Today (September 25, 2023), the Australian government issued its – Working Future: The Australian Government’s White Paper on Jobs and Opportunities – statement, which portends to define labour market vision and policy for the years to come. White Paper’s are grand statement and this one falls short of that requirement. Compared to the path-breaking – The 1945 White Paper on Full Employment – which set the path for several decades of prosperity for workers, the current effort by the government is a mediocre affair. It is just a restatement of the NAIRU cult that has justified the so-called ‘activation’ or supply-side approach to labour market policy, which effectively relegates macroeconomic policy to the bench and considers micro policies are required to reduce the NAIRU and the measured unemployment rate. This is the failed strategy that has dominated for the last three decades and has cause the problems that the White Paper claims it wants to address. Its release today demonstrates that the Labor Government is really just a neoliberal-lite outfit – full of spin but short on any directional shift in policy. It is very dispiriting.
Despite the rabble on the Right of politics that marches around driven by conspiracies about government chips in the water supply or Covid vaccines and all the rest of the rot that lot carry on with, the reality is that the well-funded Right that is entrenched in the deepest echelons of capital are extremely well organised and strategic, which is why the dominant ideology reflects their preferences. That group appears to be able to maintain a united front which solidifies their effectiveness. By way of contrast, the Left is poorly funded, but more importantly, divided and on important matters appears incapable of breaking free from the fictions and framing that the Right have introduced to further their own agenda. So, the Left is often pursuing causes that appear to be ‘progressive’ and which warm their hearts, but which in reality are just reinforcing the framing that advance the interests of the Right. We saw that again this week with the emergence of the Tax Extreme Wealth movement and with the release of their open letter to the G20 Heads of State – G20 Leaders must tax extreme wealth. This is the work of a group which includes the so-called Patriotic Millionaires, Oxfam, Millionaires for Humanity, Earth4All and the Institute for Policy Studies. It demonstrates perfectly how these progressive movements advance dialogue and framing which actually end up undermining their own ambitions.
In my most recent podcast – Letter from The Cape Podcast – Episode 14 – I provided a brief introductino to why economic reports that project fiscal crises based on ageing population estimates miss the point and bias policy to making the actual problem worse. Today, I will provide more detail on that theme. Last week (August 24, 2023), the Government via the Treasury released its – 2023 Intergenerational Report – which purports to project “the outlook of the economy and the Australian Government’s budget to 2062-63”. It commands centre stage in the public debate and journalists use many column inches reporting on it. Unfortunately, it is a confection of lies, half-truths interspersed with irrelevancies and sometimes some interesting facts. Usually, these reports (the 2023 edition is the 6th since this farcical exercise began in the 1998) are a waste of time and effort.
Yesterday, the – Flash Germany PMI – was released, which shows that “German business activity” has fallen “at fastest rate since May 2020”. Also released was the – Flash Eurozone PMI – which revealed that “Eurozone business activity contracted at an accelerating pace in August as the region’s downturn spread further from manufacturing to services”, Europe is heading to recession or should I rather say – stagflation – because the unemployment will rise sharply while inflation is still at elevated levels. All because the policy settings are wilfully and unnecessarily driving nations into recession. Over the Channel, Britain is going through a similar experience – inflation is falling rapidly and the economy is plunging towards recession. The common link is the policy folly. The European Central Bank and the Bank of England have been increasing interest rates as a ‘chasing shadows’ exercise – meaning that the drivers of the inflation they claim to be fighting are not sensitive to the interest rate changes. But the interest rate hikes are causing damage to the real economy by increasing borrowing costs. Meanwhile, fiscal policy is in retreat because the government thinks it has to set policy to complement the central bank hikes – meaning two sources of austerity. And for those commentators who pine for re-entry to the EU – they should look East and see what a mess the European economy is in!
The question is when is a Labour Party a Labour Party? The answer is: When it is a Labour Party! Which means when it defends workers’ interests against capital and when it defends families against pernicious neoliberal cuts or constraints on welfare. Which means, in turn, that the British Labour Party is a Labour Party in name only and the British people have little to choose from with respect to the two parties vying for government – Tory and Tory-lite! The British Labour Party has been abandoning its traditional role for some time now and while it is true that society and the constraints on government have evolved/changed, some things remain the same in a monetary economy. And that means that the statements from the Labour leader in recent days about fiscal spending austerity and a refusal to reverse some of the most pernicious Tory policies fail to recognise the reality. More spending will be required in the coming years not only to redress the damage done by the years of Tory rule but also to meet the challenges ahead in terms of climate, housing, education, health and more. The real question should be not whether more spending is required but what must accompany that spending by way of extra taxation. In my assessment, the next British government will have to lift taxes to create sufficient fiscal space in order to meet the challenges facing the nation with extra spending. Starmer is clearly not wanting to have that debate, which means the British people are once again being deceived by their political class. Taxes will rise with growth but I doubt that will generate sufficient space for the extra spending that will be required.
