Should Labour adopt the four per cent inflation policy?

Controversial ideas of the past are becoming consensus of the present.

A 1998 proposal by Paul Krugman that the western world should target inflation at four per cent rather than two per cent, has got the backing of the IMF (pdf). The intention would be to erode government debt, and to give policy makers a more flexible tool in the future, rather than resorting to quantitative easing (QE).

In our battle to combat inflation, we fought for it to be as close to zero as it can be without grinding growth out. Two per cent seemed to be that point. However, now that we’ve got that control, we don’t have to keep it so low.

In 2007, if inflation had been at four per cent instead of two per cent, then interest rates would have been seven per cent rather than five per cent, and the Bank of England would have had more room to cut when crisis struck. In other words, they wouldn’t have needed to go beyond zero to engage QE.

Some people might say that since we’ve finally beaten inflation, it’s not wise to bring it back? But it’s not inflation that causes problems, it’s unpredictable inflation that we fear. If we had a high rate of say 10 per cent, but steady, year in year out, then companies and people would be able to plan around it. But if we didn’t know whether inflation will be 5 per cent or 15 per cent, then how much should a bank charge for a loan? Can a company calculate the profit they’ll make, if they don’t know how much the money will be worth. So four per cent is fine, as long as it’s steady.

The other benefit of running a higher inflation rate is that we would erode our debt much faster. If the interest on a gilt is four per cent, then two per cent inflation would cancel it out. If your mortgage were two per cent, then four per cent inflation would leave you with a negative real interest rate of minus two per cent.

Krugman accepts that this would be rewarding debtors for their past excesses, but argues that “economics is not a morality play.” Is he right to dismiss morality so easily? Surely modern day politicians make their living from telling bankers they are not good citizens. Is it appropriate to dismiss investors with the refrain of caveat emptor, buyer beware?

It’s worth remembering that no investor complained when QE was buying up that same debt for higher than it’s real value. Besides, if investors had feared inflation, they could have bought index linked gilts. These track inflation and rise in value proportionately. They make up only about 10 per cent of gilts. So when it comes to the other 90 per cent, I contend that ethical arguments are insufficient to reject the policy.

The big question is whether policy could easily switch inflation from two to four. Much of the cause of inflation is expectation. In the '70s, inflation was high because trade unions made demands for wage rises on the expected future inflation rate. These rises then caused inflation to rise to the same level, and unions would demand a rise again. It was self-perpetuating.

Conversely, when Gordon Brown made the Bank of England independent, inflation markedly dropped off and stayed low. This wasn’t due to a policy of the bank, but due to the confidence inspired by it’s independence.

Should a policy of increased inflation be kept a secret? My experience of politics is that if you have something controversial to say, then be confident, say it forcefully, then stick around to face down your critics. The public aren’t experts on economics. They will make judgements on the confidence of the advocate and the reaction of pundits.

On the question of whether the markets will react badly to such a policy, I think that depends on the timing. Right now, with no demand in the economy, the market wouldn’t react badly because they have nowhere else to go. These days most savers keep their money on deposit with an interest rate lower than inflation. They are losing money in preference to the uncertainty elsewhere.

There are few safe havens in today’s investment world, partly due to the bad policy imposed by politicians such as David Cameron and Angela Merkel. When considering our economic policy for a future government, we must recognise that controversial ideas of the past are becoming consensus of the present, and deserve our serious consideration as policy for the future.

The Bank of England. Photograph: Getty Images

Dan McCurry  is a photographer in east London and a Labour activist. He is a former chair of the Bow Labour Party.

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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war