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Covid economics: tax is the wrong answer to debt

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In last week’s budget, the Chancellor invoked orthodox financial thinking to argue that the national debt has to be reduced. Hence his logic for the highest tax regime since the 1960s. But his logic is flawed, both in resolving the current crisis situation, and more generally into the future.

Tax is primarily a fiscal instrument to manage aggregate demand, not a monetary instrument to fund government expenditure, or to pay off the national debt. Due to necessary Covid related expenditure of some £400bn, government debt by January 2021 stood at £2,114bn. This represents 75 per cent of GDP.

The government has three fundamental choices – to accept this level of debt as manageable, to reduce it by increasing taxation, or to examine more radical heterodox alternatives. The Chancellor chose the worst of these.

Many economics commentators argue that debt at 75 per cent of GDP is low by international norms, and so is manageable. The US, Spain, France, Belgium, Portugal, Italy and Japan all have higher debt/GDP ratios than UK.

Moreover, interest rates are low, so the debt servicing cost of some £39bn/year is easily fundable, although it grows by £25bn/year for each 1 per cent increase in interest rates. The Chancellor presented no credible argument for not living with this base case.

Increasing taxes to repay the debt can only further wound an already crippled economy. GDP fell by 9.9 per cent in 2020. Only 71 per cent of businesses are currently trading, and 21 per cent report sales less than half of their norm. Optimists like Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, hope for an early rebound, based on the £250bn savings consumers have accumulated, and the £100bn built up in company coffers.

But the Financial Conduct Authority paints a much bleaker picture. Its ‘Financial Lives 2020 survey’ cites:

  • an increase from 20 to 27 per cent of adults with low financial resilience
  • 27 per cent of employees furloughed
  • 9 per cent of self-employed people have ceased trading
  • 9 per cent of jobs at risk
  • 26 per cent of adults report increased savings, but
  • 34 per cent have reduced savings, 14 per cent have increased debt, and 32 per cent have reduced income
  • 3.2 million households have deferred their mortgage payments.

Most tellingly, 84 per cent of respondents expect to reduce their expenditure in 2021. The National Institute for Economic and Social Research’s director, Jagjit S. Chadha, worries that unemployment could well reach 10 per cent.  

Covid has dramatically increased inequality. For many salaried professionals, income has stayed constant. But for 3 million people on furlough, those earning less than £30,000/year have experienced a reduction of 20 per cent in their income, with those normally earning above that threshold suffering a huge reduction to an equivalent income of £24,000/year.

This is not an economy which needs increased taxation. Demand needs stimulation not collapse.

But something very important has taken place almost unnoticed which opens up more radical options. The Bank of England has bought £875bn of the £2,114bn government debt in the secondary market so now holds more than 40 per cent of government debt.

Since HM Treasury wholly owns the Bank of England, this amounts to a zero-sum debt, in other words, it isn’t debt. A similar change has occurred in the US and the EU with the central bank buying government debt.

There is an ethical issue here. As long as central banks are not allowed to buy government bonds directly, then they have to buy them in the secondary market from insurance companies, pension funds, and brokers. Bank of England intervention therefore gives these intermediaries an increase in their portfolio value, and a risk-free profit on sale of their bonds. The structure needs reform.

The unintended technical consequence of these Bank of England purchases is that debt-free sovereign money has been demonstrably implemented. The government can issue its own currency debt-free to fund an emergency like the covid pandemic.

It can follow the same logic to fund its regular expenditure, including getting adequate income to households directly through a central bank digital currency, and including reversing austerity cuts. The constraint is what is achievable as output GDP, not how much money the Exchequer has in its coffers.

It is here that the Chancellor has failed to consider radical alternatives, has failed to look further forward into the 21st century rather than harking back to old financial orthodoxies.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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Get email notifications</p></li><li id="field_2_1" class="gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_hidden_label field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' >Name<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_complex ginput_container no_prefix has_first_name no_middle_name has_last_name no_suffix gf_name_has_2 ginput_container_name' id='input_2_1'> <span id='input_2_1_3_container' class='name_first' > <input type='text' name='input_1.3' id='input_2_1_3' value='' aria-label='First name' tabindex='70' aria-required='true' placeholder='First Name*' /> <label for='input_2_1_3' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>First</label> </span> <span id='input_2_1_6_container' class='name_last' > <input type='text' name='input_1.6' id='input_2_1_6' value='' aria-label='Last name' tabindex='72' aria-required='true' placeholder='Last Name*' /> <label for='input_2_1_6' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>Last</label> </span> </div></li><li id="field_2_2" class="gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_2_2' >Email<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_email'> <input name='input_2' id='input_2_2' type='email' value='' class='large' tabindex='74' placeholder='Email*' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id="field_2_4" class="gfield gf-conf-check gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' >Confirmation<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_checkbox'><ul class='gfield_checkbox' id='input_2_4'><li class='gchoice gchoice_2_4_1'> <input class='gfield-choice-input' name='input_4.1' type='checkbox' value='Please keep me updated on new website content and Radix news. (We will process your data in accordance with our <span class="pp"><a href="https://radixuk.org/privacy-policy/">Privacy Policy</a></span>. You may withdraw this consent at any time by &lt;a href=&quot;"mailto:hello@radixuk.org"&quot;&gt;emailing us&lt;/a&gt; or clicking “unsubscribe” at the bottom of our emails).' id='choice_2_4_1' tabindex='75' /> <label for='choice_2_4_1' id='label_2_4_1'>Please keep me updated on new website content and Radix news. (We will process your data in accordance with our <span class="pp"><a href="https://radixuk.org/privacy-policy/">Privacy Policy</a></span>. You may withdraw this consent at any time by <a href="mailto:hello@radixuk.org">emailing us</a> or clicking “unsubscribe” at the bottom of our emails).</label> </li></ul></div></li><li id="field_2_6" class="gfield gform_validation_container field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_2_6' >Phone</label><div class='ginput_container'><input name='input_6' id='input_2_6' type='text' value='' autocomplete='new-password'/></div><div class='gfield_description' id='gfield_description_2_6'>This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.</div></li></ul></div> <div class='gform_footer top_label'> <input type='submit' id='gform_submit_button_2' class='gform_button button' value='SUBSCRIBE' tabindex='76' onclick='if(window["gf_submitting_2"]){return false;} if( !jQuery("#gform_2")[0].checkValidity || jQuery("#gform_2")[0].checkValidity()){window["gf_submitting_2"]=true;} ' onkeypress='if( event.keyCode == 13 ){ if(window["gf_submitting_2"]){return false;} if( !jQuery("#gform_2")[0].checkValidity || jQuery("#gform_2")[0].checkValidity()){window["gf_submitting_2"]=true;} jQuery("#gform_2").trigger("submit",[true]); }' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_ajax' value='form_id=2&amp;title=&amp;description=&amp;tabindex=69' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='is_submit_2' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_submit' value='2' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_unique_id' value='' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='state_2' value='WyJbXSIsIjg1ZGYwZWM3YzAyMDRmYTcyZDYxNmIwMWJiNmFhYzVhIl0=' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_target_page_number_2' id='gform_target_page_number_2' value='0' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_source_page_number_2' id='gform_source_page_number_2' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_field_values' value='' /> </div> </form> </div> <iframe style='display:none;width:0px;height:0px;' src='about:blank' name='gform_ajax_frame_2' id='gform_ajax_frame_2' title='This iframe contains the logic required to handle Ajax powered Gravity Forms.'></iframe> <script type="text/javascript"> gform.initializeOnLoaded( function() {gformInitSpinner( 2, 'https://radixuk.org/wp-content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.svg' );jQuery('#gform_ajax_frame_2').on('load',function(){var contents = jQuery(this).contents().find('*').html();var is_postback = contents.indexOf('GF_AJAX_POSTBACK') >= 0;if(!is_postback){return;}var form_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_wrapper_2');var is_confirmation = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_confirmation_wrapper_2').length > 0;var is_redirect = contents.indexOf('gformRedirect(){') >= 0;var is_form = form_content.length > 0 && ! is_redirect && ! is_confirmation;var mt = parseInt(jQuery('html').css('margin-top'), 10) + parseInt(jQuery('body').css('margin-top'), 10) + 100;if(is_form){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_2').html(form_content.html());if(form_content.hasClass('gform_validation_error')){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_2').addClass('gform_validation_error');} else {jQuery('#gform_wrapper_2').removeClass('gform_validation_error');}setTimeout( function() { /* delay the scroll by 50 milliseconds to fix a bug in chrome */ jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gform_wrapper_2').offset().top - mt); }, 50 );if(window['gformInitDatepicker']) {gformInitDatepicker();}if(window['gformInitPriceFields']) {gformInitPriceFields();}var current_page = jQuery('#gform_source_page_number_2').val();gformInitSpinner( 2, 'https://radixuk.org/wp-content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.svg' );jQuery(document).trigger('gform_page_loaded', [2, current_page]);window['gf_submitting_2'] = false;}else if(!is_redirect){var confirmation_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('.GF_AJAX_POSTBACK').html();if(!confirmation_content){confirmation_content = contents;}setTimeout(function(){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_2').replaceWith(confirmation_content);jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gf_2').offset().top - mt);jQuery(document).trigger('gform_confirmation_loaded', [2]);window['gf_submitting_2'] = false;wp.a11y.speak(jQuery('#gform_confirmation_message_2').text());}, 50);}else{jQuery('#gform_2').append(contents);if(window['gformRedirect']) {gformRedirect();}}jQuery(document).trigger('gform_post_render', [2, current_page]);} );} ); </script>
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[gravityform id=5 title=false description=false ajax=true tabindex=64]
<div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper gform_legacy_markup_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_5' ><div id='gf_5' class='gform_anchor' tabindex='-1'></div><form method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' target='gform_ajax_frame_5' id='gform_5' action='/opinion/covid-economics-tax-is-the-wrong-answer-to-debt/#gf_5' novalidate> <div class='gform_body gform-body'><ul id='gform_fields_5' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id="field_5_5" class="gfield gravity_head gfield_html gfield_html_formatted gfield_no_follows_desc field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" ><h3>Get emails</h3></li><li id="field_5_1" class="gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_hidden_label field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' >Name<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_complex ginput_container no_prefix has_first_name no_middle_name has_last_name no_suffix gf_name_has_2 ginput_container_name' id='input_5_1'> <span id='input_5_1_3_container' class='name_first' > <input type='text' name='input_1.3' id='input_5_1_3' value='' aria-label='First name' tabindex='65' aria-required='true' placeholder='First Name*' /> <label for='input_5_1_3' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>First</label> </span> <span id='input_5_1_6_container' class='name_last' > <input type='text' name='input_1.6' id='input_5_1_6' value='' aria-label='Last name' tabindex='67' aria-required='true' placeholder='Last Name*' /> <label for='input_5_1_6' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>Last</label> </span> </div></li><li id="field_5_2" class="gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_5_2' >Email<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_email'> <input name='input_2' id='input_5_2' type='email' value='' class='large' tabindex='69' placeholder='Email*' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id="field_5_4" class="gfield gf-conf-check gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' >Confirmation<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_checkbox'><ul class='gfield_checkbox' id='input_5_4'><li class='gchoice gchoice_5_4_1'> <input class='gfield-choice-input' name='input_4.1' type='checkbox' value='Consent' id='choice_5_4_1' tabindex='70' /> <label for='choice_5_4_1' id='label_5_4_1'>Please keep me updated on new website content and Radix news. (We will process your data in accordance with our <span class="pp"><a href="https://radixuk.org/privacy-policy/">Privacy Policy</a></span>. You may withdraw this consent at any time by <a href="mailto:hello@radixuk.org">emailing us</a> or clicking “unsubscribe” at the bottom of our emails).</label> </li></ul></div></li><li id="field_5_6" class="gfield gform_validation_container field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_5_6' >Phone</label><div class='ginput_container'><input name='input_6' id='input_5_6' type='text' value='' autocomplete='new-password'/></div><div class='gfield_description' id='gfield_description_5_6'>This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.</div></li></ul></div> <div class='gform_footer top_label'> <input type='submit' id='gform_submit_button_5' class='gform_button button' value='SUBSCRIBE' tabindex='71' onclick='if(window["gf_submitting_5"]){return false;} if( !jQuery("#gform_5")[0].checkValidity || jQuery("#gform_5")[0].checkValidity()){window["gf_submitting_5"]=true;} ' onkeypress='if( event.keyCode == 13 ){ if(window["gf_submitting_5"]){return false;} if( !jQuery("#gform_5")[0].checkValidity || jQuery("#gform_5")[0].checkValidity()){window["gf_submitting_5"]=true;} jQuery("#gform_5").trigger("submit",[true]); }' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_ajax' value='form_id=5&amp;title=&amp;description=&amp;tabindex=64' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='is_submit_5' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_submit' value='5' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_unique_id' value='' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='state_5' value='WyJbXSIsIjg1ZGYwZWM3YzAyMDRmYTcyZDYxNmIwMWJiNmFhYzVhIl0=' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_target_page_number_5' id='gform_target_page_number_5' value='0' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_source_page_number_5' id='gform_source_page_number_5' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_field_values' value='' /> </div> </form> </div> <iframe style='display:none;width:0px;height:0px;' src='about:blank' name='gform_ajax_frame_5' id='gform_ajax_frame_5' title='This iframe contains the logic required to handle Ajax powered Gravity Forms.'