I am travelling today and over the next few days and so I am stealing moments at airports etc to write the blog in between other commitments. Today we consider the research evidence available which bears on the question of national government debt default. The question is becoming increasingly pressing in the failed Eurozone and there is clear resistance among the elites to the proposition that Greece, Ireland, Portugal – for starters – might ease their domestic economic woes by defaulting. It is clear from the actions and statements of the political and economic leaders that they are more interested in protecting the private interests of capital than they are in advancing the welfare of the citizens in the nations under attack from bond markets. It is also clear that they have lost grip of the an essential aspect of capitalism – private return means private risk. The boundaries between private and public have become so blurred in the EMU as the elites strive to socialise losses. The reality is the evidence that is available doesn’t support the conservative arguments being used to eschew the default option and, instead, impose fiscal austerity on these economies. The evidence suggests that the costs of default while significant are short-lived and evaporate quickly. It is also clear that austerity also imposes significant costs on a nation that span generations. The comparison in the context of adding up these costs over the long-run is a no-brainer – these nations should default and follow a domestic-led growth strategy by expanding their budget deficits. That would require them to leave the EMU which is also essential if they are to regain their capacity to advance the interests of their citizens. Default is the way forward.
This week’s Economist Magazine (May 16, 2011) carried a headline – Sell, Sell, Sell – which referred to renewed calls for an even more expansive privatisation program in Greece than is already under way. The initial program of asset sales was projected to net more than 20 per cent of GDP in funds. But now the EU bosses want more. There appears to a group denial in Europe at present which is being reinforced by the IMF and the OECD and other organisations. They seem to be incapable of articulating the reality that if you savagely cut government spending while private spending is going backwards and the external sector is not picking up the tab then the economy will tank. Under those conditions policies that aim to cut the budget deficit will ultimately fail. But in the meantime the reason we manage economies – to improve the real lives of people – are undermined and living standards plummet and the distribution of income and wealth move firmly in favour of the rich. But if the price is right I’ll buy the Acropolis (and give it back to the people)!
Everyone is lining up to be the next Japan – the lost decade or two version that is. It has been taken for granted that Japan collapsed in the early 1990s after a spectacular property boom burst and has not really recovered since. The conservatives also claim that Japan shows that fiscal policy is ineffective because given its on-going budget deficits and record public debt to GDP ratios the place is still in shambles. I take a different view of things as you might expect and while Japan has problems it demonstrates that a fiat monetary system is stable and we should be careful comparing Ireland, the US or the UK to the experiences that unfolded in Japan in the 1990s and beyond.
Europe has another … yes, yet another … solution. But we have to wait until June for it so be fully revealed. Meanwhile Portugal is about to go under. There are simmering stories emerging that the banking system in Europe is teetering despite there being silence on the viability of the banking system in Europe from the Euro bosses. Despite the decisions (or rather non-decisions) of the European Council last week – the intent is the same – fiscal consolidation including retrenchment of safety net benefits supplemented with further labour market deregulation which will further reduce living standards, especially for the poor. Their position is a denial of basic macroeconomic understanding and doesn’t address the inherent design flaws in the monetary union. I predict things will get worse. The political leaders in Europe have the wrong goal in mind (stubbornly saving the euro) and do not even have an effective solution to defend that goal, flawed as it is. The problem is that Europe is still pursuing the wrong goal.
I stole the title of today’s blog from an article I wrote for the US weekly – The Nation – which will come out on April 4 in print. The on-line version is out now. It comes out in the same week that the nations that are leading the austerity charge – Ireland and Britain – publish disastrous labour market data. The Irish data is nothing short of atrocious some 2 years after their government led them down the austerity path promising salvation. Where are the economists who from the desks of their safe jobs were highly vocal in promoting the myth of the “fiscal contraction expansion”? Still sipping Chardonnay from their safe jobs I dare say. The article, in part, is about how these liars have convinced governments to push their economies over the brink. It is also about how the same lies that are being to used to justify the austerity barrow were used to justify the massive deregulation that led to the financial sector feeding frenzy and caused the crisis in the first place. When we will ever learn? In today’s blog I offer a video commentary on the thoughts behind the article in this blog (which as it turns out didn’t save me much time – I seem to type faster than I speak!).
I recall from my days studying law that there were express terms and implied warranties underpinning every contract. The express terms were those agreed between the parties. The implied terms were binding even if they were not discussed between the parties to the sale or deal. I recall that among the usual implied terms were things like quality of the materials used and fitness of purpose. If a product or service is not sold where the seller knows the materials to be of poor quality or will not perform the functions that are held out to the buyer then a civil claim is open in tort to negate the contract and pursue damages. Anyway there are a number of private sector organisations out there that pump out so-called expert economic and financial analysis for profits that if you actually understand the product would lead you to conclude they are fraudulent products and not fit for the purpose that is held out. The ratings agencies (which threatened Japan again this week) fall into that category. But there are others. Today I consider the so-called Fiscal Risk index put out by a British firm that claims that the austerity campaign being pursued by the British government is helping it reduce its risk of bankruptcy. That is an outright lie! I thought that selling dodgy goods and services was illegal.
The now totally discredited OECD has started a special section of their WWW site which they call – Restoring public finances. Many person-hours of labour have gone into its construction and the documents and “analysis” (so-called) that you can access there. They even have an article from ECB boss Jean-Claude Trichet which would be laughable if it wasn’t so damaging (given his influence). The OECD is another of those organisations (such as the IMF) that promoted policy agendas (deregulation etc) which not only entrenched persistently high unemployment during the growth year but also set in place the conditions that ultimately led to the crisis. But like a drunk who sneaks a drink then denies it, the OECD seems incapable of introspection and acknowledging that it is part of the problem not the solution. Its policy agenda caused the crisis. Now it is lecturing the world in aggressive tones about how its policy agenda (unchanged) should be ramped up even more vigorously. My view is that OECD should just close its doors and its staff should be redeployed into productive activities.
Yesterday I was listening to the ABC Radio National program – Counterpoint – which interviewed author David Freedman about his 2007 co-authored book A Perfect Mess. I was very interested in this book when it was published. It is about the value of mess and the costs that organisational freaks impose on us. In the case of fiscal policy – the essence of good macroeconomic management is to allow policy settings to be responsive when needed. Why? To ensure that government action supports aggregate demand and is consistent with private sector saving desires. The control freaks want to impose “organisation” on governments by legislating debt brakes and this type of organisation amounts to a fundamental denial of the need for fiscal policy to be reactive and flexible. That is, of-course, no surprise given that deterministic fiscal rules are proposed by ideologues that are fundamentally opposed to public intervention in the first place. Deterministic fiscal rules in fact undermine public responsibility.
Sometimes you read an article that clearly has a pretext but then tries to cover that pretext in some (not) smart way to make the prejudice seem reasonable. That is the impression I had when I read this Bloomberg opinion piece by William Pesek (January 31, 2011) – Pinnacle Envy Signals New Bubble Is Inflating – which I was expecting to be about real estate bubbles but which, in fact, turned out to be an erroneous blather about Japanese debt risk. Please note: there is no sovereign debt risk in Japan!
The latest data from the UK provides us with further evidence that mainstream economic theory and its policy advice is dangerous and should be disregarded. We are now some six months or more into the period of fiscal austerity in Britain even though many of the cut backs and tax hikes etc have not yet been introduced. But the British households and firms have known since the election result in May what was ahead of them and so have had time to make adjustments to their spending and saving patterns to take into account the expected future. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) predicted that as a result of the fiscal austerity plans, the British economy would slow down again as private consumers and firms cut back on their own spending driven strongly by the fear of unemployment and flat sales conditions that accompany that situation. Mainstream theory pushed the notion of Ricardian Equivalence which claims that that private spending is weak because we are scared of the future tax implications of the rising budget deficits. But, the overwhelming evidence shows that firms will not invest while consumption is weak and households will not spend because they scared of becoming unemployed and are trying to reduce their bloated debt levels. Recent data shows that the Ricardians in UK have had a wonderful Xmas. Not!