Animal Spirits, Economic Growth – No UK Will Just Rebalance

All the talk from Britain’s Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, is about rebalancing and getting the country’s public finances in order. All very important, of course, but what remains utterly depressing is the Coalition’s tax position. In an interview today, Alexander confirms that the Treasury is not thinking of reducing taxes on the middle-class and high earners. He says it as unlikely that there will be any tax reductions for the next five years.

Now there is nothing wrong with trying to get to grips with Britain’s £155billion budget deficit — unlike the U.S., Britain is taking decisive action to rein in public expenditure. But retaining the 50p top rate of tax and the higher 20 per cent rate of VAT, which kicks in next January, is going to do little to inspire the animal spirits and will only hold back economic growth — yes, it is the private sector that is going to be the engine to power the U.K. out of the doldrums, if it is allowed.

Politicians just seem intent on making the mistakes that worsened and prolonged the Great Depression back in the 1930s. As Arthur Laffer has noted: “The damage caused by high taxation during the Great Depression is the real lesson we should learn. A government simply cannot tax a country into prosperity.”

And some off-setting expenditure cuts? Don’t build the two new aircraft carriers and forget a Trident replacement!

Two Economists, Two Different Views

Two different economists and two different views are out there in today’s New York Times and Washington Post. Economists disagreeing with each other! Well, that will shock no one, of course. What is more noteworthy is the simplicity of one argument and the sophistication of the other. And the best argument doesn’t come from the Nobel Prize winner.

Paul Krugman’s stance in the NYT is again all about the need for another Fed stimulus. But over at the Post Mohamed El-Erian, the CEO of Pimco, the investment management company, has a far greater grasp, I think, that the crisis we are in is as much a structural one as cyclical.

Nobel Prize winner Krugman places most of the political blame for the non-recovery recovery on Republican obstructionism and Democratic timidity. El-Erian sees the political dimension of the crisis in less partisan terms – the whole political elite is failing to understand what is happening, is his take.

Here’s El-Erian: “What is critical to keep in mind is that this situation is part of a broad, multiyear process driven by national and global realignments. It’s a secular phenomenon that needs to be better understood and navigated — by recognizing its structural dimensions and by urgently broadening the excessively cyclical policy mindsets that abound…

Policymakers must break this active inertia by implementing a structural vision to accompany their current cyclical focus. Measures are needed to address key issues, which include the change in drivers of growth and employment creation; the high risk of skill erosion and lost labor productivity; financial deleveraging in the private sector; debt overhangs; the uncertain regulatory environment; and the unacceptably high risks facing the most vulnerable segments of society.

Specific measures would include pro-growth tax reform, housing finance reform, increased infrastructure investments, greater support for education and research, job retraining programs, removal of outdated interstate competition barriers and stronger social safety nets.”

And Krugman? “The Fed has a number of options. It can buy more long-term and private debt; it can push down long-term interest rates by announcing its intention to keep short-term rates low; it can raise its medium-term target for inflation, making it less attractive for businesses to simply sit on their cash. Nobody can be sure how well these measures would work, but it’s better to try something that might not work than to make excuses while workers suffer.” Although for Krugman a stimulus would be the thing. Damn those Republicans!

El-Erian, it strikes me, is right.

Closing the Gap

Why should the British middle-class instantly reach for their wallets whenever they hear a British politician talk about closing the gap between the rich and the poor? Nick Clegg, the U.K.’s deputy Prime Minister, demonstrated exactly why in London today with his speech on creating a more socially mobile society. The rich quickly morph into the middle class, and so what he really means is closing the gap between the middle-class and the working-class. The real rich, as we all know, will just move overseas, if there is too much redistribution out of their pockets.

Of course, Clegg can’t say that, especially as he is in coalition with the Conservatives, but that is what he means.

I am all for greater social mobility – that is one of the driving reasons I, British-born, embraced the United States – but “wealth” redistribution is not the way to do it, or shouldn’t be the main driving force. Britain has been trying that since the Welfare State was established in the wake of the Second World War and as studies have shown it hasn’t been so successful. The increased redistribution primarily from the middle-class to the working-class and tremendous subsidies to geographically poorer areas of the UK under the Brown government failed dramatically to close the gaps dividing north from south or the one separating the middle-class from the working-class.

