We could fix our economy by giving every man, woman and child £6,000 in cash

It's hard to believe in the economy's so-called recovery when 2.5m remain unemployed and 1.5m are stuck in part-time jobs because they can't find full-time work. So how do we get growth beyond the Square Mile?

Have you heard the good news? The economy is “turning a corner”. Growth is back. Green shoots abound. Hurrah! Forget that this is the slowest recovery in a century; forget that George Osborne promised us 7.7 per cent growth three years ago and yet we’ve had less than 3 per cent. Ignore the 2.5 million people who are still unemployed and the 1.5 million people who are stuck in part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time work. Turn a blind eye to the longest squeeze on workers’ incomes since the 1870s, to the 500,000 people who have been forced to visit food banks in the past year.

OK, you get my drift. To talk of a “recovery” is self-serving spin from the discredited austerians. If you want to see “green shoots”, you’ll have to head for the City of London. Bonuses there are up 64 per cent, while RBS and Lloyds are enjoying combined half-year profits of £3.5bn.

So how do we get growth beyond the Square Mile? Forget fiscal stimuli. Yes, Labour’s proposed VAT cut would boost demand – but by less than 1 per cent of GDP. Forget monetary stimuli. Interest rates have stood at a record low of 0.5 per cent since March 2009.

Then there is quantitative easing (QE), in which the Bank of England, according to the official explanation on its website, “electronically creates new money and uses it to purchase gilts from private investors such as pension funds and insurance companies . . . [This] lowers longer-term borrowing costs and encourages the issuance of new equities and bonds to stimulate spending.”

We have had a massive £375bn of QE so far, which may have saved the financial sector but has done very little for the rest of us. According to the Bank of England, 40 per cent of the gains from QE since 2009 have gone to the richest 5 per cent of households. “QE is a policy designed by the rich for the rich,” says Nigel Wilson, the chief executive of Legal & General.

There is, however, a way of using QE money in a bolder, much more daring way. It’s called “quantitative easing for the people”, or QEP.

QE of £375bn amounts to around £6,000 per man, woman and child in the UK. So why not electronically add this to the current accounts of every member of the public? Why not give the QE money directly to ordinary people to spend, save or pay off their debts? Wouldn’t it be better to inject new money into the real economy, rather than the City of London (where it usually sits unused, unspent, unlent, in bank vaults)?

QEP, incidentally, isn’t my idea. It’s Steve Keen’s. A professor of economics at the University of Western Sydney, Keen was one of only a handful of economists to have warned of the dangers of a financial crisis, several years before Lehman Brothers imploded in 2008.

QEP might elicit snorts of derision from the inflation hawks and deficit scolds, not to mention lazy references to hyperinflation and Weimar Germany, but it isn’t quack economics. Far from it. Remember the freemarket economist Milton Friedman, a hero to Thatcher and Pinochet, who said that downturns could be fought by “dropping money out of a helicopter”?

And remember his liberal-left rival John Maynard Keynes, who called for the Treasury to “fill old bottles with banknotes” and then bury them for people to find, dig up and spend?

QEP bypasses the tired and stale debate over austerity. Having the Bank of England hand over cash directly to consumers would boost aggregate demand without adding a penny to the national debt.

What’s not to like? Well, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, right? Wrong. There is if you’re a banker or a bond trader. The question is: why use QE money to bail out the masters of the universe rather than members of the public?

It’s a taboo topic, I guess. QEP is, in the words of the veteran economics commentator Anatole Kaletsky, formerly of the Times and now of Reuters, “too controversial for any policymaker to mention publicly”. Only a handful of pundits, such as Kaletsky and the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, have so far dared to discuss the option of QEP. Kaletsky refers to “citizens’ dividends”, Jenkins to “people’s bonuses”.

It’s still a tough sell. Ever since Liam Byrne, the outgoing Labour chief secretary to the Treasury, left behind his now notorious note in May 2010 – “I’m afraid there is no money,” he joked – the austerians have pretended that the UK is broke, bust, bankrupt. In a speech in March, David Cameron declaimed that there’s “no magic money tree” to fund what he dismissively described as “ever more wishful borrowing and spending”.

This is the big lie of the debate over growth and deficits. Don’t take my word for it. Or Keen’s. A briefing document published by George Osborne’s Treasury to coincide with the Budget in March noted how: “It is theoretically possible for monetary authorities to finance fiscal deficits through the creation of money. In theory, this could allow governments to increase spending or reduce taxation without raising corresponding financing from the private sector.”

The Treasury agrees: there is a money tree – and it isn’t magical. It’s called QE and it can, if we so choose, be deployed to support households, not banks; to encourage spending, not hoarding. QEP isn’t just doable: in an age of collapsing living standards, it’s vital.

It would also be revolutionary. To borrow a line often attributed to Henry Ford: “It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this article is cross-posted

Economic growth can't only be focused on London's financial district. Image: Getty

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496