The Voice of a Siren

Do you remember Going for Gold with Henry Kelly? No? Come on, did you never have a school-day off sick in the early 90’s? In case you haven’t watched it, someone has helpfully posted a whole episode on YouTube:

If you don’t want to watch all of it (and I recommend you don’t) – at least watch the opening titles. Probably the worst TV theme song that’s ever been made.

So now we’ve reminisced, we’re going to have a quick quiz now, in the format of Going for Gold. Fingers on buzzers.

WHAT AM I? I am a chronic condition of subnormal activity for a considerable period without any marked tendency either towards recovery or towards collapse.”

; Only Fools and Horses Christmas Specials?

Incorrect. Knut, you’re out of the rest of the round.

; Steve Martin?

Incorrect. Bjorn, you’re out of the rest of the round.

; An economic depression?

Correct! RedEaredRabbit, you’re through to today’s final!

#Win

The definition wasn’t really Henry Kelly’s. It was that of John Maynard Keynes and he wrote it in 1936. Although written 72 years ago, you could easily mistake it for something written yesterday describing the current state of the UK economy. We haven’t imploded but there’s no growth and the economy continues to operate below potential, with lots of workers available to work but a lack of demand for their services.

A common misconception is that a depression is just a long recession – i.e. the economy has to shrink quarter on quarter for a long time. A much better way of thinking about it is that, following a recession, the economy operates below potential for a long time. So what do I mean by ‘below potential’?

I mean that at the moment our economy:

  • Is much smaller than it used to be
  • Has the potential to a produce a lot more goods and services than it does
  • Does not produce more goods and services because we choose not to produce them

That sounds crazy. If we can produce them then we should, right?

The economy is largely based on supply and demand. At the moment we are all good to go on the supply side but we are have a major problem on the demand side and this is very important in understanding why we are in depression and also important in understanding what we should do about it.

I can explain this a bit better with some examples.

The car manufacturer is producing fewer cars because fewer people want to buy cars. She could easily employ more people and produce more cars but as long as the demand for them is low she won’t do it. Her costs would go up and her revenue would stay the same. She is waiting for the economy to recover before producing more cars.

The garden centre owner is growing fewer plants because fewer people want to buy plants. She could easily employ more people and grow more plants but as long as the demand for them is low she won’t do it. Her costs would go up and her revenue would stay the same. She is waiting for the economy to recover before growing more plants.

The car manufacturer and the garden centre owner can easily ramp up their operations because taking on new employees is easy – their are lots of people who need jobs. They don’t though because demand for their products is low.

The people who don’t get jobs because the car manufacturer isn’t taking on staff don’t buy new plants from the garden centre. The people who don’t get jobs because the garden centre isn’t taking on new staff don’t buy cars from the car manufacturer.

You can see how the whole thing is self-perpetuating. Remember, my spending is your income and your spending is my income. At the moment I am awaiting for you to spend before I can spend and you are waiting for me to spend before you can spend.

We just looked at two examples but this is the case across the whole economy. The demand for goods and services is low, therefore spending is low, therefore income is low, therefore the demand for goods and services is low.

While everyone waits for everyone else we have economic deadlock and the economy is depressed. We need to appreciate this problem in order to know what to do about it.

Suppose that the government took a look at our school buildings and admitted that they probably need investment. Workers are easy to come by when unemployment is high, so they have no trouble in finding available resources to work for the next few years repairing, rebuilding and redecorating old classrooms, school halls and gymnasiums. The newly employed workers have cash in their pockets and so they start to buy other things like plants for their gardens. The garden centre take on more staff and now there are even more people with cash in their pockets. They start to buy cars and so on.

That’s how government spending solves the problem. The government could spend on pretty much anything to solve the problem with demand but it makes a lot of sense to spend it on things like schools and renewable energy because that is money we need to spend soon anyway. We can wait another five years to do it or do it now but we spend pretty much the same amount of money either way.

