We shouldn't be hanging on the every word of Britain’s new "superstar" central banker

Britain's economic debate needs to be more daring than the Bank of England can ever be, writes Jeremy Green.

Mark Carney’s "forward guidance" announcement yesterday was a new departure for the Bank of England. A publicly announced unemployment target will now help guide interest rates. Many had anticipated that Carney might introduce unorthodox policy measures, and in plumping for an unemployment target he has followed the lead of Ben Bernanke at the Federal Reserve. The measure is intended to assure markets that borrowing costs will remain low going forward, with the hope that this will spur further spending and investment in order to drive Britain’s fragile recovery.

It’s important not to place too much emphasis on the novelty of this announcement though. The Bank has not abandoned, or significantly relaxed, its commitment to price stability. The unemployment target will be jettisoned if there is a significant rise in inflation, or if continued loose monetary policy threatens financial stability. This is by no means a revolution in monetary policy.

The fact that so much attention has been lavished upon the appointment of Carney and his early policy announcements, demonstrates the overemphasis placed upon monetary policy as the only viable escape route from recession. In fact, the overdependence upon monetary policy has been a defining feature of the neoliberal era as a whole.

Ever since the anti-inflationary policies implemented by the Bank and the Fed in the early 1980s, monetary policy, coordinated by increasingly independent central banks, has been expected to play a larger role in steering economic growth. Under the high interest rate regimes of the early 1980s it was the money supply figures that were supposed to guide interest rates and provide a benchmark for market expectations, whereas now, in the context of zero-bound monetary policy, the unemployment rate is supposed to play a similar role.

As long as fiscal policy remains shackled by austerity, then the wider benefits of a looser monetary policy are likely to be meagre. Quantitative Easing has so far done much more for wealthy assets holders and share prices than it has for ordinary wages. Channelling the proactive element of the policy response to the crisis exclusively through monetary policy actually deepens our dependence upon financial markets as the engine for recovery. Doing so without redirecting credit into long-term infrastructural investment and export-led industries will reproduce the same deficiencies that have plagued the British economy.

Cheap money is likely to be funnelled into the property market, reinvigorating the speculation that led to the crisis in the first place and further concentrating wealth inequalities. Britain’s high levels of household debt will likely be aggravated, rather than alleviated, by the prolongation of cheaper credit in the context of falling or stagnant wages.

We should be talking about a proactive industrial strategy, expansionary fiscal policy and green jobs, rather than hanging on the every word of Britain’s new "superstar" central banker.

The flip side of Britain’s proactive monetary policy has been the talking-down of the potential for an expansionary fiscal policy. Quantitative Easing and fiscal austerity are the lead actors in a damaging double-act at the heart of the Coalition’s plan to restore British growth. But the key ingredients to getting out of the crisis, and providing more and better quality jobs in the process, are not austerity and cheaper consumer credit. We should be expanding fiscal stimulus and targeted investment through increased spending and taxation – tapping into the huge corporate surpluses in Britain as a source of strategically directed investment. Supply-side measures alone are entirely inadequate.

At a more fundamental level, the power and influence of an unelected and independent central banker should be a concern for all of us. In a democracy like ours, key economic decisions should be taken within a strong mandate of public accountability, not the shadowy and esoteric world of central bank policy making. The more faith we place in central banking to lead us out of the crisis, the less we place in the policy programmes of our elected politicians.

Photograph: Getty Images

Jeremy Green is a research fellow at the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Sheffield.

Photo: Getty
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The beggar used to be friendly – now he was ranting at everyone

What was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The first beggar was walking but still wretched. Probably in his early twenties, clearly ravaged by more than just alcohol, he made a beeline for me, as if he had an appointment. He was not to know that I was in a mood from hell, though the look on my face would have told him, if he’d been in any kind of state to register it.

“Excuse me, have you got 10p for…”

“No.” And I walked on.

Why? I am almost invariably a soft touch for this kind of thing. But as I said, I was in the foulest of tempers.

Also, this was East Finchley. For those who do not know London, East Finchley is a northern suburb, which at one end hosts the wealthiest street in the country – the Bishops Avenue, where multimillionaires tear down houses and erect new ones even uglier than those they have replaced – and at the other end a typically seedy, dull collection of terraced houses.

The main supermarket is Budgens, a name so ungainly that it could only have belonged to a real person, either too proud or unimaginative to think of something else.

But what, I asked myself, was someone this wretched doing in East Finchley? And what was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The second beggar, further up the street, I met the next day: much older and clearly mad, rather than chemically poisoned. He asked how I was doing.

“Not so well, as it happens,” I replied.

“Would you like me to say a prayer for you?”

“Why not?” I said, and he placed a clenched fist to my forehead and made a brief incantation, something like an exorcism, and then kissed the large white plastic crucifix hanging from his neck.

I half-expected to feel a jolt of faith, some kind of divine restructuring. This time I gave him money: a pound coin and a 50p coin. But then later I thought: why didn’t I give him more? I’d been doing some tidying earlier and had retrieved a heavy pocketful of change; I could have given him a generous handful.

The third beggar was in Shepherd’s Bush. I knew him from the days when I lived there: a skinny, middle-aged guy who would occasionally stop and rant in a friendly way at me, just sane enough not to ignore. That was ten years ago. Now he was raging at everyone, accusing the teenagers queueing in the kebab shop of being batty boys and saying “bloodclaat” a lot. (Batty boy: homosexual. Bloodclaat: tampon.)

The people he was addressing knew perfectly well what he was saying. They shrugged it off. I got on the bus; so did he, and the whole bus knew about it. There was nothing friendly in him now, and I wondered through which hole in the increasingly threadbare welfare safety net he had been allowed to slip.

That’s it, I thought. I’m getting out of London, its pampered core oblivious to the surrounding anguish. The world in a nutshell. Luckily, my great friend S— had asked if I could cat-sit for her in Brighton. I know her cat, and I know Brighton. Also, I know about a dozen people there who I keep meaning to see, so why not? London was making me ill, and possibly a bad person. So S— invited me down a couple of days before she was due to go on her holidays, and I took the first train I could.

And now I find myself sitting on a sunlounger in a tiny backyard, in a charming house just abutting the North Laine, and the mood is palpably different to the capital’s. It is like a city ought to be: compact, diverse and funky. There is no reek of High Capitalism. It is healthily decadent. It would appear to be full of people who have rejected the idea of London. It still has an enormous number of beggars, but more people were dropping money for them than I ever saw do so in W1, W12 or N2.

So this is what it’s like to fall out of love with the city of one’s birth. What most surprised me was the speed and force with which it happened. I’d made my mind up over a nice lunch that my friend N— was buying me, to cheer me up.

“Don’t you have to stay in London? You know, for book launches and things like that?”

“I don’t go to fucking book launches any more,” I said. I was taken aback by the vigour of my reply. I’m only here for ten days but I have plenty of people to see and dozens of memories, all good, to bump into. I’m already feeling better. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem