Robert Skidelsky
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House of Lords Debate: Finance Bill: Second Reading and Remaining Stages
Robert Skidelsky
Hansard Column 1192 - 1201 | Monday, July 26, 2010

 
My Lords, the Finance Bill implements the taxation provisions of the emergency Budget Statement of 22 June. These will come to about 20 per cent of the total fiscal tightening which has been planned in this Parliament. So the Finance Bill as we have it before us is part of the Government's programme for balancing the Budget over the next five years. In his opening speech, the noble Lord, Lord Sassoon, said that a failure to address the deficit is the greatest danger we face. I would say that the failure to address the hole in the economy is the greatest danger we face and that unless the noble Lord is able to demonstrate how cutting the deficit will produce an economic recovery, there is a massive hole in his speech. I listened in vain for any such demonstration by the noble Lord.
 
In the debate on the Address, I asked the noble Lord, Lord Henley, this question. By what mechanism do the Government believe that fiscal tightening will promote recovery? The noble Lord, Lord Henley, was good enough to write to me, making three points. His first was that public borrowing is only taxation-deferred. The idea is that the public, knowing that they will have to pay for the deficit with higher taxes, increase their saving by the amount of the higher taxes they expect to have to pay. Thus the deficit not only fails to stimulate the economy, it crowds out more efficient private spending. As stated, the argument is simply false. That part of the deficit which brings into employment resources which would otherwise stand idle will be paid off without any need to increase taxes, simply by the growth of public revenue which the rise in national income brings about. I do not know that any serious economist believes this Ricardian equivalence argument and yet it is one of the justifications for the Government's deficit-cutting programme. So where is the Treasury getting its wisdom from?
 
The second point the noble Lord, Lord Henley, made was that it would be irresponsible to accumulate substantial debts that would have to be paid off by subsequent generations in the decades to come. The reply to this is that a deficit does not impose a burden on future generations. There is no repayment burden because the Government, unlike private individuals, can and normally do repay their maturing debts by continuing to borrow. As for the interest burden which is said to arise when interest is paid by taxation rather than by fresh borrowing or printing money, it is merely a transfer payment. Income is transferred from taxpayers to bond holders. Since most of the transfer of income is within the United Kingdom, it is therefore a redistribution rather than a loss of income for future generations. Again, these are quite straightforward points once one grasps them, but the Government and many of the fiscal consolidators have gone on and on about the burden which would be faced by future generations, as though there was a net loss to them from an increase in the national debt.
 
If, however, the public deficit is cut now, there will undoubtedly be a burden on both present and future generations. Income and profits will be lowered straightaway; profits will fall over the medium term; pension funds will be diminished; investment projects will be cancelled or postponed; and schools will not be rebuilt, with the result that future generations will be worse off, having been deprived of assets that they might otherwise have had.
 
I go back to the letter of the noble Lord, Lord Henley. Of course, this is not a personal attack on the noble Lord, whom I greatly like and admire. He is just acting, as is the noble Lord, Lord Sassoon today, as the unfortunate fugleman of the Treasury. His third point was:
"The higher the level of debt, the higher the interest rate that markets will demand to compensate them for holding that debt. Failure to tackle Britain's deficit would therefore push up the costs of debt service and risk higher long-term interest, not just for the Government, but also for families and businesses through the higher costs of loans and mortgages".
Every proposition in that short paragraph is false in the present situation. If the economy were fully employed, it is true that the higher the level of public debt, the more the Government would have to pay for it, which could cause the whole structure of interest rates to rise. But if the private economy is depressed, interest rates on government debt do not have to rise; indeed, they have not risen over the whole of this recession, even though the Government are borrowing almost three times as much as before. Why? It is surely not because of the resolute steps which the Chancellor has taken to reduce the deficit and thus restore confidence, since the Treasury is able to borrow just as cheaply and with the same long maturities as under the previous Government.
The reason that all Treasuries, except the most profligate ones such as the Greek treasury, can get their money so cheaply is that investors demand safety-first investment strategies, or, as Keynes would have said, there has been a massive flight to liquidity. Even as government debt mounts, low yielding bonds are still considered better-because they are safer-than equities.
 
Or, put another way, when there is a dearth of private sector investment opportunities, government borrowing does not "crowd out" private sector investment; it adds to it.
The reason that private sector investment is depressed is not fears about the cost or sustainability of the deficit. Do businessmen wake up in the night, thinking, "God, how large the deficit is! I really can't do any business now because of the increase in the deficit"? I do not believe that that is the way in which businessmen think about it. They do not invest because they do not see the orders, not because they think that the deficit is running out of control. It is the same with the commercial banks, which still cannot accurately price their assets. It is because they have troubles with their balance sheets and because businesses cannot see where the orders are coming from that there is too little investing and borrowing going on in the private sector.
This explains-I go to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins-why quantitative easing is not the automatic offset to fiscal tightening that some noble Lords, especially the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, assumed it to be. It is not the printing of money but the spending of money which is important. Quantitative easing, unless it is done in particular ways-that is a subject on its own-is not a guarantee of the spending of money. So how does the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, propose to get a monetary policy consistent with a reasonable level of demand through quantitative easing? That was a missing part of an otherwise very interesting speech. In short, contrary to what the deficit vigilantes say, the deficit is the consequence and not the cause of depressed business conditions.
I believe that a Government who had the courage and intelligence to explain all this properly to the public would have a much better chance of calming jittery markets than the grotesque exaggeration of the dangers of debts and deficits which is now going on.
I agree thus far with the noble Lord, Lord Desai. There is not going to be a repeat of the 1929-31 depression. We have done enough to cut off the slide. There is an anaemic recovery going on. The UK may grow by 2 per cent this year, though I would be surprised if it did. If we look beyond a single quarter's figures, to the forces of demand in the world, especially as they will be impacted by the rolling out of the cuts in Europe and elsewhere over the next few years, it is hard to see where the sources of robust growth are coming from. In that sense I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Desai, who made a constructive and well-thought-out speech. I agree with him when he argues that the extra cuts this year are too slight to have any really depressive macro-economic consequences.
The point is that the Government have said that they are deliberately going to take £100 billion of spending out of the economy over the next four or five years, and it is the effect of that determination to do that on business confidence which seems the relevant factor, not the very small amount of cuts that are going to take place this year.
So what would my alternative policy be? One confidence-boosting policy would be for the Government to cut taxes by the same amount as they cut their own spending. This would imply a reduction of taxes by about £100 billion over five years. There is a nod to tax cutting in the Budget in the proposals to reduce corporation tax, but the net effect of the tax policies is to raise taxes and therefore will be deflationary. Also, the effect of tax cutting on demand is subject to quite large uncertainties: how much will be saved, how much will be spent and so on. A far better way would be to offset any cuts in current spending by an increase and acceleration in capital spending. A recession is an ideal time to bring a country up to date, since labour and capital will be cheaper than in boom times.
The £38 billion high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham and beyond, unveiled in March by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, who I see is in his place, is a perfect example of such a programme, as is the smaller railway electrification programme announced at the same time. This is not all shovel-ready stuff, but a determined Government could get the high-speed scheme going long before the business-as-usual start planned for 2017. It would set up an immediate demand on the construction industries while also offering long-run returns. Former Chancellor Alistair Darling's scheme for a green investment bank to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency, is another example. Industry experts predict that up to £37.5 billion will be needed each year for the next 10 years to upgrade or replace our old power plants.
These are examples to develop the capital of this country for its long-term benefit which should certainly be part of any fiscal plan for both the immediate and the medium-term future. Of course it would be better if a large programme of capital spending could be agreed with other governments. But we could still do a lot of it on our own. A Government whose animating spirit was Lloyd George rather than Boy George would ask the public to subscribe to a national recovery loan of £100 billion, to be spent over five years to equip the UK with a modern transport system, an efficient energy system and a modern school system. To advocate capital cutting at a time of recession is the worst remedy that one could possibly have. It is an insane policy and it will not only destroy the coalition, but it will do enormous damage to the country.
 
 
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