by Michael Roberts
The latest IMF GDP forecasts confirm that the UK economy will be
stagnant this year and in effect is virtually back in a ‘technical
recession’ (see my post, Britain’s technical recession, 25
April 2012). Back in the spring, the IMF thought the UK would grow by
0.8% this year and by 2% in 2013, but the new forecast pencils in growth
of just 0.2% this year and 1.4% in 2013. In its World Economic Outlook last September, the IMF was expecting the UK to grow by 1.1% in 2011. Now we know it grew by only 0.7% in 2011.
The coalition government is at sixes and sevens over what to do about
it. Its Plan A was one of austerity: to cut back the size of the
public sector, save on public spending – and raise taxes on households,
while reducing it for corporations and the rich. This is at a time when
the inequality of incomes has never been so extreme since the 1930s.
Plan A was in order to ‘make space’ for private investment to expand
and eventually take on more labour and drive the economy up. But Plan A
is not working. Business investment is still in a slump, unemployment
is not falling and real wages are still declining despite the recent
slowing in inflation.
The capitalist sector of the economy is failing, while the public
sector, such as it is, is being further curtailed. Why is this? Well,
unlike the US, the British corporate sector has not experienced a rise
in profitability. On the contrary, the rate of profit, as measured by
official sources, is falling and in the case of the manufacturing
sector, is at a very low ebb.
The mass of profit remains some 6% below its peak in 2007.
No wonder business investment is not expanding to ‘take up the slack’. The reason for the poor recovery in UK profits lies with the
‘rentier’ nature of the British economy. So dominant is the financial,
property and ancillary professional services sectors in the economy
that it cannot recover quickly or sufficiently because of the dead
weight of unproductive and fictitious capital built up in the credit
boom that now still crushes the productive sectors. As I have remarked
before, the UK capitalist sector is like a large Switzerland that
supposedly supports the living of a fast-growing population (the latest
census tells us that it has never grown so fast in the last decade), but
cannot do so because of the lack of sufficient value-creating sectors.
The finance sector is really like a large aircraft carrier moored off
the Tower of London, on which workers board every morning and leave
every evening, with the fruits of their work spirited offshore through
foreign transactions, investment and tax havens. It has little or no
connection with any value-added to the rest of Britain, where the
majority live and work. On the contrary, the financial sector, often
claimed by the apologists of capital as a huge contributor to the
economy, has now become a fetter on growth.
The aircraft carrier has turned out to be faulty and rusting. But it
cannot be stripped down and overhauled, as it’s just not ‘fit for
purpose’, to use the modern management jargon. Its captains have turned
out to be incompetent, corrupt, and arrogant overpaid liars. After
Madoff, Stanford, MF Global, the Libor-Barclays/Diamond scandal (‘you
can trust me, I’m a banker’), the JPM derivatives ‘London whale’ debacle
and the recent Peregrine fraud, we now have HSBC hauled before the US
Congress ‘for its pervasive and corrupt culture’ in money laundering drug barons in Mexico and terrorists from Iran!
The pilots for London’s financial navigation (the Bank of England and
the FSA) have been exposed as useless guides/regulators. The chief
pilot, Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, now tells us that
we are “only halfway through” the crisis. His answer: to
inject another £50bn into the banks through so-called quantitative
easing (QE). But the BoE’s monetary policy committee (MPC) voted to
spend another £75bn on government bonds last October and another £50bn
in February, to make a grand total of £325bn since March 2009. And has
it helped the UK economy?
At the same time, austerity (Plan A) is not working even on its own
terms. The UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) reported that
the medium-term outlook for government debt control had deteriorated
since last year. Net public debt would now reach 76.3% of GDP by
2014-15. And yet, the government continues to slash public sector
pensions, housing benefits, tax credits, youth services and benefits and
a host of other welfare measures.
The pension cuts are not often noticed. The OBR reports that the net
present value of future public service pension payments would be £175
billion lower than was reported in 2010. That’s because the government
has changed the inflation index on the value of public sector pensions
from the traditional RPI measure, which includes mortgage costs, to the
lower CPI measure, which does not. And reducing the value of the return
on the fund will cut another £69 billion.
As I have argued in other posts (see my posts on The pensions myth
on 3-4 December 2011), proper pensions for all could be afforded even
if the population is aging, as long as real GDP grows fast enough. Yet
the OBR reckons that UK productivity growth will average just 2.2% a
year, in line with the average rate over the past 50 years. And it could
be even lower in this depression. That’s the real reason why it is
difficult to fund proper pensions. The cruel irony is that public
sector pensions are being cut so much that, even with the prospect of
this slow growth ahead, gross public service pension costs for the
government will fall from 2.2% of GDP in 2016-17 to 1.3% in 2061-62.
