Last Thursday (April 30, 2020), the US Department of Labor’s – Unemployment Insurance Weekly Claims Report – showed a further 3,839,000 workers filed for unemployment benefits in the US, taking the cumulative total since March 14, 2020 to 30,589,000. In a labour force of 164 million odd, that implies the unemployment rate is already around 22 per cent. The highest rate endured during the Great Depression was 24.9 per cent in 1933, which prompted the US President to introduce the major job creation program to stop a social disaster – the New Deal. History tells us that the major job creation programs (starting with FERA then morphing into the WPA) were opposed by the conservative (mostly) Republicans in the Congress. As is now! It wasn’t just the unemployment that mattered. Hours of work were also cut for those who maintained their jobs and some estimates suggest over 50 per cent of America’s labour force were underutilised in one way or another (read David Kennedy’s 2001 book for a vivid account of this period). The problem now is that the US has a Presidency that is unlikely to take the bold steps that Roosevelt took in the 1930s, even though the latter was a fiscal conservative and the former does not appear to be so inclined. However, some nations are leading the way – and they put the more advanced nations to shame in this regard.
Tonight (May 1, 2020), I am presenting a live YouTube show outlining how an understanding of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) helps inform a fiscal intervention designed to minimise the damage from the coronavirus, but also to position a nation favourably for other long-term challenges such as those presented by climate change.
When Kevin Rudd was faced with the threat posed by the unfolding GFC in late 2008 his government became very pragmatic and immediately ditched the narrative they had been pushing out throughout that year about inflation being a threat and the need for tighter fiscal policy and surpluses. They introduced, in two rounds, a fairly significant fiscal stimulus (around 4.2 per cent of GDP) which effectively saved the Australian economy from entering a recession. A significant part of that intervention was that it had various temporal properties – a cash handout in December 2008 designed to get spending power into the hands of consumers just before Xmas (the famous ‘flat screen’ payment – there were a lot of TVs purchased), which obviously was an immediate focus, and, a longer term component, which included their plan to put insulation into every home. This was aimed at job creation clearly, to address the cyclical needs, but, it was also intended to address the longer term climate crisis, that were beyond the GFC cycle. When appraising what government’s should be doing now – to deal with the socio-economic consequences of the medical crisis – that style of thinking is essential. The questions that need to be asked are: 1. What can be done now to avert an economic collapse? 2. What do we want to change about the pre-structure of the economy into the future? 3. How can we use the stimulus intervention to make those changes, while addressing Question 1. In this blog post, I go through some of that style of thinking. I also provide some specific estimates of the investment needed to introduce a Job Guarantee in Australia.
It is Wednesday so music and some snippets. I have updated the US unemployment claims data with a new map and state table. Shocking. We are working on updated estimates of what the Australian government would need to invest to run a Job Guarantee. We haven’t done that for a while because I didn’t want the press to get obsessed with dollar amounts. But as I am currently talking a lot about the Job Guarantee in the media, I thought some numbers would be useful as a comparative exercise against the JobKeeper wage subsidy, which is the central stimulus plank of the Australian government. The current estimates suggest that to create around 685 thousand jobs might require an outlay of $34 billion over the course of a year. That got me thinking. The main response of the Australian government is the $A133 billion over 6 months JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme. The Treasury claims it will be the difference between an unemployment rate of 10 per cent and 15 per cent. That difference is 685 thousand jobs. Then start doing some division and multiplication and you start to see that this doesn’t make sense as I explain below.
As the public scrutiny of the body of work we now refer to as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) widens there is a lot of misinformation abroad that distorts or otherwise undermines what has been done to date. Most, but not all the misinformation or emphasis comes from those who attack our work. Their criticisms usually disclose an incomplete understanding of where MMT came from and what the core propositions and logic are. They stylise, usually using terms and constructs that are present in mainstream thinking, but inapplicable to an MMT way of thinking, and end up spitting out things like ‘printing money’ etc, which they think represents a devastating rejection of our work. As part of my own work, and I do this in liaison with Warren Mosler, I am interested in documenting the train of events that led to what we now call MMT. I love history and think it is very important in helping us understand things. So today I am continuing to examine archives to trace the provenance of key MMT concepts. And I am continuing to document the idea of a Job Guarantee, which is central to the MMT framework, despite many who claim to be MMTers thinking otherwise. I have noted in the recent press, claims that the origins of the buffer stock employment approach that became the Job Guarantee was the work of Hyman Minsky. Nothing could be further from the truth as you will see. It is important, in my view, to make the provenance very clear and that is what this blog post is about.
