In 1975, Tony Benn, a Left Labour member in the British Parliament and Secretary for Industry, proposed an alternative industrial plan to revitalise British industry. At the time, the Prime Minister and Chancellor were becoming attracted to Monetarism and started framing and implementing the austerity-type fiscal strategies that are common today. Benn opposed this approach, and, instead proposed a far-reaching alternative economic strategy that involved increased industrial planning to revitalise British industry. The growing ‘free market’ orthodoxy at the time, spearheaded by the IMF and the World Bank, which had transformed into neoliberal enforcement agencies, were vehemently opposed to any form of industry policies or state intervention. As a result, Benn was basically shut out of the debate and this helped transform social democratic politics into the mess it is today. Ironically, now the IMF is changing its tune. It has recently rediscovered how effective industry policies of the type Benn was proposed actually can be if supported by coherent policy structures. Irony two is that these supportive policy structures are the opposite to those typically proposed by the IMF. At the time, there were economists (such as yours truly) who knew that the descent into neoliberalism would be a disaster and hamper growth and more equal distributions of wealth and income. But that view was also shut out. Now, without shame, the IMF are basically admitting the decades of insufferable neoliberal policies that they forced onto nations may have been wrong. Industry policy is back in focus. Imagine if they never had seduced the world with their snake oil. British politics, for one, would have been quite different. Brexit could very well happened in 1975 under a Labour government. And more. This is Part 1 of a two-part series which will finish tomorrow.
I was going to write about Jamaica today but this topic emerged that I thought I should deal with before I write about the home of reggae. In fact, some of the material is input into a reasoned discussion about Jamaica so it logically precedes it. With the increasing profile of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), social media activists are wont to talk about MMT in various ways that, in many cases, do not bear resemblance to our work. But that doesn’t stop them claiming things about what we have written or said and then proceeding to say how this is a ‘big problem’ with MMT that they cannot accept. Then their own local commentators chime in reinforcing the point. It is obvious that the original writer hasn’t read our work or if they have they haven’t grasped it (including the nuance and subtlety) but still feels privileged to hold themselves out as experts to wax lyrical about the technical flaws in the said work. This gets amplified by the responses from the readership who have probably read even less – to the point that we end up with MMT being constructed as something ridiculous and foreign to its original. Sort of like start by saying you are discussing 2, call it 3 and say it equals 4. It is a problem because it confounds people and also gives those who oppose our work ways to further misrepresent it in the public debate.
I have just finished reading a report published by the Transnational Institute (TNI), which is an “international research and advocacy institute committed to building a just, democratic and sustainable world”. The Report (published November 19, 2018) – Democracy Not For Sale – is harrowing, to say the least. We learn that in an advanced European nation with a glorious tradition and history an increasing number of people are being denial access to basic nutrition solely as a result of economic policy changes that have been imposed on it by outside agencies (European Commission, European Central Bank and the IMF). The Report shows how the food supply has been negatively impacted by the austerity programs; how food prices have been forced up at the same time as incomes have been forced down, and how collective and cooperative arrangements have been destroyed by privatisation and deregulation impositions. The Report concludes that the Greek State and the Eurozone Member States violated the Greek people’s right to food as a result of the austerity measures required by three Memorandums of Understanding (2010, 2012 and 2015). In other words, the austerity packages imposed on Greece contravened international human rights law. Not one person has gone to prison as a result of this deliberate and calculated violation of human rights.
I am doing some work on the way technology can be chosen to maximise employment in the pursuit of advancing general well-being. This is in the context of some work I am doing on advancing what is known as ‘relative pro-poor growth’ strategies in Africa via employment creation programs and draws on my earlier work in South Africa on the Expanded Public Works Program. In the current work, I have been assessing ways in which the Labour Intensive Public Works program in Ghana has been deployed to serve this purpose. The problem one confronts when working as a development economist in less well-off nations is that the institutional bias promoted by the IMF and the World Bank is towards advancing, at best, what we term ‘absolute pro-poor growth’. But that sort of agenda typically fails to strengthen other aspects of a strong civil society because it is almost always accompanied by rising inequality which continues to concentrate power and influence at the top and leads to resources being disproportionately expropriated by the wealthy (and usually foreign) classes. Institutions such as democracy, justice, law and order and causes such as environmental sustainability are then compromised.
The IMF hitman in Europe, one Poul Thomsem recently published a European Money and Finance Forum (SUERF) Policy Note (October 2018) – A Financial Union for the Euro Area – where he basically told us that any changes that the IMF will allow to occur in the Eurozone architecture will be minimal and will not stop Member States “from being forced to undertake large pro-cyclical fiscal adjustments when the next shock or major downturn hits”. The term “large pro-cyclical fiscal adjustments” means harsh fiscal austerity at the same time as the non-government sector spending in those Member States is collapsing. Fiscal policy thus reinforces the non-government spending withdrawal and worsens the outcome for employment, growth, income generation etc. Why? Because “all member countries” must “respect the Stability and Growth Pact”. End of story. Welcome to the Eurozone dystopia – the world where governments must follow rules set by technocrats which are incapable of delivering sustained prosperity for all but clearly suit the top-end-of-town. He then waxed lyrical about a whole set of neoliberal financial market reforms that the IMF is proposing which will further diminish the capacity of the Member States. But, at that point, he just starts to dream. The Member States are already deeply suspicious of the financial reforms that have been introduced to date, ineffective as they are. They are not about to cede more power to Brussels and Frankfurt any time soon.
