Predictably, those who demand more government spending both when the economy is doing well and badly are calling for increases to see off any potential post-Brexit slowdown. “Infrastructure spending” is the call of the day, with masses of supposed “shovel-ready projects” with high returns apparently lying around for the government to undertake.
Unfortunately, in the real world we know that public investment works better in theory than in practice. Planning laws mean projects take years to get going; politicians often pick prestige or uneconomic projects when smaller schemes with higher returns are available; and government actually holds up genuinely worthwhile private sector projects, such as airport expansion and new housing developments.
Rather than reaching for the same old playbook, the new Prime Minister Theresa May should be using this opportunity for a reset in domestic economic policy: recognising that times of huge change provide an opportunity for major reforms. Rather than focusing on populist corporate governance measures to curb executive pay, she should be thinking about how the UK’s productive growth potential could be greatly enhanced. Here’s six major areas she should consider:
1) Overhaul property taxation: the government should abolish both council tax and stamp duty entirely and replace them with a single tax on the “consumption” of property – i.e. a tax on imputed rent. It is well known among economists that taxes on transactions like stamp duty are highly damaging, and we have already seen the high top rates significantly slow transactions since April.
2) Abolish corporation tax entirely: profit taxes discourage capital investment by lowering returns, which makes workers less productive and results in lower wage growth. In a globalised world, profits taxation also encourages capital to move elsewhere, both because it makes the UK less attractive as a location for “real” economic activity and because it creates incentives for avoidance through complex business structures. Rather than continuing this goose chase, let’s abolish it entirely and tax dividends at an individual level, as Estonia does.
3) Planning liberalisation: if you ask anyone to name the UK’s main economic problems, you’ll probably hear “poor productivity performance”, “a high cost of living” and “entrenched economic difficulties in some areas”. Constraining development through artificial boundaries and regulations is acknowledged to be a key driver of high house price inflation. Less acknowledged is that, for sectors like childcare, social care, restaurants and even many office-based industries, high rents and property prices raise other prices for consumers, with a dynamic strain on our growth prospects brought about by a reduction in competition and innovation. That’s not to mention the impact on labour mobility. Liberalisation of planning, including greenbelt reform – which May has sadly already seemingly ruled out – is probably the closest thing to a silver bullet as far as productivity improvements are concerned.
4) Sensible energy policy: the UK government has gone further than many EU countries on the “green agenda”. But the EU’s framework, with binding targets for renewables, has certainly helped shape policy in the direction of subsidies and subsidy-like obligations and interventions. Even if one accepts the need to reduce carbon emissions, an economist would suggest the implementation of either a straight carbon tax or, less optimally, a cap-and-trade scheme, rather than the current raft of interventions which make energy more expensive than it need be.
5) Agricultural liberalisation: exiting the EU Common Agricultural Policy gives us the opportunity to reassess agricultural policy. The UK should gradually phase out all subsidies, as New Zealand did, opening up the sector to global competition. This improved agricultural productivity in that country significantly. Combined with a policy of unilateral free trade, it would deliver substantially lower food prices for consumers too.
6) Deregulation: in the long term, Britain should extricate itself from the Single Market and May should set up a new Office for Deregulation, tasked with examining all existing EU laws and directives, with the clear aim of removing unnecessary burdens and lowering costs. In particular, this should focus on labour market regulation, financial services, banking and transport.