LIFE AFTER GROWTH IN PRINT AND PRACTICE
After the weighty material we’ve dealt with in recent discussions, the subject-matter here is the (relatively) lighter matter of Life After Growth. By this I refer both to the book, which has reached a paperback edition, and to the practice of coping with an ex-growth economy.
The latter, whether she knows it or not, is the primary task facing new British premier Theresa May. Though I wish her luck – and she will need it – Mrs May would not have been my first preference. For a start, she opposed Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (EU), which has been supported by modest but decisive majority of voters, and, pretty clearly, by a larger majority within her own party. Second, and more seriously, she is another “moderniser”, seemingly every bit as committed to that cause as outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron.
Back to the future
For those with better things to do than follow British politics, a brief explanation of “modernisers” is in order. With the kind of irony with which politics abounds, “modernisers” are really stuck in a time warp, existing in a 1990s Britain when Tony Blair was popular, and his policies seemed progressive.
Back then, Mr Blair changed his party fundamentally, even renaming it “New” Labour to underline the transformation. Left-wing economic ambitions were ditched in favour of what amounted to an accommodation with neoliberalism, but this was combined with a commitment to social policies traditionally associated with the Left. Government was both centralised and casualised, the latter typified by the term “sofa government”. PR, or “spin”, was elevated to new heights of prominence.
Though the economic policies of “New” Labour were comfortable for the opposition Conservatives, Blair’s social agenda was more challenging. Party opinion divided between those who supported “traditional” Tory values, and a faction, known as “modernisers”, who advocated adopting the Blairite social agenda as well. Theresa May was one of the most prominent “modernisers”, and indeed described her party to its face as “the nasty party”.
The enthronement of David Cameron marked the triumph of this faction, and the accession of Mrs May reinforces the modernisers’ control of the Tory machine. If one single attitude defines the “modernisers”, it is a crusading belief in “equality”, though a cynic might argue that it is an “equality” cleverly defined to exclude equality of wealth and income.
Mrs May has promised to tackle this, and it will be a major achievement if she does.
Essentially, the Conservative “modernisers” decided that, if they couldn’t beat Blairism, they would copy it.
“The future isn’t what it used to be”
Unfortunately, the problem with this combination of economic neoliberalism and social crusading is that it doesn’t work. Of course, the social dimension is a matter of personal opinion, though the rising tide of coercion (including restrictions on free expression) does sit oddly with a so-called “liberal” philosophy.
The economic agenda seemed successful under Blair, but only because his government was presiding over an economic “boom” which amounted to nothing more than the spending of borrowed money. The hollowness of the economy was laid bare in 2008, with massive fiscal deficits, the near-collapse of a bloated banking sector, and a 25% slump in the value of Sterling, to an index weighting of 74.4 at the end of 2008, from 98.3 at the start of the year.
David Cameron, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, steadied the ship, but didn’t – or rather, couldn’t – fix the holes below the water-line.
For a start, Britain remains massively indebted. “Real economy” debt, at £4.65 trillion or 250% of GDP, may not sound too onerous, but this excludes the financial sector, which adds a further 183% to this ratio, establishing the United Kingdom very firmly in the category of “debt-ravaged economies”. Nor is this all – the British government has massive off-balance-sheet “quasi-debts”, with its commitment to government employee pensions alone standing at about 55% of GDP.
More seriously, the British economy remains addicted to debt, with little or no growth remaining once incremental borrowing is stripped out. Nowhere is this more stark than in the current account, where an enormous deficit – a completely unsustainable 6% of GDP – is bridged by a combination of selling assets and borrowing from overseas, currently at a combined annual rate of £100bn, and rising. Though trade remains in deficit, the big change since 2008 has been in the income part of the equation, where outflows of profits and interest now massively exceed the equivalent sums coming in.
A frightening spiral
This, of course, is a circular equation – the more a country borrows, and sells assets, to meet short-term funding shortfalls, the bigger will the net financial outflow become in the future. The British establishment seems not to have noticed this, but what they lack in economic understanding is compensated by a preternatural determination not to upset public opinion – they are not, then, about to tell the voters to start living within their means.
A debt-addicted economy tends to use housing finance (as well as consumer credit) as a conduit for pouring more debt into the economy. This has resulted in bloated property values, which are socially distorting as well as detrimental in the sense that the property sector is a nil-return “capital sink”.
Worse still, speculation has increasingly trumped innovation as the route to individual prosperity. If there is a single measure that government needs to implement without delay, it is to rebalance the equation by taxing all short- and medium-term property gains, and using the proceeds to remove the burden of Business Rates from small enterprises. Needless to say, this is completely outside the realm of practical politics.
Of course, it is perfectly possible for a country to “earn” its way out of such problems, especially when its exchange rate weakens. But Britain has precious little scope for increasing exports, because globally-marketable output (GMO) has fallen steadily, combining shrinkage of manufacturing with the relentless decline in energy production. Energy has been another area of cluelessness on the part of the governing elite, which has done little or nothing to invest effectively in replacement sources of supply. Britain relies on French and Chinese investors to fund its next generation of nuclear power stations, preferring to ear-mark its own resources for schemes like the HS2 rail link, and buying a new nuclear deterrent.
Meanwhile, the use of asset sales and overseas borrowing to bridge a current account deficit requires both that a country is seen as a reliable borrower and that its assets are desirable.
This in turn depends on global confidence in its currency…..
No way out?
Anyway, so much for this intrusion into private grief. With the opposition Labour party divided between Blairites and a resurgent Left, the Conservatives pretty much have the field to themselves. Another pro-EU “moderniser” was exactly what the doctor didn’t order, but Mrs May has the job, and the best that can be done is to wish her luck.
To end on a more – well, relatively more – cheerful note, my publishers have given me a publication date for the paperback version of Life After Growth, which will go on sale on 3rd October. However, they actually expect to have some copies well before that, possibly even before the end of July, which can be pre-ordered here. Though the text itself is unchanged, the paperback includes a new introduction and after-word, reflecting on what has happened since first publication in 2013.
Of course, I hope you will read Life After Growth, if you haven’t already. It might be a good idea for Mrs May and her colleagues to read it, too – but there’s not much chance of that……………