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Friday, 24 April 2020

One Weird Trick

Ed Conway of Sky News has suggested that we should consider a capital levy when we come to discuss how to pay for the cost of Covid-19: "A capital levy is a one-off wealth tax. Everyone in the country — households, businesses, everyone — has to pay a sum equivalent to a chunk of their net assets. The equity in your home, your investments, your savings: a small percentage of them must be paid to the state. See, I told you: it’s a terrible idea." While recognising the political infeasibility of this (at least according to received wisdom), Conway thinks that we should consider it if only because of the very large numbers involved: "A back-of-an-envelope calculation suggests that a one-off 10 per cent levy on all household net wealth would generate over a trillion pounds of revenues. Enough to pay off all the costs of Covid-19, to provide for the NHS for generations and to reduce the national debt from wartime levels to something more like normality." That he is framing a capital levy in frankly incredible if attractive terms shows that he is simply trying to seize our attention (to be fair, at least he's not suggesting we mainline Dettol to beat the virus).

In reality, a one-off capital levy would be set at a rate much lower than 10%. Not just because parsimony would trump the generosity Conway outlines, but because we wouldn't need anywhere near that amount to deal with the immediate costs of Covid-19. Of course, should the effects of the pandemic stretch into 2021, then our estimate of that cost would have to be revised upwards, but there is good reason to believe that the cost will be front-loaded anyway. The lockdown is a very deliberate over-reaction and we can expect costs to be mitigated over time as society and the economy adjust to the new normal, both in any transitional easing phase (which is what the government now seems to be preparing for) and once we're out of the other end. So what is the likely cost? UK GDP is roughly £2.3 trillion. The OBR predicts a loss of 35% of GDP in the second quarter and a gradual but relatively quick bounceback thereafter. If we take a pessimistic case of a 50% loss over two quarters (25% annualised), that would amount to about £580 billion.


The government's emergency measures aren't going to make that up in full: some businesses will fold, rather than seek state support; wages are only being covered at 80% up to a threshold, while many workers and the self-employed are falling through the cracks and must now rely on Universal Credit; and there are suspicions that the state's institutional aversion to giving out money will mean some people and firms will simply forgo their entitlement. This explains why the Chancellor's emergency package, launched in mid-March, was priced at £350 billion, or 15% of annual GDP, though there have been some subsequent additions to this in the form of new targeted schemes. Much of this is made up of loans to business, but at least £225 billion in gilts (government debt) is expected to be issued in addition to the normal offerings, increasing the national debt from £2 to £2.3 trillion. This will in turn increase the debt-to-GDP ratio from 86% to close to 100% (it will probably spike higher because of 2020's reduced GDP - i.e. a lower denominator - but 100% is likely to be the post-crisis benchmark).

This isn't a problem, despite the infamous claims made in 2010 about unsustainable ratios that were used to justify a decade of austerity, not least because this uplift in debt is happening globally and there is no reason to expect the cost of servicing it will be pushed up for a monetary sovereign like the UK. It will be fragile developing economies and the southern EU states who will be most vulnerable (albeit for different reasons), though the non-appearance of the bond vigilantes in recent years suggests they may not have too much to worry about either. We still have a global glut of savings, or, to put it another way, too much wealth chasing too few investment opportunities (one reason why a capital levy or even a recurring wealth tax would be opportune). Those savings aren't necessarily liquid. Much of the wealth in the developed world is now bound up in property and its associated tangibles (cars, household goods, fixtures and fittings etc), which in the UK in particular means residential housing more than industrial or commercial buildings.


The UK's aggregate net household wealth is £15 trillion (this includes property, finance and pensions but not offshore holdings). Conway's back-of-an-envelope calculation is that up to £1.5 trillion could be raised by a 10% capital levy, which would be roughly three times as much as we'd likely need to cover the actual total of government expenditure in respect of the crisis (i.e. pessimistically assuming that total ends up being closer to half a trillion). If we assume that Conway would like the debt-to-GDP ratio to fall to around 50%, this would actually leave little to contribute to the NHS. A more modest target of a 70% debt-to-GDP ratio would leave roughly £300 billion for healthcare. In practical terms, that would allow annual increases in NHS spending to return to the levels achieved under New Labour, which averaged 5% and briefly peaked at 10%, but this time sustained for a decade or more. That would certainly be transformative, but it wouldn't be unprecedented.

