The dissonance in mainstream economics and the political debate about policy settings is getting deeper and more public. We now have examples of central bankers ‘throwing their hands up in the air’ and nearly begging governments to abandon their obsession with fiscal surpluses, and, instead, use fiscal policy to stimulate waning economic growth. What I think is happening is that we are entering a period of fiscal dominance, which will represent a categorical rejection of the mainstream macroeconomics consensus that has dominated policy making since the 1980s – the neoliberal era. In turn, this shift will ratify the main precepts of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). We are observing paradigm shift occurring as the dominant neoliberal paradigm fails at every turn. There is a long way to go though before the practitioners acknowledge that such a shift has occurred. But there is progress.
It is Wednesday and so a less intensive blog post. Note how I no longer claim it will be shorter. The less intensive claim refers to how much research I have to put in to write the post. Apart from some beautiful music, the topic for today is yesterday’s RBA decision to cut interest rates to record low levels. The decision won’t save the economy from recession and highlights the sort of desperation that central bankers now face as governments shunt the responsibility of counterstabilisation onto them while claiming that achieving fiscal surpluses is the brief of the treasuries. This self-defeating strategy – failing to use the most effective policy tool in favour of an ineffective tool is the neoliberal way. It is the recipe that New Keynesian macroeconomics offers. It is mindless, ideological nonsense and the problem is that it is not the top-end-of-town that suffers from the negative outcomes that follow. Quite the opposite in fact.
Last week (June 20, 2019), the British Chancellor (for now) gave his – Mansion House dinner speech 2019 – Philip Hammond – at the Lord Mayor’s residence just across the road from the Bank of England in London, which should have conditioned the content of his speech. The guests at Hammond’s evening were mostly male bankers with the usual cohort of politicians. This event is the UK equivalent of the US President’s State of the Union speech except at the British event, both senior economic officials, the Chancellor and the governor of the Bank of England address the audience. The Chancellor’s speech, aimed mostly at the potential PM candidates tried to claim that the if Britain was to exit the EU without a ‘deal’ then the Government would run out of money. He didn’t use those words but shrouded the message in buzz-terms such as “fiscal space” and “fiscal headroom”, which are among those mainstream macroeconomic terms that mean nothing when coming from a guy like Hammond. Worse, was the response over the weekend by the Shadow Chancellor.
It is Wednesday and only a relatively short blog post. Yes, some more on that Fiscal Rule that seems to be causing people to lose sleep (not me). First, we had the Duck Test debate about the British Labour Party Fiscal Credibility Rule. Those promoting the Rule have been at lengths to deny its neoliberal framing, language and concepts. Not an easy task when the Rule talks about a currency-issuing government wanting to avoid “putting the rent on the credit card month after month”. Sounds like a duck to me. Then there was the ‘all critics (me) are stupid’ approach because they (I) apparently didn’t understand the Rule, simple as it is in construction. That didn’t end well either. Now, rather innovatively, we have the introduction of the Secret British Labour Party Fiscal Credibility Rule – which tells us that the actual British Labour Party Fiscal Credibility Rule, you know, the one published by the “General Secretary of the Labour Party on behalf of the Labour Party” is not the real rule. There is another one that us silly billy types have failed to detect and only those who have close personal contact with the members of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England could possibly know about. So in our ignorance we have no right to criticise the Rule or to impute nasty motivations from the MPC (not that we did impute anything anyway). And, to put the icing on the cake, we now are told that the Chancellor can abandon this ‘Secret’ Rule whenever he/she likes and does not require the imprimatur of the MPC anyway – so butt out all of you. Of course, only those who are part of our insiders’ club can know anything about this. Summary: Losers getting more lost each time they try to come up with a justification for the duck!
In Part 1, I introduced the discussion about the use of industry policies in the Keynesian period after World War 2. Most nations adopted a mixed planning-market based system for allocating productive resources and the state was always central in setting out planning parameters, direct ownership and employment, and regulation. It was a system that researchers described as being “highly successful”. Two approaches to industrialisation were taken: (a) export-oriented (for example, South Korea); and (b) import-substitution (for example, India), although in most cases, nations used both strategies. As neoliberalism emerged and the fixed exchange rate system broke down in the early 1970s, the IMF, whose purpose was intrinsically tied to providing foreign reserves to nations under the fixed exchange rate system, no longer had a purpose. They reinvented themselves as the neoliberal attack dog for corporations and global capital. They also provided cover for governments who were embracing the Monetarist ideas of Milton Friedman and intent on imposing fiscal austerity. These governments had become captured by corporate interests and by appealing to external demands from bodies such as the IMF, these governments could depoliticise harsh policy shifts away from Keynesian full employment. I used Britain as an example. Tony Benn, a Left Labour member in the British Parliament and Secretary for Industry, proposed an alternative industrial plan to revitalise British industry in 1975. It was rejected at the time by Harold Wilson and Denis Healey, who were intent on imposing fiscal austerity and deregulating. They used the scare that the IMF would have to bailout Britain as a ruse to force their Monetarist ideology onto the British Labour Party. It was no surprise that in an era where governments started abandoning fiscal support to maintain full employment, deregulated labour and financial markets, and abandoned domestic protections for their industries, many industries would go to the wall. The IMF claimed that this shows industry policy focused on import-substitution can never work. But the culprit was not flawed industry policy. Rather, it was the withdrawal of all the accompanying support structures that made it work, but which ran counter to the neoliberal ideology of ‘free markets’. Now the IMF is having a rethink based on the devastation that neoliberalism has caused. On March 26, 2019, the IMF published a new working paper (19/74) – The Return of the Policy That Shall Not Be Named: Principles of Industrial Policy. Now, we are reading that the IMF has conceded that industry policy interventions that were the basis of economic planning in the Keynesian era were highly successful and only stopped being so, in some cases, when fiscal austerity was imposed and trade controls were abandoned in the 1970s. This is Part 2 of the two-part series on this topic.
In 1975, Tony Benn, a Left Labour member in the British Parliament and Secretary for Industry, proposed an alternative industrial plan to revitalise British industry. At the time, the Prime Minister and Chancellor were becoming attracted to Monetarism and started framing and implementing the austerity-type fiscal strategies that are common today. Benn opposed this approach, and, instead proposed a far-reaching alternative economic strategy that involved increased industrial planning to revitalise British industry. The growing ‘free market’ orthodoxy at the time, spearheaded by the IMF and the World Bank, which had transformed into neoliberal enforcement agencies, were vehemently opposed to any form of industry policies or state intervention. As a result, Benn was basically shut out of the debate and this helped transform social democratic politics into the mess it is today. Ironically, now the IMF is changing its tune. It has recently rediscovered how effective industry policies of the type Benn was proposed actually can be if supported by coherent policy structures. Irony two is that these supportive policy structures are the opposite to those typically proposed by the IMF. At the time, there were economists (such as yours truly) who knew that the descent into neoliberalism would be a disaster and hamper growth and more equal distributions of wealth and income. But that view was also shut out. Now, without shame, the IMF are basically admitting the decades of insufferable neoliberal policies that they forced onto nations may have been wrong. Industry policy is back in focus. Imagine if they never had seduced the world with their snake oil. British politics, for one, would have been quite different. Brexit could very well happened in 1975 under a Labour government. And more. This is Part 1 of a two-part series which will finish tomorrow.
This morning, I declared that I was angry on a multitude of levels. I am part of a local community group that is fighting greedy developers, corporate real estate speculators and a compliant local council over an outrageous abuse of planning. That really gets me mad. NSW, the state I reside in mostly, just re-elected a corrupt conservative government, largely because the former leader of the Labor opposition couldn’t keep his hands out of the clothing of a female journalist and his successor mouthed off about Asians taking our jobs. Bloody hell, the Labor Party had it won, and then lost it. Angry. Then we go a little higher in the hierarchy to the fiscal statement (aka ‘The Budget’) which the conservative Australian government brought down last night. And outrageous piece of chicanery and economic malpractice. What is worse is the head of the Federal Opposition’s policy think tank – the John Curtin Research Centre – put out an Op Ed late last week accusing the Conservative government of not doing enough to “address debt” and shirking “serious, structural repair” and not having a public “debt ceiling”. What the F&*k! Did the IMF write this piece? The ‘think tank’ claims it is a “social democratic think-tank dedicated to developing ideas and policies for a better Australia”. Yes, folks that is what social democracy means in Australia – neoliberalism! More on the fiscal statement in what follows. And if I wasn’t already hugely mad enough with all of that, I read that the British Labour Party is desperate for Britain to stay in the Single Market – lock-stock-and-barrel. What! This is the most advanced expression of neoliberalism. I guess it is consistent with their ridiculous ‘Fiscal Credibility Rule’ that keeps the current Labour Party firmly in the Blairite tradition – scared to death of those creeping, amorphous financial markets and so lacking in confidence that they hang on to the grim lies that Dennis Healey introduced to Labour narratives in the mid-1970s. Mad as hell about that! And then we get to Brexit central. The people voted in a majority to LEAVE! It was a correct decision for the long-term, progressive future of Britain. The cosmopolitan liberals couldn’t cope with the idea of, maybe, having to queue up at the border of the 27-nation European Union when they go on their next ski holiday. Their answer – vilify the voters who knew the EU was the exemplar of neoliberalism and do everything to stop the departure. Enter a totally incompetent Tory government to oversee the departure and you get an almighty mess. For once I agree with the former Bank of England governor – Britain should get out next week with no deal and announce a major fiscal stimulus to keep the economy moving while adjustment occurs. So I am glad I have a full head of hair! Then I read another plethora of anti-MMT pieces and my humour improved. A bit of comedy is always important!
Everywhere I read it seems, the ‘Green New Deal’ appears. I wrote a bit about it last week in my evaluation of the latest US job numbers – US labour market moderated in November and considerable slack remains (December 11, 2018). The point I made there was that a shift to a green economy would possibly generate around 21 million jobs (14 per cent of total US employment), which given reasonable estimates of excess capacity would require a huge shift in the employment structure and multiples of the available idle labour supply. Of course, that is the objective – to shift workers from fossil fuel, carbon intensive industries into sustainable activities. That is no easy task and would require a fundamental shift in the government-market balance in terms of resource allocation. The market alone will not accomplish that shift in a desirable manner. Cue – more regional and occupation planning. I have also been seeing an increasing number of Tweets talking about a ‘Just Transition’ framework, something I have written about in the past. And there are now Tweets out there equating that with a Job Guarantee. At that point, we get ahead of ourselves. We must see the Job Guarantee in perspective and not ask it to do too much. That is what this blog post is about.
Pathetic was the first word that came to mind when I read this article – The Italian Budget: A Case of Contractionary Fiscal Expansion? – written by Olivier Blanchard and Jeromin Zettlemeyer, from the Peter Peterson Institute for International Economics. Here is a former IMF chief economist and a former German economic bureaucrat continuing to rehearse the failed ‘fiscal contraction expansion’ lie that rose to prominence during the worst days of the GFC, when the European Commission and the IMF (along with the OECD and other groups) touted the idea of ‘growth friendly’ austerity. Nations were told that if they savagely cut public spending their economies would grow because interest rates would be lower and private investment would more than fill the gap left by the spending cuts. History tells us that the application of this nonsense caused devastation throughout, with Greece being the showcase nation. The damage and carnage left by the application of these mainstream New Keynesian ideas are still reverberating in elevated unemployment rates, high poverty rates, broken communities and increased suicide rates, to name a few of the pathologies it engendered. But the ‘boys are back in town’ (sorry Thin Lizzy) and Blanchard and Zettlemeyer are falling in behind the IMF and the European Commission against the current Italian government by demanding fiscal cutbacks. It will turn out badly for Italy if the government buckles under this sort of pressure. It once again shows that the mainstream economics profession has learned very little from the GFC. For them the story stays the same. It is one that we should reject in every circle it arises. This is Part 1 of a two-part analysis of the latest incarnation of this ruse my profession inflicts on societies.
It is Wednesday and I am doing the final corrections to our Macroeconomics textbook manuscript before it goes off to the ‘printers’ for publication in March 2019. It has been a long haul and I can say that writing a textbook is much harder than writing a monograph not only because the latter are more exciting in the drafting phase. The attention to detail in a textbook that runs over 600 pages is quite taxing. Anyway, that is taking my attention today. I also plan to write some more about Brexit in the coming weeks and Japan (tomorrow). But today, I have updated some ECB data on household and corporate borrowing and the cost of borrowing to see what sort of recovery is going on. With nations such as Germany now recording negative growth in the third-quarter, it is clear that the Eurozone is stalling again. The explanation doesn’t require any rocket science. It is all there in the behaviour of the non-government sector (saving more overall) and fiscal rules that are too tight to offset that saving desire. The reliance on monetary policy is an ineffective tool to provide the offset in non-government saving overall. Fiscal policy has to be reinstated to the primary position and that means nations such as Italy must consider exiting the dysfunctional monetary union that biases nations to recession and stagnation.
Last night in Britain (October 29, 2018), the British Chancellor released the – Budget 2018 – aka the 2018 fiscal statement (my terminology, to avoid triggering the flawed household budget analogy). The detailed analysis is being done by others and I haven’t had enough time to read all the documents produced by the Government and others yet anyway. But of the hundreds of pages of data and documentation I have been able to consult, the Government is trying to win back votes while not particularly changing its austerity bias. That is fairly clear once you dig a little into the outlook statement produced by the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR). The Government’s strategy is also unsustainable because it continues the reliance on debt accumulation in the non-government sector, which will eventually hit a brick wall as the balance sheet of that sector becomes overly precarious. Nothing much has been learned from the GFC in that respect. The Government can only cut its debt by piling more onto the non-government sector. Second, the response of the Left has been pathetic. The Fabians, for example, has put out a document that uses all sorts of neoliberal frames and language, making it indistinguishable from something the mainstream macroeconomists would pump out – the anathema of the constructs and language that the Left should be using. There is a reason the political Left has fallen by the wayside over the last 3 or so decades. And their penchant to write and speak like neoliberals is part of the story.
Over the last weekend, it seemed that we had a return of the Spanish Inquisition with a prominent British academic, who by his own words designed the fiscal rule that British Labour has unwisely adopted, repeatedly demanding that MMT Tweeters confess to knowing that I was completely wrong on my interpretation of the fiscal rule. It is apparent that my meeting with the British Shadow Chancellor in London recently and my subsequent discussion of that meeting has brought the issues relating to the fiscal rule out into the open, which is a good thing. It is now apparent that British Labour is still, to some extent, back in the 1970s, carrying an irrational fear of what financial markets can do when confronted with the legislative authority of a sovereign government. I am not a psychologist so I cannot help them heal that irrational angst. But the claims that I misunderstood the fiscal rule – which are being repeated daily now by the fanboys of the rule are just ludicrous. The rule is simple. And it will bring Labour grief politically. Rolling windows or not!
The media has been giving a lot of attention in the last week to the 10-year anniversary of the Lehman Brothers crash which occurred on September 15, 2008 and marked the realisation, after months of denial, that there was a financial crisis underway. Lots of articles have been published recently about what we have learned from this historical episode. I thought that the Rolling Stone article by Matt Taibbi (September 13, 2018) – Ten Years After the Crash, We’ve Learned Nothing – pretty much summed it up. We have learned very little. Commentators still construct the crisis as a sovereign debt problem and demand that governments reduce fiscal deficits to give them ‘space’ to defend the economy in the next crisis. They are also noting that the balance sheets of the non-government sector components – households and firms – are looking rather precarious. They also tie that in with flat wages growth and a run down in household saving. But the link between the fiscal data and the non-government borrowing data is never made. So we are moving headlong into the next crisis with very little understanding of the relationship between government and non-government. And we are increasingly relying on private sector debt buildup to fund growth as governments retreat. Everything about that is wrong.
The Project Syndicate is held out as an independent, quality source of Op Ed discussion. When you scan through the economists that contribute you see quite a pattern and it is the anathema of ‘independent’. There is really no commentary that is independent, if you consider the term relates to schools of thought that an economist might work within. We are all bound by the ideologies and language of those millieu. So I assess the input from an institution (like Project Syndicate) in terms of the heterodoxy of its offerings. A stream of economic contributions that are effectively drawn from the same side of macroeconomics is not what I call ‘independent’. And you see that in the recurring arguments that get published. In this blog post, I discuss Jeffrey Frankel’s latest UK Guardian article (August 29, 2018) – US will lack fiscal space to respond when next recession comes – which was syndicated from Project Syndicate. Frankel thinks that the US is about to experience a major recession and that its government has run out of fiscal space because it is not running surpluses. We could summarise my conclusion in one word – nonsense. But a more civilised response follows.
In my analysis of the UK fiscal statement that George Osborne released on March 23, 2011 – I don’t wanna know one thing about evil (April 29, 2011) – I noted that the imposition of fiscal austerity in Britain meant that any hope of growth was really dependent on a combination of export growth and household consumption growth. With the former source unlikely and household income growth sluggish (and falling in real terms), households would have to run deficits, which necessitated running down savings and/or increasing borrowing. British households were already overloaded with debt at the time. The New Keynesian economic orthodoxy claimed that my concerns about a growth strategy that was ultimately reliant on increasing household indebtedness were misplaced because the debt would be accompanied by increased wealth via rising house prices. Well the most recent data available from the British Office of National Statistics and other sources (house prices) shows that my concerns were real. Real housing prices have been falling for the last few years in Britain and are now growing at their slowest pace since 2013. Further, ONS data shows that “UK households have seen their outgoings surpass their income for the first time in nearly 30 years” and they “are borrowing more and saving less”. At the same time, households are accumulating more debt than assets and borrowing more by way of non-mortgage loans to cover the squeeze on disposable incomes. Also, it is not just mortgage debt that has been rising. The real burden of short-term household debt (credit cards etc) in Britain has risen dramatically over the last 20 years. The rising debt and household deficits are also concentrated at the lower end of the income distribution and wealth inequality is rising significantly. Then we learn that in excess of 30 per cent of British children are living in poverty. So in the face of withering fiscal austerity that is impacting severely on the prosperity of the current generation of adults, the policy failure is also ensuring that the disadvantage will be taken into the next generation of adults and their children. Deprivation breeds deprivation. This is a fundamental realignment of British society that will take it back to C19th-type relativities.
The Australian Treasurer brought down the 2018-19 Fiscal Statement (aka Budget) on Tuesday evening with much fanfare. The one message that dominated the cant and hypocrisy was that there will probably be an early election, maybe later this year. The Government is scandal-ridden, is enduring destructive infighting over leadership and policy direction, and has made some monumentally disastrous decisions in the current term of office (for example, denying the need for a Royal Commission into the financial sector, which they were bulldozed into finally accepting, and, which is now revealing massive corruption in our banks and insurance companies). Being so far down in the opinion polls means one thing. They use the annual ‘fiscal’ show to make themselves look good and dollop out (albeit with a lag) some scraps (tax cuts) to the masses, while reserving the huge tax cuts for the top-end-of-town. And, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I didn’t even bother to listen to the Treasurer’s speech. In fact, I could write some text generating code which would generate a ‘Budget Speech’ that was remarkably similar to the Treasurer’s speech. So why waste 30 minutes in the evening listening to it. I would prefer to be sorting socks in my sock draw!
On May 4, 2018, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – April 2018 – which showed that total non-farm employment from the payroll survey rose by just 164,000 in April, which was an improvement on the very modest rise in March. The Labour Force Survey data, however, showed that employment only rose by 3 thousand) in April 2018 but was accompanied by a substantial fall in the labour force (236 thousand) which meant that total unemployment fell by 239 thousand. The unemployment rate fell to 3.93 per cent (from 4.07) but this does not signal a stronger labour market. There is still a large jobs deficit remaining. Finally, there is no evidence of a wages breakout going on. Taken together, the US labour market is showing no definite trend up or down at present and it is still some distance from being at full employment.
I am generally not in favour of trade protection. I grew up in a country that had very extensive protection (tariffs, import quotas) on manufacturing goods, which was justified on a number of grounds – capacity to shift to defense industries; stable employment; and more abstractly, an expression of becoming a ‘modern’ nation, leaving our agrarian roots behind. The initial move to impose high tariffs was that a young industry would take time to develop – the so-called infant industry argument, which goes back to the 1790 Report on Manufactures written by American economist Alexander Hamilton. The problem is that the infant never really grew up and the tariffs just became a cosy rent-sharing margin for unions and multinational corporations. Meanwhile consumers paid excessive prices for deficient-quality motor vehicles (among other products). It is clear that as trade opens up there are workers and regions that lose – and lose badly. The answer is not try to reinvent the past through protection. Rather, it is to use the government’s fiscal capacity to create new opportunities in these regions to ensure that workers disadvantaged by import competition can transit into new jobs with stable incomes. That option is often overlooked because modern governments have become obsessed with austerity. And, as I argue below, that obsession will in the context of Donald Trump’s tariff hikes, work against the European nations that are running ridiculously large current account surpluses.
On March 13, 2018, the OECD released its latest Economic Outlook with accompanying “Interim projections” as at March 2018) suggesting that the current growth phase will continue through to next year as consumer and business confidence improves and translates in higher investment rates. The OECD, however, forecasts that growth in the Eurozone will decline over the next two years. The major Eurozone nations (France, Germany and Italy) are not witnessing the growing investment expenditure. The Eurozone might be seeing a little sunshine creeping out from the very dark clouds. But it is far from recovered and the future is ominously black. Key cyclical indicators remain at depressed levels, which means that when the next cycle hits, the Eurozone will be in a much worse position than before. And the reason: the fundamentally flawed design of the monetary system with its accompanying austerity bias. The reform required is root-and-branch rather than a prune here and there.
This is Part 3 (and final) in the series which examines the robustness of claims made by two British academics about the desirability of the British government (particularly Labour) adopting further fiscal constraints on their flexibility to advance well-being in that nation. Part 3 further develops the critique and focuses on the validity of tightening voluntary constraints on government and outsourcing key parts of the fiscal policy development process to so-called ‘independent’ fiscal councils or boards. We conclude that these suggestions would further entrench the neoliberal dominance of government policy and reduce its capacity to serve the wider interest. In effect, taking this sort of advice would be counterproductive for British Labour, which really needs to to further break out of its recent Blairite neoliberal past and present a truly progressive manifesto to the British people that will force the Tories to move closer to the centre and squeeze the extreme right-wing elements. This will require more than articulating progressive-sounding social and environmental policies. It will require more than proposals to renationalise the railways. Effectively, British Labour has to reframe the macroeconomic debate and eschew the sort of reasoning that the mainstream of my profession offers. It must, in my view, embrace Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) principles to free itself from the shackles of all the neoliberal mumbo jumbo that the New Keynesians continually offer as economic verities. The reality is the the New Keynesian approach has one output – an elaborate litany of lies.