I have been reading the latest report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) – World of Work Report 2012 – which documents the disastrous trends in employment that are expected as fiscal austerity grinds economies into the ground. The ILOs Social Unrest Index has risen in 57 out of 106 nations and negatively related to employment fortunes. The ILO also found that “deregulation policies … fail to boost growth and employment” and “there is no clear link between labour market reforms and employment levels”. They conclude that the “austerity trap” is destroying jobs and that concerted effort is needed to ensure that “wages grow in line with productivity” and that there should be a “coordinated increase in the minimum wage”. I will analyse this report in more detail another day because it is schizophrenic in approach reflecting the struggle within the ILO between the neo-liberal influences that have grown over the last few decades and the more balanced labour market understandings that come from a thorough understanding of the importance of labour market institutions and government oversight and a keen appreciation of the empirical dimensions. But today I am going to briefly reflect on an extraordinary interview – Former Reserve Bank Governor bemoans state of politics and inequity – on the ABC current affairs program – 7.30 – last night, where the former RBA governor let fly at budget surplus obsessions and demanded more expansionary fiscal and monetary policy interventions at a time when demand is faltering and growth falling. And some other snippets appear afterwards.
The ABC News today reported that – Newcastle hosts frisbee championships – which means the national frisbee championships will be in my town this week and I will be around. Apparently the championships involve “flinging a frisbee between players on a pitch similar to a football or soccer field” and then “catching the disc in the endzone”. I suggest the Australian Prime Minister take up the sport. It seems an innocuous pastime and she surely couldn’t be any less skilled at it than she is at managing the economy. Her speech yesterday in Perth certainly established she has no understanding of macroeconomics or if she does, then she is deliberately misleading us. Her Finance Minister was also fully engaged in the misinformation exercise about the state of the budget. But then she is in solid company. The German Bundesbank has made public statements telling nations crippled by self-imposed fiscal austerity to forget about growth and balance their budgets. The ugly German stereotype is unfortunately reinforced by these sort of public interventions. And, finally, we have the genius who yesterday was advocating widespread cuts in welfare entitlements today out in the Op Ed pages suggesting that countries who exert their sovereign rights over multinationals are committing suicide despite the particular country in focus having real GDP growth rates that most other nations envy. Its all in a day of neo-liberal madness.
It seems that the fiscal austerity agenda is morphing into what is probably the real underlying strategy – to demolish or seriously compromise government welfare spending and income security provisions where it benefits individuals. In a Bloomberg Op Ed today (April , 2012) – To Thrive, Euro Countries Must Cut Welfare State – we learn that Europe is “overspending on social welfare” and that benefit programs have to far less generous into the future. This resonates with the foolish intervention overnight from the Australian conservative Treasury spokesperson (one Joe Hockey) who claimed that when they regain power next year (which they will given how hopeless the Labor government has been) they will dismantle our income support system to save the government from running out of money. On the one hand, the level of ignorance about macroeconomic matters displayed by these commentators is stunning. On the other hand, one could easily assume they know exactly what the story is but are choosing to mislead their audiences because if they disclosed their true agenda they might not get the same support. Either way, the attack on the welfare state is misguided and will only worsen the long-run prospects of us all.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released the latest – Building Activity data today (April 18, 2012) which shows that in the December 2011 quarter real activity continued to contract. This is the most recent data release that reinforces the conclusion that the Australian economy is starting to slow down and is now well below the pre-crisis trend growth rates of somewhere between 3 and 3.5 per cent. Within this environment we would expect the federal government as the currency-issuer to be showing leadership and providing fiscal stimulus to support higher growth and allow the private sector to continue deleveraging given their excessive debt levels. The problem is that governments these days do not seem to know what good economics is. Our government thinks responsible fiscal management is to deliberately undermine spending growth (when inflation is falling) and push unemployment up. The only thing that we can say about that is that they are in good company. The governments that are imposing damaging fiscal austerity on their economies are in the same mindless club.
I was reading a working paper from the Bank of International Settlements the other day – The “Austerity Myth”: Gain Without Pain? (published November 2011) and written by Roberto Perotti. The author can hardly be described as non-mainstream and has collaborated with leading mainstream authors in the past. His work with Harvard’s Alberto Alesina in the 1990s has been used by conservatives to justify imposing fiscal austerity under the guise that it would provide the basis for growth. In this current paper, Roberto Perotti tells a different story – one that has been ignored by the commentators who still wheel out his earlier work with Alesina as being the end statement on matters pertaining to fiscal austerity. In his current work, we learn that the conditions that allowed some individual nations in isolation to grow are not present now and that his current research casts “doubt on … the “expansionary fiscal consolidations” hypothesis, and on its applicability to many countries in the present circumstances”. Why don’t the conservatives quote from that paper?
I am taking a brief rest from the Eurozone crisis – which will probably blow up again in the coming weeks as the Spanish austerity drives the bond markets in the opposite direction than was intended by the Troika – and the latter call for even harsher cuts to unemployment benefits at the same time as their austerity policies force unemployment to continue its inexorable rise upwards. Today, I have been reading the latest OECD Report (April 12, 2012) which is attracting attention – Fiscal Consolidation: How much, how fast and by what means?, which is part of their Economic Outlook series. It is really a disgraceful piece of work but will give succour to those politicians who are intent of vandalising their economies and making the disadvantaged pay more and more for the folly of the elites. It is an amazing situation at present. I am also reading a book – Pity the Billionaire – which I will review in the coming week. It examines how it is that the the popular response to the crisis which was caused by an excess of “free markets” is to attack government regulation and intervention and demand even freer markets. The OECD are part of the battery of institutions that fuel this crazy right-wing conservative response (the “unlikely comeback” in Pity the Billionaire terms) to the crisis through their highly tainted publications.
Sometimes I wonder how it is that a bright person can stick to a story for so long when the evidential record is so contrary to the predictions that their story keeps forcing them to make. Then again the predictions are often couched in terms of “might” and “We don’t know what will trigger such a wave of selling” (don’t know!) and “interest rates would shoot up” (would!) and “if the number of people trying to sell them surges” (if) and “inflation would erode” (would! again). So nothing concrete – just a series of assertions. So such a person is never really confronted with the reality that they know “shite” (a word I read in a book by an Irish author I have just finished – In the Woods by Tana French – recommended). This sort of denial is an overwhelming characteristic of the mainstream of my profession. I would love to be proved wrong if private households and firms do turn out to be Ricardian and fiscal austerity leads to a boom with full employment. I would abandon my MMT leanings within a flash and get on the prosperity bandwagon. Why is it that the mainstream, which has the dominant influence on policy makers – and therefore get to see their theories applied in the real world – not adopt a similar position. The predictive capacity of their paradigm is next to zero!
I haven’t a lot of time today (travel) but I thought the latest offering of the IMF was interesting. In their latest World Economic Outlook (April 2012 – which will be released in full next week) they provided two advance chapters – one – Chapter 3 – Dealing with Household Debt – demonstrates just how schizoid this organisation has become. They are clearly realising that their economic model is deeply flawed and has failed to predict or explain what has been going on over the last five years. That tension has led to research which starts to get to the nub of the problem – in this case that large build-ups of debt in the private domestic sector (especially households) is unsustainable and leads to “significantly larger contractions in economic activity” when the bust comes. They also acknowledge that sustained fiscal support is required to allow the process of private deleveraging to occur in a growth environment. But then their ideological blinkers prevent them from seeing the obvious – that sustained fiscal deficits are typically required and that in fiat monetary systems this is entirely appropriate when . Which then leads to the next conclusion that they cannot bring themselves to make – the Eurozone is a deeply flawed monetary system that prevents such fiscal support and should not be considered an example of what happens in fiat monetary systems. Some progress though!
The term Arab Spring is now entrenched in the lexicon although what it actually refers to – liberty or more oppression – is now a question in its own right. There is another Spring occurring – smaller, more obscure perhaps, but with significant potential to change the way academic research is disseminated and the way funding agencies treat universities. In the case of the economics discipline it offers significant scope to break down some of the barriers that allow the mainstream economics paradigm to retain dominance despite it being largely bereft of empirical support. I am talking about the Academic Spring, which is a grass roots revolt that is gathering pace. You can find out how to join this revolt at the end of the blog.
Another relatively short blog coming up today – it is still holidays here and very sunny. There was an interesting Bloomberg article the other day (April 5, 2011) – Don’t Worry About Deficit That Will Heal Itself – which although containing some conceptual flaws arrives at the correct conclusion. That governments would be far better pursuing real goals – such as ensuring there is adequate infrastructure investment, putting into place appropriate climate change initiatives and maintaining high levels of bio-security – that becoming obsessed with fiscal horizons that they have very little control over. Further, in attempting to control these horizons, governments tend to err on too much austerity (for example, the UK and the Eurozone), which not only undermines growth but also thwarts their deficit reduction goals (via the automatic stabilisers). The lesson to be drawn from all of this is that – Governments should not worry about deficits.