The field of psychology is usually ignored by mainstream economists, which, in its typically arrogant and closed practice, adopts a series of a priori assumptions about human behaviour – the so-called Homo economicus – where were are always rational and self-interested and, as a result, always make choices that maximise our present and future well-being based on available market signals. Real world forces that condition actual human behaviour, such as cognitive biases and irrationality, in general, as well as cooperative and collective behaviour is ignored by mainstream neo-classical (free market) economic theory, because admitting its dominance in human decision-making would void the entire edifice of that theory and scuttle the authority that is given to the on-going narratives about deregulation, small government, privatisation, pernicious cutting of income support, and the rest of the economic policies that have defined this dysfunctional neo-liberal era. But humans do not behave in the way economists suggest. We are a complex mass of irrationality, custom, habit, and affect. We certainly use cognitive processes in our decision making but often we take shortcuts based on affect. These tendencies are pushing our behaviour back to what was normal before the credit binge that led to the GFC. This shift in our behaviour is associated with stagnation and entrenched mass unemployment. But the reason for these parlous outcomes is not that we have returned to more normal spending behaviour but, rather, because governments have not realised that they had to return to more normal behaviour as well. Instead of promoting the benefits of austerity (in the face of all evidence to the contrary), governments should have been promoting the benefits of continuous fiscal deficits to support non-government saving desires and maintain better employment outcomes and stronger income growth. The malaise advanced nations are stuck in at present is directly the result of ideologically-motivated choices made by governments to use to use fiscal policy properly. Neo-liberal ideology remains dominant but citizens are rebelling and something has to give.
So Italy has now gone the way of the UK and the US in its referendum vote – rejecting the establishment but not sure on what to do instead. It seems that the US voters have been duped by a conman (noting he beat a conwoman). Now Renzi is to go and we will see what happens next. But the trends around the world are unmistakable. Ordinary folk are in rebellion and for good reason. Last night I saw the latest Ken Loach film – I, Daniel Blake, which is a grinding, shocking statement of how society has been so compromised by the neo-liberalism that these voting patterns are rebelling against. I would say that as an Australian the film was a little less shocking than it might have been because our stupid nation led the way in introducing the tyrannical administrative processes that accompany income support systems in this neo-liberal era. Britain (under Tony Blair – never let it be forgotten – he did more than lie about Iraq) followed Australia’s lead in this respect. So, Australians have seen this dystopia for more than 18 years now – and while I hope we have not become inured to it – normalised it – it has been part of our awareness for a long time. Nonetheless, the film is shocking in what it says about the societal compromise and the rise and normalisation of sociopathic relationships between state and citizen.
A former student sent me an E-mail recently and updated me on his progress and his current research project – the history of British banking in the 19th century. He also wanted to draw my “attention to a little known period in British Economic history that seems to reinforce the interrelationship between fiat currencies, public debt and expenditure and rates of economic growth and unemployment”. So square centre of my own research interests (among others). So I did some further digging and read back through the notes I have taken over the last 35 years as a researcher. I was aware of the Bank Restriction Act 1797 “was an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain … which removed the requirement for the Bank of England to convert banknotes into gold.” This essentially created a fiat currency system with the central bank as the currency issuer. More interesting things arise as you dig further. For a period of 24 years, Britain lived under this form of monetary system. And, need I add, during this period Britain usurped the Netherlands as the most developed economy in the world at that point in history and the industrial revolution boomed. The mainstream economists of today would have predicted catastrophic results from the 1797 Bank Act. But then we know that what they say has zero credibility anyway.
I last wrote about the aftermath of the June 2016 Brexit vote in this blog – Mayday! Mayday! The skies were meant to fall in … what happened?. Admittedly, it was written just a month after the vote and so the analysis could legitimately be considered as being tentative and was designed to refute the claims by the remainers that the UK would instantly sink into recession. It didn’t and it hasn’t. Despite the tentative nature of the blog (using the first data releases after the vote), I received a bevy of ‘hate’ E-mails, presumably from those ‘darlings’ that were miffed they didn’t get their way in the vote. Bad luck, that is the way ‘democracy’ works. We are now at the end of June and we have more information and my conclusion in August is now more concrete. The doom and gloom that was meant to follow the vote outcome is not to be seen in the data. While we might dismiss the on-going strength of consumption expenditure as being short-termism (it might change quite rapidly), last week (November 25, 2016) we learned that private capital formation (investment) is growing strongly and a number of foreign companies have reaffirmed their commitment to on-going investment in the UK. That is forward-looking decision making – out years into the future. Doesn’t look like a Brexit calamity to me.
When a News Corp newspaper starts writing articles that reflect the insights provided by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) you know that progress in the dissemination of those ideas is being made. Even if they don’t get things exactly right. The Dow Jones & Company (owned by News Corp) daily, the Wall Street Journal carried an article last week (October 31, 2016) – Message from the Gilt Market: U.K. Can Never Run Out of Pound – which leaves no room for doubt. The London-based journalist Jon Sindreu wrote that “Among facts that take a stubbornly long time to sink in, here’s one: Countries that borrow in their own currencies never have to default on their debt”. So never again allow a person in your company to suggest otherwise. There are many like facts that seem to evade the understanding of journalists, politicians and others who desire to push the neo-liberal line. I say ‘seem’ because it is certain that many of these neo-lib banner carriers know full well they lie when they make claims about currency-issuing governments running out of money and the like. They are ideological warriors after all and in war, anything seemingly goes.
The British Office for National Statistics, which although recently revamped continues to have the most user-unfriendly homepage and dissemination service of all the national statistical agencies, published the latest – Retail Sales in Great Britain: July 2016 – data last week (August 18, 2016). It looked good to me. In the past week or so there has been a stream of data coming out of Britain or about Britain, which also looks good to me. What the hell is going on? The skies over Britain were meant to have fallen in by now. Unemployment was meant to be going through the roof or was the roof meant to collapse first. All manner of despair was meant to be visiting the shores of Britain after the June 23 vote to get out of the dysfunctional European Union. The reality is that things are looking okay there. Skies are intact and quite blue I believe which has boosted the confidence of British consumers. Tourism is booming. Unemployment is falling or at least those claiming unemployment benefits. One investment bank put out a briefing last month with a Mayday! Mayday! warning that unemployment was about to rise dramatically. Who has been sacked for that piece of public misinformation. George Osborne, remember him, said in mid-June that British public finances were about to collapse and an immediate, emergency fiscal response would be needed. Days have passed – things are looking ok. Eurozone nations should take note! Ignore the neo-liberal scare mongering. Follow Britain’s lead in abandoning the ridiculous notion that there is something special about ‘Europe’. Eurozone nations should get out of the currency union as soon as possible.
There was an interesting article written in the London Review of Books (September 13, 2012) by regular contributor James Meek in – How We Happened to Sell Off Our Electricity (you need to subscribe to read it). It discussed how the obsession with privatisation in Britain, which was meant to reduce state control of this sector, has led to the state still being dominant in electricity production. The only problem for the British is that the French government now owns a large swathe of the ‘privatised’ British electricity industry. The outcome demonstrates the absurdity of the whole privatisation debate. This example is not unique. State-owned enterprises have eaten up inefficient privately owned firms all around the world as governments sell off public assets in the belief that prices will fall, services will improve and costs will be lower. The reality now some 35 years or so into the privatisation experiment is that none of these claims have been realised. In many cases, costs are higher and the privatised firms rely on higher public subsidies than was the case when the operations were completely in public hands. Prices are no uniformly lower after privatisation. Profit-seeking firms seek to gain by cutting costs and under investing in essential infrastructure, which leads to poor outcomes for Society (blackouts, poor repair times etc). And, millions of jobs have been lost in this cost-cutting mania. As a result, we argue that a ‘Progressive Manifesto’ must include the case for re-nationalisation of many sectors, which are intrinsic to advancing the well-being of Society. Progressive parties should start researching and demonstrating how this policy will take us into the next century where green, sustainable production is the norm and there are high levels of public service available from these key sectors, rather than allow critics to argue that the re-nationalisation agenda is just a return to the dark old days of inefficient state enterprises where cronyism, nepotism and corruption was rife.
With the new British Prime Minister now indicating that she will push ahead with Brexit and free the nation from the undemocratic imposts of the increasingly dysfunctional European Union, a view that is apparently ‘poisonous’ to some so-called progressive writers, several pro-Remain economists or economic commentators have realised that the game is up for neo-liberalism in Britain. There have been several articles recently arguing (after bitching about the loss of the Remain vote and repeating the catastrophe mantra) that a new economic paradigm is now called for in Britain, based on its new found sovereignty (after it finally exits). It could, by the way, exit through an Act of Parliament without all the Article 50 palaver if it wanted to. That is just a smokescreen. This idea of a new paradigm being required is exactly what Thomas Fazi and I are working on as part of our current book project which is nearing completion. Today, I consider briefly our view that nationalisation has to return as a key industry policy plank for any aspiring progressive political party.
Last week, I reported on some claims by Australian private sector economists that the Australian government was deplete of policy tools (“run out of ammunition” was the cute term used among these self-serving characters) and would not be able to handle the Brexit fallout – see When journalists allow dangerous economic myths to pervade. It was obvious that the statements were nonsensical and only reflected the dangerous neo-liberal ideology that discretionary fiscal policy should be constrained to the point of being not used! In the last week, some major central bankers around the world have given speeches which suggest they also understand that fiscal policy has come to the fore and provide some certainty to the world economy. The latest estimates from the ECB of the Eurozone output gap certainly provide the evidence base to justify a major expansion of fiscal deficits across the Eurozone. The research is suggesting that there is a significant output gap which is evidence of insufficient aggregate spending rather than any structural shifts in potential GDP. I guess they are warming the Member States for more expansionary action although the message is very clear – the European Commission has to abandon its austerity mindset and provide some old-fashioned deficit stimulus – quick smart!
Less than two weeks ago, Britain sent a bombshell into the conservative, neo-liberal policy agenda and the narrative that supports it. I have read a lot of comments that the Referendum result was a reflection of racist attitudes towards minority immigrants. While it is no doubt that the open borders policy that allows firms to batter down wages growth and keep a constant excess supply of labour as a threat was an important part of the debate and vote, that in itself, was a reflection of the underlying tension that people and their communities have with the neo-liberal policy agenda. There would be much less concern about migration if there was full employment. The same sort of tensions that pushed the majority of British voters to support the Leave campaign have been apparent in the Australian Federal election which was held on Saturday (July 2, 2016). Australian voters have rejected a first-term conservative government. It is a rare event for us to reject any first-term regime of either persuasion. The conservatives in Australia are now in tatters without credibility and the unstable situation that has arisen as a result of the political uncertainty provides a great opportunity for the Australian Labor Party, who did very well in the poll on Saturday, to refresh their outlook and reject their neo-liberal tendencies to reflect the big shift in sentiment in the Australian electorate. A similar opportunity exists in Britain and I hope Jeremy Corbyn takes it and expunges the Blairites from his own Party.