Opinion: The Generation Gap

Day 46: Generation GapThe generation gap used to refer to the differing attitudes of young people and their elders to sex, drugs and rock and roll. For young people today, it has come to mean what the American author of the article linked below describes as “the economic hellhole our parents have handed us.”

Earlier this year, Rolling Stone magazine published an article under the title Five economic reforms millennials should be fighting for.

At first sight it appears a youthful utopian dream written in the rhetorical style of a radical revolutionary or ‘Liberal Commie’ as they might say over the pond:

  • Guaranteed Work for Everybody
  • Social Security for All
  • Take Back the Land
  • Make Everything Owned by Everybody
  • A Public Bank in Every State

However, once you get past the fighting words, on closer examination you can discern strands of modern liberal and social democratic thought in the arguments put forward.

Employment support programs. Liberal Democrats are fully behind initiatives to support people into employment with apprenticeship and job support schemes and I would personally support the economist’s proposal, referred to in the article, of running a job guarantee through the non-profit sector.

Nobel laureate Economist Edmund Phelps has consistently advocated this as a better approach than setting minimum wage levels.

Universal basic income or Citizen’s Income has long been a plank of liberal thought and was Liberal Democrat policy until it was controversially dropped at the 1994 conference. The economist, Milton Friedman got close to convincing then US President, Richard Nixon of the merits of introducing a “negative income tax” — that would treat all citizens equally rather than tagging a certain subset to receive help, and would eliminate any incentive to live off of government programs, since they’d be at no risk of losing benefits as people entered employment.

Land Value Tax and Community Land Trusts are inherent policies within the Liberal mainstream. Have you heard of our party anthem ‘The Land’ song?

We missed a trick in the UK in not establishing a sovereign wealth fund for North Sea Oil revenues as Alaska and Norway did. Liberal Democrats are committed to a shift towards wealth taxation. It may also be necessary to start investing part of the current national insurance contributions the government collects to ensure there are sufficient funds available to meet growing state pension commitments going forward – maybe starting by transferring the £375 billion of gilts held by the Bank of England under the quantative easing program to the national insurance fund.

The Bank of England was nationalised in 1945. Liberal Democrats are on board with initiatives to establish local community banking in the UK that partner with local authorities to serve their catchment area and both a national British business bank and green bank have recently been established.

I hope we will get some ‘youth’ input into our Manifesto for the 2015 campaign – if it is radical enough we might even get some free publicity in Rolling Stone magazine.

* Joe Bourke is an accountant and university lecturer, Chair of ALTER, and Chair of Hounslow Liberal Democrats.

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  • Yes – there is some good stuff in this piece by Joe Bourke.

    I do not subscribe to the difference between the generations element. There are Liberals in all generations and then there are Conservatives in all generations who try to convince us that they are really something else.

    The USA context of the original Rolling Stone article provides an interesting contrast for us Europeans. The differing histories and political habits of the two sides of The Atlantic are always notable. For example the USA has two parties that are essentially conservative and then they have the Tea Party as well! But some of the basic ideas in The Rolling Stone article travel well across the Atlantic and of course some of them started here. None of them will please those people who regularly write in LDV and describe themselves as “capitalists”.

  • Gareth Jones 7th Apr '14 - 4:16pm

    @Joe Ah… I was planning to write some articles about this but you beat me to it 🙂 . However, I was going to mention this article that argues the same measures can be seen as “Conservative”:


    Now they are not quite the same (e.g. basic income plus welfare vs basic income replacing welfare) but they can have cross party/ideological boundaries appeal.

    They also, as you point out, fit in to the old Liberal party tradition of promoting Liberty, Property and Security. Property does not automatically mean Houses…


  • “youthful utopian dream” is a very good description of that list.

    “Liberal Democrats are on board with initiatives to establish local community banking in the UK that partner with local authorities to serve their catchment area and both a national British business bank and green bank have recently been established.”

    Hmmm, these aren’t really ‘banks’ but simply given these names to make them sound better for political purposes. Local mutuals are fine but government (of any sort) involved in running market participants would be a terrible idea. We have to be careful to avoid creating a situation where bailing out reckless behaviour becomes politically necessary or government harming market participants to protect organisations they would otherwise have to bailout.

    We need to support the market provide for the public with a mix such as mutual or co-ops or charitable activity, without state running participants with all the capture risks that result.

    “support people into employment with apprenticeship”

    A much more useful system than any guarantee scheme.

    “Liberal Democrats are committed to a shift towards wealth taxation”

    Are they? Very sad if so as it is a terrible idea (rather like the “Mansion Tax”). Much better to go back to the plans for a proper Land Value Tax which is much less distortionary.

  • Matt (Bristol) 7th Apr '14 - 4:48pm

    In the UK, access to land for urban citizens could, for eg, mean defending allotments against council sell-offs…

    Jesse Collings, (either of) your party(/ies) needs you now.

  • Psi,

    “We need to support the market provide for the public with a mix such as mutual or co-ops or charitable activity, without state running participants with all the capture risks that result.”

    While the free market remains the primary means of determining the effective distribution of resources. there are key areas (defence, health, education, transport networks and other natural monopolies in which the free market will not be effective.State intervention is warranted to correct free market failures – whether that be in the area of redistribution or the provision of essential basic services.

    This is evident in the welfare state and taxation policy and the mix of private and public service provision in both housing and transport. The vertical integration of private utility companies has presented the regulator, Ofgem, with a problem in untangling the costs of power generation from distribution. The lack of investment in new capacity represents a serious threat to the energy security of the country. Following on from the announcement that Chinese and French state owned companies will be building a new nuclear reactor at Hinkley on the basis of a UK government guaranteed return on investment, it seems that the Russians might now be getting in on the act as well, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/mar/11/russian-nuclear-firm-build-power-station-uk. Guaranteed returns are not the operation of a free market, it is ceding control of our energy security to foreign states.

    The problem of ‘too big to fail banks’ has not gone away and with government programs like ‘help to buy’ we risk inflating another bubble to be followed by a housing crash and banking crisis with the taxpayer on the hook for the state guarantees we have given.

