Greece & Germany: Things tend to get worse before they get more worse

Cutting your nose off to incentivise your face to implement much needed structural reforms.

The young man stood up.
“Mrs. Bylaxis came in this morning,” he said. “She said the proverb you did for her last week has stopped working.”
Didactylos scratched his head.
“Which one was that?” he said.
“You gave her ‘It's always darkest before dawn.’ ”
“Nothing wrong with that. Damn good philosophy.”
“She said she didn’t feel any better. Anyway, she said she'd stayed up all night because of her bad leg and it was actually quite light just before dawn, so it wasn’t true. And her leg still dropped off. So I gave her part exchange on ‘Still, it does you good to laugh.’ ”

Terry Pratchett – Small Gods

Noah Smith points out that there’s an oft overlooked argument in favour of austerity. It’s a stupid one, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously. The claim is that stimulus will work, but that is bad because it will delay “necessary” reform. This idea has a long heritage and it’s always been a good idea to mock it. I’ll try to provide some constructive examples against it.

First of all, let me say, I am a dedicated can kicker. Karl Smith is right: do you realise that everyone you know someday will die? The future is uncertain, so simply making a bad thing happen later is valuable because we might not be here. Problems sometimes solve themselves, and erstwhile solutions sometimes become problems. Pretending to have the foresight necessary to know when to say “you now must suffer now so that they then do not” is insulting.

I also think the idea is bad on its own terms. Crap policy begets crap policy for a number of reasons: most mundanely, I’d posit a correlation between following good short-term and good long-term policy. If a government is adopting crippling austerity now, it is more likely, not less, that they’ll be adopting bad long term policies.

But most importantly, this “butter tomorrow, sawdust today” policy has been tried before and sown disaster. Here are a few examples:

  • Hayek thought the depression would force down wages by brute force and trigger the end of unionised workers. He thus resisted efforts to end it. The result? Starvation! Smoot-Hawley! Nazis! Bet he felt pretty silly about that one.
  • He's in good company. Lenin in the 1900s argued that mitigation of the worker’s condition would delay the inevitable revolution and that nothing should be done to mitigate it. He actually got that one right. This time it was the Tsarist industrialists who must have felt silly (as much as dead people feel silly).
  • The little depression seriously derailed efforts to tackle climate change. Short-term suffering crowds out the long-term thinking needed to make policy effectively. Extending austerity makes it harder to talk about long-term sensible sacrifices because you’ve less to sacrifice.
  • As Ben Friedman argues “History suggests that, in the past, a rising standard of living has promoted tolerance for others, commitment to economic opportunity, and democracy. But stagnating incomes due to inequality can lead to the opposite outcomes.” Suffering makes people worse human beings and worse human beings make worse long-term policy.

To underline the point: the worst case scenario is Nazis. It is such a bad idea you can legitimately say “no because Nazi.” I can think of at least one positive counterexample too, also from Germany. As Scott Sumner points out, their labour market reforms of the mid-2000s took place against the most benign global and domestic macroeconomic circumstances imaginable. They were so successful that German unemployment continued to sink lower even as Europe was mired in depression.

Coincidentally, just as Noah Smith laid out the argument hypothetically, Steven Pearlstein comes along and positively endorses it. Only austerity and suffering can save Greece apparently. By embracing  short term suffering interest-groups can be defeated and illogical and burdensome regulations can be removed. Only brave short-term sacrifice can engender long term growth.

So how is Steven’s strategy paying off? Yep, same as last time, fucking Nazis again.

Even so, Greece is one of the few countries which spent the late 20th century moving from a middle-income to a high-income country. A round of applause please before you lecture them. Their politics and economy are dysfunctional and that will make them poorer, but it doesn’t need them to be in a depression. Being poor is bad, but being unemployed is evil.

Of course if unemployment is an evil, using unemployment as a punishment for being poorer than optimal is really evil. If the Greek economy is dysfunctional they should have higher inflation and lower real incomes, not suffer a manufactured unemployment crisis. It’s not just stupid and evil, it’s perverse.

It is a bad idea that policy should be actively destructive in the short-term to act as a bargaining tool or cudgel to implement a certain pet project. Suffering is bad, it makes us worse people and worse people make worse policy. If your leg does fall off, laughing isn’t the worst thing you could do; you could listen to these bozos.

This piece was originally posted on Left Outside, and is republished here with permission.

Members of Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn sing the country's national anthem. Photograph: Getty Images
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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.