Sometimes everything comes together in unintended ways. That has happened to me this week. I am moving office tomorrow, and I am also moving home, and if that wasn’t enough, I received a call from a union I help out with advice who wanted some urgent work done. The major employer had presented a sort of ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ offer that if accepted would see the workers more than 8 per cent worse off in real terms at the end of the 4-year agreement than they were when they last had their pay adjusted. This sort of offer – at a time the RBA is claiming the labour market is incredibly tight just beggars belief. Anyway, the point is that I have very little time this week for blog posting. Some years ago I read a research report that demonstrated that standard economics programs at our universities breed people with sociopathological tendencies who elevate greed above empathy. There is clearly some self-selection bias because the studies have never really isolated the impacts of the teaching programs from the tendencies of the students going into the programs. But as one who has been through the mill from go to woah (PhD) the standard mainstream curriculum is pretty grim and most students in my years just went along with it. I was thinking about this when I read a Discussion Paper (No. 1938, July 2023) from the Centre for Economic Performance at LSE entitled – Are the upwardly mobile more left-wing?. After I had read that paper, I noticed a UK Guardian article (August 6, 2023) which carried the headline – Are richer people really more rightwing? – which discussed the LSE research and I thought that was a curious perversion of the original title.
Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a mainstream New Keynesian economist for a moment. We would never want to walk in them for long because our self esteem would plummet as we realised what frauds we were. But suspend judgement for a while because to understand what is wrong with the current domination of macroeconomic policy by interest rate adjustments one has to appreciate the underlying theory that is guiding the central bank policy shifts. The New Keynesian NAIRU concept, which stems from work published in 1975 by Franco Modigliani and Lucas Papademos is pretty straightforward. Accordingly, they define an unemployment rate, above which inflation falls and below which inflation rises. So that unique rate (or range of rates to cater for uncertainty of measurement) is the stable inflation rate – where inflation neither falls or rises. They called it the NIRU (“the noninflationary rate of unemployment”). So if the unemployment rate had been stable for some period, yet inflation was continuously declining, then they would conclude that the stable unemployment rate must be ABOVE the NIRU and vice versa. Apply that logic to Australia at present and you will see why the RBA’s claim that the NAIRU (the modern term for the NIRU) is around 4.5 per cent and this is why they are hiking rates in order to stabilise inflation at the higher unemployment rate. They are frauds.
My early academic work was on the Phillips curve and the precision in estimating the concept of a natural rate of unemployment, or the rate of unemployment where inflation stabilises at some level. This rate is now commonly referred to as the Non-Accelerating-Rate-of-Unemployment (NAIRU) and my contribution was one of the first studies to show that the rate was variable and went up and down with the economic cycle, rendering it a meaningless concept for discretionary policy interventions. I extended that work into my PhD and built on much earlier work as a undergraduate to articulate the Job Guarantee idea. The NAIRU is unobservable and there have been various ways to estimate it from actual data. The problem is that these estimates are highly sensitive to the approach – so two researchers can get quite different estimates using the same data. Further, the estimates themselves are subject to large statistical errors meaning that we cannot be sure whether the NAIRU is say 4.5 per cent or 3.5 per cent or 5.5 per cent, say. Such imprecision makes it impossible to use the concept as a guide for monetary policy because if the NAIRU actually existed then ‘full employment’ might be at 3.5 or 5.5 per cent today but next week the estimates might be even wider. When would one want to start changing interest rates in pursuit of inflation stability – when the actual unemployment rate was down to 3.5 per cent or at 5.5 per cent or somewhere in between or at higher or lower unemployment rates, depending on what the models pumped out? You can see the problem. For some years, central bankers went quiet on the use of the NAIRU and stopped publishing their estimates exactly because they knew full well about the imprecision and that policy based on such a vague, difficult to estimate, unobservable would be discredited. That is until now. The RBA is now clearly admitting that their damaging and unnecessary interest rate hikes over the last year and a bit have been driven by the NAIRU. A sham. But a tragedy as well given the RBA’s almost obsession with pushing unemployment up by around 140,000. A shocking indictment of where we have reached as a civilisation.
Sometimes, one thinks that the intellectual world should evolve as intelligent people take account of the dissonance between their ideas and the facts before them and adapt their views. I know that doesn’t happen much but it should. I have studied the philosophy of science deeply enough over my student and postgrad days and beyond into my career to know that intelligent people have the capacity to completely fool themselves and hang onto defunct ideas as part of a paradigm-resistance to change. We know why that happens: senior professors have their reputations and legacy at stake, they control appointments, promotions, access to research grants, publication success for junior academics, and continuity of lucrative consulting empires. But sometimes I still am amazed when I read some research paper that I know has taken months to research and write up and which has been presented and talked about in seminars and conferences, and after dinner drinks and all the rest of it, but which bears no correspondence with the underlying reality. That was the situation when I read a research paper from three economists who were claiming that taxes have to rise and pensions cut if governments are to escape insolvency in the face of ageing societies. This continues, obviously, to be a powerful framework for proselyting the neoliberal mantra and a narrative that most people cannot see their way through to a conclusion that is all a fiction.
Regular readers will know that I have spent quite a lot of time reading the literature in social psychology trying to understand how groups of scholars become crippled with the patterned behaviour that Irving Janis identified as Groupthink in his ground breaking study published in 1972. I feel that my own profession is dominated by this catastrophic syndrome, which has biased the policy scene towards destructive outcomes. However, even after some major calamities, which the mainstream economists were blind too (such as the GFC), the Groupthink is so entrenched and powerful that academic economists actively engage in purges of what they consider to be ‘fringe ideas’, which they dismiss as the equivalent of homeopathy (that is, witchcraft in their eyes). I read an example of this behaviour this week which indicates to me that we are a long way from seeing fundamental change in the academy which might restore the credibility of my profession in the public milieu. My advice to parents – keep your children away from studying economics!
It’s Wednesday and also a holiday period, so just a few things today. First, I discuss a research paper that has concluded that central bankers have been using the wrong model for years which has resulted in flawed estimates of the state of capacity utilisation, and, in turn, created excessive unemployment. Second, we have a little Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) primer before going to the beach.
I have a major reporting deadline today and also have to travel interstate, which means I have no spare time at all. So for today, I am promoting a Podcast I recorded a few weeks ago with Steve Grumbine at Real Progressives. We talked about my recent period living and working in Japan and questions of culture and Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). The discussion goes for just over an hour and you can shorten it by fast tracking with volume set to zero the musical introduction and the musical intermission. Steve’s tastes (heavy metal) are quite disturbing (-: I would sooner like a nice quiet jazz oriented introduction. So save yourself some time and skip the music!
It’s Wednesday and I am now ensconced in Kyoto, Japan for the months ahead. I will report on various aspects of that experience as time passes. Today, I reflect on a debate that is going on in Australia about the situation facing live musicians. Should promoters be able to employ them for poverty wages including ‘nothing’ while still profiting or should they be forced to pay the musicians a living wage. You can guess where I sit in the debate.
We will have Wednesday on a Thursday this week, given my detailed analysis of Australia’s inflation data release yesterday. So today I write less here to write more elsewhere and finish with some of the greatest guitar playing you might ever hope to hear. My topic today is the issue of the ‘work from home’ phenomenon, which is one of the better things Covid has produced. I explain why. But I also realise a lot of commentators view the phenomenon negatively. Some on the Left allege it just means the ‘woke’ class have abandoned the low-paid workers to Covid, while those on the Right are aghast because they realise that, at least, some workers have more ‘control’ over their working lives. My view is that we should celebrate the fact that some workers are happier. I don’t accept the argument from the ‘Left’ commentators that every worker should be miserable if every worker cannot be happier.