Crazy ideas have a habit of re-entering the public policy debate even if they have been comprehensively rejected in theoretical and/or empirical terms. In fact, the whole edifice of neo-liberal thinking, which dominates the public debate now, was discredited by Keynes and others during the Great Depression and fell into irrelevance for most of the Post World War 2 growth period which delivered full employment. There are sub-sets of crazy ideas within the neo-liberal narrative that are in a similar position. In the early 1980s, we started to be barraged with what is known as supply-side economics, which amounted to a categorical rejection of demand-side measures (active fiscal policy intervention). One of the major claims of the supply-side approach was that deregulation and large tax cuts for the high income earners and companies would generate massive increases in real GDP growth (and national income) which would trickle down to the low-income earners. To fit this into the neo-liberal rejection of budget deficits they also had to come up with the claim that the tax cuts would actually generate offsets in tax revenue and improve the budget balance. This was the comedy that became known as the Laffer Curve. The economist who was pushing that line in the 1980s has also maintained an intense opposition to any use of fiscal policy to stimulate real GDP growth. He claims that the recent history shows that fiscal policy expansion damages growth. But when you dig into his argument you realise that the comedian is still trying to make us laugh. The only problem is that he isn’t very funny.
I was reading several older papers from the 1990s today as part of a project I am working on where I track predictions that leading mainstream economists were making at the time about the evolution of national and global economies. It is a very interesting exercise to build the narratives that were popular at an earlier time and then consider how far the economists got things right. I have noted that there has been some debate out in blog-land about who predicted the failure of the Euro. I am less interested in documenting which person was the first or the second – there were many who saw the design flaws from the inception and could extrapolate what they would mean if a negative shock occurred. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists were among them. I am more interested in groupthink (at the paradigm level) and how the failed predictions can be used to demonstrate the inapplicability of a certain body of theory. That is, what can we learn from the failure of mainstream economists in general to see the crisis coming (and being in denial now of what the solution is). In this blog I consider a part of the thinking that explains why my profession proved to be unreliable in this regard. I renamed this blog – appending it with the term redux because on March 23rd, 2009 – I wrote a blog – Budget surpluses are not national saving.
I lived in the North-West of England for a time in Lancashire as I pursued my PhD at Manchester University. It was during the UK Miners’ Strike 194-85, which was in response to the Thatcher Government’s attack on the major unions in the UK to further its ideological war on workers’ rights and welfare provision. The union lost dramatically after a struggle of 12 months symbolising the rise of neo-liberalism. The same ideology that sought to undermine the rights of workers also led to policy changes that, ultimately, caused the financial crisis and on-going real recession. The reason I raised that experience is because I read a report from a Manchester research organisation over the weekend which highlighted a major problem in that region (poverty wages etc) but also, without stating it, provided an alternative policy approach to the current crisis which would quickly get economies moving again – creating jobs and enhancing the capacity of households to spend. A policy response that antithetical to what is being tried at present is to increase minimum wages and introduce employment guarantees for the most disadvantaged workers whose welfare has been disproportionately undermined by the crisis. That would not only help alleviate the major problem at present – deficient aggregate demand – but also redress some major equity issues that the crisis has accentuated.
Yesterday’s Statement from the US Federal Reserve Open Market Committee (FOMC) stated that the US economy is slowing and the “housing sector remaining depressed” and employment growth slow. The US central bank indicated that moderate growth would persist for the immediate future but that it was threatened by events overseas (read Europe). And over in Europe – the pressure is mounting on the ECB, which knows it must continue to work out ways to fund member states but is being constantly pummelled by the inflation-phobes in Germany (and elsewhere). The problem in Europe is not sovereign debt but a lack of spending. Even within the flawed European monetary system design, the ECB has the capacity to fund increased spending. Those who claim this would be disastrous have a strange view of the consequences of not doing that. This debate resonates with that between Keynes and the Classics in the 1930s. The former demonstrated categorically that without external policy intervention (for example, fiscal stimulus) economies tend to states of chronic mass unemployment with massive income losses (and other pathologies) being the result. Do the Euro leaders really want that state to evolve? They are at present doing everything they can to ensure it does.
The conservative lobby (often dominated by Austrian school types) are increasingly running the narrative that neither monetary or fiscal stimulus can engender growth as nations wallow in stagnation. Their rejection of the use of fiscal stimulus – aka spending of one sort or another – would appear to be in denial of the basic macroeconomic rule – one person’s spending is another person’s income – or in a sectoral sense – government spending equals non-government income. Their arguments against monetary policy have some resonance with my own views. But, for example, is any one really going to argue that if the government hired all the unemployed and paid them a stable wage (in excess of any income support they might be receiving) that the shops would not experience rising sales, which, in turn, would stimulate rising orders to suppliers and increased production and higher growth. Are they really saying that all stimulus spending leaves the shores via net exports? While historical evidence is often cited, when one digs further it becomes clear that the evidential basis of the anti-government claims cannot be substantiated. And – the arguments reduces to a rather crude expression of their dislike of government activity.
I am sick of reading about Europe’s lost decade. For example, in the UK Guardian article (July 27, 2012) – Spanish recession to last until 2014, IMF warns – the economics editor Larry Elliot says that the IMF is “Predicting a lost decade of growth for the eurozone’s fourth biggest economy”. The lost decade terminology emerged to describe the experience of Japan in the 1990s after its spectacularly damaging property crash. But I think it is offensive to use the term in relation to the Eurozone crisis. We are not seeing a lost decade emerge Japanese-style. Rather, we are witnessing a self-imposed humanitarian disaster driven by the ideological arrogance of the Euro elites (aided and abetted by the OECD and IMF). The experience of Japan in the 1990s was nothing compared to what these elites are doing in the name of neo-liberalism. Journalists should stop making the comparison and, instead, call the current crisis in Europe for what it is.
There was a story in the UK Guardian yesterday (July 29. 2012) – Million jobless may face six months’ unpaid work or have benefits stopped – that described how the failed neo-liberal British government is following the path that the conservatives followed in Australia in attempting to “manage” the unemployment that their flawed policy regime created. The Australian approach has failed dramatically and imposed considerable hardship on the most disadvantaged citizens in our midst. The same approach is unfolding in Britain and it to is already looming as a failure.
Everyday the major financial newspapers and magazines provide Op Ed space to so-called leading economists. For the majority of the public, it is these Op Ed articles that provide their interaction with my profession. It is a pity. The majority of the reasoning presented by these characters, most who occupied senior positions in US academic departments, is spurious to say the least. The public is thus being poorly educated (to put it mildly) on a daily basis and this represents a major problem for our democracies. Voting in elections is one thing. But when citizens are voting based on faulty understandings that they have derived from these economists, then what is the value of a free vote? Today I consider the views of leading Princeton economist Alan Blinder – who is another macroeconomist who is blind to the way the economy works.
I was asked today what the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) position was on the new report about to be published by the – which reports trillions of dollars (and other currencies) being secreted in tax havens by the wealthiest citizens and the role that the top 10 banks have played in arranging these fund transfers. Progressives are clearly up in arms about the research findings and for good reason, especially if one holds equity to be a valid policy and national goal (as I do). But the way MMT analyses these trends is somewhat different. Once we get a good understanding of what the off-shoring of wealth and tax evasion actually means for domestic economies, it is clear that the progressive attacks often miss the point.
I am in transit most of today and so have very limited time to write. An ECB Executive Board member, one Jörg Asmussen, gave a speech at the European Policy Centre in Brussels on July 17, 2012 – Building deeper economic union: what to do and what to avoid – where he admitted that the European policy leaders “had made mistakes in the way economic policies and governance were managed inside the monetary union”. I thought that was an understatement but credit for the admission. However, his speech was then steered towards “how best to” strengthen “(p)olicies and governance” – “(w)hat to do and what to avoid”. When he mentioned that the “six pack” and the Fiscal Compact constituted “significant progress” towards what to do and what to avoid I concluded he hasn’t learned much at all from the huge mistakes that the policy elites in Europe have made. The suggestion for a fiscal union is definitely a step forward but the way in which this idea is being constructed represents several steps backwards. The Europeans seem intent on extinguishing their democracies.