Robert Chote, the chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility.
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The OBR should be given the power to adjust tax rates

Just as an independent Bank of England has helped ensure monetary stability, so a more powerful OBR could ensure fiscal sustainability.

On Wednesday, George Osborne will present his first Budget delivered during a period of economic growth. Despite a deficit forecast to be £111bn and the highest national debt since England last won the World Cup, he is under pressure from both sides of the coalition to reduce taxes, whether on low earners via the personal allowance or middle earners by cutting the higher rate threshold. It is entirely reasonable that politicians are seeking to take advantage of growth forecasts ahead of what will be a closely-fought election. But the last thing the Chancellor can or will do is put further pressure on the public finances via major tax reductions. He will announce improved borrowing projections but he will emphasise that the deficit and debt are the defining challenges, and that they are proving harder to overcome than he expected.

Ahead of the 2015 election, both major parties are jockeying to be seen as the safest pair of hands on the public finances. Both Osborne and Ed Balls have acknowledged the depth of the UK's problems and committed to tough deficit reduction targets. Osborne has pledged to achieve an absolute budget surpus by the end of the next parliament and will introduce a new Charter of Budget Responsibility in this year's Autumn Statement (to  "fix the roof when the sun is shining"), while Balls has promised to run a current budget surplus (leaving room to borrow for investment). 

Short-sighted handling of the public finances has contributed enormously to the economic mess that the UK finds itself in. For the past 20 years, Britain has seen debt steadily climb as successive governments have spent heavily in recessions but failed to save enough in booms. On average, the response to recessions has been 70 per cent greater than the surplus generated in good times. That has lead to a "debt ratchet" that causes debt to rise over each business cycle. Today, the national debt is about £124bn higher than it would have been if the ratchet did not exist.

One reason for the its existence is a persistent overconfidence among politicians and officials. Twenty one of the 25 official forecasts since 2002 have projected that the current budget will return to surplus within five years. When he entered office in 2010, Osborne even adopted that yardstick as one of his two fiscal targets. Yet the budget has not once been in surplus in the past 12 years. 

In 2002, Gordon Brown introduced a set of fiscal rules that the IMF rated as some of the best in the world. The Treasury monitored compliance and the National Audit Office looked over its shoulder. In 2010, Osborne introduced his own, tougher, rules and he looks set to introduce a new rule as part of his Charter of Budget Responsibility. These measures have been the equal of anything seen around the world but all have been broken within a decade and all have been insufficient to avoid the debt ratchet persisting.

One solution that has been exceptionally effective is this government's creation of the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), which has dealt with the UK's forecasting problems. Set up in 2010 to resolve persistent errors, the OBR has gradually built its credibility through impartiality and transparency. It has forced the Chancellor to adjust his Budgets on a number of occasions when the numbers did not measure up. So successful has it been that Balls wrote to its chairman Robert Chote to ask him to assess the opposition's manifesto pledges. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander has since lent his support to the idea.

The expansion in the OBR's responsibilities is a worthwhile first step but it is capable of much more. In future, the OBR could take on responsibility for defining fiscal sustainability and, eventually, the power to adjust tax rates to ensure it. The government recognised that forecasting problems could be largely fixed by passing the responsibility to an independent body. The same may well be true of fiscal sustainability more generally.

The Bank of England is a powerful illustration of how beneficial it can be to delegate operational decisions to an independent, expert body. The Bank's independence ensured that the nation avoided a damaging tightening of monetary policy in the midst of the recession. The same cannot be said of fiscal policy where the latest estimates suggest that consolidation has cost the UK around 3 per cent of GDP so far. That cost might have been avoided if debt and the deficit smaller had been lower when the crisis began.

Successful fiscal councils overseas demonstrate the need to balance responsibility with credibility. The Dutch CPB is an established part of the political landscape and plays an instrumental role in setting budgets and evaluating manifesto pledges. In the US, the Congressional Budget Office assesses alternative policy options for the government. The credibility of these institutions has been built over decades and it would be a mistake to give the OBR too much responsibility too fast. Nonetheless, evaluating manifestos should be the beginning of the OBR's expanding set of responsibilities, not the end.

James Zuccollo is senior economist at Reform

James Zuccollo is senior economist at Reform

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Political video has come full circle in Obama and Clinton’s mockumentary-style films

Political campaign videos are increasingly mimicking the specific styles of filmmaking created to mock them.

This week, Hillary Clinton released a campaign video featuring Barack Obama, in an attempt to persuade her supporters to vote early. It revolved around Obama’s self-professed earliness. “I’m always early,” he tells us, cheerily. Aides chip in to explain this irritating habit, which becomes progressively more exaggerated, his approach to timing absurd. “You know how you beat LeBron James one-on-one? Get there 45 minutes early. Then it’s one-on-none.” A former staffer sighs. “You try telling the President of the United States there’s no such thing as a one-on-none.”

This is an instantly recognisable mockumentary style – deliberately shakey camerawork, complete with lots of zooming in and out, as absurd corporate behaviour is interspersed with incredulous talking heads and voiceover. It has its roots in the Office UK, taking the States by storm with The Office US, 30 Rock and Modern Family, and developing a political subgenre in The Thick of It, In the Loop and, most recently, Parks and Recreation. (Vague comparisons between Clinton and Poehler’s Leslie Knope abound.)

The content, too, seems familiar – a politician talks to camera about a personality quirk that is broadly a strength for someone in government, but exaggerates it to create a geeky, optimistic goofball, and a pretty likeable character. Take Leslie Knope on never smoking weed:

In terms of style and content, they’re fairly indistinguishable. And this not the only Clinton campaign video influenced by mockumentary and comedy tropes . In March, the Clinton campaigned released a “mean tweets” video with Senator Al Franken in the style of a Jimmy Kimmel Live talking head. Three days ago, a video campaign starring “Fake Lawyer” Josh Charles, an actor on The Good Wife, was released. It borrows heavily from mockumentary styles as well as self-mocking celebrity cameos in advertising. Even some non-comic videos, like this lighthearted one about Clinton’s granddaughter, have the exaggerated camerawork of the genre.

Of course, we can trace these campaign videos back to Obama again. His campaigns have always been heavily video based, and he’s taken the piss out of himself for Buzzfeed to promote campaigns. But the White House’s official channels are also in on the joke. In 2013, they released a mockumentary starring Steven Spielberg and 30 Rock’s Tracey Morgan, in which Obama plays Daniel Day Lewis playing Obama.

Earlier this year, the channel released another mini mockumentary, featuring Obama preparing for the end of his time as president. (The film even ridicules a less self-aware style of video – Obama posts a misjudged Snapchat about Obamacare, and asks “Did it get a lot of views at least?”)

A politician whose ideal evening consists of children’s movie marathons with colleagues? Where have we seen that before? Yes, political video has come full circle. Personally, I’m waiting on the Hillary Clinton break dancing clip

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.