How come, right now, in some parts of the UK you can meet your friends and family in a restaurant but you can’t in your own garden? Sound ridiculous? That’s because it is, and it’s all because of money. The Prime Minister’s conflicting advice exposes the rot at the heart of the government’s economic ideology: their concern for growth above all else.
Today is the start of the government’s “Eat out to help out” scheme, designed to encourage people to eat in restaurants in order to boost the hospitality sector, which has been hit particularly hard by the Coronavirus lockdown. The problem is, the scheme clashes with the re-tightening of social distancing measures in many areas. Local lockdowns in Leicester, Manchester and Melbourne have been announced in recent weeks because of the number of cases rising again. So why should the public suddenly feel confident enough to eat in restaurants? The government’s message is confused – and confusing.
The reason is that the demands of a public health emergency are in direct conflict with the demands of the economic ideology that has dominated political thinking for over 40 years. Until recently the belief has been that in order to satisfy people’s needs, ‘the economy’ needs to be constantly growing. In this context, the term ‘the economy’ is usually used as shorthand for ‘Gross Domestic Product’ (GDP). As long as GDP is growing, everyone’s piece of the pie will be growing and their quality of life improving. This backwards thinking still dominates many of the important decisions our government makes.
But it’s now widely recognised that this theory does not work in practice, and in fact, the consequences have been extremely damaging for our society.
Firstly, it’s causing huge inequality. Growth above all else leads to extractive and exploitative practices that benefit the wealthy while leaving the rest of us behind. We see this dynamic at play in the power of landlords, corporations and those who own financial assets. Dr. Jason Hickel recently stated that 48% of new income created by global growth since the 1980s has gone to the richest 5% of people. And the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty recently found that decades of growth have increased inequality and failed to alleviate poverty.
Secondly, the pursuit of growth demands we all consume more and more – and therefore as individuals and a society we pollute more and more. The design of our economy is actually killing the planet that we live on, impoverishing many people and lining the pockets of a tiny elite.
During the course of this pandemic, we’ve seen an amazing shift in public opinion. It seems that growing awareness of the dangers of climate change – coupled with the questions the covid crisis has raised over the ways we live our lives – has caused people to question what our economy is really for. Polling we commissioned in May showed that 8 out of 10 people want the government to prioritise health and wellbeing over economic growth. And 6 in 10 want the government to prioritise social and environmental outcomes over economic growth after the pandemic has subsided.
And indeed, what is our economy even for if it’s not supporting individual and public wellbeing?
Positive Money promotes new economic policies which seek to maximise public health and wellbeing. Recently we’ve started discussions with WEAll, the Wellbeing Economy Alliance. They support the Wellbeing Governments Alliance, a group of governments that increasingly target public health and wellbeing indicators. Scotland, Wales, New Zealand and Iceland are all members already. We think this alliance is making excellent progress towards designing economies that promote public health over private wealth.
It’s also exciting to see what’s happening in Amsterdam, which is now pursuing a doughnut economic model in order to help the city thrive in balance with the planet. Their officials believe restructuring their economy by connecting bodily health to planetary health will help them to overcome the effects of the crisis. Amsterdam aims to offer everyone fair social terms within safe ecological limits.
Unfortunately here in the UK, the current design of our economy and our current government’s priorities are in direct conflict with the ways we need to live in order to protect public health and wellbeing. It’s high time we change them.