We need investment, not cuts, to deal with our fiscal headaches

Rather than using the forecast structural surplus to pay down the national debt, the government should invest it in science, skills and childcare.

The financial crisis and subsequent downturn had a huge impact on the public finances. In two years, from 2007-08 to 2009-10, public sector net debt jumped almost twenty percentage points from 37% to 56% of GDP. So when the current government came into power, it did so promising to mend our public finances. It set itself a fiscal mandate to eliminate the structural deficit and a supplementary target to have public sector debt falling by the start of the next parliament – 2015-16.

Poor growth has made these targets hard to achieve. But finally, after years of additional cuts have been pencilled in, there is some good news ahead of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on Thursday. Thanks to growth picking up, borrowing is looking better than expected. There are more cuts to come, but for once it’s looking likely that the government will be on track to meet the targets as set out in the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR)’s last forecast without having to find more savings. Depending on what view the OBR takes of the growth we have had, the likelihood of meeting the mandate may even have risen.

Earlier this year, the OBR expected the fiscal mandate to be met by 2016-17. But what happens after that? The OBR forecast that the structural deficit would turn into a structural surplus of £15bn in 2017-18. It’s worth stopping to think about what this means. The structural part of the current budget is the part that doesn’t change as the economy goes through its usual cycle of downturns and upturns. A zero structural surplus would mean that the government balances its books over the course of an economic cycle. A structural surplus means that it goes even further than this – allowing it to pay down national debt. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has pointed to the ageing population as the reason for continued austerity throughout the next Parliament. This could be a reasonable strategy. But it might not be the best one.  

The OBR’s Fiscal Sustainability Report, which looks at the long-term outlook for the public finances, shows the debt-to-GDP ratio nicely falling for around a decade after 2017-18, but as the ageing population kicks in, it’s set to sharply rise again in the 2030s, driven by rising health, social care and pension costs. By the early 2060s, public sector net debt is set to hit nearly 100% of GDP.

These levels make our current problems seem rather small in comparison. And they also raise the question of whether the ageing population is something that can really be tackled through cuts alone. The OBR numbers show that if we can boost the economy’s productivity, debt wouldn’t start rising until around two decades later. But in recent years, our productivity growth has been sluggish. If it doesn’t pick up, we may even fail to meet the OBR’s central case scenario. 

So there are big gains to be had from boosting our long-term productivity. The £15bn could be used to treble the science research budget, treble our adult skills budget or introduce universal childcare, enabling more parents to go out to work – with money still left over. The choice isn’t straightforward.  The Chancellor – and future Chancellors – are facing a new trade-off, one where too little investment now could risk a huge fiscal headache in the future.

George Osborne speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nida Broughton is Senior Economist at the Social Market Foundation.

Photo: Getty
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What happened when a couple accidentally recorded two hours of their life

The cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic.

If the Transformers series of movies (Transformers; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Transformers: Age of Extinction; and Transformers: the Last Knight) teach us anything, it is that you think your life is going along just fine but in a moment, with a single mistake or incident, it can be derailed and you never know from what direction the threat will come. Shia LaBeouf, for example, thinks everything is completely OK in his world – then he discovers his car is a shape-shifting alien.

I once knew a couple called Dan and Fiona who, on an evening in the early 1980s, accidentally recorded two hours of their life. Fiona was an English teacher (in fact we’d met at teacher-training college) and she wished to make a recording of a play that was being broadcast on Radio 4 about an anorexic teenager living on a council estate in Belfast. A lot of the dramas at that time were about anorexic teenagers living on council estates in Belfast, or something very similar – sometimes they had cancer.

Fiona planned to get her class to listen to the play and then they would have a discussion about its themes. In that pre-internet age when there was no iPlayer, the only practical way to hear something after the time it had been transmitted was to record the programme onto a cassette tape.

So Fiona got out their boom box (a portable Sony stereo player), loaded in a C120 tape, switched on the radio part of the machine, tuned it to Radio 4, pushed the record button when the play began, and fastidiously turned the tape over after 60 minutes.

But instead of pushing the button that would have taped the play, she had actually pushed the button that activated the built-in microphone, and the machine captured, not the radio drama, but the sound of 120 minutes of her and Dan’s home life, which consisted solely of: “Want a cup of tea?” “No thanks.” And a muffled fart while she was out of the room. That was all. That was it.

The two of them had, until that moment, thought their life together was perfectly happy, but the tape proved them conclusively wrong. No couple who spent their evenings in such torpidity could possibly be happy. Theirs was clearly a life of grinding tedium.

The evidence of the cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic: the idea of spending any more of their evenings in such bored silence was intolerable. They feared they might have to split up. Except they didn’t want to.

But what could they do to make their lives more exciting? Should they begin conducting sordid affairs in sleazy nightclubs? Maybe they could take up arcane hobbies such as musketry, baking terrible cakes and entering them in competitions, or building models of Victorian prisons out of balsa wood? Might they become active in some kind of extremist politics?

All that sounded like a tremendous amount of effort. In the end they got themselves a cat and talked about that instead. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder