When the deficit's "under control", will the Conservatives be able to resist deficit-funded tax cuts?

There's no reason why they should even try.

Matt Yglesias asks what could be an existential question for conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic:

This is the question for John Boehner and Paul Ryan whenever they do unveil their balanced-budget plan: Why not make taxes lower instead of balancing the budget? The budget will, presumably, cut spending down to a level that conservatives think is appropriate. Say that sums up to 18 percent of GDP. Well if you're spending 18 percent of GDP and 18 percent of GDP is the right amount to spend, then why is it better to raise 18 percent of GDP in taxes rather than raise 16 percent and borrow the rest?

For the time being, in Britain and America, rhetoric about "getting the deficit under control" and about "shrinking the size of the state" are pointing in the same direction. Both are reasons for the massive spending cuts which the Conservatives and Republicans have attempted to enact.

Most of the attacks on the false connection between those two arguments have been focused on the "shrinking the state" part of the equation. That is, questions like "if we're trying to reduce the deficit, why aren't we raising taxes on the rich/on bankers/on financial transactions" are appropriate for exposing the drive for deficit reduction as a sham, driven largely by ideology.

But what if, instead, we accept — hypothetically — that the size of the state had to be shrunk. Eventually, spending would be "under control", whatever that means for them, and the choice would become whether taxes ought to be at the same level. Why, all things considered, would it be bad if they weren't? Yglesias asks:

Is it because a 2 percent of GDP budget deficit would be inflationary? Is it because an inflation-targeting central bank faced with a 2 percent of GDP budget deficit would be forced to peg short-term interest rates at a high level? What's the problem, exactly, that the budget balancing solves once we've stipulated that spending has been cut to an appropriate level?

Of course, in the political world, we would be unlikely to get such a clear answer to that question. Rhetoric about a "maxed-out credit card", "paying off the country's mortgage" or "unsustainable budget deficits" — where "sustainable" is never defined — dodges the fact that the macroeconomics of small persistent budget deficits in a country which controls its own currency are relatively settled: it's fine. And chances are that if the Conservatives do manage to get the deficit down, and cling on to power through 2015, then they will do the obvious thing, and enact deficit-funded tax cuts.

But getting a straight answer to that question from the economically minded people who call for swingeing spending cuts now would be interesting indeed.

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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Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.