    If I had to come up with a politically feasible five point program for a stronger economy and fairer society that addressed the concerns of the younger generation – I would advocate something along the lines of the following:

    1. Full employment – expansion of apprenticeships, skills development and short-term job guarantees for long-term unemployed.
    2. Welfare reform –replacement of means tested universal credit with universal basic income.
    3. Housing – provision of one million homes (private and public) over five years and reform of council tax bands.
    4. Transport and Energy – Return of natural monopolies (rail network and domestic power generation) to the public sector.
    5. Banking reform – nationalisation of Natwest network as public bank and regulatory reform of ‘too big to fail’ commercial banks, concentrating on maintenance of adequate capital ratios.

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Apr '14 - 6:07pm

    This sounds too utopian and authoritarian for my liking. I think the Lib Dems should keep things simple – protect property rights, decent levels of taxation and public services, light regulation, except for things like the environment and animal rights.

    I don’t like this idea that the state needs to be a partner in everything – we want to spend time servicing customers, rather than getting on board with the latest government scheme.


  • Adam Corlett 7th Apr '14 - 6:31pm

    The first few points definitely deserve further consideration (and LVT is a must). But I don’t understand your wealth fund / NICs / QE point.

    You could say that current taxpayers need to pay more in to fund their own pensions etc., so their children don’t have to. But the government is not exactly in a position to redirect existing taxes into a wealth fund or funded pension scheme right now, if that’s what you were suggesting. And I don’t see how moving gilts from one part of government to another helps with anything.

  • Adam,

    I would agree that LVT is a must. The point about pensions and QE is a bit wonkish.

    National insurance is now purely an additional tax and the name has been changed to ‘earnings tax.’. There is no insurance scheme in the accepted sense. Only around one-half of social security and health service costs are financed by national insurance contributions. The link between benefits and contributions has been gradually diminished with the development of income support, pension credit and tax credits. While there is a National Insurance Fund as a notionally separate entity in the government accounts, it only ever contains enough money to pay out benefits for a few weeks or months.

    This contrasts with the US social security fund which is invested in US treasuries and notionally represents the accumulated contributions that workers have made towards the funding of their state retirement pensions. It is a recognition of the contractual liability between the US government and citizens contributing to the fund throughout their working lives.

    In the UK, unfunded state pensions are not recognised in the whole of government accounts as representing a contractual liability that need to be accounted for on an accrual basis, but unfunded public sector pension schemes are so recognised as a contractual liability http://www.iea.org.uk/blog/true-level-of-uk-government-debt-exceeds-%C2%A35-trillion.

    Attempting to place in excess of £1 trillion in gilts onto the private market to establish a ring-fenced public sector pension fund would likely play havoc with the public accounts and UK credit ratings – but transferring £375 billion of existing gilt holdings from one arm of government (BofE) to another (Public sector pension fund) may be a possible step towards making some provision for these future liabilities – without creating such havoc.

    The holding of tradeable gilts in a separate pension fund in place of a notional fund within the government accounts may provide some level of comfort to public sector workers , that their earned pension rights at least are protected in an independently funded account and not subject to withdrawal as the economy cycles through its ups and downs. It may also help demonstrate to future generations of public service workers that they are paying for their own pensions not merely funding current payouts.

  • @Eddie Sammon
    I do not think that “light regulation” works for banking. The market is generally not smart enough to cope with the type of situations which arise infrequently, say every 10 years. That is why I favour a robust system of regulation, including war games, so that the taxpayers do not end up footing the bill for mistakes made by private companies

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Apr '14 - 8:40pm

    Voter, I put much of the banking crisis down to the US federal reserve cutting interest rates, which fuelled the mortgage boom in the first place. Bankers should not get off free, but I think they do take too much blame for what was a huge demand for credit.

    I don’t want to get into a big ideological debate and I respect your opinion, my main point, I suppose, is I think we need to keep things simple. There are quite a few complicated suggestions in the article. I can accept a moderate amount of regulation at best, just not government take-overs of industry. This is often done by stealth and through a drip feed of more and more regulation and a lot of the time includes SMEs too.

  • Eddie Sammon

    “US federal reserve cutting interest rates, which fuelled the mortgage boom in the first place”

    And also US laws designed to increase residential mortgage lending. Initially intended to undo historic government intervention, but then moved in to going beyond that.

  • @Eddie Sammon
    The problem comes when the banking industry is reckless. People naturally expect their accounts to be protected and so the taxpayer pays out. If people want to gamble on the dollar going down by a certain amount, they should do that for themselves in companies which are separate from the banks rather than expecting the taxpayer to cover their losses.

    The head of Lehman Brothers should have known what he was doing was very risky and he deserves the blame for his actions. He does not get to point the finger at the Fed

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Apr '14 - 9:34pm

    Voter, “recklessness” is partly the result of free bank accounts.

    Psi, well said, I was going to mention US mortgage programs, but I didn’t know enough about them.

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Apr '14 - 9:54pm

    To clarify: “recklessness” is partly the result of free bank accounts. I’m not saying greed didn’t also contribute.

  • ” Guaranteed Work for Everybody
    Social Security for All
    Take Back the Land
    Make Everything Owned by Everybody
    A Public Bank in Every State”

    Communism II: The Remake

    “Because it worked so well last time”

  • @ad
    Easy references to communism do not persuade. The employment rate in the US has changed over time. I am not aware that the times where unemployment was less were a disaster.

  • I recommend that people read the article Joe gives a link to by Pavlina R. Tcherneva (Levy Economics Institute of Bard College) about “running a job guarantee through the non-profit sector”. This article is very interesting and states that Modern Monetary Theory recognises “that governments can spend without binding budget constraints”. This is where the government has sovereign control of its currency. It also talks about “quasi-slump” where government no longer tries to achieve full employment but is content with 6.7% unemployment. It talks about “stabilizing employment and income at the bottom” with a Job Guarantee where the government fund it, but the non-profit and social entrepreneurial sectors would run the projects, “that fill some unmet public need.” It was good to read that there would still be a place for public funding of infrastructure and I assume our 300,000 new homes. Pavlina calls it a bottom-up approach and so should appeal to us.

    I would like to understand how a Citizens Income would work. I do remember the Liberal Party had a policy of negative tax for the paying of benefits. However I am concerned that the government should not subsidize employers by paying out benefits to workers.

    Psi – your argument against governments running banks talks of risk. However if the government is always going to bail out a failing bank then it has all of the risk and none of the profit.

