The economics world is focusing again on fiscal policy and the level of government borrowing. In particular, battle lines are being drawn between those who believe that increasing government borrowing will help the economy and those who, like me, believe that more borrowing will add to our serious economic problems.
However, this focus on whether increasing borrowing will lead to a short-term increase in growth obscures the essential nature of the national debt. When the government borrows it spends now and sends the bill to a future generation of taxpayers: the government takes a conscious decision to impose the costs of the current generations consumption onto a future generation.
To do this is inequitable. But it would not be so bad if our national debt was only equal to the figure that Alistair Darling has announced. Real public borrowing goes way beyond the figure that governments admit to in their national accounts.
The most obvious hidden item is that from future pension liabilities. In state pension systems there is no fund accumulated to meet future pensions. Instead, the current generation of workers promises itself pensions which are to be paid by future generations of taxpayers. The French call this inter-generational solidarity because the implicit agreement is that the next generation of voters will vote itself pensions paid from their childrens taxes. And so it goes on
The problem is that, in most European countries as well as in some under-developed countries, the future pension commitments are enormous and the populations of many countries are expected to shrink.
The official government debt for the UK is about £650bn and this is expected to soar due to Alistair Darlings planned profligacy and the successive banking rescues. But, according to IEA figures, pension liabilities to public sector workers are about £1,200bn and other state pension liabilities are of the order of £2,500bn. All told, we are passing on over £4,000bn of government debt to the next generation. This is a staggering figure of around 270% of national income.
Will our children be able to afford to repay this debt? Two preconditions are probably necessary if the debt is not to lead to huge problems for future generations. The first is that we have a healthy, thriving economy. The second is that the working population does not fall dramatically compared with the number of pensioners.
In fact, we are certainly walking on a cliff edge. Public spending on health, welfare and education are all rising rapidly and the private sector of the economy is ever-more bound up with regulation and