Thursday, 13 March 2008

Moaners come out on budget day

I was listening to some of the vox pop on Radio 5 yesterday while I was driving to our other campus to teach crop biology (where I nearly collided in the corridor with Lord Rooker, but that is another story).

The English love a good whinge and moan and they were out in force yesterday. I know that those who ring up Radio 5 are not typical of the nation, having done the late night shift myself on occasions. One sometimes got the impression that the callers (and there are fewer of them than one might think) have either had a few drinks or are crazy or both.

One line was that people were having to work harder for less. I wonder how they would have coped with the standard of living fifty years ago? It was definitely worse, even if the quality of life was better (although apart from crime, I doubt it). Or how would they deal with living on less than two dollars a day, or even less than one dollar a day, as many in the Global South do.

Alastair Darling clearly doesn't do charisma. It was like having the budget read out by an insolvency practitioner who had been handed a particularly difficult case by his boss. It's all very well being a safe pair of hands, but presentational skills do matter in politics.

As for the measures, they were predictable. Additional green taxes, but don't make me pure yet. Above inflation rises on alcohol. But, significantly, no sign of the forecast hike in national insurance payments for those on higher incomes as forecast by one of the Murdoch papers over the weekend.

The real issue is the state of the public finances. Many economists have said that the growth forecasts are too optimistic, which will mean an ever bigger reduction in tax revenues than forecast. Economists have been wrong about the Treasury growth forecasts before, but they could be right this time.

The Conservatives are on quite a good wicket in terms of stressing fiscal laxity when the economy was propsering. But the underlying problem is that all governments are under constant pressure to 'do something' about this or that issue which invariably means spending public money. It would be brave politician who got up and said that people would have to reduce their expectations of public services.


Justin Greaves said...

Is it not, however, true that the working environment is now more stressful than perhaps it was? EG: targets, having to deliver etc. Also, of course, more job insecurity and so on. Of course, rising standards of living do not necessarily make people happier as perhaps we judge ourselves relative to other people (I found Richard Layard's book on 'Happiness' very interesting in this regard).

Wyn Grant said...

These points are very valid, although they would apply in most countries of the world. If people want to experience real stress, perhaps they should spend some time in China. There is a very good body work on happiness by Warwick's Andrew Oswald. I wish I had more time to read it, but I am too busy.

scott redding said...

From Thatcher onwards, we've had a great national teach-in on how the public sector is bad/slothful/wasteful, and the private sector is inherently good, despite Enron and PFI shenanigans.

Everytime we hear about flexiblity and creativity and ingenuity, it's all about the private sector, rather than looking at how we could unlock public sector worker talent.

I think it would be a brave politician who got up and said that people have to increase their expectations of public services.

Wyn Grant said...

Colin Hay in his book which has, I think, the title 'Why We Hate Politics' argues that politicians in the UK have internalised public choice perspectives including the Niskanen model of bureaucracy - which if it works at all works only in the United States.