The government’s spending promises have shown the need for austerity is a lie and a sham. It’s time to hold the government to account for its political decisions, not its fiscal prudence or otherwise.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 15/03/2020 - 10:21pm in

Man teaching girl to wash her hands properlyImage by CDC on Unsplash

In 2010 the newly elected Conservative government, using smoke and mirrors, turned what was a private debt crisis caused by global reckless greed and speculation by financial markets into a sovereign debt crisis. Liam Byrne’s stupid joke note left in the Treasury, suggesting that there was no money left, gave them the perfect opportunity to cash in by claiming that was no alternative to austerity and cuts to public spending. The then Prime Minister David Cameron and his Treasury sidekick George Osborne declared that ‘maxing out the credit card’ and putting off dealing with the problem would make it worse and suggested that without spending cuts we could end up like Greece. The Chancellor declared in his Spending Review – ‘we have taken our country back from the brink of bankruptcy.’

Believing that their own household budgets were like the state’s public accounts (a constantly reiterated message) it’s no wonder that the nation gave a huge sigh of relief. People were mistaking the prospect of “healthy” public accounts for a healthy economy. The nation, which accepted the false premise that there wasn’t any money left in the treasury coffers, subsequently paid a heavy price for this misunderstanding; a misunderstanding that was endlessly promoted by successive Chancellors.

What followed allowed the government to deliver a political agenda which had nothing to do with balancing the budget, even if presented as such. It was quite simply the mechanism to further hollow out our public services, reform the welfare system and sell-off and privatise public assets. It brought to its conclusion a decades-old plan which began as early as the 1970s and was pursued by Margaret Thatcher, as a result of her love affair with the ideas of the economist Friedrich Hayek and the Chicago School of economics; continued by Tony Blair and New Labour.

This Wednesday the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, stood at the despatch box to give his first Budget. The public, from being told over 10 years ago that Labour had spent beyond its means and as a result, the nation would have to cut its cloth and make a sacrifice to restore the public accounts to order, suddenly discovers that the money we were told we didn’t have for public services which were previously “unaffordable”, can inexplicably appear, as if by magic. From apparent scarcity to abundance. Along with the Bank of England cutting its base rate in an effort to fight the impact of Covid-19 on the economy, the money taps have also been miraculously switched on.

As an aside, when public and business confidence is at rock bottom and fear is rampant, it beggars belief that the central bank believes that cutting rates will stimulate people to consume (unless it’s toilet roll, pasta or hand sanitiser) or businesses to invest. Ten years of reliance on central bank monetary policy to stimulate the economy has proved ineffective. The fiscal approach, i.e. government spending to support the economy and its public infrastructure, is the only route left to any government, left or right, if they are to address the prospect of recession as a result of 10 years of austerity or indeed economic collapse because of the coronavirus outbreak.

More importantly, the fiscal approach is also the only route available to fight the immediate consequences of the virus in terms of containing it; the government must use the power of the public purse, alongside its legislative powers, to ensure that resources are freed up to get help to where it is needed. Whether that’s financial support for individuals or businesses caught up in the coming economic slowdown or bringing private sector health companies into public use – meaning hospitals and trained staff – to meet increased demand.

That said, we cannot avoid the stark fact that after ten years of austerity, which have gouged out our public services and left them pared down and in an appalling state of decay with those working in them struggling to pay their way using food banks or in deep debt, it remains to be seen what can be achieved immediately. Austerity reduces our domestic productive capacity, laying the foundation for inflationary pressure when the economy needs to grow or when the nation has to respond to a crisis. The corona crisis will create inflationary pressures which will result in rationing access to real resources and public services. This and many other governments have for decades put bankers and the financial sector before the health of their nations and their citizens.

Just to be clear, in case there is some confusion, turning on the taps has nothing to do with printing money in the Treasury basement, collecting tax or borrowing from the market to fund its spending programme. It is doing what all sovereign currency-issuing governments like the UK’s can do and have been able to do since 1971 – spend the money into existence via a computer keyboard at the central bank, where an employee authorised by the Treasury enters numbers onto a screen and transfers to the appropriate accounts whatever sum of funding it requires to deliver its capital programmes or fund its day to day spending. The fact that government spending is still couched in household budget terms of collecting tax or borrowing serves an agenda and nothing else. It is worth repeating here that there was no such scarcity of money when it was a question of spending it to feather the nests of corporations, reduce taxes for the same or serve a specific government agenda, from bailing out the “too big to fail” banks after the 2008 financial crash to buying votes in the House to keep the government in power.

So, having presided over 10 years of the destruction of our public and social infrastructure, the ravaging of our public services and social security system and all that that has meant for the economy and some of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, now suddenly it appears the government’s austerity breaks have been taken off and the gears crunched into fourth! If you are wondering how this has this happened, when up until quite recently being fiscally prudent has been all the rage, according to a government minister the sacrifice of the great British public has now paid off, enabling the government to spend. Dear Rishi and any others promoting this nonsense, please pull the other one, it has bells on! The veil pulled over the eyes of the British public who are now suffering the very real physical and economic consequences of government policies is now being torn away in the most brutal way.

The harsh reality is that the sacrifice was unnecessary and indeed damaging. It was justified on the back of a monstrous lie about how the state finances actually work. We heard them say that the nation had been living beyond its means and this required drastic remedial action to avoid bankruptcy. The myths about how money works have left our public and social infrastructure in such a state of decay that the last 10 years of austerity combined with the risks that the spread of coronavirus pose and its effects on the world economy are increasingly becoming self-evident. Government’s ideological choices, with their focus on keeping markets and corporations sweet, have been responsible, not lack of public funds. To put it bluntly, political choices are killing us.

However, before we get too excited about a change of direction (and how the government will explain it) whilst one can obviously support a fiscal programme of government spending as the right approach, one has to question who it will benefit. Whilst, of course, there is a role for the private sector in delivering big infrastructure projects they will continue to feather the bank accounts of big business. This means public money pouring into private profit whilst top management continues to pay itself big salaries, pensions and other bonuses. Whilst investment in our privatised railways has been promised, top management will continue to benefit from public money and pay itself handsomely whilst at the same time failing to provide good, reliable services as many travellers will attest. Government pours money in, but fails to dictate the terms in the public interest.

Sunak neither mentioned the perilous state of social care nor the appalling consequences of the introduction of Universal Credit on the lives of many involuntarily unemployed people and those with disabilities. And whilst he has announced a spending review, which will include local government, the combined effects of 10 years of cuts to funding will take more than a future spending review to improve the dire financial situation of local councils and the current parlous state of local infrastructure and services.

The economy is not some nebulous presence overseeing things from the heavens; it is us. From nurses, doctors and other health professionals, those that teach our children or lecture in other institutions of learning to ensure a healthy and educated society for today and tomorrow to those who sweep the streets and remove the rubbish along with the army of social carers looking after our loved ones in their own homes or in residential care. The government has failed the economy. It has failed us. It has, in fact, decided that some of us are expendable; surplus to requirements.

The ‘spend, spend, spend,’ message has however not gone down well in some circles and whilst we may think that household budget narratives have been swept away in favour of fiscal spending, the question of how it will be paid for still hasn’t gone away. A quick perusal of the government’s own Executive Summary for this week’s budget in which it talks about ‘creating a fair and sustainable tax system to fund first-class public services’, mentions that ‘over the past decade it has taken action to restore the public finances and reduced the deficit by four-fifths’ and suggested that the ‘historically low cost of borrowing means that it can support the economy and provide significant investment in public services and infrastructure’ is still nodding its cap to household budget narratives of how governments spend.

The reaction of the Adam Smith Institute which suggested that ‘spending like a drunken sailor…wasn’t the way to create a thriving entrepreneurial economy’ or the IFS which remarked that ‘The Chancellor seems to think the only best way to boost growth is through public spending’ shows that we still have a way to go in changing the institutional and press narrative.

With the mantra of low interest rates and borrowing to spend still prevailing even amongst what one might call ‘progressive’ left-wing economists and journalists, we seem to still be stuck in the household budget box of taxing and borrowing. Indeed, one economist and commentator claimed that ‘spending on growth-promoting investments would ensure that government wouldn’t have any trouble repaying its debts over the long term’. It is now the job of the left-wing not to question the fiscal prudence of government as in the usual ping pong of debate about the state finances – that train has now left the station – but to hold it to account for its political choices.

The house is still on fire, the emergency suddenly grew into one of huge proportions with increasing climate uncertainty, environmental catastrophes, the prospect of an economic collapse which will affect vast swathes of the world population and we still have people talking about being fiscally prudent in one way or another. It is time to wake up to the reality that it is not a balanced budget that will save us, it is a government which puts human beings at the top of its priorities instead of polluting, exploitative corporations and is willing to make the policies and spend within its resource capability to address the challenges we face for the future.

 

Events

Challenging the narrative about how governments pay for public services – Northampton

March 28 @ 1:30 pm – 4:30 pm

 

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The post The government’s spending promises have shown the need for austerity is a lie and a sham. It’s time to hold the government to account for its political decisions, not its fiscal prudence or otherwise. appeared first on The Gower Initiative for Modern Money Studies.