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Archive for October 10th, 2019

I’m glad that Boris Johnson is Prime Minister for the simple reason that “Brexit” is far and away the most important issue for the United Kingdom.

Whether it’s called a Clean Brexit or Hard Brexit, leaving the European Union is vital. It means escaping the transfer union that inevitably will be imposed as more EU nations suffer Greek-style fiscal chaos. And a real Brexit gives the UK leeway to adopt market-friendly policies that currently are impossible under the dirigiste rules imposed by Brussels.

But just because Johnson appears to be good on Brexit, this doesn’t mean he deserves good grades in other areas. For instance, the UK-based Times reports that the Prime Minister is on a spending spree.

Boris Johnson is planning to spend as much on public services as Jeremy Corbyn promised at the last election and cannot afford the tax cuts he pledged in the Tory leadership campaign, a think tank has warned. The prime minister’s proposed spending spree would mean Sajid Javid, the chancellor, overshooting the government’s borrowing limit by £5 billion in 2020-21, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which said that the government was “adrift without any fiscal anchor”.

Ugh, sounds like he may be the British version of Trump. Or Bush, or Nixon.

In a column for CapX, Ben Ramanauskas warns that more spending is bad policy.

…with Sajid Javid making a raft of spending announcements, it would seem as though the age of austerity really is over. …So it would be useful to look back over the past decade and answer a few questions. Does austerity work? …As explained in the excellent new book Austerity: When it Works and When it Doesn’t  by Alberto Alesina, Carlo Favero, and Francesco Giavazzi, it depends what you mean by austerity. …The authors analyse thousands of fiscal measures adopted by sixteen advanced economies since the late 1970s, and assess the relative effectiveness of tax increases and spending cuts at reducing debt. They show that…spending cuts are much more successful than tax increases at reducing the growth of debt, and can sometimes even result in output gains, such as in the case of expansionary austerity. …Which brings us onto our next question: did the UK actually experience austerity? …the government’s programme was a mild form of austerity. …Then there is the politics of it all. It’s important to remember that fiscal conservatism can be popular with the electorate and it worked well in 2015 and to a lesser extent in 2010. The Conservatives should not expect to win the next election by promising massive increases in public spending.

Moreover, good spending policy facilitates better tax policy.

Or, in this case, the issue is that bad spending policy makes good tax policy far more difficult.

And that isn’t good news since the U.K. needs to improve its tax system, as John Ashmore explains in another CapX article.

…the Tax Foundation…released its annual International Tax Competitiveness Index. The UK came 25th out of 36 major industrialised nations. For a country that aims to have one of the world’s most dynamic economies, that simply will not do. …Conservatives…should produce a comprehensive plan for a simpler, unashamedly pro-growth tax system. And it should be steeped in a political narrative about freedom… Rates are important, but so is overall structure and efficiency. …a more generous set of allowances for investment, coupled with a reform of business rates would be a great place to start. We know the UK has a productivity problem, so it seems perverse that we actively discourages investment. …As for simplicity, …it’s possible to drastically reduce the number of taxes paid by small businesses without having any effect on revenue. Accountants PwC estimate it takes 105 hours for the average UK business to file their taxes… Another area the UK falls down is property taxes, of which Stamp Duty Land Tax is the most egregious example. It’s hard to find anyone who thinks charging a tax on people moving house is a good idea…in the longer term there’s no substitute for good, old-fashioned economic growth – creating the world’s most competitive tax system would be a fine way to help deliver it.

To elaborate, a “more generous set of allowances for investment” is the British way of saying that the tax code should shift from depreciation to expensing, which is very good for growth.

And simplicity is also a good goal (we could use some of that on this side of the Atlantic).

The problem, of course, is that good reforms won’t be easy to achieve if there’s no plan to limit the burden of government spending.

It’s too early to know if Boris Johnson is genuinely weak on fiscal issues. Indeed, friends in the UK have tried to put my mind at ease by asserting that he’s simply throwing around money to facilitate Brexit.

Given the importance of that issue, even I’m willing to forgive a bit of profligacy if that’s the price of escaping the European Union.

But, if that’s the case, Johnson needs to get serious as soon as Brexit is delivered.

Let’s close by looking at recent fiscal history in the UK. Here’s a chart, based on numbers from the IMF, showing the burden of spending relative to economic output.

Margaret Thatcher did a good job, unsurprisingly.

And it’s not a shock to see that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown frittered away that progress.

But what is surprising is to see how David Cameron was very prudent.

Indeed, if you compared spending growth during the Blair-Brown era with spending growth in the Cameron-May era, you can see a huge difference.

Cameron may not have been very good on tax issues, but he definitely complied with fiscal policy’s golden rule for spending.

Let’s hope Boris Johnson is similarly prudent with other people’s money.

P.S. If you want some Brexit-themed humor, click here and here.

P.P.S. If you want some unintentional Brexit-themed humor, check out the IMF’s laughably biased and inaccurate analysis.

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