There was another article in the financial media this weekend running the hypothesis that the stagnant economic conditions that Australia has found itself in is a “new normal”. This is now a repeating theme. I disagree with it. It ignores some basic realities and is ideologically loaded towards an austerity interpretation of the world. The article in the Fairfax press (May 21, 2016) – Low pay growth, price rises and the new normal – claims that the “central question in macro-economics today” is whether we are “waiting … for the economy to get back to normal, or has the economy shifted to a “new normal?”. I would pose the question differently. Waiting implies that we think it is just a matter of time before the ‘market’ does its work and restores normality. Moreover, Australia like most of the rest of the world remains locked in the aftermath of what we call a ‘balance sheet’ recession. As I explained to various audiences in Spain during my recent visit, this type of event is unusual (atypical or abnormal) and requires a quite different policy response to a normal V-shaped recession where private investment spending falls, governments stimulate, confidence returns and growth gets back fairly quickly on its trend path. The losses might be large but the recession and aftermath are short. A balance sheet recession requires elevated levels of fiscal deficits being maintained for many years to support growth as non-government sector spending remains below the norm while it reduces its debt levels (via increased saving). The problem in Australia, like elsewhere, is that governments have been hectored by neo-liberal ideologues to prematurely withdraw or reduce the fiscal support and growth has stalled. A range of problems then follow.
The mainstream economics (by which I mean neo-classical economics and its siblings in a History of Economic Thought context) constructs trade unions as being market imperfections that interfere with the freedom of supply and demand to determine optimal price (wage) and quantity (employment) outcomes. The textbooks teach students that the supply of and demand for labour without the intrusion of trade unions (and other impositions from the state – minimum wages etc) will deliver optimal outcomes for all in accordance with the respective contributions of each ‘factor of production’ (labour, land, capital etc). The real world isn’t like that at all and the determination of shares in national income is the result of a continuous struggle between labour and capital for supremacy. It is very easy to construct the trade unions has job killers in this context and to blame them for inflationary outbreaks. That certainly is how the British trade unions in the early 1970s were constructed by the conservatives and later the Labour Party itself. By the early 1970s, Monetarism was gaining a dominant hold in the academy and strong adherents in policy circles. Trade unions were considered by the Monetarists to be ‘market imperfections’ that should be destroyed by legislative fiat. Governments came under intense pressure to introduce legislation that would constrain unions. However, once we understand history, we can see the early 1970s in Britain leading up to British Labour Prime Minster James Callaghan’s speech to Labour Party Conference held at Blackpool on September 28, 1976 in a different light. It also allows us to see just what surrender monkeys the British Labour Party became after that period. This is a further instalment of my next book on globalisation and the capacities of the nation-state, which I am working on with Italian journalist Thomas Fazi. We expect to finalise the manuscript in May 2016.
Last week, the Australian Labor Party (the federal opposition) released a new policy platform, which it hopes will give it some electoral leverage in the upcoming federal election. The Party announced that they would be attacking poverty and inequality by restoring full employment. The UK Guardian political editor opined in her article on Friday (March 18, 2016) – A shift in political thinking is giving Labor a sense of purpose – that the announcement by Labor was a policy breakthrough and a recognition that the neo-liberal claims about free markets etc, that emerged in the 1980s, are no longer a viable basis on which to base policy. I agree. I also agree that a currency-issuing government should always pursue full employment. But the reality is that this pledge from the ALP is going to be as hollow as all the other value statements it makes in an attempt to convince the electorate that it is a progressive party looking out for the workers and the disadvantaged. A lot of jobs have to be created to restore true full employment, which will require significantly larger fiscal deficits. Meanwhile, the ALP is claiming it will return the fiscal balance to surplus.
Two things caught my attention among other things last week. The Australian Tax Office (ATO) released the – 2013-14 Report of Entity Tax Information – which tells us about the total income and tax payable was for 2013-14 tax year for 1539 Australian and foreign companies operating in Australia with incomes above $A100 million. The rather startling revelation is that 579 of the largest Australian companies including Qantas did not pay any tax at all in that financial year. The second (unrelated but pertinent) report was released last week by the British Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) – The power and pitfalls of executive reward: a behavioural perspective – which found that the increasing gap between British CEO earnings and their employees is unrelated to company performance and reflects “self-serving tendencies”. They also found in an accompanying report that the increasing gap undermined trust between management and workers and eroded employee motivation – another own-goal type stunt for these management geniuses.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics published the latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the September-quarter yesterday and annual private sector wages growth fell to 2.1 per cent (0.5 per cent for the quarter). This is the third consecutive month that the annual growth in wages has recorded its lowest level since the data series began in the December-quarter 1997. In the 2015-16 fiscal statement, the Government assumed wages growth for 2014-15 would be 2.5 per cent rising to 2.75 by 2017. On current trends, that is highly unlikely to occur, which means the forward estimates for taxation revenue are already falling short and the fiscal deficit will be larger than assumed. Depending on how we measure inflation, the annual wages growth translates into a small real wage rise or fall. Either way, real wages are growing well below trend productivity growth and Real Unit Labour Costs (RULC) continue to fall. This means that the gap between real wages growth and productivity growth continues to widen as the wage share in national income falls (and the profit share rises). The flat wages trend is intensifying the pre-crisis dynamics, which saw private sector credit rather than real wages drive growth in consumption spending. The lessons have not been learned.
