Gordon Brown spoke today to a joint meeting of Congress. Did you notice? Well, exactly. There is one overwhelming reason to take him seriously: he is the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of reasons not to take him seriously. For one, he is massively behind in the polls. For another, his ideas for a ‘Global New Deal,’ with massive stimulus packages for the entire world, are destructive, undemocratic, and wrong.
And then there’s this basic reality, which has gone curiously unremarked in the United States. Brown was for ten years Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the second most powerful figure in the British government. Indeed, for a lot of it, he looked like being the most powerful figure, with Tony Blair occupying No. 10 only by his grace. Being Chancellor, especially with that kind of political clout, is like combining the powers of the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury with a good bit of those that belong to the Oval Office, plus a leading seat in the Senate. If any single man is responsible for the state of the British economy today, it’s Gordon Brown. That was his job.
So how is that economy doing? Well, let’s turn to Steve Bundred, the Chief Executive of Britain’s Audit Commission, which provides official and independent assessments of whether public services give value for money:
With the debts of the nationalised and part-nationalised banks now on the public sector balance sheet, the ratio of public sector debt to GDP in the UK exceeds that of Italy and Japan. And it is set to grow much higher. On the basis of the planned levels of borrowing, it could exceed 65 per cent of GDP in 2010-11. And at that scale of indebtedness, the Armageddon scenario most feared by the Treasury – that there will be insufficient lenders to match the planned level of borrowing – begins to look a distinct possibility.
And, just for good measure, Mr. Bundred quotes the pained admission of Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan, at the height of the economic crisis in the mid-1970s:
We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession . . . . I tell you in all candor that that option no longer exists and, in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step.
Mr. Brown, meet Mr. Callaghan.
So there is a third reason not to take Brown seriously: asking him for advice on how to run an economy is like asking the captain of the Titanic for advice on how to avoid icebergs. Uneasy awareness of that fact may just account for part of the lack of American interest in his visit.