Last week, the British Labour Party released its election – Manifesto 2019 – which they describe as “the most radical, hopeful, people-focused, fully-costed plan in modern times”. There is a lot to like about that Manifesto from a progressive perspective. However, in my mind, there were two unresolved tensions that I think damage the Party’s credibility. The first, is its, yes, continued embrace of neoliberal macroeconomic frames, epitomised by its so-called Fiscal Credibility Rule that has already had to be changed because so-called independent analysts agreed with my assessment that the manifesto and the ‘Rule’ were inconsistent. The second, is the Party’s position on Brexit, which I believe continues to hamper its chances of election and also brings into focus the inconsistencies in the Party’s stance and behaviour over the last 2 years. Elections are not won by counting votes up. Rather, they are won by winning seats, which means that votes are counted in specific constituencies (electorates). I have maintained the view that the Labour Party’s meandering position on Brexit, to satisfy the Europhile urban members, would damage them, given that the majority of their members of parliament were elected by Leave majority constituencies. Seats not votes win elections. It doesn’t matter if the majority of Labour voters are Remainers, if their are spatial disproportionalities in the vote spread. The latest YouGov MRP estimates of voter intention for the upcoming election indicate that my assessment may, in fact, turn out to be accurate.
Over the years it’s been clear to me that we live in a fictional world when it comes to economic matters. The mainstream has created this world that bears little relationship to reality and which serves the interests of a few at the expense of the majority. But the way in which this fiction is inculcated in the framing and language of our public debates leads the majority to think that the conduct of economic policy is somehow in their best interests, even if, at times, governments claim we have to swallow a bitter pill in order to get well again. The bitter pill always punishes the lower to middle-income groups, rarely the top-end-of-town. The fiction is so deeply ingrained that even progressive political campaigns are framed within it. I have railed against that all my career because I cannot align a belief that democratic choice requires accurate information with the reality that we make these choices in a fog of fiction. I have always considered the role of the progressive forces in politics, as a matter of priority, should be to be the agents of education, so that these democratic choices reflect our realities. I have never supported so-called ‘progressive’ parties that choose, for ‘political’ purposes, to lie to the electorates by adopting neoliberal framing and language as a way of minimising any difficulties that might arise, initially, from the dissonance that accompanies exposure to the truth, after years of believing in lies. It seems that the British Labour Party continues to promote a false narrative to support and otherwise stellar plan for national renewal. But, as history tells us, a plan built on false financial foundations, falters when circumstances change and the false foundations become the issue rather than the plan.
The Brexit issue in Britain has been marked by many different estimates of GDP (income) loss arising from different configurations of the Brexit. The media is flush with lurid headlines about the catastrophe awaiting Britain. As regular readers will appreciate, I am not convinced by any of those predictions. But as I said the day after the Referendum in this blog post – Why the Leave victory is a great outcome (June 27, 2016) – that when I tweeted it was a ‘great outcome’ I didn’t say that good would come out of it. I also didn’t suggest that it would be a short-term recovery of prosperity or that the workers would benefit. I was referring to the fact that class struggle now has a clearer focus within the British political debate. There is now a dynamic for a truly progressive leadership to emerge and bring the disenfranchised along with them and wipe out the neo-liberal hydra once and for all.” I think that is lost in this debate. When the British Labour Party claim the latest agreement will irrevocably damage workers’ rights or environmental protections they seem to be implying that they will never be in power again. No legislation or regulation is irrevocable in a democracy. But being part of the EU will always tie a nation to the EU’s rules which usurp any national interests. That is why I maintain strong support for the concept of Brexit. But amidst all these predictions of gloom and doom, I was listening to the radio last week and heard some statistics that are truly alarming. The on-going GDP losses from the obesity epidemic in the UK, which will increase over time rather significantly, are significant when compared to the estimates of GDP loss arising from Brexit. I wonder why that fact isn’t part of the daily narratives coming out from the Remain crowd to justify their view that the 2016 Referendum result should be disregarded so they can have another go at getting their own way!
A short blog post today – being Wednesday. I am still catching up on things after being away for a few weeks. The British Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) offered its latest contribution to Project Fear this week with their claim that the fiscal response to a no-deal Brexit would “would send government debt to its highest level in more than half a century”. Sounds scary. Which, of course, was the intention. That is what Project Fear is about. Creating illusions of disaster to discipline the political debate in a particular direction. Nothing new about that. But the media, including the UK Guardian had lurid headlines such as – No-deal Brexit would ‘push national debt to levels last seen in 60s’ (October 8, 2019). But if you think about it the worst case estimates are hardly anything to worry about, even if we took the estimates seriously and were concerned about movements in public debt ratios for a currency-issuing nation (which I am not). Here are a few graphs so that all my British friends can come from under their bed covers and face the day with a smile as the No-Deal data gets closer.
I am typing some of this on the train from Brighton back to London, after a day of speaking events in Brighton, where the British Labour Party conference is currently being held. I spoke at two events: (a) the GIMMS event on MMT and the Green New Deal and a video will be available soon; and (b) at an event alongside British Labour MP Chris Williamson, where were talked about how an Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) understanding can enhance the progressive policy cause and advance a transformation towards a ‘socialist’ (whatever that might be) state. It was great to see everyone at the events. The second event was attended by many people involved in the Labour Party itself and I hope that being exposed to new ideas will activate further grassroots resistance to the neoliberal system that undermines our material prosperity. So this two-part series is a reflection on the state of economic policy thinking within British Labour in the context of the paradigm shift that is going on now, around the world, in macroeconomic policy thinking. As I noted in – Part 1 – we are now seeing economists and policy makers, lining up, to tell us that a reliance on monetary policy has run its course and a new era of fiscal policy dominance is the only viable way ahead. That means that New Keynesian economics is over. That means that fiscal credibility rules that reflect an adherence to neoliberal constructs will need to be abandoned. And it seems that British Labour are lagging behind these major shifts that have been going on in economic policy thinking. Only Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) offers a consistent and credible path for Labour to make the shift into this era.
As I type this (Sunday), I am heading to Brighton, England from Edinburgh. We had two sessions in Edinburgh yesterday (Saturday) and it was great to share ideas with some really committed people. We had to dodge a Hollywood closure of the streets (‘Fast and Furious 9 had commandeered the inner city to film a car or two swerving out of control or whatever, and I hope the city received heaps for the inconvenience to its citizens. But, with the direction now south, and tomorrow’s two events (more later), I am thinking the place of the British Labour Party in the progressive struggle. It doesn’t look good to me. The news overnight has been that the Party’s “head of policy and the author of the party’s last election manifesto” (quoting the Times today) has quit the Party claiming “I no longer have faith we will succeed”. The blame game starts and, as usual, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is in focus. The Times cartoon had the caption “They’ve got what it takes to form a government” with two ducks (in Brighton) looking at a sign against a wall saying “Labour Civil War Chaos”. What should we make of all this? My take is this: there is a clear paradigm shift going on in macroeconomic policy thinking. Every day (it seems) a new article pops up with someone claiming monetary policy has run its course and a new era of fiscal policy dominance is the only viable way ahead. That means that the central bank imprimatur on policy – determining whether such policy can continue to be effective and relying on interest rate adjustments etc as the primary counter-stabilisation policy – is over. That means that New Keynesian economics is over. That means that fiscal credibility rules that are neoliberal central are over. And that is why I think British Labour are looking poorly in the polls. They have taken advice from a number of characters who have pushed them into a ‘New Keynesian’ mindset and they are now ‘yesterday’s news’. They have missed the boat on these major shifts that have been going on. That is why they need a major shift in macroeconomic thinking. Only Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) offers a consistent and credible path for them to make that shift.
