The Treasury. Photograph: Getty Images
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Where would you rather live: small-government Somalia or big-government Sweden?

Critics of “big government” talk as if it’s beyond question that the state’s involvement with our lives is a bad thing.

Whisper it quietly, but I quite like big government. These days, it’s unfashionable to say so. From New Labour to Blue Labour, from compassionate conservatives to neoconservatives, the consensus is that big government is bad government: slow, inefficient, intrusive, bureaucratic, overbearing, anti-democratic and anti-growth.

“The era of big government is over,” President Bill Clinton (Democrat) declared in January 1996. Conservatives rejoiced. But guess what? By September 2008, big government was back. “We must act now,” announced President George W Bush (Republican), as he unveiled his $700bn bank bailout plan. This champion of free markets went on to bail out the auto industry and, in effect, nationalise the mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Here in the UK, as the former chancellor Alistair Darling revealed in his memoir, it was big government that prevented cash machines from being switched off and cheques being torn up. Banks were nationalised; multibillion-pound loans and guarantees were offered.

So, why this disconnect between rhetoric and reality? Why this constant railing against the positive power of collective action? The public doesn’t like big government, say fans of . . . small government.

Yet how else to explain our ongoing love affair with the (scandal-ridden) National Health Service, which in its structure and funding is big government pure and simple? Why else are so many of the people whom voters tell pollsters they admire most – doctors, nurses, teachers, soldiers, the police – usually employees of big government?

Not yet convinced? Polls also show significant public backing for the renationalisation of the railways. And not just the railways: a 2009 poll found two out of three voters supported taking the electricity, gas, water and telecommunications industries back into public ownership. (Come back, Michael Foot – all is forgiven.)

Small-government supporters claim that countries with high levels of public spending grow more slowly. Yet, as the Columbia University economist Xavier X Sala-i-Martin concluded in his 1997 study I Just Ran Four Million Regressions, “no measure of government spending . . . appears to affect growth in a significant way”.

In his 2004 book Growing Public, the University of California economist Peter Lindert agrees – countries with high levels of government spending don’t perform any worse than countries with low levels of government spending.

But doesn’t big government crowd out the private sector? Stifle free enterprise and innovation? Not necessarily. Consider the arguments of Mariana Mazzucato, the Sussex University economist and author of The Entrepreneurial State. “Where would Google be today without the state-funded investments in the internet, and without the US National Science Foundation grant that funded the discovery of its own algorithm?” she wrote in the Guardian in April 2012. “Would the iPad be so successful without the state-funded innovations in communication technologies, GPS and touchscreen display?

“Where would GSK and Pfizer be without the $600bn the US National Institutes of Health has put into research that has led to 75 per cent of the most innovative new drugs in the last decade?”

Critics of big government say it crushes community spirit and civic engagement. Again, the empirical evidence suggests otherwise. “Among the advanced western democracies, social trust and group membership are, if anything, positively correlated with the size of government,” the Harvard academic Robert Putnam observed in his acclaimed book Bowling Alone (1995). “[S]ocial capital appears to be highest of all in the big-spending welfare states of Scandinavia,” he wrote.

Ah yes, Scandinavia. Despite having, I accept, much smaller and more cohesive societies than the US or the UK, the highspending, high-growth Nordic nations continue to baffle and frustrate Anglo-Saxon small-staters. Take the UN’s first ever World Happiness league table in 2012: Denmark, where government spending accounts for 58 per cent of national income, topped the list, followed by Finland (54 per cent) and Norway (44 per cent).

Here in the UK, public spending may have peaked at 50.8 per cent of GDP in 2009, in the wake of the bank bailouts, but since 2010 the austerians of the Conservative-led coalition have been cutting spending year on year. Using the latest IMF figures, Peter Taylor-Gooby, a professor of social policy at the University of Kent, has calculated that by 2017 government spending, as a proportion of GDP, will be lower in the UK than in the United States – 39.1 per cent to 39.3 per cent – for the first time since records began. “I was astounded,” Taylor-Gooby tells me. “Even after the First World War, and the round of cuts then, we didn’t go this far.”

Meanwhile, those who pine for a leaner, meaner, smaller state cannot answer the simplest question: how would small government have paid for the bailout of RBS, Lloyds and the rest? The Treasury has coughed up roughly £850bn to prop up the UK’s financial sector, according to the National Audit Office. Can small government tackle the threat of runaway climate change and the rising costs of adaptation and mitigation? It is forecast that the global warming bill will run into trillions of pounds. It may be fashionable to want to roll back the state, but ask yourself this: where would you rather live, “big-government” Sweden or “small-government” Somalia?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

MILES COLE
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The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

***

The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

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In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt