It’s not balanced budgets that will save us. It’s the power of the public purse and our human values.

Person at a demonstration holding a placard with slogan "What lessens one of us lessens all of us"Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

Charles Dickens began his novel ‘Hard Times’ thus:

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. […]. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. [….] Stick to Facts, sir!”

Whilst one might dispute Dicken’s character Gradgrind with his miserable vision of human existence, facts can be very useful. They can trace the human misery caused by 9 years of austerity and the last forty years of a pernicious market-oriented ideology which has led to vast disparities in wealth distribution and caused huge damage to society by encouraging the pursuit of self-interest.  And yet it has to be said as the election campaign gears up, that in terms of monetary reality, of facts there seem to be very few to be had.

As political and economic commentators, not to mention politicians on all sides, emphasise daily their claims that the government finances are like a household budget, the public has largely remained stuck in the quagmire which is presented as monetary reality and distrustful of a political system which has failed them.

Looking at newspaper front pages this week you could be forgiven for thinking that we are headed for bankruptcy if Labour were to win the election or that their spending plans would cost UK households £43,000 each. A ‘reckless spendathon’ is in the offing according to a government spokesperson in a recent BBC television interview.

Aside from such narratives being a fallacy, they are designed to put the frighteners on people who are already suffering financial hardship caused by years of austerity and ideologically driven government policies. Those with a political agenda shore up those false beliefs that borrowing too much will lead to government insolvency. They cynically and callously terrify people that they will be asked to pay for those spending programmes when they will not. This is an establishment that is running scared that their reign of power is coming to an end. The means justify the ends!

It cannot be denied that if we are to escape the worst effects of a coming global downturn, an incoming government of whatever variety will need to implement adequate spending programmes and increasingly fiscal policy is becoming the ‘mot du jour’. However, the message is reinforced daily by all sides of the political spectrum that there are still financial limits to that spending.

Last week Ed Davey, deputy leader of the LibDems said of Labour and the Tories spending plans that they are ‘writing promises on cheques that will bounce’. The very same party that joined in with Tory austerity during the Coalition and voted for public spending cuts and welfare reforms.

In the same week, the Greens promised welcome public investment of £1trillion over 10 years to fight climate change, the money for which it said would come from ‘borrowing’ and ‘tax’ changes.

Then the Chancellor of the Exchequer in a ‘give with one hand take back with another’ message promised to increase borrowing to fund billions of pounds to pay for new infrastructure but then announced three new fiscal rules to ‘control borrowing, to control debt and to control debt interest’.

Stuck in household budget la-la land he said without a hint of jest:

‘like anyone who budgets whether it’s a household, or small business or large business, I know that we must keep track of what we are spending and what we bring in…. We can’t run an overdraft forever on day to day spending, so I can confirm that our first rule will be to have a balanced current budget. What we spend cannot exceed what we bring in.

Never mind that you can build as many hospitals as you like as part of an infrastructure spending programme but if you make up foolish rules about day to day spending those hospitals will remain empty of nurses and doctors and other health professionals to staff them.  And let’s not forget the bailing out of the banks or successive wars funded without a taxpayer in sight.

The same tired old tropes abound about taking advantage of ‘historically low borrowing rates’ and ‘living within our means’ remain the context for Conservative spending plans and figure in one way or another in the language narrative of other parties too.

In a similar vein this week, the shadow chancellor reinforced that same story when he tweeted:

‘The Tories can’t invest in the public services we need because unlike Labour they won’t raise taxes on the super-rich and take on the international tax dodgers’.

The implication being here that he will bring back the magic money tree from the Cayman Islands to pay for our public and social infrastructure.

Even the Leader of the Opposition has suggested that if they don’t tax the very rich, then Labour won’t be able to pay for public services.

As Professor Bill Mitchell commented in a blog in response:

‘The British government does not need to tax the rich to pay for first-class public services. It can do that at any time it can muster the real resources to accomplish that aspiration. It issues its own currency.

It might want to tax the rich because they have too much power but that is quite separate from justifying such an action because the government needs their ‘money’.

Although without doubt the proposals on the progressive left to tackle social inequality, rebuild public infrastructure and address climate change are laudable and indeed vital, it is to be regretted that the arguments for public spending programmes are being reduced to household budget frameworks of monetary affordability, where the money will come from and economic credibility. We have become fixated by the single idea that the country’s economic ‘health’ hangs on whether or not we run a deficit.

GIMMS will say it again. In reality, the only analysis that really counts when deciding which way to vote in any election is not a judgement based on a government’s financial record or whether it balanced the public accounts but what its economic record was.

We as citizens should be examining where the money was spent and who benefited. Did that spending ensure that its citizens were in secure employment and fairly paid, had decent housing and sufficient food in their bellies? Did it create a healthy and more equitable economy in which wealth was more fairly distributed? Did it ensure that the vital public and social infrastructure such as the NHS, social care, education and local government were adequately funded to serve the public purpose and not fill the coffers of private profit? Or was that public money sucked up by the private sector in a big free for all in which the state serves the interests of the corporations rather than the interests of its citizens?

And what about government policies on health, education, welfare spending and the environment? Did they create stable lives by improving the material, financial, physical and mental health of citizens? Did they ensure adequate investment to ensure that the nation can be as productive as possible through good education and training both for present and future generations? And finally, the environment – what actions did they take to address the climate crisis?

In other words, we should be examining what the real economic outcomes were.

After nine years of telling the public that there was no alternative to austerity and cuts to public spending because the coffers were bare, it’s amazing what the prospect of an election can do to turn the spending taps on. And yet the smoke and mirrors, lies and deception about how government spends just carries on relentlessly.

But now it’s all OK (for the moment) the Conservatives have found the magic money tree, cutting the deficit has apparently given them some savings and the fiscal ‘headroom’ to spend. For those that know, this narrative is a fairy tale of epic proportions. For those that don’t, it should be enough to arouse a cynical response by a public which has been at the sharp end of those tax and spend myths which have formed the basis for its policies.

Indeed, only this week the following headlines should serve as the wakeup call for the public about Conservative economic credibility.

‘UK suffers biggest fall in jobs in four years’

‘UK avoids recession but annual growth slowest in almost a decade.’

‘Wage growth slows’

We can blame it in part on the uncertainty caused by Brexit, but the reality is that behind the faceless employment figures published by the Office of National Statistics are the lives of real people who have been affected by the government’s policies and spending decisions over the last 9 years.

To put it in basic economic terms, when a government spends it creates income for the private sector which is then spent into the economy. When it imposes spending cuts it is removing money from people’s pockets leaving them with only three options: Use their savings if they have any, take out credit or go without.

All spending, whether from government or the private sector, equals income for someone. What happens when you take that away? That’s people who lost their jobs in the public sector as local government, the NHS and schools were forced to pare down their budgets as a consequence of public spending cuts. That’s people constrained by public sector pay caps and pay cuts. That’s people who ended up working two or three jobs on low pay to keep a roof over their head and food on the table. That’s people working in precarious employment in the zero-hours or gig economy with no guaranteed decent income or sick or holiday pay. That’s people affected by the reforms to welfare and the introduction of Universal Credit, from those who are unemployed left with insufficient financial resources to make ends meet and those in work but not earning enough to keep their heads above the water to those left struggling to cope because of chronic sickness or terminal illness.

In seeking the nirvana of balanced budgets by cutting spending the Conservative government has not created a healthy economy it has done the very opposite. The statistics are the proof.  Without adequate spending, the economy suffers, and people pay the price.

And yet as political parties present their spending plans and worry about how they will demonstrate their economic credibility the elephant in the room is crashing about trying to make itself noticed. On one note it is pathetic to see the Conservative party take issue with the opposition’s spending plans calling them reckless and unaffordable whilst promoting its own as being fiscally responsible. On another, in their rush to spend, neither party seems to have considered the real resource factor and how that will be managed.

The IFS for all its neoliberal sins ‘gets’ the elephant in the room and recognises that whoever wins on December 12th their spending plans will be dependent on whether they have the right resources at their disposal to deliver.

After 9 years of insufficient spending into the economy to prepare for the future, will there be sufficient people with the right skills to meet the government’s needs? Whether that’s engineers and construction workers to design and build the proposed infrastructure or homegrown nurses and doctors already trained up to service the planned spending on the NHS? Or in these days of climate crisis we might also be talking about the resources needed to deliver the Green New Deal and ensure a just transition not just for those in the rich west but those in the global south whose countries have already been plundered of raw materials and impoverished so that we can maintain our standard of living.

For progressive parties like Labour and the Green Party who wish to deliver a left-wing agenda what they have to do is decide their key priorities, consider the availability of resources and how they could be freed up to deliver a future government’s objectives efficiently and effectively. A case in point this week is Labour’s plan for free broadband which has much to recommend it in terms of bringing communities together in an inclusive and connected society. Journalists and others predictably have asked the question where will the money come from? They have missed the point entirely and should be asking instead how many workers would we need to deliver it?

Ultimately, all sovereign currency-issuing governments don’t need to match their plans to tax revenue or determine whether the markets can lend them the money. The role of government in this respect is not to balance the budget but to balance the economy.

The public needs to understand that it isn’t the government’s ability to tax the rich but its power to run a deficit which determines the health of an economy. As the sovereign currency issuer, the UK government has the power of the public purse to fund the public works necessary to tackle social and wealth inequalities, deal with the current global economic uncertainty, and fund the Green New Deal, should it choose to do so.

However, at home, our public and social infrastructure is in a shocking state of decay caused by 9 years of cuts to public spending and lack of planning. Reversing that decline is not something that just promising to spend can solve in the short term.  There are important issues to consider for the long term which may not fit the short-termism of the political five-year framework and many politicians who have become used to serving other interests.  That is the scale of the challenges we face.

When all is said and done even though the Labour party persists with the household budget myths John McDonnell has it right in terms of what is required not just to reverse the social injustices heaped upon global populations because of pernicious ‘free’ market ideology or the threat to the human species at our own hand. As he said not only must the scale of investment match the scale of the crises we face both in ecological and social terms, but also if we don’t make these investments our future generations will never forgive us.

Let’s leave the final words to Professor Bill Mitchell who wrote a while back:

“My ideological disposition tells me that the pursuit of human values is the only sustainable way of organising and running a world. The neoliberal era has severely undermined that pursuit.

That’s what we must change and urgently if we want half a chance to save ourselves and our children’s children from disaster.

 

Note: GIMMS has a very good resource section on our website which takes you through how money works. From FAQS to resources sheets and external websites, videos and academic papers for those who want to take it further. For an introduction to how money really works follow the link here.

 

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The post It’s not balanced budgets that will save us. It’s the power of the public purse and our human values. appeared first on The Gower Initiative for Modern Money Studies.