Not everyone agrees with this solution though. The UK government for example, believes that if they cut spending, rather than increase it, everyone will become more ‘confident’ and they’ll then start spending. How this works is a bit of a mystery but we are continually assured that it does work. Somehow.

So how’s that policy going? The latest figures are out so without further ado… let’s update The Depression Tracker!

(The blue line is the Great Depression of the 1930s and the red line is the current depression.)

Depression tracker

Damn, that doesn’t look very good. Here’s George Osborne’s reaction:

You will hear those arguing that we should abandon our plan and spend and borrow our way out of debt…these are the siren voices luring Britain onto the rock. We won’t go there.

George had clearly been working on that metaphor. Probably for most of the three months since he had to explain the last set of figures.

Here’s David Cameron’s reaction:

My message today is clear and unequivocal. Be in no doubt: we will go on and finish the job.

Finish it? Starting it would be nice. The economy is smaller now than when he took office.

The confidence argument is great for soundbites but do any of its proponents actually bother to look at the data? Do they actually look at figures like those in the graph above and think, “Hold on a moment, if my argument was a good one, that graph would not look like that.”

Not only is it not backed up by evidence, the logic of the theory seems extremely shaky. From where exactly is the car manufacturer suddenly going to gain the confidence to start employing people and building more cars? I can understand a person gaining confidence from seeing sustained economic growth but no one is going to look at that graph, see what the government has done to the economy, get all confident and then go on a massive manufacturing bender.

Referring to people as “sirens” for making a logical, evidence-based argument as opposed to an illogical, fantasy-based one demonstrates the heart of the problem. A problem that started as an economical one is now purely political, and it is two-fold.

  • We have a government whose base political beliefs are centred around a small public sector, so they will try to bring this in irrespective of the economic situation.
  • We have a government who have so publicly trumpeted the economic growth that austerity would bring that they simply cannot go back on it now without committing political suicide.

Remember, the depression definition though. Despite the 0.7% contraction in Q2 we are not falling off a cliff. We will almost certainly do better in Q3 – it is virtually impossible for us to repeat a quarter that bad. And when we get a recovery in Q3, the government will be saying it is advocation of their policy.

It won’t be though. The underlying problems will remain and while we wait around for those problems to be solved by ‘confidence’, our economy will continue to flat-line, and millions of people who want to work will be forced, because of those two political problems, to sit at home, waiting for the demand to return to our economy.

And how long will that take? Well, we know from our economics textbooks that long-term output is determined by the supply side. That is, as long as the depression isn’t so bad that we lose our ability to make things, we will eventually recover anyway but we also know that we have all of the tools available to fix the problem with demand right now, so why not do it? After all, as John Maynard Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead.

With this government though, sitting around waiting for the long-run to sort things out is all the help our unemployed are going to get.

Where’s Going for Gold when you need it?

RedEaredRabbit

Advertisements

Beating Up The Rich

In amongst the knob gags and poo jokes, someone occasionally writes something serious on Twitter. The other day someone wrote this:

The top 10% of earners pay more than 50% of all income tax. When can we stop beating up on the rich?

It got retweeted and found its way into my timeline. I did try to start a debate with the originator but they didn’t seem to want to take part. Twitter is a fairly clumsy medium for doing so in any case.

I hope I am not doing the originator a disservice but I think the case being made was one I have heard on several occasions – that because such a large proportion of tax is coming from a relatively small proportion of the population they must be more than paying their way and it would be unfair to ask them for even more.

The point I wanted to make was that this statistic on its own doesn’t really tell us enough to know whether we should stop beating up the rich or not.

(I think we are talking about a metaphorical beating up here. I want to make it explicitly clear that I do not condone the beating up of rich people irrespective of the income tax rate for high earners. Except perhaps Duncan Bannatyne and even then no more than a wedgie and a titty twister.)

So why does this statistic not tell us enough on its own?

Reason #1

Let’s look at two fictional economies:

Thatcherland

The country of Thatcherland has 10 residents. Nine of them earn £10,000 per year. One earns £10,000,000 per year.
Income tax is a flat 30% irrespective of salary.

