Perhaps the most most abused subject by the practitioners of politics is economics. As an observer I frequently get the impression that politicians make economic policy according to their own personal preferences or prejudices. Professional economists usually follow the trend dictated by their leaders. One such nonsense is the claim by our political leaders that it is necessary to get down the government debts to produce a healthy growing economy. It seems to have escaped the notice of our leaders that the reverse has happened. This has been the feeblest recovery ever from an economic downturn, Britain’s GDP still has not returned to the levels of 2008/9. That is the pre crash GDP. This insistence on cutting government expenditure to cut the deficit, has ruined the economies of Spain, Italy, Greece and Ireland and done little more than spread the misery to the rest of they EU.
Economics has become deformed by the simplistic morality of the right. Government indebtedness has become one of the great moral wrongs. David Cameron was explaining this week that over half the money borrowed by the government was accounted for by payments to debt holders. This figure is an over simplification, but any story will do to fool the voters. What is so noticeable is that debt is only wrong if its government debt, debt is fine if its private debt. The debt fuelled housing bubble in London is fine. This government sees nothing wrong with the accumulation of large debts in the private sector. The latest figure shows that private sector debt totals 123% of GDP, even the massaged figures for bank indebtedness shows that bank debt is equal to 150% of GDP. Bank indebtedness according the Bank of England’s deputy government was almost equal to 600% of GDP. Given that the banks have not mended their ways it is unbelievable that government statisticians can claim that bank debt has fallen rapidly to only 150% of GDP. Of all these debts, government debt is the smallest, rising even after years of austerity to about 86% of GDP. To be a politician requires a certain blindness to economic reality, a myopia shared by all the leaders at Westminster.
Prior to the crash and the EU forced austerity, Italy had government debts of about 100% of GDP, yet the same time had a successful economy. There was a trade deficit with Germany, but their deficit was small compared to the debt addicted UK. The public sector debt was not a problem because it was funded debt, the majority of the debt was owed to Italians. That debt would only have been a problem if it had been owed largely by foreigners, as is the case in much of the developing world. There unlike Italy debt is a major drain on the countries resources, particularly as vulture funds frequently buy up this debt and enforce repayment terms that effectively bankrupt the country. Italy was not in the same situation of say, the Republic of the Congo, it was in no danger of being pushed to the edge by foreign creditors. The same applies to the UK.
There is an amnesia about the past in political circles about the past. UK public sector debt in the 1950’s and 60’s was for much of the time well in excess of 100%, probably fair to say it averaged 150% over this period. Yet this was also the time that the UK recorded the highest levels of economic growth in the twentieth century. Similarly the national debt for the period of the wars with France 1786-1815, national debt was in excess of 100% of GDP. Yet again this was a period of exceptionally high growth. What matters is not the size of the debt but whether it is funded and to what use it is put. Part of the high levels of national debt were due to the huge American loan (Marshall Aid) used to help finance the reconstruction of the UK economy.
Politicians accept that it is a good that people borrow to buy a house, that business borrows to fund investment, yet its bad if the government borrows to invest in the national infra structure. The consequences can be of this belief can be seen all too clearly in the USA. Republic President’s Regan and Bush took action to cut government spending on the domestic economy in the USA so as to reduce government debt. The result was the inter state highway was neglected and only recently a road bridge collapsed through lack of maintenance. One government report there stated that a large number of road bridges were in varying states of disrepair, but not I think could be classed as unsafe, they were just on the right side of the safe/unsafe boundaries. California one the richest states in the USA has cut funding to such an extent it is unlikely that they could cope with an emergency caused by an earthquake. It would be a repeat of the New Orleans scenario, where neglect of the flood defences led to catastrophic funding. Fortunately in Britain we have not had as yet to cope with such a major emergency. Could our emergency services cope with a major disaster given the cuts to such services? How much was the failure of the police to respond in sufficient numbers to the riots in London due to financial considerations?
What the Right and the current generation don’t understand is that there is good and bad public sector debt. Borrowing to build the national infra structure is good, borrowing to finance foreign wars of conquest is bad. Borrowing to cover shortfalls in tax revenue is good as it enables the government to continue with its activities and avoids any disruption to the economy.
The 1950’s provides a good example of good government borrowing. Billions of dollars were borrowed from the USA in then form to Marshall Aid. The money was used to rebuild an industrial infra structure damaged by war.
There is one problem caused by this government myopia. When the government of 1980/81 took drastic action to cut the deficit, the resulting recession wiped out 20% of our industrial capacity. A problem that still bedevils the British economy. The current recovery in the housing market is threatened by a shortage of bricks, due a reduction in capacity in the brick making industry. If there had not been North Sea oil, the 1980’s would have witnessed a series of economic crises brought on by the UK’s ever increasing trade deficits. The austerity programme of the current government has had the same effect, investment in British manufacturing has sunk to very low levels. When the recovery starts it will be cut short by a trade crisis, the recovery will suck in imports of goods that a decimated UK manufacturing will be unable to provide. Already at our current low levels of growth, the UK is predicted to have the highest trade deficit of any developed country. A debt fuelled consumer boom can only make that situation worse.
How can the naivety of our current leaders be explained. Our government is one of the best educated in history, almost all have been educated at our elite universities. The same applies to Parliament, it’s full of Oxbridge graduates. Yet the level of debate on matters of economic policy is abysmal. The yah-booing of Prime Ministers Question is a true measure of the lack of sophistication in the political debate. Possibly this contempt for reality and preference for the imagined world of the Neo-Liberal, is due to the simplicity of the Neo-Liberal story. Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom can be read in the brief span of a wet afternoon. It over simplifies the economic reality, providing a few simple phrases that even the dimmest of MP’s can grasp. In the jargon of today it is not intellectually challenging. It is the illusory promise that Neo-Liberalism makes of easy but decisive policy measures that will change the world, that makes it appealing. It offers simple ( if wrong solutions) to complex economic problems. Given the concentration of political minds on the mechanics winning political points in the context of the Westminster debate, any intellectually lite discipline is welcome, as it economic decision making will require little effort and time freeing the politicians time to concentrate on the real business of politics, the machination of intra and inter party politics.
Perhaps another reason is the loss of confidence within our political class. In the 1960’s a confident USA boasted that the space race cost less than the USA spent on cosmetics. Today the space race is too expensive. The US and Britain seem to be opting out of the grown up world, the governments of both being unable to make decisions. British leaders at present present a pitiful spectre, travelling the world begging it to invest in the renewal of Britain’s infra structure.