24 April 2009

Busted Budget

This has been an extraordinary budget season. Our economic destiny for the next 50 years is being changed and, because of the way the red, yellow and blue parties have adopted mix-and-match policies in recent years, there is no real political debate. I was sorely disappointed by the Green Party's response, which focused on the £5bn. of investment in the economy and ignored the £175bn. of borrowing (itself a significant underestimate) which will really determine the future of the economy and of our society and environment.

There are three reasons why we must reject this level of government borrowing, and in fact the whole system of money creation based on debt. The first is that it is socially unjust: it operates as a means of transferring wealth from working people who pay taxes to those who live from investment earnings. In order to buy government bonds you need to have spare money to invest, but the interest that they return will be paid by those who earn their money through work.

The role of public debt in enabling a transfer of wealth from poor to rich is sufficiently routine after 300 years to raise no qualms, but the less advantaged in our society will surely notice the pressure of the debt that Labour has taken on over the past year through increases in taxation and reductions in public services, which will combine with the rises in unemployment brought by the Recession. We already hear rumblings from union leaders. Dave Prentis’s ‘carats for the rich; the stick for the poor’ speech is only the beginning of a return to the conflictual politics that massive borrowing makes inevitable. Unless the policy is changed we face a period of social unrest and community breakdown that will make the 1970s look like Blue Peter, and perhaps an even more right-wing political backlash.

The third reason to oppose a debt-based economic policy is that it creates an in-built pressure on the planet and its resources. When the government creates money through issuing bonds it creates a parallel future demand for goods and services—goods and services which can only be produced using energy and resources. So the system of paying for future consumption by public debt, just like the system of creating money as private debt, is the central cause of exponential economic growth and the environmental destruction it brings with it. Building up an ecological debt that is far more serious than a mere balance-sheet.

So what is to be done about this fine mess that capitalist economics has gotten us into? If we begin from the understanding that the debt is unpayable, then our only alternative is to bring the debtor and creditor nations together for a negotiated round of debt forgiveness, a global jubilee. Without such a deal the decade ahead looks grim as we face internal unrest over the struggle for diminishing output and trade wars and possibly worse abroad. Rather than reliving the sad history of the 1930s Depression and the Second World War, we could just fast forward to Bretton Woods and negotiate a stable and balanced financial architecture based on the abandonment of the reserve currency system and a trade system that treats all the world’s nations fairly.

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