Dear George… Advice to George Osborne

Dear George,

Cutting public spending when there is no other source of growth in the economy is a sure-fire strategy for recession. As if the lack of recovery wasn’t bad enough, the lack of growth also scuppers your deficit-reduction goals – the very reason for austerity in the first place. Like throwing away the engine to trim a car, you have offset the lack of revenue recovery by slashing capital spending. The results are already being seen in the forecasts: there will be no spurt of growth to regain the losses of the recession. The best we can hope for is a slow crawl along the bottom.

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Let’s abolish retirement

Retirement is not as old as you think. According to the Bible, God expelled Adam from Paradise with the terrible words: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” And that’s more or less how it was until about a hundred years ago. Most people worked till they died. Pensions in the UK date from 1908, and the cost of the first pension schemes was tiny, as the retirement age of 70 was 20 years beyond average life expectancy. Retirement was for heaven – if one had lived a virtuous life.

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Autumn statement: George Osborne’s cutting fantasy is over

In his autumn statement today the chancellor claimed it was his deficit reduction plan that enabled the British government to borrow money even more cheaply than the Germans, thus saving the taxpayer £21bn in interest rate charges over five years. Ed Balls rejoined that “he still clings to the illiterate fantasy that low long-term interest rates in Britain are a sign of enhanced credibility and not, as they were in Japan in the 1990s or in America today, a sign of stagnant growth in our economy”. The intellectual debate between George Osborne and his critics hinges on this single point: what is it that makes a deficit-reduction programme “credible”?

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The Price of Civilization by Jeffrey Sachs

This is the latest in a spate of books provoked by the world economic crisis and one of the best. Jeffrey Sachs calls himself a “clinical economist”. In The End of Poverty he applied his clinician’s skills to the distempers of Africa; in this book he turns them to the hubristic and wasteful habits of America. The details of the Fall – if by that he means the collapse of the American banking system in 2008 – do not concern him; it is what the Fall tells us about contemporary American capitalism.

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Beyond the Crash: Overcoming the First Crisis of Globalisation by Gordon Brown

The phrase “horses for courses” is as valid for politics as for other activities. It’s as impossible to think of Gordon Brown at the recent Fifa meeting in Zurich pleading England’s cause for the World Cup as it is to imagine David Cameron expounding the nitty-gritty of capital adequacy ratios at a meeting of the G20. When the economic crisis erupted in 2008-9, Brown, like Churchill in 1940, was the right man in the right place at the right time. He’d had 10 years as chancellor of the exchequer. He’d read widely and thought deeply about economics, finance, globalisation. He was the one national leader who came to the crisis with a plan and the authority to push it through.

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Advice for a New Government: a reading list

The new government is facing daunting economic challenges. The historically minded will recall that the international financial crisis hit in 1931, two years after the start of the great depression, aborting the recovery and forcing Britain off the gold standard. A double-dip recession is a distinct possibility today; and the government’s finances are in a mess. Ministers will have to think hard, and thinking is usually helped by reading. Since they have little time to read long books having taken office, here are four short reads to help them learn some lessons from this great recession. They will be particularly helpful to George Osborne.

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