As the implications of what it appears that the coalition is about to do in the upcoming budget sinks in, I have to admit to growing increasingly concerned. No-one – outside of the Labour leadership contest anyway – denies that the structural deficit needs to be tackled or that we don’t face some unpleasant spending cuts over the next few years. But I’m mystified by the economic strategy behind what the government apparently has planned.
If the government does have a game plan, thus far it has not been spelled out. Nick Clegg’s speech on Monday was remarkably void of much of an argument, resting as it did on two points:
1. There is no alternative: “to do anything else would not only be irresponsible, it would be a betrayal of our progressive values”.
2. It is a matter of intergenerational equity: “There is nothing progressive about condemning ourselves and our children to decades of debt, higher interest rates, fewer jobs.”
Nick Clegg and company keep emphasising how shocked they were by the state of the country’s finances, but thus far – despite all the welcome transparency – they have offered nothing to explain why they were quite as shocked as they were. The report of the Office of Budget Responsibility was mixed: it suggested that the structural deficit was worse than we’d thought but that public spending was actually under better control. Clegg himself keeps talking about this meeting he had with Mervyn King and how it made him see the light; it is almost as if he has come back from Mount Sinai carrying tablets of stone. But Mervyn King is just one man, and not one whose prognostications in the past have proven to be infallible. What is King saying in private that he can’t tell us in public? Why wasn’t it being said before the election? And how has it shattered Clegg’s and Cable’s own views of economic policy so irrevocably? I always knew that both of them were fiscally conservative, but this is radical neo-liberalism. It is the most spectacular policy volte-face I’ve ever seen.
More to the point, why does no-one else in the world appear to be pursuing a similar strategy. The UK is not in the mess that Greece is in, yet the coalition government is behaving as if it is. We know why the Tories want to do this: they’re Tories. I’ve yet to hear a single, coherent Liberal Democrat argument for why we should be going along with this.
The thing is, we do have choices here; lots of them. The government have made two fundamental choices which, on the face of it, contradict the advice of a very large number of economists and thus urgently need to be explained. Firstly, they are seeking to tackle the whole structural deficit within five years (something which the Lib Dems denounced during the election). Secondly, they are seeking to do this overwhelmingly by cutting rather than taxing (something which, to be brutally frank, the Lib Dems fudged during the election). I can see nothing in the OBR figures which suggest that such a strategy would be madness; quite the opposite. If the structural deficit is larger than we imagined, then surely there is a case for tackling it over the longer period of time, and an even greater scope for tax increases? To do otherwise would just risk damaging the economy, surely?
It is one thing to cut £6 billion this year: frankly I was pretty unfazed by that. But the numbers the government has started talking about really will risk – if not guarantee – a double dip recession. Withdraw the amount of money from the economy that we are talking about, and it is hard to see how the outcome will be anything other than negative growth. It actually looks as if, despite all the reassurances a few weeks ago, the government’s agenda is to actually engineer a new recession, seeing it as a necessary bit of pain with a view to long term benefits.
The last time that was done was the early 80s, under Thatcher. The result? In some parts of the country a whole generation was left on the scrapheap. Far from tackling the structural deficit, we’re still paying for it. That shocking welfare bill that Frank Field and Iain Duncan Smith have been given the task of slashing? A large proportion of it is due to the government plonking a large proportion of ex-miners onto incapacity benefit. The price has not just been financial; lives were shorn of value overnight; communities were destroyed; the following generation grew up with no hope and no aspiration. Social mobility fell. This is what shock doctrine economics does to a country and even the Tories pledged we would never return to it.
This brings into question the claims that such a hard and fast approach is progressive from an intergenerational perspective, and also causes us to consider some other worrying trends emerging from the government. Leaving aside David Willetts’ extraordinary views that higher education is an intolerable burden on the taxpayer, we have the fact that one of the main things the government has slashed over the past month has been youth employment schemes. Clegg’s argument that it is progressive to cut now to ensure that future generations don’t end up paying for our mistakes are only actually convincing if the future of those generations are not being curtailed by the same economic policies. Deny a graduate or teenager a chance of either employment or training now, and it won’t matter to them how high taxes are in the future because their own earning potential will go through the floor.
All of this flatly contradicts Clegg’s emphasis on social mobility, or does it? Because when he talks about social mobility, as he did on Thursday, Clegg’s emphasis is all on children. We can all agree that the most effective time in a person’s life to invest in is their early years, but this truism appears to have fallen victim to doctrinal reductionism. Simply put, it makes no sense whatsoever to invest in early years and schools while having nothing to offer people once they hit 16. What is the value in the government creating the most aspirational dole queue in history?
All of this adds up to an emerging picture of futures of the current crop of teenagers and young adults being sacrificed in the name of their younger and older generations. You’ve got to ask what they’ve done to deserve it? Equally, you’ve got to wonder if Clegg and Cameron would be quite as ready to do this if Antonio, Alberto, Miguel, Nancy and Arthur were a little older.
No-one else seems to be taking as much of a hit. Wealth taxes have been almost entirely ruled out, despite the fact that taxes on property values (or, better yet, land values) would have the least negative economic impact. And yet, far from being an economic burden, it is the 14-22 generation that we will largely depend on to make our economic recovery over the next decade a swift one. I am completely mystified; it makes no sense to me whatsoever. It seems to have been concocted by a bunch of people more concerned with sounding tough and being seen to make grown up decisions than actually steering the country down a fair and economically sustainable path. In short, it screams of groupthink; I pray that I’m wrong.
Late last week I spoke to someone on the “inside” and painted them a rosy picture. I speculated that all this doom and gloom that had been coming out of the Treasury and Downing Street over the past fortnight was a shadow play designed to placate the Tory headbangers and that what would emerge would be something surprisingly progressive and far-sighted; people like me all breathe a collective sigh of relief.
I still like to think that is a distinct possibility, but my source didn’t seem to find my theory anything more than charmingly off the ball. If they would at least offer us an actual economic argument, it would be something. Instead we just get echoes of Thatcher’s There Is No Alternative.