There are no easy choices when it comes to reducing the deficit

George Osborne’s statement that senior Liberal Democrats have agreed in principle to a further £10bn of welfare cuts in 2015-16 has prompted a strong reaction from many party members and a TV rebuttal from Nick Clegg.

But the issue is one worth pausing on, for it raises some important questions for Liberal Democrats.

Starting at the beginning, the first question raised is how we wish to close the deficit that will now exist in the first years of the next Parliament following the Chancellor’s decision in last year’s autumn statement to push back the period in which the structural deficit is to be eliminated. That is assuming we do wish to do so.

The options, as ever, are further tax rises or greater public spending cuts. But within these options there are, of course, further choices. If we think that at least a proportion of the deficit in these years should be eliminated through spending cuts this raises the further question of whether the cuts should fall on departmental budgets or on the part of government spending not classed as departmental spending – ie the welfare bill.

There are downsides to each. Cutting departmental spending, particularly after five years of spending reductions, inevitably means cutting jobs in those departments. Making nurses, teachers, prison wardens and police officers redundant is not an attractive proposition, in both social and economic terms

The problems with cutting the welfare bill are equally clear. The majority of those in receipt of welfare are the poorest in society, and again there are clear economic and moral reasons to want to avoid this.

Within welfare spending, though, there are two options that might be more acceptable to Liberal Democrats, but the politics are difficult: cutting universal benefits received by the relatively wealthy and looking at the biggest part of the welfare bill, namely the state pension.

The latter of these looks immediately politically unfeasible, given our long campaigning for (and delivery of) a more generous state pension. The first – cutting universal benefits – is also politically difficult, but it makes economic and moral sense. But cutting these benefits alone wouldn’t plug the gap.

Which leaves tax rises. By 2015 we will have had a VAT rise, a significant rise in capital gains tax, an annual bank levy and various increases to taxes paid by the most wealthy.

Closing the deficit in 2015-16 through tax rises alone would mean another tax rise raising a similar amount to the increase in VAT by 2.5 percentage points. And if, as looks likely, the party wishes to continue to raise the income tax personal allowance to the level of the salary earned by someone being paid the national minimum wage, this means more tax rises elsewhere. Every £100 increase costs half a billion pounds.

And net tax rises, too, hurt the economy.

The bottom line? If we wish to continue to move towards a situation where the government is not spending more money than it raises, there are no easy choices. The welfare bill is the biggest single item of spending by the state; we can leave it untouched, but we shouldn’t pretend it makes those choices any easier.

* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.

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30 Comments

  • Kevin McNamara 9th Oct '12 - 12:15pm

    this does feel distinctly like softening up for another u-turn. in principle, i don’t disagree with you. the point is the leadership has said what they have said about welfare cuts and so much stick to those comments. capitulating to tory pressure after first insisting on these cuts and throwing out a mansion tax would make us look even weaker than we currently do. the tories will blink first on this, undoubtedly.

  • I don’t believe any negotiations on further cuts should be countenanced until the Tories get serious about taxing the rich. No compromises, no promises of additional taxes on a later date after the cuts: we know precisely how flimsy such promises are. Tax the rich (i.e. backtrack on a Mansion or Wealth Tax) or forget it.

  • Geoffrey Payne 9th Oct '12 - 12:25pm

    The reason why deficit reduction is behind schedule is because one of the impacts of the spending cuts is to depress growth. As a result the overall amount spent on benefits goes up and the taxes collected goes down. Cutting benefits is a bad idea, not just for moral reasons, but because people on low incomes spend most of their money and save less of it, and they do so on local goods and services which is good for growth in the economy. George Osborne’s timetable for budget deficit reduction has been self defeating the evidence is there for all to see. And now he wants to claim his pound of flesh from us, we should simply be saying no.

  • We should return to where we should have been in our 2010 negotiations. Fess up to the judgmental mistake our (and the Tory) leadership made. The economy and the people are in no position to weather any major spending cuts at present – we should ensure as Christian says above that a design for the best ways of additional taxes on the better off in society is brought forward, and implemented, and, crucially, we must recognise that the world economy is entering a new paradigm, where we need either a new way of measuring “growth”, or alternatively, a consensus recognition that the era of endless “economic growth” is history. The key word is realism – a return to the status quo ante (before 2008) is not going to happen, and people are just p***ing in the wind if they think it is. It is likely that public, or mutual, spending will be a greater proportion of the whole from now on. Get used to it market fantasists!

