Apparently, whenever some poor economic news is published about the United Kingdom, journalists have to weave in their on-going gripe about the outpouring of democracy in June last year that saw the Brexit vote to leave successful. Its hysterical really. The most recent example is from the otherwise sensible Aditya Chakrabortty from the UK Guardian (October 17, 2017) – Who’s to blame for Brexit’s fantasy politics? The experts, of course. The story has nothing much to do with the June 2016 Referendum but more about massive forecasting failures of the Office of Budget Responsibility. But somehow the story opines about the lies told about Brexit and a fiscal “bloodbath” – the latter being the description for the fact that the fiscal deficit is likely to increase a little as a result of a slower than expected economic growth outcome. The UK Guardian continually writes about these two obsessions – the first that Brexit will be a disaster and the second that the fiscal position of the British government is in jeopardy and will undermine the capacity of the government to defend the economy if a major downturn comes along (as a result of the ‘Brexit disaster’). The narratives are interlinked – Brexit is bad, it will cause deficits to rise which are bad, and the government will be powerless as a result of the rising deficits to stop the bad consequences of Brexit – which is a big bad. All propositions are largely nonsense. Brexit will be bad if the British government continues to implement neoliberal policy. Rising deficits do not alter the spending capacity of government. And as a currency-issuing government, Britain can always arrest a recession, if there is political will. The fact is that the OBR forecast errors are just part of the neoliberal lie. And the productivity growth slump the OBR has now ‘discovered’ predates the Brexit referendum by years and is all down to the misplaced austerity imposed by George Osborne in June 2010. But it is disappointing to read this sort of stuff being repeated by so-called progressive commentator. There is clearly more work to be done via education.
It is clear that the British Tories are looking like the tawdry lot they are as the infighting over the leadership goes on, more often rising to the surface these days as wannabees circle the failing leader Therese May. Her performance at the Tory Annual Conference was poor, and I am not referring to her obvious difficulties with the flu (or whatever it was). I have been stricken with the flu since I left the US a few weeks ago and occasionally struggled for a voice as I gave talks every days for the 2 weeks that followed. It is obvious there is little policy substance in the Tories now and it is only a matter of time before she is ejected. At the same time, the British Labour Party leadership is showing increased confidence and are better articulating a position, that is resonating with the public. They are even starting to look like an Oppositional Left party for the first time in years and I hope that shift continues and they drop all the neoliberal macroeconomic nonsense they still utter, thinking that this is what people want to hear. A growing number of people are educating themselves on the alternative (Modern Monetary Theory, MMT) and demanding their leaders frame the debate accordingly and use language that reinforces that progressive frame. And, in that context, it didn’t take long for the mainstream media to start to invoke the scaremongering again. It is pathetic really. The New York Times article (October 5, 2017) – Get Ready for Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn – rehearses some of these ‘fears’. It is also true that the Shadow Chancellor has expressed concern himself about these matters – without clearly stating how a sovereign state can override anything much the global financial markets might desire to do that is contrary to national well-being.
On May 6, 1997, just 4 days after coming to office in what was to become Tony Blair’s retrogressive regime, the then British Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown announced that Labour would legislate the so-called independence of the Bank of England. The BBC claimed this was the “most radical shake-up in the bank’s 300-year history”, which gave “the bank freedom to control monetary policy”. Gordon Brown’s legacy to the British people, of course, is in his famous ‘light touch’ regulation, which he boasted about in the lead up to the GFC but went silent about soon after. But he has come out of the woodwork recently to reflect on his decision to set up the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) within the Bank of England and abandon the practice where the Chancellor and the Governor of the Bank would meet on a monthly basis to determine interest rates. He claims that decision kept Britain out of the euro and was a great success. But then in the same speech he railed against the ‘political’ intrusion of the MPC into broader fiscal policy debates and its failure to conduct monetary policy correctly during the GFC. A very confused narrative. The point is that central banks can never be independent of treasury departments and the claims to the contrary were just part of the depoliticisation of policy that accompanied neoliberalism. Brown is also wrong that setting up a separate MPC kept the nation out of the euro. Britain realised the euro would be a disaster long before 1997.
One of the abiding and recurring trends, accentuated in the neo-liberal era, is the apparent ‘concern’ for the low-paid by the captains of industry. They continually warn against allowing pay increases for this cohort because they are – so the story goes – deeply concerned about the damage it will do to the employment prospects. What they really mean is that they know pay rises at the bottom end of the pay structure don’t alter employment levels significantly but have some impact on profitability. That is, they reduce profits a little. And that is the concern they are really expressing. The British Chambers of Commerce have called for a freeze on real wages for the lowest paid workers in Britain despite profitability soaring and the share of business profits in national income rising. The expression ‘where do these characters get off’ comes to mind. Although it is hardly surprising. British entrepreneurs tend to be lazy and take the easy way out when they can to further their own ends.
Earlier this month (July 3, 2017) the British Office of National Statistics (ONS) released a research report – Wage growth in Pay Review Body Occupations – which basically summarises what has gone wrong with the world under neo-liberalism. While the Report is about the UK, which has particular characteristics, the trends identified are almost universal and reflect the dominance of the ‘free-(not!)-market’ austerity mentality that has crippled progress around the world. It also helps us understand why the British economy is stalling again and why the latest data on household spending is so disturbing. These trends have nothing to do with Brexit. They are all down to misguided government policy (austerity) and erroneous strategies that seek to generate fiscal surpluses when the non-government sector needs to also run surpluses (and the two aspirations are not simultaneously achievable). British workers are paying for this incompetence. The economists who gratuitously hand out the spurious advice, unfortunately do not lose their jobs.
When I was trawling through the British fiscal statements in 2010 and 2011, hidden in all the detail (an obscure Annexe) was a very explicit statement that told me that the British government was inflicting austerity on the economy and relying largely on the growth of non-government indebtedness to offset the fiscal drag and restore the growth cycle. In the same documents but more visible (in the main fiscal statement), the Government was claiming that the non-government debt position that had deteriorated sharply in the lead up to the crisis was unsustainable as a growth strategy. The mainstream press didn’t pick up on the contradiction. Now, the same press seems alarmed with the latest data from the British Office of National Statistics that shows that the Government’s strategy has been working like a charm – the non-government saving ratio has plunged, household debt escalated sharply, non-mortgage debt has accelerated and to top of the impending disaster – real household disposable income growth has been negative for three successive quarters (the first time since the mid-1970s). None of these trends are surprising. I predicted them 6 or 7 years ago. I have been watching the results steadily unfold. But for the mainstream commentators it is all a big headline – ‘look at what we have discovered’ … As Marcellus in Hamlet notes as the dead king’s ghost appears in the palace – “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” although he might have been referring to modern-day Britain under the Tories (apologies to William Shakespeare).
I have avoided discussing the British and French parliamentary elections to date, mostly because I couldn’t stomach the outcomes – May back and the neo-liberal Macron dominant. I also was tired of reading stupid columns from the likes of William Keegan and the rest of the Guardian neo-liberals raving on about Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn. Keegan is like an old record that lets the needle get stuck in a groove. He seems to have written the same column since June last year where the reader is told about the Brexit disaster and how Britain will be impoverished. But both elections, particularly the British outcome confirms what we have been noticing for a few years now – there is finally what we might call a true oppositional Left forming and gaining political traction in these nations. This is a Left platform that concedes little to the neo-liberals. It is vilified by the conservatives and the so-called progressive commentariat (such as the Guardian writers) and politicians (New Labour in Britain) as being in “cloud cuckoo land” and predictions from all of sundry of electoral wipeouts have been daily. But the results demonstrated that the message (such as in the Labour Manifesto) resonates with millions of people (40 per cent of those who voted in Britain). It is now a mainstream Left message that has taken over the British Labour Party and the Blairites are hiding under rocks. There is hope. People will only tolerate being bashed over the head for so long. There is now retaliation going on.
I have been keeping my eye on movements in the British data to see if there is any discernable effects yet of the June 2016 Brexit outcome. The latest investment data certainly doesn’t suggest anything is going on yet. The British Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported (May 25, 2017) – that total investment spending in real terms grew by 1.2 per cent in the March-quarter 2017 and over the 12 months by 2.2 per cent. Business investment was strong. This is investment in long-term productive infrastructure. It might be argued that this spending was already decided upon some time ago so the Brexit vote may not yet have impacted. We will see about that. The latest labour market data is also positive and that is what I have been looking at for a part of today.
On April 26, 2017, some smarta*!se journalists wrote a Bloomberg piece – The Brexit Banker Exodus Gains Momentum – with some not-so fancy graphics purporting to show where the “U.K. banking jobs might be headed” allegedly because Britain is to leave the European Union. On May 9, 2017, the increasingly terrible UK Guardian bought in on the frenzy with its article – City banks could move at least 9,000 jobs from UK due to Brexit . And so it goes. Apparently, Deutsche Bank is “leading the threatened exodus”, followed by JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs. All exemplars of virtue, not! While the threat of the ‘City’ leaving London is now used to frighten British people about Brexit, the reality is, in my view, quite different. I would be celebrating the cleaning out this infestation of unproductive enterprises, which remain one of the destructive legacies of Margaret Thatcher and, later, New Labour and its so called ‘light touch regulation’.
I get a lot of E-mails that accuse me of being politically naive. The accusations were rekindled by yesterday’s blog – British labour lost in a neo-liberal haze. I imagine if I wrote a blog where I outlined support for Marine Le Pen in the context of a two-way fight against the worse-of-the-worst neo-liberals Emmanuel Macron the accusations would turn uglier even. My support for Brexit was met with similar hostility from a range of (self-styled) ‘progressives’ as being naive and offensive. Why, Brexit was a conservative plot wasn’t it? How could I have missed that? Progressives are now advocating votes for Macron even though they know he is an archetype neo-liberal – the anathema of what they believe. And they tell me every day in these E-mail tirades and other blogs that I should give people like Jeremy Corbyn some slack because he knows better than me that to advocate a major departure from the neo-liberal macroeconomic narrative would be political suicide. So why don’t I just shut up and recognise that politics is beyond my grasp and I should desist. Basically that is the message I get regularly. Well, I am sorry to say, such views completely misunderstand the role of an academic and the way in which resistance is constructed.