When I was a postgraduate student at Monash University in Melbourne, I had many debates with a senior academic who would become a co-author early in my academic career, about the relative importance of choice and constraint. In the standard mainstream choice-theoretic framework, people are conceived as maximising satisfaction through the choices they make subject to the opportunity set they face (the constraints). This simplistic version of human decision-making dominates mainstream economics and leads to nonsensical conclusions such that unemployment is a voluntary state where people are choosing leisure (a good) over work (bad) to maximise their well-being because the income coming from work (a good) is not sufficient on an hourly basis to offset the disutility that work engenders. That sort of thinking permeates the discipline. My former colleague kept saying that people make choices and you cannot deny that. The discussions were in relation to poverty incidence. My position was that it is trivial to say people make choices. We do, every day, but to understand complex phenomena such as poverty, it is better to focus on the constraints. That focus is likely to be more revealing. A person can be making choices but if their opportunity set is very narrow and any choice dooms that person to poverty then it doesn’t make much sense to dwell on the ‘free’ choice angle. Structuralists also agree with my emphasis here. Earlier this year (February 8, 2021), some academics associated with MIT in the US published a working paper – Why do people stay poor – and its results are revealing.
One of the important concepts one learns in studying the way firms work with respect to pricing and markups is the distinction between quantity and price adjustment over the course of an economic cycle. When economists talk of supply and demand, they usually refer to price adjustment, where prices adjust up or down when there is an imbalance between these aggregates. Orthodox economics presumes that prices adjust, for example, to eliminate an excess supply, which they apply to the labour market and conclude that the cure for mass unemployment is wage cutting. The problem is that in many circumstances, firms use quantity adjustments long before they contemplate price adjustments, because the former involves lower costs. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) ran a story from its business reporters today (November 16, 2021) – As migration restarts, will it hold down wages for everyone? – which has also become a feature news segment on its television coverage today. The analysis presented is seriously misleading. It not only fails to characterise the problem properly but buys into a highly contentious debate about whether migration has negative impacts on the labour market prospects for local workers. It behoves analysts to actually construct the problem correctly before they start taking sides in this debate. The ABC article fails in that regard which is disappointing. Their failure also reflects the lack of diversity in opinion they seek these days. They chose to simply rehearse the arguments presented by one pro-migration analysis as if it was definitive rather than seek expert opinion from neutral analysis. But it also demonstrates why understanding the difference between quantity and price adjustment is crucial to getting the conclusions right.
I have been researching the so-called labour shortage that business types are talking about relentlessly as part of their on-going strategy to undermine the conditions of work and make more profit. In the course of that enquiry, I came across an interesting juxtaposition between two US companies that illustrate a lot of what we have known about for years but have allowed this relentless, neoliberal, race-to-the-bottom to obscure. Well-paid workers with job security, work better and are happy workers. Companies that pursue the ‘race-to-the-bottom’ strategy and seek to build profits by trashing the conditions they offer workers eventually struggle to prosper because their bad reputation undermines their ability to attract productive workers. In the case we discuss today, the so-called ‘labour shortage’ is really just a signal of management caprice. Rather than being a shortage of workers, there is a shortage of workers who will tolerate the indignity of low wages, onerous conditions and capricious management. It is also a union versus non-union type of discussion where the unionised work places generate high productivity and worker attachment, while the non-unionised workplaces find it hard to attract reliable staff and blame it all on ‘labour shortages’.
There was a conference in Berlin recently (25th FMM Conference: Macroeconomics of Socio-Ecological Transition run by the Hans-Böckler-Stiftung), which sponsored a session on “The Relevance of Hajo Riese’s Monetary Keynesianism to Current Issues”. One of the papers at that session provided what the authors believed is a damning critique of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Unfortunately, the critique falls short like most of them. I normally don’t respond to these increasing attacks on our work, but given this was a more academic critique and I was in an earlier period of my career interested in the work of Hajo Riese, I think the critique highlights some general issues that many readers still struggle to work through.
The New York Times article (October 1, 2021, updated October 15, 2021) – Nobody Really Knows How the Economy Works. A Fed Paper Is the Latest Sign – reported on a paper by one Jeremy B. Rudd, who is a senior advisor in the Research and Statistics division at the Federal Reserve Bank in the US. The paper – Why Do We Think That Inflation Expectations Matter for Inflation? (And Should We?) – published as Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2021-062, by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, argues that a core aspect of New Keynesian macroeconomic orthodoxy “rests on extremely shaky foundations … and adhering to it uncritically could easily lead to serious policy errors.” The paper rejects the central notion in mainstream macro that the trajectory of inflation is driven by expectations. The idea that expectations are the key force has led central banks deliberately using the unemployed to fight an (imaginary) inflation threat. It has led fiscal authorities to pursue contractionary policies that have forced millions into unemployment. The Rudd paper is important because it shows the mainstream edifice is collapsing – it jettisons an other core concept. There is not much left in mainstream economics that hasn’t been rejected by evidence or exposed as being theoretically inconsistent.
