Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Gordon Brown has given what is probably his last budget speech, and it is in many ways a typical politically astute Brown budget.

The basic rate of income tax is to fall to 20% (though this will almost all be offset by scrapping the bottom rate of 10%). This is a headline grabbing move, but it should not disguise the fact that, while the budget appears to be very mildly expansionary over the coming year, it has implications that are more deflationary over the medium term. The changes to road tax and to the treatment of empty properties, due to kick in during the 2008-09 financial year, will raise the tax take quite significantly. To the extent that people see the higher taxes coming, and start saving now in order to pay them later, the budget should help take some of the heat out of the UK economy.

There are numerous green twiddles - taxing gas guzzlers more, taxing fuel-efficient cars less, scrapping stamp duty on new carbon-neutral houses etc. These capture both the spirit of the times and the ground of Brown's political opponents.

There is more money for education. Good. Education is an investment. But the government's experience in giving money for health without adequate conditions should provide it with a lesson. There is still a lot of work to be done in reforming our education system.

Over the longer period, Mr Brown has succeeded - despite some scares along the way - in satisfying his own 'golden rule': that on average over the business cycle the government should achieve a surplus on its current budget. He's taxed and spent: that has implications for efficiency at the microeconomic level that may represent chickens that have yet to come to roost. But as a steward of the macroeconomy, Mr Brown has earned his reputation for financial responsibility rather well.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The government has proposed the introduction of legally binding targets for the reduction of carbon emissions. A carbon budget would be set every five years, with the government being legally accountable for the meeting of this target.

The proposal has been welcomed cautiously by most commentators. The caution relates to the five years period. While five years is the maximum lifetime of a parliament, typically general elections are called after about four years. So one government could blame a failure to meet the target on a previous regime.

An obvious way around this problem would be to set a target for the lifetime of a parliament. A target, achievable within five years, could be set. If the target is not met by the time a general election is called (whether that is after five years or sooner), the government could be made liable. This might encourage governments to buy electoral flexibility by meeting targets sooner rather than later.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The government has published a report by David Freud which argues in favour of allowing private companies to offer (at the government's expense) one to one support to long term unemployed people to help them get back to work. This will, no doubt, be regarded by some as a privatisation of JobCentres. It is to be welcomed.

The incentives that would be offered such firms are clear. The incentives facing public sector JobCentres are (by way of contrast, and probably inevitably) blunt. So this would seem to be an idea well worth trying out.