Today is Budget Day, and as the Chancellor addresses Parliament and holds his red case aloft for the journalists, I’m left asking why we still live in a world where we consistently fail to make the economy deliver on what people really want and need.
A brief glance at the official budget hashtags (#AutumnBudget #Budget2017) reveals a long list of demands – to make the tax system fairer and stop tax dodgers, to give more help to small business, to reform universal credit, and to invest in education and the NHS before it’s too late. This is a time where people from all walks of life have their opportunity to speak out about how we raise taxes, and what we spend public money on.
At the same time, there is a clear story from the economic establishment. It’s a story we have all heard before. That we have to tighten our belts, and make tough choices. That GDP growth and reduction of the deficit is the top priority, because it makes everything else possible and because money trickles down to everyone.
But we only have to look around us to know that something isn’t working. Our economic system is creating winners and losers at a scale that is difficult to justify. The richest 1% in the world have more wealth than the rest of humanity, and in our country economic inequality has spiked to Victorian levels. Between April and September more than half a million people turned to food banks because they lacked the money to put food on the table or to buy basic toiletries and sanitary products. I doubt most people can get through the food bank scene in the film I, Daniel Blake without a tear. And yet in the fifth richest country in the world, for many people this is reality. Just another day.
As co-founder of Happy City, I’ve spent the last seven years talking to people – from prisoners to pensioners, and campaigners to councillors – about what really matters to them, and it’s abundantly clear that the way the economy currently works is out of step with how people want the world to be. Back in 2014, a YouGov poll commissioned by our friends at Action for Happiness found that 87% of people would prefer to see action to increase happiness and wellbeing, than action to increase overall wealth. And the desire for a fairer and more sustainable society holds up among those who spend their days in the cut and thrust of finance and investment. Just last week, Triodos bank’s Impact Investing survey revealed that 79% of investors want to see a fairer and more sustainable society. In fact, as George Monbiot found in researching his latest book, the evidence across psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology tells a consistent story. It’s hardwired into human beings to care about the needs of others.
So given the ‘economic system’ doesn’t have a mind of its own – it’s created by us, by people – and given people are essentially altruistic, even those supposedly obsessed by profit, is there really no alternative?
More and more ordinary people are sitting up and asking this question. From the waves of protest around the world sparked by the economic crisis, to the recent Paradise Papers that helped pulled back the veil of secrecy from tax havens and financial trickery, the reality behind the ‘growth at all costs’ narrative is being exposed. And people are finding alternatives. Positive Money are working with some of the leading economists, academics, and policy-makers to bring about a fairer money and banking system. Local not-for-profit energy companies like Robin Hood Energy are proving there is an alternative to the ‘big six.’ The New Economics Foundation are putting forward practical ideas, such as an ethical alternative to Uber, Cab Fair. And we at Happy City have developed alternatives to GDP so that government, businesses and communities can measure real progress.
So although we remain a long way from the real revolution in spending and thinking that is needed to make the economy serve us better and deliver real prosperity, there is hope. And Budget Day is one of many opportunities to spark a healthy debate about, as the economist Kate Raworth puts it, ‘moving from an economy that grows whether or not we thrive, to one where we thrive whether or not it grows”.
So have a look at today’s budget, and ask yourselves whether it invests in what really matters to you. And if not, get active and do something about it. You can join Happy City’s #InvestIn campaign, and help us take over the budget hashtags #AutumnBudget and #Budget2017 with messages about what really matters to you. We’d love to hear what you think.
Liz Zeidler, chief executive, Happy City. This is a blog Liz wrote for Huffington Post UK as part of the #InvestIn campaign for #Budget2017.