Fiscal foolishness

Budget Cuts sign with clouds and sky backgroundI’ve had an unusual and vaguely discomfiting experience. I found myself largely in agreement with a leader in the Economist. I may need a lie down.

I can console myself with the thought that what the Economist is saying – that the Conservatives’ fiscal plans for the next Parliament are damaging nonsense – would seem to be pretty much the majority, if not the consensus, view. Seeking to legislate to remove the deficit through slashing spending while at the same time delivering a tax cut is not the most impressively coherent agenda ever advanced. It will undermine public sector functions that are vital to the overall success of the economy. And it will almost certainly slam the brakes on the economy at the same time as inflicting further pain on some of the poorest in society.

The main difference of opinion seems to be around Osborne’s intentions. Are his proposals serious? In which case, he’s a bit of an idiot. Or do they signal an implicit acceptance that the Conservatives are not going to win next May? Osborne is simply trying to stake out a position he will never have to implement but which will provide a platform from which to mount an attack on the incoming government’s actions when they are, inevitably, less fiscally stringent. In which case, he’s a bit of an idiot.

Most commentators might think Osborne is talking rot, and that, at the very least, Labour’s proposal to exempt infrastructure spending from the self-imposed fiscal straightjacket is a step towards a more plausible policy. But fewer have offered alternative approaches towards bridging the gap in the public finances.

Here the Economist comes off the fence and sets out a distinctive proposal. [Read more…]

The Mansion Tax as a symptom

Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference earlier this week proposed an increase in spending on the NHS to be funded in part by a Mansion Tax.  This has sparked the debate about the whys and wherefores of property taxes back into life. Taxing property a topic guaranteed to send the commentariat into a frenzy. It is a topic I’ve touched on before. Property taxes can be seen as a potential solution to a range of different problems, while others seem to see them as the start of a slippery slope to the demise of capitalism.

I sent a letter on the topic to the Evening Standard yesterday. This is what I wrote: [Read more…]

The car crash Coalition and the corrosion of democracy

Is this Government corrupt? It depends on how you define corrupt. If the focus is upon demonstrable criminality then the answer would have to be no. More pertinently, is it corrupting?

Recent events should concern anyone who believes that healthy democratic practice is important for a healthy society. I wrote several months ago that the Government already had a Fin de siecle feel to it. If anything the evidence of sharp practice is arriving ever more frequently. [Read more…]

Adam Smith writes … on NHS Reform?

Yesterday I was rereading a paper by George DeMartino entitled The economist as social engineer. DeMartino’s main argument is that economics needs a professional ethics because the prescriptions it offers to policy have the potential to do great harm, as well as deliver benefit.

In the course of the paper DeMartino quotes Adam Smith extensively. Not The Wealth of Nations, but The Theory of Moral Sentiments. [Read more…]

A last desperate throw of the dice?

Is that it then? Has the single transferable vote system allowed the Liberal Democrat leadership to breathe a huge sigh of relief? The motion to drop the Health and Social Care Bill won the first round of the ballot to select an emergency motion to debate on Sunday morning. But once the second preferences had been allocated it was beaten by what was labelled, and will be forever known as, the “Shirley Williams” motion. Even though it seems quite widely accepted around the conference venue that it was actually written by Nick Clegg’s office. If that is the case then appending Shirley Williams’ name to the motion is a slightly desperate and transparent strategy to garner support. It is, though, one that may well pay off in the short term. On the other hand, if it isn’t true then the credibility these rumours are accorded tells us something important about the suspicion with which the leadership is viewed by some – many? – activists. Either way, it is certainly referred to as the “establishment” motion. [Read more…]

Appraising health reform

Blogging is a fantastic medium for providing a brief statement of your views. Or for building an argument involving a small number of points. Or, perhaps, for giving a high level summary of a more complex argument.

