Yesterday’s US inflation data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (July 12, 2023) – Consumer Price Index Summary – June 2023 – shows a further significant drop in the inflation rate as some of the key supply-side drivers continue to abate. The annual inflation rate is now back to 3 per cent and dropping fast. The risk now is that the conduct of the Federal Reserve will drive the US into a deflationary period with rising unemployment. Given that inflation peaked in the third-quarter 2022, that wages growth has been relatively subdued, and inflationary expectations’ survey evidence suggests no-one really thinks the inflation was going to endure, means that the US Federal Reserve’s logic is deeply flawed and not fit for purpose. They have been chasing an obsession that exists in a parallel universe to the real world. The risk is that they will continue to chase that obsession and use the fact that unemployment has still not risen much to claim there has to be higher unemployment. However, hopefully, the 3 per cent inflation rate result yesterday will cut-off any wild claims that they have to get the inflation down more quickly or risk a wages or expectations explosion. All cant of course.
In 1978, during my postgraduate studies at the University of Melbourne I came up with the idea of a Job Guarantee – although I didn’t call it that then. I have written about it extensively since then and you can see some of the non-academic work published in this blog under the category – Job Guarantee. Among the many blog posts is this one – Some historical thinking about the Job Guarantee (February 25, 2021) – where I discuss some of the provenance of the idea. It is hard to get people interested in this idea because they dismiss it as just another public sector job creation scheme and then make all sorts of claims about inefficiency, ‘make work’ and all the rest of the ruses that are used to divert attention from the substance of an idea or proposal. In fact, the way I conceived the Job Guarantee and the way it has subsequently become a central part of the body of knowledge now known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is not as a job creation program, but, rather, as a comprehensive price stability framework exploiting the dynamics of buffer stock mechanisms. Anyway, it seems that the UN might be interested in the idea of guarantee employment now after the special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights published – The employment guarantee as a tool in the fight against poverty – in April 2023. The question is whether this is a job creation program or closer to the concept of a Job Guarantee.
Recently, I wrote about the conditions that dictate what impacts interest rate changes will have on aggregate spending and demand-driven inflation in direction, magnitude and temporality – see RBA governor’s ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’ moments of disdain (June 8, 2023). It is highly likely in many cases, the decisions by central banks to increase interest rates, ostensibly to ‘fight inflation’ actually make inflation worse. More people are starting to understand that point even though central bankers appear to be still talking big about further interest rate rises. But the evidence is mounting against their position and ultimately that evidence is exposing the deep flaws in mainstream macroeconomics. I argue today that the problem is not only that the interest rate hikes can be inflationary but they are also facilitating a major reinforcement of the class divisions in our societies whereby the low income cohorts are transferring massive income benefits to the higher deciles. I also discuss cricket which recently has provided a demonstration of how the class divisions work. Then some music, given it is a Wednesday.
There appears to be confusion among those interested in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) as to what the implications for a green transition that will fasttrack the transition to renewable energy will require by way of government. I regularly see statements that government deficits will have to be ‘massive’ for extended periods because the private (for profit) market entities will not move fast enough to deal with the climate emergency in any effective way. The confusion inherent in these claims is that they fail to separate the ‘size’ of government from any particular ‘net spending’ (deficit) recorded by government. The two outcomes are quite separable and have to be if government action is to achieve sustainable outcomes, not only in terms of environmental goals but also price stability goals. So let’s work all that out. Failing to do so, leads MMT activists to make claims that open them up to criticism from those who understand the point I am making but have different ideological agendas. So they make erroneous claims such that ‘MMT just advocates big deficits’, or that ‘MMT thinks that deficits do not matter’. But they have been lured into that position, in part, by the social media behaviour of some MMT activists.
My early academic work was on the Phillips curve and the precision in estimating the concept of a natural rate of unemployment, or the rate of unemployment where inflation stabilises at some level. This rate is now commonly referred to as the Non-Accelerating-Rate-of-Unemployment (NAIRU) and my contribution was one of the first studies to show that the rate was variable and went up and down with the economic cycle, rendering it a meaningless concept for discretionary policy interventions. I extended that work into my PhD and built on much earlier work as a undergraduate to articulate the Job Guarantee idea. The NAIRU is unobservable and there have been various ways to estimate it from actual data. The problem is that these estimates are highly sensitive to the approach – so two researchers can get quite different estimates using the same data. Further, the estimates themselves are subject to large statistical errors meaning that we cannot be sure whether the NAIRU is say 4.5 per cent or 3.5 per cent or 5.5 per cent, say. Such imprecision makes it impossible to use the concept as a guide for monetary policy because if the NAIRU actually existed then ‘full employment’ might be at 3.5 or 5.5 per cent today but next week the estimates might be even wider. When would one want to start changing interest rates in pursuit of inflation stability – when the actual unemployment rate was down to 3.5 per cent or at 5.5 per cent or somewhere in between or at higher or lower unemployment rates, depending on what the models pumped out? You can see the problem. For some years, central bankers went quiet on the use of the NAIRU and stopped publishing their estimates exactly because they knew full well about the imprecision and that policy based on such a vague, difficult to estimate, unobservable would be discredited. That is until now. The RBA is now clearly admitting that their damaging and unnecessary interest rate hikes over the last year and a bit have been driven by the NAIRU. A sham. But a tragedy as well given the RBA’s almost obsession with pushing unemployment up by around 140,000. A shocking indictment of where we have reached as a civilisation.
