Redefining full employment … again!

In the 1980s, as high unemployment persisted following the 1975 OPEC oil shock and the stagflation that accompanied it and then the 1982 recession and its aftermath, neo-liberals started to seek new ways of justifying the lack of government action in restoring full employment. Being very clever, they came up with an ingenious solution – redefine what full employment means. So as the unemployment rate rose they claimed that the so-called “equilibrium unemployment rate” had also risen which meant that attempts to reduce it by expansionary policy would be inflationary. They claimed the only way the government could act was to initiate “structural reforms” aka privatisation, labour market deregulation, anti-union legislation and harsh welfare measures. Why should we be so surprised that they are at it again? The truth is that recessions cause structural imbalances which are corrected again if economic growth is strong enough in the post recession phase.

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The interest rate should be set at zero

The discussion about the relative merits of monetary policy and fiscal policy is on-going. A regular billy blog reader has asked me to give some thought to this discussion, specifically in terms of whether monetary policy is a useful counter-stabilisation option. My view is that if one takes a modern monetary perspective then it is clear that the current reliance on monetary policy (accompanied by the budget deficit phobia) will always fail to deliver full employment and relies on the impoverishment of the disadvantaged for its ability to achieve low inflation. Accordingly, it would be far better for the government to set the short-term interest rate at zero and achieve full employment through appropriate levels of net spending (fiscal deficits).

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Federal budget 2009 – ignorance will drive bad policy

As the Federal budget week approaches the various commentators and interest groups are whipping themselves into a lather about what choices the Government might have or not have. A recurring theme is whether the Government should honour its election commitment in 2007 to cut income taxes from July 2009. The debate is being constructed along the lines of whether the nation can now “afford these cuts” given the “rising debt” and the “shocking state” of the budget deficit. This debate demonstrates perfectly how bad policy can be made when the Government fails to understand its options as a monopoly issuer of a non-convertible currency.

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Lucky he’s not Treasurer anymore

In today’s Melbourne Age we learn very clearly that the previous Federal Treasurer didn’t have much idea at all about how the economy actually works. While he continues to promote his years in office as the great period of fiscal rectitude, the reality is that after 11 years at the wheel he still failed to create full employment. His Treasury years, in fact, will be remembered for his Government’s wilful neglect of the disadvantaged and the on-going and incredible waste of human potential that this disregard created. Now, as he sits at the back of our Parliament smouldering about his lost chance to rule, he thinks he has something to say about the monetary systems. Its a shame he isn’t clever enough to know how little he knows.

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Are our pollies lining their own nest?

Today, I was investigating pay structures and then became interested in the emerging public debate about Members of Parliament pay, after the Remuneration Tribunal has recommended that Electoral allowances go up 17 per cent per year to $32,000. Every time the pay of parliamentarians is increased there is a hue and cry from the media. In this case, even the Green’s Leader and an independent MP have also rejected their “own self interest” to oppose the pay rises. However, the Government will not stop the rises going through even though last year the PM froze the base rate pay to lead the wage restraint path in these difficult economic times. This raises two questions: (a) Are our pollies just lining their own nest? and (b) Should wages growth be restrained in times of recession? My spare moments today were filled with those issues.

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How large should the deficit be?

Today I am in Melbourne (my home town) presenting a workshop on skills development for the new green jobs economy which is a joint Victorian Government/Brotherhood of St Laurence show. But that is not what I am writing about here. Regular readers of billy blog will know that when I talk about budget deficits I typically stress two points: (a) that the Government is not financially constrained and therefore all the hoopla about debt and future tax burdens are just a waste of time. But just because the Government can buy whatever is for sale by crediting relevant bank accounts doesn’t mean they should not place limits on the size of the deficit; and so (b) given the federal deficit “finances” private saving, it should therefore be aim to “fill” the spending gap left by the private desire to save. If the Government does that then it can maintain full employment and price stability and move towards a more equitable society. So it is of importance that we have some idea of the size of this spending (or output) gap.

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Boondoggling and leaf-raking …

There was a story in The Australian newspaper today entitled RED schemes are good written by a former minister in the Whitlam government in the early 1970s. He was extolling the virtues of the old Regional Employment Development scheme, which was a public works direct job creation scheme. He was suggesting such schemes may again find favour as the recession deepens. The RED scheme was a less generous version of the Job Guarantee and suffered as a result of its modesty. It was never based on any fundamental understanding of a modern monetary economy as as such was always a “defensive” program. Defending itself continually from the conservative, soon-to-be, neo-liberal critics. That made me recall my favourite conservative “put down” term – boondoggling and raking – which is used whenever direct public job creation is mentioned as a possibility. Then I recalled a letter that was written by the previous Federal Employment Minister explaining in 2004 why my Job Guarantee proposal was a crock. One thing followed another …

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When is a job guarantee a Job Guarantee?

In the current edition of the German weekly Magazine Der Spiegel (“The Mirror”) there is an article about a “new idea to keep unemployment down” entitled Germany Mulls ‘Parking’ Unwanted Labor in New State-Funded Firms. The thrust of the proposal is that Germany is now examining a proposal to set up government-funded “transfer companies” for workers who lose their jobs as a means of keeping unemployment in check. A reader wrote to me saying that it sounds a bit like the Job Guarantee that I have been advocating for years! Closer examination suggests that while the Germans are starting to come to terms with how bad their economic situation is, they are still a long way off understanding how to get out of it. In that respect, they share the ignorance with most governments. However, being a Euro zone member, the German government has voluntarily lumbered itself with even more constraints that will make it harder to insulate its people from the ravages of the recession.

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The dreaded NAIRU is still about!

The dreaded NAIRU is still about! I was thinking – rather optimistically – that it would just disappear from whence it came! But sorry to disappoint. Some economists just won’t learn. Yesterday the ABS released the latest data from the Australia Treasury Model (TRYM) database. You can get it here. Among other things of great interest that you can find in that database, is the Treasury TRYM model’s estimates of the so-called NAIRU. Sounds scary. Well, it stands for the the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment and has a central place in neo-liberal mythology. The NAIRU is an important component of the TRYM model and influences the way it produces economic outcomes and policy simulations. So how much reliance should we place on this important component of the policy making process. Answer: not much!. My conclusion: any model that relies on a NAIRU is a crock!

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The unemployed cannot find jobs that are not there!

The unemployed cannot find jobs that are not there! I have written about that topic extensively. So today I have been examining what vacancy data is telling us about the labour market. The relationship between unfilled job vacancies and unemployment (the so-called UV ratio) is well entrenched in economics. The UV ratio is a good indicator of the state of the labour market because it tells us (approximately) how many people there are for each unfilled job. Of-course, it understates the degree of slack because it fails to include underemployment. Anyway, you can also determine whether there are significant supply-side issues going on which would require supply-side policies. As you will see in the following graphs – it is all demand side! Which tells us, yet again, that job creation is required.

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Hollow rhetoric … the Government is not doing all they can!

Yesterday’s labour force data which showed how quickly the labour market is deteriorating, brought some extraordinary reactions from the Federal government. So far their response suggests to me that they have no coherent plan to meet the crisis and are trying to operate within the same labour market policy framework that the previous government installed. That framework failed to achieve full employment when the economy was growing and will do nothing at all for a labour market that is now in freefall. A major shift in policy is needed. More worrying is that the labour force data shows that the teenage segment is in terrible shape. That requires immediate policy action. But the responses I have heard overnight suggest very little will be done because the Employment Minister seems to want us to believe that “there is no quick fix”. That claim is of-course nonsense. The costs of the downturn could be considerably lessened if the Government abandoned neo-liberalism and demonstrated some leadership through direct job creation.

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Will we really pay higher interest rates?

In this blog, we consider the debt question (again) with streamlined language to ensure it is accessible to all who choose to read it. Yesterday I asked whether future taxes will be higher, which is now being claimed by conservatives who are running a relentless political campaign against the demise of neo-liberalism. Today, the partner claim: will we be paying higher interest rates because of the borrowing? Answer: no! Whether interest rates are higher or lower in the future will have little to do with the movements in today’s budget balance. It is possible that voluntary arrangements set in place by the Australian government in the past will drive interest rates up. But if that occurs it will because the Government wants higher interest rates rather than having anything to do with the net spending that is being engaged in to stop employment growth falling off the cliff. So time to discuss bond markets a bit.

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More journalistic nonsense!

I am awarding this week’s worst piece of economics journalism to an article that appeared in Saturday’s Australian newspaper and was written by high-profile economics correspondent George Megalogenis. The article makes a sequence of statements that cannot be supported by any credible macroeconomic theory. Why do journalists write things that they do not seem to understand? Anyway, in case any of my readers happened to waste their time reading this article I offer the following clean-up job. Yes, its that time again. Time to debrief.

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Minimum wages 101

The issue of minimum wage adjustments always invokes a lot of debate and invokes the usual (boring) reactions from employer groups and conservative economists. Their narrative is always the same: you cannot have a minimum wage rise because it will cause unemployment among the low-skill ranks of the workforce. If you believed their logic, then there never would be a minimum wage rise. The reality is that there is no evidence available to support these notions and lots of evidence to refute it. The new problem is that the current Federal government is now aligning with the conservatives and using the same defective logic to oppose any reasonable rise in the minimum wage. Its that time again. Time to debrief.

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Size of deficit 101

I rode my bike 80 kms early this morning (usual Sunday) in the beautiful Autumn weather that Newcastle (NSW) enjoys this time of year. The Pacific Ocean looks superb (although there is nothing surfable in sight – maybe tomorrow morning). The sun was out and we were heading for 26-27 degrees. Then it had to happen. When I returned home I opened this morning’s newspaper and came across an authoritative headline: US faces huge deficit blow-out, with the sub-line “Program cuts, tax hikes likely.” The journalist (added to my bogan list) probably got 0 out of 5 on last night’s quiz. Well the truth is that almost everything the journalist wrote is wrong if he is talking about the real world. Anyway, I thought so. Its that time again. Time to debrief.

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ABS staff cutbacks

A document was leaked from the Australian Bureau of Statistics which showed it is planning to sack around 200 staff to pursue efficiency dividends to allow a pay rise to occur. I was interviewed by ABC economics commentator Stephen Long as part of a segment he put together on the national ABC current affairs show PM tonight which examined this issue.

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Bernanke on financial constraints

The US program 60 Minutes interviewed Fed Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke at the weekend. The interview is largely a litany of mainstream statements but at one point the Chairman gives the game away to the interviewer Scott Pelley. Apart from Bernanke’s very clear statement about how governments actually spend, the interview reveals the confusion that the top banker has with the way the modern monetary economy operates.

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G20 – we should all be worried

Put People First group are running a grass roots campaign for all of us to send a message to the G20 about their priorities. The campaign symbol is the megaphone logo appearing below. Their campaign will culminate in a march in central London on March 28, 2009 to push a case for jobs, justice and climate. I am not associated with this group but I share their priorities, even if I might see them in different terms. Anyway, this is the first of my messages to the G20. In summary: they need to learn how the economy actually operates and then they would use their fiscal policy capacity to ensure everyone has a job in a sustainable economy.

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Quantitative easing 101

Some readers have written to me asking to explain what quantitative easing is. Some of them had heard an ABC 7.30 Report segment the other night which interviewed the Bank of England Governor who outlined the BOE’s plan to “print billions of pounds” as its latest strategy to stimulate lending and hence economic activity in the very dismally performing UK economy. Once again we need to de-brief and learn what quantititative easing actually is. We need to understand that it is not a very good strategy for a sovereign government to follow in times of depressed demand and rising unemployment. We also need to get this “printing money” mantra out of our heads.

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Deficit spending 101 – Part 3

This is Part 3 in Deficits 101, which is a series I am writing to help explain why we should not fear deficits. In this blog we consider the impacts on fiscal deficits on the banking system to dispel the recurring myths that deficits increase the borrowing requirements of government and that they drive interest rates up. The two arguments are related. The important conclusions are: (a) deficits introduce dynamics which put downward pressure on interest rates; and (b) debt issuance by government does not “finance” its spending. Rather debt is issued to support monetary policy which is expressed as the desire by the RBA to maintain a target interest rate.

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