We need to relearn the art of adequate spending for public purpose

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 12/10/2019 - 9:30pm in

The GIMMS team have been away and had a very busy two weeks travelling between Brighton, London, Manchester, Leeds and Newport for a variety of events.  All in all, it has been very successful and well worth the effort. We’ve had the pleasure of meeting lots of enthusiastic and lovely people across the country and we hope that over time the interest can be carried forward into real action in local settings.

The recording of the Brighton Fringe Event at which Professor Bill Mitchell spoke is now available here and we are working on editing the training session in London and the recording of GIMMS event at the Green Party Conference.

So, from this week normal service is resumed for our MMT Lens with a round-up of the key events over the last two weeks.

 

Cardboard placard at a protest with the slogan "Fight today for a better tomorrow"Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Boris Johnson is spending. Well, not his own money, of course, but he has authorised a multibillion-pound government spending programme not to mention substantial tax cuts for the wealthiest. After nine years of unnecessary and harmful austerity politics a focus on fiscal rather than monetary policy, which is in a predictable dead end, is to be welcomed although strangely it seems to reflect many of Labour’s spending promises. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, don’t they?

As part of the spending review by Chancellor Sajid Javid some weeks back, Boris Johnson in his speech at Conference promised investment in the NHS and social care, education, transport and roads, local government, police and the environment. And again, strangely, all those things that it has been busily cutting over the last 9 years because it was claimed we couldn’t afford them are now back on the spending menu. It is tempting to ask the question but where will the money come from since it’s the one that the Conservatives have most often asked Labour when they have announced their policy and spending programmes.  It has also been tempting for some like Paul Johnson from the IFS to wonder whether Boris’s proposals for tax cuts were feasible given his public spending promises.  That is, of course, if like Paul Johnson you accept the too often trotted out household budget version of the state finances which says that government relies on tax and borrowing in order to spend which GIMMS readers surely must know by now they don’t in a country where the government is the sovereign currency issuer.

These spending promises and tax cuts drive a coach and horses through the notion that government spending is constrained by taxpayer revenue. It also tells us very clearly that some politicians know exactly how the money system works and let’s be honest it’s not been the first time that the Tories have opened the public purse to serve a specific political agenda! Those computer keys at the Bank of England will be red-hot if the promises are kept.

After having been told in no uncertain terms that there was no money and that we all had to pull in our horns to get the public accounts back into health suddenly there’s money but an equal question in people’s minds about how it will be paid for. And that cannot be surprising given that the household budget narrative reigns in the public consciousness.

As usual and in response to the government’s plans, some of which were announced prior to the Conservative conference, there have been alarm bells ringing in the usual quarters both political and institutional about the impact on the deficit and debt and borrowing levels.

The government’s spending plans sit contrary to the 2% of GDP limit which was set for the 2020-2021 fiscal year and suggests a rowing back from the traditional Tory mark of fiscal prudence. It remains to be seen how much of this is an electioneering ploy and whether it will translate into reality. However, interestingly, as government announced its spending plans there was trouble brewing in its own party as voices of dissent were being raised at a party fringe meeting where MPs, representatives from the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs indicated that although they recognised that people had suffered through austerity they believed that the government had not gone far enough in cutting public spending. John O’Connell, Chief Executive of the TPA went as far as to reject the word austerity saying we should refer instead to ‘living within your means’.

It is shameful to note that there are people who, whilst acknowledging that austerity has caused suffering, want more of it. The household budget framework of taxing to spend and the resentment felt by some that ‘their tax’ is funding freebie public services for all lies at the heart of it and reflects the neoliberal ideology that the state should take a step back and abandon people as authors of their own fate. The idea that ‘living within one’s [financial] means’ is a better measure of economic success than pursuing public purpose to benefit people materially and in terms of well-being is an indication of how far we still have to go to challenge this narrative. Not only do we need to counter the notion of ‘taxing to spend’ with the correct description ‘spending to tax’ we need to correct the idea that living within one’s means relates to money. The only ‘living within our means’ we need to be doing relates to our resources whether that’s people or the materials used in the production of goods and services that we benefit from. The only balance we need to make is the one between spending and resources.

Predictably, news of the government’s spending and taxing plans brought out the debt sirens on the left who have been posting FB memes that the national debt has soared under the Tories to almost £1.8 trillion since 2010. It is disappointing to note in the face of the real consequences of austerity that the language narrative about how government spends is still dogged by household budget explanations, ‘rising deficits’, ‘increased borrowing’ and ‘mounting national debt’.

The Conservatives response has been that the government’s prudent management of the public accounts has given them the fiscal space to spend. In fact, the Prime Minister trotted out the usual nonsense that the Conservative Party had ‘tackled the debt and the deficit’ left by the last Labour government and suggested disingenuously that it has only been able to increase investment in schools and hospitals because it had ‘cleared up the wreckage they left’.

All these descriptions used by both the right and the left wing lie within a flawed mainstream paradigm. On the one hand, the Conservatives have used it to defend the need for austerity to deliver their own ideological agenda and claim fiscal superiority over their political rivals. On the other, Labour persists in the language of tax and spend and finding the magic money tree in the Cayman Islands to fund their laudable progressive programmes. Even John McDonnell could not resist saying that the proposed tax cuts would ‘rip out £10-£20bn a year from our already decimated public services’.  When clearly, they can’t and won’t!

It is regrettable that the public finds itself still caught in the headlights of a long deceased monetary narrative the consequences of which live with us now and will continue to do.

Instead of taking the debt sirens at face value in their criticism of the rising national debt under the Conservatives we should instead be evaluating their economic record. Who gained from their spending and taxing policies and who lost out?   Measuring success by the state of the public accounts from the size of the deficit/debt or whether the government has balanced the budget or achieved a surplus is quite simply incorrect and tells us nothing about the context of the state of the public accounts.

This can best be evaluated with a brief look at both the government’s spending plans, its policy agenda and the on-going consequences of cuts to public spending.

The government whilst it is planning to spend £25bn on improvements to the road network it has not been similarly generous to the bus network which amounts to only £220m. Combined with its already announced spending on the environment of around £432m which is a fraction of the amount needed to address the challenge of climate change demonstrates the Conservative’s complete disregard for the environmental challenges facing us. Apart from the fact that since 2010 government has cut spending on subsidies to bus companies which have forced the closure of 3000 bus routes (not to mention all the other consequences of cuts to public sector spending including the NHS, social care, education policing and local government) this would have been a good time for substantial investment in sustainable public transport instead of giving precedence to roads and cars.

Of course, as indicated earlier, it cannot be denied that a domestic spending programme is a good move at a time when the figures show that the world seems to be sinking towards recession. However, it should not be surprising, given who has authorised the spending, that it is still framed within a neoliberal framework of privatised public services and public money going into private profit whether that’s the NHS and social care or privatised transport networks. It does not suggest a reversal of neoliberally inspired agenda which the Conservatives have been pursuing under cover of austerity.

It also ignores the on-going consequences of public sector cuts, reforms to welfare and the introduction of Universal Credit on the well-being of citizens and indeed the economy.  The scandal of the huge rises in homelessness is bad enough (the Charity Crisis estimates some 24,000 people last year) but just last week figures published by the Office for National Statistics revealed that 726 homeless people died on our streets in 2018. The figures showed a 22% rise over 2017 which was the biggest increase since data was first collected in 2013

The Chief Executive of Crisis, Jon Sparkes, responding to the figures and at the same time putting a human face on the statistics said:

“It is heart-breaking that hundreds of people were forced to spend the last days of their lives without the dignity of a secure home. This is now the second year running where we have known the true scale of the human cost of homelessness, yet still the lessons from these tragic deaths go unlearnt.”

Add to this the record numbers of people, as reported by the Trussell Trust earlier this year, who are using foodbanks along with increasing food insecurity and the spectre of malnutrition, far from turning the page on austerity, the consequences of it remain with us and will do for some time to come unless we get a change in government.

Just a quick look at other news from the last couple of weeks emphasises that just the promise of spending is not going to fix the damage quickly. Behind just these few headlines lie the reality of the harm that has been caused by austerity and government policy choices.

“England sees ‘worst summer on record’ for A&E waits”,

“Alcohol tax cuts cause nearly 2000 extra deaths”,

“Severe obesity among children aged 10 to 11 at record high…. Figures highest among children from the most deprived communities”

 “Unprecedented’ rise in infant mortality linked to poverty”,

“Nursing vacancies hit record high leaving patient care at risk”

For the lie of balanced budgets our economy has slowed, people have got poorer and inequalities have risen, and our public and social infrastructure is cracking up. And all the while the rich have got richer and appropriated an immoral share of the country’s wealth – all with the helping hand of government.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. There is an alternative world and it is up to us to bring it about not just for our sakes but for our children who will bear the burden of our inaction if we turn away.

It starts by understanding these simple concepts:

“A sovereign government is never revenue constrained because it is the monopoly issuer of the currency. In other words, its public debt level is irrelevant in terms of its capacity to spend in the future, unless it deliberately constrains itself with voluntary fiscal rules.

Such a government is never financially constrained in its future choices by its past fiscal position. 

Fiscal Space is [not] about financial resources. It can only be about real resource availability in a modern monetary economy where the government issues its own currency.”

Bill Mitchell 2017

It is both encouraging and exciting that the orthodox narratives are being challenged now in the mainstream media as modern monetary realities get an airing even if sometimes critically. The debate is moving on. We just have to ensure it reaches a successful conclusion.

 

As we said in our introduction, the video of Professor Bill Mitchell’s talk on the Green New Deal has been published on our YouTube Channel.

 

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The post We need to relearn the art of adequate spending for public purpose appeared first on The Gower Initiative for Modern Money Studies.