Will the medicine kill the patient?


Our second most popular RSA Animate is Philip Zimbardo’s talk about the impact of the way we think about time. For example, while some cultures are future oriented others focus more on the past and present.

Time is an important dimension to the debate about tomorrow’s budget. I don’t just mean how long should it take to get down the deficit, nor whether this is the right time to be taking money out of a frail economy. The question is also: how long does it take to do long term damage to individuals and communities?

Looked at from one angle the Coalition is on to a political winner. Even if the budget tomorrow does push the economy back into recession, the natural economic cycle is likely to mean UK plc will be growing reasonably strongly by the time the Government gets close to its mid-term. Judging by the way Eastern European countries are now beginning to rebel against austerity (see Bronwen Maddox in this morning’s Times) the Coalition may have between 18 and 24 months before the electorate start blaming this rather than the last Government.

So ‘do it deep and do it now’ makes sense as a cuts strategy. The argument will no doubt be made by Mr Osborne that these are the right decisions for the long term. But ministers need to be aware that even short term pain can have long term consequences.

This is, of course, true of children. It would probably be better for a child to deal with low level deprivation for several years of their childhood than deep trauma in the first eighteen months. The social equivalent is the damage done in the early 1980s to communities which relied on manufacturing employment, many of which have never recovered from the shock to the local economy, community and social status of the men. Reading this morning’s FT, there seems to be a strong possibility of another deep recession in the least affluent and most public spending-dependent areas of the UK.

The Coalition plan might in the long term not only help the economy back on track but also drive areas like the North East towards a better balance between public and private sector activity. The danger is that long term damage is done during short term pain and that these areas fall so far behind they are only way half way back to recovery by the time the next economic cycle starts to turn down (which is exactly what happened in the late eighties).

As JM Keynes said to the 1930s advocates of short term pain for long term gain: ‘in the long run we are all dead’.

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