Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Osborne’s emergency budget accepts Labour’s larger state

The Conservative-Lib Dem emergency budget, presented yesterday by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, was meant to fix the fiscal nightmare created by Gordon Brown’s decade or so of profligacy. The man who borrowed and spent up large in the boom years, increasing public debt year on year, and then suddenly switched to a half-baked version of Keynesianism (whereby he does the same in the bad years, ignoring that Keynes did say that in boom years such debts should be paid down).

The fiscal position Britain is in is stark. It is NOT because of the government bailing out banks. By 2016 the UK public debt will be £1.3 trillion, that is even WITH the cuts in spending and increases in taxes from the emergency budget, being over 70% of GDP (and that does not include PFI and pension obligations which are not counted as debt). What Osborne has done is effectively halve the deficit – deficit being overspending – by 2015. He is making the problem grow at half the speed of Gordon Brown before the UK reaches a theoretical balanced budget by 2016.

How is he doing it? Well if you listen to some it sounds like he’s been tough on spending. He hasn’t. 23% of the reduction is by pilfering even more from British taxpayers than before. In other words, the Con-Dem administration is ACCEPTING that Gordon Brown was right to spend more. The argument is a matter of degree. As much as George Osborne is cutting spending, he isn’t cutting it back to remain within the relatively high tax envelope Britain has, he is raising taxes as well.

Most stark is that VAT is being increased from 17.5% to 20%. A significant hike which will choke off retail spending and hurt almost everyone. Perhaps it is the price for the inane British worship of the NHS, but it isn’t presented as that. A Bank Levy is being introduced, punishing all banks for the foolishness of some. Capital Gains Tax is increased as well. He is even investigating a “Financial Activities Tax” (or a tax to chase finance out of the UK to Switzerland). Hopefully that will go nowhere.

There is some modest good news on tax.

Some tax thresholds change, which lowers taxes on some smaller businesses and those on the lowest incomes. Company tax is being dropped by 1% a year every year for four years to reduce it to 24%. That in itself will be positive for business growth in the UK. Small companies will only pay 20%. A stark contrast to some! A proposed tax on phone lines is to go. Fuel, tobacco and alcohol taxes have not been increased. The minimum income threshold for income tax is being increased slightly. However, of course none of this offsets the hit on VAT.

On spending the picture is very mixed as well.

He announced an average of 20% spending cuts across departments (excluding health and overseas aid), which will be detailed later in the year. How that might affect core spending such as defence, justice and police will be curious, but the devil will be in the detail. Sadly he hasn’t simply decided to abolish departments to make that easier.

Public sector pay is frozen for two years, when it should be frozen until there is a surplus. Quite what business would increase pay when it is bleeding red ink (especially for people often unemployable elsewhere) is beyond me. Those earning less than £18,000 wont be subject to the pay freeze, but are all getting flat pay increases – regardless of performance (and Labour say the Tories hate the poor?).

The retirement age is to be raised to 66, but pensions have become another huge bribe. Future state pension increases will be linked to earnings, not inflation, producing a huge demographic based fiscal nightmare for the medium term. Nobody is telling pensioners they don’t get back what they put in, but what their children and grandchildren will be paying in taxes.

As welfare spending increased 45% in ten years, that had to be tackled too. Benefits are only to be increased according to consumer prices, not retail prices (a lower level). A host of tax credits will be wound back. The ridiculous £190 grant to pregnant women (which the last government said was to encourage them to eat healthy, when it typically was used to buy a TV, clothes or any other luxury item) is being abolished. Child benefit is frozen for three years, but absurdly is NOT being taken away from those on middle to higher incomes.

Housing benefit, which costs more than the police and tertiary education combined, is being scaled back by capping the total amount paid. Apparently some families with earnings of over £100,000 have been getting housing benefit legitimately!!

Privatisation is part of the picture too. The sale of the high speed rail line to the Channel Tunnel, the NATS (air traffic control system), the student loan debts and the Tote were announced. None of this is controversial.

Yet so much more could have been done to avoid any tax increases. Simply ensuring all benefits/tax credits were only available to those in the bottom quartile of earnings could have saved billions. There could have been a clear and decisive end to corporate welfare of all kinds. Finally, whilst it would have been politically unpalatable, the greatest gains could have come from raising student fees and charging for basic NHS services (say half the cost of doctor visits).

Yes, the Con-Dem government has avoided the UK facing the kind of run on its currency and public debt that the socialist countries of the Mediterranean are now facing. However, it has retained the dependency mentality of entitlement to benefits because you breed, health care on demand rationed by queuing and enormous bureaucracy and government always “being there” to help individuals, businesses and the like.

Gordon Brown’s big state is still there, most of the cuts are not cuts, but just stalling of the growth of the state. The fact that 23% of the deficit reduction plan comes from increasing taxes should tell you that this is a conservative government with a small “c”, it is not a government of smaller government and free markets.

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