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.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released of the latest labour force data today (June 15, 2023) – Labour Force, Australia – for May 2023. The May result reverses two consecutive months of weaker results from the Labour Force survey. Employment rose by 75.9 thousand (a strong monthly result), participation rose by 0.1 point to a record high, and unemployment fell by 16,500. But one month is not a trend and it should be emphasised that there are 10 per cent of the available and willing working age population who are being wasted in one way or another – either unemployed or underemployed. That extent of idle labour means Australia is not really close to full employment despite the claims by the mainstream commentators. I am waiting for the RBA governor to claim the fall in the unemployment rate justifies further interest rate increases. It doesn’t but since when has logic and facts got in the road of his agenda.
The RBA governor had a few ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’ moments in the last week when he responded to criticisms that his manic interest rate increasing behaviour is driving low-income families into crisis by, first, saying that people who couldn’t find cheap housing should move back with their parents. Then he followed that with the recommendation that people should work harder and get second jobs if they couldn’t make ends meet as a consequences of the squeeze on their mortgage payments from the RBA’s monetary policy changes. Nice. This is an extraordinary period of policy chaos – we have an out-of-control central bank pushing rates up and using various ruses (chasing shadows) to justify the hikes, when inflation is falling anyway for reasons unconnected to the monetary policy shifts. All the RBA will succeed in doing is increasing unemployment and misery. The unemployed will ultimately bear the brunt of this chaotic policy period. But then ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche’ and they can move back in with their parents!
The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Australian National Accounts: National Income, Expenditure and Product, March 2023 – today (March 1, 2023), which shows that the Australian economy grew by just 0.2 per cent in the March-quarter 2023 and by 2.3 per cent over the 12 months. If we extend the March result out over the year then GDP will grow by 0.8 per cent, well below the rate required to keep unemployment from rising. Working hours dropped in the March-quarter and I expect that trend to accelerate in the coming quarters given the conduct of the central bank and treasury. The March-quarter result represents a significant decline in growth, Households cut back further on consumption expenditure while at the same time saving less relative to their disposable income in an effort to maintain consumption growth in the face of rising interest rates and temporary inflationary pressures. I expect growth to decline further and we will be left with rising unemployment and declining household wealth as a result of the RBA’s poor judgement.
Last Friday (June 2, 2023), the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – May 2023 – which revealed that the the US labour market may be at a turning point but is certainly not contracting at a rate consistent with an imminent recession. There was a continuing weakening of net employment growth, even though the payroll and survey data were in conflict. The rate of decline though, is currently consistent with an imminent recession. We will see in the June figures whether the slowdown has become a trend.
Today, I am Perth giving a keynote presentation to the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) 2023 Congress. My talk is titled – Why fiscal fictions lead to inferior health policy outcomes. Given the travel time to the other side of the world (the continent at least) – us East Coasters get restless when we have to come here – and my commitments at the Congress, I haven’t time to produce a post. So today, thanks to our regular guest blogger Professor Scott Baum from Griffith University who has been one of my regular research colleagues over a long period of time, we have a discussion about fiscal fictions and higher education policy, which is a very nice dovetail to the theme of today. Today he is specifically going to talk about the current concerns about student debt in Australia. Over to Scott …
Many central bank officials have been trying all sorts of conditioning narratives to convince us that their interest rate hikes have been justified. Now they are actually defying the information presented in the official data to simply make things up. Last Wednesday (May 17, 2023), the Bank of England governor gave a speech to the British Chamber of Commerce – Getting inflation back to the 2% target − speech by Andrew Bailey. It came after the Bank raised the bank rate by a further 25 points to 4.5 per cent the week before. In that speech, he admitted inflation was declining and the main supply-side drivers were abating. But he said the rate rises were justified and unemployment had to rise because there was now persistent inflationary pressures coming from a “wage-price spiral”. The problem with this claim is that there is no data to support it.
Yesterday we had the wages data. Today the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released of the latest labour force data (May 18, 2023) – Labour Force, Australia – for April 2023. The April result is the second consecutive month that the data is weaker. Employment fell by 4.3 thousand, participation fell by 0.1 point, and unemployment rose by 18.4 thousand even though the fall in the number of workers seeking work took some pressure of the situation. The unemployment rate rose from 3.5 per cent to 3.7 per cent. All the main aggregates are now in retreat – employment falling (also relative to the population), participation falling and unemployment rising. With yesterday’s wage data still revealing only modest wage increases and on-going and substantial real wage cuts, today’s data suggests the deterioration in the economy is underway. The underlying (‘What-if’) unemployment rate is closer to 4.9 per cent, which indicates the labour market still has slack. The broad underutilisation rate rose 0.1 point to 9.9 per cent and that means there are still 1,409.9 thousand Australian workers without work in one way or another (officially unemployed or underemployed).
Today (May 17, 2023), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the March-quarter 2023, which shows that the aggregate wage index rose by 0.8 per cent over the quarter (steady) and 3.7 per cent over the 12 months. The media are touting how strong the wages growth is but they should be focusing on the fact that Australia’s nominal wage growth remains well below that necessary to restore the purchasing power losses arising from price level inflation. Even though the inflation rate is falling significantly and nominal wages growth has picked up a bit, the problem still remains – real wages have now fallen for 8 consecutive quarters (2 years). Further with the gap between productivity growth and the declining real wages increasing, the massive redistribution of national income away from wages to profits continues. Further, the conduct of the RBA in this environment is contributing to the damage that workers are enduring. They continue to claim there is a threat of a wages breakout and so interest rates have to keep rising to create the necessary unemployment increase to prevent that from happening. It is just a ruse. The rising unemployment will be for nothing other than to repress real wages furthers. And meanwhile, the RBA interest rate hikes are driving up prices (for example, via the rent squeeze).
In my 2015 book – Eurozone Dystopia: Groupthink and Denial on a Grand Scale (published May 2015) – I traced in considerable detail the events and views that led to the creation of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU, aka the Eurozone) once the Treaty of Maastricht was pushed through as the most advanced form of neoliberalism at that time. The difference between the EMU and other nations who have adopted neoliberal policies is that in the former case the ideology is embedded in the treaties, that is, in the constitutional system, which is almost impossible to change in any progressive way. In the latter case, voters can get rid of the ideology by voting the party that propagates it out of office. It is true that in current period, even the parties in the social democratic tradition have become neoliberal and there is little choice. But the EMU is different and has entrenched the most destructive ideology in its legal structures. We are reminded of this recently (April 26, 2023), when the European Commission released its latest missive – Commission proposes new economic governance rules fit for the future. Once operational, the policies advocated in this new governance structure will ensure that Europeans are once again made to endure persistent and elevated levels of unemployment and continued deterioration in the quality and scope of public infrastructure and welfare provision. The collapse of this ideological nightmare cannot come soon enough.
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 Friday (May 5, 2023), the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – April 2023 – which revealed continuing employment growth and and modest declines in unemployment. While the US Federal Reserve is deliberately trying to undermine the labour market, even though the inflation rate is falling relatively quickly, the April data suggests that the interest rate increases are not achieving the aim. There is no surprise there. Monetary policy is a relatively ineffective tool to suppress demand. Most of the aggregates are steady and in terms of the pre-pandemic period, March’s net employment change was still relatively strong. Real wages finally showed some improvement in the face of a decelerating inflation rate. Overall, the US labour market is steady and doesn’t appear to be contracting in the face of the Federal Reserve interest rate hikes.
Remember all the hype from central bankers last year and earlier this year about how they had to get ‘ahead of the curve’ with their interest rate hikes just in case wage demands escalated and inflationary expectatinos became ‘unanchored’. Over the last 18 months, I consistently noted in various blog posts that this was all a ruse to create a smokescreen to justify the unjustifiable rate rises – given that the inflationary pressures were almost all coming from the supply side and those forces were temporary and abating. Well now, the mainstream, having pushed for the rate rises and got their way are now backtracking to maintain their credibility by claiming there are no wage-price dynamics in sight. It is a dystopia.
Over the last few decades, I have done a lot of reading and research on the way organisations and groups deteriorate into what socio-psychologists call Groupthink, which is a system of patterned behaviour that takes the group increasingly further away from reality and sees it denying basic facts while at the same time maintaining authority for its activities and work. Academic disciplines, in particular are susceptible to this sort of dynamic, because of the hierarchical structure of the workplace and the fact that the senior professors have a vested interest in suppressing any research findings that contest the work that got them to those senior posts when they were younger. The economics profession is riddled with this organisational disease. Second, I have also researched and written about the concept of depoliticisation – which involves the hollowing out of national sovereignty and curtailment of popular-democratic mechanisms. Both these phenomena are at the centre of my rejection of many of the key recommendations of the external review of the Reserve Bank of Australia – Final Report: An RBA for the Future – which was published today (April 20, 2023). While the Report purports to providing the central bank with a pathway to the future, what is really being proposed – in the form of a new monetary policy board stacked with ‘experts’ (economists) – is less political accountability (depoliticisation) and a decision-making structure that is hindered by Groupthink.