To rephrase Mahatma Gandhi ‘The future will depend on what we do today.’

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Statue of seven children using a lever to move the world“Together for Peace and Justice” by Xavier de Fraissinette, Parc de la Tête-d’Or, Lyon. Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

Just a brief look at the news headlines in the last few weeks should be enough to set the alarm bells ringing. We are watching as the nation suffers a train crash of epic proportions.

The Institute for Employment Studies reported in May that the number of people claiming benefits principally because of being unemployed had risen by 860,000 in the month to 9th April to just over 2 million, and that not since February 1947, the year of the big snow, had unemployment figures risen so steeply. It went on to say that that that figure was now likely to be in the region of 3 million, the highest since the 1980s, and that it will take years, not months, to repair the damage.

According to figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 600,000 jobs have already disappeared and many face redundancy over the next few months as economic uncertainty continues and employers begin to make plans to reduce their workforce as the furlough scheme is phased out later this summer. The ONS also noted that that there had been a record fall in job vacancies between March and May and hinted at worse to come. Jonathan Athow, from the ONS, commented that ‘the slowdown in the economy is now visibly hitting the labour market’

The consequences of Covid-19 on the economy, and let’s not forget the impact of 10 years of cuts to public spending and welfare entitlements, are affecting every aspect of our lives.  Thousands of children have been plunged into poverty and UK food banks are facing record demand with more than 100,000 carers forced to use a food bank in the UK lockdown. Two-thirds of families on universal credit have been pushed into debt, having had to borrow money including using payday loans or credit cards to keep their heads above the water. Put bluntly, that means people struggling to put food on the table, money in the electric meter or pay their rent, not to mention the impact on the mental health of parents trying to provide the basics or educate their children at home for three months without adequate access to the internet or computers.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in partnership with Save The Children, are shining a light on the experiences of families and children in poverty; calling on the government to ensure that families are supported, not just during this lockdown period but also beyond it, to prevent increasing numbers of children being pulled into poverty. It points out that too many children are going without, due to income losses and the pressure that the lockdown has put on already overstretched budgets.

Whilst one must commend those who have performed extraordinary acts of public service during this pandemic, those who have raised money for the NHS and charities and this week like Mark Rashford who through a steadfast public campaign shamed the government into continuing its vouchers for free school meals during the summer holidays, we now urgently need a frank national conversation about where we go from here.  Not just about the sort of society we want to live in now or in the future, but whether we even want to protect our children’s children from the devastating effects of climate change; the threat of which is hanging like a tsunami over our heads while we queue outside Primark or Nike Town!

We are a nation that has been divided by a toxic ideology which has, until recently, ripped to shreds any sense of collective responsibility. We cannot stick our heads in the sand and return to the normal many are hankering for. Too much is at stake.

The pandemic has revealed the shocking state of the Social Care system which is in a state of collapse, an NHS battered by 10 years of cuts to its spending with reductions in staffing, beds and facilities, a social security system which has removed the support pillars and left people in dire poverty and children hungry, living sometimes in temporary accommodation with no sense of security.

The greatest achievements of the post-war world are being dismantled or outsourced to profit and are being replaced by the so-called big society which ironically is also collapsing due to cuts government cuts. As previously reported by GIMMS, Covid-19 has left one in ten charities facing bankruptcy this year and many struggling to provide services in an economic environment which has its roots in austerity.

Instead of state involvement in the provision of the fundamental structures that form the basis of a healthy economy and society which benefits everyone (even if those structures are not perfect), we are being prepared through constant propaganda and messaging to accept a reset. One in which the state continues to pour public money into private profit but at the same time claims there is no money for publicly paid for and managed services and an adequately funded social security system.

Our society is being impoverished, not just financially but in terms of its public and social infrastructure, culturally and the safety net which protects people when through no fault of their own the economy tanks. All on the basis of claimed unaffordability. The monetary largesse of these last few months is already in question and we face a return to more cuts to public spending.

Just this week it was reported that Leeds Council is considering closing its museums and libraries as it can no longer afford to pay for them. This is not just a localised problem; across the country libraries and museums have already closed or rely on volunteers to staff them. The pandemic is revealing the brutal cost of previous cuts to government spending that have left local and regional councils, particularly in the north and south-west, impoverished and with insufficient infrastructure to even deal with the consequences of Covid-19.

Aside from the valuable input to GDP (which ministers seem to conveniently forget), our cultural life is under threat as our museums and libraries face more closures as local councils try to balance their books. Our national and local theatres, art galleries, orchestras and all those things we value in terms of human enrichment and education face if not oblivion, then severe retrenchment.

While public money finds its way easily into private profit at the blink of an eye to provide public services in the name of the lie of market efficiency, our society is being prepared to accept a reset in which charities, public donation and volunteering, not to mention the philanthropy of the Victorian poor law boards, decide who gets what.

Is that the sort of society we really want to live in?

To recognise the alternatives, we have to understand how an alternative vision can be paid for, as that is the perennial question always asked by the public and politicians alike. If we fail to do so the future looks pretty bleak for us all now and for future generations who will be paying not the financial cost but the very real human cost.

We need to start with a basic understanding of how the UK government as the currency issuer spends. It is regrettable that across the piece left and right-wing economists, along with politicians and institutions are still stuck in the household budget narrative of how governments spend. For the right, the constraints lie in a scarcity of money (which they use to justify their political agenda) and on the left the answer is getting the rich to pay through their taxes or borrowing at low rates of interest to fund our public services, pay for public infrastructure or fund a green new deal.

Only this week the ONS focused its report on the public finances on the through-the-roof borrowing figures and, shock horror, it is apparently £173.2bn higher than it was a year ago at £1.95 trillion and the UK’s debt-to-GDP ratio has pushed above 100%. Such focus is designed to put fear into the hearts of people who don’t understand the working of the economy and the public finances and it is likely to enable the government to justify further austerity at some point in the future.

Indeed, the Chancellor Rishi Sunak it has been reported is preparing to scrap the triple-lock on the state pension on the basis that the already high cost of the Covid-19 pandemic could make it unaffordable. Officials have claimed that a temporary suspension would be unavoidable if the government is not to be faced with paying a massive bill next year.  The Pensions Policy Institute has already warned, quite rightly, that such a move would have serious implications for already existing and future pensioner poverty and the amount spent on other means-tested benefits such as housing benefit, caring credits and disability premiums. It would also impact on low earners who would have to put in an extra £540 a year to avoid poverty in retirement. How would punishing people even further help the economy or indeed serve its already beleaguered citizens?

Torsten Bell from the IFS in an article in the Guardian claimed that a survey of economists had proved that they were not keen on cuts or more austerity to reduce the deficit, but favoured tax rises instead. He further claimed that economists were turning into a bunch of radical lefties these days. However, whilst their support for austerity has dwindled perhaps, they still see the public accounts as a household budget whereby taxing and borrowing (at low rates of interest) form the basis for government spending. That cannot be considered radical in any shape or form and unless they can get to grips with how a modern monetary system actually works and reject the notion that spending now will create financial burdens on future generations, then sadly we will see more of the same orthodoxy rearing its ugly head.

To put it bluntly, in an economy that is facing wipe-out and serious future economic consequences, the idea that paying more taxes to pay for government spending which will do yet more harm to the economy as it takes money out of the economy is nonsensical, especially when you know that government doesn’t need those taxes before it can spend.

We need to ditch this narrative if we are to make a better, fairer world which also puts the environment as a top priority. Indeed, at the beginning of this week, the leaders of some of Britain’s top charities wrote to the Prime Minister to demand as a priority a green recovery and urged him to use economic rescue packages to build low-carbon infrastructure and stimulate the creation of long-term green jobs.

However, if we allow that sticky question of monetary affordability to dominate the debate, any future actions will always at some point in time constrain a government’s spending decisions.

We don’t have to be economists either to understand monetary realities or challenge the current false narratives which pervade the discourse.

There are just a few things we need to know or consider:

  • The UK government is the currency issuer.
  • It neither needs to tax in order to spend, or to borrow to cover its deficit
  • Such a government whilst not being financially constrained does face real resource constraints when deciding its spending policies. These include the human beings that do the jobs and the physical resources needed to provide goods and services.
  • If the nation decides ultimately that it wants the government to take a greater role in public provision of services to serve the best interests of citizens, it will have to accept that the government will have to procure those resources and thus may have to deprive the private sector of some of those resources in order to do so.
  • A Job Guarantee is fundamental to this understanding of monetary realities. It not only provides an essential automatic stabiliser in the economy ensuring that people are not left abandoned on the unemployment scrap heap during its cyclical ups and downs and values their contribution to making a more stable society but also plays a vital role in controlling inflationary pressures.

In the coming years, with the growing threat to climate change, it will also provide an essential mechanism to implement a just transition as jobs are lost in polluting industries and we move towards a sustainable economy.

In such an environment we will have to entirely rethink and redefine what work is and what our societal values should be. We need to ensure that we can offer our young people a future with good, non-exploitative employment which pays good wages and offers decent terms and conditions within the context of creating that sustainable economy.

Let’s not leave the future in the hands of the neoliberal orthodoxy which has done so much damage, created so much poverty, inequality and societal division. We do have choices. We don’t have to accept more of the same.

 

 

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The post To rephrase Mahatma Gandhi ‘The future will depend on what we do today.’ appeared first on The Gower Initiative for Modern Money Studies.