Standing at a crossroads in time

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Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 05/10/2020 - 3:38am in
‘Democracy is not just a counting up of votes, it is a counting up of actions.’

Howard Zinn
Crossroads signpost with signs saying "possible" and "impossible"Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Do you remember when Andy Haldane, the Chief Economist at the Bank of England, insisted that Britain was enjoying a ‘V-shaped’ recovery way back in July? Since then much has happened but not a V-shaped recovery and the future is looking pretty bleak. Despite that, Haldane’s concern this week that ‘our pessimism is holding us back’ and that companies hiring and corporate investment were the ‘missing ingredient in the recovery’ leads one to wonder if the Chief Economist is living on a different planet.

The prospect of a rise in unemployment by the end of 2020, less generous government support than hitherto, people saving more than spending and a collapse in business investment would suggest that people are retrenching as a result of lack of confidence. Businesses will not invest while they are unsure whether that investment will repay itself in increased profits and people won’t spend whilst their lives are turned upside down and they have no idea whether they will have a job next week. It seems that Andy Haldane is stuck in some other world that does not exist for the majority of people.

A combination of government policy, cuts to public sector spending over the last 10 years which has left public infrastructure in tatters, combined with the uncertainty caused by Brexit and the final straw of Covid-19 has left the nation in a state of collective inertia wondering what will happen next. Tin hats are the order of the day, not party bunting and champagne. Glasses of confidence are in short supply!

We stand at a crossroads in time and Covid-19 has revealed in stark terms the putrid underbelly of an economic system which has predominated for decades. Rising poverty and inequality, huge social injustice, wealth distribution skewed in favour of those who already have more than sufficient and the ever-present elephant in the room, climate chaos, all the result of a toxic ideology and excessive consumption.

This week the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew published its fourth report in the ‘State of the World’ series. Professor Antonelli, the Director of Science wrote in its introduction:

Never before has the biosphere, the thin layer of life we call home, been under such intensive and urgent threat. Deforestation rates have soared as we have cleared land to feed ever-more people, global emissions are disrupting the climate system, new pathogens threaten our crops and our health, illegal trade has eradicated entire plant populations, and non-native species are out-competing local floras. Biodiversity is being lost – locally, regionally and globally [……]

We share this planet with millions of other species, many of which existed long before us. Despite the fact that an exploitative view of nature has deep roots in our society, most people today would agree that we have no moral right to obliterate a species – even if it has no immediate benefit to us. Ultimately, the protection of biodiversity needs to embrace our ethical duty of care for this planet as well as our own needs.

Whilst 40% of all the world’s plant species are at risk of extinction according to a report published last month by the UN the world has failed to achieve in full any of the biodiversity targets agreed in Japan in 2010 and indeed this is the second consecutive decade that governments have not done so. The Global Biodiversity Outlook Report offered a convincing and authoritative overview of the state of nature indicating that the natural world is suffering badly.

According to Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, it underlined that ‘humanity stands at a crossroads with regard to the legacy we wish to leave future generations’ and that ‘earth’s living systems as a whole are being compromised. And the more humanity exploits nature in unsustainable ways and undermines its contributions to people, the more we undermine our own well-being security and prosperity’. It outlined the need to shift away from ‘business as usual’ across a range of human activities.

The bottom line is that our own well-being and survival are dependent on rethinking our relationship with nature and each other.

Amidst the disturbing backdrop of the threat to the planet caused by failure to address these serious biodiversity losses and the growing evidence of the consequences of climate change across the world from devastating droughts, fires, storms and flooding, the consequences of government political decisions and spending policies continue to play out daily in people’s lives.

Evidence of both ignorance and wilful conduct by our elected politicians is shocking. Whilst a household budget description of the public finances continues to dominate in political and establishment circles, the potential for addressing the consequences of spending cuts or indeed the serious challenges we face will always curtail any action.

The reverse of the toxic climate coin is the huge wealth inequality and poverty which has done so much damage to economies around the world.

In the UK, as many more people turn to the social security system for support as a result of the ending of the job retention scheme, many will find out first-hand how far from generous those benefits are and have been for those living on lower incomes. The ‘lazy scrounger’ narrative which has done so much harm will increasingly come into the spotlight as the middle-class professionals find themselves relying on state support. The real-life daily realities of many low-income families in precarious employment or subsisting on less than adequate social security payments will begin to emerge to a section of society which has hitherto thought itself immune.

The effects on the economy as incomes have plunged over the last few months, particularly for those in receipt of Universal Credit, will be further highlighted as the redundancies pile up and living standards begin to fall. It will bring into sharp focus the policies which over more than a decade have sought to divide people and create a two-tier society of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ on the basis of the lies trotted out regularly that such public and social infrastructure is dependent on a tax/contribution paying nation and that it is the private sector which creates the wealth to allow that to happen.

The argument that contributions paid in relate to a pot of money put aside by the state on our behalf must be knocked on the head and replaced with the real description of how the UK government actually spends. That what is paid out is a political choice determined by an agenda and is unrelated to how much revenue the government has collected. Household budget descriptions of how money works serve only to deliver that pernicious agenda and do not represent monetary reality.

It was depressing, therefore, to hear Labour’s Lucy Powell reinforcing the narrative of affordability when she was asked about Labour’s commitment to the pension triple lock earlier this week. She suggested that it would be dependent on knowing ‘what income you have got coming in and what outgoings you need to make’ and that ‘the single biggest determination of that is the level of employment, and level of growth in our economy’.

Once again, the suggestion is clear; that the government can’t afford to protect the incomes of retired people for whom the state pension is their only source. She, like so many others, makes a false connection between the health of the economy and tax revenue by suggesting that pensions, other benefits or indeed essential public and social infrastructure are dependent on a healthy economy and people paying their tax. It is disheartening that such economic ignorance lives on and the health of the economy is reduced to monetary affordability.

This was again brought sharply into focus this week by a report published by the Labour Women’s Budget Group which called for a universal care service. As has already been previously noted, Covid19 has highlighted the existing inequalities in society and the failure to invest in health and social care which has led to many preventable deaths both before and during the pandemic. In the midst of a climate emergency as the Women’s Budget Group points out, the pandemic has revealed huge cracks in our public and social infrastructure along with wealth disparities and social and racial injustice. The group underlined that business profit and greed has in recent times come before a caring more equal society. It called for reforms to create a caring economy ‘a blueprint for a world where work and care can be shared harmoniously, where the economy is measured in well-being and sustainability’.

These are laudable objectives, but yet again we hear the household budget tropes put forward to justify such action. That it would be a good time to consider a universal care service because interest rates are at historic lows and research has shown that taxpayers would be happy to pay extra. Once again, a constraint is immediately revealed by the suggestion that the limits to spending are monetary. Putting aside for a minute the fact that the constraints are not monetary but related to real resources, there is a better reason to consider such action:

Because a civilised society takes care of its young and elderly.

And far from being unaffordable in monetary terms, the government as the currency issuer can, assuming the real resources are available, make a political choice to invest in the lives of its citizens to improve their lives and ensure a vibrant, healthy sustainable economy.

And whilst tax plays an important role in achieving government policies, not only is tax not required to make such an investment, but also in these difficult days raising them would at this point depress the economy even further and may indeed turn taxpayers against such an expenditure.

Such a care service should not only be paid for from public funds, it should be managed and delivered as a public service and not be in private hands.

If we want a caring and environmentally sustainable economy instead of yet more exploitation no matter how eco-friendly it is presented as, fundamental to that change is a government which puts people’s interests over and above the interests of capital. We need politicians that recognise both the value of a well-educated and trained workforce to address those challenges and the role a Job Guarantee might play to ensure a just transition for those most likely to lose out.

This week, the government announced a package of measures that will allow people to study at college paid for by a national skills fund and a more flexible higher education loan scheme. Reminiscent of New Labour’s ‘Life-Long Learning’ programme, Boris Johnson announced a ‘lifetime skills guarantee’ promising that the government would help people to get the skills they need to navigate this quickly changing world. On the face of it, this is a good plan. However, training and skills in themselves good and positive as they are, are no substitute for actual jobs if, as Warren Mosler has pointed out, you’ve still only got ‘nine bones for 10 dogs’ people will still remain unemployed.

While the government continues to see job creation as a private sector exercise and absolves itself from the responsibility of governing in the interests of the nation as a whole, those jobs won’t be created by a private sector without confidence that their investment will pay a return. That confidence only derives from the actions of government through its policies and spending decisions.

For ideological reasons, the government never mentions job creation in the public sector which is where we sorely need investment. As has been pointed out many times in previous MMT Lens blogs, it could address unemployment through an expansion of the public sector (which has over 10 years been starved of funding and adequate staffing levels) to create a public and social infrastructure that meets the needs of the economy and is fit for purpose. That could be supplemented by a permanent Job Guarantee to manage the cyclical ups and downs of the economy by providing work, training and skills for those who will be most affected by this very different world that is heading our way. It is ironic that this government has cut funding to education and training over the last 10 years making it more difficult for people to gain the skills they and society needs.

Worse, over decades, starting with New Labour, it has also made education a cost to the individual instead of being funded by public money. As if somehow it is only the individual that benefits, when in fact society and the economy gain positively from a well-trained, educated workforce whether in public or private sector employment.

So where do we go from here? Are we asking ourselves the right questions? And are we prepared to make some difficult decisions?

We are at a pivotal moment in history and the future will depend not just on government action but the public willingness to engage in a serious adult conversation. Engaging requires the facts about what is possible and what is not and about the change that is needed to ensure a viable future for humankind. It requires understanding how we have been led down an alley without an exit by those politicians serving the interests of a tiny section of society. Those same politicians and institutions which daily use false narratives to suggest that there is no alternative to more pain in the future if we are to dig ourselves out of the financial hole all this spending is causing.

The only hole we have to dig ourselves out of is the hole that has been created by this false narrative that saving the planet is unaffordable, that the economic crisis caused by Covid-19 has made it even more unaffordable and making people’s quality of life better is far too expensive. Challenging such notions should be top priority. Whilst it remains to be seen whether such a government is on the horizon there is no excuse for inaction. For ourselves and for future generations.

 

 

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