Friday, 31 December 2010

Dave from PR spins into 2011

According to David Cameron's new year sound bite, the government's spending cuts are an unavoidable result of unprecedented debt levels and not at all ideological. We've heard this one several times before - every Public Relations Professional knows the value of repetition.

It is, of course, a bit more complicated than that. If Dave from PR can repeat himself, then so can I. As previously noted, courtesy of the Left Foot Forward blog, when adjusted for inflation, the current level of public debt isn't unprecedented. In fact it's far lower than it was in the late 1940s; a time of austerity, sure, but also a time when the welfare state was being created. Hacking great chunks out of it now isn't inevitable - it's simply what the small-state ideologues on the right want to do.

By its very nature, selective PR spin abhors context, so here's some more context:

The National Debt was made possible shortly after the Glorious Revolution, when William III arranged to sell debt securities through a syndicate of London merchants. The syndicate became the Bank of England, and the securities founded the National Debt.

The introduction to Three Centuries of the National Debt, which includes some interesting charts giving a historical overview of the National Debt. Chart 1 appears, on first sight, to support the Tory spin

And here I want to say something to the people who got us into this mess. The ones who racked up more debt in thirteen years than previous governments did in three centuries.

Chart 1 seems to graphically support that assertion (although it only deals with the last 110 years) with debt crawling along the bottom of the graph for the first half of the century, ramping up in the '80s and '90s before skyrocketing up to dizzying heights in the late '90s and the noughties, or whatever we call the decade we're just leaving behind.

Chart 1, however, is just showing the debt in pounds sterling. The next two charts show debt as a percentage of gross domestic product. Adjusted to a meaningful context, the "unprecedented" level of debt becomes a relatively modest peak in an alpine range of debt spikes. Whether we're looking at the last century or the last three, we can see that we've been here before - and worse - and that the National Debt has tailed off and been managed down over decades, following bigger spikes than this. The last chart, showing interest payments shows a similar picture - taking the long view, the present levels of debt interest payments break no records:

The real risk from government debt is the burden of interest payments. Experts say that when interest payments reach about 12% of GDP then a government will likely default on its debt. Chart 5 shows that the UK is a long way from that risk. The peak period for government interest payments, including central government and local authorities, was in the 1920s and 1930s right after World War I.

The cuts are a choice, not a necessity. This government is starting to remind me of the bankers who got us into this mess in the first place. In Mark Twain's famous words:

A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.

By cutting public sector jobs and public services when they're most needed, Cameron and his millionaire chums are leaving us all out in the rain. It's kind of appropriate that the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt recently became the unofficial Minister for Rhyming Slang, just when there's no longer any doubt what a bunch of bankers we've got running the country.