There has been some recent disquiet in the UK about politicians before the election failing to offer voters a clear account of how they would achieve their fiscal plans. The Financial Times has taken the lead, but others have concurred. A point I have stressed is that each party’s aggregate fiscal plans are quite different, even though Labour in particular seems to want to hide this fact. But the complaint I want to focus on in this post is about something different - it is about failing to make it clear how plans will be achieved in terms of detailed policy changes.
While I think journalists and bloggers are right to complain, I think it is even more productive to suggest what can be done about it. Politicians do what they think is most likely to get them votes. In a time of austerity, they have calculated that any bonus they might get by being transparent will be more than offset by votes they will lose from coming clean on specific cuts or tax increases. This is hardly a unique UK phenomenon - the phrase ‘magic asterisk’ comes from the US, and Paul Ryan managed to fool quite a few ‘serious people’ by deploying it before the last US election. If the factors that enter this calculation do not change, neither will the behaviour of politicians.
In 1996 I wrote a paper with the title of this post. It was the first time I proposed setting up an independent fiscal institution, or fiscal council, like the OBR. One of the few examples of such a body at the time came from the Netherlands. Those who complain about lack of transparency on fiscal matters before elections should really examine what happens today in that country. There the Dutch equivalent to the OBR offers to cost the fiscal plans of any opposition party before an election. They take up this offer, because failing to do so would be seen as a clear sign that plans were not credible. The detail that the Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB) go into is extraordinary, as I noted at the beginning of this post: here (pdf) is an example.
So in the Netherlands we have a situation where the fiscal plans of each party before an election are transparent, detailed and independently costed. There is no fiscal fudge. To use a bit of economics jargon, it is a political economy equilibrium which each individual party finds it too costly to depart from. In most other countries we have an alternative equilibrium that involves plenty of fiscal fudge, from which it would be too costly for any individual party to try and break. Is there something peculiar about the Netherlands that means their set-up could not work elsewhere? I have heard excuses along those lines, but none which I find convincing.
So how might we get from where we are now to something like the Dutch example? Well it so happens that in the UK we have a unique opportunity if Labour forms the next government. Ed Balls recently asked the OBR to cost their post election plans, but this would involve an extension of the OBR’s current mandate, and George Osborne did not want that to happen. Of course political advantage was behind both the request and the refusal. However, given the request, if Labour forms all or part of the next government, it will be very difficult for them to reject extending the OBR’s remit in this way. Those who complain about lack of fiscal transparency should help make sure this happens. Of course the details of how the OBR might do this need to be worked out, and it may not be appropriate to do it exactly as they do in the Netherlands. But the UK also has another piece of good fortune on this front: the previous director of the Dutch fiscal council, Coen Teulings, is currently a member of the economics department at Cambridge, so is easily on hand to give advice. We should not miss this opportunity to end fiscal fudge.