Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Helicopter Ben and the money supply (2009)

From the March 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
Governments now call it “quantitative easing”. It used to be simply called inflating the currency. And it’s now official policy.
In the 1930s Keynes suggested burying banknotes and then paying people to dig them up. Ben Bernanke, current chairman of the US Federal Reserve, is said to have come up with a modern version:
“The most radical option is to send the newly-minted money directly to the US Government. It could then be handed out to citizens via tax relief. This form of monetary expansion would be equivalent to printing money and dropping it from helicopters for people to pick up – a graphically extreme proposal that earned the Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke, his nickname of Helicopter Ben” (Times, 18 December).
The present crisis is confirming some of the truths of Marxian economics. First, that banks cannot “create credit” out of nothing. Second, that the rise in the general price level, popularly but inaccurately called “inflation”, is caused by the government’s bank, the central bank, issuing more currency than the economy requires for its various transactions such as buying things, settling debts and paying taxes.

Inflation, which up to now politicians have been telling us is the main economic problem to avoid, is now being seen as one supposed way out of the deepening depression. After years of propaganda blaming inflation on wage increases, they now want the general price level to rise, and know how to bring this about – not by raising wages of course but by the government over-issuing the currency by printing more and more of it.

Seven years ago, when he was still only a governor of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, Bernanke explained how, by overissuing a paper currency that was not convertible on demand into a pre-fixed amount of gold, governments could create “positive inflation”:
“[U]nder a fiat (that is, paper) money system, a government (in practice, the central bank in cooperation with other agencies) should always be able to generate increased nominal spending and inflation, even when the short-term nominal interest rate is at zero. ( . . .) US dollars have value only to the extent that they are strictly limited in supply. But the US government has a technology, called a printing press (or, today, its electronic equivalent), that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at essentially no cost. By increasing the number of US dollars in circulation, or even by credibly threatening to do so, the US government can also reduce the value of a dollar in terms of goods and services, which is equivalent to raising the prices in dollars of those goods and services. We conclude that, under a paper-money system, a determined government can always generate higher spending and hence positive inflation." (Talk “Deflation : Making Sure It Doesn’t Happen Here”, 21 November 2002 at (
What Bernanke describes here is simply inflating the currency, even though it’s now being called “quantitative easing”. Marx had already explained this 150 years ago in his A Critique of Political Economy, where he discussed what would happen if a government overissued what Bernanke calls “fiat money”:
“Let us assume that £14 million is the amount of gold required for the circulation of commodities and that the State throws 210 million notes each called £1 into circulation: these 210 million would then stand for total of gold worth £14 million. The effect would be the same as if the notes issued by the State were to represent a metal whose value was one-fifteenth that of gold or that each note was intended to represent one-fifteenth of the previous weight of gold. This would have changed nothing but the nomenclature of the standard of prices, which is of course purely conventional, quite irrespective of whether it is brought about directly by a change in the monetary standard or indirectly by an increase in the number of paper notes issued in accordance with a new lower standard. As the name pound-sterling would now indicate one-fifteenth of the previous quantity of gold, all commodity-prices would be fifteen times higher and 210 million pound notes would now be indeed just as necessary as 14 million had previously been. The decrease in the quantity of gold which each individual token of value represented would be proportional to the increased aggregate value of these tokens. The rise in prices would be merely a reaction of the process of circulation, which forcibly placed the token of value on a par with the quantity of gold which they are supposed to replace in the sphere of circulation.”
This artificial bloating of monetary demand is what inflation, strictly speaking, means. Governments now want to consciously use this process to exert an upward pressure on the general price level to try to stop it falling as it would otherwise tend to in a deep recession. It might be thought, in view of all the publicity put out by supermarkets and chain stores about how they have all slashed prices more than their rivals, that falling prices would be a good thing. But this is not how the government sees it. They think that this would make the current depression worse, as they want to encourage people to spend whereas, with falling prices, people might postpone spending in the hope of prices falling even further.

Inflating the currency to try to stop money prices from falling is now the official policy of both the government and the Bank of England. That this is what is happening is being openly admitted. For instance, the financial journalist, Anatole Kaletsky, wrote in the Times (18 December) that “today the threat is deflation, not inflation” so that “central banks are right to flood the world economy with newly printed money – so long as they know when to stop”, conceding that “a central bank that prints money to finance large-scale government spending is, in theory, moving into territory occupied by Zimbabwe and Weimar Germany”.

In a previous article (15 December) he had attempted a more sophisticated analysis, introducing the concepts of “monetary base” and “money multiplier”. He gave the definition of the first as:
“banknotes issued by the Bank of England plus coins from the Royal Mint plus private bankers’ deposits at the Bank of England and therefore available at any time for conversion into banknotes with literally zero risk”.
This is rather more than the currency as it includes deposits from banks at the Bank of England, which do not circulate and so do not have an effect on the general price level. Nevertheless, the currency makes up over half of this “base money”.

According to Kaletsky, this figure is currently around £100 billion. He then introduces what he calls “broad money” defined as “all private sector bank and building society deposits, money market funds and so on”. Reverting to the language of before the credit crunch when it was thought that banks would never have any problem to lend money, Kaletsky refers to this “broad money” as being “created by private banks”. This is highly misleading in that what the banks lend out has not been “created” by them but is the result of them acquiring other people’s money in one way or another. It reflects what banks do, which is to recycle the purchasing power of those who don’t want to use it immediately. He does, however, admit that “the moment there is an iota of doubt, bank deposits cease to be true money, as demonstrated by the queues outside Northern Rock last year”.

Whether it is “true” money or not (and Marxists would say that it is not) the figure for “broad money” is some £1,900 billion. So, in Britain, the “money multiplier” is 19. Kaletsky notes that in other countries it is much less. In Japan it is 11, in the Eurozone 7.5 and in the US 5.3. He says that this means that Britain can safely afford to issue more “base money” and suggests a doubling to a further £100 billion, so reducing the “money multiplier” to about 10.

If all of this additional “base money” were to be in the form of notes and coin this would amount to a massive inflation of the currency, bringing it way above what the economy needs for its transactions (especially as, in a depression, the number of these will fall). Kaletsky envisages this to a certain extent as he mentions the Bank of England buying government bonds or even providing money directly to the government to spend, both of which would involve printing more currency .

In fact. facilitating the buying of government bonds with new money has been the way that successive governments have, intentionally or not, inflated the currency in Britain since 1940 and why the general price level has risen continuously since then. Kaletsky explained in his 18 December article how this worked in the US. The Federal Reserve Bank, as the central bank, will buy government bonds and
“will pay for them simply by making electronic transfers into the bank accounts of the people or institutions selling. For every $1 million worth of assets bought, the Fed will transfer $1 million of new money into private bank accounts. This ‘money’ will come literally out of nowhere. It will simply be an electronic blip on the Fed's computer. Because electronic deposits at the Fed are the ultimate form of legal tender in the US system, the result will be that the US economy has $1 million more money.”
When these banks draw on the extra amount in their accounts extra currency is brought into circulation which, if it more than is required by the economy (as it has been), leads to the rise in general price level popularly called inflation.

Kaletsky had already explained in a previous article (11 December) where the money to try to spend a way out of the depression was likely to come from:
“For the next year or two, the money for the British fiscal stimulus will come from the Bank of England's printing works in Dedham. In the case of the far bigger job-creation schemes and industry bailouts planned by Barack Obama, the money will come from the Washington and Fort Worth facilities of the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing, an institution rejoicing in the most succinctly descriptive internet address I have encountered:”
Burying bank notes and digging them up again. Dropping them from helicopters for people to pick up. In fact even using printed coloured pieces of paper to have access to what you need. These are crackpot ideas compared with the simple socialist proposition to produce things for use not for sale at a profit, so ending the need to use money at all.
Adam Buick

Weekly Bulletin of The Socialist Party of Great Britain (88)

Dear Friends,

Welcome to the 88th of our weekly bulletins to keep you informed of changes at Socialist Party of Great Britain @ MySpace.

We now have 1461 friends!

Recent blogs:
  • Is capitalism crumbling?
  • The real dirty work
  • Trade unionist extraordinary

  • Quote for the week:
    "Capitalism subordinates men to machines instead of using machines to liberate men from the burden of mechanical and repetitive work. it subordinates all social activities to the imperatives of an incessant drive for individual enrichment in terms of money, instead of gearing social life to the development of rich individualities and their social relations." Ernest Mandel, from the Introduction to Marx Capital vol. 1.

    Continuing luck with your MySpace adventures!

    Robert and Piers
    Socialist Party of Great Britain


    Originally posted on the Socialism Or Your Money Back blog

    When I was a very little girl my family had a benefactor called Uncle. At the time I thought he was a relation of ours. In those days it was considered to be impolite for children to call adult friends and neighbours by their first name; it would have to be Auntie Betty or Uncle Fred even when they were no relation to you whatsoever. But my parents were rather unconventional and so dispensed with this silly tradition. So I thought this Uncle must be a real uncle even though I had never met him.

    What was bewildering for me was listening to my parents discussing him. Mum would say "I'll take your suit down to Uncle's on Monday and get it back in time for the weekend." Dad wouldn't be likely to wear his best suit for work. He had a working uniform of dark blue denim with WBC (Woolwich Borough Council) etched on the back of the jacket. His suit was worn at weekends only. Uncle paid my mother for the loan of the suit, and sometimes she would let Uncle borrow my eldest brother's suit as well. This led to a terrible quarrel in our house. Alex, my elder brother, had a new girlfriend he was constantly trying to impress. Whenever he brought her to the house my younger brother and I would mouth the word "Yuk" to one another; they were forever kissing each other and we thought they were sloppy. Anyway, the row was over the fact that Mum had taken Alex's suit to Uncle's and had failed, for some reason, to get it back in time for the weekend when the beloved girlfriend was due to visit. They all shouted at each other for hours and Dad told him to get out if he didn't like it. He said very angrily, "It's to put food on the table." It was an ugly scene.

    I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to imagine this Uncle of mine. Why would he need to pay Mum for the loan of Dad's rather tatty suit? And what would he want with Alex's suit too? I even asked a couple of the kids at school if their dads and brothers had uncles who borrowed their clothes and, looking mystified, they shook their heads. One girl told me, "My dad hasn't got a suit."

    Then the day came when I was to meet Uncle. I had been away from school with a head cold and as Mum refused to leave me alone in the house when she went out, we both got on a tram to town. Mum carried with her one of those battered, cardboard suitcases, the only kind poor people could afford in those days, and a woman who got on the tram at the same time asked me, "Going on your holidays, are you?" I told her, "No, we're going to Uncle's, aren't we Mum?" Later Mum glared at me saying, "Must you show me up like that?" All my life I've felt sorry for children. They are seldom given any examples of how to be truthful, and adults have so much more practice in lying. Wasn't it Shakespeare who said, "Out of the mouths of babes and of sucklings"? Well, something like that.

    In town I trotted alongside my mother excited at the prospect of meeting Uncle at last. We turned into an alleyway and there stood a small building with three brass balls over the top of the door. Inside it was dim and dusty and there was a counter like ordinary shops have. A man appeared suddenly from a door behind the counter and Mum opened the case and took out the suit. He looked the suit over and then gave her some money and a ticket. I watched this transaction with great interest. Some uncle—the man ignored me! I had a real uncle who used to pat me on the head and say, "You're a little beauty, just like your mother," and sometimes he would give me a packet of sweets and tell me not to talk so much.

    This man was not my uncle. He wasn't pleasant to my mother, nor she to him. She resented him. Well, who wouldn't resent a man who took your husband's suit, laid it on a dusty old shelf somewhere, lent you money and charged you interest on it?

    Mum picked up the empty case and we traipsed back through the town and caught a tram home. My mind teemed with questions, none of which I could give a name to and something warned me against trying to voice any of them. That day, young as I was, I saw the rudiments of capitalism—that every action must involve money, that nothing, absolutely nothing, can exist without exploitation to make the system work. Of course I didn't really understand that at the time, but I peered out at the world, short-sighted though I was, and suspected that it was a very strange place indeed. And so it is. I waited for the adults to discover my myopia and recommend spectacles. When at last I got them the world came into sharper focus and my mind reeled at the absurdity of it all, that humans arrange affairs in such a way as to create chaos. Uncle's was a tiny part of the personal experience which shaped me into the person I am today and into being a socialist. That experience was invaluable I think.
    Heather Ball

    A Socialist Life by Heather Ball

    A collection of sort stories by Socialist Standard writer Heather Ball. Many readers liked her distinctive writing style, finding it full of charm, warmth, humanity and humour.

    Sadly, Heather died before she could complete her writing project. This collection, published by the Socialist Party, presents the case for Socialism on the basis of individual, everyday experience. £3.75 From Socialist Party 52 Clapham High Street, London SW4 7UN.

    Brand Obama (2009)

    The Greasy Pole column from the March 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
    Is there – can there be – a connection between Barack Obama and two West London Labour MPs?

    Obama has just moved into the White House at the head of the most powerful nation, controlling a military, diplomatic and economic force so huge as to be able to invade, distort and destroy the lives of the majority of the world’s people. Against that the two MPs – Andrew Slaughter and Virendra Sharma – are notably low-key. Their constituencies – Ealing Acton Shepherds Bush and Ealing Southall – are unremarkable for their grime, chaos and disorder. The MPs held minor posts as Parliamentary Private Secretaries – Slaughter at the Foreign Office and Sharma at the Home Office – but their resignation from these provoked hardly a murmur of interest. The reason they jumped off the lowest levels of the Greasy Pole was their objection to the government’s plans, in betrayal of a succession of pledges, to further develop Heathrow Airport, specifically by laying down a third runway. In Sharma’s case this was something of an aberration, for he was not an active MP – apart from slavishly voting for the government line. If they had not already done so, Slaughter and Sharma might have learned something from this experience about the essential ruthlessness of politics, in the heat of which all promises and “principles” are devoured.

    That is something of which Obama is fully aware, which explains why his drive to the Presidency, from its inception through its planning to its execution was, for its single-minded cynicism, such an historically prime example of it. He and his team touted for votes on the single word Change, which was compliantly accepted as an intention to simply get rid of George Bush and as much as possible of his policies, his supporters, his command style. It was made to sound so easy. But it was hardly enough to stimulate the kind of response – the blind devotion to the concept that one man could by himself wipe out the tragedies which had plagued so many lives for all those years. Such was the degree of hysteria that it obscured the fact that in 2004 a similarly psychotic process had ensured George Bush’s triumphant return to the White House. But there was more to Obama than a promise for he is the kind of politician who trades on a spurious glamour. On that score, in terms of their respective political chicanery, McCain was shrunken and exhausted, with nothing to offer in combat. Obama’s lissom confidence and the support acting of his wife and children composed a portrait of the ideal American family. And in a Presidential election there are few things more seductive: “It was like a scene from a Hollywood movie” blabbered the Observer describing Obama and his wife dancing at one of the inaugural balls “(which) created images of fashion and celebrity to rival anything that emerged from JFK’s vaunted ‘Camelot’”. And in case we have not seen enough of them for a while, an invitingly smiling Mrs. Obama appeared all over the cover of the next issue of US Vogue.

    But the passion which greeted the emergence of the brand Obama should have had more than a tinge of fear – which brings us back to our two London Labour MPs. At the last general election Slaughter had a majority halfway between five and six thousand, after a swing of 7.54 percent to the Tories. To complicate matters for him his predecessor in the seat was Clive Soley, once a probation officer notable as an assertive lefty in the union and, from 1997 to 2001, chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party. He left the Commons at the 2005 election, allowing himself to be created Baron Soley of Hammersmith and, to the dismay and anger of many of his admirers, become Campaign Director of Future Heathrow, which pushes unremittingly for the airport’s future to be one of expansion. Living in Acton under the flight path, Soley admits that “..when I’m in my garden I have to raise my voice” but he thinks all who suffer in this way should bear it gladly for the greater profitability of British capitalism. Any embarrassment this causes Slaughter with his contrary views on Heathrow expansion are not to be dwelled upon.

    Virendra Sharma won a by-election in Ealing Southall in July 2007, after the death of the sitting MP Piara Khabra (who also had an unenviable record as an inactive representative of his electorate) with a majority of 5070. Southall has a reputation as a strong Labour seat (in 1997 with a majority for Khabra of over 21,000). But since the last election the boundaries of both Sharma’s and Slaughter’s Ealing seats have been redrawn, the effect of which is uncertain. After ten years in power Labour is seen as outworn and sterile; many of their MPs must dream of a leader to inject some of the Obama appeal which, shallow and spurious though it is, promises to bring in the votes. But there is nobody in the Labour Party to compare in that way to the new US President. If leaders like Brown, Darling, Straw and Harman have any appeal to desperate, bewildered voters it is unlikely to be as seductive as Obama’s. So Labour – including the likes of Slaughter and Sharma – are in trouble, being forced to face the reality that their time of deceiving enough voters to put them into power is probably coming to an end.

    Obama’s War
    It did not take long for the true Obama style of government, behind the media drivel, to assert itself. Only days after he had taken office, two American drone craft killed 22 people in Pakistan and it was announced that Obama had approved the transfer of 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan – later raised to 60,000. The war there will go on and many people will die in the interests of the minority owning class. So if Obama’s election does have an effect on British politics, influencing the manner in which the parties here present their pleas to be allowed to run British capitalism, we can be sure that it will have nothing to do with human interests, with bettering our lives. That would be taking glamour too far.

    John Pilger's 'Palestine is the issue'

    John Pilger's 'Palestine is the issue'

    The next in the fortnightly series of films and talks at the Socialist Party's Head Office, 52 Clapham High Street, London SW4 will take place this Saturday, 14 March, at 6pm.

