Increasing budget deficits and rising government debts are likely to entail fierce political battles—not least between taxpayers and public-sector workers

WHEN times are hard, many people are tempted to let their credit cards take the strain for a while. And when economies fall into recession, many governments are happy to let their budget deficits widen, to tide the economy over.


Sensible as this may be, deficits in several countries have increased so much and so fast during the economic crisis of the past 18 months or so that it is generally agreed that remedial action will be needed in the medium term. Deficits of 10% or more of GDP cannot be sustained for long, especially when nervous markets drive up the cost of servicing the growing debt.


Market pressure explains why deficits have come to the fore in southern Europe. Greece and Portugal, in particular, have seen a sharp rise in their cost of finance and some investors have questioned their ability to roll over their debt. But deficits will also be at the centre of the forthcoming British election campaign, and in America the “tea party” movement has launched a populist campaign against rising government spending.


There is no absolute rule on when deficits or public debts are too high relative to an economy’s size. Prior to the crisis the general consensus was that rich countries could safely have public debts worth 60% of GDP. Yet although Japan’s debt has exceeded its GDP for many years, the government has yet to suffer a financing crisis, perhaps because it has a large number of willing domestic buyers of its bonds. But when the markets do lose confidence in a government’s fiscal rectitude, a crisis can arise quite quickly, forcing countries into painful political decisions.


Plainly, economic growth makes policymakers’ lives much easier. Growth reduces deficits automatically by increasing tax revenues and cutting spending on unemployment benefits and so forth. As the economy grows, deficits fall, debts become more sustainable, lightening the adjustment burden and reassuring investors.

很明显,经济增长会让决策者的日子好过许多。通过税入的上升以及在失业救济等方面的支出下降,(经济)增长会自动达到削减赤字的效果。 随着经济增长,赤字回落,公债也会变得更具可持续性,调整的负担得以减轻,投资者也消除了疑虑。

Nations have recovered from huge debt burdens in the past, often in the aftermath of wars, when men and resources were released from conflict and put to more productive work. When politicians turn to today’s deficit problems, it is vital that they choose policies that enhance long-term growth prospects. They will not lack opportunities: in several countries, for example, increases in statutory pension ages and other reforms that make labour markets more flexible are anyway overdue.


It would, however, be unwise to assume that a burst of rapid and prolonged growth is imminent in many rich economies. Ageing or even shrinking populations make sluggish growth more likely. Growth also tends to be weak in the aftermath of financial crises. In a recent book on sovereign debt, “This Time is Different”, Carmen Reinhart of the University of Maryland and Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard conclude that “the evidence offers little support for the view that countries simply grow out of their debts.”

然而,假设许多发达国家即将迎来一个快速而持久的增长想来是不明智的。 随着人口的老龄化甚至萎缩,增长滞缓的可能性其实更大。而且,金融危机后的增长通常趋于疲弱。在一本有关主权债的新书《此次非比寻常》(“This Time is Different”)中,马里兰大学的卡门•莱因哈特(Carmen Reinhart)与哈佛的肯尼斯•罗格夫(Kenneth Rogoff) 得出结论认为,“几乎找不到什么证据可以支持这样的观点,即各国(可以)轻而易举地摆脱他们的债务。”

So, short of debt default or implicit default via inflation, that leaves two other ways of closing the deficit. Spending must be cut or taxpayers must pay more. Many political battles of the next few years will be fought on these simple lines, with taxpayers on one side and the beneficiaries of public spending on the other. One imminent battle will be between taxpayers and public-sector workers. In some countries, one party can be seen as representing taxpayers (the Conservatives in Britain and the Republicans in America) and the other the workers (Labour and the Democrats, respectively).


Another of these fights will be between generations. In America the biggest medium-term budget busters are pensions and health care for the old. A big deficit may ease the economic pain in the short term but risks saddling the next generation with a growth-sapping burden of higher taxes and interest payments. The battles are also intertwined: taxpayers finance the pensions of public employees which are, by and large, more generous and predictable than in the private sector.


The outcome of these battles will vary from country to country. Both sides have potent weapons. Many of the biggest taxpayers are political donors and have access to people in power. If they are ignored, they may pack up and move to a more friendly jurisdiction. In Europe especially, public employees, together with recipients of public services, probably have numbers on their side. They are certainly better organised, via their trade unions, and they are political donors too. As French workers have often shown, public-sector unions can intimidate governments with strikes and demonstrations. Their Greek brethren have been trying to emulate them.


The case for cuts

Experience suggests that governments should focus on spending cuts rather than tax increases. An NBER study of 1996 concluded that “fiscal adjustments which rely primarily on spending cuts and the government wage bill have a better chance of being successful and are expansionary. On the contrary, fiscal adjustments which rely primarily on tax increases and cuts in public investment tend not to last and are contractionary.” A paper by António Afonso of the European Central Bank and Davide Furceri of the OECD found that increases in government spending as a proportion of GDP tended to be correlated with slower economic growth. And a paper published by Policy Exchange, a right-of-centre British think-tank, concluded that successful debt consolidations had put 80% of the emphasis on spending cuts (see table).

经验表明,政府应致力于削减支出而不是提高税负。美国国民经济研究局(NBER)1996年的一份研究表明,“主要依靠政府薪资[以及转移支付]上的支出削减的财政调整[1],成功的机会更大,且属扩张性。相反,大多依靠增税与削减公共投资的财政调整则难以持久,而且具有紧缩性。”欧洲中央银行的António Afonso与经合组织的Davide Furceri合作撰写的一篇论文发现,政府支出的GDP占比的增加与经济增长放缓趋于相关。英国中右翼智库Policy Exchange发表的一篇论文认为,成功的债务重组有80%要归功于支出上的削减(见表格)。

Some of the more successful deficit-cutting programmes were accompanied by falls in inflation and interest rates. These made it easier for economies to rebound and helped shore up governments’ electoral support. But today inflation is already low, as are most countries’ bond yields. So cutting spending may not bring much reward from the markets in the shape of lower interest rates. Yet the thought that spending might not be cut may bring punishment in the form of higher ones.


Cutting public spending is, however, a hard slog. Spending on welfare rises automatically in a recession; pension payments continue to grow as the population ages. Western countries used the end of the cold war to slash defence budgets in the 1990s, but given continued military action in Afghanistan and the threat of terrorism, further big reductions are hard to envisage. Nor are there the easy, one-off gains to be made through privatisation of big industries pioneered in Britain in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher.


Barack Obama’s promise to freeze discretionary spending (excluding defence and homeland security) saves $250 billion over ten years—not much when annual deficits are $1 trillion or more. So government will have to tackle much more politically sensitive areas. Changes to Social Security (pensions), which are not part of discretionary spending, are likely to form part of any fiscal reform in America. Should the Conservatives win the British election, they may change eligibility for welfare payments.


Many governments have boxed themselves in by rewarding their own supporters with jobs or subsidies. In Greece, the right-wing New Democracy party came to power in 2004 pledging a liberalisation of the economy. When it left office in 2009, it had more civil servants than when it started. Such “clientilism” tends to lead to an ever bigger presence for the state in the economy, with more and more citizens depending on the government for employment and income. These people then vote in favour of the status quo. It may take a crisis to force governments to act in ways that hurt their core supporters.


When a crisis does occur, the markets tend to insist on public-expenditure cuts as a kind of test of the government’s machismo. In a recent paper Ms Reinhart and Mr Rogoff say: “Even countries that are committed to fully repaying their debts are forced to dramatically tighten fiscal policy in order to appear credible to investors and thereby reduce risk premia.”


Governments may thus find their political decisions driven by the need to keep markets onside. That is why the choice is so stark for the southern European countries, which are tied into the single-currency zone. No longer do these countries have the option of devaluing their currencies, which they have resorted to many times in the past. Nor can they combine tighter fiscal policy with loose monetary policy, because they do not control the latter.


Voters or creditors?

If the cuts demanded are particularly painful, governments may simply be unwilling to bear the political cost of pushing them through. A classic example occurred in 1931 when Britain was trying to remain on the gold standard. The then Labour government was told that cuts in the budget deficit, in particular unemployment benefits, were required to appease the markets; otherwise the Bank of England’s gold reserves would run out in two weeks. The cabinet split. Ramsay Macdonald, the prime minister, took charge of a (largely Conservative) coalition and has been reviled in left-wing circles ever since. And after all that effort, the austerity plan failed to do the trick; Britain left the gold standard within months.

倘使所需的(开支)削减尤其痛苦,将其推行到底的政治成本便可能是政府所非常不愿承担的。一个经典的例子发生于1931年,当时英国正设法维持金本位。彼时的工党政府被告知说,只有削减预算赤字——尤其是失业补助——才能平息市场,否则英格兰银行的黄金储备将在2个星期后告罄。内阁就此破裂。时任首相拉姆齐•麦克唐纳(Ramsay Macdonald)接管了一个(大体上由保守派组成的)联合政府,结果一直以来饱受左派谩骂。在付出一切努力之后,节俭计划终告失败;没用几个月的时间,英国就退出了金本位。

The 1931 episode was viewed in Labour Party history as a “bankers’ ramp” in which financiers tried to bounce a government into hurting the poor. Modern governments can also be tempted to blame “speculators”, a category covering everyone from bankers to hedge-fund managers, for their own failings. The idea that creditors might be concerned about the governments’ ability to pay their debts—and thus insist on a higher interest rate—seems to be hard for politicians to accept. At the Davos economic forum in January George Papandreou, Greece’s prime minister, said: “This is an attack on the euro zone by certain other interests, political or financial, and often countries are being used as the weak link, if you like, of the euro zone.”

这1931年的小插曲,在工党的历史上被视作“银行家的引道”[2]——金融家们通过它设法将政府逼到了损害穷人利益的路线上。今天的政府同样会试图将自己的问题栽到“投机者”的头上——他们所谓的“投机者”是一个广泛的概念,包含了从银行家到对冲基金经理在内的所有人。债权人可能因为担心政府的偿债能力而坚持提高利率的想法,对政治家而言似乎是难以接受的。在1月举行的达沃斯经济论坛(Davos economic forum)上,希腊总理乔治•帕潘德里欧(George Papandreou)说到:“这是某些其它利益集团——政治的也好、金融的也罢——对欧元区的攻击。大多数情况下,某些国家可以说是被当作了欧元区的薄弱环节。”

Even so, the Greek government has accepted that its deficit needs to be trimmed. In the politics of deficit reduction Mr Papandreou has some crucial advantages: opinion polls suggest that Greeks accept the need for austerity; he won a substantial election victory last year; the opposition is being supportive; and his Pasok party has strong links with the trade unions. It may be easier for a left-wing party to push through budget cuts.

即便如此,希腊政府还是承认了其平衡预算的必要。就削减赤字的政策而言,帕潘德里欧拥有一些决定性的优势:他在去年的大选中取得了显著性的胜利;民意测验表明希腊人接受这种节俭的必要;反对党也正表示支持;而其泛希社运党(Pasok party)与工会有着紧密的联系。对左翼政党而言,完成预算削减应该会容易一点。

Supportive social cohesion may explain Sweden’s successful fiscal tightening after the banking crisis of the early 1990s. The Social Democratic government turned a budget deficit of 9.3% of GDP in 1994 into a surplus of 1.2% by 1998. Spending fell by more than five percentage points as a proportion of GDP and tax revenues rose by almost as much. Growth averaged 3.2% in 1994-98 and unemployment was lower at the end than at the start—surely a political as well as an economic boon.


Politics within the government can help or hinder deficit reduction. Canada had three failed attempts at fiscal reform before a successful austerity programme was unveiled in the Liberal Party’s budget in 1995. Earlier efforts had been blocked by government departments. On the fourth attempt departments were encouraged to suggest sacrifices—and told that budgets would be cut by 10% across the board if they failed to agree. Cuts were made in several areas, including defence, farm subsidies and unemployment benefits. The budget went from a deficit of 6.7% of GDP in 1994 to a small surplus in 1997.

政府内部的利益之争,对赤字削减而言亦是可好可坏。直到一个成功的紧缩方案于1995年在自由党的预算中得以公布,加拿大此前三次财政改革的努力均宣告失败。早先的改革遇到了政府部门的阻力而无法推行。在第四次尝试中,各部门接到鼓励,要表现奉献精神——他们还被告知, 如果不能达成一致,包括全体人员在内的预算将被削减10%。 若干领域——包括国防,农业补贴以及失业救济——完成了开支的削减。预算从1994年占GDP6.7%的赤字转变为1997年的小额盈余。

It may be that tax hikes, particularly for the better off, are politically necessary to ensure popular acceptance that pain is being shared. But big tax increases can do economic damage. In the 1990s some of the more remarkable success stories were associated with countries that reduced taxes in order to attract business and capital. Ireland, which became known as the Celtic tiger because of its growth rate, has a corporate-tax rate of just 12.5% and chose not to raise it when it tightened its belt last year.

也许提税——尤其是对富人提税——才能确保大众接受痛苦分担的政策,这在政治上是必要的。但是大规模的增税可能损害经济。上世纪90年代还有一些更引人注目的成功故事,而与其相关的都是那些为吸引商业与资本而实行减税的国家。爱尔兰因其(高)增长率而被称作凯尔特之虎(Celtic tiger),它的公司税率只有12.5%,而且在去年的财政紧缩中也没有被提高。

The corporate-tax trend over the last 30 years has been remorselessly downward. A survey by Robert Carroll of American University in Washington, DC, found that the top rate in OECD countries (excluding America) had fallen from 51% in the early 1980s to 32% by 2009 (see chart). If businesses are attracted by low taxes, they may leave if rates rise.

过去30年,公司税的下降趋势可谓义无反顾。华府美利坚大学(American University in Washington, DC)的Robert Carroll做了一份调查发现,经合组织中的最高税率已从80年代初的51%下降到了2009年的32%(见图)。如果商业因为低税率而来,他们也可以因为高税率而去。

High-tax European governments have complained in the past about competition from countries like Ireland; the current crisis may lead to more calls for co-ordination of tax policies. Indeed, many countries will be raising taxes simultaneously, which may reduce the temptation for businesses to shift. Much depends on where countries start; it should be easier for those with lower tax burdens to increase their take.


High earners can also be mobile. So many French professionals moved to London in the past decade that Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, pleaded with them (and offered tax deals) to come back. Britain is gradually losing its appeal to high-earning foreigners. Calculations by PricewaterhouseCoopers, an accounting firm, show that British authorities will take a bigger tax bite out of the pay packet of a married executive earning £250,000 ($373,000) than any other G20 nation except Italy.


The need for countries to maximise their take from their citizens has caused a renewed interest in preventing tax evasion. Countries in the G20 have been pushing hard for low-tax countries such as Switzerland to provide information on foreign depositors. Nevertheless, there are plenty of legitimate ways for businesses and individuals to move to countries with more favourable tax regimes.


So the temptation will be to impose taxes that will be difficult to escape, in particular sales or value-added taxes. The political drawback of such levies is that they fall more heavily on the poor than the rich. This will be unpopular, especially because many people regard this crisis as the fault of high-earning bankers. Furthermore, if higher taxes eat into demand, economies may slip back into recession. A Japanese consumption-tax increase in 1997 is still blamed for derailing its recovery.


European governments have accordingly produced a mix of measures in their austerity packages. Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain have all promised to attack the public-sector wage bill by cutting or freezing wages or by reducing the number of staff. Greece announced a new round of cuts on March 3rd. But the packages have also contained tax rises (motorway tolls in Portugal, fuel taxes in Greece) and assaults on tax evasion.


In Greece, tax evasion seems to be rife among the professional classes, with very few citizens declaring high incomes; one response from the government has been to try to encourage the use of receipts. High earners claiming the personal tax allowance ofof EUR12,000 ($16,270) will need to provide receipts of at least that value.


Despite this attempt to spread the pain, the Greek government has been confronted with a wave of strikes by public-sector workers. Governments can use outside financial pressure as an excuse to push through reforms that might otherwise be politically unacceptable. But it is a fine balance. Voters may be more resistant if harsh measures are seen as being dictated by foreigners, whether from the EU or the IMF.


The people aren’t revolting

Lord Salisbury, a British prime minister, and other 19th-century conservatives feared that democracy would lead to the overthrow of private property rights. Debtors tend to outnumber creditors, and thus can outvote them.

英国前首相索尔斯伯里侯爵(Lord Salisbury)与其他19世纪的保守派人士认为,民主或将导致私有产权的终结。债务人的数量趋于超越债权人,结果在选票的数量上亦将如此。

Such pessimism has yet to be proved right. Sometimes, irresistible force meets immovable object. In California, for instance, voters have the right to vote on specific fiscal policies in referendums. The result has been a cap on taxes with no apparent limit on spending. Iceland is about to provide a specific test of this theory in a referendum, in which voters are being asked to accept or reject the terms for compensating foreign depositors in failed Icelandic banks.


However, the efforts of Canada and Sweden suggest progress can be made, if the crisis is acute enough. And dictatorships are unlikely to be better than democracies. Military regimes in Latin America (except Chile) had poor economic records; they saw the state as a source of cushy jobs for officers and subsidies for arms factories. In addition, their very lack of legitimacy may tempt autocracies to bribe influential sections of the electorate.


Nevertheless, democracies face awkward decisions in the years ahead. One of the biggest problems is pensions, which will dwarf the cost of the recent bank bail-out. When state pensions were introduced in 1889 by Otto von Bismarck, the German chancellor, life expectancy was 45; the idea was to provide an income for those who simply could not work any longer. Women who make it to 65 these days can expect 20 years of retirement.

然而,民主国家还是要在未来几年面对棘手的(政治)决策。一个最大的问题是养老金,其成本将使近来用于银行援救的资金相形见绌。当德意志宰相奥托•冯•俾斯麦(Otto von Bismarck)在1889年引入国家退休金的时候,预期寿命是45岁。其想法在于为那些干脆不能再工作的人提供保障。而今天,一个挺到65岁才退休的女人还有可能再活20年。

Even that tricky calculation relies on people working to 65 in the first place. Many employers, particularly in the public sector, developed the habit of letting workers retire in their late 50s or early 60s. Germans, who will soon face a state retirement age of 67, will resent being asked to bail out Greeks, who are only just being asked to work to 63.


In Britain, most public-sector workers are still members of final-salary, or defined-benefit, schemes, whereas new employees in private companies are usually placed in defined-contribution schemes with uncertain benefits. The difference in cost may be as much as 30% of payroll.


Raising the retirement age, probably to 70, and cutting the public-sector pension bill will deliver only modest savings in the short run, but will immensely improve the long-term picture. It will, however, be staggeringly unpopular. The proportion of the population in or nearing retirement is increasing; and older people are much more likely to vote than younger citizens. Without reform, however, those apathetic young voters face a crippling tax burden.


There are many battles over deficits to come: taxpayers against public-sector workers; old against young. Well-chosen policies that foster growth may make them less fierce. They may be bloody even so.