Interview: Danny Alexander on unemployment, the IMF and Scottish independence

After a 70,000 increase in unemployment and criticism of austerity by the IMF, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury insists the coalition is not on "the wrong path".

It’s been said that the Welfare Reform Act is the most ambitious overhaul the UK’s welfare system has seen in 60 years. It was billed as a restoration of the UK’s welfare system to “one that is fair for society” and promised to improve the lives of 2.8 million low income households; however, according to preliminary research conducted by the New Statesman, the Act has actually made the lives of 2.6 million British families worse. So, who did the reforms help?

“Well look, the central purpose of the reforms is to ensure that we have a welfare system in which people are always better off in work than on benefits – and one of the things that we found with the welfare system as it was when we came into government was that an awful lot of people for whom that just wasn’t the case. So, the system was encouraging people not to go into work, but to stay on benefits instead – and there are an awful lot of people who, with the right support, encouragement and incentives can get into work, are capable of working and want to work. There are also a large numbers of people on benefits – 2.8 million people on incapacity benefit, is one example – who had simply been left on that benefit for very many years without the help and support, many of whom wanted to work and couldn’t.
 
And so I think having a welfare system that genuinely means two things: firstly it has to support people when they’re genuinely in need. Secondly, it has to ensure that people are better off in work than on benefit. That’s good for the whole country, because if you have a welfare system that is offering the opposite incentives – that distorts that whole way our labour market works – it means that there’s an awful lot of people who could be contributing to the economy through work who are not able to do so. But of course, you also have to make sure that those people who genuinely can’t work are also properly helped and supported – and so I think the reforms are fair to those individuals for that reason, but also fair to society at large. We’re asking everybody in this country who pays tax to help support the over £200bn a year cost of our welfare system – and at a time when there is real pressure on our resources as a country, we have an additional responsibility to make sure that resources are used in the right way. Therefore, I think that these reforms are true – if you like – to the original intentions of the welfare system as it was designed and set up by William Beveridge all those years ago.”
 
The IMF recently lambasted the British government for its ‘too-much-too-soon’ austerity measures. Is there any validity to such claims?
 
“I think that dealing with the deficit, that reduction to public spending and so on, are absolutely necessary to restore our country back to health. When we came into office, the deficit – which is the gap between what we raise in tax and what we spend – was over £150bn. To put that in a different way, that’s more than the entire cost of running the National Health Service in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – it’s just not sustainable as a country to go on like that.
 
But also, importantly, the interest rates that we pay as a country are very important because we pay a lot of interest on that debt, but also it feeds through to the interest rates that people pay on their homes and their mortgages, businesses and so on. By having a policy for dealing with those financial problems – that the people who borrowing the money trust the financial markets – we’ve managed to keep our interest rates very low. That’s good for the economy as a whole; so, my big worry would be if we abandon that and say, ‘we’re gonna borrow even more and spend even more’, that we would jeopardise that credibility, interest rates would go up and that would be very painful for the whole country.
 
I think that where I would say we’re already actually acting on the sorts of things the IMF has said is that we’ve been very flexible in how we respond to changing circumstances. Just in the budget, last month, despite deterioration in the economy’s forecast, we didn’t chase the numbers with even more cuts. We stuck to the plan we had, and we allowed the automatic stabilisers in our economy to operate in full so that when the economy’s going more slowly than people expect, we’re allowing the borrowing to pick up the strain of lower than expected tax receipts – so, welfare spending, unemployment benefits and so on – may be slightly higher than expected. So actually, I think we’ve shown a lot of flexibility, but the basic plan to get our public finances back into balance I think is essential to the future of our economy.”
 
Figures released this week indicated that unemployment amongst Britons jumped by 70,000 in the three months ending in February – reaching an estimated total of 2.56 million. To some extent, do these figures not validate criticism of George Osbourne’s austerity measures?
 
“I don’t think we’re on the wrong path – and of course I think about this a lot, you know? I’m one of those people responsible for those decisions, so of course I spend a lot of time looking at these things and thinking about them and so on. But the conclusion I’ve reached – and the conclusion the government has reached – is that for all the reasons I’ve just explained, the path we’re on is the right one. We’ve got to stick to that path, we’ve got to do even more at every stage to encourage and support British businesses, to invest and create jobs to grow.
 
Actually, I think if you look over the last two and a half years, the record on employment and the number of new jobs being created in our economy is a success story. Well over a million jobs have been created in the private sector over the past 2 years, and the number of people in work in this country is at one of the highest levels it’s ever been in the United Kingdom. If you compare that to similar countries like France and Germany for example, where their growth forecasts are lower, in France the unemployment is much higher. This suggests that some of the things we’re doing are helping.”
 
I don’t believe everything that Ed Balls says, but…
 
“No, you really shouldn’t.”
 
…he’s called the coalition’s income tax changes a “giveaway” for the rich…
 
“No, I think it’s total nonsense – and also, total hypocrisy coming from a Labour party that left us with a tax system that’s so full of holes that the wealthiest in this country could avoid tax left, right and centre. So I think it’s pretty hypocritical, to be honest.”
 
So, does that mean the system is fair for everyone?
 
“I think by far the biggest income tax cut that came through the system in April was that the increase in the tax-free amount that every pays. Everyone who’s working on the basic rate income tax – 25 million people this month across the UK – are getting an income tax cut because we’re putting our own resources where we promised in the Lib Dem manifesto we would do, which is in cutting taxes for working people. Actually, the wealthiest in society are paying more tax now than they ever did when Ed Balls was in government.”
 
The so-called ‘granny tax’ – which will mean that the personal allowance for pensioners no longer rises with inflation – has received almost as much criticism as the removal of the "spare room subsidy". Shouldn't a person’s income increase to match inflation and unavoidable rises in the costs of living?
 
“As we’re increasing the personal allowance for everyone else so much more quickly than forecast – it will be £10,000 next year – we think it is right, and in the long term, a simplification of the tax system to have the same tax for everybody. But for pensioners, I think we have made some important changes so the rate of increase in the state pension now is greater than it’s ever been before. So, previously it was done by inflation – and that led to derisory increases in previous governments like under Gordon Brown’s 75p a week increase at one stage. But we’ve put in place a triple lock that says that we will increase it every year by inflation, earnings or 2.5% – whichever is the higher. And so, the basic pension that everyone gets is going up much faster than it would have done if we’d left things previously. Only about half of pensioners pay income tax, so I think that’s a good balance.”
 
A couple of weeks ago, cities across the nation took to the streets in protest over the ‘bedroom tax’ – the biggest by far taking place in Glasgow, with an estimated 3,000 protesters. As tensions increase in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum, do you not think that some of these austerity measures will push voters into the hands of the SNP?
 
“No I don’t. I think that the vast majority of people in my constituency and elsewhere are better off as a result of the tax and benefit changes that are coming through tis April. The income tax in particular is a real help especially in areas where people’s incomes are lower – such as in the highlands, where the incomes are lower than the rest of the country – those income tax cuts will make a real difference, as will the acts on fuel duty and in other areas. And look, I think the biggest thing that everyone in Scotland is facing is the debate on independence, and I think that the vast majority of Scots of all age groups and all backgrounds recognise that we’re better together as part of the UK. People see the Nationalists for what they are – which is an organisation that has a one-track mind and want to break up the United Kingdom. That’s the wrong thing for the country, and so I look forward to being successful in that campaign.”
 
Nash Riggins is the politics editor of Brig Newspaper
Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander arrives at number 10, Downing Street ahead of a cabinet meeting. Photograph: Getty Images.
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?