=> In Thatcherland the richest 10% of earners pay 99% of the total income tax.

Getoffmyland

The country of Getoffmyland is populated by 10 farmers. Nine of them earn £10,000 per year. One earns £30,000 per year.
In Getoffmyland, income tax on salaries up to £20,000 pay income tax at 10%. For anything over £20,000 income tax is 40%.

=> In Getoffmyland, the top 10% of earners pay 40% of the total income tax.

If we simply assume that a higher proportion of income tax paid by the rich is equivalent to fairness then Thatcherland comes out as a brilliantly fair economy! Look, that lovely rich person is paying almost all the income tax. The other 90% of residents only have to find 1% between them!

Of course, it isn’t fair though because we just neglected to take into account the income gap between the rich and the poor: If the income is unevenly distributed in the first place then it should not be a big surprise to anyone that the income tax is too.

Reason #2

The statistic tells us only about income tax and we can’t make a valid judgment without taking into account all the other taxes we have to pay. e.g.

  • In Getoffmyland there is another tax which farmers have to pay based on the size of their farmhouse. The bigger it is the more they have to pay.
  • In Thatcherland, this tax has been replaced with a poll tax where all residents pay the same.

Even if the income tax were fair in Thatcherland we would be fairly rash to declare the whole tax system fair without taking the poll tax into account.

Let’s forget about our fictional economies and move to a real one. The UK government is currently in the process of implementing fiscal austerity. At the highest level they have two ways to do this:

  • Decrease Government spending
  • Increase Taxes

It seems to me they are a lot keener on adjusting the former than they are the latter and I do have a big concern about this. In August the IFS published an analysis of the government’s emergency budget and found that contrary to George Osborne’s claims the policies were not progressive. i.e. they proportionally penalised the poor more than the rich. (You can read the post I wrote about that here.)

This shouldn’t be a big surprise. If you hugely reduce the budget of local councils then libraries close, public transport services reduce etc and those services benefit the poor more than the rich who buy their own books and have their own cars. Additionally there have been much publicised cuts to both housing benefit and tax credits and despite what the Daily Mail says, people who claim benefits are not all millionaire hoodwinkers.

Strangely though, throughout all of this, no one has seemed to consider for 5 minutes financing any of this through a rise in income tax on the wealthy (metaphorically beating them up) and I really don’t for the life of me understand why. Austerity in the current climate is foolhardy but if you are dumb enough to want to implement it, why not start with the people who aren’t going to starve?

Prior to the downturn the UK economy had enjoyed 15 years of sustained growth and a great many people benefited because of this. Now the economy is in a bad way, why is a government hell bent on austerity, not considering going back to those who have benefited the most and asking them to contribute more? It seems especially odd when the alternative is asking the poor to foot the bill.

I must though, be fair to the government and highlight a progressive policy they are implementing – the freezing of the television license fee. It is just a shame that David Cameron had to get in bed with Rupert Murdoch to come up with one.

Leaving the rich untouched and taking it all from the poor just increases the income gap, pushing us still further towards the economy in Thatcherland.

And as we approach Thatcherland, the richest 10% will pay more and more of the income tax.

And things will be more and more unfair.

RedEaredRabbit

The Baroness, The Cark Park and The Smell of Burning Pants

I started this blog back in May. Prior to that, although I enjoyed reading other people’s blogs, I had never seriously considered bothering to do one myself.

Then one day, something came along which was so utterly stupid I felt like I needed to tell the world. The country’s finances were in a big mess, we were about to go through a general election and no party standing for election had told us what they were going to cut in order to sort this out.

In all of this the thing which really got my goat, the thing which frustrated me into setting up a free WordPress account and typing – actually typing, was the Conservative policy on raising the inheritance tax threshold. In the circumstances probably the most mind-numbingly stupid thing that could conceivably have been conceived.

