Out-of-touch Chancellor’s Spring Statement fails to help those most in need

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“Once we allow ourselves to be disobedient to the test of an accountant’s profit, we have begun to change our civilisation.”
John Maynard Keynes  

This week, amidst continuing global economic uncertainty caused by the ongoing pandemic and the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, delivered his Spring Budget. Unsurprisingly, it did little to help the very poorest of households, as the Resolution Foundation reported in its analysis that followed:

“Taking into account the measures announced by the Chancellor, the typical working-age household faces an income fall of 4 per cent, or £1,100, in 2022-23. But the greatest falls will be felt by the poorest quarter of households who are set to see their incomes fall by 6 per cent. This will see a further 1.3 million people fall into absolute poverty next year, including 500,000 children – the first time Britain has seen such a rise in poverty outside of recessions.

 

Incomes are on course to be lower at the next election (2024-25) than they were at the last (2019-20), with typical non-pensioner income projected to be 2 per cent lower. Such an outcome would make this the worst parliament on record for living standards growth.

 

The Chancellor pre-announced a 1p cut in the basic rate of Income Tax for April 2024, saving an average earner £243 a year. But the gains of this and the lasting impact of a higher National Insurance threshold are wiped out by previously announced tax rises.  In 2024-25, when the income tax cut comes into effect, 27 million out of the 31 million people in work will pay more Income Tax and NI as a result of personal tax changes announced by Rishi Sunak.”

Chancellor Rishi Sunak filling a red car with petrol at a petrol stationImage by HM Treasury on Flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 license.

While the Chancellor continues to count the tax beans and make his calculations, those who have already suffered the consequences of the last 12 years of Conservative policies will now be expected to take further pain in the form of a resurrection of harmful austerity dressed up in the concept of possible ‘jam tomorrow’. Cynically speaking, just before the next election.

In the light of a sustained round of higher government spending and the myth that we have borrowed heavily to sustain an economy hit by a global pandemic (even if much of that went into corporate pockets), some economically uneducated politicians are now appealing to the nation yet again to sacrifice their well-being on the altar of balanced budgets. We should be willing victims, according to this false logic. Despite the huge spending over the past two years, the household budget myths were never far away from the public gaze as the media pounded their messages about how there would be a price to pay, eventually.

At the same time as the Resolution Foundation lays it on the line as to the significance of the Chancellor’s budget, which yet again divides rich and poor, it then goes on to reinforce the myths about how the UK government spends. Tax receipts, it said, had come in much stronger in 2021/22 than expected, which would give the Chancellor ‘headroom against his fiscal rules’. The Independent claimed however that Sunak was keeping some of that tax bonanza back for a rainy day or to cover his planned tax cut in 2024. Whilst the Foundation’s analysis is stark on the consequences of this week’s budget, it is clearly still in the dark ages when it comes to describing how currency-issuing governments spend, as are so many think tanks and organisations on both the left and the right, not to mention a myopic media.

Charles Dicken’s character Micawber has been resurrected (if he ever went away) by a Chancellor who, after an astonishing fiscal response to the pandemic, is now re-donning Thatcher’s mantle, reinforcing the lie that taxes fund spending, or that government needs to borrow to fund itself over and above its revenue.

The suggestion by Torsten Bell at the Resolution Foundation, that these unexpected tax receipts would allow the Chancellor to consolidate the Treasury’s fiscal position and deliver his promises is just more shoring up of a myth that governments spend like our own households. And a bit of a joke because by any standards what the Chancellor, with his great wealth and extensive property portfolio, has done, is punish those who can least afford it and who do have to live within their financial means or face the prospect of debt because they are currency users, not currency issuers. The rising use of food banks and increasing homelessness can only get worse as his budget decisions begin to bite in April and our public services will continue to deteriorate without adequate funding.

Holding forth from his ivory tower, Sunak has not an ounce of understanding about the impact of government spending policies on the lives of working people, not to mention the economy. His decisions are directed by a desire to show himself fiscally prudent, not by public health and economic security.

When Rishi Sunak says, as he did earlier this week, that ‘we can’t help everyone because it’s too expensive’ or proposes an efficiency drive to cut £5.5bn of claimed government waste with a view to those savings being used to fund vital public services, it is quite simply a distortion of the facts to serve a political agenda.

Whether it is the Chancellor reciting the usual mantra about it being ‘vital that every single penny of taxpayers’ hard-earned cash is […] spent well,’ or the Shadow Chancellor and other uninformed left-wing politicians suggesting that they would fund public services via a windfall tax on energy companies, the public is being led by the nose in its ignorance of how government spends. An ignorance perpetuated by the daily narratives in both left- and right-wing quarters and by a compliant media singing from the same hymnbook. The economic orthodoxy rules the roost. And yet increasingly we are seeing the true cost of such narratives. They are not financial, they are the threats to human life, biodiversity, and a functioning planet.

Given the challenges we face from an increasingly forgotten climate crisis (and incidentally scarcely mentioned in the Spring budget), the ongoing exploitation of the global south, which has bled countries dry to sustain the lifestyle of the west and which is coupled with rising poverty and inequality affecting citizens across the world, it is time to challenge these myths which have served a political agenda and a toxic ideology. Keeping the myths alive for the purposes of social control and the profits rolling into private pockets with government serving its corporate masters.

Nothing is too expensive in monetary terms; government doesn’t have a finite pot of money with which to provide public and social infrastructure and neither does it have to doff its cap to the wealthy or large corporations to provide it. Contrary to the usual household budget narrative, when the government spends, it does so based on a political agenda, not the state of the public coffers. It just doesn’t want the public to know that, because it is a lie that can be used to justify its spending policies and who gets the money, or indeed yet another round of austerity when it suits. A harmful ideology that feeds government policies and spending decisions.

The proof of the pudding lies in the fact that when it serves that agenda there is always money to fund a government’s own political priorities such as war or defence spending, or public contracts divvied out to its mates with no accountability. Only this week, Sunak revealed that the UK had given Ukraine £100 million worth of weaponry. And yet at the same time, he tells us that savings in government departments must be found by rooting out waste which can in turn, according to the household budget narrative, be used to fund public services, as if a government that issues its own currency has no money of its own and has to tax or borrow or make ‘savings’ by robbing Peter to pay Paul to fund its agenda.

While the Telegraph talks this week about the parlous state of the public finances and running out of road, suggesting that excessive government spending was crowding out investment in the private sector by discouraging ‘innovation and competition in crucial sectors such as health and education’ (which tells us a lot about the priorities of those on the conservative right), it claimed also that government spending levels were ‘indefensible.’  These statements are predicated on the lie that money is a finite and scarce resource and that the State and its public infrastructure is wasteful of hard-earned taxpayers’ money!

While the Telegraph talks tough by suggesting that spending needs to be cut even further, the Spring Budget is already a kick in the teeth for those who are currently struggling to make ends meet and will mean even more hardship and poverty as energy, food and other costs continue to rise. The Chancellor has made a political choice to create further difficulties for already beleaguered citizens on the promise of ‘jam tomorrow.’ Fiscal discipline over national economic well-being. What a cruel way to view the lives of millions of people, who it seems have become expendable in some people’s eyes where government finances are concerned. Better a balanced budget than a happier, healthier more productive nation.

Let us ask what is the role of government? To balance the budget, keep the wealthy happy and the profits rolling? Or something else? What we should be discussing is not the state of the government finances, whether it has balanced its budget or gilded its reputation as being fiscally prudent, but how it has managed the real but finite resources it can, if it chooses, access through its tax and other policies to create a sustainable and functioning economy which benefits everyone, not just a small section of it.

Thus, a healthy economy depends primarily, not on a private sector paying its taxes to provide vital public infrastructure, for too long the public has been misled on this issue. It depends instead on the spending and legislative decisions taken by a currency-issuing government to create the publicly paid for and preferably managed national and local infrastructure upon which we all depend as individuals and businesses, from health to education, welfare, public transport networks, and employment. Government in service to its electorate, not the corporate body. That should be the starting point for a discussion about where we go from here and involves creating a better public understanding of how government really spends.

In short, the current economic problems and inflationary pressures are not caused by too much government spending as some would have it, but by supply chain disruptions resulting from the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the growing effects of climate change on the world economy including food production. This is a moment not for fiscal retrenchment but thinking best how to support working people in these difficult days and planning for a sustainable and fairer future for all.

 

 

 

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The post Out-of-touch Chancellor’s Spring Statement fails to help those most in need appeared first on The Gower Initiative for Modern Money Studies.