Many western countries have been living well beyond their means for several years. The US and the UK have been spending 10% of National Income more than they earn on public spending. Most now agree we cannot carry on like this.
The substantial overspend in the public sector follows hard on the heels of a large overspend in the private sector. The public sector is now borrowing very large additional sums to keep its spending going. In the years before the Credit Crunch many citizens in the US and UK (and in Spain, Ireland and the rest) borrowed large sums of money to buy assets or to consume more. Property prices were driven higher by excessive mortgage finance. The Credit Crunch has changed this. Property prices have fallen. New mortgage finance is difficult to obtain. Overall individuals are reining back their excess spending, and taking or nursing losses on assets.
There are three main ways in which the public sector deficits can be reined in. The favourite political way is to pursue faster growth. If the economy can increase more rapidly, more money will be paid in tax. If the growth rate of public spending is slower than the growth rate of the economy, the deficit will be brought down. Unfortunately in the Euro zone the most heavily indebted countries seem unable to grow. In the UK and US there is a bit more growth, but the rate is not fast enough to resolve the deficit problems.
The second way is to increase tax revenue. The politically popular route to curb the deficit if growth does not suffice, is to tax the rich more. Most politicians unite in agreeing to this proposal. It has two drawbacks. There are not enough super rich to pay all the extra bills. If you raise rates of tax too much on the rich, they may leave, or employ better lawyers and accountants to find a way round the rules. In the UK Mr Blair and Mr Brown, for most their tenure, thought 40% Income Tax and 18% Capital Gains Tax were the optimising rates to get most revenue out of the rich. The Coalition, accepting Labour’s last minute rise to 50% for incomes, and imposing its own 28% for CGT, may discover to its cost these rates lose the Exchequer money. There are limits to how much tax you can get out of a free society with open borders. No recent UK government has managed to collect more than 38% of GDP in tax, so there remains a very large gap between revenue and spending.
Governments following the higher tax route are thrown back on taxing most people, not just the rich. The UK Coalition has imposed higher VAT and National Insurance, as well as the higher Income Tax rate and various other increased taxes and fees. Petrol tax has gone up. This in turn has depressed real incomes, meaning less demand in the private sector. The top 10% of income earners pay £30,000 a year each on average, net of benefits and tax credits. The lowest 40% of income earners are net recipients, with benefits and tax credits exceeding all the tax they pay. These figures include VAT and indirect tax.
The third way is to cut public spending. So far the UK government has not tried this overall, though it has made various cuts in individual areas and departments. This is being tried to a greater extent in Euroland, but so far it is proving difficult there as well to curb total spending. Greece wont cut its very large army. Spain finds high and rising unemployment keeps adding to the welfare bills.
The paradox is many UK people complain of the cuts. They mean by this the cuts in their own living standards. The BBC yesterday morning provided a vox pop piece looking at various individual budgets and the way they were being cut. The commentator did not point out that much of the squeeze on these individuals came from higher taxes to pay for the growing public expenditure. People complained of fuel bills (largely tax), energy costs (regulatory and tax costs), higher shop prices and other areas where higher VAT plays its part.
We all dislike cuts in our living standards. Some depend on benefits and government services for an important part of their living standard. Most rely on income from work and savings. It is this majority group that also complains of cuts. The irony is, these cuts result directly from the need to pay for higher public spending out of increased taxation. The ultra low interest rates add to the pain for the prudent, slashing their savings incomes.