The public sector deficit through the looking-glass

The government is ignoring the flip side of the its deficit reduction targets: they require us all to spend more.

Reducing the public sector deficit has been the Coalition's number one economic goal from the start. Inheriting a record deficit in 2009/10 – Labour’s last year – equal to almost 11 per cent of GDP, no new government, even if had wanted to, could have done anything else. 

The underlying reasoning – that a deficit this big is a sign of a something seriously amiss in the economy – was and is completely correct. Since the late 1980s, this deficit had averaged 2.5 per cent. In that period, the biggest it ever got was 7.5 per cent in 1993/4 as the economy began its recovery from the early 1990s recession.

But the approach of trying to reduce that deficit by cutting spending and putting up taxes alone is wrong. The reason why is that the public sector deficit does not exist in isolation. Instead, it is part of a chain of 'imbalances' linking the public sector with the household, corporate and overseas sectors. By definition (and measurement errors aside), these four imbalances, some surpluses and some deficits, always add up to zero.

The graph below shows the public sector deficit as a percentage of GDP, year by year from 1993/4 (the previous record deficit year). The figures up to 2011/12 are actual figures. Those for 2012/3 and beyond are the OBR’s latest forecast published last week. The odd-looking 2012/3 figures themselves are due to some one-off financial transfers between the corporate and public sectors. In the big picture they can be ignored.

Sources: ONS Quarterly National Accounts (to 2011/2) and Office for Budget Responsibility, March 2013 Economy Supplementary Tables, table 1.8, (from 2012/3)

Since there is nothing on the graph labelled ‘public sector deficit’ how can it be a picture of it? On the face of it, the graph shows the other three sector balances, with surpluses above the line and deficits below it. The public sector deficit is the total of these three. In years when all three are themselves surpluses, the public sector deficit is measured by the top of the bar stack: for example, just under 11 per cent in 2009/10. In years when one or more of the other balances is itself a deficit, this has to be subtracted from the top of the stack to get the measure of the public sector: for example, just under 7 per cent in 2008/9. This is a picture of the public sector deficit as Alice might find it, through the looking-glass.

This picture provokes questions. Let’s take three of them here. First, if the public sector deficit has this double life, as both itself and as this mirror image of the other three sectors, can we say which causes which? In simple terms, the answer is no; both sides of the mirror have a life of their own. This answer is enough to undermine the basic idea of ‘austerity’; that if only a government bears down on the public sector hard enough, all, eventually, will be well.

Second, what should we make of the economy in 2017/8, the last year of the OBR’s forecast? With a public sector deficit projected at 2.5 per cent (the long term average) and (though this cannot be seen in the graph) public sector debt at last falling as a percentage of GDP. Osborne would regard this as vindication. But by looking at the reflection of the deficit in the mirror, we see that 2017/8 bears an unfortunate resemblance not to the boom years either side of 1997 but to 2002/3, the year when things started going wrong under Labour as the economy came to be sustained by public and household borrowing. 

Third, if this is where austerity gets us, where do we need to go instead? The answer is that we must concentrate as well on the problematic surpluses, both the chronic corporate sector surplus (into its consecutive 16th year by the end of the OBR forecast) and overseas surplus with the UK – better known as ‘our’ balance of payments deficit. To the extent that there is a debate about alternatives to austerity they are for the most part about how to ‘kick start’ the economy. Without a programme for dealing with the twin surpluses, however, kick-start may turn into stop-start before we get anywhere near a sufficient level of economic activity.

And she looked from Tweedledum to Tweedledee, and from Tweedledee to Tweedledum, and from Tweedledum to Tweedledee again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
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Why Philip Green's fall should bring down the honours system – but won't

Sir Shifty may fall in disgrace, but our ridiculous system will endure. No matter what's happening in the rest of politics.

Sir Philip Green’s Efficiency Review (2010) is his Das Kapital and it is still, happily, online. You can, if you wish, smirk at his recommendations to the government, which were solicited by David Cameron, I imagine, because when he stood next to Green he looked not like a 17th-century woodcut but like a tall, handsome semi-aristocrat.

“There is no motivation to save money or to treat cash ‘as your own’,” Green grumbles, before complaining, “There are inconsistent commercial skills across departments.” I am weeping with laughter at the whole report. But I’m not one of those BHS employees watching their pension ­vanish as the hideous cushions, throws and bedspreads pile up on the Green family yacht Lionheart. I instantly rename the yacht 14-Day Return Policy No More.

The days when Green could write efficiency reviews for people to ignore are gone. It is said that he could lose his knighthood, because that would be exciting and pointless. If so, I hope the ceremony features the formal rending of a garment from the BHS sale bin – perhaps a torn sock will be flung at his head? The Queen will not be happy, because de-knighting makes the ancient system of patronage look as ridiculous as it really is. Do intercessors between man and God make mistakes? Would they raise a man the Daily Mail now calls “Sir Shifty”? (I checked whether there was a Sir Shifty among the knights of the Round Table who flogged the Holy Grail to a passing tinker. There was not.)

Lord Melbourne advised Queen Victoria not to attempt to make her husband, Albert, a king, for if the people knew that they could make kings, they might unmake them. Green will discover this in his tiny way. But the elites should not hide their baubles. One fallen knight will not destroy the system (and I cannot think that Green will take £571m from his Lionheart cushion budget to save his knighthood by replenishing the BHS pension fund, because a knighthood is, in essence, just a tiny Bentley Continental that you wear over your nipple). One fallen knight should destroy the system but it won’t, because human conceit and docility are without end. Green will be shunned. Nothing will change.

One might have hoped that the Brexit vote would have alerted Cameron to the abyss between the electorate and the elected. (Even Alastair Campbell, chomping against Brexit, seemed to forget that he was as complicit in the alienation of voters as anyone else: government by sofa, teeth and war.) The response was glib, even for Cameron, a man so glib that I sometimes think he is a reflection in a pond. Brexit hit him like someone caught in a mild shower without an umbrella. He hummed at the lesson that history dealt him; he hummed as he left his page. It was the hum of the alpha Etonian caught out in a mistake, yes, but it was still a bloody hum.

His next act was to increase pay-offs to favoured courtiers against civil service advice and at public expense; then, it was reported, he nominated his spin doctor Craig Oliver and his former spin doctor Gabby Bertin for peerages, because the upper house needs more PRs. He has learned nothing. I wish him a relaxed retirement in which he will, apparently, write his four-page memoir, David Cameron: My Struggle (sub-subtitle: Eton Mess?). I hope he does not attempt to deny “the prosciutto affair”, because there is no need. It was not true. It was too pure a metaphor.

So the honours system, an essential part of our alienating politics, alongside dodgy donors, duck houses and George Galloway, endures in its worst form as conventional politics fails. It is a donkey sanctuary for political friends and Bruce Forsyth. I am not suggesting that everyone who has been honoured is dreadful – some lollipop ladies deserve to be patronised with an OBE (when there is no E any more), I am sure, and the lords, some of whom are excellent, are the functional opposition now – but the system can no longer be defended by the mirth potential of watching politicians ponder what light-entertainment celebrities might swing a marginal before being posthumously accused of rape. We must find something better before the house burns down. Perhaps a robust parliamentary democracy?

The problem is best expressed by the existence of a specialist consultancy called Awards Intelligence, which engages in “VIP brand-building” by soliciting awards. It sells “awards plans” from £795, which I could well imagine Philip Green perusing as he bobs about aboard Lionheart, were it not too late. The Awards Intelligence website tells us so much, though obliviously, about the narcissism of modern politics that I am tempted to reproduce it in full. But I will merely report that it asks:

"Did you know that you can join the House of Lords on a part-time basis as an Independent Crossbench Peer or a political peer affiliated to one of the main politial parties – even if you have ongoing work, family or community commitments!"

The message from Awards Intelligence, which boasts of a 50 per cent success rate, is clear: the legislature is part-time, it exists to “instil trust, add credibility and provide a platform for you to have your say” – and it can’t always spell “political”.

Sir Shifty and Awards Intelligence do not constitute the worst crisis in the history of honours, dreadful though they are. During the First World War the royal German cousins were stripped of their garters, so that British soldiers would not have to kill men of higher rank. But it is time for the Queen to stop pinning toys on nipples. They are part of a political system sweeping us, swiftly, towards the night.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue