The Cuts and The Riots: Not the Cause, Definitely Not Part of the Solution

Its plain lazy to blame the riots on The Cuts but they still present issues for the government’s austerity strategy.

The last few days have seen an unprecedented level of violence, looting and chaos on the streets of many UK cities. Trouble started on Saturday night when a peaceful protest against the police shooting of Mark Duggan turned violent after demonstrators were ignored and left outside the police station on Tottenham High Road. Since then looting, clashes with police and general violence has broken out across London and other UK cities. So far 768 people have been arrested in the capital, with hundreds more arrests being made around the country.

Links have been made between the violence and the austerity measures being implemented to bring down the UK budget deficit. For example, Ken Livingstone, the former London major, described the riots as a “revolt” against the cuts: “If you’re making massive cuts, there’s always the potential for this sort of revolt against that”. Internationally, commentary has also ascribed political motivations to the rioters, suggesting the violence and frustration can be understood as part of wider government resentment and anti-austerity feeling. See Ravi Somaiya in the New York Times as an example.

Blaming the riots on the cuts to public services and anti-austerity feeling is at best lazy. The factors leading to the chaos are many with complex interconnections and seeds sown far back in the past. Even citing the recent closures of local services, it seems unlikely that those kids looting JD Sports are also the one’s you’d find taking actively part in local youth programs. Rather than political riots, these are better described as some fucked up version of Supermarket Sweep.

But this doesn’t mean that the riots have nothing to tell us about modern Britain and the austerity strategy going forward. Although the riots themselves have not been undertaken to prove a particular political point, the behaviour witnessed over the last few days is that of the marginalised and disenfranchised. As criminologist, Professor John Pitts has said in the Guardian, “There is a social question to be asked about young people with nothing to lose.”

I agree that measures must be taken to close the deficit but this point alone does not justify the speed of the current tightenings nor the reliance on spending cuts. As I touch on in my first post, the economics points to the conclusion that the optimal UK strategy would involve more gradualism and a stonger focus on tax rises than the current coalition plans. I believe that current plans could slow the economic recovery, ultimately making it harder to get our finances in order, and create an environment for greater social unrest and unease. The government should revaluate its plans in the light of the riots and the UK’s continued lacklustre economic performance.

We need to slow down. The main argument for a ‘cold turkey’ approach to deficit reduction is to allay bond market concerns over the solvency of the economy, allowing interest rates to fall, stimulating the economy back to growth and prosperity. But interest rates have no where to fall right now and given all the craziness in the world at the moment, Keynesian warnings of the “paradox of thrift” appear justified. Today the Bank of England cut its UK growth forecast for 2011 down to 1.5% and UK output still remains below its level pre-crisis. I think it is unlikely and foolishly optimistic to expect the oft alluded to (less oft seen when its needed) efficient, lean, dynamic private sector to fill the gap left by cuts and thus expect that growth is going to remain slow and unemployment high for some while to come. You aren’t exactly going to create happy, healthy neighbourhoods in a climate of high unemployment, few prospects, limited social mobility with a government who doesn’t seem to care. Slowing the pace of cuts to better support the economy and stimulate job creation seems sensible to put it lightly.

Second, we need a more balanced strategy. Current plans are much more reliant on spending cuts than tax rises. Just considering the short run, economics suggests this isn’t the best as cuts are more likely to generate a large reduction in overall demand as tax rises may be smoothed to some extent (again see the end of my previous post). BUT this isn’t the only thing. The UK is an unequal society with limited social mobility. It is likely that many of those participating in the riots are marginalised from mainstream society and opportunity and are unlikely to have gained much in the boom years. However, low income groups will be hit hard by the welfare reform and cuts to public services which go along with deficit reduction. I’m not going to get into banker bashing (I don’t think that’s really helpful or appropriate) but an economic strategy which shifts pain towards those best able to take it is both fair and makes economic sense. The government can’t go on behaving as if its tagline is “Greed is good if and only if you’re in the top quintile of the income distribution”. Greed is a vice which brings out bad in each one of us and which capitalism doesn’t always channel into good outcomes. Greed played a role in sparking a whole host of deep underlying problems with UK society into the riots and its curtailment should play a key role in reducing the national debt.

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