It's not burdening our children with debt that should worry us

Leaving our children without assets is a far greater problem than "saddling" them with debt.

It is irresponsible to saddle our children with debt.

One of the most compelling, at least superficially, arguments for austerity. It is used globally; it resonates powerfully. After all, it appeals to the very best facets of human nature – the instinct to nurture; the wish to leave things better for future generations – and is, therefore, almost irresistible. But there are few things more dangerous than rhetoric designed to entangle the heart, while bypassing the brain.

Let us suppose that I knew, tomorrow I would be no more. The appointment has been made; the plane tickets to Geneva have been booked. If I were leaving behind my house to my child, encumbered as it is with a mortgage, would I worry? It is a huge amount of debt, but the house is worth almost double its mortgage. The interest is low. To look at that scenario and arrive at the conclusion I am “saddling my child with debt” would be highly irrational. I would have left them with positive equity.

It is illogical to assess the legacy we bequeath to the next generation, solely in terms of debt. Assets should form part of the equation.

This was precisely what our parents’ generation decided to do. And their parents’ before them. National debt, as a percentage of GDP, was much higher from the 20s to the 70s than it is now. But they made the positive choice of bequeathing it to us, as well as a world-class National Health Service, free education, thriving industry, bright prospects and a system of welfare which provided a safety net for the less fortunate.

Had they looked at debt in isolation, they would never have achieved any of these things. Luckily, they did not. They left us with positive equity.

The proposition put forward by the coalition government in support of their programme of cuts, is the bequest of a clean slate. In the current economic climate, however, a clean slate means clean of assets, not clear of debt.

With the economy stagnant or shrinking, the reality is that this government will fail to make a dent in the deficit and actually increase debt. According to the OBR our annual deficit is falling at exactly the same rate it was projected to do before any of these cuts. The national debt is projected to rise by a staggering half a trillion pounds, even by the most lenient of estimates. The OBR now admits that austerity is hurting the economy. The IMF now admits that austerity is hurting the economy.

On the other hand, there is another, even gloomier forecast. By squeezing ordinary people, by forcing them to remortgage, to use credit cards, to run to the nearest payday lender, private household debt is predicted to balloon by an additional half a trillion pounds.

So, forget this insidious idea that we might leave our children with a clean slate. It is fantasy. In fact, under this government, we will leave our children with at least one trillion more debt than we had in 2010. The only intelligent conversation to be had, is whether we leave our children with the assets, skills, environment and tools to manage that debt or not.

Not all asset stripping is fiscally responsible in the long term. Not every expense incurred results in debt. Off-the-cuff, misconceived policies to try and regulate a rampant energy industry are ample demonstration of that truth; a conservative government flailing in a futile attempt to control the profiteering which resulted from another conservative government’s privatisation programme.

We are paying through the nose, both in terms of tickets, subsidies and maintenance, for a rail network franchise system which is manifestly failing. Meanwhile, the part of the network which has been state-run for the last few years (as a result of the last botched franchise), is better and cheaper than it was in private hands and turning a profit.

We pay to bail out private banks, then complain that they are not lending to SMEs, when we actually part-own two of the biggest. Nationalisation is both a rational solution and a dirty word.

Meanwhile, we are allowing these failed experiments to go on, to expand even; the self-interested privatisation of the NHS, the cut-price sale of local council assets and social housing, the dismantling of the welfare state, the farming out of police and prison services, the poisonous influence of profit on our schools. Within five years, the UK will be spending less on public services than any developed nation.

Make no mistake. What is actually being proposed, is leaving our children with negative equity. The debt will still be there, but the assets will be gone. Important assets at that, the absence of which will translate into higher living costs, in perpetuity. The sale of state housing inflates rents. Lack of a welfare system deflates wages. Tuition fees enslave the next generation to financial institutions which we know to be corrupt. Healthcare bills are the single biggest cause of bankruptcy in the US.

Maybe this is the future that we genuinely want. But let us consider all the arguments, instead of wielding an axe at any expense with no thought of whether it is necessary or cost-effective. Let us look at debt in conjunction with the assets and values that would also form part of our bequest.

Our current predicament is precarious. Even more critical, then, to make rational, informed and brave choices - rather than terrified, ill-thought ones. For our sake and that of our children.

Demonstrators call for an end to the national debt outside Parliament last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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The 2017 Budget will force Philip Hammond to confront the Brexit effect

Rising prices and lost markets are hard to ignore. 

With the Brexit process, Donald Trump and parliamentary by-election aftermath dominating the headlines, you’d be forgiven for missing the speculation we’d normally expect ahead of a Budget next week. Philip Hammond’s demeanour suggests it will be a very low-key affair, living up to his billing as the government’s chief accounting officer. Yet we desperately need a thorough analysis of this government’s economic strategy – and some focused work from those whose job it is to supposedly keep track of government policy.

It seems to me there are four key dynamics the Budget must address:

1. British spending power

The spending power of British consumers is about to be squeezed further. Consumers have propped up the economy since 2015, but higher taxes, suppressed earnings and price inflation are all likely to weigh heavily on this driver for growth from now on. Relatively higher commodity prices and the sterling effect is starting to filter into the high street – which means that the pound in the pocket doesn’t go as far as it used to. The dwindling level of household savings is a casualty of this situation. Real incomes are softer, with poorer returns on assets, and households are substituting with loans and overdrafts. The switch away from consumer-driven growth feels well and truly underway. How will the Chancellor counteract to this?

2. Lagging productivity

Productivity remains a stubborn challenge that government policy is failing to address. Since the 2008 financial crisis, the UK’s productivity performance has lagged Germany, France and the USA, whose employees now produce in an average four days as much as British workers take to produce in five. Perhaps years of uncertainty have seen companies choose to sit on cash rather than invest in new production process technology. Perhaps the dominance of services in our economy, a sector notorious hard in which to drive new efficiencies, explains the productivity lag. But ministers have singularly failed to assess and prioritise investment in those aspects of public services which can boost productivity. These could include easing congestion and aiding commuters; boosting mobile connectivity; targeting high skills; blasting away administrative bureaucracy; helping workers back to work if they’re ill.

3. Lost markets

The Prime Minister’s decision to give up trying to salvage single market membership means we enter the "Great Unknown" trade era unsure how long (if any) our transition will be. We must also remain uncertain whether new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are going to go anyway to make up for those lost markets.

New FTAs may get rid of tariffs. But historically they’ve never been much good at knocking down the other barriers for services exports – which explains why the analysis by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research recently projected a 61 per cent fall in services trade with the EU. Brexit will radically transform the likely composition of economic growth in the medium term. It’s true that in the near term, sterling depreciation is likely to bring trade back into balance as exports enjoy an adrenal currency competitive stimulus. But over the medium term, "balance" is likely to come not from new export market volume, but from a withering away of consumer spending power to buy imported goods. Beyond that, the structural imbalance will probably set in again.

4. Empty public wallets

There is a looming disaster facing Britain’s public finances. It’s bad enough that the financial crisis is now pushing the level of public sector debt beyond 90 per cent of our gross domestic product (GDP).  But a quick glance at the Office for Budget Responsibility’s January Fiscal Sustainability Report is enough to make your jaw drop. The debt mountain is projected to grow for the next 50 years. All else being equal, we could end up with an incredible 234 per cent of debt/GDP by 2066 – chiefly because of the ageing population and rising healthcare costs. This isn’t a viable or serviceable level of debt and we shouldn’t take any comfort from the fact that many other economies (Japan, USA) are facing a similar fate. The interest payable on that debt mountain would severely crowd out resources for vital public services. So while some many dream of splashing public spending around on nationalising this or that, of a "universal basic income" or social security giveaways, the cold truth is that we are going to be forced to make more hard decisions on spending now, find new revenues if we want to maintain service standards, and prioritise growth-inducing policies wherever possible.

We do need to foster a new economic model that promotes social mobility, environmental and fiscal sustainability, with long-termism at its heart. But we should be wary of those on the fringes of politics pretending they have either a magic money tree, or a have-cake-and-eat-it trading model once we leap into the tariff-infested waters of WTO rules.

We shouldn’t have to smash up a common sense, balanced approach in order for our country to succeed. A credible, centre-left economic model should combine sound stewardship of taxpayer resources with a fairness agenda that ensures the wealthiest contribute most and the polluter pays. A realistic stimulus should be prioritised in productivity-oriented infrastructure investment. And Britain should reach out and gather new trading alliances in Europe and beyond as a matter of urgency.

In short, the March Budget ought to provide an economic strategy for the long-term. Instead it feels like it will be a staging-post Budget from a distracted Government, going through the motions with an accountancy exercise to get through the 12 months ahead.

Chris Leslie MP was Shadow Chancellor in 2015 and chairs Labour’s PLP Treasury Committee

 

 

 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour’s backbench Treasury Committee and was shadow Chancellor in 2015.