Deficit: the defining political concept of the times

It’s hard to avoid the word deficit these days. Whilst pre-eminent among its current uses is of course its application to fiscal deficits, that kind of deficit is by no means the only one we face. Indeed, although it’s dominated us both literally and metaphorically these last 4 years, we may well discover that fiscal deficit is neither the most damaging nor the most dangerous of the plethora of deficits that surround us.

In particular, I think we need to understand the fiscal deficit not primarily as a cause, but as an effect. Because the direction of causation is generally thought to be in the opposite direction, all the policy levers are directed at reducing and eliminating the fiscal deficit. Success in this endeavour will, we are assured, lead to everything else in the garden being rosy. It’s worth all the current pain. As in any other illness, the treatment must be aimed not at symptoms, but at causes; the deficit is the cause, and so it is that which we must attack. Hence the Coalition’s obsession with the deficit, the whole deficit, and nothing but the deficit. But, to pursue the medical metaphor for a moment, if the wrong cause is being attacked, the patient is likely to get sicker rather than better. Just as leech doctors saw all disease as being to do with the blood, and draining as much of it as possible, so the fiscal hawks see the deficit as being the only issue to be addressed. The economic consequences are as doleful – literally – as were those suffered by the 18th century patient.

But the fiscal deficit is not a cause, it’s an effect of other, more fundamental deficits. I would point to the following as being the most significant:

  • Democratic. I’m using the term in a broad sense, to go beyond the formalities of votes and ballot boxes, to encompass the general concept of control over the few by the many. Whether it’s the control of the mass of shareholders over the management of companies (witness the rebellion at Barclays over senior remuneration) or the control over media moguls by the electorate (witness the Leveson Inquiry for a spectacular example of that deficit in action) the failure of democracy, and the democratic deficit that failure has spawned, is much more fundamental than the fiscal deficit itself. Indeed, the fiscal deficit is like the meat in a sandwich of democratic failure. Lack of democratic control over capital has led to the fiscal deficit in the first place: the fiscal deficit now in turn deepens the democratic deficit by replacing elected governments with technocrats, as Greece and Italy attest.
  • Environmental. The fiscal deficit, everyone agrees, can only really be dealt with by economic growth. The political dispute is simply about to what extent policy should be directed at the fiscal deficit directly (totally if your name is George) and to what extent indirectly by stimulating growth (quite a bit if your name is Ed). But growth, as we currently understand it at least, is simply and inexorably ratcheting up the environmental deficit. The downward economic spiral is largely a result of the lack of consumption, which creates over-capacity in the economy, which responds by laying people off, who respond by not spending, which results in greater over-capacity, and so on. So we must consume more, buy more, make more. And then what? Unless we face the environmental deficit, and find new ways of creating prosperity, all other deficits will shortly be irrelevant, as Sir John Sulston’s Royal Society report makes clear.
  • Moral. Perhaps this is the most fundamental of all. Cardinal Keith O’Brien is every liberal’s favourite hate figure for his recent comments on gay marriage, but he is an instructive example of the truth that the same person can be both very wrong, and very right. In his attack on David Cameron for pursuing an immoral approach to tax and for failing to help poorer people but instead favouring “his very rich colleagues”, the Cardinal has surely put his finger on something significant. If any further evidence were needed, the latest Times Rich List shows that as the vast majority of our people see their living standards fall sharply, the rich sail on regardless, becoming ever richer in the process.

If we seriously addressed these three deficits, the fiscal one would sort out itself. As it is, the single-minded obsession with the fiscal deficit is leading us to ever greater deficits in the other three. We need to change direction, and fast. But that is not a castigation of George Osborne in favour of the lauding of Ed Balls. They are, in truth, as wrong as each other.


Panorama: appalling journalism uncovers appalling elderly care

Time was when the BBC’s Panorama programme was the journalistic jewel in British TV’s crown. Hard-hitting, but dispassionate; evidence-based and offering information from which the viewer might draw their own conclusions. That way of reporting is not the same thing as being in some artificial way neutral: investigative journalism isn’t about neutrality in the face of manifest wrong-doing, but it is about creating some distance between the reporter and the issues reported. A good piece of journalism in this genre is about the issues investigated: it is not some sort of opportunity for the reporter to display their own commitment to being on the side of the angels. It is not about them, after all.

Last night’s programme was investigative journalism re-packaged as consumer outrage, with the reporter breathlessly centre-stage throughout. “Look how appalled I am”, the programme screamed. It was all focused on the emotions of the daughter whose mother was being badly treated, and equally on the reporter’s emotional solidarity with her. It was reminiscent of Watchdog, or worse still, That’s Life. No attempt whatever was made to contextualise the undercover footage collected by the daughter. Nothing was said about the politics of elderly care in modern Britain. No politician was questioned. No economic analysis was offered. Nothing was said about the employment and recruitment practices of private care providers. When the regulatory environment was mentioned, we were pointlessly taken to outside the regulator’s offices to see again the reporter’s outraged and emotional credentials, but once more it was consumerist outrage that was uppermost in the programme’s mind. It could as easily have been a programme about a supermarket’s mouse-enclosing loaf of bread. “Ain’t it awful!” we were invited to agree. Well, yes, it many ways it was, but the programme merely scratched the surface, and left much more concealed than revealed.

Relentlessly the programme’s moral outrage was focused on the individual care staff, who were eventually hounded into unemployment and in one case, the courts. How disgraceful that these hapless workers should have the temerity to discuss their appalling terms and conditions of employment. One thing that united these care staff, apart from their manifest professional inadequacies and slave-labour wages, was that they were all non-white, and immigrants. Before everyone gets the impression that I am suggesting that there is something wrong with having either of those attributes, let me be clear. It is not their race or their immigration status per se that’s important: it’s what those things say about the market in care work staff. Poor conditions and poor pay cannot attract sufficient workers from the British labour market, and so employers must look further afield to where wages are lower, conditions are worse, and thus make their offer attractive to workers in low-wage and labour rich markets. Couple this with lack of training, and criminal negligence from their managers, and the ghastly events recorded by the programme are indeed repugnant, but they are not a surprise. Left without any contextual analysis, the programme was effectively reinforcing the notion that if you employ Filipinos or Africans, this is what you get.

The problem of care for the elderly is indeed a scandalous and a pressing one. What we need are programmes that help us to understand what has led us to this malaise, that challenge the cuts in spending, and the cultural changes that leave our elderly citizens with no-where to go other than to institutions run by private sector commerce needing to make profits out of paper-thin margins. The problem is one of social, economic and political priority – or the lack of it – given to the needs of our ageing population. Difficult matters. Challenging matters.

How much easier to show emotive footage and an earnest reporter, and leave the difficulty and the challenge aside. How much easier, too, to hang out a few individuals to dry – and to show with triumphal, callous indifference, a wife and child who will now be husbandless fatherless for 18 months, and to revel in the perpetrator’s likely deportation. Job done.