New figures from the Office for National Statistics confirm what most people know only too well: living standards are falling sharply as a result of the recession. And the Con-Dem Coalition’s budget measures will ensure that things get a whole lot worse.
Real household disposable income – the total income of Britain's working and unemployed populations after taxes and adjusted for inflation – dropped by 0.8% in 2010, according to the ONS. The slide signals the first drop in real incomes since 1981, also during a recession, and the biggest since 1977, when there was double-digit inflation. The decline is set to worsen sharply to about 2.0% this year as the biggest public spending cuts since the second world war begin in earnest.
Incomes are being held down or falling, whilst prices of basic necessities including food, clothing and transport are soaring. Despite historically low interest rates and falling property prices, housing hasn’t got any cheaper apart from a lucky few with short-lived tracker deals.
Chancellor Osborne has learned something from the family wall coverings firm of Osborne and Little. He’s adept at papering over the cracks, or trying to, using faint praise from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development – the club of rich countries – which said: “While this budget includes hard measures, we are convinced they are unavoidable in the short term to pave the way for a strong recovery".
The trouble is there’s no chance of a strong recovery. Trying to bring one about just makes things worse. Despite adopting a series of unprecedented changes, the list of bankrupt European countries is growing rapidly.
Food price inflation brought on by the tsunami of credit that followed the 2008 financial meltdown triggered a wave of simmering revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa that is spreading throughout the region to Syria and Saudi Arabia sending oil prices to record levels despite slowing demand.
In America, the strengthening of financial services regulation is already making a bad crisis worse. According to Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, the legislation “fails to capture the degree of global interconnectedness of recent decades which has not been substantially altered by the crisis of 2008”. Greenspan should know about these things as he presided over the growth of the credit bubble in the first place.
Greenspan, an arch-defender of unbridled capitalism says the modern economy is far too complex for regulators to understand, and to meddle is dangerous. He’s a much more old-fashioned kind of 'hands-off' guy, seeing crises as unfortunate exceptions to the normal functioning of the system.
He says: “Today’s competitive markets, whether we seek to recognise it or not, are driven by an international version of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ that is unredeemably opaque. With notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global ‘invisible hand’ has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.”
There is a truth in what he says, of course, in that market forces are pretty much uncontrollable. But in arguing against regulation, Greenspan is forced to open the can of worms that bedevils every one of the capitalist camps – the post-war relationship between growth and ever-expanding credit:
“The vexing question confronting regulators is whether this rising share of finance has been a necessary condition of growth in the past half century, or coincidence. In moving forward with regulatory repair, we may have to address the as yet unproved tie between the degree of financial complexity and higher standards of living.”
Like Osborne’s wallpaper, this thinly-veiled threat fails to mask the reality. Regulation or not, the majority of us will either have to live with the devastating and worsening consequences of the great crash that inevitably brought 50 years of credit fuelled growth to an end, or organise ourselves to replace the capitalist system with a sustainable, not-for-profit alternative.