  • Almaric,

    I also think the the article by Pavlina R. Tcherneva (Levy Economics Institute of Bard College) about “running a job guarantee through the non-profit sector” is very well argued.

    As regards Citizens Income there is a lot of further detail at the Citizens Income Trust http://www.citizensincome.org/.

    My view of how it might best be introduced is as follows:

    1. Combine basic income tax and national insurance into a flat tax of 32% payable on all sources of income – both earned and unearned.
    2. Allow 32% of £12,500 (approx minimum wage) as tax credit – replacing the personal tax allowance and National Insurance threshold e.g. someone earning 12,500 will pay nil tax, there will be tax payable of £4,000 on earnings of £25,000 and a tax refund of £2000 if your earnings are £6250 – paid via the PAYE system.
    3. All existing benefits (except housing benefit) would be replaced with directly paid tax credit of up to £4000 per year (£2000 for children) i.e. there would be no other form of income/benefit support .
    4. There would be a job guarantee run though the not-for-profit social enterprise sector to anyone unemployed for six months or more or to anyone eligible for housing benefit.
    5. Eligibility for housing benefit would be restricted to pensioners, the disabled and the employed including those employed in the job guarantee scheme.

    Existing pensioner benefits would be consolidated within the citizens income. e.g. a pensioner receiving a flat rate pension of £140 per week would pay tax at 32% or £45 per week – but this would be offset by the tax credit payable to all of £77 per week i.e. the net pension payment would increase to £172 in place of winter fuel payments, free bus passes etc. A pensioner with income of £12,500 would pay no tax or receive any additional benefits. Pension income over £12,500 would be taxed at a marginal rate of 32%.

  • Regarding pensions Adam Corlett (comment 7/4/14 @ 6:31) expresses a common point of view when he says, “You could say that current taxpayers need to pay more in to fund their own pensions etc., so their children don’t have to.”

    The choice of how pensions are funded is actually more of a matter of bookkeeping than anything else. The choice is essentially between fundedand pay-as-you-go. Funded schemes are where contributions are paid into a fund that is then invested in some mix of shares and government bonds to be paid out on retirement; in contrast pay-as-you-go schemes have no identified fund so retirement benefits are paid out from current revenues (usually taxation).

    However you slice it each retiring generation is supported by its children which is why the dependency ratio (retirees + children per worker) matters. The difference is that pay outs by funded schemes derive partly from dividends while pay-as-you-go pensions rely on tax. Both represent a charge on current economic activity so the underlying reality is very similar although the bookkeeping looks very different. The choice between funded and pay-as-you-go approaches therefore comes down to which you think will be most efficient and fairer and here there is, I think, no contest for most people, particularly those who are not wealthy and financially sophisticated (i.e. approximately 99% of everyone). For one thing state pensions have economies of scale that give minimal administration costs while private schemes not only have higher costs because of their lack of scale economies but are incentivised to have higher costs – in other words to cream off some of the huge cash flows as their own profit.

    Naturally, the pension industry and its friends would like us all to believe that funded schemes are somehow more provident or morally superior but their argument is just that of vested interests holding their hand out; don’t be taken in.

  • Malcolm Todd 8th Apr '14 - 5:20pm

    Well said, GF. It’s a source of utter frustration to me that people believe in the nonsense of “saving for your pension” versus “pay as you go”. It is, as you say, mere bookkeeping.

  • GF
    I too am pleased that you have given this concise and clear comment on pensions. There is a lot of self-righteous nonsense written by some people which just reflects the ” public bad / private good” prejudices of the Thatcherites.

  • Eddie Sammon & Psi – Respectfully, you have the reasons for the US banking crisis very wrong although the bankers would love us all to believe that it was the fault of government – a popular neoliberal theme.

    The full story is to long for a comment but remember that the first duty of bankers is to ensure that those they lend money to have the capacity to pay it back. Yet in the years leading up to the crisis homeowners in the US were being sold all sorts of dodgy mortgages including NINJA (=No Income, Job or Assets), Liar (=self-certified income) not to mention very high loan-to-value mortgages.

    So why would bankers do this? The answer is that along with some hedge funds they found a way to make money out of bankruptcy – basically to create assets made from thousands of mortgages bundled together to sell to investors such as pension funds . These investment were bound to fail because the constituent mortgages were of such a low quality – which was a design feature, not an accident. They could then bet against these ‘assets’ in the financial markets (i.e. short them) to get a guaranteed return.

    If you think this is cynical beyond belief and not at all legal you would be right but the banks were able to get away with it because of the regulatory capture not just of regulators like the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) but also of government itself via the dependence of US politicians on campaign finance. No-one important has gone to jail.

  • @ Joe Bourke Thank you for the link to the Citizens Income Trust who set the level at the current benefit rate which for those aged between 25 and 64 is £3,692. Therefore setting it at £4000 would increase the costs. The Trust level would mean no one paying the new 32% tax on an income of £11,537.50 (if they used the tax credit model you are using) which is higher than the current level and next year’s level. There is an issue with the personal income tax allowance that would need addressing before the allowance could be abolished. The trust suggests than both Council Tax Benefit and Housing Benefit not be included because they relate to a home and not to an individual person.

    Your point 5 is particularly problematic. It doesn’t include those who are long term sick which is not classified as being disabled. The unemployed will still need to receive benefits so they can pay their Council Tax, rent or mortgage interest especially as you allow people to be unemployed for 6 months before being forced into the Job Guarantee scheme.

    There are other groups who receive extra benefits now that would still need the extra benefits such as single parents, those who have been classified as being in the work related group and those who are classified as in the support group and those people who receive disability allowance or personal independence payment.

  • GF,

    “The difference is that pay outs by funded schemes derive partly from dividends while pay-as-you-go pensions rely on tax. Both represent a charge on current economic activity so the underlying reality is very similar although the bookkeeping looks very different.”

    I think the word ‘partly’ there is important. If savings represent deferred consumption and this deferred consumption is partly the source of funding for pension payments then it becomes a matter of timing and degree. The deferred economic activity (consumption)of the pensioner’s spending is partly the source of the economic activity (income) of the current working generation.

