Obama rejects Osbornomics: "we can't simply cut our way to prosperity"

The US president's statement on the fiscal cliff deal demonstrates how he has rejected the coalition's approach.

One fact that the many Conservatives who supported Barack Obama's re-election conveniently ignored is that the US president has long rejected the coalition's approach to the economy. Unlike George Osborne, who pushed the UK off its own fiscal cliff in 2010, when he slashed infrastructure spending and raised VAT to 20 per cent, Obama recognises that austerity must not come at the expense of growth. After Congress approved the fiscal agreement reached on New Year's Eve, he commented last night:

We can't simply cut our way to prosperity. Cutting spending has to go hand-in-hand with further reforms to our tax code so that the wealthiest corporations and individuals can't take advantage of loopholes and deductions that aren't available to most Americans. And we can't keep cutting things like basic research and new technology and still expect to succeed in a 21st century economy. So we're going to have to continue to move forward in deficit reduction, but we have to do it in a balanced way, making sure that we are growing even as we get a handle on our spending.

For Obama, economic growth is a precondition of deficit reduction, not a hoped-for outcome (remember Osborne's "expansionary fiscal contraction"?) Having maintained stimulus after 2008, the US is now in a stronger position to withstand austerity. While the UK suffered a double-dip recession (and is at risk of a triple-dip), the US economy has grown for 13 consecutive quarters and is now 2.2 per cent above its pre-recession peak. The UK, by contrast, remains 3.1 per cent below.

The deal reached between Obama and the Republicans postponed, rather than averted, the $109bn of spending cuts that were due to take effect from 1 January. The stage is now set for a showdown on 1 March when the Republicans will once again use a vote on raising the US debt ceiling (hitherto a formality under Republican and Democrat presidents alike) to extort large cuts to social security and Medicare. But while Obama has signalled that he is "very open to compromise" - there will be significant cuts - it is clear that the US president will veto any measures that pose a significant threat to growth. For the UK, however, the wrangling in Washington is an unhappy reminder that its fate was settled long ago.

 
Barack Obama greets George Osborne during an official arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on 14 March, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR