George Osborne cannot possibly know how long austerity will last

The Chancellor's strategy is based on faulty rules and unproven assumptions about the deficit.

Next week George Osborne will hold forth on the size of the underlying deficit and reveal whether austerity will now extend until at least 2018. When he does, he won’t know what he’s talking about – and he’ll be in good company.  Neither will Ed Balls when he responds, nor will the phalanx of city economists who rush to comment, nor indeed will establishment economic institutions such as the IMF and the OECD.

This isn’t because our current crop of politicians and economists are unusually uninformed. Rather it reflects the fact the debate on fiscal policy is being driven in no small part by an economic concept – the structural deficit - that is very close to being unmeasurable. It’s an example of how what sounds like a sensible idea in theory can go wrong in practice.  

The structural deficit is that bit of the deficit that would still exist even if the economy was running at full capacity: the part that can’t be explained away by the fact that the economy is under-performing.  Giving it consideration is sensible and important. Few would disagree that running a deficit when the economy is stuttering along far below its peak capacity is a very different matter to running one when the economy is booming. The trouble arises, however, when we pretend we can decipher exactly how much of a deficit is cyclical and how much is structural.

Estimating the size of the structural deficit is, to put it mildly, something that sensible people can come to sharply different views on. Last week the Social Market Foundation  think-tank (led by former Treasury official Ian Mulheirn who is no fiscal virgin) published a neat bit of work replicating the methodology used by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to estimate the gap between the economy’s current output and its full potential. They conclude the output gap is pretty modest: under 2%.  If correct, it’s bad news for our economy, as we’ve had a bigger permanent loss in productive capacity than many realise. And it’s bad news for austerity: the return to growth won’t fill the fiscal gap - further painful changes will be needed to meet the objective of eliminating the structural deficit over five years. The SMF estimate that massive extra spending cuts or tax-rises of around £22bn (over and above all of those already planned) would be needed by 2017/18.

Or maybe they won’t be.  Another plausible report – this time by the respected Capital Economics – tells a very different story. It estimates that our flatling economy might be running as much as 6% below its full potential. If that’s the case the structural deficit is far smaller than we are being led to believe – and Osborne may be planning to tighten fiscal policy by too much, way too much – to the tune of around £35bn - in order to meet his own rule.

So that’s all clear then.

In addition to recognising the confusion over the size of the structural deficit it is worth asking whether setting a target that no-one can agree on is likely to result in further economic damage? You’d think so. But the answer depends on whether you believe that the chancellor’s target on eliminating the structural deficit is going to drive new spending and tax decisions that wouldn’t otherwise have been taken.

This question arises because the target is formulated in a way that means, as Jonathan Portes, Director of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, has highlighted, it never actually bites. Because it is set on a rolling timetable all the chancellor ever needs to do is demonstrate he plans to get rid of the structural deficit five years from a given point in time. He doesn’t actually need to achieve these plans. Each year the date at which the target will be met can just be pushed back by another twelve months (as happened in last year’s autumn statement). Promises rather than delivery will suffice.

Now, a target without a fixed date is clearly a flexible thing. But I doubt this makes it irrelevant to real decisions.  Politics and the chancellor’s craving for ‘credibility’ are likely to result in the target affecting the cuts Osborne actually makes in the here and now.  He won’t want his target to become a joke – the mañana target. Say, for instance, Osborne announces next Wednesday that an extra £15bn of consolidation is needed in 2017/18 - will that really have no impact on the real choices made about the next few years? He may well believe it is vital that he demonstrates additional fiscal resolve –by implementing extra cuts, not just making more promises.  

But in deciding on the timing of any new cuts Osborne faces contradictory pressures. On the one hand, he may well want to bolster credibility as well as build up the size of spending reductions by acting quickly, for instance freezing spending now on aspects of welfare in order that savings accumulate over the forthcoming years.

Alternatively, there are strong arguments for thinking he’d want to push cuts down the road (as his target allows him to do). Most obviously this is because the economy is currently so weak only a fool would contemplate further undermining it.  But there is another subtler reason for playing it long. If the chancellor has a hunch that the true output gap is actually larger than the OBR currently believes he may want to defer cuts – particularly those cuts that he doesn’t actually want to make – in the hope that over the next few years the OBR revises its view. If this hunch turned out to be correct, then at some point the OBR would end up announcing that the output gap is larger (and the structural deficit smaller) than they previously thought.

The result? A return to growth would solve more of our fiscal problems than we currently expect and Osborne (or indeed Balls) would be in the happy position of being able to scale back some of the cuts that have been pencilled in.  Of course, things could turn out worse rather than better than current OBR assumptions. No-one knows. But in an uncertain world one thing is clear: the current target on the structural deficit magnifies rather than minimises the confusion.      

