Saturday, September 12, 2015

Corbyn as Labour Party Leader in Britain: Are Increased Deficits Implied or Avoidable?

The notion that a political party oriented to redressing the widening economic inequality during the years following the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent debt-crisis in the E.U. necessarily must increase government deficits to do so is, I submit, faulty. That is to say, being especially oriented to the plight of the poor, with the goal being the elimination of extreme poverty, can be consistent with fiscal responsibility. The election of a socialist as leader of Britain’s Labour party presents us with an interesting case of assumed fiscal irresponsibility.

Jeremy Corbyn upon being elected as leader of the British Labour Party (Jeff Mitchell/Getty)

Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of Britain's opposition Labour party in September 2015. He won 59.5 percent of the ballots cast, or 251,417 votes, in the leadership, winning in the first round. He vowed to work toward justice for the poor. "I say thank you in advance to us all working together to achieve great victories, not just electorally for Labour, but emotionally for the whole of our society to show we don't have to be unequal, it doesn't have to be unfair, poverty isn't inevitable," he said.[1] He a impressed many Labour party members by repudiating the pro-business consensus of former leader Tony Blair—going instead with wealth taxes, nuclear disarmament and ambiguity about EU membership." Additionally, he promised to increase government investment though money-printing and renationalising vast swathes of the state’s economy. The Tories have used the economic crisis of 2008 to impose terrible burden on the poorest people in this country," he said. All this would not come without a cost.

For his part, Prime Minister David Cameron assumed that Corybn’s platform would mean larger government budget deficits—a problem the E.U. has struggled to address by levying penalties on wayward state governments. Cameron said—and this is crucial—"It's arguing at the extremes of the debate, simply wedded to more and more spending, more and more borrowing and more and more taxes. And in that regard they pose a clear threat to the financial security of every family in Britain." He is using rhetoric in characterizing Corbyn’s platform as extreme. In any case, Corybn said nothing about borrowing more and thus increasing the state’s public debt, yet Cameron assumed that it goes along with such a platform. To be sure, Cameron has a political incentive to make the inference, at least publically. According to Reuters, “The likely abandonment of the political center ground, particularly on the subject of balancing Britain's books, is seen by many as a gift for the Conservative Party that could herald a prolonged spell in power for the center-right party.” For the media to take the Prime Minister’s inference at face value, as if Corybn himself had said it, is hardly fair not only to him, but also to the residents of Britain.

I contend that the inference is invalid—that is to say, fiscal irresponsibility is not necessarily part of the mix in going with policies oriented to relieving poverty and even socialist policies—socialism being having the government own the means of production (regulation being government control over private property).  Corybn mentioned wealth taxes; he could also have pledged to reduce or end corporate tax-subsidies and even increase other taxes, including on business. He could also have vowed to decrease government spending in areas that do not affect the poor. Obviously, a downside goes with each of these measures, but this is not my point here. Rather, I submit that increasing government revenues and even decreasing government spending overall is consistent with having policies oriented to relieving and even eliminating the scourge of poverty, which dehumanizes people and limits them in so many ways, including in productiveness. Accordingly, Corybn could have said that he would work on behalf of human rights within Britain.

Regarding nationalizing economic sectors by printing money, government debt would not increase; rather, the means is inflationary. Were Corybn to change his position on using monetary policy for a large-scale fiscal purpose, we would be wrong in assuming that he must increase the state’s deficits to do so. Alternatively, he could prioritize the sectors to be nationalized and do so gradually. If even this approach would strain government finances, he could float government bonds specific to the government investments and use the revenue from them to pay off the bonds. This use of debt is acceptable in the business world, and thus qualitatively different than simply adding to the state’s deficit without a tie to future revenue. For anti-debt purists, the nationalization policy could be subordinated to the anti-poverty spending such that nationalizations occur only when the government can afford to pay for them—say from running a surplus, which I contend is consistent with an emphasis on anti-poverty measures.

[1] William James and Michael Holden, “Socialist Elected UK Opposition Labour Leader,” Reuters, September 12, 2015. Source of all quotes in this essay.