The latest WMD – public deficits!

Person the life-boats! Get the hard hats out! Strife and pestilence is coming! I am wondering what all these loons – the deficit terrorists – who are now elevating a simple endogenous fiscal balance into a national emergency – will say in a few years when growth returns, unemployment falls, people start rebuilding their savings and most importantly their children do not go into slave camps making widgets to send back to the previous generation to pay for the fiscal balances and … the sky stays firmly above our heads although it does rain occasionally down on us to help farmers grow vegetables. What will these hysterical idiots say then? Today, the budget deficit has become the latest WMD. A seek and destroy mission is required. Bring out the military and attack treasury offices everywhere. Rally patriots the hour of calling is nigh?

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What do the IMF growth projections mean?

Today a relatively short blog buts lots of different colour graphs. I have been going through the updated IMF growth forecasts released on January 26 and doing some projections of what this might mean for the capacity of this growth to reduce the unemployment rate. Like any projection exercise you have to make assumptions. And it seems that there is still quite a bit of dispute about whether we are going to recover fairly steadily or keep skidding along the bottom in 2010 with tepid growth in 2011. The IMF are the most optimistic around at the moment and as you will see, even this level of optimism doesn’t paint a very good labour market picture.

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A one-term presidency is in order

Today is a national holiday in Australia (more about which later). In the lead up to the US President’s State of the Union speech tomorrow came news that he was planning to freeze public spending from next year to get the budget back on track. I wondered what track that might be. Governments all around the world are now being pressured by conservative lobbies to engage in a renewed period of fiscal austerity even though the respective labour markets are disaster zones. History has a habit of repeating itself. The US government did exactly this in 1937 and the unemployment worsened. Japan did it in 1997 with the same outcome. The UK government is likely to do it in 2010 with totally predictable results – their economy will falter. What the US government is now in danger of repeating is taking its economy down the fast track to a double-dip recession. It is plain stupidity and the “freeze” doesn’t reflect the reality they are in.

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The progressives have failed to seize the moment

The news that the Democrats lost their long-held and iconic Massachusetts Senate seat has had the news services in apoplexy this week. One gets the impression from listening to the mainstream media, which is becoming more right-wing by the day, that the US President is on his last legs. The so-called progressive reaction seems to be that the “reform” agenda now has to be scaled back and a fiscal consolidation is required to steady nerves. While it is hard to actually see a progressive reform agenda in any country anyway, the more immediate danger is that the fiscal support that has been keeping our economies afloat all around the World will be withdrawn. The share markets are back, Goldman have record profits … so the crisis is over … That message dominates the business news. That the progressive side has not been able to take overwhelming command of the public debate, given the scale of the crisis and the fact that the neo-liberals/neo-cons etc have all been caught red-handed, is a stunning reflection of its obsequious and disorganised organisation. We need something very different to happen if things are not to revert to where they were.

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Looking beyond the peak

Today the ABS released the Labour Force data for December 2009 and it confirms that the Australian economy is still recovering under the steam of the fiscal stimulus. Total employment has grown by three times more than expected and participation is constant. Which means that unemployment has started to fall although underemployment hasn’t budged. While the media commentators today (including myself) have been fairly upbeat I have been reminding the public in media interviews that I have done that broader labour underutilisation (sum of unemployment and underemployment) remains at 13.5 per cent. But optimistically the trend is now looking as though the aggregate unemployment rate may have peaked. So it is now to start looking beyond the peak.

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Financial markets are mostly unproductive

Today I was reading some academic articles on the implications of budget deficits. In general, the amount of effort that goes into these articles doesn’t match the quality of the argument. They all have predictable formats – some proposition, then invoke neo-classical assumptions, do some mathematics (mostly second-rate in quality), then make a conclusion that was given anyway by the structure of the exercise. As a consequence there is no information content at all in these articles. Just gymnastic exercises. However, one article I read presented a new slant on the case against government spending. It also resonated with my reaction to the release of a major report on executive salaries in Australia today, which quashed hopes that shareholders would have more say in disciplining the companies they own. The debate generalises and points to the conclusion that financial markets are mostly unproductive and have conned us into thinking otherwise.

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Time to outlaw the credit rating agencies

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.

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Creeping along the bottom only

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.

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Direct public job creation now being debated

In Sunday’s New York Times, the Room for Debate series focused on one of my favourite topics – Should Public-Sector Jobs Come First?. The debate turns out to be very disappointing because even the so-called progressive offerings fall short of advocating an effective solution to the jobs crisis. Only one implies an understanding that the policy design proposed should not be compromised by an errant understanding of the way the fiat monetary system operates. Proposals that assume there is a financial constraint on government will almost certainly be second-rate. The debate could have been energised had the NYT sought expert opinion from those that are developing and implementing large public sector employment programs.

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The US government has run short of money

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.

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Most bananas are atheists …

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.

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Dubai is not a case of sovereign default

The Australian financial press today pushed the message “Dubai shook investor confidence across the Persian Gulf after its proposal to delay debt payments risked triggering the biggest sovereign default since Argentina in 2001”. Last time I knew, Dubai was an emirate and Argentina a sovereign nation. While the current crisis in Dubai is clearly an issue it is not an instance of sovereign default. Some research is required.

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I guess they didn’t want to win the war

Today in NSW it reached 41 degrees Celsius again. The bushfire season has started early and of-course we all conclude it is related to climate change. But I was thinking about other things – to wit – the difficulty new ideas that have relatively complex underpinnings face in gaining traction in the public debate which is saturated by single line mantras that the media loves to repeat over and over again. This thinking was, in part, motivated by two opinion polls I examined from the US. The second one indicated that a growing (and already dominant) proportion of US citizens want the US government to run balanced budgets. How I thought would they think that would work?

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Employment guarantees in vogue – well not really

Two related articles in The Economist last week (November 7, 2009) caught my attention. The first article – Battling joblessness – Has Europe got the answer – was about how the Continent may be a guide to all of us in tackling unemployment. The second article – Faring well – was extolling the virtues of India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). They provide a further basis for discussing employment guarantees.

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Australia’s response to climate change gets worse …

Just when you thought that the Australian Government’s response to climate change – the proposed emissions trading scheme (ETS) which promises to generously exempt or compensate the heavy polluters – was bad enough, it was announced today that it will also now indefinitely exclude agriculture from the ETS. The decision is purely political as was the earlier decision to exempt agriculture until 2015. All the Government is doing is appeasing the Opposition so that it can get the legislation through the Senate. The Opposition recently revealed that the majority of their parliamentarians deny there is a climate change problem. Why would you want to trade concessions with them? But the fundamental problem lies in the fact that the neo-liberal market-based paradigm is a totally unsuitable framework for dealing with climate change.

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Employment falls – better put interest rates up again

Here is today’s mystery question: when is it imperative that interest rates should rise? Answer according to most business economists in Australia: when official unemployment creeps up, underemployment rises; participation remains subdued, 88 per cent of the modest employment rise measured in persons is part-time, total employment in hours falls, and you have 26.4 per cent of your 15-24 year olds idle. The real answer: none of these commentators have the slightest sense of national priorities in terms of advancing public purpose and providing an adequate future for our youth. Talk about intergenerational burdens. All the focus is on the so-called debt overhang we are leaving our children. The biggest overhang we are leaving is our support for a government that refuses to provide enough jobs for them.

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Its all a matter of construction

A story in today’s media reminded me that the way we construct a problem significantly affects the way we seek to solve it. The story – Change or lose drought assistance, farmers told (and the related Editorial) – appeared in The Australian newspaper. They indicated that on-going drought assistance to farmers would have be accompanied by significant changes in farming practices. This is a major shift in our policy thinking but still begs the question of why we have such inconsistent ways of thinking about policy problems and their solutions.

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Progressive movements bound to stall

I was going to write about manufacturing today in the light the Campaign for America’s Future staging of Building the New Economy conference in Washington DC today. I started investigating what it was about. It raises a lot of issues what a progressive position should constitute. However, I got way laid by other things which were also interesting and will leave my blog about the demise of manufacturing for another day. But what this conference demonstrates to me is that we have a long way to go before we get a united progressive understanding of the way the modern monetary system works. And until we have that understanding, no real progress will be made reforming the economy. We will always be trading off tax cuts for spending increases and all that sort of mainstream mumbleconomics and feeling defensive any time a deficit arises. And then today, I started reading the latest report from the IMF …

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Another cost of the budget surpluses

The previous conservative Australian government ran budget surpluses for 10 out 11 years between 1997 and 2007 and lauded them as the exemplar of fiscal prudence. Of-course, from a modern monetary theory (MMT) perspective it was clear that the fiscal drag embodied in this strategy undermined the capacity of the domestic private sector to save (given the current account deficits) and forced growth to be dependent on the increased indebtedness of the household sector. It was an unsustainable strategy. It also coincided with the government destroying significant components of private wealth as they paid out government bonds and slowed the issue of new debt to a trickle. The previous treasurer talked relentlessly about getting the public debt monkey of our backs. Well apart from it never being on our backs in the first place, we are now seeing some hidden manifestations of this squeeze on private wealth.

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Criminal negligence … (n)OTT

Today’s blog is short. I returned home today to a mountain of things to do and missing luggage. In this day of computer networks and claimed security I fail to see how airlines cannot match every person who has a seat with a bag in the hold. They claim they take bags off when there is a no show so why do they lose bags? Anyway, all my papers from last week’s meetings are in the bag and my favourite coat so I am hoping it turns up. On the blog front, several readers have written to me in the last few days asking me about the rising risk of sovereign defaults that financial markets are apparently “pricing in”. In particular, so-called influential traders are now claiming that the US and Japan are approaching situations reminiscent of “countries on the verge of a sovereign debt default”. Sounds dire. We better investigate – but only for a short bit because I am tired from my journeys.

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