It is interesting how one’s ideology screens out options and alters the way we examine a problem. I was reminded of this when I read two articles in the Times the other day (December 23, 2009) – Thrifty families accused of prolonging the recession and – No evidence Britons can save the day which both focused on movements in the savings ratio. The claim is that with UK households now saving more to reduce their exposure to debt, the UK economy is facing a double dip recession. The ideological screening arises because they seem to think it is inevitable that rising savings will lead to a deepening recession. In doing so they fail to realise that the moves by the British government to “reign in the deficit” are the what will make this inevitable. If their world view was less tainted both articles would have focused on the spurious nature of the deficit terrorism rather than the desirable trend towards rising saving ratios in Britain (and elsewhere).
Many readers have E-mailed me asking me to explain yields on bonds and sovereign credit ratings. There has been press coverage in recent days that following the downgrading of Greece, sovereign debt in the UK, France, and Spain will be downgraded unless severe “fiscal consolidation” is begun. All these places are suffering very depressed domestic conditions with high unemployment, falling per capita incomes and civil unrest looming. The last thing these nations need is for their national governments to be raising taxes and cutting spending. But the financial press are using the threats from these nefarious and undemocratic credit rating agencies to berate governments to do just that. Undermine the welfare of their citizens. Further, judging from the E-mails I have received on this issue there appears to be a lot of uncertainty in the minds of interested people about what all this means. Here is a little introduction which I hope helps.
Today I have been reflecting on minimum wages and employment. As the Australian economy slides slowly along the bottom (close to zero growth), the conservative forces are mobilising to attack the changes that the current federal government made to the industrial relations laws when they won the last election. Ex-liberal party hack (advisor) and now Director of the conservative Sydney Institute and regular Sydney Morning Herald columnist Gerard Henderson is one person who is leading the charge. While the first of the changes will not come into effect until next month, employers who have revelled in the massive redistribution of national income that the deregulation the labour market delivered to them are already enraged and looking to commentators such as Henderson for succour. The problem is that there is no argument they can make that is defensible. This will become a new battlefront for unions who seek to defend the interests of the most disadvantaged workers in the land.
The calls from the conservatives right across the globe for a fiscal retrenchment are growing. They have seen the share markets rise and Wall Street are talking billion-dollar bonuses again and so it is assumed that all is well. But the wiser heads know that the economic situation is very fragile at present and the growth process is poised delicately on a knife’s edge. It is also clear that public net spending is driving growth everywhere and that the recovery in private spending is some way off yet. The private sectors around the world have barely started to repair their precarious debt-laden balance sheets. That process will require some years of robust saving and hence will contribute to on-going spending drag. So it is interesting to reflect on some data that shows categorically the impact that the fiscal intervention has had in underwriting growth and reducing employment losses.
Last week, the Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke received endorsement for a further term from the US Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs (popularly known as the US Senate Banking Committee). There is much controversy about this re-nomination along the lines that he was Chairman as the crisis unfolded and he did nothing about it until it was too late. There is also angst about his refusal to provide Congress with specific information about institutions that the Federal Reserve bailed out. These issues are not unimportant. But the strongest reason why he should be dispensed with is that his public statements leads any informed analyst to conclude that he doesn’t really understand the monetary system. From a modern monetary theory (MMT) perspective his comments on the monetary system are as sophisticated as the most flawed mainstream macroeconomics textbook.
Today I continue my theme from yesterday which focused on how retired politicians and bureaucrats in the US are massing using resources from rich conservative interests to undermine the capacity of the US government to fulfill its legitimate responsibility to increase employment and raise living standards. In today’s blog I reflect on an excellent US PBS Frontline program which looks back at the days when the neo-liberals led by Alan Greenspan and his gang were ruling the world. The current crisis that has undermined the employment and income prospects for millions around the world is directly attributable to their ideological zealotry. The unfortunate thing is that the gang members are either still in power or reinventing themselves as credible commentators. It doesn’t augur well.
What do you get when a bunch of former politicians who have an inflated sense of self-importance and cannot stay out of the public glare? Well one answer is nonsense. The related answer is the so-called Pew-Peterson Commission report Red Ink Rising, which was released in December 2009 with the by-line “A Call to Action to Stem the Mounting Federal Debt”. And with the Copenhagen climate change talks being the big public interest story of the week it was only a matter of time before soon goon started mapping the public debt-hysteria debate into the climate change debate to bring home the message to all of us that we are doomed unless we do something drastic. Its been quite a day down here!
Today the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the September quarter National Accounts data which gives us the rear-vision mirror view of how the economy has been travelling while we have all been speculating. The good news is that real GDP continued to grow. The bad news is that the Australian economy is creeping along the bottom. It just managed to keep its head above zero line in the September quarter courtesy of the strong public investment associated with the now, daily-maligned, fiscal expansion. The labour market was clearly spared the worst by declining productivity. As productivity returns to more reasonable rates of growth, unemployment will rise unless GDP growth turns significantly upwards … quickly. Having said all that – there is nothing in today’s data to warm the frozen hearts of the conservative deficit-haters. They should just find a ship to get on and boost our exports.
Today I am working in Dubbo, which is in the western region of NSW and getting into the remote parts of the state. There is a great beauty to enjoy in remote Australia which often passes people by. My field trip is in relation to continuing work I am doing with indigenous communities in this region. I will report on this work in due course. But today’s blog continues the theme I developed yesterday on bank reserves. In yesterday’s blog – Building bank reserves will not expand credit – I examined the dynamics of bank reserves but left a few issues on hold because I ran out of time. One issue is the possible impact of expanding bank reserves on inflation. This is in part central to the mainstream hysteria at present about the likely legacies of the monetary policy response to the crisis. The conclusion is that everyone can relax – the only problem with the monetary policy response is that it will be ineffective and more fiscal policy effort is required.
In his latest New York Times article (December 10, 2009) – Bernanke’s Unfinished Mission – Paul Krugman reveals that he doesn’t really understand much about macroeconomics. Sometimes you read a columnist and try to find extra meaning that is not in the words to give them the benefit of the doubt. At times, Krugman like other columnists sounds positively reasonable and advances arguments that are consistent with modern monetary theory (MMT). But then there is always a give-away article that appears eventually that makes it clear – this analyst really doesn’t get it. In Krugman’s case, he doesn’t seem to have learned from his disastrous foray into Japan’s “lost decade” policy debate.
The political debate in Australia is never very inspiring. But in the last few days it has reached new heights … that is, lows. The Federal Opposition has now decided to address its rock-bottom political support by changing its shadow front-bench significantly and installing some of the most conservative members they could drag out. The strategy is clearly to “talk tough” and “take the fight up to the government” and all that sort of thing. The only problem is that it is already turning the public debate into a comedy show. I predict this conservative configuration will talk their way into oblivion much faster than the previous shadow cabinet. In the process, we will have plenty to laugh about.
Today and tomorrow I am hosting a workshop – ARCRNSISS Methods, Tools and Technologies workshop in Newcastle for the Spatially integrated social science research network that I am part of. This is a technical workshop on regional modelling which I host annually. So back to back with the CofFEE Conference last week means we have been very busy. I will write a blog about the work we do in the regional science area another day (it is very technical). But today the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) published the November Labour Force Survey data and it shows that full-time employment is growing and the unemployment rate has fallen (by 0.1 per cent to 5.7 per cent). While underemployment is constant, the data suggests that the negative impact on the labour market may have peaked. But as I caution in this blog, regional disparities are huge and it is not the time to start talking about fiscal contraction.
Today I have a wind in my sails and I am heading for Greece. I am wondering if any modern day Ulysses will find much of their homeland left given current trends. The current situation in Greece exposes the stupidity of the Euro monetary system. The Greek government is running a rising budget deficit in response to the economic crisis that it faces. Much of the budget change is being driven by the automatic stabilisers. Meanwhile the financial markets are playing their usual (unproductive) tricks and making matters worse. Sitting in the middle is the undemocratic ECB which is insisting on fiscal consolidation. Pity the poor Greeks who are increasingly without work. The solution is not straightforward but I would abandon the Euro and restore currency sovereignty.
Today I was in Sydney for some meetings and also I attended the first sessions of the Society of Heterodox Economists conference. I took some papers with me to read on the train coming back to Newcastle. Sitting on the train for 3 hours presents a good opportunity to catch up on back-reading. While I would have been better off reading the Phantom comic that I had in my bag, I chose, instead, to read the latest fiscal analysis provided by the IMF. The paper I discuss here is typical of the whole debate at present. It cannot provide any evidence to advance its scary “deficit and public debt” vision, but it doesn’t let the facts get in the way of presenting it anyway. My professional assessment. These guys should get a real job.
There is a mystery phenomenon and it appears to be spreading. The dangerous phenomenon is well understood by experts but the contagion is proving difficult to contain. Fortunately there are built-in checks and balances that will arrest the contagion … the only question is will the inflicted show any signs of life once the arrest is made. On Friday, we learned that the US government was running out of money. Overnight, the nasty syndrome has jumped across the Atlantic and the sovereign UK government is signalling that they are short. I suspect the contagion will spread more widely and inflict most sovereign governments before too long. Anyway, all I could do about it was to break into song …
The government of the largest economy in the World has run short of money. At least that is what the US President was trying to tell his Jobs and Economic Growth Forum yesterday. Fancy that. This is a national government which issues its own sovereign currency trying to tell the world it is broke. This is a sovereign government that is responsible for capacity utilisation rates at 70 per cent and 15.7 million unemployed saying that is is running out of capacity to deal with the problem. My conclusion is that the only capacity they lack is sound economic advice. They should sack their existing advisors and hire some people who actually understand how the monetary system operates.
Today is the first day of the 11th Path to Full Employment Conference/16th National Unemployment Conference in Newcastle, hosted by my research centre. As host I am of-course tied up in the event but I thought it would be of interest to visitors to my blog to provide some feel for what has transpired today. I only focus on the plenary talks. The other presentations in the parallel sessions have all been very interesting.
Over the course of this economic crisis, I have seen a lot of erroneous analysis based on the conflation of things that are not commensurate. It is getting worse as the debt hysteria mounts. These conflations are examples of category errors, which are common in monetary and macroeconomic analysis. Most of the theoretical development in macroeconomics text books used by universities fall foul of this type of error. The one thing that follows is that when you detect this type of error you should be deeply suspicious of the arguments being presented.
Several readers have written to me asking about the Ricardian equivalence theorem, which is increasingly getting mentioned in the media and public policy reports. As I will explain, the theorem is used by anti-government proponents to argue that fiscal deficits are counterproductive and that cutting deficits in the middle of a recession will actually be good for the economy. They never really give up, do they? The theorem is a good example of the general mainstream approach where stark policy conclusions are derived which capture the popular debate but the underlying assumptions that are required to generate those conclusions are rarely widely known or mentioned in the popular press. Of-course, if the public understood these underlying assumptions then they would not take the conclusions seriously.
In the coming period and probably years you should expect to hear, read and be submerged with mainstream economists coming out and assessing the structural budget deficit. Across most economies, these so-called “experts” will be arguing that the structural deficit in the nation is too high and deep cuts are needed to bring it into surplus. The importance of this debate is that they use the structural deficit estimates as an indicator of the fiscal stance being taken by the government and thus separate out the effect of the automatic stabilisers. The problem is that it is an inexact science. The mainstream approach is highly dependent on the NAIRU concept (see below) and thus will err on the side of concluding that the deficit is “too big” and “likely to cause inflation”, whereas it is probable that the deficit will be too small to underpin private savings and high levels of employment.