Miliband, Obama & "middle-out economics"

The Labour leader follows the President in growing the economy from the middle classes.

Yesterday, Ed Miliband laid out his cards on his economic vision. He argued that to get to the kind of strong and steady economic growth that will lower unemployment and support deficit reduction: “the starting point is that the recovery will be made by the many not just by a few at the top,” he said.

One reading of this speech is that he is talking about economic growth only to cover for a concern over fairness. Thus, the mansion tax can be interpreted as a way to make sure that the rich pay their fair share, but this really may have nothing to do with growth. But, another reading of the speech is that he — like President Obama — is pushing for a debate about economics that is based on facts, not fiction. Middle out economics or an economics that begins with the many, not the few may sound like good old-fashioned political pandering, but, in fact, there is solid economic evidence for this perspective.

Both Miliband and Obama are pushing against a story of what makes the economy grow that goes like this: Cut taxes or reduce “red tape” or regulation on those who are the “job creators” and they will invest more and hire more employees and the economy will grow. For decades, this trickle-down logic has been an unvarying constant in the political discourse in both the US and the UK. Yet, this model has failed both nations repeatedly and most colossally over the past few years of deep recession and sputtering recovery.

It’s not just that the trickle-down model isn’t fair and that progressive leaders don’t like the idea of giving tax cuts to millionaires while too many struggle to make ends meet, although that may be true. The deeper problem is that this model isn’t consistent with the evidence on what makes an economy grow.

If you ask any group of economists - left, right, center - what drives economic growth, they will give you a list of ideas that will fall into a few categories: the level of demand for goods and services, the skills and educational level of the potential workforce, the quality of the infrastructure, the potential for innovators to bring ideas to market, the quality of governance in both public and private institutions, and access to financial capital, including access to debt and savings.

That’s a long and complex list. The trickle-down story certainly plays a role in how much individuals can save — higher taxes means less savings. But, that’s clearly only one small piece of the puzzle. And, it’s a piece that may stand in opposition to the others: cutting taxes for millionaires may give them each a little more money to invest, but that means less money for schools to educate the next generation of employees, less investments in updated infrastructure that will improve the productivity of private investment, or less funding to support innovation.

The fact is that it is the business owners job to always focus on the bottom line. It’s their job to boost their productivity or sales to add profits to their bottom line. A tax cut helps them do that in the short-run. But, even the best businesses cannot on their own address the gaps in educational attainment, make sure that high finance doesn’t become too big to fail, or address climate change.

Focusing on growing the economy from the middle out is a better reflection of what economists know about what makes an economy grow and thrive. Over the past couple of years, my colleagues and I have been sifting through economics papers and talking to leading economists around the world about this question. We have found that there is a growing body of research pointing to the conclusion that high inequality hinders economic growth and stability through a variety of mechanisms. While there isn’t one perfect, econometrically unimpeachable paper that proves that the economy grows from the middle out, there’s a lot out of research out there - from top tier institutions - pointing to the conclusion that the strength and size of the middle has a strong effect on the all the key factors that propel the economy forward.

For both Britain and the US, the best bet for the economy is on the middle. Both nations have won before on building an economy from the middle out and by developing and investing in the skills and infrastructure necessary to support broad-based growth. That's the winning hand.

Photograph: Getty Images

Heather Boushey is a Visiting Fellow at IPPR and senior economist at the Centre for American Progress in Washington DC

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.