Why has Labour deserted Keynesian economics when the case has never been stronger?

The Coalition’s continued austerity drive maintains its stranglehold on British growth.

The Chancellor’s Comprehensive Spending Review surprised no one. Further cuts across the board, pay freezes for the public sector, more hoops for benefit claimants to jump through… and protection for elite sports and defence- Plan A all the way.

The Coalition’s continued austerity drive maintains its stranglehold on British growth, while their agenda of Hayekian reforms are less like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, and more like trying to cut wage costs by firing crew members as the waters rush in.

So how is plan A working out?

Fig 1: Source Econstats/IMF, 2013

Fig 2: Source: ONS: UK Public Sector Finances, Jun 2013 & OBR Economic & Fiscal Outlook, Mar 2013, Table 4.36 (pink=forecast)

Figure 1 shows how far the economy is operating below "potential growth"- the pace we would be growing at in normal times (neither boom nor bust). In the last 5 years, we have lost a compound GDP growth of almost 18 per cent. In current prices that equates to a shortfall of around £300bn - or almost three times the size of the current deficit, which incidentally - as can be seen in Figure 2 - is no longer falling.

And this is all against a backdrop of a labour market in tatters- chronically high joblessness (despite disingenuous statistics about private sector jobs), 20 per cent youth unemployment and what looks like a marked shift from cyclical to structural unemployment (temporary to long-term), as shown in the ONS’s latest report:

Fig 3: Source: ONS, Economic Review, June 2013

The figures above tell a story. The country’s resources- particularly labour- are unemployed, so our potential output is not realised, whilst individuals’ reduced spending power means less demand and less consumption - so the national income is lower. This causes an automatic reduction in tax receipts and an increase in social transfers which increase the deficit. And as growth stalls, the debt-to-GDP ratio is increased (via a smaller denominator), so the national debt looms ever larger.

Possibly the most shocking evidence of how bad things are can be shown by comparing our recent recovery to the recovery from the Great Depression of the 1930s:

Fig 4: Source: Eurostat, Maddison Project, 2013.

By this measure, the Great Depression doesn’t look so great, and we are deep in the worst economic crisis of the past century.

But since the very public bank bailouts and stimulus packages that followed the financial crash, policy makers the world over seem to have accepted that we are in a “new normal”. A crude reflection of this can be seen in the number of times the terms ‘crisis’, ‘recession’ and ‘new normal’ have been Google searched over the past few years.

Fig 5: Source: Google trends, accessed 2 July 2013

Why have crisis economics been abandoned in the middle of a crisis?

Instead, the economic discourse has defaulted back to the usual arguments between two dichotomised camps- call them what you want: Left-wing vs Right-wing, Socialists vs Free-marketeers, Aust(e)rians vs Keynesians, Nasty Party vs Scroungers, etc.

Some of the passengers on the Titanic might have thought that the ship would be faster and more efficient if it was not weighed down by the many third-class passengers, whose lowly ticket prices did not contribute as much to the vessel’s opulence. Equally, some may have felt that ticket prices should be lower, or that all passengers should have access to the ship’s offerings. But when she struck the iceberg, these quarrels were forgotten.

The longstanding question around the role of the state to intervene, distribute and employ is a fundamental one, but a state of crisis is not the time for fundamentalism.

Unfortunately, many on the right think that this is precisely the time for it. By dressing their long-held beliefs up as crisis-management tools, they can hold the country hostage “for the greater good”- the Tea Party’s obstinacy over taxation is one very public example of this, but it is just the tip of the iceberg…

The problem is, no right-wing economist has ever published a credible plan to recover from the kind of demand-driven shock we are facing, and recent attempts to contort their usual arguments for economic management into a path to recovery have been disastrous. Papers by Alesina & Ardagna, and Reinhart & Rogoff briefly showed that austerity could be expansionary and that government debt would hamper growth- before being thoroughly and publicly debunked.

But still we hear about the danger of inflation, the importance of encouraging job-creators by lowering top-rate taxes and the need to let austerity “do its work”, by shearing off the weak parts of the economy. These are not crisis management tools, they are the same arguments made by right-wing economists at all times!

But of course there is a custom-designed tool for our current situation.

Whilst their recoveries at year 5 may look different because of international policy choices, it remains the case that no economic crisis in history so perfectly mirrors our own as the Great Depression.

And written in response almost 80 years ago, Keynes’ General Theory clearly sets out the path for recovery in a world of low demand, private deleveraging and ineffective monetary policy: public borrowing to finance stimulus- if the private sector won’t create growth then the public sector must.

Fiscal policy is one of the most fundamental tools of government, and its use to rebalance the economy should not be thrown by the wayside because some people confuse it with a clandestine objective to impose socialism on the state.

With all this in mind, it was staggering to hear it announced that a Miliband Labour government would not borrow more to reverse Coalition spending cuts in 2015-16- in order to remain “credible”.

If the country has regained normal levels of growth by that stage, consolidation may be appropriate- but why explicitly rule out the use of one of the basic tools of government two years down the line?

If One Nation Labour aims to emulate its predecessors by courting Tory voters, abandoning the obvious case for fiscal stimulus is a new and irresponsible way of doing so.

Their change of course marks the retreat of the last bastions of Keynesianism from British politics: now we really are all in it together.

Meanwhile, the ship is still sinking…

Dom Boyle is a British economist.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.