    It's "Palestine is the Issue", a film by John Pilger on the long-running Israel-Palestine conflict.

    It will be followed by a discussion and a presentation of the socialist case against nationalism in all its forms and for a world without frontiers in which the resources of the Earth will belong to the people of the world.

    Everybody is welcome and admission is free. The nearest tube is Clapham North on the Northern Line.

    The Real Dirty Work (2009)

    From the March 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

    ‘Who will do the dirty work?’ is a question that socialists often hear, whether from inveterate opponents or those who have just come across the socialist case. The questioner usually has in mind jobs such as collecting the bins, sweeping the streets or working in the sewers. The reason why people ask about this kind of work is that it is clearly useful, indeed essential: without collection of rubbish, for instance, towns and villages would soon disappear under a pile of filth and rats.

    The standard answer to the ‘dirty work’ question is to say that a socialist society would try to automate such work, or make it less unpleasant, or organise a rota or call for volunteers. Since there will be no employment or jobs in socialism, certainly nobody will be condemned to do such work forty hours a week for years on end. Charles Fourier once suggested that children, who love dirt, should be the ones to do the dirty work. That will probably not be acceptable as a solution, but it at least illustrates one of the possibilities.

    However, there is another way of approaching the question: to ask what work truly counts as dirty. For cleaning toilets and removing industrial waste may not be very nice, but there is other work which is dirty in the very real sense of being anti-human, concerned with damaging people rather than helping and benefitting them. This is work which will not be needed in socialism, where all human activity will take place to satisfy people’s needs.

    The armed forces, for instance, exist to defend the interests of the ruling class of whichever country they serve. To do this, their members must be prepared to kill, injure, maim and torture, under the orders of their commanding officers. Spies, secret agents and government assassins have essentially the same professional mission. And soldiers don’t just kill: they also die in the interests of a class of parasites. Learning to be a good soldier, sailor or airman/woman involves unquestioning acceptance of orders and soul-destroying drills intended to inculcate discipline and obedience. The humanity of soldiers and their victims are both dismembered by war and the training that prepares for war.

    Those who work in arms factories, designing and building the weapons that soldiers use are doing another kind of dirty work. Making guns, bullets, missiles and bombs means making ways of killing and maiming other human beings. Socialist society will know no wars or armed forces, so using and making these weapons — probably the dirtiest work that can be conceived of — will simply not take place.

    Other dirty work involves depriving workers of their homes, cars or whatever if they cannot pay for them. Bailiffs are deliberately concerned to prevent people from meeting their needs for accommodation and so on, including the most basic needs of all. Sadly, the poverty that drives workers to labour for a wage can lead them to take jobs that cause them to act in a thoroughly nasty and inhuman way to their fellow workers.

    Many would no doubt include employment in slaughterhouses as another example of dirty work: killing animals, often in appallingly unhygienic conditions, so that people can eat meat. Much other employment is numbingly routine, repetitive and boring, perhaps taking minutes to learn and yet forming the basis for a lifetime of labour. This is anti-human too: it reduces people to mere appendages of a machine (whether lathe or computer) and robs them of their freedom and creativity. Human work should if possible be interesting, varied and fulfilling, and such routine work is none of these. William Morris wrote an essay with the significant title ‘Useful work versus useless toil’, and boring unhuman labour is definitely toil.

    We have not even mentioned work that is part and parcel of the money system, from banking to insurance, from shops to accountancy. This cannot be compared to killing in the armed forces, but it is not about meeting human need, not about producing useful goods and services (food, homes, clothes, health care, transport, leisure activities). It is essentially useless work rather than intrinsically anti-human (though of course it can be just as boring as anything mentioned in the previous paragraph). Work which produces genuinely useful things is bound to be more satisfying than work which is pointless or just produces luxuries for the idle rich.

    It should also be emphasised that, in describing some work as dirty and anti-human, we are not attacking those workers who are forced to do these jobs. They are exploited like all other workers, and their interests lie equally in ending capitalism and establishing socialism. No member of the Socialist Party is allowed to join the armed forces, since we are not prepared to kill and be killed for ‘queen and country’, but we do not regard soldiers, bailiffs and so on as enemies of the working class.

    So if sceptics ask you about dirty work in socialism, get them to reflect on what really counts as dirty work. Under capitalism, much work is not just useless and wasted but actually designed to be anti-human and to kill and damage people. This is the true dirty work, just the kind of degrading labour that will not be necessary in a socialist society.
    Paul Bennett