  • “Where the Coalition parties can I think agree is on incentivising work and de-incentivising living off benefits. A combination of Ian Duncan Smith reforming welfare and the Lib Dems raising the tax threshold is a strong constructive team.”

    The trouble is – and has always been – that most of the tax cuts that result from raising the tax threshold are going to those on middle incomes.

    You can’t reduce the deficit, give tax cuts to those on middle incomes and protect those on low incomes all at the same time. Something has to give.

  • To be honest, I thought the stance on welfare was no further cuts. This indeed looks very like a willingness to capitulate for the sake of the Coalition rather than doing things that will actually improve the economic situation.
    The point is surely that The Conservatives economic strategy looks increasingly ill judged and that further bad news is expected in December.
    When Osborne’s economic plans were unveiled a lot of traditional economists were pretty clear that they would fail and that the response would an insistence that what is needed is harder cuts. This increasingly looks like an accurate prediction of what is happening. The next prediction is that such policies would further dampen the economy sending it into a triple dip. Of course there is no easy way of cutting the deficit, but there are choices and rights and wrongs, good ideas and bad ones. We keep coming back to this, but the current strategy has never worked anywhere ever, You need growth and stability, not more empty shops .

  • Richard Dean 9th Oct '12 - 1:27pm

    “Kickstarting” is based on the false premise that the economy is in an unstable state, so that a nudge can create a large response. Experience is showing the opposite, which may be why kickstart policies aren’t working.

    No-one seems to be explaining any of the figures. We are simpy being told. Is there anywhere that a member of the public can get the kind of economy information that the decision-makers have, in readily accessible form?

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Oct '12 - 1:46pm

    Yes, we are in a hole, which is why I don’t entirely agree with the line “keep on spending and let the economy grow”.

    The reality is that much of what appeared to be “economic growth” in recent years has turned out to be illusory. The blame falls on Tory policy, whether pushed by the 1979-1997 Tory governments or the 1907-2010 Labour governments. In both these cases there was too much eagerness to look at the surface figures and not to bother thinking about what was happening underneath. Indeed, we are now lumbered with a Conservative government which STILL thinks that way, which STILL thinks anyone making large amounts of cash is some “entrepreneur” who needs cossetting. So we are told that various forms of wealth taxation are “holding back entrepreneurship” with no acknowledgement of how much of what is being taxed is merely passive income from ownership involving no real productivity – the house price rises that have fuelled our economy in recent years have a big Ponzi scheme element. There are also huge amounts of the “finance industry” which involve no real productivity, they are no more than gambling – our country benefits from it only to the extent that the casino is based here.

    So, while in this country we have been pretending to make money through Ponzi scheme and gambling, we’ve let other things slide. We don’t have the social and industrial infrastructure to be able to build up as quickly as we need to do if we are to take the classic Keynesian route.

    That is why our party was quite right to attempt to raise serious discussion of wealth tax to kickstart us out of the hole. Labour’s refusal to go along with this, and instead engage in “cuts are bad, vote for us, er we’ll just wave our hands around when it comes to how we’ll pay for it” marks Labour out as a useless and dishonest party. They are hoping to get back to power purely on a swing, and by a targetted approach to campaigning which is “destroy the LibDems and pick up their votes” rather than by presenting a decent and workable alternative to what the current government is doing.

    As for the Tories, well, they just haven’t got it and never will. Because to “get it” properly would mean having to admit they have gone down fundamentally the wrong path since Margaret Thatcher set us down it – one in which money made by sitting on your behind owning things is to be admired and privileged more than money made by hard work.
    That is what Tories are, as they always have been, the party of the aristocracy, the party of those who live a life of luxury while other labour, and disguise that by mumbo-jumbo to impress the people. The mumbo-jumbo may have changed over the years, the aristocracy may now be the City fatcats rather than the Dukes and Viscounts, but what is happening underneath does not. Through sale of council housing and tell Sid privatisation, they fooled the rest of us into thinking we could be little dukelets as well, making money just by owning. That is why they and their voices in the right-wing media scream like anything at the idea this income should be taxed at least as much as earned income, and raise the usual lines that supporters of the aristocratic principle have used over the ages to defend privilege – that those with it are special sort of noble people who must be left to their lives if luxury, otherwise the sky will fall in.

