Posted by Ed 21 days ago
Is 2019 the year when everything starts falling apart?

It certainly feels that way.

The analogy I’m going to use in this and subsequent discussions is ‘fire and ice’.

Ice, in the potent form of glaciers, grinds slowly, but completely, crushing everything in its path. Whole landscapes have been shaped by these icy juggernauts.

Fire, on the other hand, can cause almost instantaneous devastation, most obviously when volcanoes erupt. Back in 1815, the explosion of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) poured into the atmosphere quantities of volcanic ash on such a vast scale that, in much of the world, the sun literally ceased to shine. As a result, 1816 became known as “the year without a summer”.

As low temperatures and heavy rain destroyed harvests and killed livestock, famine gripped much of Europe, Asia and North America, bringing with it soaring food prices, looting, riots, rebellions, disease and high mortality. Even art and literature seem to have been influenced by the lack of a summer.

The economic themes we’ll be exploring here have characteristics both of fire and of ice. The decline in prosperity is glacial, both in its gradual pace and its ability to grind assumptions, and systems, into the ground. Other events are likelier to behave like wild-fires or volcanoes, given to rapid and devastating outbursts, with little or no prior warning.

Fiscal issues, examined in this first instalment of ‘fire and ice’, have the characteristics of both. The scope for taxing the public is going to be subjected to gradual but crushing force, whilst the hard choices made inevitable by this process are highly likely to provoke extremely heated debate and resistance.

Let’s state the fiscal issue in the starkest terms:

– Massive credit and monetary adventurism have inflated GDP to the point where it bears little or no resemblance to the prosperity experienced by the public.

– But governments continue to set taxation as a percentage of GDP.

– As GDP and prosperity diverge, this results in taxation exacting a relentlessly rising share of prosperity.

– Governments then fail to understand the ensuing popular anger.

France illustrates this process to dramatic effect. Taxation is still at 54% of GDP, roughly where it’s been for many years. This no doubt persuades the authorities that they’ve not increased the burden of taxation. But tax now absorbs 70% of French prosperity, leading to the results that we’ve witnessed on the streets of Paris and other French towns and cities.

Few certainties

It’s been said that the two certainties in life are “death and taxes”, but ‘debt and taxes’ hold the key to fiscal challenges understood improperly – if at all – by most governments. The connection here is that debt (or rather, the process of borrowing) affects recorded GDP in ways which provide false comfort about the affordability of taxation – and therefore, of course, about the affordability of public services.

The subject of taxation, seen in terms of prosperity, leads straight to popular discontent, though that has other causes too. In order to have a clear-eyed understanding of public anger, by the way, we need to stick to what the facts tell us. I’ve never been keen on excuses like “the dog ate my homework” or “a space-man from Mars stole my wallet” – likewise, we should ignore any narrative which portrays voter dissatisfaction as wholly the product of “populism”, or of “fake news”, or even of machinations in Moscow or Beijing. All of these things might exist – but they don’t explain what’s happening to public attitudes.

The harsh reality is that, because prosperity has deteriorated right across the advanced economies of the West, we’re facing an upswell of popular resentment, at the same time as having to grapple with huge debt and monetary risk.

If you wanted to go anywhere encouraging, you wouldn’t start from here.

The public certainly has reasons enough for discontent. In the Western world, prosperity has been deteriorating for a long time, a process exacerbated by higher taxation. The economic system has been brought into disrepute, mutating from something at least resembling ‘the market economy’ into something seemingly serving only the richest. As debt has risen, working conditions, and other forms of security, have been eroded. We can count ourselves fortunate that the public doesn’t know – yet – that the pensions system has been sacrificed as a financial ‘human shield’ to prop up the debt edifice.

This at least sets an agenda, whether for 2019 or beyond. The current economic paradigm is on borrowed time, whilst public support can be expected to swing behind parties promoting redistribution, economic nationalism and curtailment of migration. Politicians who insist on clinging on to ‘globalised liberalism’ are likely to sink with it. The tax base is shrinking, requiring new priorities in public expenditure.

If you had to tackle this at all, you wouldn’t choose to do it with the “everything bubble” likely to burst, bringing in its wake both debt defaults and currency crises. But this process looks inescapable. With its modest incremental rate rises, so derided by Wall Street and the White House, the Fed may be trying to manage a gradual deflation of bubbles. If so, its intentions are worthy, but its chances of success are poor.

And, when America’s treasury chief asks banks to reassure the markets about liquidity and margin debt, you know (if you didn’t know already) that things are coming to the boil.

Tax – leveraging the pain

If it seems a little odd to start this series with fiscal affairs, please be assured that these are very far from mundane – indeed, they’re likely to shape much of the political and economic agenda going forward. The biggest single reason for upsets is simply stated – where prosperity and the ability to pay tax are concerned, policymakers haven’t a clue about what’s already happening.

Here’s an illustration of what that reality is. Expressed at constant values, personal prosperity in France decreased by €2,060, or 7.5%, between 2001 (€29,315) and 2017 (€27,250).

At first glance, you might be surprised that this has led to such extreme public anger, something not witnessed in countries where prosperity has fallen further. Over the same period, though, taxation per person in France has increased by €2,980. When we look at how much prosperity per person has been left with the individual, to spend as he or she chooses, we find that this “discretionary” prosperity has fallen from €13,210 in 2001 to just €8,230 in 2017.

That’s a huge fall, of €4,980, or 38%. Nobody else in Europe has suffered quite such a sharp slump in discretionary prosperity – and tax rises are responsible for more than half of it.

This chart shows how increases in taxation have leveraged the deterioration in personal prosperity in eight Western economies. The blue bars show the change in overall prosperity per capita between 2001 and 2017. Increases in taxation per person are shown in red:

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