Last Wednesday (November 22, 2023), the Tory government in Britain released their fiscal update known as the – Autumn Statement 2023 – which basically sets the course of fiscal policy in the UK for the period ahead. The Tories continue their appalling record. But they have also locked Labor into an austerity mindset. Meanwhile, neither party resonates with the sentiments expressed by the people if the latest Ipsos survey is representative of that sentiment. The British people face a Hobson’s choice!
The British Labour Party officials and politicians have all been cock-a-hoop over the last week in Liverpool as they participate in their Annual Conference with the latest modelling suggesting they may win a “landslide 190-seat majority” at the next national election leaving the miserable and incompetent Tories with only 149 seats (currently 352) (Source). The contrast between the two national conferences this year could not have been greater. The Tories looked and sounded divided and like losers. The Labour Party looked like winners and united (although that latter condition has only come from the Stalin-like purge that the leadership has conducted on the Left of the Party). The Labour Party is now schmoozing the corporate bosses and each day that it passes it sounds more like what the Tories used to be like, before the rabid Right took over. That assessment is based on the promises that the Labour Party made at its recent Annual Conference. While the details are still relatively general, my assessment of the fiscal promises the Shadow Chancellor made last Monday and elsewhere is that the conditions that would be required to satisfy them will prove impossible to achieve.
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.
It’s Wednesday and there are a few topics that warrant some comment. But at the top of the topics were headlines this morning shouting out that the US treasury bonds had been downgraded by one of those self-serving credit rating agencies, as if it was an event worthy of some import. The journalists obviously do not understand anything if they think that decision was important. The ratings downgrade on US government debt is meaningless and the rating agency involved just wants to boost its revenue by sounding important. After I explain all that we will have a quiet musical reflection to finish the day.
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.
In Tuesday’s fiscal statement, the Australian government made a lot of noise about dealing with the climate emergency that the nation faces but in terms of hard fiscal outlays or initiatives it did very little, deferring action again, while ‘the place burns’. The Climate Council assessment was that the government “still seems to be on a warm-up lap when it comes to investing in climate action” (Source) and recommended the nation moves from a “slow job” to a “sprint”. I have previously written about the myopic nature of neoliberalism. There are countless examples of governments penny pinching and then having to outlay dollars to fix the problem they create by the austerity. The climate emergency is of another scale again though. And penny pinching now will cause immeasurable damage to humanity. Food security will be threatened. Urban environments will become unliveable. Pandemics will increase if we don’t stop clearing and if we release viruses stored in permafrost. And all the rest that awaits us. Now is the time to reset our understanding of fiscal capacity. It is already, probably, too late.
Last night (May 9, 2023), the Australian government delivered the latest fiscal statement (aka ‘The Budget’), and, in doing so guaranteed that unemployment would rise. A deliberate act of sabotage of living standards for disadvantaged Australians. All the hype was about the miniscule fiscal surplus that was announced as if it is some sort of badge of honour that politicians aim for. If they went to the homes of the poor; if they visited the public hospital system that is still straining under Covid etc and years of fiscal neglect; if they examined the state of climate science; and if they just opened their eyes generally, they would see that a fiscal surplus is an indication at this stage in our history of deliberate neglect of the main challenges of the day. Sure enough, the Government handed out some dollops of cost-of-living relief to low-income families – a few pennies in the scheme of things. But while recording a surplus they still refused to lift the unemployment benefit recipients above the poverty line and ensured their would be more of the same forced to live in poverty. The priorities are all wrong and this is another neoliberal-lite effort from the Labor Party.
Yesterday, the Reserve Bank of Australia lifted the interest rate target for the ninth consecutive time (they didn’t meet in January) claiming that they had to do this to stop inflation accelerating and restoring price stability. Except inflation already peaked in the March-quarter 2022 as a result of the driving factors abating. Further, none of the major driving factors are remotely sensitive to domestic interest rate movements. The RBA’s excuse is that there are dangerous domestic demand pressures that need to be curtailed. Except the evidence for that claim is lacking. Most of the demand measures are in retreat. So what gives? Well there is a massive income redistributing being engineered by the RBA from poor to rich and if they keep going unemployment will certainly rise, in part, because the lame Australian government is claiming it has to engage in fiscal restraint to ensure the RBA doesn’t hike rates even more than they are. It would be comical if it wasn’t damaging the prosperity and solvency of tens of thousands of the most vulnerable Australians. Disgraceful.
This week, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) released the results of an independent review into its coverage of economic matters – Review of the impartiality of BBC coverage of taxation, public spending, government borrowing and debt – which was completed in November 2022. The problem is that the Investigation conducted by this Review, while interesting and providing some good analysis, misses the overall source of the bias that our public broadcasters have fallen into. The problem is not that they might be favouring political positions of one party or another. Rather, the implicit framing and language they use to discuss economic matters is largely flawed itself. And the journalists who uncritically use these concepts and terms just perpetuate the fiction and mislead their audiences.
Britain is now in a very undesirable state. The governing Tories are bereft of any sensible ideas and likely to lose the next General election in 2024 to Labour, who are promising to be the party of ‘sound finance’, which means they will be incapable of dealing with the challenges that face the nation in a highly volatile world and will likely end up losing popularity and ceding government back to the Tories. And just as in 2010, the Labour reputation will tarnished and they will be lost again for another sequence of elections. That sort of future prospect is not inspiring is it. Caught between a rock and a hard place.