    It’s all poppycock – those parts of the City high earnings which are not pure Ponzi or just gambling are to a much greater extent than they’d admit fairly routine admin stuff that any reasonably well-trained graduate can do. They get paid huge amounts of money only because their admin tasks are handling huge amounts of money and they take their cut from it.

    To get out of this, we do have to wind things back, and yes that does mean recovering some of the wealth pushed into property and sharing it around more equally. That is why I even started feeling reasonably kindly towards Nick Clegg when he started saying this sort of thing just before conference, though I’m afraid his :”back to the Rose Garden” closing speech, and the disgraceful article written by his outgoing “Director of Strategy” have sent me right back to a Cleggphobic way of thinking.

    Quite right – there are no easy choices, and if we don’t go down the Tory or Labour way (neither of which is at all honest), we have to go down the non-easy way of saying, yes, we must tax things you have got used to not being taxed, it won’t be comfortable for “Middle England”, it does mean things like you don’t get such a huge dollop of inheritance money etc. Well, otherwise, what? More Tory cuts and the economy running down even more as the modern aristocracy tighten their grip? Or more Labour hand-waving, probably to dump us in an even deeper mess, so the Tories get back with a majority in 2020, and God help us when that happens (by then, our country will largely be owned by Qatar etc anyway – renationalised if you like, only we won’t be the nation that owns it).

  • @Geoffrey Payne
    “The reason why deficit reduction is behind schedule is because one of the impacts of the spending cuts is to depress growth”

    No, you’re wrong there. It isn’t. It just simply isn’t. Looking at the most recent growth figures, it is net exports that are knackering economic growth.That and the fact that inflation from high oil, food and other commodity prices plus a high household savings ratio, with consumers starting to pay down the debt mountain accumulated under Labour, have all sucked demand out of the economy. Government cuts are way down the list of reasons why the economy is not growing.

    We have to accept that the economy is deleveraging from private, especially consumer, debt accumulated over years of what was effectively “fake” economic growth and that as a consequence bringing down the government spending deficit will take longer than expected. That, by default, is what is happening anyway as the public finance figures have been consistently worse than expected due to low or absent growth.

    Accepting the premise that there is a “crisis” that requires a general panic and new rounds of cuts and tax rises to meet an arbitrary target is to allow the Tories to railroad us into a political agenda that is all their own. Repairing the UK economy is taking longer than expected because the damage and imbalances are greater than initially thought and the economic environment internationally has been exceptionally hostile in a way never anticipated in 2010.

  • @ Matthew Huntbach

    “Labour’s refusal to go along with this, and instead engage in “cuts are bad, vote for us, er we’ll just wave our hands around when it comes to how we’ll pay for it” marks Labour out as a useless and dishonest party. They are hoping to get back to power purely on a swing, and by a targetted approach to campaigning which is “destroy the LibDems and pick up their votes” rather than by presenting a decent and workable alternative to what the current government is doing.”

    Er, yes. I totally agree with what you are saying. The trouble is, as far as Labour are concerned, it WORKS. Sadly, voters believe them. They’re sitting pretty. So how do we deal with that?

  • “The welfare bill is the biggest single item of spending by the state”

    No it isn’t, nowhere near in fact.
    http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/

    And to be clear “welfare” includes universal family allowance, care homes for the elderly and youngsters and housing benefit (which goes to landlords as we no longer have council houses).
    It is clear the government is talking about unemployment benefit which totals £8b out of the £116b spent on welfare.

