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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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?