></iframe> <script type="text/javascript"> gform.initializeOnLoaded( function() {gformInitSpinner( 5, 'https://radixuk.org/wp-content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.svg' );jQuery('#gform_ajax_frame_5').on('load',function(){var contents = jQuery(this).contents().find('*').html();var is_postback = contents.indexOf('GF_AJAX_POSTBACK') >= 0;if(!is_postback){return;}var form_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_wrapper_5');var is_confirmation = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_confirmation_wrapper_5').length > 0;var is_redirect = contents.indexOf('gformRedirect(){') >= 0;var is_form = form_content.length > 0 && ! is_redirect && ! is_confirmation;var mt = parseInt(jQuery('html').css('margin-top'), 10) + parseInt(jQuery('body').css('margin-top'), 10) + 100;if(is_form){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_5').html(form_content.html());if(form_content.hasClass('gform_validation_error')){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_5').addClass('gform_validation_error');} else {jQuery('#gform_wrapper_5').removeClass('gform_validation_error');}setTimeout( function() { /* delay the scroll by 50 milliseconds to fix a bug in chrome */ jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gform_wrapper_5').offset().top - mt); }, 50 );if(window['gformInitDatepicker']) {gformInitDatepicker();}if(window['gformInitPriceFields']) {gformInitPriceFields();}var current_page = jQuery('#gform_source_page_number_5').val();gformInitSpinner( 5, 'https://radixuk.org/wp-content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.svg' );jQuery(document).trigger('gform_page_loaded', [5, current_page]);window['gf_submitting_5'] = false;}else if(!is_redirect){var confirmation_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('.GF_AJAX_POSTBACK').html();if(!confirmation_content){confirmation_content = contents;}setTimeout(function(){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_5').replaceWith(confirmation_content);jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gf_5').offset().top - mt);jQuery(document).trigger('gform_confirmation_loaded', [5]);window['gf_submitting_5'] = false;wp.a11y.speak(jQuery('#gform_confirmation_message_5').text());}, 50);}else{jQuery('#gform_5').append(contents);if(window['gformRedirect']) {gformRedirect();}}jQuery(document).trigger('gform_post_render', [5, current_page]);} );} ); </script>
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[gravityform id=6 title=false description=false ajax=true tabindex=999]
<div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper gform_legacy_markup_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_6' ><div id='gf_6' class='gform_anchor' tabindex='-1'></div><form method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' target='gform_ajax_frame_6' id='gform_6' action='/opinion/covid-economics-tax-is-the-wrong-answer-to-debt/#gf_6' novalidate> <div class='gform_body gform-body'><ul id='gform_fields_6' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id="field_6_5" class="gfield gravity_head gfield_html gfield_html_formatted gfield_no_follows_desc field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" ><h3>Before you go!</h3> <p>Stay up to date with what's happening at Radix. Get email notifications</p></li><li id="field_6_1" class="gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_hidden_label field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' >Name<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_complex ginput_container no_prefix has_first_name no_middle_name has_last_name no_suffix gf_name_has_2 ginput_container_name' id='input_6_1'> <span id='input_6_1_3_container' class='name_first' > <input type='text' name='input_1.3' id='input_6_1_3' value='' aria-label='First name' tabindex='1000' aria-required='true' placeholder='First Name*' /> <label for='input_6_1_3' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>First</label> </span> <span id='input_6_1_6_container' class='name_last' > <input type='text' name='input_1.6' id='input_6_1_6' value='' aria-label='Last name' tabindex='1002' aria-required='true' placeholder='Last Name*' /> <label for='input_6_1_6' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>Last</label> </span> </div></li><li id="field_6_2" class="gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_6_2' >Email<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_email'> <input name='input_2' id='input_6_2' type='email' value='' class='large' tabindex='1004' placeholder='Email*' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id="field_6_4" class="gfield gf-conf-check gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' >Confirmation<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_checkbox'><ul class='gfield_checkbox' id='input_6_4'><li class='gchoice gchoice_6_4_1'> <input class='gfield-choice-input' name='input_4.1' type='checkbox' value='Please keep me updated on new website content and Radix news. (We will process your data in accordance with our <span class="pp"><a href="https://radixuk.org/privacy-policy/">Privacy Policy</a></span>. You may withdraw this consent at any time by &lt;a href=&quot;"mailto:hello@radixuk.org"&quot;&gt;emailing us&lt;/a&gt; or clicking “unsubscribe” at the bottom of our emails).' id='choice_6_4_1' tabindex='1005' /> <label for='choice_6_4_1' id='label_6_4_1'>Please keep me updated on new website content and Radix news. (We will process your data in accordance with our <span class="pp"><a href="https://radixuk.org/privacy-policy/">Privacy Policy</a></span>. 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