  • Except, William Hobhouse, you are on the wrong “narrative”, here. What you are encouraging, with this talk of “incentivising work” and “de-incentivising living off benefits” is the creation of what have been called part time odd jobs, badly paid very temporary, and you are now hearing from the Tories further rubbish about withdrawing people’s employment rights. This is just the wrong economic climate to start this process – all that is happening is people are being sent (further) into poverty. If you want to believe (like the Daily Express) that there are many people “living off benefits” rather than the bare survival that most in this category have, then that’s up to you, but it is not the reality, I am afraid.

  • Bill le Breton 9th Oct '12 - 2:46pm

    As often is the way, Richard helpfully challenges the assumptions of the many, “No-one seems to be explaining any of the figures. We are simply being told. Is there anywhere that a member of the public can get the kind of economy information that the decision-makers have, in readily accessible form?” and

    RC may also be referring to something similar, “Accepting the premise that there is a “crisis” that requires a general panic and new rounds of cuts and tax rises to meet an arbitrary target is to allow the Tories to railroad us into a political agenda that is all their own.”

    First, the aim of the Coalition is specifically to eliminate the structural deficit, not imprecisely to narrow the deficit as Nick’s piece says. But this depends on someone making an estimate of the output gap. That would be the Office for Budget Responsibility – Richard, you may start your search here: http://budgetresponsibility.independent.gov.uk/category/publications/working-papers/

    However, Duncan Weldon, who looks at just this issue here http://touchstoneblog.org.uk/2012/10/the-structural-deficit-is-a-bad-target-for-policymakers/ provides the estimates for the output gap from 12 leading consultancies listed by the Treasury.

    Oxford Economics estimates the output gap 2012 (% of potential GDP) as just over 5%, whereas Fathom Consulting goes for just over 1%. The former would of course require the Coalition to find far fewer cuts than the latter. So it is a vital if varying estimate.

    As I have argued before, we could yet find ourselves in a position similar to that of James Callaghan who pursued cuts which subsequently were found to be unnecessary – when the IMF revised its forecasts.

    On top of which not a single Party leader has yet responded to the Governor of the Bank of England’s invitation that, because of the global situation, the pace of consolidation can be slowed.

    And all this without the option that the Coalition’s Quad could instruct the MPC to change both its target and its performance against that target in such a way that we loosen the ‘tight monetary policy’ that has seen our currency appreciate from its lows by around 20% (not doing much for that export drive).

    So, you have to ask why we should want to accept the Leader’s obsession with the need for ‘drastic austerity’ which he began campaigning for in late 2009, I seem to remember?

    Either he has an agenda, or he knows little about such matters, or both.

  • In determining the path out of the current problems, we shouldn’t over look the small but fundamentally important matter of our energy supply, without which there will be no economic activity worth speaking of.

    Ofgem’s report ( http://www.ofgem.gov.uk/Markets/WhlMkts/monitoring-energy-security/elec-capacity-assessment/Pages/index.aspx ) makes interesting reading …

    Remember the reason we are in a mess about energy supply is that for the last 20 years successive governments have failed to tackle the real challenges facing us; even now the coalition are procrastinating on whether to build new nuclear or not. ..

  • When I was working in the states in the eighties and nineties there was a turnaround specialist who was nicknamed ‘Chainsaw Al’. He typically made widespread cuts, including massive layoffs, in order to streamline operations. By firing thousands of employees at once and closing plants and factories and employing a range of fraudulent accounting practices he temporarily boosted the stock prices of companies in his care, long enough to extract a multi-million dollar pay-off ,before the weakened businesses ultimately went bankrupt.

    The International Monetary Fund has downgraded growth estimates for the UK economy today. The predictions show that the IMF expects the UK economy to shrink by 0.4% this year – downgrading from their previous estimate of 0.2% earlier this year. The report also predicts the economy will only grow by 1.1% next year, painting a picture of slow growth for the foreseeable future, with similar pictures across Europe. The ‘core economies’ of those countries that use the euro, such as Germany and France, will see growth, but this is predicted to be offset by contractions in other euro countries, which will only begin to recover next year.

    We have strayed a long way from the vision outlined in 1944 by Franklin D Roosevelt in his proposed second bill of rights for Americans. FDR said, “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. ”

    “In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all – regardless of station, race, or creed. Among these are:

    Opportunity
     the right to a useful and remunerative job…
     the right to a good education.
     The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies…

    Security
     The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.
     The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.
     The right of every family to a decent home.
     The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.”