    Current tax and NI contributions used for pension payments are applied to current consumption. As you say, it may make little difference in real terms either way, except where the dependency ratio (retirees + children per worker) is increasing, as it is. Then the outcome is that higher current contributions of tax and NI are required as time goes by from the working population to maintain the consumption level of retirees.

    While the underlying economic reality remains that both methods involve a similar shift in the distribution of consumption and production between generations, the alternative methods of providing for this shift is worthy of consideration. One (higher taxes or reduced pensions)- this may be politically unpalatable and higher taxes unsustainable. The second, a self-correcting inflationary response to shifts in supply and demand resulting from the drawdown and expenditure of elevated levels of pension savings and corresponding increases in the nominal incomes of the working population providing goods and services – an inflation tax if you like.

  • Almaric,

    the above illustration is based on 32% of the target personal allowance of £12,500. Initially, it would begin at whatever level the personal allowance level had reached at the time.

    The Job guarantee is purely voluntary, not compulsory, and available to those unemployed for six months or more or immediately to anyone qualifying for housing benefit.

    I would consider Long term sick and disabled as in the same category for these purposes and maintain the PIP system. Those in the work related group and those who are classified as in the support group are quite likely suited to job guarantees in the social enterprise and voluntary sector that specifically cater for the employment of this category of the unemployed.

    Single mothers are eligible for both their own and children’s citizens income. They would also be eligible for housing benefit if they engaged in employment – again the social enterprise/voluntary sector is best able to organise the child care facilities that make this a valid proposition for working mums.

  • GF

    Like most people who opt for conspiracy over cock up you are living in a fantasy world.

    You over look the part played in the system played by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that skewed the incentives due to the structure (it was changes to these I referred to above) combined with an over reliance on the available “historic” data which was not really all that historic as it focused so much on the near term and the US market.

    Anyone with even the most basic understanding of economics knows that when the price of credit falls and availability of credit increases asset prices will increase.

    When I initially read you disagreed that you disagreed I thought you were going to try and pitch the argument about eastern capital flows which is only based upon half the story but at least is linked to what happened (it did cause credit to become more available and cheaper but could have been acted against had the monetary authorities been on the ball). Unfortunately you have gone for the “evil hedge fund conspiracy” line which is simply bizarre.


    To clarify it is not all “the fault of government” stupidity in the banks, over optimism on the part of members of the public, ignorance on the part of the media all contributed the government screwed up but they were just one part of a wider cockup. Something to remember for all those who believe the government is the answer to everything. We are all flawed, and government is made up of and delected by us the public who also make cock ups so they are just as likely to get it wrong.

  • PSI/GF

    this economist article gives a decent recounting of the events leading up to the financial crash http://www.economist.com/news/schoolsbrief/21584534-effects-financial-crisis-are-still-being-felt-five-years-article

    It concludes that, while Wall street bears the primary responsibility for the crisis, there is blame to be apportioned to all.

  • Joe Bourke – “Eligibility for housing benefit would be restricted to pensioners, the disabled and the employed including those employed in the job guarantee scheme.”
    This implies that those unemployed can’t receive housing benefit and therefore they can only receive housing benefit if they join the job guarantee scheme and this makes it compulsory in my view.

    “Single mothers are eligible for both their own and children’s Citizens Income. They would also be eligible for housing benefit if they engaged in employment”
    This also implies that single parents who are not in employment would not receive housing benefit. Currently single parents receive more benefit than single people as well as receiving child benefit. With a citizens income child benefit is replaced by the children’s rate for the Citizens Income and so they may still have a cut in benefit for this group.

  • Paul In Twickenham 9th Apr '14 - 8:06am

    @JoeBourke – that article in the Economist is a little too terse. It fails to mention two critical events that both happened in 1999 : the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the role that the Clinton administration played in “encouraging” Fannie to expand mortgage loans to low income households. These were critical factors in subsequent events.

    I think you are all agreeing strongly – GF makes very valid points about the role of the investment banks, and as Psi notes the role of the politicians and (of course) the public themselves cannot be ignored. We’re all culpable for the crash.

  • Almaric,

    the choice of whether to accept an offer of a job guarantee is voluntary – whether an individual is eligible for housing benefit or not. As to eligibility for housing benefit – a requirement to accept an offer of employment at minimum wage, if not engaged elsewhere, seems to me a reasonable compromise that averts the compulsion of workfare or working for benefits.

    Single parents would not require higher benefits if they are engaged in employment – their net income will be increased by virtue of the wages they earn.

  • Joe

    I’m not sure I agree with either your assessment of the crisis regarding the primary responsibility.

    Yes Bankers screwed up in not appropriately modelling risk.

    However you (and also the article) over look the role the legal structure played in creating the situation where Banks could not/did not need to understand what was underlying the risks they were handling.

    Also no consideration was given to the changes in the early 90’s to encourage lending to higher risk properties and individuals. As I understand it this was correcting earlier rules that has resulted in ethnic minority areas struggling to access facilities which were intended for all. So what started out as undoing historic errors then developed momentum as more and more higher risk lending became encouraged. Rather like carrot juice it is initially good for you but if you drink and drink eventually it poison’s you.

    The article contains a few questionable ideas, such as:

    “regulators’ most dramatic error was to let Lehman Brothers go bankrupt” (I believe no one was willing to step in to help Lehman due to lack of assurances from governments not regulators)


    “the regulators made mistakes long before the Lehman bankruptcy, most notably by tolerating global current-account imbalances” (Government responsibility if there ever was, regulators lost all power over this when exchange controls ended)

    The CDO crisis did help pop the bubble in the first place but other factors could and in the heady days before the crisis I remember reading a few possible predictions for how that would happen.

    One of the criticisms of Vince Cable by the more conservative minded include lines such as “he has predicted 13 of the last 5 recessions” which is a stupid observation to make. Vince in pointing out that we are in a bubble (and therefore it will pop and cause a recession at some point) will be true all the way as the bubble inflates until it pops. The fact that the bubble was inflating and could pop at ¼ of the way through is no less true than at ¾ of the way through.

  • Contd.
    The economic cycle will not be conquered the best we can hope for is to have them alleviated by popping bubbles before they become enormous like the build-up in 2007.

    Attributing fault to the build-up of any bubble is silly, it is human nature and humanity’s lack of ability to predict the future.

