Ryan Bourne holds the R Evan Scharf Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.
Rishi Sunak earned plaudits for his dealing with the immediate economic fallout from Covid-19. Yet today’s summer statement presents a thornier challenge than playing Emergency Santa, dishing out funds to keep businesses alive. For today requires taking steps to further facilitate the “normalisation” of economic life.
Boris Johnson waded into economics last week, arguing (rather conveniently) that the Coronavirus highlighted the need for his pre-pandemic “leveling-up” agenda. Exactly how Covid-19 proves the need for, say, HS2 is unclear. But underpinning the Prime Minister’s argument was an assumption that, post-lockdowns, we can get back to focusing on pre-virus priorities – in the Government’s case, state-led economic rebalancing.
Similar “back to our future” thinking underpins business representations ahead of this statement. From calls for taxpayer-financed high street spending vouchers, to VAT cuts for hard-hit sectors, the prevailing discourse appears to be “now the virus is less of a threat, let’s incentivise returning to normal activity,” with “normal” meaning “what happened in early March 2020.”
Perhaps it’s because I’m in the U.S. and so have been to this reopening BBQ before, but I bear bad news: while the UK can expect a relatively sharp bounce-back in things such as retail activity, “normalisation” will not and should not mean a return to the economy of March 2020.
Before a vaccine, consumers will go where they feel safe, businesses from restaurants to cinemas will be supply constrained by social distancing, and certain behaviors (from the demand shift from restaurants to supermarkets, to the supply shift to working from home) will partially remain. That will bring major reallocation costs: businesses will close and lay off workers, while other sectors grow.
It was understandable that the Chancellor, not knowing which businesses would be viable after lockdown, set up a furlough scheme to avoid companies and jobs perishing. This helped protect important “job-matching capital” and “firm-specific capital” – i.e. people doing jobs they are good at and firms as important bundles of productive relationships. But one risk was always that businesses would interpret support not as mere lockdown relief, but a commitment to ensure their survival through the whole pandemic.
Some aspects of the campaign for arts subsidies, rumblings by MPs for ongoing aerospace supply-chain support, and the Resolution Foundation’s gimmicky “high street vouchers” idea suggest that some now do believe the Government should support sectors, even after full re-openings, precisely because consumers would otherwise continue to reject them, preferring not to fly as much, attend as many in-person events, or go to fewer restaurants or stores.
This is a very different policy proposition. Attempting to keep the March 2020 economy preserved as some eternal truth would mean workers and funds not being where businesses and consumers actually value them given today’s circumstances, bringing large economic costs beyond the fiscal.
For example, if more professionals now work from home semi-permanently, then tastes will shift from buying lunches within cities to local delis, online, or at supermarkets. Hence why Pret is laying off workers.
But as Julian Jessop has said, the purpose of economic policy should not be to protect Pret jobs. What normalisation should instead mean is the return to a functioning market economy where the rise and fall of businesses depends on their ability to meet our wants and needs in today’s circumstances. Sunak’s aim, in other words, should now be “market-led adaptation to the virus.”
We want businesses to figure out how to serve us in safe, cost-effective ways. The alternative – having the government tilt activity towards our early 2020 preferences – would not only encourage activity worse from a public health risk perspective, but also inevitably subsidise much that would take place anyway.
So Sunak should today reject “painting by numbers Keynesianism” that sees industry spending collapses as holes taxpayers should help fill in. He should snub VAT cuts or vouchers. If, with the virus still around, people would rather spend money on food to cook at home, Netflix subscriptions, and a hot tub for the back garden over restaurants, cinemas, and trips to the Lake District, workers and capital should flow accordingly. Economic activity serves consumers, not vice versa.
That’s not to say government cannot make this process less painful. But we need to be clear about the challenge we face: a supply-side shock we hid with relief. New realities mean workers in the wrong jobs, businesses serving customers in the wrong ways, and capital in the wrong places. Government policy should focus on removing barriers that gum up businesses, landlords, workers and entrepreneurs adjusting.
Sunak appears to get this on the worker side. He is tapering the furlough scheme gradually to give businesses breathing room, but inevitably those with newly uneconomic business models will make some permanent layoffs.
It’s crucial to try to get workers reallocated into new roles quickly to avoid the scarring effects of unemployment. Direct financial incentives for new hiring, even beyond subsidies for traineeships trailed in the papers, would encourage this. The reported plans for expansions of jobcentre capabilities are important too to try to speed up the matching process of unemployed workers to new roles, as would re-training efforts be. Some U.S. states are rolling back licensing restrictions on people shifting to different jobs too. With child-care difficult to come by, now would be a good time to review the UK’s oppressive childcare regulations, for example.
Yet the Conservatives should do more to facilitate the adaptation of businesses as well. Repurposing premises to earn consumers’ confidence often requires upfront investments that the Chancellor should write-off entirely for the basis of tax, through full expensing of investment. The planning law reforms should have an eye to business activities too – if more out-of-town activity is demanded, let it bloom.
The case for allowing existing businesses and property owners more flexibility – on how they operate, opening hours, what premises can be used for etc– is overwhelming as well. With apologies to my Editor, when we are seriously discussing throwing billions at retailers such as John Lewis or Topshop through vouchers, it seems daft to consider it beyond the pale that such retailers open beyond 6pm on a Sunday. Give freedom to businesses to adjust to what customers want: what barriers exist to entrepreneurs developing drive-through cinemas, for example? These are the sorts of supply-side questions that should animate government.
As always with fiscal events, any financial support to industries will be heralded as ‘good news’ and absence of it denounced as throwing sectors to the wolves. But it’s time for Sunak to be bold and honest: his task is not to “normalise” activity by resuscitating the composition of the March 2020 economy, but to “normalise” the market-led economy that makes us rich by meeting our demands.