Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Psychology of the "Morality of Fiscal Constraint"

I've recently become fascinated by why morals get applied to situations where, to me, it seems they really aren't needed. 

Take fiscal constraint for instance.  Through Mike Bird (@birdyword on Twitter) I read this article about Nominal GDP targeting. Something he and Sam Bowman (@s8mb of the Adam Smith Institute) have been talking about for a while. I tune into these debates and consider the merits of each position, looking at the benefits to each group. 

I also listen to other theories, such as austerity (reduce government spending to try and reduce the deficit and slow the speed of adding to the debt) or borrowing more to increase aggregate demand, apply fiscal multipliers and thus use tax receipts to pay down the deficit and hopefully eventually the debt.

I keep all the ideas in my mind and examine the positives and negatives of each and engage with people that can help me understand them better.. So far, so good in Louise's worldview. I don't feel the need to look for moral reasons at all - the debate being founded on fiscal benefits and thus trying to improve pay, productivity and the health of individual people and the macro-economy seems quite enough for me.

But I was struck today by this phrase in the piece above:

"And Serious People can’t talk like that, because “inflating away the debt” is unthinkable, it is not virtuous."

Which, when I come to think about it, is pretty bizarre.

Why should we ascribe moral judgments to fiscal decisions? Perhaps a better question is why do we?

Witness this critique of analysis on the Greek situation in 2011 - taking apart this rhetoric that "they have sinned and must pay down their debt". 

My extrapolation is that public do this because of their understanding of debt, which often has a moral standpoint, and starts from their understanding of personal debt (which is a bit different from government debt but often isn't considered as such)

In the past, it was considered immoral to get into debt, and that view does still remain at some levels - that it's all down to profligate spending. On the cusp of buying a house, and about to put myself into the most amount of debt ever, I'm struck by the moral relativism of this position - i.e culturally in the UK we consider mortgages to be necessary and needed and almost good debt - this is reinforced by all sorts of mechanisms - culture, lower insurance premiums for homeowners, better credit ratings if you don't move all the time. 

There is other good debt - that that can improve your prospects - such as a student loan ora reliable car to get you to a better job further away, perhaps even using credit cards to feed a starving family - short term thinking, but understandable. But the focus seems to be on "feckless borrowers" or wild imaginings about what people must have spent their debt on (flat screen TVs and holidays, usually). And this moral judgement extends to governments.

(N.B. The mind boggles at what the government's equivalent of a flat screen TV is - the Olympics? HS/2? Ah, suddenly now the Kippers appeal makes more sense ;))

A possible answer may lie in why clickbait works - because people like to ascribe negative motivations to others when problems arise. 

However I'm still puzzled, more reading required - please let me know in the comments if you are aware of any - what is the psychology of ascribing moral standpoints to fiscal decisions or other ones that don't warrant it? 

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