Review: “The Decade the Rich Won”
Despite these and other faults, The Decade the Rich Won is a cut above the usual left-wing agitprop thanks to an impressive array of talking heads, including George Osborne, Steve Bannon, Jeremy Corbyn, Mervyn King and Alistair Darling, all of whom agree with the programme’s central premise that quantitative easing (QE) inflates asset prices and makes the rich richer.
The ‘decade’ in question actually spans three different decades. The two key events took place in 2009 and 2020, the first when £200 billion of QE was injected into the post-crash economy, and the second when printed money kept the economy on life support during the COVID-19 lockdowns. In the intervening years, QE has been used as an alleged stimulus to economic growth, particularly after the Brexit referendum. Throughout this period, billionaires got richer, house prices kept rising and the stock market (mostly) held up.
QE is an important part of the explanation for this phenomenon, but it is not the sole cause and there is an element of the ‘cui bono?’ fallacy about the documentary. The programme rightly mentions the inflationary effect of the government’s economically illiterate help-to-buy scheme on house prices, for example, but fails to mention restrictive planning laws. Rock bottom interest rates have made investing in shares and real estate far more inviting than saving money in a bank or building society, thus increasing asset prices. Since this is all due to government policy, it could have been mentioned without undermining the general thrust of the programme.
In the second episode, we hear from an ‘inequality economist’ who points out the apparent absurdity of the stock market booming during a pandemic. This paradox is attributed to QE, but QE offers, at best, only a partial explanation. The FTSE 100 collapsed in March 2020 and remained depressed for months. When it started to bounce back in November it was not because of money-printing but because effective vaccines against COVID-19 had been found. Insofar as QE stabilised the markets in the early days of the pandemic it was not because the new money went straight into shares but because it made it possible for the government to spend money on furlough, business grants and other support packages, thereby reassuring investors that financial apocalypse could be avoided. Even so, the FTSE 100 has still not (quite) returned to the heights it reached before the pandemic.
The post-crash splurge of QE was quite different in its intention and effects to the COVID-19 splurge, but this is only hinted at in the documentary. Mervyn King says in the first episode that much of the QE after the financial crisis went straight to the banks to cover bad debt. Since the banks were reluctant to lend, the money supply actually contracted. This explains the relatively low rate of inflation in this period but nobody in the documentary makes this important point explicitly.
The COVID-19 bout of money-printing was quite different and not just because it was on an even bigger scale. In 2020, the cash went into the ‘real economy’ through direct payments to businesses and individuals. Bizarrely, the programme makes no mention of the most obvious and relevant negative consequence this: inflation. Nor does it mention Joe Biden’s unprecedented spate of money-printing in the USA, perhaps because he is not a conservative.
This highlights one of the biggest problems with The Decade the Rich Won. It covers a great deal of ground but promising lines of enquiry are left tantalisingly unresolved. Towards the end of the second episode, Mervyn King points out that the biggest stimulus in history failed to create strong economic growth. This seems to suggest that Keynesianism (or neo-Keynesianism) does not work, but the implications of this are not pursued.
If QE is the problem – and I agree that it is – what is the solution? The documentary goes along with the idea that we had no alternative to bailing out the banks in 2008. This was the conventional wisdom at the time (although not at the IEA) and remains so. But if we had to bail them out, where was the money supposed to come from? Similarly, the makers of the programme do not appear to believe that COVID-19 should have been allowed to run wild and businesses allowed to go bust, so how else was the government supposed to react? The sums of money involved were too great to be borrowed in the conventional way.
It is possible that the programme’s makers think the government should run large budget surpluses every year so they have a treasure chest to deal with unexpected crises, but their obvious disapproval of the coalition government’s modest attempts to balance the books suggests not. They do not say so explicitly, but it seems more likely that they think budget deficits would not be needed if the government clamped down on ‘tax avoidance’, but even if this were practical in a globalised economy, Britain’s billionaires have nowhere near enough money in the bank – or even on paper – to make a serious dent in the government’s spending commitments. The NHS alone costs nearly £200 billion a year.
Free-market economists have plenty of ideas for how to generate economic growth and live off sound money, but none of them contributed to The Decade the Rich Won. Instead, viewers were left with the impression that the rich have rigged the system to make themselves richer with newly minted cash. There is an element of truth to this, but it is far from the whole story.
The depressing reality is that the government’s thirst for spending has outstripped its ability to raise revenue. It never fixes the roof when the sun shines, and the sun has shone less than usual since 2008. Having pulled every lever in the good times, it runs out of options when the bad times come around. It did not resort to rampant money-printing in a conscious effort to raise asset prices and make the rich richer. It did so, as Alastair Darling says with a sigh in the first episode, because it was “the only weapon we had”.