The author of this article confesses that they were once a proponent of a fiscal rule based on assets in addition to debt for the UK. They believed that running the public finances with the aim of improving public sector net worth would allow for more borrowing, the creation of valuable tangible assets, and an improvement in the quality of public infrastructure. However, they have now come to the realization that this approach is flawed. they argue that a balance sheet rule is simply an attempt to find an easy answer to a complex problem, with the solution seemingly being more borrowing and spending.
The author points out that valuing assets on the public balance sheet is fraught with challenges. They use the example of HS2, a high-speed railway line that is now likely to operate more as a shuttle between a London suburb and Birmingham, to illustrate the difficulty in determining the asset value. Additionally, the Office for National Statistics estimates that UK public liabilities exceed the value of assets, and the deficit has worsened, indicating that any net worth fiscal rule would result in calls for tax increases and spending cuts. Furthermore, the author argues that public sector non-financial assets, such as schools and hospitals, are not special because their value is only realized if they are sold, which would require charging fees for the use of these services, essentially creating a new tax burden.
The author also criticizes an asset-based fiscal rule for failing to address key problems in UK public infrastructure and capital projects, such as poor value for money and the prioritization of new projects over essential maintenance. They argue that such a rule only provides an excuse for more borrowing and investment, without considering the actual statistics. Instead, the author advocates for a focus on proper debt management and sustainability, including considering future interest rates, growth rates, and borrowing. They suggest that until the public finances are in a healthier state, new capital projects should only proceed if politicians are willing to support them with new taxes.