Growth in material living standards, which is just one measure of overall (average) prosperity and contestable at that, depends on productivity growth. How national income is distributed, real wages growth in relation to productivity growth, and the employment rates also impact on how this average is reflected in the fortunes of individuals. Strong productivity growth is only a necessary condition for improved material living standards. In this period of fiscal austerity with suppressed overall growth rates and labour market deregulation that undermines working conditions and reduces the incentives to invest in best-practice technology labour productivity is falling – as will living standards in the coming years. The world is locked into an idiotic race-to-the-bottom. It is a curious period really. The hypocrisy of governments, aided and abetted by the right-wing think tanks, who claim they are cutting into public spending to reduce the drain on living standards of our children and grandchildren, is clear to see. What they are really doing is undermining the future prosperity of the next several generations at the same time that they push millions into unemployment and poverty now. Why are we so stupid that we tolerate this nonsense?
Its my Friday lay day but today is going to be anything but. I am in Helsinki at present and it has been a busy few days so far. The concept of Unit Labour Costs (ULCs) is being used by the right-wing government in Finland to bash the population into submission so they can impose the nonsensical austerity. The Finnish government is trying to get rid of some public holidays and reducing wages for sick leave, overtime and working on Sundays. This is the starting point for a broader austerity attack on the public sector and the prosperity of the people. They are calling for a decline in ULCs of at least 5 per cent. The rationale is that with growth flat to negative for five years or so and the massive export surplus they had disappeared the only way to stop unemployment going through the roof is to cut labour costs relative to productivity – that is, cut ULCs. They have been caught up in the ‘dangerous obsession’ that prosperity can only be gained through ‘export competitiveness’ (whatever that actually is) and the domestic economy has to be sacrificed at the net exports altar. International competitiveness is a slippery concept at best but so-called internal devaluation is rarely a successful strategy.
Its my Friday lay day and I am trying to finish one paper that is due and also prepare the presentations that I will be giving in Finland next week. But I was reading a Briefing Paper (No 406) from the US Economic Policy Institute (published September 2, 2015) – Understanding the Historic Divergence Between Productivity and a Typical Worker’s Pay – that resonated with me today. One of the defining characteristics of the neo-liberal era has been the divergence between real wages growth and productivity growth. It has been a deliberately engineered divergence as policy makers have shifted from mediating the distributional struggle between labour and capital to being ‘pro-business’ and introducing a range of initiatives that have allowed capital to gain greater shares of national income and build a booty that has then been pumped into the increasingly deregulated financial markets. Oh, and to allow the bosses and their managers to take out obscenely high salaries and swan around in private jets. The dynamics unleashed by these distributional shifts helped cause the Global Financial Crisis. A sustainable recovery with progressive outcomes (reductions in income inequality etc) will only be possible if Governments abandon the ‘pro-business’ bias and instead introduce policies that ensure real wages grow in line with productivity (along with other changes).
There was a wonderful article – The Origin of Job Structures in the Steel Industry – written by Katherine Stone and published in 1973. It was part of an overall research program that several economists and related disciplines were pursuing as part of the radical economics that was being developed at Harvard and Amherst in the early 1970s. One of the major strands of this research was to understand labour market segmentation and how labour market structure, job hierarchies, wage incentive systems and more are used by the employers (as agents of capital) to maintain control over the workforce and extract as much surplus value (and hopefully profits) as they can. It challenged much of the extant literature which had claimed that factory production and later organisational changes within firms were technology-driven and therefore more efficient. The Harvard radicals found that to be unsustainable given the evidence. They also eschewed the progressive idea that solving poverty was just about eliminating bad, low pay jobs, an idea which had currency in that era. They showed that the bad jobs were functional in terms of the class struggle within capitalism and gave the firms a buffer which allowed them to cope with fluctuating demand for their products. It also allowed them to maintain a relatively stable, high paid segment (primary labour market) which served management and was kept docile via hierarchical incentives etc. I was reminded of this literature when I read a recent paper from Dutch-based researchers on the way firms have evolved in the neo-liberal era of precarious work. Much is made of the supposed efficiency gains of a more flexible labour market. How it spurs innovation and productivity through increased competition and allows firms to be more nimble. The entire ‘structural reforms’ agenda of the IMF, the OECD, the European Commission and many national governments is predicated on these myths. The Dutch research shows the irony of these manic neo-liberals.
With the Chinese yuan now falling and the Australian dollar going with it, domestic inflation pressures will rise in Australia in the coming months. This doesn’t augur well for Australian workers who were told today that wages growth in the last quarter (June) was at the lowest on record. The Australian Bureau of Statistics published the latest – Wage Price Index, Australia – for the June-quarter today and annual private sector wages growth fell to 2.2 per cent (0.5 per cent for the quarter). This is the third consecutive month that the annual growth in wages has recorded its lowest level since the data series began in the December-quarter 1997. In the 2015-16 fiscal statement, the Government assumed wages growth for 2014-15 would be 2.5 per cent rising to 2.75 by 2017. On current trends, that is highly unlikely to occur, which means the forward estimates for taxation revenue are already falling short and the fiscal deficit will be larger than assumed. Depending on how we measure inflation, the annual wages growth translates into a small real wage rise or fall. Either way, real wages are growing well below trend productivity growth and Real Unit Labour Costs (RULC) continue to fall. This means that the gap between real wages growth and productivity growth continues to widen as the wage share in national income falls (and the profit share rises). The flat wages trend is intensifying the pre-crisis dynamics, which saw private sector credit rather than real wages drive growth in consumption spending. The lessons have not been learned.