Tag Archives: seeking to mislead

The magic money tree

On Question Time this weekend, Theresa May was confronted by a nurse whose pay has been squeezed under the Coalition and Conservative governments. Her response to the nurse’s complaints was that “there isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want”. Theresa May is of course right. There is, as far as we know, not a magic money tree. However, I fear that as an explanation for why nurses can’t have a pay rise, her statement is lacking.

That is not to say that there is no link between magic money trees and nurses’ pay. If there were indeed a magic money tree, then its harvest could surely be used to pay nurses more[1]. The absence of such a tree is a necessary condition for it being impossible to pay nurses more – but it is not sufficient. The reason for this is that there are types of money that are not magical and do not grow on trees. In failing to address the availability of this more mundane form of money, Theresa May has, not for the first time, not really answered the question.

A more charitable interpretation of Theresa May’s statement is that she is trying to argue that we can’t afford to increase government spending above current levels. Government spending is financed by taxes or debt, which must be repaid from future taxes, so the ability of a government to afford a given level of spending is dependent on its ability to raise taxes. One reason that some developing countries struggle to fund public services such as health care is that they have weak public institutions and so can’t raise taxes very effectively. The UK and most other rich countries are much better at collecting taxes and have larger public sectors. But their scope for public spending is not unlimited, for two reasons: high taxes and a large public sector might have a distortionary effect on the economy, discouraging economic activity and squeezing out the private sector; or democratic processes might limit the size of the state by voting out governments that raise taxes.

This is all very complicated and hotly disputed, but one way to understand whether the UK could conceivable have higher public spending is to look at how we compare to other countries. The chart below (based on OECD data) compares public spending as a share of GDP with GDP per capita, for all OECD countries where data is available[2].

On both measures, we are roughly in the middle. GDP per capita in the UK is about the same as Japan, France and Finland, higher than Spain and Italy, and a fair bit lower than most other Western European countries. Public spending (as a share of GDP) is lower than in most Western European Countries, but higher than Japan, Australia or the US.

It is also fairly clear that, as far as this dataset goes, there is no relationship between the two variables. Sweden, Austria and Denmark have much higher public spending than the UK, but this doesn’t stop them having much higher economic output. On the other hand, Australia and the US manage higher economic output with lower public spending. It seems that (within the range of this chart) pretty much any combination is possible. Of course, this doesn’t prove that higher taxes wouldn’t be bad for the UK economy. Perhaps our economy is so fragile that it would be crippled by any tax rises. But if you are going to argue this you are going to have to convince me that it is impossible for us to achieve what much of the rest of Western Europe can.

The political question is more difficult to analyse. Yes, other countries have larger public sectors, but they also have different political cultures. Perhaps the British are fundamentally different to our European neighbours and would simply not stand for the tax rises that are required to finance better health care and pay rises for nurses. Perhaps we are and will always remain a low tax country.

I don’t have a strong opinion on the optimal size of government, but I do wish we could have an honest debate about it. When someone says “we can’t afford it”, we need to be clear that this is nonsense. What they are really saying is that they do not think that we should raise the taxes required to pay for it. This is a debate that we need to have, but saying “we can’t afford it” is not the way to go about it.

The phrase “magic money tree” is even worse: it is designed to ridicule the suggestion that public spending should be increased. A nurse asking for a pay rise is as stupid as someone who believes that money grows on magical trees. Repeating this phrase whenever anyone suggests spending public money on something is not only nonsensical but frankly offensive.

 


[1] This statement is not the main point of this post and I don’t want to hear from any macro-economists about the inflationary effects of magic money trees.

[2] Excluding Ireland and Luxembourg, whose results are heavily distorted by their role as tax havens.

Advertisements

The UK does not spend a disproportionate amount on benefits

OK, I know I’m a bit late to this party, but even by the standards of government publications, this paragraph from George Osborne’s recent Summer Budget (section 3.4) is a stinker:

However, despite progress during the last Parliament there is still more to do. Taxpayers are still being asked to pay for welfare expenditure that remains disproportionately high. 7% of global expenditure on social protection is spent in the UK, despite the fact that the UK produces 4% of global GDP and has only 1% of the world’s population. As chart 1.14 shows, spending on working-age welfare has increased significantly in real terms over the last few decades. Too many families continue to be trapped on benefits. The Budget sets out the next stage of welfare reform, delivering on the government’s commitment to save £12 billion from the working age welfare bill.

I’m not sure where these figures came from, but there are very plausible. It would in fact be surprising if the UK did not spend a “disproportionate” amount on social protection (broadly speaking, public pensions, social care and benefits) when compared to the whole world. Many people living in developing countries are in desperate need of social protection, either because they are too ill to work, there are no jobs available, or for any number of other reasons. But they don’t have access to it. The governments of these countries may be corrupt and not care about the needs of large proportions of the population, or they may simply lack the infrastructure needed to collect enough taxes to provide meaningful social protection. Western countries are much richer than the world as a whole and have much stronger institutions, so they are able to spend more than the global average on social protection. This is a good thing.

So it is a nonsense to compare the UK to the global average. This is the wrong comparator group and sets a laughably low ambition for what a government can do to enhance the welfare of its citizens. It makes more sense to compare the UK to other OECD countries.

Spending on social protection as a % of GDP in OECD countries

The figures look rather as you would expect. The UK spends a smaller share of its wealth on social protection than almost all other rich European countries. If we are spending a disproportionate amount on this, spare a thought for the poor French! The Summer Budget figures imply that they account for 11% of global social protection spending and only 4% of global GDP.

There is one country that clearly bucks this trend. The US is a very rich country (GDP per capita is nearly 50% higher than in the UK) but it spends relatively little on social protection. However, while the US is a great country that UK would do well to emulate in many areas, it is not a leading light in the field of social protection. To take a random example, women in the US get precisely zero paid maternity leave.

To summarise: the UK does not spend a disproportionate amount on social protection. In fact, we spend less than most comparable countries in Europe. Nonetheless, the US shows that it’s possible to spend a smaller proportion of GDP on these things, but we might have to become 50% richer and cancel maternity leave to achieve it.

Reasonable arguments can be made for reforming parts of our benefits system, but this is one of the weakest and most disingenuous I have seen. While it is careful to stop short of telling an outright, falsifiable lie, its purpose is clear: it is seeking to mislead the reader. Although it removes the risk of that gotcha moment when a full-blown lie is exposed, seeking to mislead is morally equivalent to lying and politicians should be called out for it more often.