Some years ago, I promised to write about the – Cambridge capital controversy – which saw economists associated with Cambridge University in England and MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts argue about the validity of neoclassical distribution theory. I never wrote the blog posts because I considered the material was a little difficult for a blog audience. Also, while of great interest to me, the topic was not necessarily compulsory reading for those trying to come to terms with Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). But today, I relent. For two reasons. First, I think my readership has reached much higher levels of economic literacy over the last 15 years and can handle a challenge. But, more importantly, there are times when the mainstream characters, who have been claiming that there is nothing new in MMT and that they knew it all along and all the important results can be explained within an orthodox New Keynesian approach, reveal their true colours. Their hubris sees them get ahead of themselves and they show they never really understood the basics that undermine their own approach. Such was the case this week when Paul Krugman declared the Controversy “a huge intellectual muddle” and “a tortured debate that illuminated nothing much”. Well, that just goes to show how the mainstream denial functions. A body of work comes along and blows the dominant paradigm out of the water, and the response is to ignore it as a meaningless muddle. Their current attacks on MMT are just another application of that approach, which I first encountered as a student while studying the capital debates. Given the complexity of this issue and the amount of material, this will be a two-part series. Today, we learn the historical context, which will convince you that this was not idle or arcane discussion. This was a debate that went to the heart of the existence of capitalism and the defenders of that system – the mainstream economists did everything they could to defend the myths that they had erected to make the system look fair. They failed but went on anyway. Here is Part 1.
It is Wednesday and I have been tied up all day working on the MOOC that will be launched in early March. We have been filming a lot and it is starting to take shape (see below for more details on how you can enrol). So just a light blog day but that doesn’t mean what I am writing is trivial. The two stories demonstrate how far we have to go on the progressive side of the debate before we actually make progress. It is, unfortunately a repeating tale and it is hard to define a strategy that will get through the blockades that some progressives erect that sustain neoliberalism at its most elemental level. While the British Labour Party is aiming to reinvent itself by pitching its message at the worst element of the voters that it has lost in recent years – patriotism, flags etc – that sort of nonsense – progressives in Australia are revealing how regressive they can be.
If it quacks then it is a duck! If it uses neoliberal frames, narratives, language and concepts then it is neoliberal. Framing a lie just privileges the lie – and we get nowhere. The Progressive Economic Forum purports to bring “together a Council of eminent economists and academics to develop a new macroeconomic programme for the UK”. Their goals have some overlap with what I consider to be reasonable – reducing economic insecurity and inequality, climate action, etc. Some of their policies approaches are anathema (for example, UBI). Many of their council have been close advisors to the Labour Party at various times, including most recently. And they promote a macroeconomics that is not only incorrect but dangerously coincident with the mainstream thinking that has been part of the problem they claim eager to solve. And the failure of the Labour Party to win the December election against a Tory government that had inflicted awful austerity on the people is testament to the fact that their progressive narrative is in need of a radical change. The latest example of how this ‘progressive narrative’ really just reinforces the neoliberal frames they rail against is an Op Ed from a senior PEF council member (January 24, 2020) – – which was a promotional piece for his latest book. I do not recommend anyone purchasing the book.
In Monte Python’s Life of Brian we were introduced to the “People’s Front of Judea”, which was “one of many fractious and bickering independence movements, who spend more time fighting each other than the Romans”. The segments featuring the Front were very amusing. It was humour but redolent of the sort of historical struggles that have divided the Left over the centuries. In Australia, the history of the Communist Party, for example, is one of many factions, splintering into new parties and leaderships after disputes about Bolshevism, then the Communist International and Stalinism, then the so-called “imperialist” war by the Allies against Nazism, then Krushchev’s revelations about the crimes of Stalin, then the Soviet invasion of Hungary, then the split between the Soviet Union and China and the rise of Mao, then the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and so on. This sort of division is mirrored around the world on the Left side of politics and struggle. I have been reminded of this history in recent weeks as the ‘war’ against Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has been ramped up from so-called progressives. However, this ‘war’ seems different to the sort of internicine struggles that have historically bedevilled the Left. We now have all manner of strategies emerging, ranging from classic Association fallacies to ridiculous claims that MMTers perpetuate ‘anti semitic tropes’, and on to plain invention, a.k.a. straight out fabrications or lying. There is no real attempt to embrace the body of work we have created over the last 25 years. Quite the opposite – the ‘critics’ haven’t an original thing to say about the substance of MMT. They have instead decided to smear us with increasingly hysterical assertions. Which raises the interesting question for me – what is driving this aberrant behaviour? Fear, a sense of irrelevance, jealousy, Brexit, spite, … what? I have conjectures but no real answers.
Its Wednesday and so only a discursive type blog post (that is, very little actual research to report). I have been thinking about the so-called Marxist-inspired critiques of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and just the other day another one popped up in the form of the long article by Paul Mason. One of the things that I have noted about these critiques is that they deploy the same sort of attack against MMT that mainstream economics has traditionally deployed against Marxist economics. One would think they would at least be consistent. It won’t take me all that long to explain that.
On August 6, 2018, British tax expert Richard Murphy who is becoming increasingly sympathetic to the principles of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) published a blog post, which recorded an exchange with one James Meadway, who is the economics advisor to the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell in Britain. The exchange took place on the social media page of a Labour Party insider who has long advocated a Land Tax, which McDonnell is on the public record as saying will “raise the funds we need” to help local government. He called it a “radical solution” (Source). An aside, but not an irrelevant one. It reflects the mindset of the inner economics camp in the British Labour Party, a mindset that is essentially in lockstep with the neoliberal narrative about fiscal policy. Anyway, his chief advisor evidently openly attacked MMT as “just plain old bad economics” and called it a “regression in left economic thinking” which would ultimately render the currency “entirely worthless” if applied. He also mused that any application of MMT would be “catastrophic” for Britain. Apparently, only the US can apply MMT principles. Well, the exchange was illustrative. First, the advisor, and which I guess means the person being advised, do not really understand what MMT is. Second, the Labour Party are claiming to be a “radical and transformative” force in British politics, yet hang on basic neoliberal myths about the monetary system, which is at the core of government policy implementation. Astounding really. This is Part 1 of a two-part series on this topic, most of it will be summarising past analysis. The focus here is on conceptual issues. Part 2 will focus more specifically on Balance of Payments issues.
On June 15, 2018, the OECD released their report – A Broken Social Elevator? How to Promote Social Mobility – which provided “new evidence on social mobility in the context of increased inequalities of income and opportunities in OECD and selected emerging economies”. If you are still wondering why the mainstream progressive political parties have lost ground in recent years, or why the Italian political landscape has shifted from a struggle between ‘progressive’ and conservative to one between anti-establishment and establishment (the latter including both the traditional progressive and conservative forces which are now virtually indistinguishable) then this evidence will help. It shows categorically that neoliberalism has failed to deliver prosperity for all. While the full employment era unambiguously created a dynamic environment where upward social mobility and declining inequalities in income, wealth, opportunity were the norm, the more recent neoliberal era has deliberately stifled those processes. It is no longer true that ‘all boats rise on a high tide’. The point is that this is a situation that our governments have allowed to arise and which they can alter if they so choose. We should be forcing them to restore the processes that deliver upward mobility. And that is where the “truth sandwich” comes in. Progressive politicians that bang on about ‘taxing the rich to deliver services to the poor’ or who ask ‘where is the money going to come from’ or who claim the ‘bond markets will rebel’ and all the rest of the neoliberal lying drivel should familiarise themselves with the way the sandwich works. It is a very tasty treat if you assemble it properly.
I am travelling most of today with heavy commitments at the other end so only a short blog today with some great music to calm the soul. Yesterday, a group of high-profile, so-called progressives in Australia placed a paid-for advertisement in the leading daily newspapers as part of a new campaign for the government to increase taxes to get back into surplus so that (as their narrative goes) it can afford to maintain services for the needy. Yes, it was not the Right voices in our debate articulating this. The campaign is being led by a group that is often referred to as ‘left-leaning’ and calls itself the “most influential progressive think tank” in Australia. Modesty doesn’t exist it seems. But these sorts of descriptors are when the English language loses all meaning. The advertisement and subsequent follow-up interviews in the media yesterday by signatories and supporters of the “Letter” articulate a pure neoliberal line of deception about fiscal positions, the role of taxes and the virtuousness of fiscal surpluses. From my assessment, this headline-grabbing display of stupidity will set back the progressive debate in Australia even further. A total disgrace.
As background research to one of my book projects I have been reading a recent biography of François Mitterrand by Philip Short. Its title “Mitterand: A Study in Ambiguity” points to the capacity of Mitterand himself to blow with the wind but only when it suited his sense of personal ambition. Hiding behind his statesmanship was a man with “infinite shades of deviousness, an aesthete and intellectual, a sensualist, a crook”. The story of Mitterrand and his famous turn to austerity in March 1983 is very important to understand because it is used by progressives to justify their ‘austerity-lite’ stances with respect to economic policy. The New Labour politicians that are attacking Jeremy Corbyn’s policy proposals fit into this camp. The ‘left’ narrative is that the demise of Keynesian policy options was inevitable in the face of globalisation of capital and the growing importance of Transnational Corporations (TNCs). But, my argument is that there was nothing inevitable at all about Mitterrand’s poorly contrived shift into austerity. The progressives who advocate the inevitability thesis conflate the development of the TNCs with the emerging dominance of the neo-liberal ideology (which is concoction from economists intent on pushing the textbook competitive free market model with minimal state intervention). The development of the TNCs didn’t undermine the capacity of currency-issuing nation states. That has been accomplished by the imposition of the neo-liberal ideology and is reversible if the politics can be won. That is what I see as Jeremy Corbyn’s challenge – to win the politics. There is plenty of strong economic argument to help him do that.
I am away most of this week and have limited time for blogs and I am also concentrating on the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) book I am working on that will be published later in 2015. I also do not want to use the blog space exclusively for that book writing like I did for a portion of this year when I wrote the book on the Eurozone (which will come out in May 2015). I can also say that an Italian version of the book is now going to be a reality and we hope to get it out as soon as possible in 2015 – more later on that topic – it tells a story in itself about the Italian left! So for the rest of the week we will be in Blog Light’ territory although only marginally. Today – a sad story of how progressives seem to lose their way. I would have thought the first progressive imperative would be to counter the neo-liberal myths about economics in order to liberate a range of other social and environment initiatives that will improve society and the world in general from the yoke of neo-liberal lies about fiscal deficits and the way the monetary system operates. I was wrong. After considering the material for this blog, I think I will file it under my – Friend’s like this … – series.