Tag: OECD

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.

Osborne’s Budget of Irresponsibility

By Daniel Margrain

Chancellor Gideon Osborne’s budget last week that represented a culmination of six years of government failures and which slipped the UK into a deeper recession, amounted to another massive transfer of wealth from the poorest to the wealthiest in society. This was reiterated by both the Institute for Fiscal Studies (see chart below) and the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). The Economist projects that by the end of this parliament, levels of investment – which are already one of the lowest in Europe – will fall to just 1.4 per cent of GDP, under half of what it was when the coalition government came to power. It is also half of what the OECD said is necessary just for the UK economy to stand still. But despite these facts, an alternative narrative has emerged in many of the editorials of the corporate controlled media which bare no resemblance to reality for the vast majority of the British people. As Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell put it on LBC last week, “If press releases built things, Cameron would have rebuilt our country.”

 

The main thrust of the budget was Osborne’s cut in funding to the disabled by £4.2 billion in order to pay for three separate tax cuts to the rich against a backdrop in which the national debt is rising by £45 per second or £2,700 per minute. Paul Mason summed up the mood in the House:

“Osborne’s glum face during Jeremy Corbyn’s speech — an uncharacteristically angry barnstormer — was matched by the glum faces of Blairites as they realised their own party was actually going to inflict moral and political damage on the government.”

Osborne’s inhumane and fiscally irresponsible budget was preceded by the fiscally responsible alternative version outlined by his opposite number, John McDonnell who, in a speech on March 11 (as well as in various interviews to the media and public meetings), laid out his parties fiscal credibility rules. The shadow Chancellor stated that he will eliminate the deficit and tackle the national debt within a five year period on the basis of the implementation of a progressive and ambitious investment programme that he said will provide the stimulus for growth and demand in the economy.

McDonnell insisted that a future Labour government would invest in skills, infrastructure and above all, technology. The speech was subsequently praised by a wide range of economists and some media outlets in addition to business organizations that included the CBI and the Chamber of Commerce. As a committed socialist, McDonnell is aware of the importance planning is to the economy and the ruthlessness that is required to properly monitor how governments’ spend and, more importantly, earn money. The whole debate is how the country earns its future which McDonnell has said ought to be focused on investment.

The difference between McDonnell’s approach and that of one of his often cited predecessor, Gordon Brown, is that the latter never went for an investment-growth strategy and relied too much on unregulated finance sector growth and the revenues generated, as the catalyst for the subsidizing of public services. This policy strategy proved to be an abject failure. Similarly, the approach under McDonnell’s immediate predecessor in opposition, Ed Balls, was firstly to underplay the drive toward investment and, secondly, was marked by his failure to recognize that governments’ have to borrow to invest in the long-term in order to grow the economy.

But equally as important, was Balls’ inability to grasp the important role organizations like the IMF and OECD play in diagnosing economic problems and how best to solve them. Specifically, Balls appeared to have underplayed the scope the combination of fiscal and monetary policy plays in combating low or negative interest rates. In contrast to the incompetence of Balls and Brown, McDonnell has expressed awareness that when government’s reach the limits of monetary policy in terms of low or negative interest rates, they have to combine the monetary with the fiscal. What McDonnell acknowledges, is the importance the building of a balanced economy plays to the modern democratic nation state.

The problem under previous government’s – both Conservative and Labour – has been that the investment in the manufacturing base, predicated on new technology, has been largely sidelined at the expense of the finance sector. On LBC, McDonnell used the analogy of a small company to outline his case. “An owner of a new company will need to invest in new machinery in order to compete against his rivals otherwise he or she will go out of business”, he said. He continued: “Government’s, like businesses, need to invest in the future otherwise their economies will fall behind.” The lack of investment is precisely what has beset the UK economy over recent decades, particularly under the latest Tory government which has overseen a widening productivity gap between the UK and its major European rivals.

