* Hoopla: “speech or writing intended to mislead or to obscure an issue.”
October has been an eventful month. In Britain, politics is back in fashion. After years of Blairite vacuity, the media have juicy political red meat to plunge their teeth into. The new Labour leader’s announcement that he would not press the nuclear button led to a veritable feeding frenzy. This was exceeded only by alarm verging on hysteria at the Labour Shadow Chancellor’s U-turn on the Fiscal Charter.
This week I appeared on Newsnight with Gillian Tett of the FT and Louise Cooper of BGC Partners. We discussed our graphs of 2011 (see mine below) and wider questions around the global financial crisis this year – and how ecnomists and policy makers need to respond.
The Autumn Statement reveals but one thing: the Chancellor and his advisers are both ill-advised and dangerously ill-prepared for the forthcoming prolonged Depression. (And if you think I exaggerate, let me remind you that 20 years after the Japanese debt bubble burst, Tokyo house prices are still falling, and the stock market is worth 60% less than 20 years ago. And the Japanese economy was in a healthier state then, than the UK is today, thanks to an export surplus.)
Today’s penalising of the innocent – public sector workers, pensioners and those hundreds of thousands of young people entering the labour market – is a result of a deeply flawed economic analysis by the Chancellor of the causes of the global financial crisis.
It was wonderful to be, first of all at such a professionally and well organised event (congrats to Mark Letcher and his team). It was also fantastic to be amongst such an interesting array of speakers including John Gapper ‘the secret gardener’ who has spent the last 35 years propagating wild flowers in Brighton and Hove (watch his talk here) and Alice Ferguson and Amy Rose – two mothers with a simple but brilliant idea to get children playing outside (watch their talk here).
My talk was on how we can afford to finance the Green Transition – watch below:
Have just been told that my post on the Left Foot Forward on Ed Balls’s speech crashed the site “under weight of people wanting to read it”…so here it is for those of you that may have missed it….
David Cameron was delighted when the formidable Ed Balls walked straight into his framing of the debate on the deficit – and was promptly trapped.
That framing goes as follows. We (the government) have spent beyond our means. And the way to pay for it, is by cutting (public sector) jobs, and raising taxation – like VAT.
Ed Balls’s speech concedes (as Labour has done since Alastair Darling’s time at the Treasury) the deficit-reduction-emphasis agenda set by his opponents. And by so doing – implicitly concedes the need to cut public sector jobs.
But I am being unfair. Balls began his speech by mentioning Labour’s “emphasis on jobs and growth” But the speech immediately morphed into Labour’s concession to the Coalition: that what is needed is “a steady and balanced approach to halve the deficit in four years”. The implication being that cuts must be matched by ‘jobs and growth’.
But the highlight of the speech – the sound-byte that his spin doctors no doubt intended the media to emphasize- is a call for a cut in VAT “to boost consumer confidence and jump-start the economy.”
Cameron flashed back his retort: “slashing taxes” he argued, would only make the UK’s fiscal deficit worse.
I thought long and hard before refusing to sign the letter calling for a Plan B. Not because I do not think it is urgently required. But because the letter called for “clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion, as well as by raising taxes on those best able to pay.”
It goes without saying, I hope, that of course I support ‘clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion’ – but do not support ‘raising taxes’. I had asked the originators of the letter if we could debate this point, and later the words “those best able to pay” was added, without informing me. Even then, I may not have signed it. The fact is that with the UK’s rate of unemployment; with businesses facing a very hard time because of the rise in VAT and the cuts in government spending, and with banks effectively refusing to lend to SMEs and others (except at very high rates of interest)….this would not be the moment to raise taxes.
But I want to make a bigger point. By calling for taxes to be raised, the letter implicitly suggests that the deficit can be financed through increased taxation. In this sense, it echoes the orthodox line: that government expenditure is like a personal or corporate budget and that ‘savings’ (i.e.cuts or increased taxes on e.g. VAT) have to be found to finance it. That ‘we cannot afford to spend’. That the ‘money has run out’ and we need to find more – from somewhere, preferably taxation.