I have recently had discussions with a PhD student of mine who was interested in exploring the cyclical link between productivity growth and the economic cycle in the context of the intergenerational debate about ageing and the challenge to improve the former. The issue is that sound finance – the mainstream macroeconomics approach – constructs the rising dependency ratio as a problem of government financial resources (not being able to afford health care and pensions) and prescribes fiscal austerity on the pretext that the government needs to save money to pay for these future imposts. Meanwhile, the real challenge of the rising dependency is that the next generation will have to be more productive than the last to maintain real standards of living and if austerity undermines productivity growth then it just exacerbates the ageing problem. My contention has always been the latter. That governments should use their fiscal capacity now to make sure there is a first-class education and training system in a growth environment to prepare us for the future when more people will have passed the usual concept of working age. This question also is hot at the moment in the Brexit debate in Britain and in this blog post I offer some empirical analysis to clear away some of the myths that the Remainers have been spreading.
I have regularly noted how the UK Guardian, the so-called newspaper for progressives as opposed to The Times, which serves the Tories, has been a primary media instrument for propagating neo-liberal economic myths. It has also been part of Project Fear, which the Remainers thought would see the June 2016 Referendum resolved in their favour, and have ever since been moaning about the need for another vote – you know, democracy as long as it delivers what you want. But when the Tories outflank them by electing Boris Johnson who then determines he will take the intransigent European Union on by calling their bluff and pushing ahead with Brexit by hook or by crook, the Remainers scream about democracy being trampled and all the rest of it. And when the Johnson Tories announce that they will introduce a significant fiscal stimulus to head-off any possible non-government recessionary forces (which is sensible and responsible fiscal conduct), the Remainers open their beloved Guardian to find their favourite journalists raving on about how such a move is risky because it will ‘damage public finances’ and predicting, derisively, that the Government will have to break their ridiculous fiscal rules because of the scale of the stimulus required. This is par for the course for the Europhile Left these days – champions of neoliberalism.
It is now clear that to most observers that the use of monetary policy to stimulate major changes in economic activity in either direction is fraught. Central bankers in many nations have been pulling all sorts of policy ‘rabbits’ out of the hat over the last decade or more and their targets have not moved as much or in many cases in the direction they had hoped. Not only has this shown up the lack of credibility of mainstream macroeconomics but it is now leading to a major shift in policy thinking, which will tear down the neoliberal shibboleths that the use of fiscal policy as a counter-stabilisation tool is undesirable and ineffective. In effect, there is a realignment going on between policy responsibility and democratic accountability, something that the neoliberal forces worked hard to breach by placing primary responsibility onto the decisions of unelected and unaccountable monetary policy committees. And this shift is bringing new players to the fore who are intent on denying that even fiscal policy can stave off major downturns in non-government spending. These sort of attacks from a mainstream are unsurprising given its credibility is in tatters. But they are also coming from the self-proclaimed Left, who seem opposed to a reliance on nation states, and in the British context, this debate is caught up in the Brexit matter, where the Europhile Left are pulling any argument they can write down quickly enough to try to prevent Britain leaving the EU, as it appears it now will (and that couldn’t come quickly enough).
Last week (August 9, 2019), the British Office of National Statistics (ONS) – GDP first quarterly estimate, UK: April to June 2019 – told us that the UK economy contracted by 0.2 per cent in the June-quarter 2019 after having grown by 0.5 per cent in the March-quarter. The UK Guardian pundits and the Remain cheer squad all screamed Brexit and were heard to be walking around in circles saying “see, we told you so”. Meanwhile (August 7, 2019), not far away (according to the Remain crowd’s much-loved gravity trade models), Germany’s Statistisches Bundesamt (Destatis) press release – Production in June 2019: -1.5% seasonally adjusted on the previous month – told a sorry tale. In annual terms, Germany’s industrial production has contracted by 5.2 per cent. We also learned that Germany is probably in recession. According to the Remain-logic, that must be Brexit too, n’est-ce pas? Meanwhile, just a bit further south, Italy is in turmoil. Obviously, Brexit uncertainty. I jest of course (well a bit). But in a real sense, this is all tied into Brexit in one way – and it is not the way the Remain camp would like us to believe. In fact, what I have in mind gives more weight to the Leave position and reflects on how intransigent the European Union elites are in dealing with the Member States.