The view from the European Central Bank. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Robert Skidelsky: The welfare state did not cause the crash. So why is Osborne cutting it?

If a government has to cut its spending, it is much better to tax the rich than starve the poor.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has warned that there will need to be “colossal” cuts in public spending to balance the books by 2018-19 – at least £55bn extra. On 4 December, the day after the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, the director of the IFS, Paul Johnson, said that it wasn’t for lack of effort that the deficit hasn’t fallen. Rather, it was “because the economy performed so poorly in the first half of the parliament, hitting revenues very hard”.

Very true – but what Johnson omitted to say was that the main reason the economy performed so poorly in the first half of the parliament was because George Osborne was busy cutting the deficit. He should have been expanding it!

This is something that expert commen­tators lack the guts to say because that would brand them as Keynesians. They may admit that fiscal consolidation has made eco­nomic recovery “more challenging”. But they don’t tell us why. This theoretical gap leaves them without a reputable story of why the economy behaved so poorly. They are in familiar “blown-off-course” territory.

Every possible event that might affect growth, however fleetingly, has been summoned in aid of explaining the failure of the economy to grow: the Greek crisis, the rising price of oil, the extra bank holiday on the Queen’s Diamond ­Jubilee and the closure of shops during the London Olympics, snow and floods – everything except the real reason, which is that a deficiency of ­private ­demand was not being offset by public-­sector investment.

The latest explanation of why the Chancellor has failed to meet his deficit targets concentrates on the nature of the labour market recovery. The government has congratulated itself on the fall in unemployment. We would expect falling unemployment to increase tax revenues and reduce public spending. However, this will not happen if government policy has created lots of new, mostly low-wage jobs whose holders pay no direct taxes and that must be propped up with benefits.

The catastrophic fall in productivity that we are now seeing was planted in the two and a half years of stagnation that followed the creation of the coalition in 2010. In October 2012, the Office for Budget Responsibility found that the economy had grown by only 0.9 per cent between Q1 of 2010 and Q2 of 2012, while its June 2010 forecast was 5.7 per cent growth over the same period. Subsequent upward revision has made these figures less dire but there is no doubt that Osborne and his advisers seriously underestimated the adverse effects of austerity on investment.

As is now increasingly recognised, this extended period of stagnation reduced the long-term growth rate of the economy through the destruction of both human skills and physical capital.

Despite his warning about the size of the cuts to come, Paul Johnson said that they could be achieved. He added, however, that they would require a “reimagining” (or, put another way, shrinking) of the state. Two questions arise. First, what effect will shrinking the state have on the economy? Second, what effect will it have on the polity?

On the first, Johnson seems to assume that the economy will go on growing at about 2.5 per cent a year, even as the deficit is being cut to zero. This is highly optimistic because the cutting is simultaneously reducing private incomes. It may be possible, by sufficiently heroic austerity, for a government to keep revenues for a time running ahead of cuts but at what level of GDP will the budget eventually be balanced? Certainly lower than it would have been without the cuts.

The cuts not only change the level of GDP but also its composition and, therefore, the relations between the state and its citizens. This point is recognised by Labour, which promises “fairer” cuts. If a government has to cut its spending, it is much better to tax the rich than starve the poor. However, this is alien to the spirit of cutting. The barely subliminal message of all austerity programmes is that the deficit has been caused by spiralling welfare payments to the poor, with the object of austerity ­being to “get them on their bikes” – like in the 1930s, when unemployment was consistently around or above 10 per cent.

We urgently need to have a proper debate about the role and size of the state. Prosperity does not demand that the state should spend 40 per cent-plus of national income as it does now, though justice may.

In the old days, people used to talk of a “trade-off” between efficiency and justice and some of those arguments may still be valid, though I am less and less persuaded that the private sector scores heavily over the public sector in efficiency. A financial system that allocates capital to itself and whose crash in 2008 left the population 15 per cent poorer than it would have been is hardly an advertisement for private-sector efficiency.

What is really indefensible is to cut the state for reasons of financial dogmatism, as though the size of the state – and especially the welfare state – were the cause of the slump. We need a cool discussion on the role of the state as owner and regulator in a market economy and in the light of the civic purposes that people set for themselves. It needs to be pointed out that these huge cuts imply serious losses to the quality of government services and the strength of the defence and police services.

I’m not sure which is worse: to bleed the economy with small cuts stretching many years ahead or to cut deeply now and hope for the best. What does seem clear is that politics will not allow the second and only a ­Labour government can avert the first.

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

Getty
Show Hide image

We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?