I strongly disagree. First, to reiterate: the government’s budget is not at all like individual, household or corporate budgets. Individuals cannot engage in ‘quantitative easing’. The Bank of England, on behalf of government, can, and indeed has done so, in order to support the financing of the UK government’s deficit. Individuals and corporates do not necessarily generate income from spending. The government can generate income from investment in public works. It’s a form of income called tax revenues. Third, individuals and corporates can go bankrupt. The government cannot – not even Zimbabwe.
Given these facts, the best way to finance the govermemt’s budget is by increasing, not cutting, the government’s income – from increased economic activity. In this sense we can make a comparison between governments and individuals: as Prof Chick and I note in our latest update of “The economic consequences of Mr O” –
“Just as work makes things affordable for an individual, so too for society. A nation’s prosperity follows from its employment, not the other way around.”
What the VAT rise and cuts in government spending do, is to cut economic activity – and therefore employment – and with it income from economic activity for the government.
And this, I fear, is what raising taxes would do too. And I do not want to be party to that.
Tin produced at a Glencore plant in Vinto, Bolivia
“Experience shows that when policies falter in managing capital flows, there is no limit to the damage that international finance can inflict on an economy.”
Yilmaz Akyüz, “Capital Flows to Developing Countries in a Historical Perspective: Will the current Boom End with a Bust?”
Today, as speculation and leverage in global, financialised commodity markets reach manic levels; as we witness an ‘epic rout’ (FT 5 May, 2011) in commodity prices, and as the boom in capital flows peaks, is another crash inevitable? And is it coming soon?
I know from experience that while it may be possible to analyse fundamentals, it is always difficult to predict precisely what dynamic will trigger the next crisis, and when it will happen. Back in 2003, together with colleagues at the new economics foundation in London, and with very little funding, I assembled and edited a series of essays on the ‘outlook’ for the global economy. We titled it: ‘Real world economic outlook’, and added a subtitle, ‘the legacy of globalization: debt and deflation’. We intended the report to be annual, and to act as a counter to the IMF’s annual World Economic Outlook, which in our view was irrationally optimistic about developments in the global economy.
We were pretty pessimistic about global imbalances, and predicted a crash. Sadly, our timing was way out: the crash was four years away. It does not always help to be right on the fundamentals. Given the inevitability of the then forthcoming crash, we argued that there was once more a need for a ‘great transformation’ of the global economy. The starting point we wrote ‘will be to reverse the most pernicious elements of the ‘globalization’ experiment’ by the ‘taming of financial markets through the re-introduction of capital controls; restraints in the growth of credit; the establishment of an International Clearing Agency; and a Tobin Tax’.
Back then it was hard to talk/write about these matters – and be heard. Our cheerfully-titled report and predictions did not hit the best-seller lists. Funding for the project was withdrawn, and the project wound down. It’s major flaw? We had breached areas of economic debate that at the time were carefully circumscribed. It took the financial crisis of 2007-9 to loosen the intellectual chains to which orthodox economics had so heavily tied economic debate. Today the Tobin Tax, or Robin Hood Tax is a high-profile issue, with some signs that EU governments are considering implementation of such a tax. (See point 8 of Euro leaders’ statement, March 11, 2011). So that taboo has been broken.
With a backdrop of bankers looting the EU’s Treasuries (via a bailout that rivals George Bush’s TARP) let us consider one of the most significant Dem-Con appointments (and a non-appointment) to the British cabinet.
That of someone who until now was invisible: David Laws the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
His Wikipedia profile (updated on the day of his elevation, and before he had taken up his ministerial responsibilities) depicts him as the man that speaks for his party on matters relating to kiddie-winkies and families and, no doubt, motherhood and apple pie. He is also commended for his conciliatory role in negotiating the Scottish Parliament coalition.
No mention here of his real background.
For, according to ePolitix, David Laws was once Vice President of JP Morgan and Co and based in the United States, before becoming Managing Director of Barclays de Zoete Wedd in 1992.
Now, in my book the most obvious candidate for the job of Chancellor, or Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was surely Vince Cable, a man credited for his prescience in predicting the financial crisis, respected for his ongoing analysis of that crisis and regarded as a “scourge of City ‘fat cats’.” Continue reading… ›