From Quantitative to Qualitative Easing

By Asa Humphreys
26 Mar 2009

Much has been written about the government’s move to increase the flow of money in the economy. Leaving aside images of wheelbarrows full of lucre found in school history books about Weimar Germany, taking capital that is tied up in immobile credit and transferring it into liquid cash needs a tag, and Quantitative Easing is it.

Apart from sounding a little like a quaint English village, it also raises the parallel and perhaps rather more significant notion of Qualitative Easing. Economists notionally use this term for changes to the complexion of a bank’s asset portfolio. But it has a wider social application.

If Quantitative Easing is re-evaluating the balance of money in our economy, Qualitative Easing seems more naturally to indicate a re-evaluation of the balance of time in our society. They are two ends of similar spectra, linked both by necessity and chronology.

The late Esther Boserup, a Danish economist, was right when she stated that necessity is the mother of all invention. The decision by the government to invoke Quantitative Easing has given birth to both the need and the opportunity for Qualitative Easing.

Simply stated, we are becoming increasingly money-poor in the UK and concomitantly we are increasingly time-rich. As more people leave full time employment and become either underemployed, part-time or unemployed, they have more time on their hands.

While waiting to return to full time employment, the options include emigration, self-employment, signing on and tuning out, or signing on and doing something… anything to stop you going stir crazy. Any recent graduate of a Job Centre (Plus or otherwise) will know that the regular trips to prove you are looking for work are rarely an uplifting experience.

Why not use this untapped resource of time rich, experienced and driven people to invest in our society through the gift of volunteering? Gift is appropriate as it benefits both the Jobseeker and those being served. In October 2008 David Cameron spoke of society as being ‘broken’. Here is an opportunity to work towards long-term recovery, in the economic and societal sense.

We are increasingly aware that Quantitative Easing is the prime indicator that we are in a tough situation and that the charitable sector has both reduced resources and increased demand. A policy of Qualitative Easing which re-evaluated the balance of time in our society would go a long way to reducing that gap.

Flicking through the Jobseeker’s Allowance booklet (April 2007 edition) pages six and seven offer opportunities for work trials, employment on-trial and voluntary work as ways to make best use of your time as a Jobseeker. This seed should be nurtured into a genuine shoot of recovery.

How? By making opportunities to volunteer locally one of the standard questions in the Jobseekers regular interviews; by having a list of available positions to hand that the advisor could recommend and by helping the Jobseeker find something satisfying to do while waiting for interviews. It need not be for every day of the week, but the chance to learn new skills, to face fresh challenges, to develop your CV, even just to get out of the house to meet people: these are all positive things for the individual and for society.

It could be so easy to arrange. All it would need would be for local opportunity lists to be drawn up, placements to be verified and for the willing to be encouraged to volunteer. Local charities would be falling over themselves to support this. Then when job interviews are arranged and attended, government certificates of voluntary service could be presented and recent experience of work would be situations ready at hand.

If a Criminal Records Bureau certificate is required, the government should relax the rules so that the holder of a current CRB clearance need not apply for another one simply because they are deemed ‘non-transferable’ between sectors, employers or charities.

This would cost only the time taken to draw the list up and the price of printing the certificates. It is an investment that could never become sub-prime and is an example of the ‘shovel ready policies’ that are currently popular in the USA.

Indeed, taken one step further the government could look at using the John Lewis partnership model of the Golden Jubilee Trust as a template. This allows current employees six months working for a charity while remaining on the company payroll.

If companies have insufficient turnover and are paying staff to stay at home, why not encourage them to place those employees at the disposal of the charitable and voluntary sectors? If government subsidies were involved, this could be included in the negotiations.

This is just one way Qualitative Easing can be used to benefit society. John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand, started a national debate in February 2009 about having a nine day working fortnight. This includes one day each fortnight specifically set aside for training so that the labour force of New Zealand could emerge from recession with a better skill set, while enabling more people to retain their employment.

Where companies are unable to pay for training in the current climate, they could allow their employees to work one day a fortnight in the voluntary sector. While the logistics of this may be more complex in the UK which has 15 times the population of New Zealand, the notion is a sound one that could be encouraged regionally and across a number of sectors.

The idea of a ring-fenced day for training would not be too difficult to arrange. Schools seemed to have managed with Wednesday afternoons set aside for sport across the country so why not a similar set-up for training?

The third way we could initiate Qualitative Easing of time in our society is through a realignment of our public holidays. England and Wales currently celebrate eight public holidays, Scotland nine and Northern Ireland ten. With Sterling weaker against the Euro and Dollar, anecdotal evidence suggests that more people will be holidaying (if at all) in Britain this year.

So why not take advantage of this opportunity by having, for the next 24 months, 11 public holidays a calendar year for all parts of the UK? An October bank holiday has long been touted, but let 2 January also be a public holiday, not only in Scotland but in England and Wales and Northern Ireland. Let us have two public holidays in August instead of just one at the end of the month in England and Wales and one at the beginning of the month in Scotland. This could also be a chance to introduce a St George's Day holiday in England as Ekklesia amongst others, has previously called for.

Quantitative Easing is deemed economically necessary. Qualitative Easing needs political will to make it operative. The opportunity for investing time will pass once the economy recovers, so action is needed now. In relation to people facing upheaval in the jobs market, lasting momentum can be built alongside a deeper and more diverse skill set so that Britain is better placed to emerge from this recession with a reinvigorated economy and a resurgent spirit of social good.

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(c) Asa Humphreys is a writer and poet, with over a decade of youthwork experience as well as two years spent working as a Parliamentary Researcher in the House of Commons. He is a trustee of the Limpsfield Trust and a graduate of the CPAS Arrow Leadership programme.

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