Newspaper day. In the Guardian I have a piece that looks at how we should regard any tax cuts that Boris Johnson may announce as part of the forthcoming election. And make no mistake tax cuts are coming (we already know they intend to cut the tax on petrol), because the spending review signalled that the governments rule will change, as Chris Giles discusses in a good article in today’s FT in which I among other economists are quoted. .
In the Guardian piece I argue that tax cuts are a bad idea because in the context of us leaving the EU they will almost certainly produce unsustainable increases in the deficit without much of a compensation in higher output. As I say in the Giles FT article, policies that if unchanged would lead to steady and permanent increases in debt to GDP are not a good idea. That in turn will mean that at some stage either taxes will have to rise or we will be back to austerity.
But why did I also imply that Wednesday’s spending review was to be welcomed? Are not spending increases and tax cuts not two sides of the same fiscal stimulus coin? There is the obvious point that in many areas public spending cuts have gone way too far. But there is a macroeconomic point as well. Spending increases directly raise aggregate demand by the same amount. Things like income tax cuts, particularly if they go to the better off, are largely saved. (A number of around a third is commonly found in empirically studies for the amount actually spent.) So you get less demand stimulus for your money.
According to calculations done in a separate article by the Financial Times, Labour’s likely plans will also raise the ratio of debt to GDP. But if you look beyond the ‘scare’ headline, the reasons are quite different. Labour will still meet its fiscal rule for current spending, but the amount of investment planned could lead to the ‘falling debt to trend GDP’ part of the rule being breached. These calculations need to be taken with a pinch of salt, because they assume the additional investment produces no increase in GDP, and therefore no higher tax take. Even the IFS when they evaluated Labour’s election plans in 2017 allowed additional public investment to boost GDP. Which is just one reason why the FT’s analysis annoyed the large number of economists, including me, who signed this letter published in the FT today.
I didn’t like the FT write up for another reason. It seemed to be designed simply to be one more fiscal scare story. If I had been writing this I would have asked whether, if the policy did in fact break the debt to trend GDP part of the rule because of more public investment, that part of the rule made sense. A company increasing investment would happily increase its debt to sales ratio if it did a lot of investment, as would an individual increase their debt to income ratio when buying a house. Perhaps that part of Labour’s fiscal rule is a hangover from the days when mediamacro thought government borrowing was a bad thing, even when it was additional investment?
That is the key difference between Labour and the Conservative policies. If the debt to GDP ratio rises because of supposedly permanent tax cuts, that leads to steadily increasing debt to GDP and so cannot be sustained. Running public investment at high levels because you are restoring the public capital stock and as part of a Green New Deal may be prolonged but it is not permanent, and temporary increases in debt to GDP to finance investment make sense.