I suspect Conway has inflated his figure to 10% to avoid the risk of advocating a levy of only 2 or 3%, which might prompt some to wonder why we couldn't simply have an annual wealth tax of 1% anyway. That would raise approximately £150 billion, which is about 18% of UK government spending (£850 billion). To put it another way, we could notionally abolish income tax and all other taxes and substitute a flat wealth tax of 6% to meet current commitments. In reality, income tax would remain in place, if only to avoid capital assets being converted via obscure financial mechanisms into nominal income. But existing (albeit inadequate) taxes on capital gains and dividends, plus stamp duty, could be replaced by a wealth tax. As these currently contribute relatively little to total government income, due to their low rates, a wealth tax that substituted for them, raised additional revenue to pay down the national debt and increased health spending in real terms would probably be in the order of 1%. That might seem ridiculously modest, but bear in mind that a hypothecated wealth tax of 0.12% alone would allow us to send an extra £350 million a week to the NHS.


Of course, taxing illiquid wealth presents greater practical problems than taxing liquid income. This has always been a chief defence against a wealth tax, conjuring the image of the cash-poor but property-rich widow, or imagining stock market routs come tax bill time, but there is a solution. This is to simply convert tax obligations into debt instruments that are redeemed (i.e. the individual or company pays their tax due) when wealth is liquidated or inherited (or transferred in any other way). Unlike a transaction tax, such as stamp duty, this obligation would accumulate year-on-year.  Assuming an annual rate of 1%, if you sold an asset after eight years, you'd pay 8% on the sale price (you would still be making a profit if the annual growth rate were over 1%, as it has been in most years). The challenge then is one of preventing tax avoidance, but that becomes much easier in a regime that treats all wealth as taxable by default. Also, bear in mind that close to a half of the UK's net wealth is made up of land (including housing) or UK-domiciled finance (shares, securities etc), which is pretty easy to track and trace. In other words, much of a wealth tax would actually comprise an LVT (land value tax) and an aggregated financial transaction tax.

The need to tax wealth has been recognised for years. It is the inevitable consequence of the continuing growth in aggregate wealth coupled with increasing inequality in the ownership of that wealth. The hostile reaction to Thomas Piketty emanated from polemicists in the media whose career has been built on defending wealth, not from the economics community itself. Politicians are only too well aware of the pitfalls of advocating wealth taxes when their support has been so dependent on homeowners, but they are also acutely aware that it is those who can't afford to buy property and have little prospect of a decent pension who will increasingly determine elections. In this context, Conway's proposal is a plea-bargain, offering a substantial one-off hit not only to reduce debt but to partially rectify the damage of a decade that enriched the already rich. But it's clear he doesn't expect the idea to fly. What he's tentatively exploring is higher taxes on capital gains, dividends and perhaps treating inheritance as income, because higher taxes on income and consumption are politically toxic and austerity would be both inadequate and counter-productive. What matters in this pitch is that the imposition on wealth is temporary.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Clerisy

Referring both to the current debate over how to deal with Covid-19 and to the American tradition of political accountability through education (outlined a century ago by the philosopher and social reformer John Dewey), Steve Randy Waldman wonders if our commitment to public understanding may no longer be fit for purpose: "It has become a bromide, among the educated classes, that if only the public were better educated, we could have an effective democracy. I am increasingly skeptical of this idea. I think it forgivable of Dewey writing in 1927, but the scope of expertise required to manage a modern society has expanded dramatically since then. Citizens generally would have to become freakish polymaths in order to be able to police the range of options offered by experts, to distinguish proposals that would serve the public interest from proposals that purport to serve the public interest but under cover of technical legerdemain are skewed to benefit parochial interests. It just isn’t plausible. Experts need to train, for years. We cannot all train in everything."

With its choreographed press conferences in which government ministers and public health experts dance a cautious minuet, Covid-19 has given visible form to the dichotomy between politics and expertise. In the UK, this became particularly salient in the aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum in which expertise and politics were deemed, largely by the liberal media, to be antagonistic. In the US, a similar conflict has been evident since the last presidential election. In reality, this is a false dichotomy. The UK government insists quite reasonably that it is following scientific advice, even if it is taking sides between competing scientific groups, while the practical measures in the US are similarly being driven by public health experts rather than the White House. But the belief that the two are currently in tension, and the correlative belief that a more technocratic government would resolve that tension, is typical of current liberal thinking. Waldman is sceptical of both the liberal assumption of disinterest in the pronouncements of experts and the ability of the public to properly interrogate those pronouncements and reveal those interests.


His suggestion is to boost community colleges (publicly-funded tertiary education) as an intellectual resource for their, well, communities: "The local community college should have an epidemiologist, and a financial economist, and representatives of many other disciplines, regardless of whether students fill out a full schedule of classes for them. They should be there, because the community and its citizens require the expertise of people trained in those professions in order to participate in our democracy, and it requires those people remain independent of the roles they might have if they were employed by other organizations in their communities". This has many merits, but it still assumes that the full participation of a community in a democracy is dependent on specialised knowledge, which ultimately doesn't free us from the limiting belief of liberalism in which ability - and credentialled ability at that - takes priority over equality. It also downplays the role of tacit knowledge (i.e. lived experience) as well as heterodox opinion within scientific disciplines.

Ever since Athens adopted sortition (the random selection of office-holders) and a general legislative assembly, democracy has always faced the criticism that it invests too much in the principle of equality at the expense of practical ability. Of course, you don't have to be an advocate of epistocracy, the rule of experts, to support a system in which decision-making is delegated to a minority of the informed. That, after all, is simply representative democracy. But it's worth noting that epistocracy today is not about setting knowledge or competency thresholds for elected representatives but applying these to the electorate. The interest in epistocracy in the aftermath of 2016's "populist shocks" was driven by an unapologetic belief that the people didn't know what was best for themselves. That points to the roots of the idea in Plato, who spoke of noocracy, the rule of the wise. Epistocracy is a moden coinage that replaces Plato's more contentious faith in philosophers with the image of a government of all the talents.


Epistocracy is not simply concerned with dividing society into the rulers and the ruled. The former depend not merely on the acquiescence of the latter but on the support of a powerful social class that can manufacture broad consent for a particular interpretation of learning and knowledge (an episteme, in Michel Foucault's terminology). In other words, a clerisy. In contemporary society that essentially means Waldman's "educated classes", and in particular its squadrons in the arenas of public affairs, the media, academia and those parts of commercial life that interesect with them. Of course, in such a large group with potentially conflicting interests there will be many shades of opinion, but there is also a common culture founded on values such as tolerance, free enquiry and evidence-based judgement. But as that clerisy has grown, both in absolute terms and as a relative (and increasingly dominant) component of the wider middle class, it has struggled to honour its own ideals. The result has been a growing intolerance of dissent manifested in hysteria and autos-da-fe, from #FBPE through "the resistance" to the blackballing of Jeremy Corbyn.

Antagonism and even civil war within the clerisy isn't new, but in the past this usually took place within the context of a broader division in society that fissured all classes - for example, the competing poles of attraction of communism and Fascism in the 1930s. Over the last half-century, the divide has increasingly been between the clerisy and the rest of society, reflecting both the social impacts of the "knowledge economy" and the hegemony of the clerisy as both organised labour and the aristocracy have been politically marginalised. This has been widely misrepresented as a division between graduates and non-graduates, or between the "new middle class" that accommodated itself to neoliberal reality and a reactionary alliance of the working class and an uneducated, older petit bourgeoisie. In fact, many recent graduates find themselves not merely marginal to the clerisy but even despised for their political "naivety", while the working class is even more politically multifarious and socially diverse than ever.


In truth, the clerisy has been increasingly conservative (as you would expect given its social dominance and demographic growth), while its "liberalism" is no more coherent than the caricature offered by its opponents in the media frame of the "culture wars". A recent example of this was Ayesha Hazarika's now-infamous "hipster analysis" crack on Twitter. This was widely condemned for belittling members of the public who questioned the wisdom of the British government's strategy for dealing with Covid-19 early last month. Subsequent events, notably the total eclipse of "herd immunity", proved that Joe Public had a point, but this vindication misses that Hazarika's comment was in response to Jennifer Williams of the Manchester Evening News dismissing the Labour party's call for greater transparency. The point is that Labour was then still led by Jeremy Corbyn, hence the sneering. Inevitably, Keir Starmer's more recent call for the government to publish its exit strategy has met with the approval of the clerisy, even if it requires imagining some three-dimensional chess moves.

