Sunday, 26 November 2017

24 economists support Old Mac Donald.

24 economists have produced a statement in support of John McDonnell, the shadow finance minister (aka “Chancellor”). I’ve reproduced their letter below, followed by my less than entirely flattering response. Their statement reads:

Andrew Neil of the BBC Politics programme recently challenged the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, on the likely cost in interest payments of additional public borrowing. He suggested that current debt interest payments are estimated at £49 billion, and rising. His use of £49 billion was misleading, as it included £9bn owed by the Treasury to the Bank of England (BoE). Because the Bank is part of the public sector, £9bn is in effect owed by government to itself, as the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) explains.[1] The government’s debt interest payments are therefore £40bn.

But the £40 billion is not meaningful in isolation. It is best understood as a share of the UK’s national income or GDP. This amounts to just 2% of GDP – a historically low share of the national ‘cake’. This is remarkably low, given the costs (debt) incurred by the government to bail out the private financial system after the 2007-9 global financial crisis, and given Britain’s falling wages which reduce government tax revenues. Above all, given the slowest economic recovery on record.

In 1987/88 when Conservative Chancellor Nigel Lawson was stoking an unsustainable boom, debt interest (see the OBR’s databank on public finances here) was at virtually the same level as the OBR estimates it is today - circa £40 billion (in 2016/17 constant prices). When the Tories left office in 1996/7 debt interest payments were again at the same level as estimated today –  £40 billion (also in 2016/17 constant prices).

But there is a stark difference between the period of Lawson’s boom, the Conservative government of 1996/ 1997 and Britain in 2017. Today the nation is struggling to recover from the devastating effects of a global financial crisis, and for ten years has suffered falling wages and incomes, the dismantling and defunding of vital public services and with it, the loss of the’ social wage’. And thanks to austerity, this has been the slowest economic recovery from a slump in history.

Chancellor Nigel Lawson and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were relaxed about spending close to £40bn on debt interest payments at a time of prosperity. Today we face ongoing economic weakness, the rise of populism and the possibility of a major economic shock posed by Brexit in 2019. In these circumstances, neither Labour (nor indeed the current government) should be deterred from borrowing for productive investment, especially at a time when interest rates are historically very low.[2]

Increased public investment in productive activity will expand our nation’s income and with it, government tax revenues.  By so doing public investment will enlarge the economic ‘cake’ and help bring down future debt interest payments as a share of GDP.

My response.

First, the fact that the cost of Mac Donald’s proposals are small compared to the cost of an almighty blunder, i.e. the 2007/8 bank crisis, is not a brilliant argument for those proposals.

Second, the fact that we’ve had the “slowest economic recovery on record” (just like other countries) is not an argument for a large dose of stimulus NOW. The crucial determinant of whether stimulus is justified NOW is what inflation is doing NOW. And in the opinion of the committee charged with looking at that question, the BoE MPC, inflation is sufficiently uppity NOW, that stimulus needs reining in.

Of course the BoE might be wrong, but determining whether IT IS WRONG requires a detailed look at how much inflation is cost push and how much is demand pull, rather than vague statements about the “slowest economic recovery on record”.

Third, this passage is defective:

“In these circumstances, neither Labour (nor indeed the current government) should be deterred from borrowing for productive investment…”. Total confusion of unrelated issues.

Assuming public investment is best funded via borrowing (and that is very debatable for reasons spelled out by Milton Friedman and Warren Mosler), the optimum amount of such borrowing will not be much affected by whether the economy is at capacity or in recession. I.e. sensible investment decisions are taken on the basis that the economy is at an average sort of level, capacity wise. I.e. the argument that “stimulus is needed, so let’s have a big increase in investment spending” makes little sense.

Moreover, sudden changes in investment spending, or any other form of spending, tend to make for inefficiency. Put another way, when stimulus is needed, there is merit in spreading the extra spending as widely as possible over public and/or private sectors.

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