The review the Coalition government is undertaking now of the universal benefits system is a good thing – the well off surely should not be receiving subsidies in the form of child credits and heating allowances they don’t need. But how much is going to get taken from the middle-class at the same time as they are facing higher taxes before they decide either that they have had enough of the Coalition government or decide to trigger a 1970s-style brain drain?

Social mobility comes with providing fine schools, access to excellent higher education and the economic, commercial and regulatory circumstances that encourage entrepreneurialism, wealth creation and prosperity. And as history has shown, countries that declare war on their middle-class tend not to do so well when it comes to economic growth.

Arguably, Margaret Thatcher did more than Brown or Blair for social mobility and encouraging working-class aspirations. She did it by allowing council houses to be bought by their occupants at below market value – a policy fought tooth-and-nail by the left and center-left in British politics. She did it by welcoming success, encouraging entrepreneurism, keeping taxes low, reducing public expenditure and ceasing the British industrial habit of propping up lamb-ducks. She was also more heavy-handed with high-blown, snooty and traditional institutions than many Labour ministers were before her and have been since. And aspiring working-class voters loved her for it – that’s why she was re-elected.

Obviously, it was good to hear Clegg saying that the Coalition government aims to assist social mobility by improving people’s lives rather than by providing hand-outs, but sadly missing from the Clegg speech was anything about lower taxes — just more stuff about “fairer taxes”, in short more taxes on the middle class.

And this on the day when an excellent economist, Danny Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, urged the Coalition government to cut taxes or face another recession.

Britain Heading for a Double-Dip Recession

According to the splash in The Times today, both of Britain’s main parties — Labour and the Conservatives — are planning after the spring general election to raise sales tax from 17.5 percent to 20 percent, part of the desperate effort to start putting the country’s books in order.  And what will be the effect? Almost certainly to put the country into a double-dip recession.

Both parties are also talking about hiking income tax. January has seen a retail collapse — Britons just are not buying. And with a jump in VAT, retailers will have an even more torrid time. They are facing already in the spring a jump in business rates.

As I blogged back in September, both of the UK’s main parties seem oblivious to one of the key lessons of the Great Depression: federal and state tax hikes and currency devaluation prolonged the depression and pushed the US back into a second slump in 1937.

Taxes and Devaluation Prolonged the Great Depression

Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic should take a long hard look at an op-ed by Arthur Laffer in today’s Wall Street Journal. Laffer plots the consequences of federal and state tax hikes and protectionist increases in trade duties in the early 1930s and he takes issue with the current Federal Reserve chairman that the monetary supply was tight. “The strong correlation between soaring unemployment and falling consumer prices in the early 1930s leads Mr. Bernanke to conclude that tight money caused both.” Laffer shows this wasn’t the case: “The 1933-34 devaluation of the dollar caused the money supply to grow by over 60% from April 1933 to March 1937, and over that same period the monetary base grew by over 35% and adjusted reserves grew by about 100%. Monetary policy was about as easy as it could get,” Laffer notes.

Laffer doesn’t blame fed policy on taxes and the money supply for causing the Great Depression — he points the finger at the protectionist Smoot-Hawley tariff of June 1930 as the catalyst that got the whole process going. But he does see tax hikes and loose money supply as worsening the situation and causing the double-dip in the economy in 1937. “Huge federal and state tax increases in 1932 followed the initial decline in the economy thus doubling down on the impact of Smoot-Hawley. There were additional large tax increases in 1936 and 1937 that were the proximate cause of the economy’s relapse in 1937.” In fact, the tax hikes were eye-opening.

“The damage caused by high taxation during the Great Depression is the real lesson we should learn. A government simply cannot tax a country into prosperity. If there were one warning I’d give to all who will listen, it is that U.S. federal and state tax policies are on an economic crash trajectory today just as they were in the 1930s.”

The only way out of the mess in the U.S. and U.K. is for spending cuts but they should targeted away from front-lines services such as schools and hospitals. And in the U.S. government intervention is needed on the health care front to provide affordable health insurance for all and a choice of public and private options. Not only is that a moral necessity but an economic one before the U.S. health system contributes to the bankrupting of America.

Avertising Revenue Slumps for UK Newspapers

New figures out in the UK paint a grim picture for the newspaper sector with press ad spending down 19 percent in 2008. Press ad spending in 2007 saw a slight increase of 4.3 percent. The radio and television sectors also saw falls last year but at least the percentage decreases weren’t in double digits. Despite the economic recession, ad spending on the internet continued to rise.