It is Wednesday, so just a few snippets and some music. My main comment today is on the report released yesterday (December 15, 2020) by the national body Infrastructure Australia. The report – Infrastructure beyond COVID-19: A national study on the impacts of the pandemic on Australia – once again demonstrates the way in which mainstream macroeconomics, which has restricted government investment in essential instrastructure over the last three decades or so, has created poor outcomes and has failed to prepare the nation for the future. This sort of myopia just repeats itself across all nations. Hopefully, the fiscal response to the pandemic, even though in many countries it has been inadequate, is demonstrating that the mainstream approach is deeply flawed and provides no guidance for the way policy should be conducted into the future.
It is Wednesday and so just a few snippets before we get funky. Yes, jazz-funky. That should do it. In the last week, a credit ratings agency downgraded the rating of the state of Victoria to AA from AAA claiming that the the state was in fiscal trouble. They also downgraded the credit rating for the NSW government credit from AAA to AA+. You might wonder how the hell these corrupt and irrelevant organisations managed to survive the GFC, given the sectors complicity with the financial frauds and overreach that drove the world to near financial ruin? Well they survive because people still believe in the fictions that lie behind the whole concept of government debt ratings. Should anyone be worried about these changes in Victoria and NSW? Not at all. The announcements were just noise and tell us, in part, how far we have to go in expunging these fictions from our understandings.
It’s Wednesday and so only some snippets today. First, a video of a seminar I participated at the other day where we talk about the future of Europe (and the World). Second, some working papers that might be of interest. And finally a music segment. I felt like posting the 1980s song from The Vapors – Turning Japanese – after the Reserve Bank of Australia announced yesterday they were now modelling their monetary policy interventions of the excellent template that has been pioneered by the Bank of Japan. You know get the government to buy all of its debt – then pay itself back – then remit the payments as ‘dividends’ back to itself. Right pocket meet Left pocket. I will analysis the big shift in the RBA’s position tomorrow. And when you listen to the RBA Governor this morning trying to tell Australians that black is white when we all know it is black and they have let the cat out of the bag, you will realise why the whole hysterical show they are putting on is important. But that is tomorrow. And I hated the song anyway.
Today, I celebrate – my home town of Melbourne has recorded zero new infections for the second time since June 9, 2020 and zero deaths. A consecutive day of double zero. My Melbourne band Pressure Drop is planning a live streamed gig soon – our first time playing since March. Details will come when we know more about when we can do it. Something to celebrate in a bleak year. Today I am writing about the underside of neoliberalism though. Nothing to celebrate about this at all. Revolving doors, corporatisation of public service and introducing the excesses and corruption that is endemic in that private sector, more on that, and a federal government that is refusing to introduce a federal corruption body despite the evidence of widespread malpractice at that level. Why this matters is because to build a better world we need to reverse the demolition of the traditional public service by the neoliberals over several decades, which has turned a once wonderful bureaucracy (departmental structure) from a public service delivery capacity into a contract brokerage for outsourced and deregulated service delivery units, chasing profits in the private sector and cutting as many corners as they can get away with. With lax oversight these days, they can get away with a lot. And when public agencies start behaving as if they are corporations then things really come unstuck. And then we see the alarming necrosis that exists at the top levels of Australian corporations. No wonder we have just had Royal Commissions into the banking and finance sector and into the (privatised) aged care sector which have delivered such shocking results. Nothing to celebrate at all.
When a nation or region is experiencing the worst crisis the IMF always comes to the party and makes it worse. The latest evidence from those who study the detail of IMF interventions across the globe have found that the IMF has imposed harsh conditionalities (healthcare spending cuts, cuts to jobless assistance, cuts to public service wages and employment) in 76 out of the 91 loans it has extended to nations in peril as a result of the pandemic. On the other hand, data show that the wealth of billionaires has scaled new heights between April 2020 to July 2020 – a 42.4 per cent increase in their total wealth. If all that doesn’t tell us that the neoliberal system has overextended it indecency and rebellion is required then what else would? The point is that when disaster strikes the poorest nations, the IMF guarantees to make it worse. It should be dissolved immediately through defunding from national states and a new progressive, multilateral institution created that helps people not punishes them.
As governments grapple with the dissonance that the pandemic is causing them – realising that their old mainstream economics narratives are not going to cut it any more but still reluctant to admit that and pass onto a new phase of creative policy making – we are observing these contradictions in both statements about fiscal policy and monetary policy. The Australian government, for example, is convinced tax cuts are required but have observed that recent tax cuts, before the pandemic hardly stimulated any spending. Further research from the US is demonstrating that payments to households under the – Coronavirus Aid and Economic Security (CARES) Act – may not have resulting in the spending boost that was modelled as part of the policy design. And then on the monetary policy front, central bankers like Madame Lagarde are strutting around making grand statements about becoming flexible with their definition of price stability (that is, saying they will allow for higher inflation before they increase rates) despite not being able to remotely meet their current stability levels with deflation looming. I covered a statement along similar lines from the US Federal Reserve Bank boss recently – US Federal Reserve statement signals a new phase in the paradigm shift in macroeconomics (August 31, 2020). It all adds up to what happens when a paradigm is shifting and the old school are caught out – no longer able to really offer anything of use but hanging on to their status nonetheless. Pragmatism usually passes them by as it will in this case.
Last week, there were some rather significant shifts in the public discourse surrounding macroeconomic policy and challenges made to the orthodox economics taboos that have been used to prevent governments from acting in the best interest of the citizens. First, the Australian treasurer broke away from the government’s previous obsession with fiscal surplus pursuit to announce that for the foreseeable future it was only going to concentrate on jobs and growth. In his statement, he basically refuted all the mainstream macroeconomic claims about fiscal deficits – higher interest rates, lower private investment, lower growth, lower private sector confidence etc. There is really nothing left of the mainstream position now and any politician or economist that tries to resurrect the ‘debt and deficit’ narratives of the past will find it hard gaining the same politician traction that they were able to garner some years ago at the height of the neoliberal period. And, if that was not enough, a former Federal treasurer attacked the ‘high priests’ of the central bank, demanding they buy up government bonds and help the government run “Mountainous” deficits to achieve full employment. The flood gates opened just a bit more after those interventions along the way to jettisoning all the mainstream nonsense that should have been abandoned decades ago.
Many issues that become ‘hot topics’ in public debates are really non-questions despite the heat they raise. All sorts of experts advance views, television current affairs programs trawl over them with various of these experts making careers for themselves, politicians take up hours of their time and our time discussing them, yet, when you really break the issue down – there is nothing much to see. The seemingly very erudite debates, discussions, opinions are all based on false starting premises, which are assumed and rarely discussed. This sort of charade is all the legacy of living in the fictional world created by my profession, which has distorted public discourse so badly that we now have people saying old people should be allowed to die terrible deaths from COVID so the young people can have jobs. These are old people who worked all their lives to help build our nations, who fought in World Wars to defend our freedom from daunting enemies, old people who cared for us personally, and old people who mostly, probably, have the joy of life before them each day they open their eyes, just like any of us. The problem is that the whole construction is based on a false premise: being that there has to be widespread economic damage if we choose to protect the health of our peoples. That premise is based on the failure to understand that the currency-issuing government can attenuate any economic losses if it chooses to adopt appropriate economic policy interventions. The fact that real GDP and employment has fallen significantly this year is testament to a failure to use fiscal capacity. We should be better informed before we get into elaborate but flawed debates that essentially come down to turning one population cohort against another.
Japan has a new leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who, given the majority of the LDP in the Diet will become prime minister in the coming days. He was interviewed over the weekend about the current crisis and the role that the Japanese government can play to attenuate the costs. He stated clearly that there was no limit to government debt issuance. The meaning of this statement is clear. The Japanese government should ignore claims that its public debt ratio is too high or is facing impending insolvency or bond-market revolts or any of the other manic predictions that economists who do not know better keep making. Instead, as Yoshihide Suga noted, the challenge is jobs and incomes. The only limits are real resource constraints and when there is a pandemic and rising unemployment, those constraints ease and the fiscal space for more net spending increases. At least one world leader understands that.