There appears to be confusion among those interested in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) as to what the implications for a green transition that will fasttrack the transition to renewable energy will require by way of government. I regularly see statements that government deficits will have to be ‘massive’ for extended periods because the private (for profit) market entities will not move fast enough to deal with the climate emergency in any effective way. The confusion inherent in these claims is that they fail to separate the ‘size’ of government from any particular ‘net spending’ (deficit) recorded by government. The two outcomes are quite separable and have to be if government action is to achieve sustainable outcomes, not only in terms of environmental goals but also price stability goals. So let’s work all that out. Failing to do so, leads MMT activists to make claims that open them up to criticism from those who understand the point I am making but have different ideological agendas. So they make erroneous claims such that ‘MMT just advocates big deficits’, or that ‘MMT thinks that deficits do not matter’. But they have been lured into that position, in part, by the social media behaviour of some MMT activists.
My early academic work was on the Phillips curve and the precision in estimating the concept of a natural rate of unemployment, or the rate of unemployment where inflation stabilises at some level. This rate is now commonly referred to as the Non-Accelerating-Rate-of-Unemployment (NAIRU) and my contribution was one of the first studies to show that the rate was variable and went up and down with the economic cycle, rendering it a meaningless concept for discretionary policy interventions. I extended that work into my PhD and built on much earlier work as a undergraduate to articulate the Job Guarantee idea. The NAIRU is unobservable and there have been various ways to estimate it from actual data. The problem is that these estimates are highly sensitive to the approach – so two researchers can get quite different estimates using the same data. Further, the estimates themselves are subject to large statistical errors meaning that we cannot be sure whether the NAIRU is say 4.5 per cent or 3.5 per cent or 5.5 per cent, say. Such imprecision makes it impossible to use the concept as a guide for monetary policy because if the NAIRU actually existed then ‘full employment’ might be at 3.5 or 5.5 per cent today but next week the estimates might be even wider. When would one want to start changing interest rates in pursuit of inflation stability – when the actual unemployment rate was down to 3.5 per cent or at 5.5 per cent or somewhere in between or at higher or lower unemployment rates, depending on what the models pumped out? You can see the problem. For some years, central bankers went quiet on the use of the NAIRU and stopped publishing their estimates exactly because they knew full well about the imprecision and that policy based on such a vague, difficult to estimate, unobservable would be discredited. That is until now. The RBA is now clearly admitting that their damaging and unnecessary interest rate hikes over the last year and a bit have been driven by the NAIRU. A sham. But a tragedy as well given the RBA’s almost obsession with pushing unemployment up by around 140,000. A shocking indictment of where we have reached as a civilisation.
Sometimes, one thinks that the intellectual world should evolve as intelligent people take account of the dissonance between their ideas and the facts before them and adapt their views. I know that doesn’t happen much but it should. I have studied the philosophy of science deeply enough over my student and postgrad days and beyond into my career to know that intelligent people have the capacity to completely fool themselves and hang onto defunct ideas as part of a paradigm-resistance to change. We know why that happens: senior professors have their reputations and legacy at stake, they control appointments, promotions, access to research grants, publication success for junior academics, and continuity of lucrative consulting empires. But sometimes I still am amazed when I read some research paper that I know has taken months to research and write up and which has been presented and talked about in seminars and conferences, and after dinner drinks and all the rest of it, but which bears no correspondence with the underlying reality. That was the situation when I read a research paper from three economists who were claiming that taxes have to rise and pensions cut if governments are to escape insolvency in the face of ageing societies. This continues, obviously, to be a powerful framework for proselyting the neoliberal mantra and a narrative that most people cannot see their way through to a conclusion that is all a fiction.
Today, I am Perth giving a keynote presentation to the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) 2023 Congress. My talk is titled – Why fiscal fictions lead to inferior health policy outcomes. Given the travel time to the other side of the world (the continent at least) – us East Coasters get restless when we have to come here – and my commitments at the Congress, I haven’t time to produce a post. So today, thanks to our regular guest blogger Professor Scott Baum from Griffith University who has been one of my regular research colleagues over a long period of time, we have a discussion about fiscal fictions and higher education policy, which is a very nice dovetail to the theme of today. Today he is specifically going to talk about the current concerns about student debt in Australia. Over to Scott …
In my 2015 book – Eurozone Dystopia: Groupthink and Denial on a Grand Scale (published May 2015) – I traced in considerable detail the events and views that led to the creation of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU, aka the Eurozone) once the Treaty of Maastricht was pushed through as the most advanced form of neoliberalism at that time. The difference between the EMU and other nations who have adopted neoliberal policies is that in the former case the ideology is embedded in the treaties, that is, in the constitutional system, which is almost impossible to change in any progressive way. In the latter case, voters can get rid of the ideology by voting the party that propagates it out of office. It is true that in current period, even the parties in the social democratic tradition have become neoliberal and there is little choice. But the EMU is different and has entrenched the most destructive ideology in its legal structures. We are reminded of this recently (April 26, 2023), when the European Commission released its latest missive – Commission proposes new economic governance rules fit for the future. Once operational, the policies advocated in this new governance structure will ensure that Europeans are once again made to endure persistent and elevated levels of unemployment and continued deterioration in the quality and scope of public infrastructure and welfare provision. The collapse of this ideological nightmare cannot come soon enough.