Zoltán Pogátsa's blog on economics in English

Zoltán Pogátsa's blog on economics in English

Monday, 8 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher, the Mother of Our Neoliberal Crisis

(Source of article: Heterodox International Political Economy by Zoltan Pogatsa)

When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the UK 1979, she was the first true neoliberal in a major country of the world to be given a chance to implement the creed in practice. She was admittedly deeply influenced by Hayek, whom she held in a high regard, and was in regular contact with. A diehard crusader against communism, deeply committed to capitalism, she found Hayek’s ideas very useful in making her case. She was also a self professed monetarist, and while she duly respected Friedman, he featured much less in Mrs. Thatcher’s symbolism than Hayek, who had had much more direct a connection with Britain. Nevertheless she was a firm believer in the need for sound money, and tried to control the money supply in her initial years, until she realised it did not bring the desired results, at which point she refocused her attention to other axioms of the neoliberal dogma.
Thatcher believed firmly in reducing the size of the state, primarily through reduction of state expenditure. She was convinced that Keynesian solutions to fighting employment were in error, and the only way open for government to do anything about employment was to lower income taxes on the revenue side. This belief was latter coupled in her mind with the Laffer curve and ‘trickle-down economics’, both imports from Ronald Reagan’s America.
Perhaps surprisingly, Thatcher was initially not focused on privatisation. In fact she detested the word, preferring to use ‘denationalisation’ instead. What she did focus on, however, was the restructuring of state enterprises. Her predecessors had nationalised a relatively large share of British industry, and together with the state-led natural monopolies state ownership constituted a sizeable proportion of the UK economy. In these firms, but also in numerous privately run enterprises trade unions managed to acquire overly strong powers over time. This in turn led to over-employment, pay rises beyond business rationale, and as a consequence the loss of competitiveness for British industry generally. What Thatcher wanted to do first and foremost was to revoke these strong rights from the unions, opening the way to rationalisation of employment, technology and production. The curbing of union rights and the resulting heavy loss of jobs of course meant open and violent confrontation with them, as emblemised by her clash with union leader Arthur Scargill and his miners.
Initially the intent of the Thatcher government was to denationalise only a rather limited share of state assets. It was during the process really that her government realised the full political potential of privatisation. Shares of state firms that were to be privatised were more often than not undervalued in the initial public offerings, which made them very desirable, as their price was bound to increase as soon as they were released and bought. Thatcher justified this by claiming that even if this were the case, it was still worth it to take unprofitable companies off the books of the state. While this was true, it has also often been suggested that it was not so much private ownership that later made these firms profitable, but the fact that they were to face competitors. Thus by the time they had been restructured in order to be privatised, they were already able to perform in an economically rational way, were they provided competitors, with or without eventually ending up in private hands. A more formidable form of opposition to the privatisation process came from within her own party. The former Conservative Prime Minister Harold MacMillan famously likened privatisation to the ‘selling of family silver’, a quotation that has resurfaced again and again wherever and whenever state assets were being sold.
Privatisation in manufacturing, transport and telecommunication was a logical precursor to the deregulation of the British financial sector, known generally as the Big Bang, which entailed freeing up financial services to foreign firms. Deregulation opened the way for the City to become one of the key financial centres of the global economy, shifting the core of the British economy from obsolete manufacturing to a heavy dependence on financial services which was to have an unequal effect on the UK geographically for decades, and eventually lead to a major collapse after 2008 with the emergence of the global financial crisis.
A key area of privatisation by the Thatcher government became the housing stock of the local councils. On the one hand it was very popular with the Brits, who have a higher tendency to want to own their flats than their continental counterparts. On the other hand it radically widened the supporter’s base of the Tory party in those years. Margaret Thatcher used to think of and refer to home owners as ‘our people’, and she was likely to have been right.
The initial years of Thatcher as a monetarist Prime Minister were a spectacular failure. They were unable to control the money supply (LM3), their most symbolic policy objective, and inflation increased. Many Keynesians argued at the time that had the government been able to control M3, the resulting squeeze would have made the recession ever deeper.
There was proof that inflation was not ‘always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon’. In their first budget, faithfully to their creed, they lowered the standard rate of income tax from 33 to 30 pence in the pound, and the top rate from 83 per cent to 60. The loss of revenue was counterbalanced by a doubling of VAT revenues, which clearly had the immediate effect of raising inflation radically. It doubled from 10.3 per cent to 21.9 per cent in a year. The creation of a single VAT rate also eliminated the possibility of making use of this tax for something it easily lends itself, differentiated taxation in order to guarantee contributions from richer segments and to favour poorer ones. This, however, was never the goal of the conservatives naturally. It is important to stress, however, that unemployment also did not decrease as a consequence of income tax cuts. In fact it continued to rise for long years ahead.
At the end of her first term Margaret Thatcher stood to lose the election with the lowest popularity rating of any PM in history. However, she was saved by the somewhat bizarre incident known as the Falklands War. In this rather strange conflict she gloriously saved 1800 British subjects from becoming Argentine citizens on a small and barren icy island that her husband afterwards dubbed “miles and miles of bugger all’ upon visiting. She inflated the defence of this awkward remnant of British colonialism 8000 miles from Britain, dependent on the British taxpayer, as the frontier for rolling back aggression and standing up to the defence of the free world. Her ‘Lilliputian war’, as her biographer John Campbell calls it, cost her Ł3 billion from the national budget. Hardly a case of prudent housekeeping, but strangely it did have the amazing effect of uniting the previously hostile British public behind her ‘Churchill like’ war leadership. Ever since, the phenomenon of a political leader trying to reconquer popularity through going to war has been referred to as ‘the Falkland effect’.
Eventually economic recovery did arrive in the second half of the eighties. It is to this part of her governance that her supporters point to as proof of the eventual positive effects of Thatcherism. It came to be known as the ‘Lawson boom’, named after Nigel Lawson, his very talented Chancellor who presided over this period.
The most obvious reason for the Lawson boom was the fact that by this time the world economy had climbed out of recession, and there was demand overseas for British products and services. Clearly, there were healthy domestic elements in the boom as well. After years of intransigence, Mrs Thatcher finally forced the way open to restructuring of obsolete and overly expensive British manufacturing. This resulted in a heavy loss of jobs and output, and eventually in the complete disappearance for instance of the British automobile industry, but in the long run it is hard to argue that it was necessary and had a positive effect. The switch to a heavy dependence on finance is much more questionable. As it became obvious by the 2008 global financial crisis, overly deregulation in the financial industries brought with it an enormous potential for bubbles, unfair business practices and collapse. Financialising one’s industry is also an economic policy that cannot be repeated elsewhere. The global economy only needs a handful of global financial centres.
The Big Bang of the financial Sun, the City, was followed by the development of a string of tax heaven Moons around Britain from Guernsey through Jersey to Belize, the Cayman Islands and the Isle of Man. They represent an exploitative and unfair way of conducting international finance, and are far from being insignificant in size.
The explosion of credit also helped fan the boom, both in terms of national borrowing and at the levels of households. The latter took the form of both mortgages and the expansion of credit cards. Strangely, Margaret Thatcher always had a soft spot for mortgage owners. Rather than leaving her much lauded market forces to be at work, she could not be convinced to scrap the tax relief for mortgages throughout her years in government.
Another factor that is likely to have contributed to Thatcher’s economic success was the discovery of North Sea oil. The UK became a net exporter of oil from June 1980 onwards. In her initial years this boost was covered up by the fact that there was a worldwide recession, but later, as production increases, oil became an important factor. As Paul Johnson famously asked:
“…Who was it who had said that an oil well (or two) is a girl’s best friend?
Naturally, large scale privatisation deals also provided the government with windfall revenues that helped to balance the books. The top one per cent of income earners in Britain doubled their share of national income from 6.5 per cent to 13 per cent from 1982 to 200563.
As neoliberals since Mises and Hayek have prided themselves presenting the free market and liberal democracy inseparable, it is interesting to see how they fair in practice. While it is unquestionable that Mrs Thatcher was a leading crusader in the fight against communism, her record in other parts of the world is more questionable. She famously refused to introduce sanctions against South Africa, for instance, recognising fully that Britain had much stronger business interests in that part of the world than other nations for whom it cost less to quarantine the Apartheid regime. In fact she even went as far as to liken the ANC and its leader, Nelson Mandela, to terrorist organisations such as the IRA or the PLO. She read their commitment in the Freedom Charter to a more just and equal society as a sign that they would introduce a Marxist regime after and eventual regime change which she knew to be inevitable.
She was also an active promoter of the British arms industry in her bilateral meetings, realising the contribution of these firms to British output and employment. There were a number of very embarrassing cases during her rule, most prominently the excessive amount of arms sales to Saddam Hussein directly and through Jordan, in spite of an international ban that Britain had also signed up to. Most memorably, she called Augusto Pinochet, convicted for crimes against humanity, her friend, and visited her a number of times during his exile in Britain.

Performance of Reagan's America and Thatcher's Britain compared to others

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