11 February 2012

Why is a Local Authority Not Like a Business?

It is the budget-setting season and in local authority debating chambers across the land administrations are trying their darndest to squeeze every last penny out of budgets - the age of austeria requires nothing less of them.

The hegemonic idea of business as the superior form of organisation was damaging during the boom, when it was used as justification for rising rates of inequality and falling ethical standards, but during the bust it is downright dangerous. Councillors, especially Tory councillors, have often run small businesses and they try to run council budgets the same way. So if you have any influence over councillors, or are one yourself, please make this argument loudly during the process of budget-setting.

I have previously blogged about what Keynes called the Paradox of Thrift, but I want to explore it in a bit more detail as it applies to local authority budgets. If you are a business, then money you spend goes on the negative side of your balance sheet - it is a leakage, its benefits are external to your balance-sheet and therefore it should be minimised. This is because your business has clear boundaries. If you are a highly diversified business you may be able to keep a much higher degree of spending within your organisation, which is why SMEs are facing unfair competition, but none the less keeping costs down makes absolute sense.

If you are a local authority all the businesses within your area are inside your organisation, since all pay taxes if they thrive as do the people they employ. The boundary you should bear in mind when writing budgets is the local economy: just as you try to minimise costs within a business your priority as a politician should be to minimise leakages from the local economy. To cut your own budgets to the bone, or not to spend money budgeted in this period, is like cutting your own income rather than cutting your own outgoings.

What Keynes so elegantly described in his multiplier theory is that public spending and private spending follow opposite dynamics. An understanding of the systemic nature of a local economy, the importance of the circulation of money rather than individual transactions, and the importance of multiplier effects are all vital to those who set budgets within local authorities. Sadly, too many are bringing the mindset they used to maximise profit on an individual balance-sheet into the council chamber, and through their misplaced thrift they are undermining our local economies already struggling as a result of centrally imposed spending cuts.

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