Austerity has cost the UK £3,500 for every household

The maths of cuts.

Counterfactuals are tricky. How can we know for certain what the British economy would look like if austerity had never been implemented?

Well, we can't be certain. But with a few assumptions, we can ale an educated guess, and that's precisely what Alan Taylor has done at VoxEU. The assumptions he makes aren't uncontroversial, but they are easily defensible, and the results are stunning.

First, we have to assume that the government actually did have the ability to avoid austerity. That is, if Osborne hadn't rapidly started to slash the state, would the bond markets have refused to loan to us shortly after? It seems unlikely, especially given, as Taylor points out, gilt yields remain incredibly low despite our debt-to-GDP level rising and our real GDP worse than predicted. The bond market basically doesn't care about the national debt, at least while it's at the levels it is now; instead, as opportunities for investment have frozen worldwide, yields in the UK have collapsed, along with those in the US and Japan.

So the UK didn't have to implement austerity; it was a choice. The second assumption is that policymakers "care about timing fiscal adjustments so as to mitigate damage to the real GDP path of the economy", and won't just splurge the money wherever they can find political support for it. That is a fairly weighty assumption, to be sure, and one which a lot of people working at the intersection of politics and economics might question. At the same time, though, it's a pretty necessary assumption to do much thinking about macroeconomics, not least because if you assume politicians are idiots, it becomes pretty hard to justify any state spending at all.

If you buy those two basic assumptions, Taylor writes, then you can start to work backwards from the observed effects of austerity in other countries to build up the counter-factual. This part is just the same as we've seen again and again: austerity hurts growth. A lot.

Last year, for instance Paul Krugman did a rough-and-ready calculation and estimated that cutting budgets by 1 per cent of GDP since the recession reduced GDP by around 1.25 per cent. That's not supposed to be generalizable – but it does seem true for a specific time (2008-2012) and place (Europe).

Taylor's model is far more robust: it takes account of allocation bias (the fact that the state of a country's economy may have influenced whether or not it applied austerity measures), and also allows for the fact that austerity has different affects applied in a boom or slump. And it finds a massive effect in a slump, compounded by the fact that, as Taylor says, "a dead cat bounces": given we'd expect more future growth the deeper in a slump we are (as the economy catches up with where it should be), there's a tendency to underestimate the damage of austerity.

But this is all preamble. You're here for the money shot. How much has austerity cost Britain? Three per cent of GDP:

Simon Wren-Lewis amortises that across the UK: it comes to £3,500 for every UK household over those three years. Bear that in mind next time you hear the government talking about how much our welfare bill is. Once upon a time, we had that money.

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
Show Hide image

The campaign to keep Britain in Europe must be based on hope, not fear

Together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of.

Today the Liberal Democrats launched our national campaign to keep Britain in Europe. With the polls showing the outcome of this referendum is on a knife-edge, our party is determined to play a decisive role in this once in a generation fight. This will not be an easy campaign. But it is one we will relish as the UK's most outward-looking and internationalist party. Together in Europe the UK has delivered peace, created the world’s largest free trade area and given the British people the opportunity to live, work and travel freely across the continent. Now is the time to build on these achievements, not throw them all away.

Already we are hearing fear-mongering from both sides in this heated debate. On the one hand, Ukip and the feuding Leave campaigns have shamelessly seized on the events in Cologne at New Year to claim that British women will be at risk if the UK stays in Europe. On the other, David Cameron claims that the refugees he derides as a "bunch of migrants" in Calais will all descend on the other side of the Channel the minute Britain leaves the EU. The British public deserve better than this. Rather than constant mud-slinging and politicising of the world's biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, we need a frank and honest debate about what is really at stake. Most importantly this should be a positive campaign, one that is fought on hope and not on fear. As we have a seen in Scotland, a referendum won through scare tactics alone risks winning the battle but losing the war.

The voice of business and civil society, from scientists and the police to environmental charities, have a crucial role to play in explaining how being in the EU benefits the British economy and enhances people's everyday lives. All those who believe in Britain's EU membership must not be afraid to speak out and make the positive case why being in Europe makes us more prosperous, stable and secure. Because at its heart this debate is not just about facts and figures, it is about what kind of country we want to be.

The Leave campaigns cannot agree what they believe in. Some want the UK to be an offshore, deregulated tax haven, others advocate a protectionist, mean-hearted country that shuts it doors to the world. As with so many populist movements, from Putin to Trump, they are defined not by what they are for but what they are against. Their failure to come up with a credible vision for our country's future is not patriotic, it is irresponsible.

This leaves the field open to put forward a united vision of Britain's place in Europe and the world. Liberal Democrats are clear what we believe in: an open, inclusive and tolerant nation that stands tall in the world and doesn't hide from it. We are not uncritical of the EU's institutions. Indeed as Liberals, we fiercely believe that power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, empowering communities and individuals wherever possible to make decisions for themselves. But we recognise that staying in Europe is the best way to find the solutions to the problems that don't stop at borders, rather than leaving them to our children and grandchildren. We believe Britain must put itself at the heart of our continent's future and shape a more effective and more accountable Europe, focused on responding to major global challenges we face.

Together in Europe we can build a strong and prosperous future, from pioneering research into life-saving new medicines to tackling climate change and fighting international crime. Together we can provide hope for the desperate and spread the peace we now take for granted to the rest of the world. And together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of. So if you agree then join the Liberal Democrat campaign today, to remain in together, and to stand up for the type of Britain you think we should be.