In the 1890s, industrial capitalism had reached the point where the pain inflicted on workers in search of private profits by the industrialists reached a point where the workers could no longer tolerate it and they started to realise that in unity they had strength. This was a period of major industrial disputes and a burgeoning of trade union growth beyond the previously restrictive craft union base. The development of broad-based unions and their move into the political domain to give further voice to the concerns of workers marked a turning point and fostered social democratic political movements and the spread of welfare state capitalism, which lasted until the 1970s. The neoliberal period has seen many of the gains made by workers during that period wound back and now we are witnessing the consequences of that retrenchment – massive real wage cuts, profit gouging and central banks determined to further undermine the well-being of workers as they attempt to push up unemployment, in the name of fighting inflation. An inflation that is persistent only because corporations are using this period to solidify the shift in income distribution towards profits at the expense of wages. It is also apparent that the trade union movement has become co-opted and now collaborate with government and corporate bosses to oversee the deliberate cuts in real wages of their members. This is another turning point in history, where the workers’ own representatives give their support to policies that support those cuts, under the pretense that they have to be responsible. Responsible to whom? We are in a defining period at present in the class struggle and it seems that the labour side has swapped teams.
It’s Wednesday and I cover a few topics usually in less depth than usual and provide a musical entree. From tomorrow (June 22 to 23), the so-called world leaders are meeting in Paris for the – Summit for a New Global Financing Pact – which is being hosted by the French president. The aim, apparently, is to build a new global architecture to replace the Bretton Woods system (they left it a while!) to ‘address climate change, biodiversity crisis and development challenges’. The solution that is being proposed is to allow the financial markets to create debt and speculative derivative products to fund the new architecture because, apparently, governments do not have the financial capacity. The whole initiative is about replacing defunct financial architecture but it still proposes to rely on the same (defunct) approach to public infrastructure development and the like that has failed dramatically to reduce inequality and poverty. It has certainly massively enriched the top-end-of-town and the same result will come out of this Pact. I also comment on the latest Brexit claims and provide a brief entree into some Covid research that I found interesting. Then some music.
There is something deeply wrong with the world under Capitalism when the poorest countries in the world pay more out on debt servicing to loans that the wealthy countries have provided than they do on maintaining their health care services. I have been examining data derived from the World Bank WDI database and the IMF WEO database pertaining to the debt sustainability of the poorest nations in the world. Using 2019 data (most recent) 64 nations, for which coherent data is available, spend more on external debt services than they do on health care (Source). At the same time, the most recent assessment from the IMF and the World Bank, under their Debt Sustainability Program (DSA) shows that debt distress is rising fast across the low-income bloc of countries. The response of the multilateral institutions is to enter ‘agreements’ with these nations that impose fiscal austerity and enforce a range of changes such as privatisation, outsourcing and more. This strategy does not work and only serves to protect the assets of the rich countries and corporations. A debt jubilee is the only way low-income nations will escape the penury of debt distress and the austerity-obsessed clutches of the IMF and the World Bank.
Last week (April 11, 2023), the IMF released their half-yearly update – World Economic Outlook: A Rocky Recovery, April 2023 – which excited the headlines in the media with predictions of gloom and calls for fiscal austerity and more interest rate hikes. The only good thing about these reports every six months is the accompanying datasets, which allows for fairly quick comparative analysis across nations. Other than that, the textual narratives are pure mainstream economics Groupthink and demonstrate how if one starts from a particular and flawed set of principles, everything else that follows undermines the stated goal. This is a recurring story – we have seen this with these multilateral agencies over and over again. The point to understand is not to try to interpret these IMF reports as being knowledge-based or compiled as if they are pursuing knowledge. They are parts of the ideological weaponry that seeks to sustain and advance neoliberalism and the power relations inherent in that ideology while purporting to be expert commentary.
We kid ourselves when talking about change. I see a lot of Op Ed material recently from the so-called Left that seems to suggest, for example, that those concerned about climate change are really just handing the keys to capital who will use the appetite for ‘change’ to impose punitive policy shifts that will damage the poorer households and communities, while at the same time, strengthen the elite control over income distribution and governments. There are elements on the Left that also think we can ‘heal’ Capitalism – somehow by redefining what ‘capital’ means. This morphs into an assertion that the major problem is that private banks can create credit at will such that we have allowed ‘allowed the credit commons to be privatised’, which in turn drives an unsustainable need for growth to continue to pay interest. I will comment more on that idea in another post – as part of my Degrowth series. But the relevant point here is that Capitalism has created institutions that work to perpetuate the power relations that define who owns capital. These institutions extend to the multi-lateral, government funded organisations such as the IMF and the World Bank, who now function quite differently to the way they were originally conceived. I was thinking about that while reading the latest World Bank publication – International Debt Report 2022 (released December 6, 2022) which captures what is really wrong with Capitalism and leads one to conclude that ‘healing’ requires killing the patient!
The IMF published a new blog the other day (November 21, 2022) – How Fiscal Restraint Can Help Fight Inflation – which demonstrates that the organisation is still stuck in a New Keynesian world and despite all the empirical dissonance that has been building over the last decades to militate against that economic approach, little evolution in thinking is apparent. The battle to dispense with the mainstream approach is going to be harder and longer than many thought.
The Eurozone is currently in a period of ‘temporary’ hiatus – by which I mean that to deal with the obvious system-ending implications of the pandemic (increasing fiscal deficits etc) the European Commission invoked the special clauses to suspend the application of the fiscal rules outlined in the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) and related Excessive Deficit Mechanism procedures and the European Central Bank introduced an even larger bond-buying program to ensure the resulting deficits would be funded without bond yields rising. Result: fiscal deficits rose well beyond the SGP limit of 3 per cent in 2020 and have remained at elevated levels relative to the rules in 2021. The overall Eurozone deficit is 4.7 per cent of GDP and 11 of the 19 Member States remain in ‘violation’ of the Excessive Deficit Mechansim should that be reinvoked. It is clear that unless the ECB continues funding the deficits across the union (even though it claims otherwise), then the European Commission will tempt disaster if it tries to reassert the Excessive Deficit Mechansim. Already so-called ‘reform’ proposals are emerging and many more will come in the months ahead. The first major effort from the IMF is really just more of the same and fails to deal with the dysfunction at the design level of the monetary union. The proposals so far are just advocating putting band-aids over the mess – and they are weak bandages at best. But how this dilemma is resolved will be interesting for sure.
Today, Wednesday, we have our regular musical feature (might surprise today) as well as a brief commentary on the growing friction between the IMF and the World Bank on what governments and central banks should be doing to address the current inflationary pressures. One says hike rates (apparently thinking that will get Russia to withdraw, Covid to go away and OPEC to behave) while the other says provide better income support and wait out this transitory inflationary phase.
According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), the price of coffee has risen for 17 consecutive months and the sector is being hit with sequential shocks, the latest being the Ukrainian conflict, which is having impacts on both the demand and supply sides. I was talking with a friend over the weekend just gone and they were complaining that a cup of coffee had risen to $A7 or thereabouts, which was really squeezing people’s incomes. As a disclaimer, I have never had a cup of coffee in my life – just the aroma is enough to turn my stomach. But I was thinking about coffee over the last few weeks for another reason. I am currently doing some research on Timor Leste in anticipation of a change in the Presidency. The first round of the elections were held last weekend and it looks like Ramos-Horta will win the second round run-off in April. One of the things I am working on is a plan to diversify the nation’s exports as the inevitable decline in oil revenue starts to impact. I am also in developing models of fair trade that allow for sustainable agriculture (that is, not cash crop mania that wrecks subsistence farming and ends in farmers being locked up in international debt) but also allow the nation to diversify their export portfolio. Fairness and sustainability are good ideals to have. There is an opportunity here for a nation such as Australia to reform its ways and break out of the dog-eat-dog ‘free trade’ mantra and actually start doing some good in our region. That is what this blog post is about.
Yesterday, I published a full analysis of the national account release in Australia, so today I am pretending it is my Wednesday ‘news’ blog with the music segment that seems to be popular. The news is all floods in Australia, death and destruction in the Ukraine and big talk (about 2 or more decades too late) from the Western governments. I note that the German government has confiscated a luxury yacht owned by some Russian ‘oligarch’ (don’t you just love their terminology) while stacks of other oligarch yachts are heading or are in the Maldives to avoid such a fate. Stupid question: if these oligarchs are so bad and their fortunes ill-gotten why have we waited so long to do something? Today we talk briefly about the resolve of the RBA to resist the gambling addiction of speculators in the financial markets. We also consider a discovery I made last week that top New Zealand economists seem to support Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), and then if that isn’t enough – some music.