It will be a relatively short blog today as I am off travelling again. Yes, I was home one day! Real GDP gaps, which measure the extent to which economies are producing below their potential (indicated by full employment of labour and existing capital resources), remain large across many of the large advanced economies. That means one thing – current output growth is not strong enough given the real resources available to these nations. It means another thing – that potential growth will start to fall as investments in productive capital and human capital falters as a result of the lack of demand for current output. Given current capacity (labour and capital), the utilisation of it depends on spending and spending alone. That means another thing. Policies that deliberately undermine the current demand for output will not help economies to exit this crisis. So the only debate worth having is how to stimulate spending and that leaves all the discussions about the need for fiscal austerity on the sidelines of irrelevance. At what point will the economists supporting austerity realise that?
I am now back on Terra Firma and have been greeted with beautiful Spring weather. Among the headlines I read when I returned to my office today were those predicting that the Greek economy will have shrunk by 25 per cent by 2013 and the Troika are demanding more cuts. What I learned from being in the lands of austerity over the last few weeks is that there is no coherent plan to salvage economic growth. Rather, the same economic policies that caused the crisis remain dominant. In saying that, I discount the trends in monetary policy including quantitative easing, which are crisis-specific, because they really don’t make much difference. What is apparent is that one of the pillars of social stability is now under threat. I refer to the deteriorating position of the middle class in the advanced nations. The latest data from the US supports the view that the inequality in income distributions continues to worsen. There is a hollowing out of the middle class continuing at a pace. This rising inequality demonstrates we haven’t learned much and are continuing to repeat the errors in policy that created the crisis and is preventing nations from leaving it behind.
Its late Sunday afternoon in London as I write this (but already early morning in Australia) – so this is Monday’s blog – I have a busy work day tomorrow. I have been reading about an interesting debate in network theory over the last few days. I was familiar with the debate when it surfaced and have been following it off and on since. It provides a classic example of how the brightest minds can be so dumb in particular circumstances. It also provides a way of understanding how my own profession functions and might also clarify for regular readers of my blog the way I consider my colleagues. Gaining a PhD generally takes some advanced intelligence (not to mention application). But that intelligence can be so specific and not preclude attempts to apply the knowledge too broadly and most importantly to areas where applicability is impossible. Counting how many angels on a pin head is a highly complicated and sophisticated area of analysis but it has no resonance in the real world. Anyone who thinks it does is dumb.
Somehow research gets published which contradicts the basic propositions of mainstream monetary theory yet it just gets buried and the commentariat continue on as before sprouting the myths that now occupy us on a daily basis. In February 2010, the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) published a working paper (No. 297)- The Bank Lending Channel Revisited – which falls into this category. It argues categorically that the mainstream propositions about money and banking are incorrect and uninformative. Its essential insights confirm the fundamental propositions of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – which when translated into the policy space – would suggest that monetary policy is not the ideal tool to resolve a major collapse in private aggregate spending and that fiscal policy will not drive up interest rates and crowd out private spending. Why these papers are suppressed in the public domain by the commentators makes for interesting speculation – all of which impugns the motives of those who hold themselves out as experts but, in fact, just peddle lies. The problem for all of us – but more so the unemployed and poor – is that they are influential lies.
Today, I present a series of vignettes that traverse a range of related topics. How Australia’s richest person thinks that billionaires work hard and create jobs and wealth and the poor … well drink and smoke a lot while socialising. Then we consider today’s investment data for Australia which is a precursor to the June-quarter national accounts release. We try to make sense of claims that Australia’s (alleged) socialist government has killed investment in mining. Then we consider how leading economic forecasters mislead the Australian public by claiming that the Australian government will not have enough money to provide dental care to the poor. Then we hop over to America and learn that government spending creates jobs and even the conservatives are saying it. All in a day’s blogging. A veritable pot pourri of lies, deception and self-serving bluster.
I don’t have much time today. But over the weekend the talk has been of a return to the gold standard. Conservatives hark back to the gold standard as some sort of golden age when all was well with the world. They still think that prosperity is within the grasp of a society if it anchors its currency to the price of gold. It seems the US Republican party is toying with the idea again – presumably as a pitch to rope in the real conservatives (Ron Paul supporters). They couldn’t be serious though. It would be a disaster if the world attempted to go back to a system that failed when it operated and it would lead to the further immiserisation of the poor if implemented. The salient point is that it didn’t work when it was in operation. It didn’t produce lower price variability and lower inflation rates nor did it prevent bank crises and financial panics. It was abandoned because it was politically unsustainable such was the entrenched unemployment that accompanied it.
My university office is far from clean so next week when I get back there I suspect I will find some more old insightful articles in the boxes remaining to be sorted to comment on. I haven’t much time today as I am in transit. But there are two interesting developments in Australia that are worth commenting on while the iron is hot. The first is that one of Australia’s fat cat banksters, fresh from enjoying the benefits of the federal government’s loan guarantees is now advocating cuts in the unemployment benefits to make the unemployed more desperate for work. The benefit is already well below Australia’s poverty line and there are 3.6 odd unemployed for every vacancy not to mention the 8 per cent of workers who are underemployed. The bankster thinks that by pushing them further into poverty they might up house, pack their cars and travel across the other side of the continent to work in the mining sector. Little does he know. The second piece of news was that two major mining projects have been shelved by BHP as the outlook for the sector deteriorates.
Today’s article from the relics (my office clear out continues) is actually two articles. One by Arthur Okun and the other by fellow US macroeconomist Gardner Ackley. Both economists are now dead but during their careers were aware of the role of government in a monetary economy. They were antagonistic to the conservative views of economists that wanted to push fiscal rules such as balanced budgets. They understood that these views not only undermined democracy but also made it impossible for governments to pursue their legitimate goals of promoting public purpose. In the current environment, if they were still alive they would be castigating those who seek to impose pro-cyclical fiscal austerity. Their insights remain relevant today. Just think about yesterday’s public finance data release in Britain. The debt reduction forecasts from the British government are in tatters because tax revenue is collapsing further and welfare spending is rising. The operation of the automatic stabilisers is signalling that the British government has more than adequately demonstrated its incompetence.
I am doing a bit of cleaning up old filing boxes each day now as the date I will be moving offices approaches. It is actually an interesting process – looking through boxes and articles that have been stored away for some years now. Today, I came across an article that was in the US Magazine Challenge (March-April, 1982) entitled The Guilds of Academe and written by one Jack Barbash, who was an academic at the University of Wisconsin. It discussed the way in which the economics profession protects its belief system from criticism and avoids, as far as possible, addressing real world problems. The mainstream will talk as if they are addressing a real world problem – such as entrenched unemployment – but when you realise the models they are dabbling with you know that they are really talking about nothing real at all. This leads onto a forthcoming book by some British conservative MPs who have the temerity to argue that the British unemployment problem is due to the workers being to idle and diverted by pop music to bother working. You know instantly that the underlying model has come from a mainstream economist who hasn’t recently looked out the window or read any data.
I was clearing out some old filing boxes today – I am moving offices soon – and came across a conference proceedings from 1976, which I had picked up somewhere in the 1980s when my own academic career really began. It was entitled: Directions for a national manpower policy : a collection of policy papers prepared for three regional conferences and published by in Washington by the US National Commission for Manpower Policy in 1976. There was a chapter in it that I recalled fondly by US economist Charles C. Killingsworth entitled Should full employment be a major national goal. He was a long-time advocate of public employment programs and understood how lacking my profession is when it comes to caring about people. In terms of public service employment programs – what really have we go to fear? Answer: not much, unless you don’t enjoy the most disadvantaged having a better life!