Expenses scandal masks big issues
You may have seen the email doing the rounds a few weeks ago that gave a visual representation of what a trillion pounds would look like if it was stacked in £100 notes. The image is breathtaking – and largely surreal.
I mention this because I’m increasing frustrated with the energy devoted to the scandal surrounding MPs’ expenses. I’m also tired of the “green shoot” lobby telling us the worst economic decline in 60 years is over.
Let’s take the expenses – and that email – first. If you loaded up the £100 pounds notes and double-stacked them on pallets, you’d need at least a dozen tennis courts to hold a trillion pounds. Well, that’s about the size of a year’s worth of output in HM Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And it’s also just about the size of the spending pledges, committed capital and contingent liabilities taken on by said government to prevent the total collapse of a system that ran amok for the previous 15 to 20 years. Imagine. Every single penny produced in the entire country for an entire year has already been accounted for. And yet, at a time when Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Chancellor Alistair Darling were plugging leaks faster than a sailor on a wicker ship, poll ratings were supportive and the electorate was blaming “bankers”, “Americans” or, best of all “American bankers”. Sorry, but this won’t do.
Successive governments tooled the economy to be almost entirely dependent on consumer spending and the exporting and importing of financial expertise. It was easy to see this over-dependence as folly; it required political bravery to change it. Guess what happened? Nothing changed.
Now back to the trillions. Maybe we can’t visualise the cash we’re going to need to raise (£220 bn this year) or the £175bn budget deficit or the debt-to-GDP ratio of 100 percent many predict for the near future. But we can all understand what it means to be paid £1,500 for a television set or to claim for a £5 pound church donation or some ill-advised adult film rentals. So we focus our anger at MPs’ petty perks of office instead.
Look, I’m as outraged as anyone else when I read about MPs’ greed. But I’m not going to allow myself to get distracted from the real failures of this government – nor the lack of strategy from the current opposition. All politicians are all to pleased to talk about this scandal: it’s one they can and will fix. Meanwhile the economy flatlines, tax revenues plunge, businesses go bust and the nation goes deeper in hock. No one wants to talk about that though.
The green shoot lobby asserts the end of the recession is just around the corner, and that all is well on the good ship Britannia. It’s not. And the more energy we devote to the few hundred thousand pounds of greed the less we do to the billions (and counting) already spent that look far too little and far too late.
Martin Baccardax is economics editor for CNBC.