Friday, 4 September 2020

Opposition fear aids government's ideologues

Between the plans to end the furlough scheme and the proposal that banks should force into bankruptcy any company that is unable to repay its Covid-19 related loans, the estimate that there will be only 3 million unemployed in the UK by the end of the year looks like an increasingly optimistic scenario. The Chancellor is actually right to argue that the government cannot and should not protect all jobs for ever, and even right when he argues that some of the jobs where people have been furloughed no longer exist in any meaningful sense. We have zombie jobs in zombie companies, no doubt at all. What he does not know – and can’t know – is which jobs those are. Neither he nor anyone else can know with any degree of certainty which companies (and therefore jobs) will no longer be viable in a post-Covid world. What that means is that the actions he is taking (or in the case of refusing to extend furlough, not taking) will kill not only those companies which are no longer going to be viable, but many others which could potentially remain viable. Trying to force people back into work before the demand for the goods and services which they provide has recovered is another element of an overall policy which seems designed to maximise rather than minimise the numbers of jobs lost. His insistence that tax rises and/or spending cuts will be necessary because of the size of the deficit – an insistence based on dogma and ideology rather than economic necessity – will also add to the toll of jobs.
In that context, the suggestion gaining some support in Tory ranks that the pension age should be increased to 75 is the complete reverse of what is needed. What the economy needs is for demand to recover, and that means not only that the pandemic is seen to be under control, but also that people have both the confidence and the financial wherewithal to spend. Increasing the rate of bankruptcies and joblessness and delaying the pay out of pensions all have precisely the reverse effect. If, on the other hand, the state pension were to be doubled (which would bring it up from the bottom of the world’s developed economies and closer to the average) and the pension age reduced to 60 at the same time, the effects would be very different. Nobody would (or should) be forced to retire at 60, but many of those about to lose their jobs would then have the financial security to be able to make that choice if they wished. That would reduce the number of people seeking jobs (and therefore improve the chances that those looking for jobs might find them), and give more people the confidence to spend, thereby boosting demand and potentially creating more jobs.
It won’t happen, of course. Not because it can’t happen; the government could implement such a policy tomorrow if it wished to do so. One thing that the pandemic has demonstrated is that a government which enjoys a sufficient degree of monetary sovereignty can do almost anything up to the point at which its spending causes inflation. No, it won’t happen because too many politicians, from multiple parties, have invested too much effort and credibility over too long a period promoting the myth that deficits are inherently bad and that governments must balance the books, just like households. What that means is that the scale of the recession, the level of corporate bankruptcy, the numbers of unemployed people, and the level of relative poverty are all deliberate political choices being made by the UK government. Worse, they are being implicitly supported by the official opposition which lacks the courage or ability to point out the fallacy in the household analogy. Opposition politicians who are afraid to challenge because they fear the ‘how will you pay for it?’ question are almost as much to blame as those implementing the policies, because they are perpetuating a myth which serves only the wealthy and powerful.

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