On Lost Decades & Free Lunches
Figures from the ONS today show that between 2005 and 2011, UK disposable income per head dropped from being the 5th highest in the developed world to 12th.
Such figures are part of a larger picture emerging about the recent performance of the UK. In broad strokes the big picture of the UK since 2008 has been of a large fall in output, followed by a long period of stagnation that may finally be giving way to an incredibly weak recovery. We are, by most measures, underperforming both out own historical experience and the experience of other large developed economies.
The consequences of this performance can be seen in both the unprecedented decline in living standards and in the continued existence of a large public deficit.
As TUC research last week showed, using IMF figures the UK is truly set for a lost decade. GDP per capita (in real terms) will be no higher in 2017 than it was in 2008.
The graph below (which rebases 2008 to 100) demonstrates this clearly.
The poor comparative performance of the UK from circa 2010 to 2013 is especially clear – whilst other large economies show signs of recovery, the UK continues to flat line. Even the ‘recovery’ of 2014-2017 forecast by the IMF is relatively weak in comparison to other countries.
It is hard to describe a decade of real growth as anything short of disastrous. And even these numbers provide some false comfort. GDP per capita takes no account of inequality and as work, from amongst others, the Resolution Foundation has shown the picture for those in the middle and below is even more grim. GDP per capita is set to experience a lost decade, but median real wages look set to experience twenty years of virtual stagnation.
Faced with such grim economic prospects, the response of many is to simply shrug their shoulders, announce that there is no alternative and focus on ‘dealing with our debts’.
This is to put the cart before the horse. The lesson of history is not that reducing your deficit boosts your growth, but that increasing your growth reduces your deficit.
Even if you choose to make ‘dealing with the debt’ a priority (and in the current circumstances of a demand constrained, weak economy that is a mistake – as even Rogoff and Reinhart now admit) then there are still options.
Yesterday the TUC and NIESR published an important research paper (commissioned by the TUC and carried out by NIESR) on the macroeconomics of government infrastructure spending.
The report (which can be read in full here) found that infrastructure spending in crisis times can boost growth in the both the short and long run and lower unemployment. This will come as no surprise to many, but perhaps the most interesting finding was that:
While the short-run impact is an increase in the deficit, over the long run there may be a reduction in the debt-GDP ratio.
In other words, spending on infrastructure (assuming some positive external effects and that the economy is depressed – neither of which are heroic assumptions) could easily result in a lower debt/GDP ratio, not a higher one. We get the boost to growth, we get lower unemployment, we get the additional infrastructure and it ultimately pays for itself.
This is a close to a “free lunch” as macroeconomic policy makers will ever get. In the context of an economy ambling through a lost decade it would be madness not to seize this chance.