Tuesday 24 March 2020

But still not enough to support the self-employed...

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

It is the best of times; it is the worst of times. It is a time of excitement and of fear, of enthusiasm and exhaustion, generosity and selfishness. It is a moment for breaking rules; it is an epoch of clinging to tickbox processes.

If I was Charles Dickens, I would probably go on. The key point is that it is an age of paradoxes, and especially when you start to think about the longterm results of this virus shutdown.

In 1939, when we last declared war in this kind of all-embracing way, you might go into shops or any organisation and be told - if you dared to complain about anything - "Don't you know there's a war on?"

I haven't yet been told "Don't you know there's a virus on". But as I try to negotiate my way through Santander's tickbox facility, trying to negotiate myself a mortgage holiday - where the phone directs you to the website and the website directs you back to the phone - I half expect that classic response of the second rate and hidebound.

This is what I mean, and amidst all the bravery and new thinking too. Here are some other long-term trends we might expect:
  1. The return of the boffin. Experts have had a bad press recently, but now there they are flanking the prime minister at his press announcements. It is economists that still require forgiveness.
  2. More local heroes and heroines. And yet the people we will be most grateful to by the end won't be experts at all - they will be engineers hacking ventilators and our neighbours setting up outreach systems or local bookshops heroically staying open, at least by delivering books by bike.
  3. The roaring twenties. Well, that's what happened last time economies were unleashed again.
  4. The return of inflation. And yet - despite the threat of deflation - it seems unlikely that the government will be able to balance the work going on in the economy with the circulation of cash.
  5. A spike in divorces. We have all heard the phrase: "If I'm going to be stuck here with you for the next three months, then you're going to have to..." Christmas leads to divorces and this is like an endless Christmas.
  6. The return of the baby boom. And yet, when people are reunited, we also know what happens. And it will be widely understood, except by the government officials who plan ahead for school places. So expect trouble around 2026.
Perhaps the most interesting question is around which of these economic changes are likely to be permanent - especially given how close to the edge so many companies have become.

I'm not sure anyone will miss the airlines and airports (except the British, of course, who fly more than any nation on earth). The future of food looks set to be local with short supply lines after all. But if the economy was in such a dire situation before, then it may be that some government support for salaries will have to be semi-permanent.

At the moment, these arrangements suffer from two major problems - they are are much too complex to get the money out quickly. Santander isn't the only organisation to keep their tickbox systems in place - and directing the self-employed towards a dodgy and overwhelmed universal benefit system seems doomed. Then there are huge problems with quantitative easing, which we know means even more inequality. It is as if Rishi Sunak didn't mean it when he said that would set aside ideology - except, apparently, the ludicrous pretence that governments don't create money.

It pains me to say it, but Trump was probably right that the way to preserve the economy is to provide what the Japanese call helicopter money for everyone, to fend for themselves and pay basic bills over the next few months. I would suggest that the Bank of England creates about £1,000 per adult per month.

The main question is whether this will put further pressure on the pound. This seems unlikely if the Americans are doing it too. There may be inflationary pressures as a result - given how little work is actually happening in the economy - but those may also counteract the deflationary pressures that are also going on.

If it goes just to self-employed people and sole traders who employ themselves (I have to declare an interest here), it would mean an injection of £10-£20 billion a month, probably directly via the tax system. Speed counts - nobody has time for tickbox any more.

It may be that they need to increase income tax temporarily by 1p in the pound to take it out of the economy again.

Alternatively, we have to innovate along similar lines, using a parallel digital currency along the lines of the recent scotpound proposals by the New Economics Foundation.

They great advanatge for these is that they are simpler to administer and very much faster to get into people's hands that the tickbox ways the government is proposing.

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Wednesday 18 March 2020

Enochophobia in the time of cholera, and the new Shell Crisis

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

In the time of cholera, which - despite Gabriel Garcia Marquez - I take to be the 1830s, there were riots in the back streets of London among the poor who believed the government's intention was to let them die so they could turn their bodies into what they called 'nattomy soup' - to feed the others.

By the 1840s, there was Ebenezer Scrooge worrying about the so-called surplus population. There was the government allowing the Irish potato famine to take its course.

There has always been a strand of British government that treated the governed with some disdian and fear. It is a fear of the mob, a problem known as enochophobia.

So when we believed the government's plan for treating the corona virus was 'herd resilience' - and it meant that 70 per cent of the population needed to be infected, it would mean that, at only on one per cent rates of mortality, losing half a million dead in a few months. To put that in context, that is twice as many as died in UK cities during five years of blitz in the second world war.

The good news is that the health secretary has denied that is the policy and it is now clear that ministers have changed their minds. It would have been a traditional mixture of Tory disdain and radical utilitarianism if it had been - but what is the policy? And why does there remain some confusion about it?

My worries about this derives from the road-building programme in last week's budget - which represents an exhumation of the old Lloyd George Roosevelt New Deal policy of road-building to boost the economy. They cannot possibly believe, as they claim, that it will do anything to rebalance the regional economies. Quite the reverse: more roads means there will be a subtle sucking noise as economic activity sucks down to London - are ministers really so old-fashioned that they have never thought these things through?

