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Bloody George's Budget: How bad is it really?

Maybe not the end of the world after all

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Analysis Oooh, I do love a good budget. It's an opportunity to poke fun at all the nonsensical misunderstandings of economics that politicians are prey to. Even if someone proposes something sensible you can be sure that the opposition to it will be rooted in a misconception of reality. So, what does this budget have for us today? Anything actually useful or interesting to technical types?

Looking at the document itself, the first thing is that a company called Issuu (eh?) seems to have convinced the Treasury of their worth. Previous budgets have been, under l'ancien regime, huge great big .pdf files. This one seems to be altogether much cooler and easier to use. Not that that is really necessary in a Budget but it's good advertising no doubt for the company. They listed yet?

There will be endless pieces where you can see what the tax or spending changes will be: what I'll do here is have a look not so much at the numbers but at the economic logic behind what they're trying to do. And no, not just that Tories are baby eaters who want the poor to starve. There's actually some rather more interesting stuff in this.

The first thing of course is all this talk about the “structural deficit”. Yes, we've a yawning great black pit of debt mounting up as the government spends nearly 25 per cent more than it receives in taxation. No, almost none of this is as a result of bailing out the banks: although some of it is indeed to do with the recession which, to taste, you can say was caused by the banks or led to the banks being bailed out.

While it's rather difficult to estimate how much of this borrowing is part of a reasonable reaction to the recession (that's the “cyclical” part of the deficit) and which is structural the basic difference holds. We shouldn't have a structural deficit at all. Or, maybe, if you really want to, then you can have one of a little bit less than average long term growth: one or two per cent of GDP each year. More than that and the debt will rise faster than the size of the economy and eventually we're all owned by China.

The cyclical part is what Keynesianism is all about. Yes, when the economy's in the toilet having the government boost spending can be a good idea. But there's a lot of weight resting on that “cyclical” bit. When we're not in recession that deficit should go away: if there's any left then this is our structural deficit.

In a way, if you squint a little, you can actually say that Osborne here is being more Keynesian that Brown or Darling were. He's not trying to cut that cyclical deficit, that deficit that we arguably should have in a recession. He's trying to cut the structural one, the one we shouldn't have at all.

The reason we do have it is because Brown and Darling, at the very peak of the longest boom in the country's history, were still running budget deficits. They set up the spending system for when we had rivers of gold running through the Treasury... instead of doing what Keynes actually said we should do, which was at such times save a bit of it and pay back old debt; both to avoid a structural deficit in the first place and also to preserve some firepower for the recession which would inevitably turn up someday.

So it's not all that easy (not that this will stop the Guardian tomorrow) to attack this budget on Keynesian grounds. The deviation from Keynes is not in the current attempt to close the structural deficit, but in the previous failure to have a cyclical surplus in the good times.

On purely technical matters they've junked the tax on landlines to pay for universal broadband roll-out. They have said that there will be a universal standard of 2 Mbits and that in remote areas this will be funded by the money the BBC isn't swallowing in the Digital TV switchover. You all will know more than I do about what this will mean.

Child benefit is going to be frozen for several years: the money thus saved will be used to increase child tax benefit. This seems like a reasonable enough change, what money there is to spend on children should probably be spent upon those that really need it rather than Tobias and Jocasta's second pony groom.

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