By Prue Plumridge
Belief in a flat Earth is found in the oldest writings and early Mesopotamian maps showed the world as a flat disk floating in the ocean. Thankfully things have moved on since that time and we now accept the proof that it is indeed a sphere spinning in space.
It is not difficult to imagine the reaction to those who challenged this view, such as Christopher Columbus, and the scepticism with which such ideas would have initially been received. After all, if you’ve been told that you’ll fall off the edge of the world if you go too far, questioning that notion would have led to shaking of heads. Those disputing the prevailing set of ideas or beliefs on the basis of “what if” would have been ridiculed, insulted or even physically attacked as fear of the new set in.
We have reached such a time in history now. The destructive neoliberal status quo of the last few decades is being shaken to its core and there is an opportunity at last for a conversation about where we go from here and how we can bring about change. It won’t be easy but Jeremy Corbyn has started the ball rolling by offering a radical vision which not only restores the core values of the Labour party and responds to a changing world but also opens up an opportunity for dialogue on such issues as climate change, finite resources and sustainable living. It is a positive start.
Of course, those who have the most to lose will not let their power go easily and we are seeing that already with attacks on Jeremy Corbyn by the Establishment and business leaders and worse still, from his own party. Only this week, an article in the Telegraph was predicting that Jeremy Corbyn’s economic plans will turn us into Zimbabwe and lead us to calamity. We must, however, stand strong against such attacks which stem from fear and forge our future together.
People are starting to see through the decades long political neoliberal consensus which favours the magic of free markets. But there is still a way to go and it won’t be easy. It is vital that we ask questions and, even when, like the flat earthers, we find the potential solutions out of our comfort zone because it questions the long-accepted paradigm, we must not turn away.
Most people (including me) shy away from discussion of economics. Mathematical equations and economic models dance before the eyes and shut down the brain like no other subject. And yet the decisions made by our elected politicians are based on economic ideas which can wreak havoc on our lives and the lives of our families and friends or can, alternatively, be used for a public purpose to benefit those same lives. Indeed, we are seeing the damaging consequences of those decisions today. Dismantling our social security system, selling our publically funded public services to the private sector, deregulation, the watering down of employment and trade union rights and driving down of wages in the name of competition. TTIP, TISA and CETA added into this mix will prove to be the final nail in the coffin of democracy. It is, therefore, time to engage in a conversation and challenge those who have deceived us for so long. We must ask ourselves what if the world isn’t flat at all?
Maggie Thatcher’s line “There is no alternative” is the usual excuse for continuing with the free-market ideology and the claim that continued austerity, balanced budgets and surpluses are vital to a successful economy. We will all remember Liam Byrne’s infamous note, when Labour left power, saying ‘There is no money’. That one stupid remark has allowed the deficit/debt reduction argument to dominate the economic and political landscape of the last five years and been used by David Cameron and George Osborne in a deliberate distortion of reality to justify cuts, the creation of a small state and private sector domination.
It is unfortunate that even some of the Labour elites are using the same loaded language which says that we must continue with such policies. Yvette Cooper, who has a PPE from Baliol College at Oxford, said recently “I don’t think the answer is what Jeremy has proposed, which is basically printing money that we haven’t got to build things”. Her comment is symptomatic of her lack of grasp of wider economic ideas and yet, she, like many, has been a victim of the way it has been taught for decades in educational institutions. One might think that the doctrine of balanced budgets was the only game in town.
Regretfully, these ideas have been cleverly used to also deceive ordinary people that there is no alternative. That we must accept the pain and balance our budgets in true Micawber style. The idea that the state should deal with the deficit and reduce the national debt has become a part of the narrative which is firmly fixed in the collective psyche. The problem has been reinforced by our experience of our own household budget which has to be managed to ensure we don’t go into the red or get into debt.
The first step is to ask questions. Don’t rule anything in or out – the world is a complex place much more so than even this simple presentation.
Most of us will remember from our history lessons, the 1929 crash. The UK government’s response at the time was to balance the budget and re-establish confidence in the pound. Public sector wages and unemployment benefits were cut and by 1931 unemployment had risen to almost three million. The march to London by the men of Jarrow is a symbol of that economic disaster which left thousands of people destitute and hungry.
One of the people who challenged that view was John Maynard Keynes who was fiercely critical of the then Conservative-Liberal coalition government’s austerity budget and wrote:
‘Every person in this country of super-asinine propensities, everyone who hates social progress and loves deflation, feels that his hour has come and triumphantly announces how, by refraining from every sort of economic activity, we can become prosperous again.”
It is ironic, that when the coalition came to power in 2010, they chose to repeat an economic policy that had so singularly failed in the 1920s and 30s, and the Conservatives are promising more of the same over the next five years.
‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results’ Albert Einstein is once said to have observed. But then one could ask the question is it insanity or a deliberate strategy?
To return to Keynes, his argument was, essentially, that in order to support full employment governments must use their spending power to invest in the economy on the basis that spending equals income to someone which is, after all, what makes the world go round. So when governments reduce public spending the result can only be higher unemployment. Indeed in the last week we have learned that for the financial year so far the deficit was down £7.3bn (23%) but in the three months to June there was a rise of 25000 in unemployment. To make the connections if we stifle spending to reduce the deficit then this can only have a detrimental effect on the economy by reducing the amount of money available to the non-government sector.
So where, may you ask, will the money come from to deficit spend? When Yvette Cooper suggested wrongly as it happens that we can’t print money that we haven’t got to build things she was forgetting that electronic monetary resources were created to rescue the banking system in the form of Quantitative Easing which no-one objected to then, even though, basically, it disappeared into a big banking black hole.
Jeremy Corbyn’s People’s QE is quite another kettle of fish and this time those money resources would be used for public purpose that is for the benefit and well-being of society as a whole and not just a small section of it. To put that clearly in the words of Professor Bill Mitchell:
“People would soon see the benefits in the form of better schools, hospitals, public transport, green energy innovations, more jobs, more diverse cultural events”
The response to these ideas has been one of panic-stricken hysteria, as emotive language such as ‘debt mountain’ is used by politicians and the media to scare the general public, by reinforcing the household budget model of our state finances and economy. Let’s not forget the irony here that George Osborne has managed to achieve a debt mountain all of his own!
Professor Bill Mitchell’s conclusion should reassure the public:
PQE is an excellent strategy for the British government to introduce. It exploits the currency-issuing capacity of the government directly and uses it to increase the potential of the economy to improve well-being.
It is astonishing to realise that contrary to common belief sovereign governments start the ball rolling by issuing money, tax revenues are not necessary for a government to spend and that our national debt is not a debt in the usual sense of the word.
So, I can hear you ask: what then is the purpose of tax? I’ve heard that ‘printing money’ is inflationary? And say that again our national debt is not a debt at all?
We must start with the first principle which is that, since the abandonment of the gold standard, sovereign governments like ours can issue as much money as it needs. Remember the money issued comes first, and not taxes. This is a key point. Without money in our pockets we can’t pay taxes anyway.
Beardsley Rumi former Chairman of the Federal Reserve wrote as long ago as 1946:
… given control of a central banking system and an inconvertible currency, a sovereign national government is finally free of money worries and need no longer levy taxes for the purpose of providing itself with revenue. All taxation, therefore should be regarded from the point of view of social and economic consequences.
What this actually means is that tax, far from being a revenue raiser, is a mechanism for what we can call public purpose meaning, for example, redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. It also has the function of managing inflation by raising taxes to dampen demand, or reducing them to increase it.
Secondly, money issue by a sovereign state is not, in itself, inflationary. Politicians parading as prophets of doom are warning us that ‘printing money’ will cause inflation. In an effort to scare people, we are reminded of Germany’s hyperinflation after the First World War or Zimbabwe’s in the 1990s. In both cases, the truth of the matter is that these episodes could not be described in any way as normal – they were extreme events and not remotely like the situation in the UK or the US. Of course in Germany’s case, the imposition of huge reparations in gold under the Versailles Treaty, the loss of 25% of its industrial capacity as a result of the war and then the occupation of the Ruhr when Germany defaulted forced them to increase the money supply which did not match its supply capacity. So when exports then slowed and Germany could not continue to pay back its debts it led to the hyperinflation which was to have catastrophic consequences for the German nation both in the short and long term.
And herein lies the clue, if you keep on spending and can’t produce the goods to meet that spending, you’ll get inflation Spending with no regard to whether there are enough resources to match it, is the cause of inflation not the money issue in itself. So deficit spending is not the problem. The issue is whether we have the resources to justify the spending and if we have, how we can use them effectively for the benefit of society as a whole.
We have almost two million people without jobs. People whose talents remain unused. People who want to work despite the inference by government and irresponsible media that the unemployed are lazy and feckless which has become the prevalent myth, now accepted by the public as being true. The solution therefore is to invest in building new schools, hospitals, homes and green infrastructure as well as create real job opportunities so that people can make a positive contribution not only to their own well-being but that of their communities. Remember that spending equals income to someone, and so by using the resources we have, effectively and fairly, we can improve the lives of all. The deficit will only be a problem when all available resources are being used. And we are most certainly not in this position at the moment.
And this brings me, finally, to the notion of the national debt. If, as is noted above, sovereign governments can issue money then it begs the question why do we have to borrow? Well the reality is that we don’t. Sovereign governments don’t need to issue debt. The real game is about corporate welfare as Treasuries and Bonds are sold to big investors who want a nice safe, risk free place to stash their money and get a guaranteed income flow. Much like us when we transfer money from our current bank account to a savings account. Where governments are the primary money issuers there is no reason why the national debt could not be scrapped. We wouldn’t have to worry about ‘paying it back’. And, after all, how could you pay back the money supply?
The important thing for us to understand is that there is an alternative to the inertia of past decades. We don’t have to accept it we have to challenge it.
The world is a complex place and full of uncertainty but we have been bewitched by a dogma that proposes freedom and everlasting growth on the backs of the people and the planet but which, in fact, is tying us in chains to the benefit of the few. As Keynes observed in his book written in 1936:
“The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.”
The Post War Consensus is long gone and the positive outcomes of that consensus, being dismantled as we speak. The ascendency of individualism over cooperation and all that entails is almost complete. As Ha-Joon Chang wrote:
‘Many believers in the individualist view would sacrifice political freedom to defend economic freedom”
It is clear that such unrestrained pursuit of self-interest through the belief in the magic of free markets has proved itself wanting and resulted in huge disparities of wealth, impoverishment, inequality and unequal access to opportunity.
Whilst we need wisdom too, knowledge is power and so the more we are informed, the easier it is to challenge the lies of politicians and their media lackeys. It is not necessary to immerse oneself in economic models and mathematical equations to understand the importance of economic policies and their effects on society but if we are to move forward we must show those who would lie to us that we cannot be fooled any longer.
Resources and credits:
Summer of Unrest: The Debt Delusion Mehdi Hasan
Economics: The User’s Guide Ha-Joon-Chang
The “Angry Birds” Approach to Understanding Deficits in the Modern Economy