You can read that first post here but to summarise it, the ONS had published very clear figures showing the state of the nation’s finances. The IFS had published a very clear paper showing that each of the three main parties required significant, unidentified spending cuts in order to make their sums add up and despite this, the Conservative party were advocating a tax cut which would only benefit very rich people and, in order to pursue their agenda of lower public spending would have to be funded by even more cuts elsewhere.

The IFS’s paper showed that the Conservative Party, in their manifesto, had identified a mere 17.7% of the spending cuts they would actually need to make to in order for their figures to balance. This was well known, clearly calculated and in the public domain.

Now, before I continue, I want to make something absolutely clear. I did not hack into a top secret government server to get this information. I did not take it off a laptop I found on a train, I just downloaded some reports from the websites of the two most bloody obvious places to look for it.

Fast-forward to Thursday last week and that evening’s episode of Question Time on which, representing the Conservative Party, was Baroness Warsi.

“Why didn’t you tell the public you were going to cut Child Benefit?” she was asked.

Pop Quiz, assholes. Was her answer:

  • Well, we had no idea how bad the financial mess that Labour left behind would be.
  • We didn’t want to tell anyone before the election in case they didn’t vote for us but it’s too late for that now! We won! Ha Ha!

Sadly, she went with a). This is very strange though because everyone else did know very accurately how bad the financial mess was and furthermore, I seem to recall a certain political party making it the major point of their election campaign.

If Baroness Warsi says she didn’t realise our finances were a big mess then I conclude that either:

  • She is not taking her job very seriously.
  • Her pants are on fire.

Judging by the audience’s reaction they were opting for answer b).

Later, Baroness Warsi got onto the subject of Big Society. Big Society is the coalition’s spoon full of sugar to help the cuts go down and if you don’t think too hard about it, it has a lot going for it. The idea is that the state will motivate society into taking responsibility for their own lives and get involved in building and improving the community. Such will be the Utopia that we create that no one will even remember spending cuts. It does have a fairly big down side though – no one will actually bother to do it.

Warsi was asked what the Big Society initiative would actually achieve. She recounted a charming tale of some people who had once cleaned up a car park. The next step for Big Society, she said, would be reforming our educational system, our police force and our health service.

Hmmm…..

That does seem like rather a big next step. Just because the average group of people possesses the skills to clean up a car park does not mean that the average group of people knows how to set up and run a school or a hospital. In fact, I would go as far as to say these things are in no way related.

If you didn’t see the episode and think I am misrepresenting things, I urge you to have a look at it on iPlayer. This bizarre extrapolation really was done.

When Labour came to power in 1997 they enjoyed a long “Honeymoon” period. Judging by Baroness Warsi’s performance, the coalition’s is over as quickly as it began. I actually don’t believe the government could possibly be as incompetent as you’d believe from watching her but they do seem to put her on TV a lot so their judgment at least is fairly awful.

Her claim regarding the economy, essentially ‘we didn’t know what we were getting in to’, is frankly no better than Bob Crow using the fact that tube drivers have to work underground a lot of the time as one of the reasons that they should be paid more. Call me a cynic but I’m pretty sure they knew that when they applied for the job and probably they thought the hugely inflated salary, minimal working hours and generous holiday allowance made up for it. Or maybe they really didn’t already know this when they applied for the job of tube driver on the London Underground.

In truth the state of the nation’s finances were well known by everybody. Any party seeking election knew exactly what they were taking on and as such the elected government should be able to stand behind their policies, not hide behind a lie.

The claim that these cuts weren’t expected and are just the result of not realising that our economy is weak, is frankly insulting because it is so easily shown to be false. The current government will no doubt have more, as yet, unidentified cuts ahead. If they have even the tiniest amount of respect for their electorate then they will learn to be accountable for their policies. If they think their electorate is a bunch of idiots then we have this excuse to look forward to for the next four and a half years.

This all sounds hugely depressing but I assure you – it’s not all bad. Somewhere, wherever it may be, we have a clean car park.

RedEaredRabbit