Is red tape killing the recovery? Probably not, no

The idea that regulation is the problem is simplistic, overstated, and misapplied.

The argument goes like this: Our wealth creators are chomping at the bit to hire more people, produce more output, and sell more stuff. The only problem is that nasty government regulations are stopping them from doing it. Scrap those regulations, and bust turns to boom!

It's an appealing argument to many in the Conservative party, because it has the side effect of shifting the blame for slow growth from macroeconomic policies—particularly the historic failure of austerity. It also lets Tories express sympathy with the aims of policies like a minimum wage, health and safety regulations, or employment protections, without actually committing to keep them.

Small wonder that Conservatives as diverse as Louise Mensch, party donor Adrian Beecroft and the Institute of Directors think-tank have all expressed a desire to slash "red tape", particularly when it comes in the form of regulations protecting employees against their bosses.

But their starting premise is wrong. Business executives—the archetypal "wealth creators" if any are—aren't chomping at the bit to deregulate. In fact, they're far more concerned about their inability to borrow and the difficulty they have paying taxes, as they tell the World Economic Forum:

It's not just big businesses. In August 2012 the Department for Business, Enterprise and Skills asked 500 heads of small and medium sized enterprises about what they considered the main obstacle to success. “The state of the economy” was the biggest issue, listed by 45 per cent and “obtaining finance” was next, mentioned by 12 per cent. After this came taxation, cashflow, competition and regulations—just 6 per cent listed regulations as their main concern.

In Britain, part of the reason businesses don't care about red tape is that it's all part of the level playing field. The minimum wage doesn't hurt small businesses if all their competitors have to pay it as well. But, as Louise Mensch points out, there's the international context to take into account as well:

"The left think they're helping working people by providing more rights", she told the Observer in 2011. "But all that actually happens is you create poverty and despair, because jobs go to your competitors who have fewer rights for workers."

In fact, you have to look hard to find competitors to Britain who have fewer rights for workers. By international standards, the UK is not heavily regulated at all. In fact, when the OECD assessed the strength of employment protections across all its member nations, the UK was third from the bottom. Apart from the US and Canada, we have the least employment red tape in the developed world:

And when we look at the protections workers have against unfair dismissal – a specific protection attacked by Adrian Beecroft’s 2011 report on employment law – the UK is even closer to being the “freest” nation in the world. Only the US has fewer protections than us:

But the most important aspect of regulations is frequently missed in discussions of whether they hurt businesses: regulations have direct benefits. It's a point made alarmingly infrequently in a climate where the burdens of regulations are brought up on a monthly basis.

For instance, the minimum wage has costs—to businesses, which have to pay higher wages, but also theoretically to workers, who may find that they aren't employable for that much. The minimum wage also has benefits. It boosts the income of the lowest paid and as such is a very effective way to boost aggregate demand. It can also increase productivity in a number of ways.

None of this should obscure the most important point: the poorest paid people in society suddenly have more money. That's not a by-product; it's the entire aim. And discussing what businesses think about the burden without acknowledging that benefit will always result in a skewed conclusion.

For more, take a look at our article produced with nef and the Tax Justice Network as part of their "Mythbusters" series, addressing the myth that "red tape" is preventing the recovery.

Some red tape. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Exell is a senior policy officer at the TUC and Alex Hern is the New Statesman's economics reporter.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit