Absolutely not: we don’t pay nurses properly because the government makes a choice not to. This fact calls to mind the words of the Texan minister Robert Fulghum: “It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need, and our air force has to have a bake-sale to buy a bomber”.
But the magic money tree is not a just daft expression in terms of how governments spend public money, it’s also misleading in terms of how the economy works as a whole. Since 2008, we’ve been encouraged to see the economy like a household budget: if households spend too much money, they need to cut down on living costs so they don’t get into too much debt. To that end, the magic money tree says that if we spend too much money, we can’t just simply grow more.
But actually, a country’s whole economy can grow more money if it needs to. Since 2009 the Bank of England has created £453bn of new electronic money to buy debt from the private sector using a mechanism called quantitative easing. Yes, you read that right: the Bank of England has created £453,000,000,000 of new money in the last eight years. Turns out the magic money tree is pretty big.Growing money is possible because an economy is nothing like a household budget. In a household, money comes in via people’s wages and goes out via living costs. But in an economy, we all pay each other’s wages. Money doesn’t just travel in one direction in the economy, it circulates around. It’s the difference between one car driving in one end of a tunnel and out of the other, and lots of cars zigzagging around Spaghetti Junction.
The issue isn’t whether we can grow money or not (we can – that’s just a fact), it’s where the money goes once it’s been grown. And the problem is that it doesn’t go to nurses, teachers or the public services they work for. It goes to institutions such as banks. The nurse in the BBC debate was highlighting a problem that exists across the whole economy: real wages haven’t increased for more than a decade, and this has meant more people have been relying on credit cards, with personal debt now higher than it was before the 2008 crash.
In other words, the fact that the nurse hasn’t had a pay rise is not just bad for her, it’s bad for all of us – because if that nurse is not earning enough, she won’t be spending money. And if she does spend money, she’ll do it by getting into unsustainable debt – which is itself outrageous considering the important, skilled work nurses do.