    Allowing that particular bubble to get so big with so many structural flaws can be done but again if the only outcome is “evil bankers” “stupid governments” type statements it doesn’t really help much at all either.

  • Joe (your comment on 8/4/2014 @ 7:56) – Every generation ought to leave the next generation a full suite of productive assets – not just the obvious things like offices, factories and machine tools but also infrastructure and ‘softer’ ones like education, good health care (a sick population cannot be productive) and institutions that work well and in the public interest. In a real sense this is just enlightened self-interest of course since failure to do so will inevitably result in society becoming poorer and, eventually, to it becoming unable to sustain the level of pension benefits that have been promised.

    As you say this changes to some extent if the dependency ratio changes but it can also change – break down even – for other reasons which brings us right back to the opening paragraph of your post.

    For example, if benefits that were formerly paid out of current revenue are changed into a charge on future generations then there is a one-off benefit to the current generation. An example of this is student loans (and in this context it doesn’t matter if they are loans or tax). I was once the beneficiary of a generous grant system but the current generation, finding itself in a hole, has shuffled that responsibility onto the next. Those who live long enough will eventually reap the whirlwind on this – or at least the reduced pensions that will be all that’s affordable. The house-price Ponzi works in a similar way. Another is the persistent balance of payment deficits we are running since these represent claims that foreigners are accumulating against us – claims that are accumulating and which will eventually come to represent yet another drag on the next generation.

    The odd thing about these and other examples of intergenerational issues is that the Conservatives (who one might suppose would be against this sort of thing) are actually the ones leading the charge – or at least one wing of the Conservative Party is. It was Thatcher that spent the oil windfall, it was Tories that so cut infrastructure spending that Labour after 1997 had to spend years playing catch-up, and now the current bunch of Tories (with some help) are continuing with PFIs, with supercharging house prices and, of course, student loans. Meanwhile investment in productive assets is languishing and the Government’s best idea seems to be to pray it picks up.

    It’s almost as if there are some Tories whose game plan is to loot society for their private enrichment, presumably believing that they personally will be rich enough to outride the inevitable chaos. However, even if so, I don’t think the vast majority of Conservatives would sign up for such a plan if they understood it; they tend to have a strong sense of moral rectitude and want to see their children provided for.

    Whatever the truth here there is surely a strong case for liberals to make on generational equity that will call out some of the abuses and appeal to Conservative voters by pointing out the deficiencies in Tory policy. In fact, if we don’t do this I’m not sure that all those appeals for “fairness” we routinely make have any substance.

  • Psi – There were undoubtedly a lot of cock-ups before the crisis – for instance the repeal of Glass-Steagall could be described as one such. Then there are the ordinary administrative mistake that are never entirely avoidable.

    However, there is a vast amount of evidence that, once the scene was set by various regulatory moves that now look ill-judged in the extreme, outright criminality did indeed flourish in certain quarters and it really doesn’t wash to blame poor modelling or dodgy historical data since the clear evidence points to bad motives. Any mortgage lender that is advancing “liar” loans as they were widely called before the crisis cannot be up to any good. For instance:


    Nor does it work to blame the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) which I suspect is what you are referring to when you mention changes to encourage lending to “higher risk properties and individuals”. It was indeed devised to counter discrimination against ethnic minorities but not high risk ones; it mandates “safe and sound” lending standards so if lenders were making “risky” loans that was their own decision. Also the biggest peddlers of subprime loans were mortgage companies like Ameriqust and Countrywide that were never subject to the CRA.


    So, I think it clear that ‘conspiracy’ is an element of the story though clearly not the only one. Other particularly important elements in my view were the progressive deregulation of finance that, via regulatory capture, likely went far further in practice than anyone intended and the bubble this helped to create. Once a bubble starts inflating people and governments alike tend to loose all sense of perspective as a collective money-madness takes hold.

  • @Paul in Twickenham
    No, we are not all culpable. The banks took on huge risks, ignoring the past. When asked to justify his approach, one banker even said to a UK committee that he just did what the other banks were doing (!)

    Those who do not want to blame the banks cast around for way to exonerate them, like “we are all fallible”.
    This is nonsense. If you drink and drive, and end up killing someone, it is not enough to shrug and say “we are all fallible”. The danger is there and if you ignore it, you set the scene for further loss of life.

    The idea that there is nothing that can be done flies in the face of evidence from the history of the US where major problems in banking were significantly reduced while Glass-Steagall was in place. It is very sad that Vince Cable does not recognise this, apparently rejecting an evidence-based approach.

    Stop listening to the bankers who have a financial incentive to play down the advantages of an alternative system. We do not listen to the tobacco companies when they talk about the safety of smoking

  • Paul In Twickenham 9th Apr '14 - 9:18pm

    @Voter – I am in no way attempting to exonerate the investment banks for their part in the crash and indeed (as Liborgate and the current alarms around HFT have shown) they continue to game the system for their own benefit.

    But the role of government is there for all to see: in the USA it was politicians (after heavy lobbying by Wall Street) who repealed Glass-Steagal. It was the US government that urged Fannie to extend mortgage underwriting to those with bad or non-existent credit, and in the UK it is this government that has kicked Vickers into the long grass.

    And it was ultimately people who bought those products, who stated that they had income that they didn’t have, who wilfully turned a blind eye to the risk that they would not be able to repay once their teaser rates had reset.

    Paul O’Neill famously talked about the collapse of Enron as showing “the genius of capitalism” – which to my mind consists of consuming everything it can until all resources are used up and then engaging in special pleading – and I frequently shake my head in weary sorrow at the blasé complacency displayed by some of the “economic liberals” who contribute on this site, most recently in relation to the new book by Mr. Browne.

    But I cannot accept the idea that only some participants are culpable: to take your analogy, it’s like saying that the people who start smoking today – in spite of the all the information about the risks to health and the significant costs involved – are blameless victims. No, they are active and willing participants and must accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. That doesn’t alter the need for strong regulation by government. But caveat emptor is a powerful principle.

  • @Paul
    The banks want to pass the buck.

    I wrote as I did, in part because Psi wrote “Something to remember for all those who believe the government is the answer to everything.”

    Government is the answer when it enacts the correct policy. I do not think that anyone imagines that incorrect policy is helpful. So Psi seems to be attacking a straw man, the idea that people think that bad government is the answer. Who in this thread has endorsed bad government?

