If inflation is a bad thing, why is government policy designed to make us want more of it?

Britain is awash with debt, while government policy encourages inflation. But theoretical inflation sorts a lot of stuff out, while actual inflation will hurt.

So, you want to buy your first house. Let's assume (I know, I know, cloud cuckoo land, but let's go with it) you've scraped together a deposit and have persuaded someone to give you a mortgage. You'll be borrowing, on average, around £117,000. Oh, but that's assuming you're not in London. If you are, you're looking at more like £193,000 instead.

You've probably got some other debt outstanding too; most of us have. Last May, the average consumer borrowing - credit cards, overdrafts, car loans and so on - stood at around £3,207. That's an average, mind, so for a lot of us it's a lot more. Oh, and it had, by June, risen - only by £4, admittedly, but still, every little hurts.

Then there are student loans. In 2011, the Push university guide reckoned these averaged out at around £5,680 per student per year. That was before the new tuition fee regime, of course, and now you're probably looking at somewhere closer to £12,000 to cover fees plus maintenance. The resulting hole in your finances isn't really debt - even the government doesn't expect most of it to be paid back - but is more like an extra tax levied on those foolish enough to be born after 1993 (serves ‘em right). Nonetheless, it does mean yet another big red stain on the finances of those starting out in life.

The point, in case it's not quite sledgehammer enough for you, is that Britain is awash with debt - and the younger you are, the more likely you are to be drowning in it. Coalition ministers have spent a lot of time talking about how immoral it is to run up the nation's credit card and leave our children to pay it off. But they've seemed surprisingly blasé about running up our children's actual credit cards, and have cheerfully gone around loading them up with tuition fees and inflating the housing bubble all over again. Reports from the Office of Budget Responsibility, indeed, have been pretty explicit in their expectation that cuts to the deficit would be matched by a vast increase in personal debt.

All this is obviously horrible for those who'll have to pay those debts. But I wonder if it could have a more profound effect on the nation's attitude to its finances.

We're still living in an economic consensus defined, broadly, by the Thatcher government. For much of the seventies, inflation had run at over 10 per cent, which was commonly thought A Bad Thing. Thatcher's economic policies - monetarism, deindustrialisation, a strong pound - were all intended to get inflation down to the sort of level which didn't scare the bejesus out of investors, and keeping inflation low has been one of the main goals of policy ever since.

Now, though, a large and growing chunk of the population would, in the long term, do quite nicely out of spot of inflation. More than that, they're relying on it: some of the mortgages handed out over the last decade haven't got a hope of being repaid unless nominal wages start to spiral.

Think this through for a moment. If you woke up tomorrow to find that wages and prices had both doubled overnight, then the value of whatever debt you're sitting on has effectively halved. More than that, though, the value of the debt the government is sitting on has halved, too. Oh, and with a cheaper pound, suddenly Britain's exports look more competitive too. Halve the value of money in this country, and a lot of our problems suddenly look soluble. (This is economic model that used to work so well for Italy.)

The real world is not so kind, of course, and real inflation would be a lot more painful than that. Interest rates would rise. Holidays would become more expensive. The five or six British people still sitting on savings would see them whittled away, and anyone about to retire gets shafted.

Worst of all, wages are extremely unlikely to move in lockstep with prices, and those that lag most would likely be the ones paid to those with least bargaining power. That means, in all probability, the poorest. Those same people are also the least likely to benefit from an increase in asset prices (houses again, mostly) that'll accompany any inflation.

Oh, and there's the tiny problem that the deficit means we're still dependent on the faith and credit of the international bond markets. Theoretical inflation sorts a lot of stuff out. Actual inflation will hurt.

Nonetheless, though you'll never catch them saying it out loud, this seems to be the plan the government have lumped for. To get out of the mess we're currently in, there are only really three options. One is a sustained and historic boom (unlikely). Another is default (horrible). The third is to try to inflate the debt away and hope nobody notices. If you're young, middle class and sitting on a massive mortgage, this works in your favour. If you're an investor, a pensioner, or, worst of all, poor, it doesn't.

All the reasons inflation was bad in the Seventies still apply. There are many good reasons for wanting to keep it down. But we can't have everything. The larger the share of the population that is sitting on unsustainable debts, the less frightened of inflation the electorate will become. Any monetarist baby boomers out there might want to think about that, next time they're talking gleefully about how much their house is worth.

A boy with a kite made of banknotes in Germany during the depression of 1922 when escalating inflation rendered much of the currency worthless. Photo: Getty

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

Getty
Show Hide image

How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.