When Covid struck, it was governments that decided people could not go to work and governments that took people’s money away. It is now down to governments to decide whether or not to return that money and when to open up the economy. In the US, Democrats want to give generously. While $1.9tn dollars is a lot of money – about the size of Canada’s GDP – it probably is not enough.
As Randall Wray of the Levy Institute has pointed out, the US government is engaged in relief, not stimulus, spending. It is offering much-needed assistance to the devastated balance sheets of households, school districts and local governments. Rescuing public services, making sure people don’t starve and building Covid-testing systems is not an economic stimulus but a necessary antidepressant. Reducing the size of the relief package would prolong the recession, which, given the virus’s capacity to surprise, may last longer than the experts predict. President Joe Biden was right to rebuff criticism that Democrats risked overheating the economy, saying the problem was spending too little, not too much. There is slack in the US economy: 400,000 Americans left the labour market in January.
Mr Biden aims to control the virus and then create jobs with infrastructure investments to reinvent the post-crisis economy for a zero-carbon world. Call it a spend-then-tax policy. If he succeeds, Mr Biden will go some way to repudiate the conventional economic wisdom that argues that if governments keep borrowing too much, they risk defaulting, will end up printing money and be forced in a panic to put up interest rates. The pandemic revealed this to be bunk. Central banks can keep interest rates low by buying government bonds with money created from thin air. Last year, they bought 75% of all public debt.
Within days of assuming power, Mr Biden had a plan, and new thinking, to rebuild a Covid-scarred country. Boris Johnson has little to show after months. His government intends to cut universal credit, raise council tax bills and freeze public-sector pay, weakening household finances. Given this mindset, which has dominated policy since 2010, it is hardly surprising that the £900bn of Bank of England “quantitative easing” money sitting with banks can’t find profits in the real economy. The Bank has “knowledge gaps” about QE. Yet there is truth in the quote attributed to Keynes that “you can’t push on a string” – when demand is weak, monetary policy can do little about it.
With interest rates low, no recovery to invest in and no new regulations, UK banks will turn inwards, not outwards. Instead of the City contributing to the productive economy and a just green transition, expect speculation and Ponzi-like balance sheets. It is lobbying to expand lucrative but socially useless activities. In January, Tory peers with City interests argued for a new finance regulator with a “competitiveness” objective – a Trojan horse for deregulation.
Central banks are creatures of their legislatures, but have been permitted, for ideological reasons, to work without a social contract. In her recent paper, Revolution Without Revolutionaries, the economist Daniela Gabor warned that unelected technocrats must not be allowed to hand politicians reasons to adopt external constraints that can be blamed for unpopular policies. It is timely advice. The UK will have record peacetime levels of debt. Rishi Sunak says such borrowing is “unsustainable”. Yet UK gilts are a risk-free financial asset, which is why banks crave them.
The inequality, financial instability and ecological crises have multiple causes, but their existence is built on radical, free-market economics. It is not the case that the government’s ability to spend is temporary while interest rates remain low, as Mr Sunak claimed. Bond-purchasing programmes can control yields. A system that benefits private finance but subordinates the state and threatens to expose it, post-pandemic, to austerity and elevated levels of unemployment must be resisted. Only those unable or unwilling to believe the evidence of their own eyes would say otherwise.