Yesterday (July 21, 2010), US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke presented the – Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the US Congress – before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, in the US Senate. His assessment was rather negative and the most stark thing he said was that the rate of growth is not sufficient and will not be sufficient in the coming year to start reducing the swollen ranks of the unemployed. So the costs of policy inaction at this stage are already huge but growing by the day. These are deadweight losses that will never be made up again. While the US political system is now so moribund that it appears incapable of producing policy outcomes that will advance public purpose and restore stronger economic growth, the data that is freely available points to the need for a further fiscal stimulus. It is such an obvious strategy that the US government should employ.
There is an election campaign upon us in Australia now and one of the themes the government is developing by way of garnering credit for its policies is that Australia is operating at near full employment thanks to their economic policy framework. Nothing could be further from the truth – both that we are close to full employment and that their policy framework is moving us towards full employment. But this claim, which is repeated often these days and was a catchcry of the former conservative government as well, is a testament as to how successful the neo-liberal orthodoxy has perverted the meaning of signficant concepts (like full employment) and convinced the community that you can be near full employment and therefore there is no real problem to address when you have at least 12.2 per cent of your willing labour resources being wasted. It continually amazes me.
It regularly comes up in the comments section that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) lacks a concern for inflation. That somehow we ignore the inflation risk. One of the surprising aspects of the public debate as the current economic crisis unfolded was the repetitive concern that people had about inflation. There concerns echoed at the same time as the real economy in almost every nation collapsed, capacity utilisation rates were going down below 70 per cent and more in most nations and unemployment was sky-rocketing. But still the inflation anxiety was regularly being voiced. These commentators could not believe that rising budget deficits or a significant build-up of bank reserves do not inevitably cause inflation. The fact is that in voicing those concerns just tells me they never really understand how the monetary system operates. Further in suggesting the MMT lacks a concern for inflation those making these statements belie their own lack of research. Full employment and price stability is at the heart of MMT. The body of theory and policy applications that stem from that theory integrate the notion of a nominal anchor as a core element. That is what this blog is about.
In the last few days I have seen more calls from commentators for policy makers to take new initiatives to generate jobs and growth. Some of these calls have come from commentators and research centres that sit on the “progressive” side of the macroeconomic debate. Unfortunately, their proposals are always compromised by their demonstrated lack of understanding of how the monetary system operates. In my view these proposals actually undermine the need to advance an understanding that sovereign governments can create true full employment and should do so as a matter of urgency. By playing ball with the conservatives and choosing to focus on deficit outcomes these progressives divert the policy focus away from the real issues. In short, the federal budget deficit outcome should never be the focus of policy.
Two related articles in The Economist last week (November 7, 2009) caught my attention. The first article – Battling joblessness – Has Europe got the answer – was about how the Continent may be a guide to all of us in tackling unemployment. The second article – Faring well – was extolling the virtues of India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). They provide a further basis for discussing employment guarantees.
I was a speaker at the Sydney Greens Forum yesterday and today I am on a panel with Bob Brown at the Greens National Conference in Adelaide. Regular readers will know that in the past months we have been engaging with the Greens after I wrote – Neo-liberals invade the Greens. The initial reaction towards me was hostility but that soon gave way to a more reasoned engagement which I have found to be extremely beneficial. That is why I accepted invitations to speak at their functions. While there is a long way to go in fully articulating a modern monetary paradigm within the context of the generally sophisticated social and environment policy that The Greens have already developed I think the possibilities are now there. One issue that does emerge in my discussions is that of whether a person should have to work under a Job Guarantee approach to full employment. That is, should the Job Guarantee be compulsory?
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 …
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.
Direct job creation is in the air. Yesterday, the Federal government announced its Jobs Fund yesterday which will allocate (sorry: a measly) $650 million to “support and create jobs and improve skills, by funding projects that build community infrastructure and create social capital in local communities.” However, I estimate a maximum of 40,000 jobs will be supported by this initiative. Put together the $42 billion and the $650 million, and you have a maximum of 140,000 jobs being protected if all the modelling is correct. Not a good dividend from the scale of public outlays. But … at least direct job creation is now on the table … finally. Now to scale it up to an appropriate level!
I am in a quandary … as usual! I thought along the same lines when Australia was stricken with drought recently and there was a national urgency to provide both government assistance and support from the private sector (national appeals and such). At present the world’s media is focused on the events following the natural disaster in the Indian Ocean. Not without some justification given the extent of the calamity. Nation’s (some) are rushing to provide aid and our Prime Minister John Howard quickly committed $35 million in aid and has said more funds will be made available. He is quoted on ABC news today as saying “The amount will be added to significantly in the time ahead … We have a moral obligation on the basis of pure humanity to help and we will help.” Say that again John: “We have a moral obligation on the basis of pure humanity to help and we will help.” But try this logic out: the citizens who have been ravaged by the earthquake and subsequent tsunamis could have taken steps to avoid their exposure. Why didn’t they educate themselves enough to ensure they knew about the dangers and why didn’t they build better houses and why, why, why?