The OBR's fiscal outlook in five charts

The OBR looked at fiscal sustainability today. Here's what they found.

Forecasting is hard

Page 106, thanks to Ed Conway

I'll admit, I have an idiosyncratic sense of humour. But still, I laughed out loud at this tangle of lines, which shows the OBR's best attempts to forecast oil and gas revenues. It's reminiscent of the woefully optimistic IMF forecasts for Greek GDP, excel that instead of being consistently wrong in the same direction, it's more like a child just scribbled a lot of lines on the chart.

Unfortunately, the oil and gas revenues remain important. Thanks to the long-standing decline in productivity in the sector, a function of the drying-up of North Sea oil fields, it usually imparts a massive downward pressure on the quarterly GDP figures, which means that getting the predictions accurate is crucial for getting the overall figure accurate.

Migration saves us money

Page 147, thanks to Jonathan Portes

If you care about public sector debt, really the absolute best thing you can do is remove restrictions on migration. Migrants are educated by their home country, and frequently retire there too; in the meantime, they work hard, pay their taxes, and have a lower-than-average crime rate.

The "high migration" scenario is of the average net migration being slightly more than double what the ONS uses as its baseline assumption, with 260,000 people coming in on net compared to 140,000. That's a lot more than normal, but it's not outside the realm of political possibility. Just think what a fully open-borders policy could do for the national accounts…

At the other end, the ONS looks at what "zero net migration" would do. Remember that zero net migration is actually the government's explicit policy, so it's already a bit damning that the ONS instead works on the assumption that they will fail to hit it by 140,000 people. But when we look at the stats, it's clear that we should be glad of that. Zero net migration would push the debt:GDP ratio over 100 per cent by 2050.

Young people and old people cost money

Page 78, thanks to Chris Giles

Again, nothing which will blow your mind: the state spends money educating young people, caring for old people, and providing health services to both, while the people in the middle pay the bills. What's interesting are the two crossover points – roughly 23 and 67 years old – where people go from being, on average, a contributor to a benefactor or vice versa, as well as the curious level of the peak of tax contributions, at just under 50.

You are never going to retire

Page 117

The thick line is the OBR's best guess of what changes to the pension age are going to do to the proportion of people between 65 and 74 working: around a 66 per cent increase, to just over a quarter of those people working by 2045. That already comes after a doubling of the rate in the last twenty years:

We are never ever ever getting time off work.

This is all just guesswork

Page 11

Finally, an important reminder that the long-term projections are as vague as can be. In fact, discussing them in terms of fiscal policy is almost nonsensical. What they are instead is predictions of demographic change mapped on to current policy. So if the nation continues ageing as it looks like it will be, and if we fail to do reform the state pension in that time, then the national debt will start rising on current policies in 2037.

Obviously, it's nonsense to act as though all our policies will be the same in 2017, let alone 20 years after that, but it's the only way talk about the future at all.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left