Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Then and now

I've just finished the second volume, Everything She Wants, of Charles Moore's authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher. It covers 1982-87, and it's excellent. Whatever your political views are - and many people will be starting from a strong opinion about her -  you're likely to end up with a more balanced view. The first volume, Not For Turning, was equally good, and won multiple industry prizes.

From an economist's point of view, it's interesting to look back on the economic policy of thirty years ago. One particularly striking aspect was the bizarrely uncoordinated way of running fiscal policy, or as the book puts it (p185)
Under the British system, the Budget is not a Cabinet decision, though the Cabinet is perfunctorily consulted and informed before it is unveiled to Parliament. It belongs exclusively to the Chancellor [of the Exchequer], and 'The only person the Chancellor is obliged to consult is the Prime Minister'
Some other aspects of fiscal policy also looked questionable. One of the motivations for asset sales was the cosmetic effect of appearing to reduce the fiscal deficit by counting the sales proceeds as current revenue - a bad practice. And monopolies such as British Telecom (BT) were sold off to maximise the sale price, with inadequate controls on subsequent profiteering. Not that the UK was alone in taking the money and running - as recently as 2002, the Australian government sold off Sydney Airport on terms which effectively prevented any rival airport getting underway.

The big UK Budget set-pieces also reminded me that once-a-year adjustment of revenue and spending looked odd even back then, and has become even more anachronistic since. There may be some reasons why you can't adjust fiscal policy day-by-day (people would have some difficulty staying on top of their tax owing, as would the IRD in collecting it), but on the other hand there's been a big step forward in automating the likes of payroll systems over the past thirty years, and some of the supposed constraints on more frequent than annual tax or spending changes may well have dropped away. And there's certainly no good reason why (say) increased infrastructure spending has to wait till May 16 (our Budget date this year) for the starter's pistol to go off.

Monetary policy was relatively primitive. Early on the Thatcher government set out on a tough anti-inflation squeeze - my first mortgage, which I took out in the UK in 1979, was on a fixed 14% rate - and ran policy by trying to manage one or more of the monetary aggregates (typically 'sterling M3'). But Goodhart's Law kicked in, and Chapter 13 consequently deals with 'The death-knell of monetarism'. Monetary policy as we mostly know it today - with an independent central bank and an inflation-targetting regime - didn't arrive in the UK till 1997, under an incoming Labour government with more modern ideas.

Not that everything back then was ramshackle. The UK took a trick with a politically adroit way of allocating shares in British Telecom - "Everyone applying for 400 shares or fewer got 100 per cent of what they sought. Those who applied for 100,000 shares or more got nothing" (p198) - which sat nicely with the 'popular capitalism' aim of the sale, and which might be worth revisiting if we ever get round to future privatisations (that 45% stake in Kiwibank, maybe?).

And the Thatcher government (belatedly) came up with regulation for the likes of BT that was state of the art, including Professor Stephen Littlechild's 'RPI minus X':
This was not supposed to be the ultimate answer to the monopoly problem, but was more of a stop-gap measure until sufficient competition developed. As matters turned out, however, it stopped a great many gaps, and became a regulatory model for other privatizations (p196)
I think it can still plug a great many gaps, and I'm not sure we (and other countries) are doing a better job with highly complex and expensive 'rate of return' alternatives.

I was also reminded of the then closed, snobbish, sexist nature of the City of London, where a provincial, middle class woman with a science degree like Margaret Thatcher was, not to put too fine a word on it, outright despised:
[Cecil] Parkinson recalled meeting her returning from lunch at a big bank before her first victory in 1979. 'They had given her hell. She was very depressed. I said: "Don't worry; they'll vote for you, and they'll forget it". "They may", replied Margaret, "but I won't"' (p215)
Final words to the inimitable Denis Thatcher who was accompanying Mrs Thatcher at a Commonwealth conference in India:
At this conference, Denis's irritation with the physical arrangements boiled over. During the leaders' 'retreat' in Goa, there were constant power cuts. He emerged on the balcony of the chalet allotted to the Thatchers and bellowed: 'This place is very high on the buggeration factor' (p548n)


  1. I must add this to the Kindle for my Christmas reading. A lot of good reviews of this book in lots of different places.

  2. Tom Sargent made a good critique of Margaret Thatcher's monetary policy in 1982. It is at the end of this general post on her

  3. Thanks for both comments. The book is amazing: he has had access to anyone who was anyone at the time, and to sources unavailable to others, and has handled it all brilliantly. It's a masterwork of biography. On the monetarism, thanks for the reference, which I've read. My feeling - than and now - was that 'monetarism' was very much just a means to an end in the Thatcher years, rather than a strongly felt ideology. I'm sure there was the odd strongly committed monetarist around the place, but its main use was to provide pseudo-scientific cover for a tough disinflationary monetary policy. Why it needed camouflage is another question, esp after Volcker's US disinflation of the early 80s, but my feel is that they preferred not to have their fingerprints so obviously on high interest rates and preferred to be at one remove