    It is not productive to put the blame on the people. I am only interested in solving the problems. If we just shrug and say “blame the people”, we continue the pattern of failure.

    Sadly there seems to be little interest in solving the banking problems, not even from Vince Cable. I was hoping for a firm commitment from the LibDems but with a year to go before the general election, I have seen nothing

  • @ Joe Bourke “the choice of whether to accept an offer of a job guarantee is voluntary”. If you are forced to do something because of your economic circumstances that is not voluntary.

    However I do like the idea of a job guarantee scheme that is truly voluntary and a Citizens Income that still allows single parents to claim a means tested benefit on top. I would like to see those in employment not receiving housing benefit because housing benefit subsidizes employers and raises rents. This will only be possible if wages rise to cover the cost of housing and increasing the minimum wage will help. As will more companies and organisations paying the Living Wage. Therefore I would see the minimum wage continue if there was a job guarantee scheme and I would hope wages would increase under the pressure from both so a lot of people in work will no longer need housing benefit.

  • Voter

    You appear to have missed my point.

    I did not say people who think that government is “sometimes the answer” I said “always the answer” of course good legal structures and appropriate actions are appropriate.

    My comment was directed at those who always claim government can solve every problem (I’m not just talking about banking here). I include plain packaging of cigarettes, minimum alcohol pricing, internet filters, no banking resolution mechanism before the crash, I could go on. At the end of the day government is constructed of people elected by people so will be fallible, just like normal people. The point is not that people want bad government it is that we have to try and plan for governments to make mistakes.

    As Paul in Twickenham point out Governments designed the structures that the Banks operated within. One of the major problems was the lack of resolution options for banks which resulted in massive bailouts as was the failure to take monetary action against the bubble.

    Also your solution of only blaming bankers (apparently based upon their job not if they actually did anything wrong) is also ludicrous, there are examples of individuals who clearly were in the wrong in their behaviour.

    The general if you are claiming that the rest of us who are not bankers are blameless I would point out that we are the electorate who elected the government who screwed up as well. It is not the same as directly taking action but trying to paint the world as “pure” and “evil” is childish. I wasn’t in any way involved in the crisis but perhaps I should have tried harder to displace a government who were letting the bubble get wildly out of control.


    I was referring to the changes (as I understand it was beyond just the CRA) in the early 90’s that was the “good” change, elimination of historic failings. The later impacts were a combination of factors but primarily a view held that the early 90’s actions were positive (which they were) then ever more of the same would be even better.

    Had the view been that increasing mortgages were good in moderation (as they were addressing historic errors and expanding opportunity to those previously excluded) the explosion in credit in the higher risk sector would have rang alarm bells. In particular with monetary authorities, anyone who claims there is one single law that is the problem doesn’t understand the complexity of life. One change can be positive but others seizing on that positive and extrapolating out can give very poor results.

    I’m afraid that I can’t see your conspiracy though.

  • Amalric

    “This will only be possible if wages rise to cover the cost of housing”

    It is both wages to low but also housing too expensive.

    In reality the housing prices will end up falling in real terms rather than nominal terms to correct the market, but worth watching for in the future when again property prices rise and governments claim it is a good thing.

  • @ Psi – I should have said – this will happen if a mixture of 1) wages rise to cover the cost of housing … and 2) more houses are built than the increase in demand to reduce the cost of houses and the level of rents. Thank you for pointing this out.

  • Psi – The sheer scale of the subprime mortgage business and the fact it comprised many corporate actors interacting, ALL of whom MUST have known that what they were doing, implies conspiracy.

    Consider that mortgage originator companies were selling “Liar” and “NINJA” loans to people who were often from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ with limited financial experience. That predatory marketing of loans and other financial products can happen is a well-established fact from far beyond the subprime debacle. The vendors had to know what they were doing; products were designed in corporate offices that were clearly predatory and bound to fail. Large teams of people were involved in the effort.

    The mortgage originators knew they would not carry the can for the eventual losses because the plan was always to sell them ASAP to big money-centre banks that ‘sliced and diced’ them before on-selling them to investors. The banks concerned MUST have known that losses would be high – they are after all the ‘smartest guys in the room’ – they certainly have bonuses that imply they are! Then some of the ratings agencies rated the toxic garbage produced as top grade investments even though there is ample evidence they knew it was toxic. In one celebrated case a manager with one boasted that “we would rate cows”.

    There is uncontested evidence that in some cases hedge funds went to banks and asked for them to put together particularly toxic bundles of mortgages so that the hedge fund concerned could short them.

    Then when it all started to go wrong it turned out that the complex paper trail for mortgages and the multiple assignments that ‘slicing and dicing’ necessarily involves was deficient meaning in many cases that no-one had clear title to the mortgages or ability to foreclose. A problem? Not really; there is abundant evidence that legal documentation was fabricated on a substantial scale to circumvent the ‘difficulties’.

    All that amounts to a conspiracy between multiple firms and, of course, within those firms. I don’t see any other interpretation.

  • I think the two major contributory causes of the financial crisis that need to be tackled are:

    a) The implicit taxpayer guarantees that give the large banks a competitive advantage via cheaper loan rates and , as the Vickers report concluded, encouraged excessive risk-taking. A recent IMF report on the subsidies still afforded to banks deemed ‘too big to fail’ calculated the value of these subsidies as being worth $300 billion in the euro zone, up to $110 billion on both Britain and Japan and up to $70 billion in America. One way open to the UK to tackle this issue would be the extraction of Natwest from RBS and establishment of a public bank that offered government guaranteed deposits – private accounts at commercial banks would no longer benefit from taxpayer guarantees and would be recognised as the ‘at risk’ investments that they are.

    2) The global issue of trade imbalances was addressed by Keynes at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 when he advocated the creation of the ‘Bancor’ as a supranational currency for the settlement of trade balances between countries and set-up of an international clearing system for managing the build-up of imbalances. Robert Pringle, former editor of ‘The Banker’ is trying to revive Keynes plan with the ‘IKON.’ http://www.themoneytrap.com/. I can’t see the US voluntarily relinquishing the dollar as the International reserve currency, even with the problems associated with the Triffin dilemma. However, with China’s seemingly inexorable rise to the world’s largest economy, this may not remain the sole prerogative of the US.

