Janan Ganesh has an article in the FT today that made me so cross I just have to write about it, even though I should probably let it pass. The theme of the article is how mature the British have been in accepting austerity. To quote: “For countries menaced by the symbiosis of economic suffering and political turmoil, Britain has lessons to impart.”
Of course I see it rather differently. Austerity is either a major technical error, or a political con. According to very conservative estimates from the OBR, it has already cost around 5% of UK GDP. That is a huge amount of money to waste: resources that wanted to be used to produce goods and income that everyone could enjoy, but which have been kept idle as a result of government action. Of course this cost has not been spread evenly, and has been much greater for some.
If this was just my personal view, or the view of a cranky minority, then there is not much more to be said. But instead it is the view you will find in the economic textbooks, and I suspect among the majority of macroeconomists. So given this, the fact that the policy has been accepted with little protest is not something to be commended (unless you are in the business of manipulating opinion), but a major problem. It is a huge failure for good government, and our democratic system. In fact you see similar failings elsewhere. Austerity as a policy has not been seriously challenged in Europe among mainstream parties, and even in the US I think it would be fair to say that views both within the Democratic Party and from the President have been mixed.
So how can Ganesh have completely the opposite view: that the British have shown “impressive calm” in taking their medicine with little protest, and that the lack of any passionate public debate about austerity in the UK is somehow a virtue? I can think of three reasons, none of which is very flattering.
1) That the “elite dialogue” that did take place on austerity is just so much intellectual hand wringing, and that the public know better what the real score is. I might not be surprised if a government politician took that line, but you would expect that a journalist working at the FT, and previously at the Economist, would know better.
2) That his admiration for George Osborne has distorted his view of the real world. Or, to put it slightly more kindly, if you spend your time talking to people who think austerity is inevitable, you begin to believe the propaganda.
3) That he is trying to analyse how the Conservatives have got away with the con of achieving a smaller state by fueling a panic over debt, without of course admitting that that is what he is doing.
Yet whichever of these is the case, the article seems to miss two obvious points. Could it be that the reason there is not a passionate public debate in the UK about austerity is that there is no one to lead that debate? When the political class, of which he is a member, view austerity as inevitable, is it any wonder that the public takes a similar view (particularly when it is dressed up in terms of household economics). He acknowledges that the trade union movement has been vocal about austerity, but does not examine why this voice is largely ignored by the UK media.
There is also no discussion about how popular anger against the impact of austerity may still be there, but that in the absence of any public debate on the policy, it is manifested in other ways. He writes that “Britain remains gloriously free of a serious far right or far left”, which of course is a put down of UKIP. But although Ganesh may not find UKIP serious, Cameron certainly takes UKIP seriously, and has geared his policy on Europe and immigration with them in mind. Perhaps he sees the current obsession in the media (and government) about welfare cheats and benefit tourists as totally unconnected with the unemployment and cuts in living standards that austerity has helped bring about. (For some serious analysis on these issues, see