The British Labour Party leader (for now) Keir Starmer gave a – Keynote Speech – to the Annual Conference of the Confederation of British Industry in Birmingham on November 22, 2021. If you read it or heard it you will know that his leadership marks the return of British Labour as class traitors. He started by saying the “Labour is back in business”, which should have been ‘Labour is the agent of business’ He played up the line that Britain’s future depends on the business sector profits growing stronger than they are now and that everyone benefits when profits are high and growing. Even at the most elementary level that statement defies the evidence. But for a Labour leader to make it spells trouble for the Party. So what else is new.
I have finally been able to read the latest fiscal statement – Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021 – from the H.M. Treasury, which was released on October 29, 2021. That 202 page document is not something anyone should spend time reading but in my job one has to in order to stay abreast of what is happening around the world. It also took me down the Office of Budget Responsibility snake hole to read their latest – Fiscal risks report – July 2021 – which obviously conditions the way the fiscal statement is framed. That is a really bad document. And as it happens, footnotes in that document take us further into the pit of New Keynesian fiction, where we find modelling that OBR relies on, that has the temerity to model fiscal shocks where labour markets always clear and households choose the unemployment rate, which is constructed as ‘leisure’, as they maximise their satisfaction. I suppose that is okay in a world where we assume households live to infinity. That is, nothing remotely like the world we live in. I don’t plan to analyse in detail the fiscal statement. Rather, here are some reflections on some of the material that the Treasury think is useful in framing the statement. Which helps to explain why these sorts of statements become lame quickly.
It’s Wednesday and my blog-lite day or so it seems. Today I briefly discuss the proposition that the British government can run short of sterling. It cannot unless it chooses to do so. And the basis for choosing to do so would be deeply irrational and irresponsible, when judged from the perspective of advancing the well-being of the citizens. I also reflect on the vested interests in the financial markets and the way they get platforms in the media and policy making circles to advance their sectional interests (profit). And mostly, we just have a 33 minute musical feast to reflect upon.
I learned long ago that when you consult a surgeon the recommendation will be surgery. After about 10 or more knee operations (both legs) as a result of sporting injuries, and, then some, to undo the damage done by previous surgery, I ran into a physiotherapist who had a different take on things. He showed me ways the body can respond to different treatments and retain the capacity for high-level training and performance even with existing damage. I still run a lot and his advice was worth a lot. The point is to watch out for one-trick ponies. The analogy is not quite correct because sometimes surgeons get it right. I don’t think the same can be said for a mainstream economist, who are also one-trick ponies. If you ask a mainstream economist what to do about macroeconomic policy they recommend hiking interest rates and cutting fiscal stimulus if the CPI starts to head north, irrespective of circumstances. But the message is getting blurred by realities, especially since the GFC. More pragmatic policy makers realise that just responding in the textbook manner hasn’t provided a sustainable basis for nations to follow. In the last week, we have seen the contradiction between the one-trick ponies, who are desperate to get back into their textbook comfort zone, and those who see the data more clearly. In Britain, one part of the Bank of England, the Financial Policy Committee has indicated the way forward is going to require careful policy support for businesses because many SMEs have loaded up on debt during the pandemic and face a precarious future. In the same week, a private sector bank economist, who is also an external member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, called for interest rate hikes and a deeper withdrawal of fiscal support (and central bank coordination of that support) to deal with, an as yet, unclear inflation threat.
At present, Britain is still in the throes of a global pandemic that has devastated the nation. Last week, at Brighton, the key economic spokespersons for the TLP or the Tory-lite Party (short form, British Labour Party) told the voters of Britain why they should remain in opposition. They were sterling performances by the leader and shadow chancellor. Clarifying for all, the fact that the Party hasn’t learned much at all about their recent history. A history that has seen them lose 4 national elections in a row and in the face of one of the worst British governments in history (and that is really saying something), the TLP’s electoral fortunes continue to wallow in loss-making percentiles. Then we had the Tory version outlined by the actual chancellor on Monday. Taking advantage of the political space the TLP has given them to reinstate all the religious nonsense about the immorality of public debt and the rest of the stuff that cultists (mainstream economists) dish up.
