20/11/2011 17:35 GMT | Updated 17/01/2012 05:12 GMT

Public Finances: It's A Bitter Pill - But What Does It Look Like?

Like most people who listen to Today every morning, who read the Guardian, who love Robert Peston and who subscribe to The Economist, I have a reasonable feel for the problems with world debt.

I think I've "known" for years that soon there won't be enough people working to support those who've stopped. I know that we have a lot of people who don't work, or won't, or can't. And those who want to can't always get jobs.

I've also reasonably familiar with the concept of the structural deficit and I keep an eye on economic blogs.

Even so, I've no real idea about how bad the problem we face as a country is - let alone that faced by the whole of the world.

But I'm quickly getting the sense that it's not looking good out there and I, and my children, are going to have to pay for it.

I've learned that it's taken a while to get to this point. In The Observer at the weekend, a writer explained that Italy's problems have accumulated over the last fifty years.

It's also clear that it's not just the banks - easy though it would be to lay the blame at an obvious and visible doorstep.


The UK, it seems has been in denial about its spending power for just about as long - hence why we, as a country, borrow to pay for the family shopping (never mind the weekends in Paris).

Bad though it is now, it's going to get worse long before it gets better.

It's clear that the cost of running our public services is going to have to go up. Either that or we will have to get used to having a lot fewer. So, for example, if we want to take advantage of living longer lives, then we will need to stump up - one way or another - for the cost of the drugs, the care, the services, the works.

If we want to be warm when we're ancient, then we'll have to find money for fuel.

If we want to enjoy anything like the standard of living that we've enjoyed for quite a while now, then we'll have to make some adjustments.

But those days may now be good for good.

All in all, things could look pretty horrible out there. Much more than they do today.

But the big problem is that I don't know how horrible.

Am I alone?

It would be really nice if, as a responsible citizen and compliant tax-payer, I knew what the size, shape and nature of this bitter pill is - and is going to be.


Politicians have moved over in Italy in favour of technocrats who will have to implement nasty solutions. Doing difficult things makes people unpopular. But doing difficult things is what we elect people to do.

Personally, I don't want grey suits shaping my future.

I'd rather have people who I've had a hand in electing implementing solutions that I have, largely, agreed with - or at least reluctantly acknowledged that what has to be done is the least worst of all of the options available.

I don't want public opinion to be softened up. I know how "the art of the possible" works. Successive public messages set out worst case scenarios so that when the least worst arrives it looks to be about the best.

Fine when governments are selling one-off cuts. But the danger, it seems, is that it could well fuel anger. I don't want to see in the UK scenes that are, apparently, becoming commonplace across the world.

Because people do as other people do, contagion has to be a possibility.

Sunday afternoon

So isn't it time, that we, collectively, as we would as a family, sat down and looked on a Sunday afternoon at just what the problem looks like?

We could start with old age. How can we make the best of it? What kind of healthcare should we reasonably expect? How much of a contribution should the state make?

We could look at the debt. How quickly should we pay it back? What's a reasonable timescale?

We could look at public expenditure. How much money should the state have at its disposal? What size of a state should we have? And so, how much tax should we be expected to pay? We may want to pay less - but then we must learn to expect much less from government.

We should look at how much our leaders should get paid to lead. And whether we need so many of them. It's one way to avoid another expenses scandal which does little to inspire confidence in our democratic system.

We should ask whether it's reasonable for people to be living on state benefits and what we could do to reduce it.

By understanding the nature of the problem - openly and honestly - citizens could get fully involving in identifying and implementing the solution. The more uncomfortable it is, the more we will all have to own the answer.

It's going to be a very bitter pill. But if we're going to have to swallow it, then it would be really good to be able to look at it, long before we have to reach for the water and get it down.