McDonnell, correctly in my view, has made it clear that the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) should be given the power to monitor the UK’s own application of its fiscal credibility. The OBR, according to McDonnell, should not report to the Chancellor as is currently the case, but instead it should go directly to parliament. The aim is not merely to raise the economic credibility of Labour among the public but to raise it among the political class too. It’s ironical that despite the public perception that Labour governments’ have been more economically incompetent in the 37 years since Thatcher was elected than their Tory counterparts, the reality is there have been only two years – under Nigel Lawson during the boom period of the 1980s – in which the Tories produced a balanced budget. Conversely, Labour produced three years of balanced budgets under Gordon Brown.

 McDonnell has been aided in his approach to countering Tory and media propaganda by some of the world’s renowned and leading economists who have not only openly backed the oppositions anti-austerity economic model but have played an active part in advising the Shadow Chancellor as part of Labour’s Economic Advisory Committee. A central plank of the fiscal responsibility rules that McDonnell and his team set out on March 11, relates to Labour’s intention to reduce debt as a proportion of GDP over the lifetime of the government. This will entail growing the economy over the requisite five year period, allied to a fiscally disciplined and controlled approach to spending. The alternative budget that McDonnell proposed emphasized the application of a process of rigorous budgeting so as to restrict the likelihood of public expenditure spiraling out of control. To this end, the Shadow Chancellor stressed the need for the treasury to return to its former role of managing public finances as opposed to signalling to government departments that they have a license to spend public money in a prodigious manner.

An example of the latter happened two years ago following the Tory government’s much criticised selling off and closing down of the Forensic Science Service (FSS) against the advice of all the relevant parties concerned. The treasury ignored the advice because they envisaged the closing of the service as being financially prudent in the short-term. Two years down the line, they decided to set it up again. It’s this kind of short-term based decision-making predicated on the top down authoritarian micro-managed approach of their principal overseer in number 11 Downing Street that inhibits not only the long term financial credibility of government, but undermines democracy and the well-being of society as a whole.

Then there are the secret and highly wasteful and expensive P F I funded projects that typified the Blair and Brown era that McDonnell says he wants to put an end to. A third example of how short-term policy approaches are counterproductive to the long-term financial well-being of the nation, is within the realm of housing. The most labour intensive form of public spending is affordable council house building which, year on year, since the era of the Thatcher government, has failed to meet the demand for them. Labour’s Housing Minister, John Healey, has stated that he intends, as a starting point, to use savings on housing benefit (which is beneficial mainly to the rich), to build 100,000 affordable homes.

Government investment in housing is not only beneficial to those in need of a home, but it also reduces the housing benefit bill. In addition, the cost of buying a house is reduced due to increasing availability more widely. Although on the surface the intention to bring greater scrutiny and accountability to bare within the public sphere sounds overly bureaucratic, the kinds of attempts to rein in government and treasury short-term excesses are nevertheless fundamental to the successful running of governments’ in the eyes of the electorate. It is this electorate that is increasingly aware of just how callous Gideon Osborne has been in the lead up to the decision to cut disability welfare benefits which allegedly prompted Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation letter.

The letter basically outlined every suspicion that voters, and indeed Tory MPs, have about Gideon Osborne in relation to his obsessive attempts to micro-manage government departments as the prerequisite to his cynical positioning as next in line to succeed David Cameron as Tory leader. In relation to Duncan Smith’s resignation, one theory espoused by former UK diplomat Craig Murray is that his conscience got the better of him and as such Osborne’s budget attack on the disabled was regarded by Duncan Smith as one attack too many. Personally, I don’t buy it.

I’m more inclined to believe John McDonnell’s interpretation as expressed on LBC yesterday (March 19). McDonnell claims that the former Work and Pensions Secretary went through a long consultation exercise which specified the new proposal for the qualification criteria for the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). As a result of pressure from Osborne, McDonnell claims that Duncan Smith had no option other than to tear the agreement up.

In other words, a deal was allegedly done but Osborne is said to have reneged on it. This put pressure on Duncan Smith who, in turn, McDonnell claims, had taken the flack for something that was not ultimately his doing. Osborne had invented a fiscal rule that has been unable to withstand political scrutiny and the public, judging by the latest opinion polls, are wise to it. Let’s hope they will continue to be wise to the government’s various shenanigans prior to the forthcoming local elections and vote accordingly.