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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle