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.
This is Part 2 of my Three Part exposition of how the standard New Keynesian approach to the specification of fiscal rules will generate poor advice for politicians desiring to achieve progressive socio-economic goals. The paper I am using to represent the New Keynesian approach has, by all indications, been somewhat influential in the formation of the macroeconomic approach currently being espoused by the British Labour Party. In that sense, the critique aims to disabuse the Labour politicians and their apparatchiks of building policy options based on fake economic knowledge, and, instead, embrace the principles of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which provides an accurate depiction of how the monetary system actually operates and the policy options for a currency-issuing government such as in Britain, and the likely consequences of deploying these options. The one major lesson that comes out is that the New Keynesian approach is an elaborate fraud. It plays around with so-called ‘optimising’ models asserting human behaviour that no other social scientist believes remotely captures the essence of human decision-making, and then derives conclusions from these models that are claimed to apply to the world we live in. Prior to the GFC, these ‘models’ didn’t even consider the financial sector. The fact is that nothing of value in terms of specifying what a government should do can be gleaned from a New Keynesian approach. It is barren.
The British Labour Party is currently leading the Tories in the latest YouGov opinion polls (February 19-20, Tories 40 per cent (and declining), Labour 42 per cent (and rising). They should be further in front, given the disarray of the Conservatives as they try to negotiate within their own party something remotely acceptable about Brexit. When there is this degree of political capital available, in this case for the Labour Party, a party should use it to redefine policy agendas that have gone awry. To build a narrative that will advance their cause for the future decades. British Labour has a chance to 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. In part, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, Labour is making progressive noises on a number of fronts. But ultimately, where it really matters – the macroeconomic narrative – they are remaining firmly neoliberal and this will blight their chances of pursuing a truly progressive agenda. One of the glaring mistakes the Labour Party has made is to accept advice from neoliberal economists (so-called New Keynesians) who have instilled in them a need for fiscal rules. This is a three-part analysis of the sort of advice that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are getting and why they should ignore it. I have split it into two parts because it is long and quite involved at times.
During my postgraduate study years I read a 1954 article by American economist Clark Kerr entitled – The Balkanization of Labor Markets – which attacked the mainstream labour market views that there was mobility within labour markets such that poverty arising from low-pay was a function of workers’ preferences for low education and more leisure (that is, unemployment). As such, there was no reason for the government to intervene to improve wages or job security. Kerr’s thesis was that there was not a ‘single’ labour market accessible to all, where individual mobility would result from personal investment in education and skill development. Instead, he argued that the US labour market was “segmented” by institutional arrangements, which trapped some demographic cohorts into low-pay and insecure jobs. Poverty could arise from these traps. The idea morphed into the segmented labour market literature of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The applications were mostly Anglo because in non-Anglo countries there appeared to be more resistance to institutional arrangements that undermined the chance for workers to enjoy job security with decent pay. However, in recent years (decade) the trend towards precarious work where certain groups (women, youth, migrants) are trapped in low pay and frequent spells of unemployment has spread, with devastating consequences. The largest European economies – Germany and France – are now bedevilled with this issue and with a bias towards fiscal austerity, the path for workers out of the trap is limited.
Central banks around the world have been demonstrating how weak monetary policy is in trying to stimulate demand. They have been building up their balance sheets (massively) by creating reserves in return for government and corporate paper in an attempt to push their inflation rates up. But the data suggests their efforts are in vain. Which should inform all those who think that if the government stopped issuing debt to match their deficits there would be horrible inflation to think again. Progressives should be calling for their governments to abandon the gold standard practice of issuing debt, which would change the political dialogue considerably. Australia is also struggling to push it inflation rate into the so-called policy range of 2 to 3 per cent. Last week’s Australian Bureau of Statistics inflation data release – Consumer Price Index, Australia – data for the September-quarter 2017 showed that the September-quarter inflation rate was 0.6 per cent with an annual inflation rate of 1.8 per cent (down from 1.9 per cent last quarter). The headline inflation rate has been below the Reserve Bank of Australia’s lower target bound of 2 per cent for nearly two years now. Clearly, within their own logic where an inflation rate within the 2 to 3 per cent band reflects successful monetary policy, the RBA is failing. The RBA’s preferred core inflation measures – the Weighted Median and Trimmed Mean – are also now below the lower target bound and are not showing signs of moving up. The most reliable measure of inflationary expectations has also fallen quite sharply. With the labour market data demonstrating weakness and the economy stuck in this low inflation malaise, it is clearly time for a change in policy direction.
The ‘infinite-horizon fiscal gap’ is just an infinity of nonsense. That is, if such a level of ridiculousness can be measured, which it cannot. So suffice to say a pretty large dose of nonsense. Certainly nothing to take seriously. Anyone who sprouts this nonsense declares themselves unqualified to discuss notions of sovereignty and the capacities of a currency-issuing state. But while some mainstream economists are firmly stuck in their Groupthink-riddled stupors with their ‘infinite-horizon fiscal gap’ calculations producing ever increasing (scaremungous) $ sums that the US government is allegedly unable to ever pay, the movers and shakers of the political scene, such as the Koch Brothers in the US, feel no compunction to stick with a consistent line attacking fiscal deficits. A few years ago they were predicting mayhem and insolvency just like the stupified academics. How things change when some dollars are up for grabs even if the fiscal deficit has to rise to transfer that largesse to the non-government sector. Then it is look the other way on the deficit and send us the cash. Sickening.
In the most recent – Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings: 2016 provisional results – published by the British Office of National Statistics on October 26, 2016, we learn what we had suspected for some time – the purchasing power of workers’ wages are now lower than before the GFC. Neo-liberalism at work in Britain. Today (May 17, 2017), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released its latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the March-quarter 2017. For the fifth consecutive quarter, annual growth in wages has recorded its lowest level since the data series began in the December-quarter 1997. Nominal wages growth in Australia was just 1.9 per cent in annual terms below the annual inflation rate for March of 2.1 per cent. So real wages declined even though productivity growth remains positive – which means that the profit share in national income rose again as real unit labour costs plunged. But employment growth also remains flat. This represents a major rip-off for workers. The flat wages trend is also intensifying the pre-crisis dynamics, which saw private sector credit rather than real wages drive growth in consumption spending. As I also noted in last week’s commentary on the 2017 Fiscal Statement – Australian government in contractionary bias when stimulus is needed – the forward estimates for fiscal outcomes provided by the Australian government are already under threat as a result of the cuts in real wages. There is no way the tax receipts will rise in line with the projections, which assumed much stronger wages and employment growth than will occur under current austerity-type fiscal settings
On March 24, 2017, the Portuguese government (via Instituto Nacional de Estatística or Statistics Portugal) sent Eurostat its – Excessive Deficit Procedure (1st Notification) – 2017 – which is part of the formal process of the EU surveillance on the fiscal policy outcomes for Member States. The data submitted to the EU showed that the Government had reduced its fiscal deficit from 4.4 per cent in 2015 to 2.1 per cent in 2016, thus bringing it within the Stability and Growth Pact rules (below 3 per cent). However its public debt to GDP ratio rose modestly over that time from 129 per cent to 130.4 per cent. The other stunning fact presented, which hasn’t received much attention in the media, was that government spending on gross fixed capital formation fell from 4,049.3 million euros in 2015 to 2,879.6 million euros in 2016, a 29 per cent decline. Further, real GDP growth has been positive for the several quarters now and this has boosted tax revenue. The popular press has been claiming this is a Keynesian miracle – spawning growth and cutting the fiscal deficit. There is some truth to the statement that the ‘Socialist’ government has reversed some of the worst austerity policies introduced by the previous right-wing government, acting as puppets of the Troika. But what has been going on in Portugal highlights the myopia inherent in the restrictive Eurozone fiscal rules, which promote very short-term behaviour on the part of the Member State governments. As Portugal is currently demonstrating, it is prepared (and is motivated by the fiscal rules) to sacrifice sustained prosperity for short-term appeasement of Brussels. Short-term growth can occur within limits at the expense of long-run potential.
On November 29, 2016, Mario Draghi, the President of the ECB wrote to Mr Jonás Fernández, a Spanish European Parliament member in reply to a request for clarification from the Chairman of the EP’s Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs (ECON). The Letter discussed whether it would be legal under the Lisbon Treaty for the ECB to engage in direct monetary transfers to citizens bypassing the Member States and whether such a policy would be beneficial for economic growth. Several commentators have seized on the response from the ECB as saying that such a policy innovation would be both legal and beneficial. My view is that, in forming this conclusion, they have not fully understood the difference between a monetary and a fiscal operation. While I think the policy would produce positive results, in the sense that it would stimulate growth and employment and reduce unemployment, I also believe it would be illegal under the Treaty. Further, I don’t think it is a progressive position to argue that a group of unelected and unaccountable technocrats in the central bank should be in charge of economic policy. That should be the responsibility of the democratically-elected members of the government who are fully accountable every electoral cycle. The ECB should not become a fiscal agent. Rather, if the Eurozone elites cannot implement (which they cannot) a full federal treasury function then it should disband the monetary union in an orderly way.
I guess the venality of the new US Presidency isn’t creating enough news for the Australian press. On January 29, 2017, the Fairfax press wheeled out the veritable debt scaremongering in this article – Scott Morrison to lift credit limit as Australia’s debt hurtles towards $500 billion – reporting that the Australian government “will be forced to lift its own self-imposed credit limit in the coming months as debt hurtles towards half-a-trillion dollars”. Instead of writing about how stupid and unnecessary this ‘self-imposed limit’ is, the journalist wanted to talk about the disaster that awaits us as the debt of the currency issuing government “hurtles” like some asteroid to its death towards half-a-trillion dollars. As I said, must have been a day that imagination in the journalistic world was lacking. The worst part of the story is not the idiocy of its logic or the fact that it links to an inane Australian Debt Clock homepage, but, rather, the reported response from the Labor Party Shadow Treasurer. The Labor party is meant to represent the workers and claims to be the progressive force in Australian politics. That ladies and gentlemen is the sick joke of all time. This is a party that has abandoned its traditional remit (to defend the well-being of workers) and instead spouts neo-liberal gibberish without knowing it.
The latest labour force data released today by the Australian Bureau of Statistics – Labour Force data – for December 2016 shows total employment barely increased and the ABS said the trend to part-time work remains. Over the last 12 months, Australia has lost 34 thousand full-time jobs (in net terms) and added only 91.5 thousand overall. This status as the nation of part-time employment growth carries many attendant negative consequences – poor income growth, precarious work, lack of skill development etc. The teenage labour market remains in a poor state and went backwards in December. It requires urgent policy intervention. Overall, with weak private investment now on-going and real GDP contracting (in the September-quarter), the Australian labour market is weak and there needs to be a policy shift. It is clear that the current policy position adopted by the Federal government is not sufficient to redress the inadequate non-government spending growth.
Its hard to keep track of the variety of ways that this neo-liberal era has screwed workers. The latest report from the UK Institute of Fiscal Studies (January 13, 2017) – Two decades of income inequality in Britain: the role of wages, household earnings and redistribution. I read that report after I had studied the latest income distribution figures from the British Office of National Statistics (January 10, 2017) – Household disposable income and inequality in the UK: financial year ending 2016. The latter suggests that income inequality has decreased in Britain since . The former revealed that in the last two decades there has been a “four-fold increase” in the prime-age males (25-55 years) working part-time on low wages. But closer scrutiny of the figures reveals that they are not inconsistent because the falling inequality is not the result of low-wage workers improving their position. Anyway, this is another legacy of New Labour – screw the workers you claim to represent. It is just another part of the scam of Blairism exposed.
The latest labour force data released today by the Australian Bureau of Statistics – Labour Force data – for November 2016 shows total employment barely increased and the ABS said the trend to part-time work remains. Over the last 12 months, Australia has produced only 84.9 thousand (net) jobs with 107.2 thousand of them being part-time jobs. In other words, full-time employment has fallen by 22.2 thousand jobs over the same period. This status as the nation of part-time employment growth carries many attendant negative consequences – poor income growth, precarious work, lack of skill development etc. The teenage labour market remains in a poor state and was treading water in November. It requires urgent policy intervention. Overall, with weak private investment now on-going and real GDP contracting (in the September-quarter), the Australian labour market is weak and there needs to be a policy shift. We will learn next week when the Federal government makes its Mid-Year Fiscal statement whether they have taken heed of the message in the data over the last few months. Australia needs a rather sizeable fiscal stimulus. My bet is that the Government will not have the good sense to introduce this required boost to total spending. But the deteriorating data is staring us all in the face now! There is no room for nuance. It is at the stage where the Federal treasurer should resign and admit his failure (see below).
The field of psychology is usually ignored by mainstream economists, which, in its typically arrogant and closed practice, adopts a series of a priori assumptions about human behaviour – the so-called Homo economicus – where were are always rational and self-interested and, as a result, always make choices that maximise our present and future well-being based on available market signals. Real world forces that condition actual human behaviour, such as cognitive biases and irrationality, in general, as well as cooperative and collective behaviour is ignored by mainstream neo-classical (free market) economic theory, because admitting its dominance in human decision-making would void the entire edifice of that theory and scuttle the authority that is given to the on-going narratives about deregulation, small government, privatisation, pernicious cutting of income support, and the rest of the economic policies that have defined this dysfunctional neo-liberal era. But humans do not behave in the way economists suggest. We are a complex mass of irrationality, custom, habit, and affect. We certainly use cognitive processes in our decision making but often we take shortcuts based on affect. These tendencies are pushing our behaviour back to what was normal before the credit binge that led to the GFC. This shift in our behaviour is associated with stagnation and entrenched mass unemployment. But the reason for these parlous outcomes is not that we have returned to more normal spending behaviour but, rather, because governments have not realised that they had to return to more normal behaviour as well. Instead of promoting the benefits of austerity (in the face of all evidence to the contrary), governments should have been promoting the benefits of continuous fiscal deficits to support non-government saving desires and maintain better employment outcomes and stronger income growth. The malaise advanced nations are stuck in at present is directly the result of ideologically-motivated choices made by governments to use to use fiscal policy properly. Neo-liberal ideology remains dominant but citizens are rebelling and something has to give.
The new governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia (our central bank) gave a speech in Melbourne yesterday (November 15, 2016) – Buffers and Options to the annual dinner of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA). CEDA is a seedy type of organisation that typically advances the neo-liberal agenda. Please read my blog – The CEDA Report – one of the worst ever – for more discussion on this point. But that is not the topic today. The new governor has already began his tenure in disappointing fashion. I discussed his first foray into public life in this role in the blog – First appearance by Australia’s new central bank governor disappointing. His latest public intervention suggests he is hardening this stance – perpetuating the myths that a currency-issuing government is dependent on bond markets for its spending capacity and that public borrowing puts a burden on future generations. While today’s blog is about Australia, the principles elucidated are universal.
The last few months Australian Bureau of Statistics data has shown that Austrlia is becoming a nation of part-time employment. The latest labour force data released today by the Australian Bureau of Statistics – Labour Force data – for September 2016 shows that trend to be intensifying with negative employment growth being recorded for the second consecutive month and a 0.4 decline in the participation rate over the same period. Over the last 12 months, Australia has produced a total (net) of 163.1 thousand jobs overall with 196.1 thousand part-time jobs being offset by the higher quality loss of 86.5 thousand jobs. Australia maintains its status as the nation of part-time employment growth with all the attendant negative consequences. Further, the only reason that the unemployment level and rate fell is because the labour force shrank faster than total employment. This was due to the 0.2 percentage point decline in participation. The teenage labour market remains in a poor state and requires urgent policy intervention. Overall, with weak private investment now on-going, the Australian labour market is looking in pretty dismal shape and the Federal government should immediately renounce its ill-informed austerity narrative and announce a rather sizeable fiscal stimulus to provide some fiscal leadership to the nation. This should include a large-scale public sector job creation program which would ensure teenagers regained the jobs that have been lost due to the fiscal drag over the last several years. The deteriorating data is staring us all in the face now! There is no room for nuance.
There was a Project Syndicate article (September 2, 2016) – The Unavoidable Costs of Helicopter Money – claiming that “In fact, there are major downsides to helicopter money”. Hmm. Should I read this article was my thought at the the time. Waste a few minutes of my life. I wondered if I could pen the article in advance and then check to see how close I was. The theme would be inflation. In that I was correct. But the author really innovated a bit and, in doing so, undermined his own argument. What we learn is fairly straightforward. If a government continues to increase nominal spending growth ahead of the growth in productive capacity then there will be inflation. The argument presented is, in fact, nothing to do with the monetary operations that accompany government spending – helicopter or otherwise. The inflation risk is in the spending. If private investment expenditure outstripped the capacity of the supply-side to produce the capital equipment demanded then the same outcome. Should we caution against such expenditure? Should be make it taboo? Obviously not.
In yesterday’s blog – Time for fiscal policy as we learn more about monetary policy ineffectiveness – I discussed, in part, the way that fiscal and monetary policy in Japan were working in a harmonious way, in contradistinction to the way these two major policy levers are working elsewhere (for example, Australia and the Eurozone). One of the results of that harmony is that the official unemployment rate in Japan has dropped to 3.1 per cent, the lowest since July 1995. I considered the willingness of the Japanese government to introduce and maintain large fiscal stimulus programs under its Prime Minister – Shinzō Abe – to be a major contributing factor in that reduction (down from 5.5 per cent in July 2009). However, a Bloomberg journalist asserts that – Japan’s Plunging Jobless Rate Is All About Aging, not Abenomics (published August 10, 2016). We can explore whether that assertion is true. It will certainly be partly true given the population ageing in Japan. That is what this blog is about today.