What Osborne won't admit: growth has increased because of slower cuts

The Chancellor's claim that "the pace of fiscal consolidation has not changed" is not supported by any of the available data.

Many others – perhaps Fraser Nelson does it best – have poked fun at the most Panglossian elements of the Chancellor’s speech on Monday. But I’d like here to address the substantive arguments he makes about what the path of the UK economy over recent years says about the impact of fiscal policy on growth.

The Chancellor doesn’t deny that growth has been much weaker than forecast, although it’s worth repeating the scale of this underperformance. In June 2010, the Office of Budget Responsibility predicted that by now the economy would be about 7 per cent larger, driven by a sharp rise in business investment and exports, while the deficit would have fallen by two-thirds. What has actually happened? In fact, GDP has grown at less than a third of that rate, business investment has fallen, and the path of deficit reduction bears no resemblance at all to the original projections (which is, as I'll elaborate below, a good thing).    

But, the Chancellor argues, this underperformance has nothing to do with fiscal policy:

the composition and timing of the slowdown in GDP growth relative to forecast is better explained by external inflation shocks, the eurozone crisis and the ongoing impact of the financial crisis on financial conditions. 

The Chancellor claimed his analysis was supported by many "independent economists" - although, oddly, he failed to mention the IMF, which has been the most prominent independent organisation to argue the contrary. Of course, the IMF and those of us who thought the fiscal consolidation plan was too aggressive never denied that these other factors played a par (and that their reversal will indeed help boost recovery).  As I put it here:

it now seems clear that the negative impact of ‘Plan A’ on growth has been significantly greater than expected, although matters have also been exacerbated by even more damaging policy mistakes in the eurozone, as well as high commodity prices.

Coincidentally, on the same day the Chancellor made his speech, other "independent economists" (Oscar Jorda and Alan Taylor) published a widely reported paper suggesting precisely the opposite (an earlier, non-technical summary is here). They find, as shown in their chart:

Without austerity, UK real output would now be steadily climbing above its 2007 peak, rather than being stuck 2% below. 

And they conclude:

Fiscal contraction prolongs the pain when the state of the economy is weak, much less so when the economy is strong....Keynes is still right, after all: “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.

However, despite the weight of academic research, the Chancellor goes on to claim that current developments support his interpretation of recent past history:

Proponents of the ‘fiscalist’ story cannot explain why the UK recovery has strengthened rapidly over the last six months. The pace of fiscal consolidation has not changed, government spending cuts have continued as planned, and yet growth has accelerated and many of the leading economic indicators show activity rising faster than at any time since the 1990s.

But this is an obvious sleight of hand.  The claim that "the pace of fiscal consolidation has not changed" is not supported by any of the available data. Here is the OBR’s own chart. As Robert Chote, the OBR’s Chair puts it, "deficit reduction appears to have stalled".

Indeed, the OECD, the government’s favourite of the international forecasting bodies (since, as noted above, the IMF shares my interpretation of the impact of fiscal consolidation on growth) goes even further. According to its calculations, the UK is actually expanding its structural deficit in 2013. In other words, the government is engaging in fiscal stimulus.  Personally I find this implausible - the OBR's estimate is that the structural deficit was broadly flat in 2012-13 - but the data hardly seem consistent with the Chancellor's view.

How did this happen? As I explained earlier this year:

So what's going on? As I noted earlier, most of the deficit reduction has come from cutting public sector net investment (spending on schools, roads, hospitals, etc) roughly in half. Pretty much all the rest came from tax increases (note that the investment cuts and tax increases were both, to a significant extent, policies inherited from the previous government). And we can see when it happened - between 2009-10 and 2011-12.

But these sources of deficit reduction stopped in 2011-12, because the government belatedly realised that cutting investment was a major mistake and that the economic imperative was actually to do precisely the opposite (not that there was much investment left to cut); and it stopped putting up taxes overall. So we can see also what's happened since - with the impact of the weak economy on tax receipts reducing revenues, the deficit has been flat and is projected to stay flat.

So the Chancellor’s argument is simply a non sequitur, supported neither by the research evidence nor the data. 

As I wrote here at the turn of the year, we should give the government credit for not digging us further into a hole by trying to stick to its original plans. Fiscal consolidation has slowed, at least for the time being, and as a consequence it is playing a considerably smaller role in driving economic developments than it did two years ago. Meanwhile, the eurozone and global environment is, at least at present, considerably more favourable. Poor policy and bad luck has delayed recovery, relative to NIESR's original forecasts and everyone else's, but has not removed the ability of the UK economy to generate growth. 

So it is perfectly reasonable to ask economic forecasters (including both the OBR and us at NIESR) why we appear so far to have underpredicted the strength of the current upturn. But claiming that this improvement vindicates the earlier damaging mistake the government made by going for front-loaded fiscal consolidation in 2010 just doesn’t make any economic sense. 

George Osborne makes a speech on the economy at a construction site in east London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jonathan Portes is director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and former chief economist at the Cabinet Office.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.