George Osborne’s plan to run fiscal surpluses and use them to pay off government debt has been met with the usual set of whinges and whines, mainly from academic economists funded by the taxpayer. Of course, their arguments are based purely on what they believe to be the intellectual merits of their case.
One of the more prominent names is David Blanchflower, once a Gordon Brown favourite on the Monetary Policy Committee, who at least is based in a private university in the US. Blanchflower predicted that coalition policy after the 2010 election would lead to 4m, and possibly even 5m, unemployed. The actual figure now is 1.8m. Still, economic forecasting is a notoriously difficult exercise.
It is clearly very hard for a certain kind of economist to grasp the fact that an economy can prosper while the government balances the books at the same time. The two decades after the Second World War were probably the most successful in the entire history of the UK as an industrial economy, stretching back to the late eighteenth century. From the late 1940s to 1964, real GDP grew at an annual average rate of 3.5 per cent. Today, relatively few economists believe that we can sustain annual growth of more than 2.5 per cent. And each additional one percentage point on GDP represents the best part of £20bn worth of extra output.
Over this period, successive governments added virtually nothing to the size of the government debt. In some years, the government ran a surplus and in others a deficit. But cumulatively, these more or less cancelled each other out. At the same time, low but persistent inflation eroded the value of the outstanding stock of debt, so that, as a percentage of GDP, government debt declined sharply over these 20 years. Of course, fiscal prudence did not by itself cause the strong economic performance. Indeed, rapid growth leads to a growing flow of receipts from taxation, which makes it easier for a government to behave responsibly.
The key point is that the 1950s and early 1960s were very favourable to sustained growth driven by the supply side of the economy, by companies incentivised by the prospect of profit. The controls and restrictions imposed of necessity during the war had largely been lifted by the time the post-war socialist government under Attlee lost office in 1951. Living standards had been ruthlessly squeezed during the war in order to divert resources into the armed forces. So there was massive pent up demand for new consumer goods. Companies had been unable to invest during the war, so they wanted to build up their stocks of capital equipment rapidly. The net result was a prolonged boom, driven by the supply side and enhanced by the re-opening of world trade.
Economic theory suggests strongly that longer-term growth is driven by the supply side, by investment and innovation. If Osborne can create a climate in which these flourish, he will simply not need the drug of deficit finance.