  • @Psi
    The problem is that you may be attempting the impossible, trying to keep a banking system working when the government itself is undermining it.
    My approach is to try to get proper regulation in place and then get the LibDems to back it, explaining the reasons, thus making it harder to a future reckless government to come to power

  • ” 1) wages rise to cover the cost of housing … and 2) more houses are built than the increase in demand to reduce the cost of houses and the level of rents. ”

    Good points, Almaric.

    I think adopting a macroeconomic policy with full employment as the primary target can go a long way to addressing 1). I would also like to see those in employment not receiving housing benefit. I think job guarantees in low rent areas can facilitate this and significantly reduce the level of payments in higher rent areas. Ultimately, the aim has to be to phase our housing benefit, but that can only happen where there stock of affordable housing to rent has been brought much closer to the demand for lower cost housing.

    On your point “If you are forced to do something because of your economic circumstances that is not voluntary.”. We are all forced to work to support ourselves and our families. If someone is able and is offered a job guarantee at the legally minimum wage, then it is perfectly reasonable to expect that they will engage in work to support themselves – state support cannot be a lifestyle choice.

    If an individual chooses is able to live on Citizens income only for an extended period of time – then so be it – that is a personal choice an individual could make. It does not follow that housing benefit can be claimed as a lifestyle choice. Housing benefit is a state intervention to correct the two market failures that need to be addressed – substantial numbers of people employed on low wages in the economy and lack of housing supply. Phasing out housing benefit over-time that, as you note, subsidizes employers allowing employment at low wages and raises rents by providing an inflated market for scarce rental property, is potentially part of the solution to both these issues

  • Joe Bourke
    You have to bear in mind that the vast majority of people who become unemployed find work within a few months . Most of those people will need support with housing costs during that period. Forcing them into a job guarantee scheme when with a bit of support they could find economically productive jobs commensurate with their skills and experience risks being destructive not only to them but the economy as a whole.

  • @ Joe Bourke – “If someone is able and is offered a job guarantee at the legally minimum wage, then it is perfectly reasonable to expect that they will engage in work to support themselves – state support cannot be a lifestyle choice.”

    This is where we can’t agree. When there was full employment there was no talk of long term unemployment, people seemed to choice to work. I understand that your view is the view of the majority but don’t see this as a liberal position. Housing Benefit should be paid to those who are not working if they need it. When someone is not working they should be paid enough to live on including their housing costs. This was been the position in England since 1601 with the payment of outdoor relief to those who were temporary unemployed. However I go further and believe that it is morally wrong for some people to be without food, heat, lighting, a means to cook and a roof over their heads. I do not believe there are a large number of people who would choose to be unemployed if there was work that would enhance their life. Also if someone was unemployed for 6 months they may still feel they would find work, but the longer they are unemployed I believe the more likely they would take up the job guarantee even if their housing cost were being paid. Paying their housing costs gives the choice to the unemployed person without there being any economic pressure or pressure from a powerful state. Also the organisation managing the work being done under the job guarantee scheme would have to deal with the issues that come with someone who really has no choice but to be there.

    @ Joe Bourke – “Those in the work related group and those who are classified as in the support group are quite likely suited to job guarantees in the social enterprise and voluntary sector that specifically cater for the employment of this category of the unemployed.” I think you do not understand some of the criteria to be in the support group, which include that working would have a substantial risk to their health, as well has having a terminal illness. Therefore most are likely not to be suited to going on the job guarantee scheme, while many of those that are in the work related group may not be ready for any type of work until they have received long term support. The Spartacus report “Beyond the Barriers” states that less than 10% in either group are in work 12 to 18 months after their assessment.

  • Almaric,

    “You have to bear in mind that the vast majority of people who become unemployed find work within a few months . Most of those people will need support with housing costs during that period. Forcing them into a job guarantee scheme when with a bit of support they could find economically productive jobs commensurate with their skills and experience risks being destructive not only to them but the economy as a whole.”

    I don’t think we are going to agree here. There is always going to be frictional or short-term unemployment. Those that are employed and eligible for housing benefit would continue to be eligible for housing benefit support for a period of up to six months. After that time they would need to have returned to work to continue receiving housing benefit.

    Long-term unemployment has remained with us even during economic boom/full employment periods – there were still 1.6m unemployed for much of the period prior to the financial crash.

    After around 6 months of unemployment, people become less attractive to employers as prospective candidates and it Is harder for them to re-enter the workplace – this is where the job guarantee can fill an important gap.

    With respect to those in the work related group and in the support group, I am suggesting that community organisations that specialise in providing the kind of integrated support needed for these groups are best placed to administer appropriately constructed job guarantee scheme that act as a pathway to employment in the private or public sectors,

    We don’t want shanty towns to start appearing in this country as welfare and benefits are cut in the future. In my opinion the best way to avoid that is to recognise that the welfare state was constructed on the assumption of full employment. When the Welfare state was introduced, support for the unemployed was conceived as short-term support rather than a permanent source of income support. It was taken for granted that the state would use its fiscal policy capacity to ensure there were enough jobs available.

    William Beveridge created the welfare state to work as social insurance underpinning a full-employment economy. Fir him “idleness” was an evil every bit as insidious as disease or squalor. Beveridge advocated determined action from government to get communities working. He wanted a responsible government taking determined action to create work, and a responsible workforce too. Benefits were intended to help people who had their earning power interrupted because of illness, industrial injury or the capriciousness of the trade cycle.

    “Unemployment benefit after a certain period.” said Beveridge, should be “conditional upon attendance at a work or training centre”.

  • @ Joe Bourke – Firstly it was AndrewR who wrote what you attributed to me.

    A six month limit on benefit for the unemployed is less than the USA and this should be a concern. The normal definition of long term unemployment is a year or longer. Before 1983 it seems that long term unemployment was not measured in the UK this seems to support my position that with full employment there were no long term unemployed. We haven’t had full employment since the 1960s.

    A job guarantee scheme is not the same as the government pursuing full employment by managing the economy.

    Liberalism is not everything a liberal believed. When Beveridge talked of “idleness” he was talking about men only and didn’t see it as an evil for the rich or women. As liberals we should recognise that people spend little time being idle because they use the time to pursue those things that interest them, which is a good thing. Someone once said that liberals have an optimistic view of human nature and I do (see previous post).

