Saturday, 24 March 2012

Barry Gardiner on Budget

barrybudgetOn Wednesday in the House of Commons, Barry delivered his response to the Chancellor's budget, criticising the Budget as a relic of corrupted economic principles. Barry made the case for natural resources as a key aspect of the economic consideration, arguing for more innovation in taxation and the introduction of a land tax. You can read the full text of Barry's speech below:

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): The trouble with Budgets is that they tend to operate on a five-year cycle that has no relation to the actual cycles of the resources that we profess to manage. The immediacy of the political triumphs over the requirements of the actual.

The focal point of this Budget is 2016-17, when the Government hope that the hole in the public finances will have been filled, but interestingly four fifths—more than £90 billion—of that filler comes from cuts in services and benefits, while only one fifth comes from rises in tax. Yet 73% of the tax rises have already been put in place, and less than 20% of the cuts in services and benefits have happened.

The Government might think it prudent to delay the pain, but Government Back Benchers might care to reflect on what that has done to their electoral prospects.

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): The hon. Gentleman mentions the figure of £90 billion, but will he acknowledge that the £36 billion reduction in interest payments, which we have already seen, makes a substantial contribution to that?

Barry Gardiner: The hon. Gentleman refers to interest payments, but he knows that on that score this Government are paying out £150 billion more than they predicted, so his argument does not hold up.

A Budget is a mechanism for the distribution and allocation of scarce resources, so let us examine what this Budget means for a child born today. A child born in my constituency today brings us this message: "By the time I reach my 18th birthday, the world will require 30% more fresh water, 45% more energy and 50% more food." This child is part of the generation that will see the global population move from 7 billion to 10 billion people. How do we respond to this child? Do we become the most selfish generation of the most selfish species in our planet's history? Or do we become the generation that understood that justice and sustainability are essentially the same thing? If you want peace in the world, create justice. If you want justice, live sustainably.

We must get away from both sides of the political divide arguing that they uniquely possess the key to growth. We listen to the stale arguments about whether more spending now will raise growth and reduce the deficit more quickly, or whether less borrowing now will ultimately be a surer path to bring our economy back into GDP growth. But what both sides are talking about is yesterday's economics:

Hayek pitted against Keynes.

The Chancellor wants to set markets free and insists that we cannot spend our way out of debt, but he wilfully ignores Hayek's equal insistence that the boom gets started with an expansion of credit—the very liquidity that the Chancellor has told the banks they must provide for business. Hayek would have been appalled to find his theories invoked by a Chancellor literally printing money through quantitative easing. In Hayek's view, that leads only to unrealistically low interest rates and to the cycle of boom and bust starting all over again.

Keynes of course believed in consumption-led growth as an economic stimulus, but he did not live in a world of 7 billion people. He assumed that growth was sustainable and natural resource was, for practical purposes, infinite. We know that it is not. As a result, we have an obligation to make sure that growth is sustainable, not simply to assume that it will be.
Mr Jackson: The hon. Gentleman is making a cogent and interesting argument. We all agree that we should give 0.7% of our GDP to international development. Surely he will concede that unless we grow our GDP, the absolute amount of cash that we have to give to good causes across the world, in supporting sustainability, will not be enough to do the things that he wants to do.

Barry Gardiner: The hon. Gentleman precisely misconstrues my point; the issue is not about the amount of aid given to developing countries, but about understanding the valuation of natural capital and incorporating that into the Government's accounting framework. That is in the natural environment White Paper, if he cares to read it.

In a world of 7 billion people, growth can be sustainable only if it is predicated on advances that bring increased productivity and greater efficiency in the use of resources. That is what Hayek would have called a sound capital structure and proper allocation of capital. For the world to continue to achieve a 3% per annum growth target, and to maintain a trajectory that keeps carbon emissions below the 2°C threshold of dangerous climate change, we must increase our productivity per tonne of carbon emitted 15 times over.

The Budget simply does not address that technological challenge. It was extraordinary to see the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change join forces with the Treasury last Friday evening and issue a press release at 6 pm, embargoed until midnight, to exempt gas-fired power stations from the emissions controls set out in the fourth carbon budget by the Committee on Climate Change. Those emissions reductions were, in the Committee's view, part of the necessary regulatory framework for achieving our target of at least 80% emissions reductions by 2050.

The press release set out no alternative mechanisms that would be adopted to keep to those targets and no Minister has sought to expand on the issue since last week. It is a measure of the shame that the Government felt on reneging on the fourth carbon budget that they issued their press release in such a furtive manner. What is worse, what happened shows that the new Energy Secretary has no command over his brief and has been fingered by the Treasury as a weak Secretary of State.

Since William Ewart Gladstone instituted the modern accounting and budgetary processes of the House of Commons 150 years ago, modern economics has come a long way in its understanding of capital. In Gladstone's day, the notion of capital was very simple; it represented money and machinery. Gradually, we have come to realise that capital is not just money and plant. We have developed sophisticated concepts of social and intellectual capital. We know that a well functioning legal system is very much a part of the wealth of a society, inviting commerce and trade to practise where certainty and redress prevail. That is certainly a form of capital different from a bridge, printing press or motorway, but we now measure them all in our assessment of the national wealth of a country.

Resource economists now point out that we have left out of our economic calculations perhaps the most important capital of all: natural capital. We have left it out for a very simple reason—we always took it for granted. We thought that it was a free good. It cost us nothing and we assumed the supply was infinite. In the language of classical economics, natural capital was a mere externality, "as free as the air you breathe".
What we have now begun to realise is that the air we breathe is not actually free—at least, it is not without a quantifiable value. Any sound cost-benefit analysis of public policy must take that value into account. The Environmental Audit Committee report on air pollution estimated that the costs from air pollution are up to £20.2 billion. That is the cost of respiratory and other diseases associated with poor air quality, both in treatment and lost productivity.

The natural environment provides not just a physical stock of resources—forests and fish, minerals and fresh water that human beings depend on—but a network of services essential for human life. The pollination of our crops by insects, the stabilisation of our soil by trees and the regulation of our watershed by peat bogs are just some of the ecosystem services that a new economic model must begin to incorporate into our Government's accounting framework. That new accounting renders inadequate the concept of GDP growth because it reveals one of the central conundrums of classical economics: that a country can become poorer while increasing its GDP.

The Chancellor said nothing today that showed that he understood that. Another important consideration is that those wider benefits, although immensely valuable, do not accrue to an individual private property owner; they are experienced by a community at large. They are regarded as free goods by the wider community, and in classical economics as externalities, and because they are not directly captured by a landowner they rarely feature in a landowner's decision on how or whether to dispose of them. That is why the exercise of private property rights can often be to the public detriment. It is also why the role of the state in regulating the disposal of land is so important. Today we have heard much talk of stamp duty and how to raise revenue from the rich. It therefore seems quaint that no one has commented on the fact that the land registry for England, which was established in 1928, still accounts for only some 64% of the land in England, while in the registry for Scotland the figure drops to a mere 21%.
Of course, there is a reason why almost a century later we have not yet been able properly to map the title of land in the UK—it is that so much of it has never been sold but has been passed down in families, from parent to child, in enormous estates. If the Government genuinely want to raise tax from the very wealthy, they should examine not only houses sold for over £2 million but the vast tracts of our country that have been accumulated in great estates for centuries and are still owned and managed not for the benefit of the population at large but to maximise the income and pleasure of a very few private individuals. I do not claim that all hereditary estates are badly managed in respect of the environment, but I do claim that good management comes not only as a result of inheritance. Land tax reform is long overdue. If we wish to become a more equal society, then we need to consider the taxation of land and land use in different and more imaginative ways, for the benefit of society as a whole.

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