George Osborne: A solid, but not spectacular Chancellor

As announced last night, George Osborne is no longer Chancellor of the Exchequer. Plenty of articles have already been written regarding how he’ll be remembered and whatnot (see, for example, here), but what really matters in an evaluation of his performance as Chancellor is focusing on the long-term impact of his main policies.

Of course, the main focus of Osborne’s term as Chancellor was “austerity” (or, as it is described in technical terms, a “fiscal consolidation”). There is lots of debate as to whether austerity is harmful or is beneficial to growth in the short-run – for example, Alesina & Ardagna, and some parts of the IMF, find that fiscal consolidations actually increase short-term growth, whereas the likes of Guajardo et al. and other parts of the IMF believe that fiscal consolidations harm short-term growth.

However, what really matters in evaluating the impact of austerity is its likely affect on long-term growth. Here, none of the aforementioned studies have anything to say, but there are good reasons to believe that austerity is beneficial for long-term growth. For example, it seems plausible that the amount of time required for a country to re-establish any lost credibility (either with taxpayers or the central bank) that arises from running continually large fiscal deficits could be relatively high – convincing people that a country is now fiscally responsible is unlikely to be the matter of a few years’ work.

In other words, it is plausible that it could take longer than just a few years for people to change their opinion regarding a country’s fiscal responsibility, such that the full impact of fiscal consolidations are only likely to be felt far into the future. Moreover, even though a recent working paper (by Fata & Summers) suggest that fiscal consolidations hamper long-run growth, those papers are based on a methodology that is fundamentally flawed.) Hence, austerity per se could have been a good policy of Osborne’s.

However, Osborne erred when he cut government spending on investments and infrastructure. At a time of incredibly low interest rates, it would have made sense to borrow to invest in projects that would have reaped a return in the future – the costs of borrowing are low, while the expected future benefits of such investments are likely to be high (in terms of their impact on future growth and on future tax revenues). Therefore, Osborne’s focus on cutting all, rather than just day-to-day, spending was misguided. Just as misguided (for the same reasons, since it prevented Osborne from borrowing to invest in infrastructure) was his Fiscal Charter.

Similarly, protecting spending on the NHS and on international development meant that there was little incentive for those departments to find savings despite the fact that they, and the NHS in particular, is bloated and full of inefficiencies (witness the large NHS deficits). If those departments had not had their budgets protected, a more efficient and equitable distribution of the cuts to day-to-day spending could have been achieved (since if the NHS or development budgets had been cut slightly, then other departments’ budgets would not need decreasing as much). Likewise, the triple lock on pensions. So, another negative point for Osborne there.

On the other hand, Osborne did set up the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), which was undoubtedly a very good thing. Although not quite as dramatic as Labour granting the Bank of England (instrument) independence in 1997, this step was important since it enabled and promoted independent oversight of government forecasts and spending plans. Moreover, it added much-needed rigour to Treasury analysis, evaluation of government performance against fiscal targets etc. since those working in the Treasury know that people at the OBR will review and evaluate any plans and forecasts.

Getting on to some of the smaller issues, the pasty-tax debacle was also a negative point. Specifically, the introduction of the tax was actually a decent idea – it removed some of the myriad of exemptions that apply to VAT, thereby simplifying the tax system – but the subsequent reversal of the policy in the face of (relatively small) public backlash was weak and disappointing to see. Likewise, the introduction of the National Living Wage policy was a good idea, but restricting it to over 25s seems rather a cop-out, and instead the minimum wage should (and could easily) have been increased to the level of the NLW, thereby benefiting more people without substantially increasing businesses’ costs.

There are also things that Osborne couldn’t really do much about, but for which some might blame him anyway. The lack of productivity growth might be one, but that’s more the responsibility of other departments than it is the Treasury. Failing to meet, or continually adjusting, his fiscal targets could be another – but Osborne was hampered in meeting those because of sluggish growth in the global economy.

Overall, then, it seems as though there are plenty of things over which Osborne can be criticised (e.g. refusing to borrow to invest, protecting certain departments’ budgets), but equally there are plenty of policies he introduced that are worthy of praise (e.g. the OBR, consolidating day-to-day fiscal spending). As such, Osborne will most likely go down in history as fairly middle of the road – some good bits, some bad bits, but generally not outstanding in either category.