To hear the Tories, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they know what they’re talking about on all matters relating to the national finances. According to the media and the Tories themselves, they can be “trusted on the economy” (sic). After all, according to the political and economic pundits, they’re not the ones who “crashed the economy” or propose “tax and spend” policies are they? In fact, to hear them talk you’d think they never taxed anyone nor spent any money. But it’s all just a fairy story, just like the ‘magic money tree’ that only the Labour Party has access to.
The phrase ‘magic money tree’ seems to have made an appearance in the last 10 to 15 years, and it’s used by Tories and ‘researchers’ from right-wing think-tanks to denigrate the economic ideas and policies of opposition parties – especially the Labour Party. Its use by these groups is meant to suggest economic recklessness on the part of opposition parties and, ultimately, to perpetuate the myth that only the Tories are economically credible. This is, of course, laughable. Why? Because it tells us the Tories aren’t as economically credible as they or the media would have us believe and the reason for this is because the phrase ‘magic money tree’ obscures the fact that governments have the power to create money from nothing.
Last night on Question Time, Nick Clegg, the former Deputy PM in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, claimed that you can’t “create money out of thin air”. His government did just that for five years! It’s called ‘quantitative easing’ or QE, and it’s where the central bank creates money electronically and uses it to buy assets. This tells us that money isn’t tied to anything and quite literally doesn’t exist in a physical sense.
Here’s a Bank of England video that explains QE in detail.
If you prefer, here’s Paul Mason explaining QE in the back of a cab.
Two things: first, anyone who says money “doesn’t appear out of thin air” doesn’t know what they’re talking about and second, it reveals that Thatcher’s household finance fallacy, which has dominated the reductivist thinking of political pundits and vox pop interviewees for over 30 years, is just that: a fallacy. Domestic finances and national finances are worlds, no, galaxies apart, and any attempt to reduce national finances to a simplistic narrative of ‘maxing out the credit card’ makes the person uttering those words look like a bit of a fool. But this is what the likes of Dominic Raab and Kwasi Kwarteng do all the time.
Households, that is to say, you or I, cannot go to what is called ‘the lender of last resort’ or The Bank of England or whichever central bank is local to your country and borrow money, nor can any of us issue bonds or create money out of thin air as central banks and governments do. When governments have a cash flow problem, they can apply to the lender of last resort for a loan to tide them over. If you’re a family of four and you have a poor credit rating and you’re struggling to make ends meet on an ever-diminishing income, the option of obtaining a bank loan isn’t open to you and you may be forced to approach a loan shark instead.
The reason these clichés and soundbites were created in the first place was to hoodwink us and therefore convince us of the necessity to make swingeing cuts to public services, because we simply can’t afford things like public libraries and care for the elderly. Right? Wrong. Money always magically appears whenever there’s a war or when the government needs to wet the beaks of rentier capitalists.
In the last seven years, we’ve witnessed an explosion of foodbanks across the country, thanks mostly to the state of the economy. Last week, Dominic Raab told viewers on Victoria Live that people who go to foodbanks have a “cash flow problem”.
Raab is an economic illiterate, who belongs to an economic cult that accepts trickle down as ‘God’s Will’, perhaps a punishment for making the ‘wrong’ life choices.
During Wednesday’s seven-way leaders’ debate, Amber Rudd, standing in for the Incredible Vanishing Woman, told Jeremy Corbyn that his party’s policies weren’t credible and there was “no magic money tree”. In response to this breathtaking ignorance, Joyce McMillan of The Scotsman writes:
The phrase in question is “there is no magic money tree”; and it is used with an almost clockwork regularity by those who oppose proposals like those contained in the current Labour manifesto. Free school lunches? No magic money tree. Free university tuition? No magic money tree. A properly funded NHS, or more generous disability benefits? No magic money tree. And so it goes on, in a litany of meanness and misery firmly based on the assumption that there is a finite amount of money in government coffers, and that to spend it in one place is automatically to take it from another.
