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.

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George Osborne's surplus target is under threat without greater austerity

The IFS exposes the Chancellor's lack of breathing space.

At the end of the last year, I noted how George Osborne's stock, which rose dramatically after the general election, had begun to plummet. His ratings among Tory members and the electorate fell after the tax credits imbroglio and he was booed at the Star Wars premiere (a moment which recalled his past humbling at the Paralympics opening ceremony). 

Matters have improved little since. The Chancellor was isolated by No.10 and cabinet colleagues after describing the Google tax deal, under which the company paid £130m, as a "major success". Today, he is returning from the Super Bowl to a grim prognosis from the IFS. In its Green Budget, the economic oracle warns that Osborne's defining ambition of a budget surplus by 2019-20 may be unachievable without further spending cuts and tax rises. 

Though the OBR's most recent forecast gave him a £10.1bn cushion, reduced earnings growth and lower equity prices could eat up most of that. In addition, the government has pledged to make £8bn of currently unfunded tax cuts by raising the personal allowance and the 40p rate threshold. The problem for Osborne, as his tax credits defeat demonstrated, is that there are few easy cuts left to make. 

Having committed to achieving a surplus by the fixed date of 2019-20, the Chancellor's new fiscal mandate gives him less flexibility than in the past. Indeed, it has been enshrined in law. Osborne's hope is that the UK will achieve its first surplus since 2000-01 just at the moment that he is set to succeed (or has succeeded) David Cameron as prime minister: his political fortunes are aligned with those of the economy. 

There is just one get-out clause. Should GDP growth fall below 1 per cent, the target is suspended. An anaemic economy would hardly be welcome for the Chancellor but it would at least provide him with an alibi for continued borrowing. Osborne may be forced to once more recite his own version of Keynes's maxim: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.