Deficit Fetish: Just say “No!”

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Balancing Budgets: The Austerity Dogma

By John Weeks, previously published here on Piera

Twitter: @johnweeks41

Austerity NO

The Austerity dogma of George Osborne asserts that a negative balance between public revenue and overall public spending (deficit) is a problem requiring immediate policy measures to eliminate it.  He has gone further, asserting that the fiscal balance should be positive (surplus) when the economy is at or near its capacity.  His invariant form of “correction” is expenditure reduction (aka “austerity”).

He and his supporters give three justifications for this dogma.  There is the reductionist argument that compares public sector budgeting to households, so obvious to the austerity-advocates that it requires no explanation  Households must balance their books (“cannot spend more than their incomes”), and the same applies (or should apply) to governments.

Anyone who believes that households must spend no more than current income has never bought a house, sent an offspring to university or found her/himself between jobs (due to redundancy, firing or voluntary employment shift).

Statistics refute the like-households argument. Households across the income distribution spend more than their incomes, early and often.  That is why PwC projects average UK household debt to reach £10,000 at the end of 2016 excluding mortgages.  The very limited truth in the false comparison comes at the bottom of the income distribution, where households have no choice but to engage in desperation borrowing (see study by Johanna Montgomerie).

The more fundamental falsifier of the household-equals-government argument is that the UK government can borrow from itself and a household cannot. The government of a country that has a national currency is not constrained in its spending by revenue flow alone.  However, macroeconomic conditions can impose binding constraints to public spending, which I discuss at a later point.

Superficially more serious is the argument that public sector deficits put upward pressure on market interest rates.  Government bond sales compete with private borrowing, interest rates rise and private debt become more expensive and investment declines (“crowded out”).  Whether this represents an important macroeconomic interaction in general remains subject of empirical debate.

At the moment it is obviously irrelevant because the Bank of England rate is below one percent and money market rates hardly higher.  Indeed, a rise in interest rates could bring benefits, such as higher returns to pension funds.  Were the UK government concerned about “crowding out” it has an obvious way to avoid it, borrowing directly from the Bank of England (“monetizing” the deficit).

Another frequently encountered assertion is that the Chancellor should avoid public sector deficits because they generate inflationary pressures.  There exist concrete circumstances when this would happen, but at the moment the overall rate of inflation in the UK is slightly negative, and the “core inflation rate” is barely over one percent.

Finally, the deficit has been falling (albeit slowly), and for fiscal year 2014/15 was less than £60 billion (below 5% of GDP compared to over 10% in mid-2012).  With inflation at zero, government borrowing falling, and no empirical or theoretical basis for the dangers of deficits, further budget cuts would qualify as gratuitous and ideological.

Balancing Budgets: Anti-Austerity Variations

Among critics of Chancellor Osborne’s policies appear two counter proposals for fiscal policy guidelines, 1) borrow only for investment, and 2) balance the budget “over the economic cycle”.  Close inspection of these suggests that they are variations on the austerity argument rather than refutations.

The first would maintain balance or a surplus for current expenditure, and fund public investment through borrowing by sale of government bonds in the financial market or borrowing from the Bank of England.  In mainstream economics the former has no impact on the supply of money, while the latter increases it by the amount of the borrowing.  The qualifier “in mainstream economics” is necessary because a considerable portion of the economics profession rejects the implicit assumption that the supply of money is independent of the level of output.

We need not wade into the money supply argument to see that the “borrow only to invest” position accepts that deficits are a problem, though limiting the problematic role to the current budget, total revenue flows less non-investment expenditure.  In practice the distinction between current and capital (investment) expenditure is far from black and white.

By usual definition investment includes all expenditures that increase the capacity of the economy, now or in the future.  There should be no argument that much of education and health spending does exactly this, which explains the origin of the term “human capital”.  However, all but the building and equipment component of health and education fall into current expenditure.  This arbitrary definition treats activities of doctors, nurses and teachers analogously to those who repair and maintain capital equipment rather than improve human health and skills.

Finally the borrow-only-to-invest policy encounters a serious problem.  When economic contraction causes public revenue to fall below current expenditure, should a government cuts in public services and social support?  If so, this policy becomes a variant on the Chancellor’s austerity dogma.  And not making cuts implies that the policy cannot be implemented.

The second approach also considers deficits as problems needing correction, over the economic cycle rather than continuously.  The concrete guideline is that the fiscal balance can be negative when the economy falls into recession, then moves into surplus as it recovers.

In practice this policy framework flounders on several empirical and analytical flaws.  First, defining the length of the period over which the sum of deficits and surpluses sum to zero defies consensus.  Without clear definitions of the beginning and end of a cycle this framework cannot be implemented without arbitrary guidelines.

Both approaches offered as a counter to austerity suffer from the same fallacy as the dogma itself.  Any rule requiring a fiscal balance must apply arbitrary assumptions and definitions in order to define when the outcome conforms to the rule.  Supporters of budget cuts have attacked critics of austerity as “deficit deniers”.

The meaning of this accusatory term remains elusive, but it carries the implication that opponents of expenditure cuts “do not care” about the deficit and/or do not consider it a problem.

The counter proposals might be seen as being “semi-denials”.  Those advocating balancing the current budget deny the need for revenue to cover public investment.  The cyclical balancers deny any necessary to correct deficits in the short run.  Arriving at sensible and rational fiscal rules requires abandoning budget balancing as a goal and converting it into an outcome derivative from effectively achieving macroeconomic stability and high levels of employment.

The Role of Taxation

The various versions of deficits-are-a-problem might be epitomised in the cliché, “governments must live within their means”, with disagreement arising as to whether “their means” refers to the current or overall budget and/or the relevant time period.

Aversion to deficits comes from an analytical confusion, the commonsense generalization that the purpose of taxation is to fund public expenditure.  For the government of a country that is part of a currency union (e.g., the euro zone) or a regional or local government the generalization is valid.  These governments do not control the monetary system in which they operate their fiscal policy.  The generalization is not true for a government of a country with a national currency over which it has control either directly or via the central bank.  I call the former shared currency countries (SCC) and the latter national currency countries (NCC).

A SCC government has two methods of funding expenditure, taxation and selling bonds to the private sector (typically to banks and other financial institutions).  The SCC government must pay the debt service, interest and principle, to private bond holders from taxation for the life of the bond.  For SCC governments borrowing is similar to what households and businesses do.  The cliché “living within means” could be applied, meaning precisely that the combination of current outlays and debt service must be consistent with revenue flows.

NCC governments operate within quite different fiscal constraints, possessing an additional funding option and a quite different goal for fiscal policy.  The core purpose of fiscal policy for an SCC government is to provide necessary and discretional public goods, and fund these in a sustainable manner.  The core purposes of fiscal policy for the NCC government are to maintain macroeconomic stability and increase productive capacity for the medium and long term.  The NCC government uses current expenditure to achieve stability and capital expenditure to enhance capacity.  Any expenditure by an NCC government, current or capital, obtains its funding from taxation, bonds sales to the private sector, and/or borrowing directly from the country’s central bank (“monetization”).

The defining characteristic of borrowing from the central bank is that in practice the debt need never be repaid;  for example, the Treasury could sell the Bank of England 100 year bonds (though in practice the maturity period is much shorter), or “roll over” the bonds (issue new ones to replace those that reach their redemption date).  The Bank of England holds about 25% of UK public debt.

The short run goal of macroeconomic stability determines the mix of these three funding alternatives.  If the economy falls into recession with deflationary price pressures the NCC government increases expenditure to compensate for the fall in private demand, covering the increased outlays through monetization.  As the economy approaches full capacity with inflationary pressures, monetization ends.  Rising tax revenue from the expanding economy replaces bond sales.

Whether the public budget is in balance should be of no concern for the NCC government.  If economic activity is declining or stagnant, public borrowing should increase.  Whether this results in a deficit on current expenditure is little importance, for the policy purpose is recovery not hitting a fiscal target.  An overheating economy calls for increased taxation, perhaps generating an overall surplus.

Balancing Policy rather than Budgets

For the British government, and all other NCC governments, expenditures and taxation have different policy functions and motivations.  Current expenditure delivers public goods and services to the population, and regulates the short term stability of the aggregate economy.  Simultaneously achieving those two goals represents the main challenge of a rational fiscal policy.

The capital budget, public investment, enhances capacity and only in extreme circumstances such as the threat of high inflation would be adjusted for short term policy goals.  How our government funds any part of public expenditure is derivative from the overall goals of short term stability and long term capacity enhancement.

The rational approach to fiscal decisions is to balance policy not budgets.  The fiscal balance in itself is neither a target nor an indicator of successful policy.  Whether the fiscal balance is positive, zero or negative reflects the outcome of this rational approach.  This is not deficit denial.  It is rejection of deficit fetish.

Whatever Osborne says, not all ‘debt’ is the same

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Corbynomics: winning with policy clarity by Michael Burke first posted 15th october 2015

Economic policy is central to the survival and eventual victory of the new Labour leadership, even though it is clearly not the only issue.  Contrary to the usual Tory media reports, Jeremy Corbyn and his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell registered an advance with the debate and vote on Osborne’s risible Fiscal Responsibility Charter.  That advance came because the correct position of voting against was adopted.  As this question will not go away, further advances will require even greater clarity.

The measure of the advance can be summed up in its political aspect with an analysis of the vote.  Just 20 Labour MPs rebelled against Labour’s line by abstaining on the Charter.  It may be recalled that of the 35 nominations, Jeremy Corbyn received from MPs in the leadership contest, only about half of them actually supported him.  During that campaign, the vast majority of MPs followed the line of abstaining on the Tories massive cuts in the Welfare Bill.  Now the overwhelming bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party has voted against the key Tory legislation of permanently enshrining austerity and ruling out borrowing for investment.  This is despite the fact that, as recently as May, the party’s economic line was ‘fiscal rectitude’, ‘zero-based spending reviews’ and sticking to outlandish Tory spending cuts in the first two years of the Parliament (something the Tories could not do in their own June 2015 Budget).

Politically, the 20 abstainers have isolated themselves within the party (although they will no doubt find regular berths in the BBC studios and lots of column inches in the Murdoch press).  Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have led the PLP to a much better economic position by opposing Tory economic policies.  As the Tories are committed to austerity and this will be central to the economic debate over the next five years, that leadership will need to keep moving forward.

Exposing Osborne’s fallacies

Labour lost the last election because its economic policies were not credible.  There is a concerted effort to distort this factual finding to suggest that Labour was too anti-austerity.  Therefore, the debate on economic policy is central both to the future direction of Labour policy and its election prospects.

Osborne’s great fallacies, like most distortions of the truth, have some connection to popular understanding otherwise it would be impossible to explain their political power.  A central fallacy is to treat all debt as essentially the same, with equally negative consequences.  Instead, as Socialist Economic Bulletin (SEB) has repeatedly shown John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have made the correct distinction between borrowing for consumption and borrowing for investment.

In the homely analogies beloved by this Chancellor and by Margaret Thatcher, ordinary households understand very well the difference between different types of borrowing.  Borrowing to buy a home, or borrowing to pay for night classes, or a new work-related computer all provide an asset or additional income and so are an investment.  But borrowing to pay the electricity or grocery bills is not sustainable.  It may ‘circulate more money in the economy’ but can only be done in extremis and not in the long-term.

Likewise, businesses understand cashflow.  Business makes an appraisal of investment opportunity on the basis of cost-benefit analysis.  If a reasonable expected rate of return exceeds the cost of borrowing then the investment will be made.  But if the business is borrowing to meet day to day expenses it will soon face insolvency and possibly bankruptcy.

Government relies on these economic agents for its income.  But in truth it is not unique as all three agents, government, business and households rely on each other for their income both directly and indirectly.  In that sense, government is no different.  Government borrowing for investment delivers an economic return, either direct or indirect, will expand the economy and, just like business a key criteria will be whether the rate of return on the investment exceeds the borrowing cost.  Contrary to views Keynes did not hold, but which are misleadingly entitled ‘Keynesianism’, borrowing for day to day consumption will not necessarily expand the economy – this depends on whether extra production increases profit, and in a number of situations expansions of demand may not increase profit and may actually reduce it.  Consumption should usually be met by current revenues from taxation.  If there is a shortfall between desired government current spending and revenue, wasteful spending can be cut (e.g. Trident) and/or taxes can be increased.

SEB has repeatedly demonstrated that investment is the decisive input for growth and consumption cannot lead growth, and from this it follows that government borrowing should be used for investment over the business cycle (running deficits/borrowing for consumption as well as investment may of course be valuable in economic downturns)

Alliances

The clear opposition to the Fiscal Responsibility Charter from the ‘Corbyn/McDonnell’ team on the Labour front bench was supported by strong economic arguments from a number of quarters, not all of them long-standing allies.

In the Commons debate, Caroline Lucas said, “The Chancellor is incredibly irresponsible to imply that borrowing is always bad. If we borrow to invest, we increase jobs, stabilise the economy and increase tax revenues. That is good for the economy, not bad for it…… If we are investing in jobs, that gets taxes going back into the Revenue, which is good for the economy.”  And:

“The Chancellor is deliberately misleading the public by continuing to claim that all borrowing is irresponsible. It is not. What is irresponsible is failing to borrow to invest, providing we are able to sustainably meet the cost of borrowing.”

Jonathan Reynolds, describing the Charter as intellectually moronic said, “It essentially commits this House to never borrowing to invest, even when the cost-benefit analysis of that investment is such that the country would benefit greatly.  That is why it has not one serious economist backing it.”

Helen Goodman said:

“One of the most pernicious things about the rule that the Chancellor has chosen is that it treats capital and current spending the same.  He is ignoring the fact that investing in housing, science, broadband, transport and the university system is a way of strengthening economic productivity and increasing growth in the British economy.  Nobody thinks that it is right to max out the credit card to pay the weekly grocery bill—of course not—but families up and down this country take out mortgages to buy their homes.  There is a precise parallel here.”

Regarding what John McDonnell himself said, as much of the press will not report it accurately, here are some of his key points:

“The worst false economy is the failure to invest.  This will be a direct result of Government policy embedded in this charter, with its limits on all public sector borrowing.  This Chancellor’s strategy has given us investment as a share of GDP lower than all the other G7 countries, falling even further behind the G7 average in recent years.  It is incomprehensible for the Chancellor to rule out the Government playing a role in building our future.  For him to constrain himself from doing so in the future, no matter what the business case for a project, has no basis in economic theory or experience.”

“We will not tackle the deficit on the backs of middle and low earners, and especially not on the backs of the poorest in our society.  We will tackle the deficit, but we will do it fairly and to a timescale that does not jeopardise sustainable growth in our economy.  We will balance day-to-day spending and invest for future growth, so that the debt to GDP ratio falls, paying down our debts”.

“That is why we will establish a National Investment Bank to invest in innovation across the entire supply chain, from the infrastructure we need to the applied research and early stage financing of companies.  To tackle the growing skills shortages, we will prioritise education in schools and universities along with a clear strategy for construction, manufacturing, and engineering skills to build and maintain sustainable economic growth.  The proceeds of that growth will reach all sections of our society.”

Outside the Chamber, Chi Onwurah had previously written a strong piece deriding Osbornomics’ refusal to invest “The Osbornomic farmer wouldn’t borrow to buy a tractor unless crop prices were falling.  The Osbornomic househunter would not take out a mortgage unless her salary was being cut.  The Osbornomic CEO would only invest in a new product line when revenues were falling.”

Long-standing Corbyn/McDonnell ally, Diane Abbott made a series of similar points on Twitter:

“Osborne’s Fiscal Responsibility Charter effectively outlaws the equivalent of taking out a mortgage…..Osborne’s Fiscal Responsibility Charter is a con-trick from a charlatan. Outlawing borrowing for investment means long-term stagnation….Every household and firm knows that borrowing for investment boosts incomes. Only Osborne and the austerity fanatics are unaware of this.”

These analogies are extremely useful for popularising the alternative to austerity, which is investment.  The new leadership team has shown it can command an overwhelming majority in PLP with clear opposition to Tory austerity.  Developing a broader understanding of the distinction between borrowing for investment and borrowing for consumption, and why Labour should support the former will be key in pushing back the Tories in the period ahead.