Hazarika was also prominent among those media commentators who decided that the leaked report on the bad behaviour of Labour's HQ under Iain McNichol wasn't worth troubling with, beyond condemning the whistle-blowers for breaching data protection. If "hipster analysis" revealed a lack of tolerance as much as an over-confidence in expertise, the closing of the massed ranks of the clerisy over the leaked report - ignoring not only the evidence of undermining and casual bigotry, but the tolerance of antisemitism in the ranks as a way of embarrassing the leadership - reveals how much free enquiry and the value of evidence are deemed contingent. Right on cue, various political scientists and historians, such as Tim Bale and Steve Fielding, who have spent the last decade poring over the recomposition of the political right and issuing warnings about the electability of a Labour party tacking left, also decided that there was nothing to see here, but doesn't Keir Starmer look smart in a suit? As ever, Matthew Goodwin managed to beat the field by a neck in the WTF stakes, abandoning all pretense to objective analysis in a paean to the Prime Minister (a cynic might suggest he's manoeuvring for a new grift in case "be nice to migrants" gains traction).


I think Waldman is wrong to be be pessimistic about democratic participation. We don't need to understand all the technicalities, we need to understand the social consequences, whether that be the possibility of war with Sparta or the scale of a pandemic death toll. And in achieving that understanding we shouldn't be surprised if society produces individuals, outside of institutionalised education, who have either the tacit knowledge or smarts to question received wisdom. You don't need to be an epidemiologist to understand that the government's reluctance to move to a lockdown earlier has probably resulted in more deaths. What remains obscure is how much that was a case of political considerations over-riding scientific advice, or scientists soft-pedalling their advice in anticipation of that political calculation. Dismissing criticisms as "hipster analysis" cannot obscure the apparent evidence, such as the markedly different outcomes between England and Ireland due to the latter's willingness to shut down social interaction early. The final accounting may show a different picture, but the UK's narrow definition of Covid-19 fatalities, including only those who were tested and excluding care homes and hospices, suggests the variation in outcomes could be bigger rather than smaller.

I also think Waldman places too much faith in the idea that the clerisy could itself be democratised through agencies such as community colleges. The problem is not a lack of neighbourhood epidemiologists, but the sheer size of the clerisy and the inertial bias this produces towards an aggressive conformism that is now (ironically) tending towards the know-nothing. In particular, our problem is the increasingly clannish nature of the clerisy's central nervous system, which manifests in a contempt for the public and a reluctance to question itself. For example: the revolving door between party politics and the media (Hazarika was a Labour advisor through two election defeats and now has a column in the Evening Standard); the excessive focus of political scientists on parties (except when it doesn't suit the narrative) and the concomittant neglect of social movements; and the politicisation of institutions and their increasing drift towards partisanship in response (notably at the BBC). The problem is not that we're ruled on the sly by experts, but that our politics is corrupted in plain sight by idiots and chancers.

Friday, 10 April 2020

On Consensus

Hannah Arendt, in a footnote to The Origins of Totalitarianism, quoted a twentieth century American political historian, Arthur N. Holcombe, on a distinctive feature of political duopolies: "[he] rightly stressed that in the double party system the principles of the two parties 'have tended to be the same. If they had not been substantially the same, submission to the victor would have been intolerable to the vanquished'". This provides an insight into the tendency to tack towards the political centre, but it also explains how politicians can come to accommodate a more radical departure towards what in effect becomes the new centre, as happened to Labour over the decade between 1983 and 1993. One reason why Corbynism failed to dominate the party, despite many of its prescriptions quickly becoming hegemonic, is that it ran out of time. It wasted two years trying to compromise with the PLP and then dissipated its post-2017 credit by vacillating over Brexit. The continuing hysteria of the Labour right up to December, and the current determination of the media to consign Corbyn's tenure to the oubliette of history, indicate that we were still in the second of the five stages of grief: denial. The bargaining had yet to begin. If history is any guide, Corbyn would have needed another five years and a succesful post-Brexit election.

