Fraser Nelson

If QE avoided a Depression it doesn't matter if it increased inequality


I’ve just come from a fascinating event with The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson, on his recent Dispatches show, How the Rich Get Richer. In general the show was very good, and it’s extremely refreshing to see someone as thoughtful as Fraser get half an hour of prime time television to discuss poverty in Britain from a broadly free market perspective.

But I did take issue with the show’s treatment of Quantitative Easing (QE). Fraser described this as ‘perhaps the biggest wealth transfer from poor to rich in history’. The evidence for this was the rise in asset prices following QE, particularly in stock markets. Since rich people own assets and poor people don’t, the rich got richer and the poor didn’t.

That’s a common view and I understand it, but I think it’s wrong. 

Consider the Great Depression. When the money supply (and hence nominal spending) collapsed in the 1930s, the US economy did too, for reasons outlined in Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s Monetary History of the United States.

Basically, contracts are set in nominal terms, so if nominal spending collapses, you’re left with a musical chairs problem where you have too little money to go round. So people are laid off and firms go bankrupt that would not have done so if money had remained stable across the board. Enormous amounts of wealth were destroyed unnecessarily because the government mismanaged the money supply. (It shouldn't be managing money at all, in my view, but if it is we can at least try to minimise the harm it does.)

Perhaps inequality fell during this period because the rich lost proportionally more than the poor – they had more to lose, basically. But who cares? Everyone became worse off. That’s what matters.

The point of QE since 2008 has been to try and avoid a repeat of the 1930s by boosting the money supply. Its supporters wanted to avoid another massive destruction of wealth that would make everyone much worse off. 

Yes, QE boosted stock markets a lot. But there is nothing about QE that meant that banks or other investors would have to invest there – it’s not an ‘injection of cash into stocks’, as some people seem to believe. Stock markets rose because investors reckoned that QE would help avert a much worse Depression, which meant that firms would be (much) more valuable compared to a QE-less world where many of them may have gone bankrupt, or at least taken severe losses, instead.

Yes, that increased inequality because rich people own stocks and poor people don’t. But if everyone would have been worse off without QE, the extra inequality is beside the point. It's people's absolute wellbeing that should matter, if what you're avoiding is a big Depression. You might as well think economic growth is bad because it makes everyone richer, but rich people a little more so.

Of course, it’s an open question whether QE actually did work as intended. Perhaps it made things worse, or did nothing at all. That is a question worth asking and it's not one I can answer. But focusing on whether it increased inequality or not is beside the point – what matters is whether it prevented a Depression.

Abandon hope all ye who enter this immigration debate

Immigration is good for us. With every major party now promising to ‘get tough’ on immigration, it’s easy to forget that immigrants bring new skills to the country, allow for more specialization, tend to be more entrepreneurial than average, pay more in to the welfare state than they take out, and make things cheaper by doing the jobs that Britons won't.

No political figure of any stature will say any of these things. Instead, people like David Cameron and Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg focus on the two potential problems with immigration: that, other things being equal, immigrants may push down average wages, and that an unrestricted welfare state incentivises immigration by people who want to draw benefits instead of working.

These are both valid points, but insignificant ones. Ben Powell points out that the wage-depression claim ignores the fact that immigrants demand goods and services (raising wages for those things) as well as supplying them. It also assumes that immigrants always directly compete with indigenous workers for jobs. If immigrants are doing jobs that indigenous workers will not (or cannot) do, like highly unskilled service industry work, then they are not outcompeting indigenous workers.

There is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that this is the case in Britain. Fraser Nelson has shown the high effective marginal tax rates that people on welfare face if they want to enter the workforce. If these Britons are unwilling to take low-paid jobs, then there is no harm to them caused by immigrants taking these jobs. On the contrary, the fact that these jobs are being done by someone adds to the number of goods and services that everyone in Britain can take advantage of. (There is one other point: if people’s lives are getting better overall, who cares where in the world they happened to be born? Not me. But even I do not expect any politician to go so far as to say that all men are created equal.)

The second point against immigrants is usually the one focused on by politicians. The problem here is that a valid theoretical point is assumed to be a significant problem in actual fact. Here, the numbers simply do not bear the theory out.

As it happens, we don’t actually have an unrestricted welfare state – most major forms of welfare and state services are limited to UK residents. And, if anything, the evidence suggests that immigrants are less likely than Britons to draw out of work benefits – according to Jonathan Portes, “migrants represent about 13% of all workers, but only 7% percent of out-of-work claimants”. What a surprise: the people leaving behind their friends, family and communities are the ones who most want to make better lives for themselves. Again and again, empirical studies have shown that immigrants pay more in than they take out.

In any case, if we have a benefits system that is open to exploitation, why only worry about it being exploited by non-Britons? Conversely, if benefits are necessary to maintain a basic standard of welfare, why doesn't the welfare of non-Britons matter? There is a good case for reforming benefits so that they complement work instead of substituting it, but that has nothing to do with immigration.

Like most ‘major policy announcements’, the specific proposals outlined by the Prime Minister today will probably be forgotten soon enough. Even if they do end up becoming law, they will not affect many people. But what David Cameron and Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have achieved is to throw out any chance of a policy line that, however unpopular, has the rare political virtue of being right.