But it’s not a great medium through which to appraise complex arguments or carefully weigh the evidence. Where a blog draws explicitly on evidence it tends to draw on one or two studies to illustrate its point. For some purposes that works just fine. But for others it can be misleading. It can give the impression that there is a robust evidence base to back up the points being made, whereas in fact the evidence is being cherry-picked. The weight of evidence may lie with the other side of the argument. Or, more likely, the evidence does not offer many simple messages.

A couple of weeks ago I made this point in the comment thread on a blog post about competition and choice in public service reform. It wasn’t entirely warmly received by some other commenters. [Read more…]

Crunch time for the Liberal Democrats –The NHS Bill and electoral oblivion

The tuition fee debacle was bad. But at least there was a reason, if not an excuse. Neither major party was committed to removing tuition fees. So whoever the Liberal Democrats ended up in Coalition with it was unlikely that the party was going to be able to honour its pledge. The hand was no doubt badly played, but the outcome was going to be nothing other than politically damaging.

This time there is no excuse. The Conservatives may claim that their manifesto refers to extending GP commissioning. But this passing reference is a threadbare justification for the enormous changes being proposed. And how many electors actually read the manifesto? If they bought the story at election time then it was more likely to be Cameron the compassionate Conservative reassuring them that the NHS was his top priority, that it was safe in his hands, that there would be no top down reorganisation, that it wouldn’t be privatised, etc., etc., etc. That these reassurances were not worth the breath required to produce them seems increasingly apparent. Significant chunks of the electorate have interpreted the Government’s plans as taking an axe to their beloved NHS. [Read more…]

The Dorries distraction

What is Nadine Dorries for?

Obviously she is very much for reducing the number of abortions. And, it would appear, is the willing purveyor of any amount of nonsense in pursuit of her objective. Today Channel 4’s Factcheck blog has her bang to rights. Dorries has made a number of apparently evidence-based claims in a newspaper article about the damaging effects of abortion. It turns out that the claims are less than scrupulous in their handling of the evidence. Critics would no doubt say this isn’t the first time Dorries has been exposed in this way.

But in many ways being charged with abusing evidence is irrelevant. Dorries, one would surmise, isn’t really interested in the evidence one way or the other. My guess is she feels that deploying evidence is a way of giving an argument rooted in zealous religious belief a veneer of credibility and respectability. She’s just not very good at it.

More interesting is the vested interest argument being used against Marie Stopes and BPAS. [Read more…]

Pressing on with NHS Reform – a less than rational process

The central question in the current debate over the Government’s NHS reforms is whether the “listening” exercise taking place during the recently discovered “natural pause” in the legislative process is genuine or symbolic. Concerns that the exercise is cosmetic will only be fuelled by an article in yesterday’s Guardian which cites a letter from David Nicholson, the Chief Executive of the NHS, who suggests that the implementation process should press ahead and that there is a need to “maintain momentum on the ground”.

The article includes a quote from Hamish Meldrum from the BMA who states that the BMA has:

… always maintained that changes in the NHS must not anticipate the legislative process and lead to irreversible decisions.

I’ve no idea whether the BMA have always maintained this position. But this quote highlights something very significant about the way policy is currently developing in this field. [Read more…]

Is Cameron’s missing majority really the root of his problem?

Over at the Telegraph today Benedict Brogan posted an interesting piece under the title David Cameron isn’t a winner – and that’s where his problems begin. The thrust of his argument is clear from the title: Cameron’s failure to secure any sort of majority last May fundamentally weakens his position. Cameron is aware of this, Brogan argues, and that awareness infuses the whole business of government.

On closer inspection the rest of the piece turns out to be a rather loose collection of observations regarding things that are going wrong or not working very well. Or, as Brogan styles it, ‘the incidences of chaos are multiplying’. Anyone keeping even half an eye on the way policy is developing would agree that incidents that could appropriately be described as chaotic are not hard to find. But has Cameron’s lack of a majority got anything to do with it? [Read more…]