Holcombe's theory suggests not only that one party can set the political agenda, but that it can effectively exert a gravitational pull on the policy platform of the other, for reasons pyschological as well as psephological. The obvious examples from the UK are the way that Labour in the late-40s set the parameters of political dispute for the next 30 years, while the Conservatives did likewise in the late-70s. In Holcombe's reading, this was as much due to an anxiety to narrow the distance between the parties as any profound shift in convictions or an accommodation with the presumed preferences of the electorate. Of course, we shouldn't exaggerate the idea of a sharp turn. As David Edgerton has pointed out, the Tories had laid the foundations of the welfare state in the interwar years, while Labour had begun to shift right on economic policy in 1974 (the SDP failed because while the Tories opened up a space on the centre-right, Labour was already moving to fill it - Bennism was fundamentally defensive, and arguably so was Corbynism). That said, for all the pragmatic talk of "new realities" and "what works", New Labour's turn to neoliberalism exhibited the messianic zeal of the convert (the Blairite dismissal of Corbyn's supporters as a cult was always guilty projection).

In contrast to the long half-century after 1945, the post-2008 era has been marked by abortive consensus, most notably on austerity. As is his wont, Simon Wren-Lewis attributes this to the influence of the press: "The opposition’s initial attempt to strike some balance between the goals of reducing the deficit and protecting the recovery (a misguided balance - the recovery should have come first) were abandoned because the media had decided that reducing the deficit was the only game in town". Revealingly, he is talking here about the post-2010 years, when Labour was the opposition. In retrospect it is clear that whether Gordon Brown saved the financial system in 2008/9, by encouraging the major economies to move quickly to bank bailouts and temporary nationalisation, he most definitely failed to set the political agenda in the run-up to the 2010 general election when he had the advantage of incumbency. One plausible explanation is that he couldn't free himself from the mental straitjacket of prudence, which allowed the Conservative party, with the ample assistance of the media, to make the political weather.


Austerity has few defenders today. It failed to shrink the state, as many of its advocates hoped, while leaving it weakened and vulnerable, as many of its critics feared (the imminent collapse of the NHS under the impact of seasonal flu has been forecast for some years now, so the greater impact of Covid-19 should surprise no one). The result is a new appreciation of both the state's capability as a backstop in the face of market collapse and social disruption, and of the need to build resilience and contingent capacity into public services (instead "We have built a fragile state", as Chris Cook puts it). This suggests that a new consensus is emerging around a reinvigorated state but there is no guarantee that this won't prove to be as abortive as austerity. The Tories appear to have stolen some of Labour's clothes in embracing intervention, but it's clear from the detail of the Chancellor's various announcements that there will be no shift in the balance of power between capital and labour and that the Treasury view will be reimposed at the earliest opportunity.

The reality of this new "one nation Toryism" will probably be an incoherent mashup of post-Brexit deregulation and grands projets in the style of the 50s and 60s (many of which were also aborted). The cost of Covid-19 to the exchequer will no doubt lead to renewed calls for cuts in public expenditure and increased taxes on labour (rather than wealth), which will be justified as "belt-tightening" and "shared sacrifice", while the Brexit-amplified recession will stimulate demands for better social protection and yet more valorisation of the Attlee years (I'm surprised the BBC hasn't already commissioned a historical drama about "Clem", with Patrick Stewart in the title role). There seems no obvious resolution of the tension between state and market on the horizon. The idea of a radical departure to a new consensus, such as the Green New Deal, has pretty much died a death with the political demise first of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in the UK and now of Bernie Sanders in the US. Those hoping that Ed Miliband will single-handedly revive it are likely to be disappointed. 

Both Corbyn and Sanders were ultimately vilified for refusing to subscribe to the jerry-built  consensus of the last decade on the incapacity of the state and the need to restrain public expenditure. That they have been proved right by events is irrelevant. In the two-party system what matters is that you don't move too far away from the other and make submission intolerable to the vanquished, as Holcombe put it. Despite Trump, the Republican party has not shifted ideologically since the days of George W. Bush, nor have the Democrats since Bill Clinton, reflecting the persistence of the Reagan consensus. In the UK, the recurrent talk of a government of national unity and the militant tone-policing directed at the left serves to narrow the gap further. The early talk of "responsible opposition" around Keir Starmer is not encouraging. It would be easy at this point to wheel out the old Gramsci quote about how the new cannot be born and so gives rise to morbid symptoms, but it would be more fruitful to ask why a new consensus cannot be forged, which in part means asking why Corbynism failed.

The essential charge against Corbyn is that he wasn't ruthless enough. He didn't remake the party, beyond inadvertantly prompting the auto-deselections of the Change UK clique; he tried to accommodate both pro and anti-Brexit forces, rather than sticking to his early principled stance, thereby fatally undermining the party's chances in a Brexit-dominated election; and his collegiate approach to policy development meant that the platform, while thorough, was slow to coalesce and too little thought was given to selling it outside traditional movement channels. This suggests that "Corbynism" suffered from the man's own subordinate history within the party and his personal decency, but a better interpretation is that he was institutionalised and also at heart a liberal (an irony that will go unappreciated by his critics). As Katrina Forrester puts it, "one of its strategic failures was trusting in the imaginative force of policy to create political constituencies. Corbynism was a kind of socialist project—the appeal, for socialists, was in large part its movement-building promise and its potential for antagonism—but at work in the election campaign was nonetheless a liberal trust in the power of policies to persuade."


Labour has always been an alliance between a wider socialist movement, a narrow trade union movement and a party apparat that disproportionately represented the professional classes. The fragmentation of the first following the rise of the New Left in the 60s and 70s, and the decline of the second from the 80s onwards, led to the dominance of the last in the form of New Labour and an associated shift towards neoliberalism: the "third way". What Corbyn offered was a rebalancing, but one in which the historic tensions between the New Left and the unions, around topics such as immigration and diversity, could be glossed over in support of a common economic policy and a sincere commitment to individual and collective rights. In the event, Brexit created a new fracture across all three groups, throwing Corbyn's delicate coalition out of balance. It's too early to say what "Starmerism" will actually be, but it's not too early to note that it is already marginalising movement socialists and the unions (or at least Unite), while promoting representatives of the professional classes to sustained liberal applause. This, rather than the New Statesman's invention of a soft-left in mild antagonism with the old right, is what will ultimately matter in terms of the party's positioning relative to the Conservatives.

This shift doesn't preclude Labour making the weather with a policy platform that inherits much from the Corbyn era, particularly given the current propitious circumstances in which to make the case for a more dirigiste national economy, but it's hard to believe that this radicalism would be enthusiastically maintained in the absence of the Covid-19 crisis, particularly once the media got to work on Starmer, and there remains the suspicion that in the debate on how to pay for the recovery the liberal defence of historic wealth will tip the balance towards a mix of "smart austerity" and increased taxes on workers and consumption. A new consensus is possible around state activism, but it is likely to prove abortive because neither of the two main parties are willing to commit to it wholeheartedly. We may well see a revived interest in the foundational economy and basic services, but I doubt we'll see significant nationalisation or a basic income funded from wealth expropriation and capital growth.

Even if the intellectual hegemony of neoliberalism is finally broken (which I think unlikely in the near future), the self-interest of the Tories' electoral coalition will rule out wealth taxes and restrain public expenditure, while Labour's dominant liberalism and the social prejudices of its professional apparat will prompt policy caution and a renewed respect for "wealth-creators". For all the "changed utterly" takes, Covid-19 may simply not be damaging enough to jolt politics into a new groove. More worringly, the "holiday of exchange value" occasioned by the crisis might futher encourage the moral valuation independent of the price system that has already been enabled by digital technology (what Will Davies has referred to as platform social-ism). Combine that with the petty authoritarianism of the police and the press, recently on show in the scolding of sunbathers, and the willingness of many British people to turn informer ("Are we the baddies?"), and we might well find that the future political consensus looks something like the Chinese social credit system with added Union Jackbootery. 

Friday, 3 April 2020

The State and the People

How much will Covid-19 cost? Despite the official insistence that the NHS will get "whatever it needs, whatever it costs", there has clearly been a lot of internal debate on what constitutes an acceptable price for the UK's response to the crisis. The initial commitment to a laissez-faire strategy and the subsequent volte-face to a more stringent policy of containment were motivated by assumptions about how much ruin society could tolerate (in the form of sick-leave as much as the death rate) and how capable the NHS is of managing the consequences. Now that the focus is more on how much ruin society can tolerate in terms of economic recession, the management of public opinion has shifted to the question of what a reasonable trade-off would be between increased mortality and reduced GDP. Following the poor reception of its "get herd immunity done" slogan, the government is now wary of leading such a sensitive discussion so it has outsourced responsibility for the debate to the hardened controversialists of the media.


Toby Young has predictably been at the forefront of the discourse, and just as predictably has been held up as a fool for his inability to get basic facts right, both in terms of the actual costs of premature mortality and the health consequences of recession. But he, like Daniel Hannan dolefully insisting on the need for a "grim calculation", has served his purpose in putting the question into the public domain and his critics have happily confirmed that a human life has a quantifiable cost and economic benefit. As Sam Bowman put it when disagreeing with Young, "All this suggests that, so far, the shutdown is worth it, and probably would be worth it for some time more, depending on how badly hit the economy turns out to be." As ever, British academia can produce a paper on demand to support any case. According to the Times, "Philip Thomas, professor of risk management at Bristol University, said that keeping the economy going in the next year was crucial, otherwise the measures would 'do more harm than good'".

Jonathan Portes, responding in the Guardian to this talk of a trade-off, demurred: "So what we should be worried about – both from an economic and a health perspective – is not how much GDP falls. It’s going to fall by a lot, and that’s a good thing. If it didn’t – if people were still going to work despite being told not to – then the lockdown wouldn’t be working and we’d still see economic consequences further down the line. It’s what happens to GDP in a year or 18 months that matters." But this isn't so much a flat rejection of Professor Thomas as a difference of tactical opinion that rests on a strategic agreement. As the Times put it: "This is why [Thomas] thinks the economy is crucial — not because of a callous belief that lives can be traded for money, but because money and lives are, at some point, the same thing. 'We see this very strong correlation between GDP and life expectancy,' he said."

"Money and lives are, at some point, the same thing" is the fundamental assumption that unites conservatives and liberals. This goes beyond the marginalist idea that our preferences can be accurately priced to the utilitarian belief that all human activity can be quantified in terms of the aggregate benefit to society. This remains a powerful factor behind the symbolism of GDP and the commitment to growth. Though the climate crisis has called the latter into question, our collective response has been dominated by the calculus of limits, targets and offsets, all of which are held to have a monetary equivalent. It is perfectly reasonable - in the sense of practical and effective - for society to be managed through numbers, but it doesn't necessarily follow that all of these indicators need to be translated into a uniform system of price. That is the Hayekian premise and it springs not from a desire to know more but from a desire to hold the world at arms-length through an all-purpose abstraction.


There is a broad correlation between GDP and longevity over the long-term, but there are also examples that break the rule over the short to medium-term, from World War Two (UK life expectancy actually rose, despite wartime casualities, while GDP fell) to the negatives of pollution and workplace risk during rapid industrialisation. The truth is that longevity is a product of a number of factors influenced by GDP, including policy decisions about how the fruits of growth are shared. Most countries spend more on health as they grow richer, but this tends to operate on a ratchet - they don't spend proportionately less in recessions, in fact they may spend more as public health is one of the automatic stabilisers of the economy. The claim that "normal" recessions lead to a reduction in life expectancy isn't borne out by the evidence. Some causes of death, such as suicide, increase while others decrease. And that's without factoring in the exceptional features of this crisis, such as the huge fall in road traffic reducing air pollution and accidents.

A slightly different perspective is available from conservative commentators like Andrew Neill and Allison Pearson, who have sought to distinguish between "dies with" and "dies from", thereby lowering the death rate attributable to Covid-19. This pedantry is obviously not motivated by a desire to accurately tabulate causes of mortality (both were predictably sceptical of the claims that austerity led to an increase in avoidable deaths). After all, people die all the time from complex pathologies that we simplify as "cancer" or "heart disease" but very few newspaper articles are written to complain about this. The purpose is clearly to undermine the case that Covid-19 is exceptional and thus call into question the exceptional public health measures. This is a strategy of dismissiveness that appears to be motivated equally by antipathy towards the "nanny" state and a fear that disruption will undermine the economic order.

In contrast, self-styled libertarians like Young appear to be motivated less by a sincere concern for economic trade-offs, as evidenced by their sketchy workings-out and crucial ommissions, and more by the exciting intersection of bioethics and utilitarianism that the crisis raises. In other words, the proximate thrill of our old friend, "life not worthy of life". The same dodgy reasoning is all too familiar from Young's previous musings on heredity and "progressive eugenics". Proposals for the betterment of the stock invariably reduce over time to a demand that everyone should justify their right to existence - that they should "pay their way" through their positive contribution to the herd. The difference between these two conservative camps, which is easy to miss if you simply attribute their separate claims to the instinctive denialism or callous indifference of the right, is that the mortality sceptics insist that certain deaths don't count while the eugenicists insist that certain people don't count.


The view from the liberal centre and centre-left is more humane. Sarah O'Connor in the Financial Times suggests that "the chancellor should pay a 'national gratitude bonus' to every key worker who is risking his or her own health to keep the rest of us comfortable at home. Once the economy has recovered, these jobs need to be made better. Insecure contracts and loopholes should be replaced with permanent jobs, better wages and more training and accreditation. This would not be costless." The latter prescription is fine, but without a frank discussion about means the ends remain merely aspirational. Are we talking about the mass-unionisation of gig-workers or a slightly higher minimum wage? But what stands out here is the proposal of a bonus, which looks all too clearly like putting a price on life, or at least on a risk that few are in a position to avoid without jeaopardising their job.

Adam Ramsay at openDemocracy has criticised the recent tendency to blame the people rather than scrutinise the government's dilatory response: "Of course we should support each other to stay safe. But we shouldn’t forget that that’s the first responsibility of the state. Of course we must all play our part in preventing the spread of this virus. But we should also be clear about who has the most power, how they have failed us and what they must do differently – now." The idea that the state's first responsibility is the safety of the people is not one that's borne out by history. Even in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and the clear expression of a popular demand for social security, politics was driven by the competing demands of welfare and the economy, most obviously in the concern over the escalating cost of the fledgling NHS and the consequent introduction of prescription charges. Coming on the back of a decade of unnecessary austerity, the insistence on a principle that has rarely if ever been adhered to strikes me as na├»ve.

The lack of preparedness and the discordance between the expectations of the state and the people evident in the current crisis is par for the course, not some atypical failing that can be laid at the door of Boris Johnson alone. There is also ample evidence of institutional discrimination, from Matt Hancock seeking to shame footballers while studiously ignoring the idle rich to the police instinctively using their greater disciplinary powers against those already deemed socially problematic. Ramsay makes a good point about this incidence: "Even more dangerously, though, when responsibility is cast onto an atomised population, it doesn’t land evenly. It is channelled down the social structures which already exist. Race, class, gender, sexuality: blame is always mobilised against the already marginalised." When the people are blamed en masse, you know that behind this charge are beliefs about varying degrees of culpability, and it is that discrimination that also lies behind the conservative questioning of value.


The crisis has revealed three truths. First, that the state does not take its responsibility to protect the population seriously, beyond a cynical concern about public opinion and poll ratings. This is not a particular failing of conservative administrations but a more profound institutional commitment to the notion of a supra-party national interest (raison d'Etat), which could also be seen in the calamity of Iraq. Second, that decades of the neoliberal erosion of the state's capability to intervene in society and the economy, in favour of its narrower role as a creator and guarantor of markets, have left it with a reduced capacity to respond to large-scale threats beyond public order, from pandemics to flooding. Third, that the idea that the economy serves the people - that it is the medium of aspiration and self-fulfilment - was always a con intended to hide the truth: that the people are expected to serve the economy - in other words, that labour must serve capital. The "grim calculation" of Young and Hannan is one of those rare occasions when a corner of the veil is lifted.