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