Further down the article, she reminds us that:
…between 2009 and 2012, the Bank of England issued an eye-watering £375 billion of extra cash in what is politely known as “quantitative easing”. Even at the time, experts could be heard arguing that this newly-printed money would have a more helpful impact on the British economy if it was simply dropped from an aeroplane on to Britain’s poorer communities, helping the hard-pressed people there to exercise their pent-up demand for new shoes or washing machines or holiday breaks.
That’s a lot of money. Go on…
Yet instead, it seems it was mainly used to prop up the banking system, and help it rebuild its balances. While real wages fell into their longest decline in more than a century, £375 billion of new government money, over four years, was used not to change the system, or rebalance the British economy, or reinvest in our grassroots public services, but to keep things exactly as they were.
So rather than the people benefiting from the creation of new money, it’s used instead to prop up banks, who aren’t lending it to people anyway. Small businesses are suffering because of this.
So if QE is used because there’s no money in the economy, then where has all that money gone? The Tories would have you believe that it’s gone on fripperies like social security and public sector pay. But that’s nonsense. Ha Joon Chang writing in The Guardian explains:
Despite these significant shifts, myths about the economy refuse to go away and hamper a more productive debate. They concern how the government manages public finances – “tax and spend”, if you will.
The first is that there is an inherent virtue in balancing the books. Conservatives still cling to the idea of eliminating the budget deficit, even if it is with a 10-year delay (2025, as opposed to George Osborne’s original goal of 2015). The budget-balancing myth is so powerful that Labour feels it has to cost its new spending pledges down to the last penny, lest it be accused of fiscal irresponsibility.
However, as Keynes and his followers told us, whether a balanced budget is a good or a bad thing depends on the circumstances. In an overheating economy, deficit spending would be a serious folly. However, in today’s UK economy, whose underlying stagnation has been masked only by the release of excess liquidity on an oceanic scale, some deficit spending may be good – necessary, even.
The second myth is that the UK welfare state is especially large. Conservativesbelieve that it is bloated out of all proportion and needs to be drastically cut. Even the Labour party partly buys into this idea. Its extra spending pledge on this front is presented as an attempt to reverse the worst of the Tory cuts, rather than as an attempt to expand provision to rebuild the foundation for a decent society.
The reality is the UK welfare state is not large at all. As of 2016, the British welfare state (measured by public social spending) was, at 21.5% of GDP, barely three-quarters of welfare spending in comparably rich countries in Europe – France’s is 31.5% and Denmark’s is 28.7%, for example. The UK welfare state is barely larger than the OECD average (21%), which includes a dozen or so countries such as Mexico, Chile, Turkey and Estonia, which are much poorer and/or have less need for public welfare provision. They have younger populations and stronger extended family networks.
he third myth is that welfare spending is consumption – that it is a drain on the nation’s productive resources and thus has to be minimised. This myth is what Conservative supporters subscribe to when they say that, despite their negative impact, we have to accept cuts in such things as disability benefit, unemployment benefit, child care and free school meals, because we “can’t afford them”. This myth even tints, although doesn’t define, Labour’s view on the welfare state. For example, Labour argues for an expansion of welfare spending, but promises to finance it with current revenue, thereby implicitly admitting that the money that goes into it is consumption that does not add to future output.
It would be reasonable to argue that consent has been manufactured by the Tories, their think-tanks and their allies in the media, for the purpose of fulfilling their long-held ambitions to dismantle the welfare state and sell off public services to their corporate friends. Phrases like “the magic money tree” and “we have to live within our means” have been produced to accomplish this.
Governments spend and borrow money all the time. The notion that national finances should be treated like household budgets is demonstrably fallacious. Yet, for over 30 years much of the public has been conditioned into thinking that all government spending and borrowing is fundamentally irresponsible but this thinking is dangerous. People are dying because of it. Next Thursday, you have the opportunity to put a stop to this destructiveness. Please use your vote wisely. Don’t vote Tory.