The best way to fix the long term is with more short-termism

People don't like thinking about hard problems while the economy is a mess.

Just in case you aren't convinced that things tend to get worse before they get more worse, here's another example of why it's incumbent on us to solve the short-term problems in the short term because, not despite, of the long-term problems plaguing us.

The Washington Post's Brad Plumber writes about building the support needed to tackle climate change:

A new study finds that U.S. senators are far less likely to take green votes when the unemployment rate in their state is high…

Grant Jacobsen of the University of Oregon took a look at the voting records of 296 senators between 1976 and 2008. He then checked the local unemployment rate in each senator’s state, and matched them up to the “green scores” that were given to each senator by the League of Conservation Voters.

The result? “A one point increase in the [state] unemployment rate leads to a statistically significant 0.48 point decline in the LCV score of the average senator.”

Doubtless politicians – particularly right-wing politicians – wouldn't agree that Making Tough Choices about climate change is the same as Making Tough Choices about what we're used to euphemistically referring too as "much needed structural reforms", but they are. In both cases, the move would be unpopular, painful for a number of entrenched interests, and probably necessary in the long term – but the idea that we ought to take difficult steps in the middle of the biggest recession Britain has ever seen, and then start fixing the recession, is madness.

Of course, the problems with fixing climate change in the middle of a recession aren't identical to the proposals to cut employment protections, corporate tax rates and financial regulations. For one thing, there's a chance that efforts to reduce the amount of carbon we pump into the atmosphere might actually do what they're intended to do, while the evidence that businesses are just straining at the bit to give us perpetual 3 per cent growth were it not for those pesky unfair dismissal laws is slim.

But also, of course, many efforts to fight climate change are also ones which would end the damaging austerity keeping us in this economic crisis in the first place. So while politically, we may have to solve the short term problem – and end the depression – before we can move on to fixing the climate, economically, they're one and the same.

Still, what we should take away from this is that something which can end the depression is something which should be done. It doesn't matter if it's "kicking the can down the road" – once that can is kicked, we can start thinking about the long term solutions which might eliminate the can altogether, or maybe power it with wind, or solar energy. (That metaphor ran away from me somewhat)

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 Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.