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
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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