Are we all long-termists now?
The shadow chancellor has given a surprising speech this morning to the Association of British Insurers - well, surprising to those of us who did not imagine he was a fan of Will Hutton.
I'll explain more in a minute. But, as an opener, Mr Osborne makes a fairly bald claim about the markets. He says that:
"the credit ratings agencies and international investors are looking beyond the election to a potential new Conservative government for reassurance that Britain will get its public finances under control."
There aren't any polls of international investors, so we can't know for sure. But every conversation I have with bankers and city analysts suggests that this is true. Investors read opinion polls, and right now, ironically, the expectation of a Labour defeat might well be making the Treasury's job a little easier by giving them breathing space they might not otherwise have had.
At least one senior civil servant I've spoken to believes that the pound and the government debt market have been helped by the fact that "the markets are expecting the Conservatives to get in and slash spending."
It makes for a nice line in a speech - Osborne goes on to say that "re-electing the incumbent government is now the risky choice". But it also puts enormous pressure on him to deliver a credible economic plan.
Does this speech have the makings of such a plan? Well, no and yes. Osborne has very little to say here about how he would meet the rating agencies' call for dramatic action on the budget, if he ever becomes chancellor. That's a pretty big hole.
But longer term, he does make the point that it's not just public borrowing that has to fall. For a more balanced recovery, private borrowing also has to fall and saving has to rise. That's where things get a little more interesting.
He has a list of ideas for boosting private savings, like abolishing the basic rate tax on savings income, which he's raised before. But perhaps most eye-popping, for those of us who've been around for a while, is the shadow chancellor's admission that Will Hutton was right all along.
You may remember that Will Hutton - now chief executive of the Work Foundation - wrote the 1995 best-seller The State We're In which, for a time, was New Labour's bible on all the things that were wrong with the UK economy under the Conservatives.
The book's basic line, which its author has come back to lately, is that our economic system encourages short term rent-seeking and undervalues long-term investment in productive assets. It's fair to say that it received pretty short shrift from Conservatives at the time.
Now, after years of Conservatives promoting a largely "hands-off" attitude to investment, George Osborne seems to have decided that Hutton has a point.
He says that he's not talking about "picking winners and national champions". Heaven forfend - no-one would admit to that these days. But he wants "a long-term and more strategic attitude to investment in infrastructure, skills and new technologies".
How these exciting new investments - in a high speed rail network, for example, or a new electricity grid - will be paid for is left a bit vague ("the role of government would vary according to the investment").
But at the heart of all this, he says, will have to be a more long-termist financial system. For years, the Conservatives have defended the City against claims that it was too short-termist. Now the shadow chancellor admits that "the events of the last two years make the charge of short-termism harder to refute."
How do you make the City take a longer view? With difficulty, as I think even Will Hutton would admit.
Mr Osborne talks tough of reforming bankers' bonuses, as Robert Peston has noted today. He also wants to give institutional shareholders more power and, of course, to have better financial regulation. Doesn't everyone?
He also, in a very Huttonesque vein, talks of creating new institutions to invest in start-ups and entrepreneurs. Here too, there's an admission that that there are investments that the market isn't good at making.
Whether government-sponsored institutions are any better at making those investments, of course, is another matter - but I'm fairly sure that you could find speeches of Gordon Brown's, when he was shadow chancellor in the mid-1990s, saying similar things.
All in all, a rather surprising speech from the the shadow chancellor for anyone who's been listening to Conservatives talking about markets and the economy for for past 25 years. I would be interested to know what John Redwood, one of the party's most ardent free marketeers, thinks of Osborne's speech. But who knows? Maybe the financial crisis has turned him into a fan of Will Hutton as well.
Here the rub. Mr Osborne can talk about long-termism all he likes - but whoever wins the next general election, the single most important priority facing the government will be very short-term: proving to the markets that they have a credible plan for putting borrowing on a stable path. The international investors who set the price of government debt and the pound are not known for their patience, and I suspect they never will be.