It’s Wednesday, and I have been following the British Labour Party conference and it seems they are conducting business as usual. That is, working out new and old ways to keep themselves unelectable even when the Tories are one of the worst British governments in history I would think. But so it goes. A split is the only way forward I guess. The Blairites can then hold conferences, stack votes to have unelectable leaders and design fiscal rules to their hearts content. At least they will be saving me time this time around. I will just be able to cut and paste my previous critiques of John McDonnells’ neoliberal Fiscal Credibility Rule and apply the analysis to the new Rachel Reeves’ rules. Not much has changed. Who is giving this lot advice? After that, I am sure you will appreciate that the IMF is now considered to be past its use-by date and currently mired in a data-fudging scandal. And then some Rock Steady to calm us down. That’s what today’s blog post offers.
Part of my working day is spent updating databases and studying the additional observations. I learn a lot that way about trends and how far off the mark my expectations of a particular phenomenon might be. Today I updated various labour market datasets from Britain and did some digging into the relationship between vacancies and pay. It is clear that as the British economy opens up again, that unfilled job vacancies have grown very strongly over the Northern summer. While that is a good thing because it means there are opportunities for workers to gain employment, shift employment to better paying jobs etc, the message is no unambiguous. If the vacancy growth is biased towards low-pay work then the chances for upward mobility might be stifled. Such a trend might also reflect the fact that employers are now finding that their old practices of accessing vast pools of EU labour willing to work at low wages are being constrained and that will signal the need for a change in strategy, including restructuring, capital investment and better paid jobs. It is too early to discern which way that will go. But what I found while looking at this new data is that while job vacancies are booming, the majority of them are in below-average pay sectors. More analysis is needed to fully assess the implications. Here is where I started on this path …
As I provided a detailed analysis of the National Accounts release yesterday, today, I am writing less via the blog and am shifting the Wednesday music feature to Thursday. That makes sense. Today, I am bemoaning the creation of the Bank of Goldman Sachs, formerly known as the Bank of England. Groupthink seems to plague this institution. And then, to restore equanimity, we have a music tribute to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry who died in Jamaica this week.
I find it amusing when some self-styled ‘progressive’ commentator, usually writing in the UK Guardian newspaper, bemoans Brexit and points to claims by business that there is a shortage of workers. The ‘shortage’, of course, is results from not being able to access unlimited supplies of cheap foreign workers as easily as before. When I see a shortage of workers, I celebrate, because it means employers will have to break out of their keep wages growth low mentality to attract labour; that they will have to offer adequate skills training to ensure the workers can do the work required; and, that unemployment will be driven as low as can be. What is not good about that? Brexit has done a lot of things, one of them being to provide the British working class to arrest the degradation in their labour market conditions that neoliberalism has wrought in a context of plenty of low wage labour always being in surplus. A similar thing will come from the pandemic in Australia where our external border has been shut for nearly 18 months now.
The article in the Socialist Worker Review (No. 89, July/August 1986, pp. 19–21), by Eammon McCann – The protestant working class – has kept me thinking for some years. I recalled it the other day when I was updating my Northern Ireland labour market data and working on some text. As a result of reading this article many years ago, I became very interested in the labour market dynamics in Northern Ireland, in particular, as they impact on the debate about unification and EU membership (yes, I have always been anti-EU). In that vein, I have been following the trends over time rather closely. More recently, the central place of the North Ireland Protocol in the Brexit discussions has increased the relevance of this research. I also benefitted from some very interesting conversations a few years ago with my host in Galway (forever thankful Niall), while I was visiting the Republic of Ireland on a speaking trip. These conversations filled in many gaps in my understanding of some of nuances of the issues involved. These trends provide some good background to what has been happening in a region that is undergoing significant change and how we might assess the Northern Ireland Protocol in a post-Brexit world. It also helps us understand the demise of the DUP as a relevant political force. They represent a different era. From my understanding, it is also the major economic changes that have been taking place in Northern Ireland that are more likely to influence the trend away from identifying as either unionist or nationalist or proceeding along ‘religious’ lines. A working class impoverished by austerity is a powerful solidifying force. The labour market has changed dramatically over the last several decades. In this multi-part series, I provide some reflections on these issues. This is part of a book project I am working on (more about which later).