Who will save Britain from its never-ending slump?

The huge hole at the centre of the Autumn Budget goes beyond any of the fiscal measures announced. The substance of the statement made clear that this government’s bold talk about economic renewal does not translate into a serious pro-growth plan that might address the fundamental challenges of low investment and poor productivity.

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How to bring about a high-wage economy

According to some pundits, the empty petrol stations and gaps on supermarket shelves are a forewarning of another ‘winter of discontent’ – a reference to 1978-9, when widespread strike action brought the UK to a standstill.

In the energy crisis, some see a return to the oil crisis of 1973-4, when OPEC imposed an oil embargo on the likes of the UK and the US because of their support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War.

And, as prices rise across the board, there is a great deal of speculation about a return of 1970s-style ‘stagflation’, when economic stagnation co-existed with sharply rising prices, precipitating a cost-of-living crisis.

As evocative as these trips down economic memory lane are, they do not help us understand what is going on today. The general fashion for reaching for old labels, such as new New Deals or new Cold Wars, to describe the present often obscures what is distinctive about the contemporary moment – and this certainly applies to our current economic situation.

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Another crisis wasted

At El Alamein in 1942, British forces secured their first military victory of the Second World War. Winston Churchill assessed that Britain and its allies had ‘perhaps’ just reached the ‘end of the beginning’ of the war. But that didn’t stop him and other Western leaders starting to plan for life after the war. In Britain the government’s Beveridge Report was published in November that year, paving the way to the expanded welfare state that became a hallmark for the postwar domestic settlement. Less than two years later, with Allied armies only weeks into fighting their way across Europe and still heavily engaged in the Asia-Pacific theatre of war, their countries’ representatives convened in New Hampshire’s Bretton Woods. There they charted out what became the postwar international economic and monetary architecture that operated for the ensuing quarter century.

These ambitious initiatives remind us that huge crises, such as our coronavirus pandemic, used to be seized as opportunities to undertake radical longer-term planning. Judging by this week’s UK Budget package, this is not the case anymore. Times like this demand bold economic thinking. Rishi Sunak has squandered that opportunity.

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Beyond the zombie economy

The UK’s productivity problem not only long precedes the Brexit discussions. It also long precedes the 2008 financial crisis. Longer-term studies actually reveal that the decline in productivity growth, not just in Britain but across mature industrialised countries, has been pretty relentless since the 1970s. That its slowdown began so long ago means the problem is deep-seated and therefore justifies a substantial strategic response. This is usually presented as an activist industrial policy.

But the big paradox about industrial policies is the contrast between the extensive cross-party consensus on this issue and the lack of headway in reviving investment and productivity. Read the full article here.

 

No Deal is nothing to fear

Rocketing food prices, medicine shortages, gridlock on Kent’s motorways, administrative and economic chaos… No doubt we’ll hear many more of these scare stories about the potential consequences of Britain leaving the EU without a deal as the Article 50 talks continue to go nowhere fast.

People who are stuck on the status quo and disdainful of democracy are hoping to scare the rest of the population into staying in the European Union. Change, they scold, is too dangerous to countenance because, well, it’s about changing things. As a counterweight against all this hooey, there are three truths we need to set against all the alarmist prophecies.

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