Fiscal rules and election campaigns

24 Sep

As the UK Labour Party’s annual conference kicks off this week, ideas are beginning to emerge about what Labour will offer in the run up to the 2015 general election. One of these ideas is to have the country’s independent budgetary body, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), to audit all of the pledges made by Labour in its election manifesto. Assuming that Labour’s tax and spend plans are found to be consistent with budgetary discipline and pledges on meeting deficit and public debt targets, the OBR would thus bolster Labour’s claims to responsibility and sound fiscal management.

This idea is nothing new for the Labour party. When Tony Blair carried his party to victory in 1997, he had promised to match Tory party spending commitments. This pledge had been intended to bury the long-standing image of the Labour party as a motley crew of profligate leftwingers. Over time, we have seen fiscal policy steadily depoliticized through the creation of fiscal councils and various fiscal rules, a development supported by the Left and the Right. The IMF estimated in 2009 that 80 countries in the world have adopted a fiscal rule of one kind of another. Debt brakes have been inscribed into constitutions in Germany and in Switzerland. In the UK, the OBR was created in order that government be made accountable to an independent body for its public spending. Elsewhere, fiscal councils with varying powers have become a common feature of the macro-economic policymaking landscape, as the table below highlights.

Fiscal Councils

Austria

Government Debt Committee (1997)

Belgium

High Council of Finance (1989)

Canada

Parliamentary Budget Office (2008)

Denmark

Economic Council (1962)

Germany

Council of Economic Experts (1962)

Hungary

Fiscal Council (2008)*

Netherlands

Central Planning Bureau (1947)

Slovenia

Fiscal Council (2010)

Sweden

Fiscal Policy Council (2007)

United Kingdom

Office for Budget Responsibility (2010)

United States

Congressional Budget Office (1975)

* Hungary’s fiscal council was dismantled in 2010

The European Union as a whole is organized around a set of budgetary rules that are policed and monitored by the European Commission, the so-called Fiscal Compact of 2012.  Monetary and fiscal policy are slowly starting to look alike as both policy areas come under the oversight of independent bodies of experts.

The idea of the British Labour party to submit manifesto promises to an independent audit takes this idea one step further. The message is clear: a promise made about spending by politicians is only credible if it has been overseen by a body of experts. Credibility and responsibility lies with apolitical bodies. Politics, itself, is the terrain of half-truths and misleading creative accounting.

One problem with this is the idea that once a policy has been given the stamp of approval by a body of experts, it becomes incontestable. Especially in the realm of fiscal policy, this is nonsense. Spending plans are notoriously subject to revision and change because they rest upon assumptions about the wider economy. Small changes in growth projections throw even the most carefully prepared and audited spending plans into disarray. That a party’s manifesto commitments are given the all clear by the OBR tells us little about what a party will do once in government. The OBR itself operates according to a set of assumptions about the maco-economy that are constantly subject to revision and change.

Another problem is that parties and governments that rely on monetary and fiscal rules set by independent bodies are in effect out-sourcing responsibility to these agencies. At the same time, these agencies – fiscal councils, central banks – only operate according to strict mandates set by politicians. The result is that neither the politicians nor the agencies accept the responsibility of making choices that are not right or wrong in any objective sense, but are based rather on what one believes is the right thing to do. This leaves us with a vacuum at the heart of politics. Ed Balls’ idea of auditing his campaign pledges brings that vacuum into the election campaign itself. Far from being a moment where rules are challenged and redrawn, the 2015 campaign risks becoming subject to the same rules and constraints that govern everyday politics today.

A word of advice to Ed Balls? It’s not because the OBR has given your policies the all-clear that voters will trust you. That will only come from building a direct relationship with them and engaging with them as citzens.

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