An evidence-based alcohol policy is receding into the rear-view mirror

Minimum pricing takes a back seat to multibuy bans – and may not even work anyway.

Friday brought the news that the government is going to be stepping up it's alcohol strategy and moving beyond the previously discussed minimum pricing.

The Telegraph's James Kirkup wrote:

The Coalition’s alcohol strategy — expected to be launched next week — will propose that special deals which encourage shoppers to buy in bulk should be outlawed.

Most supermarkets offer significant discounts for customers buying bottles of wine by the dozen or half-dozen. Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, for example, regularly offer a 25 per cent discount for six bottles of wine.

Ministers believe such promotions give customers a financial incentive to purchase more alcohol than they intended to buy and should be banned.

The Telegraph takes umbrage with these plans, citing "fears that middle-class households will bear the brunt of measures supposedly aimed at troublemaking youths and other anti-social drinkers," and while that is a distasteful way to put it – "middle-class households" and "anti-social drinkers" are not, and never have been, mutually exclusive – it touches upon a problem with expanding the scheme in this way.

Minimum pricing has had its supporters and detractors in these pages. George Eaton pointed out that it would hit the poorest hardest, Samira Shackle argued that "the evidence that alcohol consumption goes down when prices goes up is fairly strong", and I explained why attempting to increase prices through the tax system alone was not likely to be effective. But the one thing which is universally agreed to be a benefit of the proposals is that it is blind to everything but price per unit. As a result, unlike the current duty laws – which impose different taxes on cider, beer, wine and spirits, even going so far as to distinguish "cider" from "high-strength cider" – it cannot help but applied most forcefully where it would have the most impact.

Clamping down on multi-buys, by contrast, may frequently lead to price rises which have very little impact at all on the amount drunk. It is hard to imagine a situation where someone picking up a four-for-three offer on bottles of Moët champagne is likely to become less of a problem drinker if that offer is scrapped.

While it's not the most pressing concern – regardless of what the Telegraph says – it does mark out the transition of this policy package from a "hard", evidence based, attempt to deal with problem drinking to a more populist attempt to make things look like they're changing without doing that much.

Today we find that it may be that even minimum pricing – the part of the alcohol policy which has the most support of the medical community – is a busted flush. A new report from the Institute of Economic Affairs (pdf) takes a cross-national comparison of the effects of alcohol price on consumption – and focuses strongly on illicit consumption, with rates of both smuggled and home-made alcohol consumption rising.

As you would expect, the more unaffordable alcohol is, the higher "unrecorded alcohol consumption" is estimated to be by the WHO, from around 3 litres per person in countries like Finland and Sweden, down to barely half a litre per person in France and Austria.

 

While the author, Christopher Snowdon, is keen to draw parallels with prohibition, citing John Stewart Mill's claim that "to tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition, and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable," it does seem that this "unrecorded alcohol consumption" is rarely as dangerous as bathtub gin. Although the stats are not presented, the more realistic inference – and Snowdon seems to agree, given his references to the geography of the countries involved – is that this unrecorded consumption consists mainly of cross-border sales, especially in richer countries. Not only is this not particularly dangerous, it isn't even really smuggling, given almost all of the countries in the study are within the EU and thus have no requirement to pay duty or declare personal imports.

While it may not be dangerous, this unrecorded consumption adds to the key finding of Snowdon's paper: the total absence of a cross-national correlation between affordability and consumption of alcohol.

Clearly, this all plays back into the debate around minimum pricing. Although Snowdon brings up the risk that minimum pricing encourages moonshine production, and so may even harm health, it's not really important to overreach in that manner.

The key problem for advocates of minimum pricing si that if alcohol price is as poorly correlated with consumption as the above chart shows, then raising it may not do much for public health at all – while still having a strong negative effect on the private purse.

There's still a lot to be said in this debate - not least because an IEA paper, no matter how good, struggles when pitted against a Lancet paper which concludes that (pdf):

Natural experiments in Europe consequent to economic treaties have shown that as alcohol taxes and prices were lowered, so sales, alcohol consumption, and alcohol-related harm have usually increased.

But the argument is far from settled. It may be better if the government just backs off on the whole plan for a while.

Rows of booze. Photograph: Getty Images

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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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?