Pathetic was the first word that came to mind when I read this article – The Italian Budget: A Case of Contractionary Fiscal Expansion? – written by Olivier Blanchard and Jeromin Zettlemeyer, from the Peter Peterson Institute for International Economics. Here is a former IMF chief economist and a former German economic bureaucrat continuing to rehearse the failed ‘fiscal contraction expansion’ lie that rose to prominence during the worst days of the GFC, when the European Commission and the IMF (along with the OECD and other groups) touted the idea of ‘growth friendly’ austerity. Nations were told that if they savagely cut public spending their economies would grow because interest rates would be lower and private investment would more than fill the gap left by the spending cuts. History tells us that the application of this nonsense caused devastation throughout, with Greece being the showcase nation. The damage and carnage left by the application of these mainstream New Keynesian ideas are still reverberating in elevated unemployment rates, high poverty rates, broken communities and increased suicide rates, to name a few of the pathologies it engendered. But the ‘boys are back in town’ (sorry Thin Lizzy) and Blanchard and Zettlemeyer are falling in behind the IMF and the European Commission against the current Italian government by demanding fiscal cutbacks. It will turn out badly for Italy if the government buckles under this sort of pressure. It once again shows that the mainstream economics profession has learned very little from the GFC. For them the story stays the same. It is one that we should reject in every circle it arises. This is Part 1 of a two-part analysis of the latest incarnation of this ruse my profession inflicts on societies.
I am back in Australia now and I don’t have to stand on my head to write (a reference to the hassles of trying to maintain some order while travelling to different destinations on an almost daily basis). Last week, the IMF released its so-called – Fiscal Monitor October 2018 – and the mainstream financial press had a ‘picnic’ claiming all sorts of disaster scenarios would follow from the sort of financial situations revealed in the publication. At the time of the publication I was in London and the British press went crazy after the IMF publication – predicting that taxes would have to rise and fiscal surpluses would have to be maintained and increased to bring the government’s balance sheet back into balance. Yes, apparently the British government, which issues its own currency, has ‘shareholders’ who care about its Profit and Loss statement and the flow implications of the latter for the Balance Sheet of the Government. Anyone who knows anything quickly realises this is a ruse. There is no meaningful application of the ‘finances’ pertaining to a private corporation to the ‘finances’ of a currency-issuing government. A currency-issuing government’s ‘balance sheet’ provides no help in our understanding of what spending capacities such a government has.
The citizens of Timor-Leste went to the polls on Saturday in an effort to elect a government. The reports last night indicate that Xanana Gusmao’s Party, in a three-party coalition Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP, which includes Taur Matan Ruak’s group) have toppled the incumbent Fretilin leadership. At the last election (July 2017), the Fretilin Party led by Mari Alkatiri was able to form minority government (with Democratic Party support) after a third party (KHUNTO) pulled out. A stalemate emerged. Some commentators called it a ‘constitutional crisis’, in that, the minority government could not function effectively. After some years of stable politics, Timor-Leste has been going through a period of political volatility as a new generation of politicians enter the scene and replace the older stagers who were dominant at the formation of this tiny island state in 2002. I won’t go into the politics of the election battle but both major parties promised to fast-track economic development to make some dent into a growing poverty problem. This is a country that has been enduring decades of foreign occupation and before that more than 250 years of colonial servitude. The latter (Portugal) imposed Catholicism on the people while the former (Indonesia) spat-the-dummy when they were finally forced out in 1999 and destroyed vital public and private infrastructure as they marched back across the border.
Some years ago, I started collecting information about the so-called Maghreb countries, which typically refers to the region spanned by Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, although sometimes Libya and Mauritania are also included in the aggregation. You will find it referred to as the Barbary Coast in English literature. I was interested (as a long-term project when I get old :-)) to write a book about how nations broke away from the yoke of colonialism only to fall into the hands of the IMF and the World Bank, which over time were becoming the leading attack dogs for the neoliberal domination of governments. That book is coming in the future. But I have also been interested in the way the Eurozone Member States have moved into Northern Africa to extract as much surplus as they can from exploiting the resources these African nations have. You know a nation is in trouble when there are nightly riots which were motivated by economic desperation and a pernicious new (so-called) Finance Law, which became law on January 1, 2018. I am, of course, talking about Tunisia. With high levels of unemployment and underemployment and a lack of job opportunities particularly severe in the interior regions, the IMF decided, in its infinite neoliberal stupidity, to force the Tunisian government to impose a harsh austerity program including pushing up value added taxes which have had the effect of driving up medicine, food and energy prices and impacting on those most affected by the lack of jobs. Smart thinking! The riots have now followed.
The IMF put out a new working Paper last week (January 23, 2018)) – Economic Convergence in the Euro Area: Coming Together or Drifting Apart? – which while they don’t admit it demonstrates that the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) has failed to achieve its most basic aims – economic convergence. The stated aim of European integration has always been to achieve a convergence in the living standards of those within the European Union. That goes back to the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which established the EEC (Common Market). It has been reiterated many times in official documents since. It was a centrepiece of the 1989 Delors Report, which was the final design document for the Treaty of Maastricht and the creation of the EMU. The success or otherwise of the system must therefore be judged in terms of its basic goals and one of them was to create this convergence. The IMF finds that the EMU has, in fact, created increased divergence across a number of indicators – GDP per capita, productivity growth, etc. It also finds that the basic architecture of the EMU, which has allowed nominal convergence to occur has been a destabilising force. It finds that the Stability and Growth Pact criteria has created an environment where fiscal policy has become pro-cyclical, which is the exemplar of irresponsible and damaging policy implementation. Overall, the conclusion has to be drawn that the EMU, at its most elemental level, has failed and defies effective reforms that would make it workable. It should be scrapped or nations should exercise their own volition and exit before it causes them further damage.