That is the kind of boneheading thinking we feared from this government. Luckily, they do seem to be getting to grips with things a little. So in case you thought the government's approach to corona was enochophobia dressed as science, then here are a few bits of better news...
  1. There has now been some recognition that they need to organise the emergency manufacure of respirators and ventilators, with the same kind of urgency that the government sought out exocet missiles on the black market during the Falklands War. They may not succeed, but if you know of a capable manufacturer, please pass on this spec.
  2. There does seem to be a home testing kit on the way, even if ministers have not yet grasped that they need to have some alternative to official testing, If they don't know when they've had it, then people will find it impossible to stop self-isolating when they are actually well - and can help.
  3. Once those are in people's hands, it can't be long before they launch a website which will allow people to upload their experiences of the virus and to give researchers some idea of its spread. Like this one on open source equipment.
  4. Ministers must by now have grasped that they can have people self-isolating OR looking after older relatives, but not both. There are now community groups that are gearing up to keep people safe and to help those who are sick. See the article by my colleagues Lindsay Mackie and Andrew Simms on genuinely civil contingensies.
  5. There is no doubt that the Chancellor's statement yesterday is an important step forward, but probably the only way of preserving the economy is to organise a new form of money creation on the Japanese model of helicopter money - I would suggest an off-balance sheet payment of £1,000 a month to every adult (more on this later).
Politically, I have a feeling that the potential game chnager is the looming ventilator scandal. It reminds me of the shell scandal of 1915 - which led to the replacement of one old-fashioned premier (Asquith) by a more ruthless though less principled one (Lloyd George).

It may be that the lack of ventilators will lead to the replacement of slow-moving, lovelorn Boris Johnson with celtic determination in the shape of Michael Gove.

One final hopeful thought: the sound of community singing in Sienna in locked down Italy, through open windows. There is the authentic noise of the human spirit.

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Wednesday 4 March 2020

Why Back to the Land is about to roar back (come along on 19 March?)

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

I have an unproven and probably unprovable theory about new movements - political or otherwise - which is that they usually involve reaching back into the past, borrowing an idea and reshaping in a modern way.

That would, for example, explain slow food, a movement that emerged from Italy in the 1990s - reaching into the past is how we give radical ideas a sense of authenticity. Without that historic edge, it can appear too glitzy; without the modern edge, it is liable to collapse into a morose and deeply conservative melancholy or fundamentalism.

That is for example when the original Populist Party in the 1880s, the people who inspired The Wizard of Oz, became white supremacists. Or when the social credit movement of the 1920s and 30s collapsed into anti-semitism.

One thing that follows from this theory is that one way to seek out future mvements is paradoxically to look to the past. Which is one reason I believe the Back to the Land movement is about to beome politically important again.
Back to the Land is one of south east England's contirbutions to the world - a reaction against the first great industrial city (London). It grew up in the early 19th century, and included inspiration from William Cobbett (a radical), Samuel Palmer (a Tory), William Morris and Richard Jefferies (socialists), John Ruskin (a high Tory, or so he said), Peter Kropotkin (a communist), Mahatma Gandhi (an Indian nationalist), G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc (both Liberals and then Distributists), Henry Williamson (a fascist), and Fritz Schumacher (Green?) and so on.

All of these influenced each other in a tradition that stretches through to today, and these may not have been the political labels they would have chosen to describe themselves. Most (though not all) of them also have high Anglican or Roman Catholic links, even if was just an obsession with gothic architecture.

Their big problem was that the conservaive part of their nature tended to struggle with the radical parts over the issue of gender equality.

One of the reasons I think that Back to the Land will become an important political factor here - apart from its obvious relevance to the climate crisis and the issues around local regeneration and how to achieve it - is that women are now the driving forces.

Perhaps this began with the American Distributist Dorothy Day, editor of the Catholic Worker, who marked a shift of energy in the Back to the Land movement from predominantly male to predominantly female. After her death in 1980, those who came after her – from Pam Warhurst in Todmorden to Wangari Maathai in Nairobi, from the pioneers of the local food movement in Dorset to the Chipko women of Uttar Pradesh – have tended to be women.

It was the Distributists who had led the way battling against eugenics, agricultural cruelty and pesticides. But while Ruskin wrote and Palmer painted, and did it very well, the women acted. Gandhi’s programme of agrarian devolution plus nation-rebuilding – in some ways an offshoot of the same English tradition – is so often led by women.

Perhaps the most obvious symptom of this shift is the change in the status of allotments in the UK. By the 1970s, this tended to be a dwindling retirement activity for men of a certain age, like pigeon-fancying. Now the 100,000 people waiting for allotments in London alone, and those who are growing things on the extraordinary multi-ethnic informal landscapes that allotment sites have become, are overwhelmingly women.

These issues will be important in our new world of changing weather and far less foreign travel - even if it is to avoid whatever infection that follows the corona virus, and visited upon us by our globalised middle classes.

That is anyway going to be part of my message on March 19 when I'm giving a talk on 'Could Distributism still change the world?' at the Ditchling Museum in Sussex. If you can be in Sussex then (near Hassocks Station), it would be lovely to see you...

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