europe is deprived of yet another data point showing the damage such policies do.

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner. 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.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.