This is partly due to the slashing of the public sector workforce.
Because of sharply increased contributions from this depleted workforce,
the net cost will fall from 1.7% of GDP in 2016-17 to 0.9% in 2061-62.
Again the cruel irony is that if no changes were made in public sector
pensions, the net cost to the government would still be less in 50 years
time than now!
So what about Plan B? This is the idea of those opposed to the
austerity plan A of the government. Plan B is usually seen through the
glasses of Keynesian economics. Don’t worry about the size of the
budget deficits or the level of public sector debt, just expand public
spending and the extra income and jobs will be created and multiply into
an economic recovery. Specifically, more public investment in
infrastructure is promoted, using perhaps a state-owned bank for funding
it, perhaps converting the Royal Bank of Scotland. This investment
bank idea is more radical than the opposition Labour leaders propose.
The Labour leaders really advocate little more than ‘less austerity now
for more later’.
To try and steal the thunder, the government itself has just
announced a large infrastructure spending plan for rail transport
electrification across Britain. This would appear to be in
contradiction to its own Plan A that includes particularly slashing
public investment. But then if you look more closely, it is unclear
that this is new public investment at all. Rail contractors will be
funded by higher rail fares (already the highest in Europe) to avoid any
rise in government spending. In addition, the government now says it
will underwrite up to £40bn of investment in infrastructure. The
government will guarantee loans by the private sector to kick-start
schemes which have stalled due to problems raising funds. None of this
is really a capitulation to Plan B.
The real problem with Plan B is that it won’t work either. There is a
confusion about public spending. Most public spending is consumption,
namely spending on welfare benefits and public services like schools,
health etc. Only a very tiny portion of this spending is investment in
things and services – indeed less than 3% of GDP in the UK compared to
13-15% of GDP by the private sector. So investing for growth is still
left to the private sector to do. Even that 3% is mainly money passed
over to private companies. Indeed, much of government spending is now
‘outsourced’ to the private sector.
For example, the disastrous London Olympics security operation went
to G4S rather than have it done directly by the police. G4S is the
biggest security company in the world and has loads of contracts with
the public sector in the UK in prisons, the health service and the
police themselves. The government has reduced direct labour in public
services as part of the ‘neo-liberal’ plan to reduce the size of the
state and to boost profits for the private sector. This has been
dressed up as being ‘more efficient’ than direct labour. But that’s
rubbish. Moreover, the private finance initiative introduced by both
the Conservatives and Labour, where schools, hospitals and prisons are
built with private funds guaranteed by the government, is now estimated
to have cost £25bn more than it would have done if the government had
just issued its own bonds to fund these investments. Then there is the
£1.2bn of public money lost every year because of rail privatisation.
And all this ‘outsourcing’ is only cheaper at the expense of low-paid
workers’ wages, jobs and conditions and effective democratic control
(see Comment by Seamus Milne, The Guardian, 17 July 2012). Graph shows public investment as % of GDP through to 2017.
As a result of this neoliberal agenda, the public sector cannot ‘step
in’ where the private sector won’t because it is now way too small in
an investment sense. To do it would require a massive expansion of
public ownership of and control over banking and what used to be called
“the commanding heights” of the economy.
That exposes the second false assumption of the Keynesians: the idea
of a partnership between public and private sectors, or public spending
‘stimulating’ or pump-priming the private sector. If public investment
is too small or is just filling in the gaps or is just funding private
contractors to make a profit, it won’t deliver. But if it replaces the
private sector, then it threatens the very existence of the capitalist
sector. As Michel Kalecki, the radical Keynesian, put it in his seminal
paper, The Political Aspects of Full Employment, in 1942: “The
economic principles of government intervention require that public
investment should be confined to objects which do not compete with the
equipment of private business (e.g. hospitals, schools, highways).
Otherwise the profitability of private investment might be impaired, and
the positive effect of public investment upon employment offset, by the
negative effect of the decline in private investment.”
Plan A is not working but neither will Plan B. Either public
investment through direct labour must replace the capitalist sector, or
after a very painful and long period of depression, the capitalist
sector will eventually recover on the bodies of old capital and the
living standards of millions. The latest UK data suggest, as Mervyn
King says, that this is still a long way off – a decade of austerity
“The way we do business—our clients’ interests are at the heart
of what we do at all times. We reinforce our business integrity every
day by striving to improve the service that we provide, making
responsible decisions in how we manage the business, and actively
managing the social and environmental impacts of what we do.” Bob Diamond, ex-CEO of Barclays Bank, in the Summer/Fall 2012 edition of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs,
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