Vir Cantium

I'm right, you know …

‘Do Nothing’ Should be Osborne’s Plans B to Z

You’re the captain of the super-tanker ‘Tired Metaphor’. You’ve only been there a few hours, taking command with your plan to jettison a modest amount of the unnecessary and badly distributed weight, to allow the vessel to right itself and thus be steered away from the iceberg that those Mediterranean leaky buckets over there have been heading straight for.

But despite having nudged the wheel only minutes ago, you can hear the old captain down in his cabin. He’s been working his way through his drinks cabinet, and is now so blotto that he can’t even see the icebergs anymore and thus thinks there never was any problem, and is saying that you’re doing it wrong anyway because the tanker isn’t turning on a sixpence.

Labour's car scrappage scheme - were you stimulated?

Yes, the Left are whining that the economy isn’t booming yet, and if only George Osborne were to commence another spending splurge – a.k.a. ‘fiscal stimulus*’ everything would be OK. The economy is grinding to a halt and yet Osborne’s doing nothing. After all, the stimulus that Alistair Darling embarked upon was such a success, wasn’t it?

Err, no. Apart from the sickening sight of thousands of perfectly good cars being destroyed as part of the scrappage scheme (a bung for the motor industry dressed up in green clothing to get round EU state aid rules), the extra spending added even more to the public debt total, increased the deficit and yet as soon as the stimulus ended (as it inevitably had to, because there was no money left, remember?) everything drifted back to a near-halt.

This is the fundamental problem with ‘fiscal stimulus’. The ‘multiplier effect’ is a mirage because for every pound spent by the state, a multiple of that pound must first be generated by the private sector. It must be raised through tax, either now or in the future; the latter not only presenting a net drain on the economy, but also adding to upward pressure on interest rates. On top of that, the state pouring money (back) into the economy will be inflationary.

So, the Left seem to think that pushing up taxes, interest rates and inflation is the way to get the economy moving do they? Fiscal ‘stimulus’ may provide some short-term relief, but it doesn’t significantly shorten the time it will take for the economy to recover. The culmination of a twelve month recovery will be two years’ away if we embark on a year of ‘stimulus’.

The problems we have seen in recent years are down to one thing: debt. First, it was business and personal debt – specifically the ‘toxic debt’ – that gave rise to the ‘first’ financial crisis. (And no, its not just ‘the bankers’ to blame: for every irresponsible lender there must, by definition, be an irresponsible borrower.)

The shock of that episode then sent its waves towards the other great indebted institutions: governments.

It is the addiction to debt (and for governments its parents, interventionism and excessive public spending) that is the problem here. Not surprisingly, as with an addict in the early stages of their withdrawal, many people are screaming for more of their drug. Just as with drugs, the comfort that comes with another shot is short term. Just as with an addict, every shot puts off their recovery. “Just one more dose, please”, cry the Left (and, unsurprisingly, some sectors of business), “then we promise we’ll be able to give up”.

George Osborne should stay strong (some would say be stronger and bolder). Do not give in to the debt addicts, you’ll only put off their – and the nation’s – recovery.

Not for the first time, I find myself quoting Reagan: “Don’t just do something, stand there.”

* A caveat for the future: my definition of fiscal stimulus for these purposes is purely one involving increasing public spending: tax cuts are no such thing; they involve leaving money in the economy and thus present a real lasting positive effect.

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