Nor should we forget that the structural deficit isn’t the only fiscal rule in a spot of trouble. The chancellor’s second target – the commitment to reduce debt as a share of GDP by 2015 - is likely to be breached next week (unless a Treasury accounting fiddle is used to avert this). Either way, the rule is highly arbitrary. If the debt to GDP ratio falls marginally in 2015 but grows thereafter then the rule would have been met but the public finances wouldn’t be sustainable.    

Osborne’s fiscal regime is in a state of disrepair.  The finest minds in the Treasury are currently chasing two faulty fiscal lodestars: a deficit rule which is impossible to accurately measure, resulting in starkly different estimates with very different implications for policy and politics; and a debt rule which is highly arbitrary and tells us very little about the nation’s longer term fiscal health.     

All of which would lead you to think that there would be a major debate – not least on the centre-left - about alternatives to Osborne’s rules. After all, fiscal policy is the issue of our times and will define the next Parliament as much as it has this one. To be fair there are indeed those setting out new and interesting thoughts on the type of framework that might better ensure fiscal sustainability whilst taking account of the strength of the economy  and without falling foul of either false precision or arbitrariness. For now this conversation is only happening at the margins. In the meantime we are stuck with fiscal rules that aren’t fit for purpose. That’s likely to remain the case regardless of what George Osborne says in the Autumn Statement.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. Source: Getty

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Boris Johnson isn't risking his political life over Heathrow

The anti-Heathrow campaigner was never a committed environmentalist. 

A government announcement on expanding London’s airports is expected today, and while opposition forces have been rallying against the expected outcome - a third runway at Heathrow - the decision could also be a divisive one for the ruling Conservative party. A long consultation period will allow these divisions to fester. 

Reports suggest that up to 60 Conservative MPs are against expansion at the Heathrow site. The Prime Minister’s own constituents are threatening legal action, and the former London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to step down as MP for Richmond rather than let the airport develop.

But what of Boris Johnson? The politician long synonymous with Heathrow opposition - including a threat to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” - is expected to call the decision a mistake. But for a man unafraid to dangle from a zipwire, he has become unusually reticent on the subject.

The reticence has partly been imposed upon him. In a letter to her cabinet ministers, Theresa May has granted them freedom from the usual rules of collective responsibility (under which cabinet ministers are required to support government positions). But she has also requested that they refrain from speaking out in the Commons, from “actively” campaigning against her position, and from calling “into question the decision making process itself”.  

Johnson is not about to start cheering for Heathrow. But unlike Goldsmith, he is no committed environmentalist - and he's certainly a committed politician.  

Boris’s objections to the expansion at Heathrow have all too often only extended as far as the lives of his London constituents. These local impacts are not to be belittled – in his role of mayor of London, he rightly pointed to the extreme health risks of increased noise and air pollution. And his charisma and profile have also boosted community campaigns around these issues. 

But when it comes to reducing emissions, Johnson is complacent. He may have come a long way since a 2013 Telegraph article in which he questioned whether global warming was real. Yet his plan to build an alternative “hub” airport in the Thames Estuary would have left the question of cutting UK aviation emissions worryingly un-resolved. This lack of curiosity is alarming considering his current job as foreign secretary. 

And there are reasons to be concerned. According to Cait Hewitt at the Aviation Environment Federation, the UK fails to meet its targets for CO2 reduction. And the recent UN deal on aviation emission mitigation doesn’t even meet the commitments of the UK’s own Climate Change Act, let alone the more stringent demands of the Paris Agreement. “Deciding that we’re going to do something that we know is going to make a problem worse, before we’ve got an answer, is the wrong move”, said Hewitt.

There is a local environmental argument too. Donnachadh McCarthy, a spokesperson from the activist group “Rising Up”, says the pollution could affect Londoners' health: "With 70 per cent of flights taken just by 15 per cent of the UK's population... this is just not acceptable in a civilised democracy.”

The way Johnson tells it, his reason for staying in government is a pragmatic one. “I think I'd be better off staying in parliament to fight the case, frankly," he told LBC Radio in 2015. And he's right that, whatever the government’s position, the new “national policy statement” to authorise the project will likely face a year-long public consultation before a parliamentary vote in late 2017 or early 2018. Even then the application will still face a lengthy planning policy stage and possible judicial review. 

But if the foreign secretary does fight this quietly, in the back rooms of power, it is not just a loss to his constituents. It means the wider inconsistencies of his position can be brushed aside - rather than exposed and explored, and safely brought down to ground. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.