    Your post has convinced me that a job guarantee is not a panacea. The government will still need to manage the economy to achieve full employment as well as set minimum wage levels. Also you seem to admit that this is true when you wrote, “the kind of integrated support needed for these groups”. However this support cannot be provided with a job guarantee scheme, the support for these groups should be based on that outlined in the Spartacus report “Beyond the Barriers”. Also you seem to recognise that some people even when well will need a get some training and therefore hopefully you would support training schemes as an option along with the job guarantee scheme.

  • Almaric,

    there is no need for unemployment benefit at all with a citizens income. You automatically receive ongoing income via tax credits whether employed or not. The six month limit is on continuing eligibility for housing benefit.

    A job guarantee scheme (and indeed the welfare state) can only be effective if the government is pursuing full employment as its primary economic goal.

    I don’t see job guarantees as a panacea by itself and certainly not a replacement for managing the economy in pursuit of full employment. Rather, they are part and parcel of a direct focus on employment as are skills training and apprenticeships.

    Effective employment support can be provided by social enterprise and community groups to the more challenging groups of people. There are several good examples in my local area of these ‘third sector’ organisations doing just that with mentally handicapped and disabled staff as well as those in support groups such as those impaired by long periods of drug or alcohol abuse.

    I would wholly support training schemes as an option along with the job guarantee scheme and would in fact expect it to be the norm within the creation of job guarantee schemes.

    Beveridge’s argument was simple and as applicable today as it was then:

    “Most men who have once gained the habit of work would rather work – in ways to which they are used – than be idle … But getting work … may involve a change of habits, doing something that is unfamiliar or leaving one’s friends or making a painful effort of some other kind. The danger of providing benefits which are both adequate in amount and indefinite in duration, is that men as creatures who adapt themselves to circumstances, may settle down
    to them.”

    It should be possible to make unemployment of any individual for more than 26 weeks continuously a rare thing in an economy geared towards full employment..

    If people who are able to work do not seek employment because they prefer to “use their time to pursue those things that interest them “, that is all well and good, – but they cannot expect to do so at the expense of a society grappling with the increasing demands of an ageing population and other more pressing financial priorities.

  • @ Joe Bourke

    We have been discussing housing benefit as we both accepted this was not covered in the Citizens Income.

    It is good to see that I have misunderstood your position and when you talk of “job guarantee” you don’t mean only a job guarantee, but you include such things that can enhance a person chances of being employed including training which I see as separate from a job creation scheme.

    I wish the government was “pursuing full employment as its primary economic goal” even if we redefined it as 3.5% unemployed! However maybe we can get the Liberal Democrats to have full employment as its primary economic goal and not a balanced budget which is the impression I got from reading the conference motion regarding our manifesto.

    You are quite right to point out that some organisations can provide employment for mentally handicapped and disabled staff and there is one in my local area too. However my point was that lots of people (90%) who receive employment and support allowance will need support before being in a position to carry out any work and I do not see this support as being included in a job guarantee scheme but should be provided in another scheme tailor made for each individual as called for by the Spartacus Foundation.

    Your Beveridge quote is interesting and may well support my position. Most unemployed people have worked and so would “rather work”. Therefore the problem area are those who haven’t worked. Most young people would not need housing benefit and so according to you would not work because the Citizens Income would be “adequate in amount”. Most people would find the Citizens Income inadequate because current benefit levels are worth less in real terms than in 1948 and young people may well feel peer pressure to have more money to do and have what their friends in work do and have and so even with the Citizens Income they will seek employment. Having housing benefit with the Citizens Income is not adequate either, because it is hard to manage on and the longer you are on it the harder it becomes because those things you have put off buying can’t be put off any more and so without limiting the duration of housing benefit there would be economic forces that pushed people into taking a guaranteed job, but they would have more time to get one to suit them.

    I would like to make being unemployed for more than 26 weeks continuously a rare thing as well, but I wouldn’t want to restrict housing benefit on the assumption that no one would be unemployed longer than 26 weeks.

  • Almaric,

    thanks for the link to the Spartacus report ‘Beyond the Barriers’ on ESA and the work program. I find myself in virtual complete agreement with the main conclusion of that report:

    “…the status  quo presents an unforgiving environment for thousands of disabled people across the UK. Backlogs are increasing, assessment  staff are demoralised, jobcentres  are stretched to breaking point and work  providers  are pulling  out of the Work Programme. Yet, for all this, the effect  of reform on overall
    ESA  numbers has been negligible.”

    The purpose of a Citizens income is to remove means testing for the recipients of benefits and/or tax credits/allowances. The disabled and those suffering from long term illness should not be impacted by the linking of job guarantees and other work support programs with eligibility for housing benefit. Their eligibility arises as a result of compelling need.Many of the recommendations in the Spartacus report should be implemented to prevent people unable or unsuitable for job guarantees from losing access to housing benefits.

    Job guarantees are part of a full employment economic policy with the government acting as ’employer of last resort’ simultaneously maintaining the work skills of the working age population and the level of wage driven demand required for business to operate at full capacity in the UK.

    Supporting demand to eliminate the output gap and cyclical deficit is as vital an element of economic policy as is driving forward a major house-building program aimed at correcting the huge imbalance between supply and demand that is pushing residential rents ever higher.

    To drive wages up to and beyond the level of a living wage (such that those capable of employment no longer require housing subsidies), requires the creation of a UK wide economic environment in which technically skilled higher wage work is the main form of employment in the UK – as it was when we had a significant manufacturing base in this country.

    That policy can only realistically be achieved by way of an industrial policy based on devolving power and responsibilities to the UK’s main towns and cities and delivered through a working partnership of local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and our principal universities and university technical colleges.

    The Heseltine report was the blueprint for this policy early in the parliament, but has never received the funding and political support required to kick start the initiative.

    I think the great majority of the one million youth long-term unemployed would happily accept a job guarantee given the opportunity. However, if some choose to live on Citizens income alone – we live in a free country. One of the reasons President Nixon did not accept the negative income tax scheme proposed by Milton Friedman was worry about bad publicity if hippie communes banded together to live solely off the federal government. We have a long tradition in the UK of co-operative societies growing their own food and I see little material difference between these and modern communes – so there should be no such publicity worries here.

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