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13 September 2023

Letter of the week: A state’s real wealth

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Dieter Helm is right, as quoted in Will Dunn’s article (“How Tory complacency left schools to rot”, 8 September), about the inadequate accounting framework that shapes debates around the UK’s public spending and taxation – and in particular the need to distinguish capital and current spending, and to present a balance sheet showing assets as well as debts. He could go further. Financial transfer payments should be seen quite differently from those that consume real resources: it is nonsense, for example, to see a transfer of existing assets into public ownership as competing directly with a hospital-building programme. Within the capital accounts, assets that generate future income should be clearly distinguished from those that do not.

Having said all that, however, it is wrong to see “Keynesian accounts” as a misguided alternative. The great Keynesian insight is that when real resources are underemployed, the state can “bootstrap” higher output by running a deficit, whether for current or capital spending. Indeed, if other sectors of the economy are saving, only state borrowing can avoid a downward spiral.
David Griffiths, Huddersfield

[See also: Letter of the week: Wealth and learning]

A sense of balance

A balance-sheet approach to UK public finance (Comment, 8 September) made such sense that Anneliese Dodds, the underestimated predecessor to Rachel Reeves as shadow chancellor, proposed it. A national register of wealth was compiled a generation ago by Professor David Heald. It would not be particularly onerous to update it. So long as the accounting principles used were applied honestly and transparently, there is no reason to suppose it would affect the credibility of government in financial markets – arguably, setting an arbitrary target for borrowing/debt and then putting stuff “off balance sheet” would be more damaging in the long term – as the saga of the private finance initiative shows.
Donald Roy, London SW15

The roots of neglect

Lisa Crausby and Tom Arbuthnott (Correspondence, 8 September), with their Eton and Star Academies sixth-form scheme, misunderstand the features of poverty that negatively affect achievement. Research has shown that underachievement is closely associated with poor housing, a run-down environment, inadequate healthcare, poor nutrition and unsupported parenting. To suggest, against the A-level success of comprehensive schooling, that selective sixth-form colleges in “educational cold spots”, promoted by a privileged private school, “does the right thing by bright, disadvantaged children” is poppycock.
Dr Robin C Richmond, Bromyard, Herefordshire

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The title of last week’s editorial (Leader, 8 September) was incomplete. It should have read “A state in disrepair and in despair”. The Conservatives’ record on state-school funding, on building and more generally, reveals a lack of concern. How many Conservative cabinet ministers have received a state education or come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds? How many of their children or grandchildren attend Raac-infested buildings? The answer is clear: very few.
Professor Colin Richards, former inspector of schools, Spark Bridge, Cumbria


Wolfgang Münchau (Lateral View, 8 September) shows how broken central-bank economic models are. It could also be argued that the targets and aims of current economic thinking are misplaced. Where is the debate about whether growth is a good thing in a world of limited resources, or about the rights and wrongs of asset value vs wider societal income distribution? Such discussions rarely seem apparent when central-bank decisions are revealed. It would probably be argued that such subjects are intrinsically political, even if consensus could be found, and might lead us to conclude that full political control of economic policy should revert to the elected government of the day.
Mark Thorp, Manchester

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The forgotten plague

Phil Whitaker’s column about the new Covid wave (Health Matters, 8 September) shows the danger of the government, alongside most of the British media, acting as if Covid no longer exists. I boarded a packed bus recently and noted one masked individual out of 100 passengers. Some nationwide information and advice is needed. The government and the NHS should raise their game.
Sebastian Monblat, Surbiton, Greater London

Something to treasure

This morning I took page 39 of my copy of last week’s New Statesman to be framed. The juxtaposition of Gboyega Odubanjo’s haunting poem, “Against Resting in Peace”, with the last part of Rowan Williams’ admiring and illuminating review of Emily Wilson’s translation of the Iliad (The Critics, 8 September) is profoundly moving; each strangely intensifies the circumstance, substance and inherent depth of calamity in the other.

The bold yet delicate G for Grace on the left of the page, which opens Williams’ concluding paragraphs, seems to reach across and honour Gboyega, tragically lost so young, whose poetic voice sings out through the violence of our age.

As the mother of two inspirational and deeply missed adult children who died in 2021, this is a page I shall treasure.
Sarah Backhouse, Lullington, Somerset

Great glass houses

Michael Prodger’s reference to the stained glass of Dom Charles Norris (The Critics, 8 September) is welcome given the lack of critical appraisal that modern iterations of this art form receive. Dom Charles was also responsible for the glass in the Grade II-listed Church of Our Lady in Lillington, opened in 1963. The glass there is a slightly later example of his technique and an important part of why the church was listed.
Suzanne Phillips, Kenilworth, Warwickshire

Sloe news day

Alice Vincent (Gardening Notes, 8 September) describes “picking blackberries, fat and salty with sea air”. Apart from samphire, there is no botanical proof, surely, that plants grown by the sea adopt a salty tang. If Alice has any, I’ll send her a bottle of gin made with sloes picked along our Suffolk coast and without a hint of salt.
Percy Grainger, Theberton, Suffolk

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[See also: Letter of the week: Curriculum for transformation]

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This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites