I am travelling most of today and thus my usual blog will resume tomorrow. Yesterday, an interview that I did for RadioNZ (the public broadcaster) on Friday was aired on their popular Sunday Show. You can access the interview overleaf. You can also access the video of my presentation on Friday (July 28, 2017) at the University of Victoria, Wellington. That should keep you all busy.
Over the course of my academic career and even outside of that I have often been regaled with the claim (as if it is science) that capitalism is the ‘natural’ system for humans because our nature biases us to competitiveness and selfishness. So Marx’s famous epithet in his Critique of the Gotha program (1875) – “from each according to their ability to each according to their need” – was dismissed as being against our natural tendencies – a denial of basic human nature. It then followed that planned economies and economies where governments intervened strongly to ensure equitable distribution of opportunities and outcomes, was in some way contrived and would surely fail because our human nature would find ways to thwart such interference. This has been a compelling and dominant narrative over the last several decades as neo-liberal think tanks, biased media outlets, and politicians from both sides of politics (homogenised into a common economic mantra) reinforced it continuously in print, spoken word and policy. We shifted from living in societies where collective will and equity was deemed important organising principles to living in economies where every outcome was in the hands of the individual – including mass unemployment – and the concept of systemic failure that could be ameliorated by state intervention was rejected. State intervention was cast as the devil. It is no surprise that economic outcomes for a rising proportion of the population deteriorated as we shifted from society to economy – from collectivism to individualism. It turns out that the research into human nature, motivation, decision-making etc largely rejects the ‘competitive selfish individual’ narrative. We are intrinsically cooperative and care about equity. Our basic propensities appear to be collective and cooperative. Funny about that.
I get a lot of E-mails that accuse me of being politically naive. The accusations were rekindled by yesterday’s blog – British labour lost in a neo-liberal haze. I imagine if I wrote a blog where I outlined support for Marine Le Pen in the context of a two-way fight against the worse-of-the-worst neo-liberals Emmanuel Macron the accusations would turn uglier even. My support for Brexit was met with similar hostility from a range of (self-styled) ‘progressives’ as being naive and offensive. Why, Brexit was a conservative plot wasn’t it? How could I have missed that? Progressives are now advocating votes for Macron even though they know he is an archetype neo-liberal – the anathema of what they believe. And they tell me every day in these E-mail tirades and other blogs that I should give people like Jeremy Corbyn some slack because he knows better than me that to advocate a major departure from the neo-liberal macroeconomic narrative would be political suicide. So why don’t I just shut up and recognise that politics is beyond my grasp and I should desist. Basically that is the message I get regularly. Well, I am sorry to say, such views completely misunderstand the role of an academic and the way in which resistance is constructed.
There was an exchange in the British House of Commons a few weeks ago (sitting on April 19, 2017), which really summarised why the Tories will win the British election and why Jeremy Corbyn has led the Labour Party there into an abyss of neo-liberal mumbo jumbo where there is no way out but loss. It was during the Parliamentary time when the Prime Minister lists her engagements for the day (a cute aspect of Westminster systems). You can follow the exchange in the Hansard entry – Volume 624. It will make your skin crawl. I guess that is what one gets from reading Parliamentary records. The upshot is that the British labour lost in a neo-liberal haze and marching forthrightly towards its Waterloo. The aftermath will not be pretty.
One of the things I have noted with regularity is that readers and other second-generation Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) bloggers often fall into the error which we might characterise as the “When we have MMT things will be different” syndrome. Or the “we need to change to MMT principles to make things better” syndrome. Thinking that MMT constitutes a regime change is incorrect and steers one away from the core issues. In this blog, I reflect on that syndrome and some other aspects of the development of ideas, which I hope will provide readers with a clearer picture of what the core (early) MMT developers (Mosler, Bell/Kelton, Wray, Mitchell, Tcherneva, Fullwiler) had in mind when we set out in the early 1990s to construct a better way of doing macroeconomics. The point is that while MMT constitutes a regime change in economic thinking within the academy it does not constitute a regime change in the way the monetary system operates. We need to separate the operational principles exposed by MMT academics from their ideological values to really come to terms with the fact that MMT is what is, not what might be.
How many times have to heard a politician claim they had to cut government spending and move the fiscal balance to surplus because they had to engender the confidence of the bond markets. Apparently, this narrative alleges that if bond markets are not ‘confident’ (whatever that means) then they will stop begging treasury departments for more debt issues and the government, in question, will run out of money and then pensions will stop being paid and the public service will be sacked and public trains and buses will stop running and before we know it the skies will blacken and collapse on us. The narrative ignores the usual statistics that bid-to-cover ratios are typically high (hence my ‘begging’ terminology) which are supplemented by well documented cases where the bond dealers (including banks etc) do actually beg central banks to stop driving yields down in maturity segments where these characters have pitched their “business model” (read: where they make the most profits). The facts are exactly the opposite to the neo-liberal pitch. Currency-issuing governments never need to worry about how bond markets ‘feel’. Essentially, the bond markets are irrelevant to the ability of such a government to design and implement its fiscal plans. And, the central bank always can counteract any tendencies that the bond markets might seek to impose where governments do actually issue debt.
It does not quite add up. But then why should it. Spin is spin. On the one hand, we are being constantly told that the world has entered a new era of secular stagnation, driven by an ageing population and a fall off in productive innovation, and we just have to get used to the elevated levels of unemployment that come with that. Yet, other spin doctors are talking about the innovation revolution, the second machine-age, where the march of the robots who will be embedded with AI that will make them smarter than us, big data, automation, the Internet of Things, and more will render work obsolete. In both cases, apparently, the introduction of a guaranteed income is recommended. Suspicious? Then there is more. When CEOs of big companies start advocating a policy that they claim will improve the lot of workers I become immediately suspicious. And why would people with a progressive bent advocate policies that are part of the continuing conservative ambition to achieve social control and which essentially amount to an abandonment of responsibility that government has for maintaining employment for those who cannot otherwise find jobs? So what is with this rush of support for a basic income guarantee (BIG) from all sides of politics??
Life returns to a more normal situation today as I have arrived back in Australia. But I have plenty to catch up on today so to free up some time I am posting the full video of my first presentation in Maastricht (March 6, 2017) as part of the 2017 Joan Muysken lecture.
This blog will be a bit different from my normal fare. It provides insights into how entrenched a destructive and mindless neo-liberal Groupthink pervades the economics profession. For the last several years I have been on the ‘expert’ panel for the Fairfax press Annual Economic Survey. Essentially, this assembles a group of well-known economists in Australia from the market, academic and institutional (for example, union) sectors and we wax lyrical about what we expect will happen in the year ahead. To be fair, there is a large element of chance in the exercise as there is in all forecasting. So I am never one to criticise when an organisation such as the IMF or the OECD or some bank economist gets a forecast wrong. The future is uncertain and we have no formal grounds for even forming probabilistic estimates, given we cannot even assemble a probability density function (an distributional ordering of all possible events ) to extract these probabilities. So guess work is guess work and you have to be guided by experience and an understanding of how the system operates and the elements within the relevant system interact. What I do rail against is the phenomenon of systematic bias in forecast errors. For example, the IMF always predicts stronger growth than occurs when it is advocating imposing austerity (thereby underestimating the costs of the policy). The systematic bias in their errors is traceable to the flawed models they use to generate the predictions, which, in turn, reflect their ideological slant against government deficits and in favour of fiscal surpluses (as a benchmark). As luck would have it, in the 2016 round of the Fairfax Scope survey, I was fortunate enough to achieve the status of Forecaster of the Year (shared with 2 other members of the panel) – see Scope 2017 economic survey: Stephen Anthony, Bill Mitchell; and Renee Fry-McKibbin tie for forecaster of the year – for detail. I tweeted over the weekend that as a result “MMT predicts well”. There was a lot underlying that three-word Tweet and it intersected with recent events that demonstrate how far gone mainstream macroeconomics is – it is in an advanced state of denial and has lost almost all traction on the real world.
The dictionary says Post Truth is the “fact or state of being post-truth; a time period or situation in which facts have become less important than emotional persuasion”. But I prefer to be direct – not to mince words – Post Truth is lying, plain and simple. It is making stuff up that is untrue, in denial of the facts, and, in cases where volition drives the lying, using strategic and well-thought out tools of psychological persuasion, fear, threats etc to make it look as though the statements are factual rather than lies. The interesting thing for me at the moment in this respect is that we are increasingly being told we are now in this Post Truth era. That social media has created this Post Truth era and that something should be done about it. Oxford English Dictionary announced recently that the Word of the Year 2016 is…, you got it, “post-truth” which they claim is a “concept … [which] … has been in existence for the past decade”. Its use has apparently “spiked in frequency this year” as a result of the Brexit referendum and the US election. Two things then are worth noting. First, there is nothing new about the idea of lying to influence public opinion. Indeed, as I will explain (briefly) the whole edifice of mainstream economics, including New Keynesian economics has been ‘post-truth’ since its inception. Second, the fact that it is getting attention now is because the establishment are starting to feel the pinch – their usual media power is losing traction with the democratising influences of the Internet – and their cosy worlds of influence are under threat from a rabble. And this applies to so-called progressive Left (the socialist politicians in Europe, the Labour politicians in Australia, Britain and elsewhere) who have so bought into the neo-liberal myth machine that they cannot understand why they are now losing support from their traditional sources (working class people). The ‘post-truth’ era is apparently upon us. But the reality is that there is nothing new about lying in mainstream economics. It is built upon a lie. It is just that the lying that is spreading on the Internet (‘fake news sites’) are damaging the establishment. That is why they are now complaining. They have never complained about the incessant lying from the economics profession.