It’s Wednesday, and a quiet day for writing blog posts for me. But I want to comment briefly on the latest economic news that sees the IMF claiming the Australian economy will contract by 6.7 per cent in 2020 and the Treasury estimates that the unemployment rate will rise to 10 per cent (double) by June this year. While this all sounds shocking, the emerging narrative in the media and among politicians is that this is sort of inevitable given the health crisis and the Government’s Job Keeper wage subsidy, which the Treasury claims will constrain the unemployment rate rise to 10 per cent rather than 15 per cent without it is a jolly decent thing for the politicians to have done and keeping the unemployment rate down to 10 per cent is a “tremendous achievement”. Well, apart from the wage subsidy leaving a million workers outside of any benefit and cutting wages for thousands who will receive the support, I fail to see why the unemployment rate should rise at all. The government has options: (a) wax lyrical about achieving a disaster – 10 per cent unemployment; or (b) create jobs via a Job Guarantee and see the unemployment rate fall to 2 per cent or so. For the neoliberals who run the place and their media supporters, a 10 per cent as a “remarkable achievement” and that is the TINA narrative they are pumping out to assuage the population. For the likes of yours truly, a 10 per cent unemployment rate is not a “tremendous achievement” – it is a sign of total policy failure. The government can always intervene and create sufficient jobs that will be of benefit to the society, can be designed to be safe in the current health context, and maintain the connection for most of us with paid work? Even if some of them would require the workers stay at home while being paid. For me that is a no-brainer.
I did an extended interview over the weekend and during that interchange it became obvious that when a newcomer encounters the concept of the – Job Guarantee – for the first time, they may only see it in a narrow way, as a job creation program and fail to see it the way that the concept was developed as an integral part of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). When I started talking about the era in which I had first started thinking about using buffer stocks to maintain full employment, it became obvious that the sort of considerations that went into the concept of the buffer stock employment model (the Job Guarantee) had not been fully appreciated by the interviewer. That is no criticism. It is just an observation and a reflection of how long we have been pushing this MMT barrow. At the moment, all the talk is of ‘flattening the curve’ and that is exactly the function that I saw for the Job Guarantee as I toyed as a young postgraduate student and nascent academic with new ways of thinking about macroeconomics that would fight the Monetarist scourge that was dominating in the late 1970s. It was a different era and the challenges from a economic theory perspective were different. I think it is important to understand this context because, as the interview demonstrated, new ‘light bulbs’ go off when the concept of a Job Guarantee is put within the historical exigencies that were dominating when I came up with the idea. So the Job Guarantee flattened the curve long ago – the Phillips curve and that was, in my view, a highly significant development in the context of macroeconomics and makes MMT very different (in addition to a lot of other aspects). Unfortunately, while we knew how to flatten the curve back then, the Monetarist viral infestation continued and we have suffered the shocking consequences ever since.
This post continues my thinking and analysis of the issues relating to the design of a fiscal intervention by the Australian government to ameliorate the damaging consequences of the coronavirus dislocation. Today, I delve a little bit back in history to provide some perspective on the current fiscal considerations. Further, I consider some of the problems already emerging in the policy response. And finally, I consider the lessons of history provide an important guide to the sort of interventions that the Australian government might usefully deploy. While the analysis is focused on Australia at present, the principles developed are portable across national boundaries. And the underlying Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) understanding is applicable everywhere there is a monetary system. This series of blog posts are building up to the production of my 10-point or something plan to address the crisis.
Yesterday in my blog post – The coronavirus crisis – a particular type of shock – Part 1 (March 10, 2020) – I discussed some of the considerations that governments need to take into account when dealing with the economic damage that will result from the coronavirus crisis. I did not consider the health issues because I am unqualified to assess those other than to take into consideration what the health professionals are now saying as they gain more knowledge of the particular disease. In Part 2 today, I extend that discussion and outline some specific issues that bear on the size and design of any fiscal intervention.
I have long disagreed with Guy Standing about the solutions to unemployment. 20 years ago we crossed paths on panels and in the literature where he would argue that UBI was the way forward and I would argue that it was a neoliberal plot and that, instead, we needed to push for job creation. My view has always been that to surrender to the neoliberals on their claim that governments cannot generate sufficient jobs to satisfy the desires for work of the unemployed was a slippery slope. Standing continues to publish his fiction. In his latest Social Europe article (January 15, 2020) – Building a progressive alliance in Britain – he seeks to integrate UBI proposals with a recovery plan for British Labour. My view is that would not help Labour recover from the shots they fired into their own feet in the period before the December election by listening to the likes of Standing and those who advocated the Fiscal Credibility Rule and the reneging on the Brexit commitment. Standing’s aversion to job creation is in contradistinction with a recommendation from the Wetenschappelijke Raad Voor Het Regeringsbeleid (WRR or in English, The Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy) to the Dutch government to deal with the challenges of achieving “good work”, in part, by introducing a ‘basic job’ which in my parlance means by introducing a Job Guarantee. They are motivated by a deep vein of social science and medical research that extols the virtues of work beyond its obvious income generation qualities. Pushing a UBI in the light of that research is just a pitiful bailout.