A recent speech by Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, sheds a good deal of light on the cost of living crisis and the union-led “Britain Needs a Payrise” campaign. Haldane points out how grim the recent situation has been for real wages in the UK economy:
Growth in real wages has been negative for all bar three of the past 74 months. The cumulative fall in real wages since their pre-recession peak is around 10%. As best we can tell, the length and depth of this fall is unprecedented since at least the mid-1800s.
But is this because employers have suddenly become selfish capitalists, whereas before they were paying workers out of the good of their heart? Or is something else at play?
Productivity – GDP per hour worked – was broadly unchanged in the year to 2014 Q2, leaving it around 15% below its pre-crisis trend level. The level of productivity is no higher than it was six years ago. This is the so-called “productivity puzzle”. Productivity has not flat-lined for that long in any period since the 1880s, other than following demobilisation after the World Wars.
We usually think that wages and productivity will be pretty closely related. Employers are unlikely to consistently pay above productivity, because they’d lose money. But equally, they’ll be unable to consistently pay far below productivity (less the share needed to rent the capital involved) because in a reasonably competitive market firms will compete their workers away with more attractive job offers.
We might think this is particularly true at the low wage end of the market, because much less of low-skilled workers productivity is job specific. An accountant makes a very poor lawyer, and a civil engineer is not qualified to write code, but a worker in McDonalds will be similarly good at Burger King, or for that matter Waterstones, JR Wetherspoon, Lidl or most other relatively low-skilled areas.
So basic economic models suggest pay will track productivity. And what do we see on the macro level?
The deficit in pay tracks the deficit in productivity. Of course, the situation for public sector workers is a bit different—we actually measure their productivity mainly by inputs. If their pay goes up, their measured productivity goes up. It’s hard to see how else we would do it. But the overall picture suggests that the real pay decline is down to a real productivity decline. We haven’t moved away from equal pay for equal work—we’ve just had a big horrible recession and a sluggish recovery!
R&D’s just lovely, it is, after all, how we develop the new technologies that are such an important part of economic growth. But we do hesitate a little bit when people start to say that we should have targets for spending upon something, whether it be R&D, poverty alleviation or education:
A “bold strategy” is needed to remedy weaknesses in Britain’s supply chain, according to the CBI, in a push to create 500,000 new jobs and boost the economy by £30bn.
The CBI feels a long-term target of 3pc of gross domestic product for public and private sector spending on research and development would underpin a turnaround over the next decade.
It’s all a bit never mind the quality, feel the width, isn’t it? For it’s not actually true that devoting more resources to something is desirable: what we want is more output of whatever it is from the resources that we do devote to that thing. We could describe this as being almost Stalinist: don’t worry about how good each car is but just weigh how much steel we put into each one! Or, another way of making the same point is that GDP, the thing we use to measure economic growth, is actually measuring value added in the economy. Except when we come to talking about government of course. There we’ve no idea what the value added is so we just assume that the output is worth the value of the resources devoted to producing it.
That’s not an assumption that holds true in the real world of course: and so it is and would be with R&D spending. How much we spend on it isn’t the interesting or important point: how much cool new stuff and shiny shiny we get from spending on R&D is.
The report shows a lack of investment in research and development, along with a growing skills crisis, has weakened “foundation industries” such as plastics, metals and chemicals.
It is also calling for a change in research tax credits to help innovation and incentives to encourage more graduates to take science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees.
Creating a national materials strategy to protect and enhance critical supply chain sub-sectors and doubling the budget of Innovate UK are among other measures in the CBI programme.
It all does smack rather of that old industrial planning, doesn’t it, where success is measured by resources consumed rather than the value of the output.
Finally, as an aside, encouraging more people to take STEM degrees is very simple indeed. The employers of those who graduate with STEM degrees should increase the wage they pay to those with STEM degrees. Rather than demand that the State subsidise the creation of a willing workforce.
Naomi Klein tells us that the polluter must pay. Something that is both logical and true. Then she tells us that the fossil fuel companies must be made to pay for the damage that they do. Also logical and true:
Up until the early 1980s, that was still a guiding principle of environmental law-making in North America. And the principle hasn’t totally disappeared – it’s the reason why Exxon and BP were forced to pick up large portions of the bills after the Valdez and Deepwater Horizon disasters.
We might quibble about whether the damage was quite what was described or paid for but the basic principle is entirely fair. However, here comes the error:
The astronomical profits these companies and their cohorts continue to earn from digging up and burning fossil fuels cannot continue to haemorrhage into private coffers. They must, instead, be harnessed to help roll out the clean technologies and infrastructure that will allow us to move beyond these dangerous energy sources, as well as to help us adapt to the heavy weather we have already locked in. A minimal carbon tax whose price tag can be passed on to consumers is no substitute for a real polluter-pays framework – not after decades of inaction has made the problem immeasurably worse (inaction secured, in part, by a climate denial movement funded by some of these same corporations).
Assume, for a moment, that CO2 emissions are indeed causing damage. So, who is responsible for those emissions? Who is the polluter here who must pay?
When I drive to the shops it is me making the decision to do so, me making the decision to emit CO2 in gaining my supply of comestibles. I am therefore the polluter. That’s why, if there is to be a tax on polluters it should be upon me, the polluter. Which is the entire point of a carbon tax that can be passed on to the consumers. It is we consumers who are the polluters which is why we should have that tax which falls upon the polluters.
This is the most appalling and most basic error by Klein. We do not consume fossil fuels because Teh Eeevil Corporations force them upon us. We consume them because they provide us with things that we desire, transport, heat, light and so on. The fault, as it were, is not in our suppliers but in ourselves.
Of course, as many do around here, it’s entirely possible to reject the entire thesis. But working within the logical structure of the IPCC we still end up with the result that a tax which falls upon consumers is the correct action: as every single economic report about the problem, from Stern through Nordhaus and the IPCC itself, has pointed out. Because it’s the consumers who are the polluters and yes, the polluters should pay.
On the face of it, the figures are damning. Food banks in Britain helped over 900,000 people last year, up around a third over the year before. It seems Britain has a real problem with food poverty. Our benefits system just isn’t coping.
But, like so many media headlines, the truth is a lot more subtle. Nearly all food banks in Britain are run by a single Christian charity, the Trussell Trust. In the last few years it has found a niche, sharpened its act, and opened a lot more. So not surprisingly, care professionals have been sending more people along. It may not be that the underlying problem is getting worse, just that it is being better served.
Nor is it the government’s benefit reforms that explain the rise. Food banks were growing long before the measures were passed in 2013, and many of the reforms have not even been implemented yet. And by merging scores of benefits into a far simpler universal benefit, the reforms should hopefully help ensure that people do not in fact fall through the gaps in the over-complicated welfare net.
The underlying problem that food banks help solve is not food poverty, any more than it is shoe poverty, clothes poverty, electricity poverty or water poverty. It is the temporary crises that people sometimes get into when they are unemployed or on low pay. Around 60% of food bank users are once-only users. They hit a crisis and can’t afford the groceries; that is why care workers refer them.
Around 30% of them have problems because their benefits payment has not arrived in time, or they are being penalised for not showing up at interview, or they have simply filled in a form wrongly. And you can blame that on our over-complicated, bureaucratic, distant and unfeeling state benefits system. We spend £94bn a year on it, a seventh of all government spending (and the government spends a lot). If we devolved the process to local communities and voluntary groups, it would work much better.
No government can do much about the fact that food prices have risen nearly 35% since 2007. Well, actually, they could stop subsidising biofuels, which has diverted huge amounts of agricultural produce out of human mouths and into gasoline tanks. And they could do something about the fact that other essentials have been soaring in price too. Government-mandated to renewable energy adds about 15% to the fuel bills of businesses and private sector organisations, plus about 6% on the gas bills and 11% on the electricity bills of domestic customers. That is why poorer people run out of cash and economise by going hungry.
Nearly everyone in Britain is well fed – some too much so – because Britain is a peaceful, trading nation with an established rule of law. Our farmers are not afraid to plant crops in case they are stolen by thugs or invading armies. Our traders bring produce to us from all over the world. If you want to see chronic poverty, look at countries that do not have this thriving market system.
Because this market system makes us a rich country, we can afford to help people who run into problems. The biggest philanthropic sector on the planet is that of America, the world’s richest country. In fact, America, Canada, New Zealand all have large food bank movements. That is because they are rich, and because they have a strong sense of community too. In Britain, too much of that sense of community has been crowded out by our state bureaucracy.
It is actually good to see charities taking on these problems. The state is inevitably large and lumbering. Private charities are much better at tackling individual human issues, like families who run out of cash from time to time.
Of course, the state could help in a very simple way. A large number of people referred to food banks are actually not those on benefits, but people on minimum wages. The government has pledged to take everyone on minimum wage out of tax, and about time too – it is absurd to tax people who are on the breadline. And yet we are still charging them and their employers another, hidden tax, namely National Insurance Contributions. Again, it’s crazy. If you want to help people in poverty–and get people into the world’s best welfare programme, namely a paying job–you should be making work pay, which for many of the nation’s poorest, is appallingly not the case.