God! Save us King!

16 Feb

Mervyn King: “Right chaps. What d’you say we chuck money out of helicopters?”

Sometimes I wonder what would happen if the government did something stark-raving nuts. If, say, RAF helicopters were ordered to sprinkle billions of banknotes all over the country. The dosh would be fresh from the printing press and would be designed to disintegrate within six months. What would actually happen? How would serious broadsheets actually react? Would they tut at or cave in to the populist glee that a shower of gold will descend from the heavens on to Burton-on-Trent?

This is the scenario painted by ex-editor of The Times Simon Jenkins. It would get consumers spending, add not one penny to the national debt and – the most brilliant thing of all – it is utterly bonkers. How workable it is, I am not sure: were fights to break out on Britain’s high streets, the tabloids would tear the coalition to shreds. It is a reasonable concern: we saw the avaricious abandon of Brits in the riots last summer. But the idea is the point: it fuels cash to the most desperate of consumers, those most likely to spend the money; it will earn huge publicity, providing grounds for a great shift in confidence; most importantly, it will get money flowing back round the system.

Helicopter money: let’s make it happen! If not this scheme, something like it. It’s either chopper lunacy or cutting madness. I have already written that we can’t spend or tax any more: fiscally-speaking, we’re stuffed. The Left’s indifference to huge debts in a monstrous free market is worrying. The Right’s zeal to cut regulations – mostly green ones, mostly fair ones – won’t come to much. No politician can save us, save Angela.

Our fate is in the hands of a King. An unelected technocrat can bring us aid or, if he so wished, ruin. It is like being under the rule of Robert Walpole. Only Mervyn King, the head of the Bank of England, can choose to print more money. He has done so already, under the guise of quantitative easing (QE), a process of buying bonds from banks, injecting money into the banking system. In so doing, we have handed riches to the banks, not the people.

If the aim was to get banks lending again, QE has failed. Last February, red-faced at the paltry levels of lending to small British businesses, David Cameron threatened to hammer banks with higher taxes if they did not lend more. Since then, banks have not lent more. They have lent less. Though banks are awash with cash, bank lending to small/medium-sized businesses has dropped month-by-month. What is the point of injecting all this moolah if the banks just sit on it?

Far better it is for this money to be given to the people in tax breaks, tax cuts, helicopter money, whatever…  We are suffering from a lack of demand. If we cannot boost demand through state spending, we should do it by making Brits spend their money. Let firms be flooded with newly-printed cash and see if it heartens them to create jobs. There is a wealth of skilled, able-bodied Brits to fill these posts. What use is it to anyone for them to be economically inactive?

I can think of no serious objection to it. If it is short-term money, no hyperinflation can result. If money is to be printed, give it to those who will put into circulation: the buyers, not the bankers. This is hardly a radical idea. It simply goes against the past 30 years of economic consensus – and which good-thinking gentleman swallows that?

There are those who thinking printing money, whatever the situation, is the road to Harare. Niall Ferguson has admitted he has these monetariphobic fears. I recall the Spectator bewailing the dizzying highs of, er, 5% hyperinflation – levels that even inflation-conqueror Maggie Thatcher would be pleased with. These fears are irrational, especially since inflation is dropping back to the region of 3%. We should be losing sleep at the lack of jobs, not price rises.

We should put aside these Teutonic-style fears. We are not Weimar Germany. We have more in common with the present despotic regime of Italy. With one exception: we can print our way out of this mess. To refuse this option is to tie ourselves as rigidly as Italy, a technocracy with no control over monetary stimulus. QE2 may not save us, but the King can.

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