Britain’s high-debt, low-productivity economy spells long-term disaster

By Daniel Margrain

The collapse of the Berlin Wall which was the trigger that brought the totalitarian dictatorships of the former Soviet Union and those of its satellite states to their knees, came to symbolize for many the triumph of capitalist free market democracy over tyranny and oppression. An adviser to the US State Department, Francis Fukuyama, received international acclaim in 1989 when he reiterated this message by declaring, no less, that the collapse of communism was ‘the end of history‘. Great social conflicts and great ideological struggles were said to have been a thing of the past. Numerous newspaper editors and television presenters agreed.

A little over a decade after Fukuyama made his famous declaration, Islamist terrorists attacked the Twin Towers in New York. The attack was, in part, the result of Wahhabism’s ideological opposition to Western imperialist hegemony. Numerous imperial wars have been launched against Muslim countries since. Thus, Fukuyama’s thesis was trounced on a single day back in September 11, 2001. Anthony Giddens, the former director of the London School of Economics and court sociologist to Britain’s then New Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, repeated a similar message to that outlined by Fukuyama in his 1998 book, The Third Way.

Giddens  said“We live in a world where there are no alternatives to capitalism.” He was accepting and repeating a widespread but unsustainable assumption. The earliest merchant-form of capitalism began to emerge in the 17th century and industrial forms of capitalist production developed from the late 18th century. The organizing of the whole production of a country by capitalist means is barely three centuries old. It only began to become a dominant feature in terms of the universal dependence on markets some 60 or 70 years ago. Yet modern humans evolved about 200,000 years ago. In other words, what Giddens argued is that a capitalist economic system which represents a tiny fraction of our species’ life-span is set to last for the remainder of it.

Leaving aside the possibility of global catastrophe resulting from climate change or nuclear war, the notion that capitalism will continue to exist indefinitely into the future, is highly improbable. As the saying goes, ‘forever is a long time in history’. In just under two decades following the publication of The Third Way, capitalism has transformed into a finance-based neoliberal variant predicated on a form of systemic corruption underpinned by booms that zap productivity. The reason why financial booms impact on productivity in this way is in part the result of too much capital being mis-allocated to low productivity sectors which crowds out real economic growth.

Company buybacks illustrate this practice. Take Viacom as an example. The company issued debts of £10 billion and then bought back the shares which had subsequently reduced in value by 55 per cent. Similarly, Amazon issued £5 billion of debt prior to announcing they would also engage in this highly unethical practice. Issuing debt in order to buy-back stock implies an inability to grow companies organically. Rather, increasingly, the approach seems to be to boost the stock price artificially by a process of financial engineering. The problem is that levels of industrial production, the latest figures of which indicate a 0.3 per cent fall from the previous month, are not sufficient to support these kinds of debts.

Another illustration of the mis-allocation of capital to a low productivity sector, is in the realm of housing. Essentially, the UK economy is based on speculative-based property booms that are sustained through zero interest rates. This means that banks have access to almost unlimited credit which enables them to finance enterprises risk-free, underwritten by the tax-payer. The Conservative government under PM David Cameron is not investing in the productive parts of the economy but in financial ‘bubbles’ of which housing plays a significant part.

UK Chancellor, Gideon Osborne’s ‘help to buy scheme’ in which the UK tax-payer provides 40 per cent of the deposit for first-time house buyers, is clearly a policy aimed at the potential Tory voter in London. Many of the properties purchased will be used for the rental market as speculative investments thus boosting the housing bubble. Meanwhile, people who are part of the productive economy and make London tick, are steadily being priced-out and socially cleansed from the city. This is contributing to the decline in UK industrial output which has seen its biggest fall since August 2013. More importantly, this has impacted negatively on the UK’s trade deficit figures which are one of the highest, as a percentage of GDP, of any country within the OECD.

To emphasize this point, the UK’s trade gap with the European Union increased to a record high of £8.6 billion. The government’s suppose aim of re-balancing the economy by allegedly supporting its productive parts, is contradicted by its creation of risk-free speculative property bubbles of the kind described. The concept of free-market capitalism is supposed to be predicated on incentives, not state sanctioned socialism for the wealthy as the means to prop-up unsustainable economic bubbles. Yet the corporate controlled media, with their lurid headlines, continuously promote the latter.

The government’s subsidizing of house purchases is unhealthy for the medium to long-term economic well-being of the country as a whole. The subsidized property speculation bubble outlined is part of a centrally-planned Tory policy, no different in principle, to the socialist planned economies of the former Soviet Union and its satellite states that ‘the end of history’ allegedly supplanted. Low productive sectors within the UK have a knock-on effect in terms of the broader economy which is destined to decline as a result. This is because more needs to be produced for the pound sterling in order to counteract the affects of subsidized speculation which adds no value to the economy.

This principle also applies under conditions in which global investors pour money into government bonds which currently result in negative yields to the tune of some $6 trillion and growing. The infusion of greater amounts of subsidized money into the London economy runs counter to the government’s stated argument that they intend to diversify the wider economy by spreading investment throughout the UK as a whole. As a consequence of the Tory policy of socialism for property speculators, house prices in London are the most over-valued of any major city in the world.

Nevertheless, as long as potential property buyers and those already on the ladder in London have a perception that their homes are worth more than is actually the case, they will more likely be inclined to vote for the kinds of politicians who will perpetuate the bubble by continuing to offer some first-time buyers an injection of a huge cash-free gift as part of their deposit. If this was indeed the Tory plan prior to the London Mayoral election in order to assist the Tory candidate, Zac Goldsmith, then the strategy failed miserably. Whether Labour’s newly elected Mayor, Sadiq Khan, will attempt to scupper any moves by Jeremy Corbyn to put a break on the Tory’s high debt-low productivity economy policy, in order to further his broader opportunistic political ambitions, remains to be seen.

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