Last week, I did a seminar with a Melbourne financial market group (Wattle Partners), who I regularly help in their education programs. It took the form of an informal (somewhat structured) conversation about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and more practical applications of the MMT understanding. There were several questions from the audience that we didn’t get time to answer in the allotted time so today I am honouring my agreement to provide answers, which might be of interest to the broader readership, if only to reinforce knowledge. The video of the interaction is also available now and you can watch it here.
This is Part 2 of my analysis of the way that fundamental ideas in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) are totally consistent with a reasonable interpretation of Marx’s work. The motivation to clarify these issues came after I spoke at an event last weekend in the UK and shared a panel with a critic who claimed that Marx’s work established that MMT is wrong to assume that unemployment is a monetary phenomenon (insufficient spending) and that government spending can do anything about it. The claim was based on a view that Marx thought that capitalist firms have some unique logic that if they decide not to produce no amount of sales orders will induce them to expand production even if they have massive excess capacity (‘machines lying idle’) and a huge pool of idle labour to draw upon. No reasonable reading of Marx’s work would lead to that conclusion. In this part, we will consider what Marx thought about crisis and some later developments of his reproduction schemes, which make it clear that effective demand drives capitalist output, which conditions their employment decisions.
I gave a talk at the Resist Event in Brighton UK last Sunday evening. On the panel was a person who dismissed Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) as irrelevant to the real challenges that arose under Capitalism and he invoked Marx a lot. It was not a very illuminating interchange because not only did he misrepresent what MMT was but, in my view, he also seemed to think that we could extrapolate Marx’s scant ideas of money directly into the situation faced by nations today. Marx considered money to be a commodity (gold) and he did not present any meaningful analysis of the role played by the modern consolidated central bank-treasury function (aka government). Last Sunday’s critic claimed that MMT is wrong to assume that unemployment is a monetary phenomenon (insufficient spending) and that government spending can do anything about it. Apparently, Marx thought that capitalist firms have some unique logic that if they decide not to produce no amount of sales orders will induce them to expand production even if they have massive excess capacity (‘machines lying idle’) and a huge pool of idle labour to draw upon. Marx would never have agreed with that idea. Marx’s writings are not the Bible. They are insights gleaned at specific points in history with specific institutional arrangements, some of which remain relevant today, some which do not. Modern Marxist-oriented scholars are aware of that point. A deterministic application of his thinking is not very likely to yield insights when the context is very different. In this two-part series, I seek to lay out a clear reason why MMT is not a violation of a correctly interpreted Marx.
It’s Wednesday, so just a few items that have passed me by this week. Eurostat published the latest national accounts data yesterday (September 7, 2021) that reveals that key Eurozone states are still lagging behind where they were before the pandemic. In some cases (Italy and Spain), they hadn’t even got back to pre-GFC levels of activity before the pandemic stuck. So a double hit to these nations in the space of a decade or so. That damage will be immense and demonstrates once again the dysfunctional nature of the currency union. Then I consider the latest nonsense from the Business Council of Australia – which is just a special pleading organisation for the top-end-of-town. They think it is time to go back to the deficits are bad narrative (except when their members are receiving corporate welfare that is). And to calm down after that we have some jazz, of course.
In the wake of further Covid angst in Australia, the airlines are once again laying off thousands of workers. One of the airlines, Qantas, formerly the publicly-owned national carrier announced last week major job cuts soon after it secured a rather substantial rescue package from the Federal government. Qantas makes a habit of crying poor despite paying its executives slavishly large salaries and aggressively using its market power to undermine smaller regional airlines that have served Australia for years. Mainstream economists, who were cheer boys for the privatisation in the first place, continue to extol the virtues of selling off the airline at bargain prices to private interests. The reality is however different. The airline provides an overpriced service and can no longer be considered the ‘national carrier’, even though it continues to trade on that reputation. So, today, Scott from Griffith University, who has been one of my regular research colleagues over a long period of time, reexamines the case in the light of recent evidence to bring the airline back into public ownership. Over to Scott …