    Cutting the UK deficit needs to be delivered in such a way that these economic truths are accepted as self-evident.

    In my opinion, this is best achieved by a series of reforms designed to deliver both social cohesion and economic stability, namely:
    · Short-term Keynesian stimulus in the form of a reinstatement of public capital expenditure on infrastructure investment while continuing to bear down on current spending including housing benefit, social housing rent subsidies and public sector pensions.
    · Citizen’s income to replace the proposed universal credit, child benefit and pensioner’s benefits.
    · Job guarantee program as defined by Beveridge and discussed in earlier article Job guarantees

    In his influential book, ‘Full Employment in a Free Society’, Sir William H. Beveridge called on the government to guarantee full employment, which for him “means having always more vacant jobs than unemployed [people], not slightly fewer jobs. It means that the jobs are at fair wages, of such a kind, and so located that the unemployed [people] can reasonably be expected to take them; it means, by consequence, that the normal lag between loosing a job and finding another will be very short”

    Having 2.6m unemployed in the UK with 1.6m people on JSA is a criminal waste of the UK’s productive talent and capacity. Confronting this perennial dilemma head on can lead ultimately to a deficit reduction program that maintains the vision outlined (but never implemented) by FDR 68 years ago.

  • Bill le Breton 9th Oct '12 - 6:19pm

    Well done Joe – real vision! ‘Yes we can’! ‘And we shall’. Now that should have been the spine of the Leader’s speech.

  • Yellow Bill 9th Oct '12 - 6:49pm

    Before the last election the stance we took was not to cut at too deep a rate.

    Now the Lib Dems support the Tory cuts, saying that it is because we only discovered how bad the economy after taking control of the countrys finances.

    This was refuted by Alistair Campbell last year on Question Time, who said that all the necessary figures were placed in the Commons Library and tellingly, Huhne who was also on the programme did not deny it.

  • Richard Dean 9th Oct '12 - 7:24pm

    Bill – isn’t that Boris’ line?

    Joes – Very noce, but is any of this fessible in the short term? We’ve been trying to achieve these rights for at least 70 years. Citizen’s income, for example, looks like a huge disruption to both the new universal credit system and to pensions, something that is going to worry many people – making it a vote loser – and is certainly not going to happen overnight. What about some immediate measures to solve the immediate problem?

  • Richard,

    Pretty much everything Keynes told us about the economics of a severe recession have played out exactly as he predicted.

    When there is a lack of demand, private investment falls away further depressing demand and investors seek the safety of government bons pushing down yields to very low levels.

    Withdrawal of investment in the public sector has a negative multiplier effect on demand in the economy just as increasing public sector capital expenditure has an expansionary multiplier effect. Current deficit reduction efforts are virtually exclusively focused on the cancellation of planned capital investment programs. This policy is the direct opposite of what Keynes counter-intuitive analysis showed was required to tackle severe recessions when interest rate reductins were no longer effective.

    Reinstating funding for mothballed capital investment programs is an immediate measure that can produce quick results as the construction industry gears up for the expansion in activity.

    Citizens income can be brought about by integrating the tax and benefit systems into a combined negative tax system thereby rendering redundant the entire infrastructure of means testing. Steps to tackle the chronic inequality that has developed in our economy over the past four decades are a boost to consumption and demand in themselves.

    Job guarantee programs have been successfully piloted in other countries. With a significant output gap to close in the UK, it is not unreasonable to expect that a nationwide program can be implemented at no net economic cost to the exchequer.

  • Give incentives to employers for hiring people who are on benefits, and thereby start wiping out the idea that is ok to treat claimants like subhumans.

    Could VAT be tiered, or does that cost to much to arrange? Three tiers of VAT?

    Tax the rich, and if the Conservatives complain expose them as not really wanting to do everything they can to cut the deficit.

    Expose the Labour’s willingness to let the poor suffer now in order to win an election later, especially in Scotland, and Lib Dem/Labour marginals, oh and aim it at the West Country too, it could turn some tactical voters into direct Lib Dem voters.

