I have written before about plans to inject money into the economy, and for the present I am going to leave aside the arguments for and against doing it. The Conservatives are pleading for tax reliefs; Liberals, for a rise in the tax threshold; Labour, for a cut in VAT and more quantitative easing. The question I want to address is a simple one: what is the best way to inject money into the economy?
There seem to me to be three main criteria. The first is effectiveness: the money needs to arrive in places where it will stimulate the economy. Too often in the past, indiscriminate financial stimuli have led to inflationary demand or to money leaking abroad. Second, there needs to be some consideration of the distributive impact. Third, the stimulus has to be practical: one of the reasons why Labour went for a VAT cut was that it could be done immediately, when changes to income tax would have been much slower. Cutting income tax fails on all three criteria. VAT meets the third criterion; it has limited benefits for the second, because VAT is only slightly regressive; and it fails on the first.
Some benefit payments could serve more effectively as a stimulus than tax cuts could. Although there is a case for higher benefit levels in general, the implementation would be too slow and complex, and it would be politically controversial. It is however feasible to make additional payments to the recipients of certain benefits. Child Benefit goes to every family with a dependent child; Winter Fuel Payment (disregard the label!) is an ad hoc payment to every older person. In other words, the administrative mechanisms exist to deliver one-off payments directly and rapidly to individual households. The distributive effect would be generally progressive (it could be made more progressive still if the payments are treated as taxable); and it would lead to an immediate, localised stimulus to spending that would fall roughly in proportion to the prevalence of deprivation. And if such payments happened to do a little to alleviate child poverty, that is a side-effect I think we should be able to bear with equanimity.