Friday, 20 May 2011

Where's the Theory?!

Comfortable Illusions.

The lack of a theoretical case for the cuts may be indicative of a new era we're entering, a political age without shame, instead of the old hegemony we find blatant domination. Even the Thatcherites had a combination of monetarism and rational expectations in the early 80s to fall back on, it was this combination which Thatcher used to defend a platform of spending cuts and raising interest rates to reduce the money supply. The theoretical framework, from which an economic platform could be defended, could be embellished with gestures of traditionalism and nationalism. For Keith Joseph there was something about the monetarist project which had the aura of a messianic mission, a belief that it could rejuvenate Great Britain and restore the glory of Empire. There is no such clear zeal in this cabinet for a particular theory or even a school of thought, merely a self-proclaimed pragmatic dedication to the national interest.

Really, the Conservative Party are the embodiment of the class-interests of the rich and the practicality of a policy can be measured by how much it affects the wealthy. Thus, the economic strategy laid out by the artful oik George Osborne has no clear theoretical base or even a loyalty to a specific school of thought. The criticism of the British government has come from the IMF and monetarists like Samuel Brittan. There has yet to emerge a clear economic theory in defence of the cuts, all we have had for years now is fear-mongering about the debt that our grandchildren will inherit. Even Larry Summer, the Ariel Sharon of Higher Education, has described the austerity measures as "oxymoronic". Of course, the Right who support these cuts in Britain will remind us that the Obama administration has recently unveiled plans to cut the US deficit at a rate faster than the British. No mention of the incompetence of Geithner. No mention of the role Geithner played in creating the crisis.

Despite what is claimed in the media there is nothing new about government debt, practically all governments work with debt and the logic is one of "return on investment". The government can borrow money to invest in productive capacity to create jobs and stimulate demand, whereby a recovery may be secured and the tax-revenues can increase. The rate of spending in a recession can be justifiably increased along these lines. Keep in mind that the deficit is not the result of "over-spending" as the Tories claim, in a recession tax-revenues go into sharp decline because of rising unemployment and businesses going bust. As the tax-revenues are in decline then spending, which would normally be sustainable, becomes unsustainable and debt is inevitably increased even if the expenditure is not raised. The narratives that the Right are trying to build around the crisis are counter-historical as well as counter-theoretical. The traditional way the economy recovers from a crisis is through spending and borrowing, not by cutting.

The "debt crisis" that the commentariat and the political class are obsessed with is a complete fiction. The current levels of debt are low by historical standards, just take the high estimated 70% of GDP which government debt adds up to and compare it to the 260% of GDP which debt accounted for in 1945. There are alternatives to cutting to decrease the debt, we can boost economic growth through public spending but there are other options as well. We might consider Greg Philo's proposal to implement a wealth tax on the richest 10% of the British population - who have accumulated £4 trillion in wealth. There is a mythology which has been created in the media over the last couple of years, which pins the blame of the deficit on benefit claimants and immigrants in the usual manner. As a proportion of GDP debt repayments were around 7% in 2010 and in 1997 the repayments were around 9%. New Labour paid a lot of debt back and spending was not "out-of-control" under them.

Spawn of Thatcherism.

The management of a deficit typically takes into account major indicators such as growth, interest rates, exports and so on. So the aim of a zero-deficit by 2015 is either a sign of economic illiteracy or cunning on the part of the oik. It is as if Osborne looked at his calendar, saw when the term will run out so he highlighted the date and now we're on track for General Election 2015. This does not smell at all like pragmatism or even business ontology, it could be that the aim is to push the plans ahead as far as possible - before the economy starts to tank and public opposition becomes insurmountable. We might even see a U-turn as seen under George HW Bush on tax-cuts, when his administration saw that the deficit could not be reduced through tax-cuts for the mega-rich. It cost him his second term, but in the case of the Tories and Lib Dems a sudden change in trajectory would probably prolong their stay in government (depending on the details). But it would only provide another opportunity for market reforms and privatisation.

Paradoxically, the spending cuts have the potential to increase the debt as seen in the late 1970s when some economies initiated sweeping cuts to spending. There are only a handful of cases in which austerity measures have promoted growth. Even with the cuts that smashed the British economy in the early 80s, the recovery had little to do with the cuts and a lot more to do with the supply-side stimulus in the United States and financialisation which regimes in South-East Asia at the centre. For the sake of argument, let's assume that the cuts work out and that the economy recovers fully within the next couple of years. The contraction of the economy might only be avoided in such a scenario if aggregate demand is not decimated. The losses in wages could be supplemented through credit, as seen in previous decades, which would necessitate the rise of debt per household.

So here we are one year into what The Times called the Five Year Plan of the Con-Dem Coalition, only the Murdoch press could imply such a tendency in a majority government of neoliberals - the spawn of Thatcherism. We've just lived through Year One and we have already seen protests against the party-line of "CUTS!" with estimates ranging from 500,000 to 850,000 of those who took to the streets on March 29th to demonstrate against austerity measures. All along there had been talks about cuts across the board and market reforms in the usual areas, with Cameron trying to put a 'moderate' stamp on the Conservatives and then a 'progressive' stamp on the Coalition. So that the reheated slop of Blairism can be smuggled into government via the backdoor. Of course, I use the term Blairism to refer to the reinvention of Thatcherism through the mirage of centre-leftism and quasi-evangelical rhetoric of Tony Blair. Now the Con-Dems have used the claims to leftism by New Labour to grind down what remains of the welfare state.

We have seen the beginning of the spending cuts, a sprinkling of privatisation and market reforms, for example health-care reform is still on the table, though attempts to privatise the forests were stopped and cuts in education have been 'moderated' slightly. We've seen Tories talk with glee at the possibility of cuts that Margaret Thatcher could only dream of and we have seen large-scale activism against the austerity measures. Soon the majority of universities will be charging £9,000 and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has predicted that 200,000 children will be pushed into poverty by the cuts. Ironically the plan to reduce public debt by £43 billion could lead to household debt rising from £1.56 billion to £2.13 billion by 2015. So the Rally Against Debt was actually a Rally For Debt. At this point we have to keep going to force the Coalition into compromise just before the axe can be swung again.

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