    Plus, or alternatively, go with everything Matthew Huntbach said.

  • Very good outline by Nick Thornsby, and some well considered comments in thread.
    This morning on BBC breakfast Susana Reid who was interviewing David Cameron, stopped him mid sentence, and asked ” But where is the growth?” There was a silence of about 1.23 seconds that hung in the air like a bad smell, before boy David answered a completely different question to the one Susana, had asked.
    For a while, the deficit didn’t matter. The ‘for a while’ probably amounts to some 40, 50 years or so whilst growth was good. But now that growth is becoming illusory, the deficit that we thought would be repayable from future revenues and growth is proving to be an albatross around our ‘collective’ necks.
    Growth is clearly the key. If growth comes back in good time and good order, then we are saved. If not?
    I have my own view on the likelihood of growth returning soon. But that is not the issue for our immediate dilemma.
    Unless growth returns, there is NO MONEY LEFT.
    Socialists understandably, want to protect the poor by using illusory digital (1),ns and (0)zeros added to an already bloated deficit. The wealthy want to protect their wealth by QE’ing imaginary digital (1),ns and (0),zeros to save their Bonds and Credit Default Swaps. Message to the poor and the wealthy. ~ Without growth, the digital (1),ns and (0),zeros are NOT real.
    Neither the poor nor the wealthy are the enemy. We ARE all in this s**t together. The sooner we all accommodate that fact, the better.

  • Richard Dean 9th Oct '12 - 9:30pm

    The problem with the argument that Keynes knows best is that people know that argument. They’ve already thought about it. The government will be advised by civil servants who will generally be first class in their fields, and by others. It has no electoral advantage that I can see in not using a Keynesian solution if that really would work. So either

    > those decision-takers and advisers are totally closed-minded, or
    > they are profitting from the present situation, or
    > it won’t work because the nature of the crisis is different, or
    > it won’t work because we are in far worse trouble than even the OBR is willing to admit.

    Which of these realities is correct, if any? Starting from this present reality, and not from idealistic long term aims, how do we get out of the hole?

  • Richard.

    I thought the economist Adam Posen, on retiring from the MPC recently, explained the problem quite well:

    “All the things that Keynes told you: that interest rates will stay low when there is a lack of private sector demand, that governments are not going to be held under threat by bond markets when they are just as much worried about growth and they are fearful of what to do with their money. When you withdraw or add fiscal stimulus, it has a multiplier greater than one. All those things were proven to be right by Keynes and by recent experience in the United Kingdom and all those things were proven to be right when I did work on Japan in the 1990s. You know… I do not know why we still debate these things, well people have ideologies.”

  • Richard.
    I think that the situation is worse than anyone will admit and that too many people sitting with t their fingers crossed hoping for a new bubble . Not sure if Keynes is the solution because the infrastructure investment we need is not the kind that will give the economy a quick boost. and a quick boost will simply lead to another collapse. Anyway, there is no point in building houses if no one can really afford to buy or rent them.
    Whatever the solution is,,it isn’t the one we are attempting.. Personally , I would simplify the Tax system by writing “Tax Loopholes are illegal” on a sheet of A 4.

  • Just for the record the ammendment to Danny Alexander’s motion calling for achange of course was defeated. The fiscal pact supported as sacrosanct by five MPs. Chairman Farron described any deviation from what amounts to George Osborne’s course as “crackers”

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Oct '12 - 12:33pm

    Glenn

    Anyway, there is no point in building houses if no one can really afford to buy or rent them.

    There is not some commission which sits and sets house price. If a house has a particular price, that means there IS someone willing and able to pay it. The issue is whether that person is the person who most needs it. What is happening is that money is circulating around those who own houses, and going only to themselves and their close relatives through inheritance. Others are shut out. The housing benefit system combined with the deliberate running down of council housing means there’s easy money to be made by those who already have houses buying up more and renting them out, making big profit courtesy of the tax payer via housing benefit.

    The Tories still label any attack on what’s happening here as an attack on the idea of people owning homes and on families, whereas it is the reverse – it is all about making home ownership affordable for the many and family housing available for those with families, not just those with rich parents. And Labour says nothing to contradict them.

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