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.

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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

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