The Powell Manifesto aka the – Attack on American Free Enterprise System – was a memo sent on August 23, 1971 to the US Chamber of Commerce by lawyer, Lewis Powell, who had been hired by the Chamber to craft a strategy to restore the dominant position of corporate America, which had felt diminished by the gains made by workers and citizens from social democratic policies. The dominant narrative in the late 1960s was focused on the so-called ‘profit squeeze’, which related to the redistribution of national income towards wages as a result of various government policies which increased workers’ protection, used taxation and spending as a redistributive vehicle, grew public services and infrastructure. Powell produced a path to reverse these gains by workers and citizens, in general, and ensure that corporate interests were dominant in public decision making. Conservative forces are still using it as a blueprint for their agendas. The recent decision by the Australian government to divert university students out of humanities and social science courses is a classic application of the blueprint.
For various reasons, I am often in Melbourne and over the last few trips I have avoided public transport (trams) for obvious reasons. In my wanderings to various destinations in the inner city I have noticed that many shops that have been trading since I grew up in that city have now disappeared as a result of the coronavirus lockdowns and the shift away from store-based retail. They were struggling before the virus hit and have now gone. Whole retail shopping strips are in trouble (the famed Chapel Street, Bridge Road, and now Victoria Street, to name just a few retail areas in serious decline). When I arrive at the airport and move into the city I get this overwhelming feeling that all this infrastructure we have built is becoming redundant in a post-Corona world. It also reinforces my view that governments are going to have a major role in transforming these urban spaces to be better suited for the needs of whatever future there is to be. This view was strengthened when I read a recent report from a research group at Cambridge University in the UK – Townscapes: England’s health inequalities (released May 2020) – which found that health inequalities in England are rising as a result of the pattern of urban development over the period of austerity. In some of the “most deprived set of towns” residents are “much worse off than the least deprived on a number of key measures”. I suspect, similar outcomes would be found in Australia and elsewhere, should the research be done. With the virus fast-tracking major shifts in the way we relate to retailing and service delivery, now is the time to implement a new urban plan to green up our urban spaces, ensure there is viable employment bases in all cities, and maintain a close link between the social and economic settlements, a link that has been increasingly broken under neoliberalism.
Governments save economies. Never let a mainstream economist tell you that government intervention is undesirable and that the ‘market’ will sort things out. Never let them tell you that large-scale government bond purchases by central banks lead to inflation. Never let them tell you that the government, when properly run, can run out of money. There is unlimited amounts of public purchasing capacity. The art is when to apply it and how much to release. That can only be determined by the behaviour of the non-government spending and saving and the state of idle capacity. It can never be determined by some arbitrary public debt threshold or deficit size. And the central bank can always buy however much debt they choose. At present the ECB is buying heaps and keeping the Member States solvent. That is not its state role but given there is no other institution in the Eurozone that can serve the fiscal function effectively and ‘safely’, it has to do that. Otherwise, the monetary union would quickly dissolve. I would take their bond buying programs further and write off all the debt they purchase. Immediately. Go on. Just type some zeros where they have recorded large positive Member State debt holdings. That would be something good to do in a terrible situation.
This is Part 2 of the two-part series which focuses on the question: If governments are not financially constrained in their spending why do they issue debt? Part 1 focused on the historical transition of the monetary system from gold standards to the modern fiat currency systems and we learned that the necessity to issue public debt disappeared as fixed exchange rates and convertibility was abandoned in the early 1970s. However, there are many justifications for continuing to issue debt that circulate. In this Part, I consider those justifications and conclude that the on-going practice of government’s issuing debt to the non-government sector is primarily an exercise in corporate welfare and should not be part of a progressive policy set.
One question that continually comes up when I do interviews is this: If governments are not financially constrained in their spending why do they issue debt? Usually, the question is expressed in an incredulous tone, meaning that the person asking the question considers this to be the gotcha moment, when they pierce the impeccable logic of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and show it for what it is – a sham. One problem is that there is a tendency to confuse motivation with function and many people sympathetic to MMT reduce it to simple statements that belie the reality. One such statement, relevant to this topic, is that government’s issue debt to allow the central bank to maintain a specific short-term interest rate target. Central banks have traditionally used government debt as an interest-rate maintenance tool. But that is a function of the debt rather than being the motivation for issuing the debt in the first place. So we explore those differences today as a means of clarifying the questions and confusions around this issue. This is Part 1 of a two-part series, which I will finish tomorrow.
Some Wednesday snippets today. Tomorrow, I will write about what I have been thinking about the Eurozone. There has been a lot of hot air about the Franco-German accord that Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel came to recently. Hot air is the operative term. The fault lines in the Eurozone continue to widen and the policy dissonance is becoming more acute as they deal, not only with the health crisis, but also the 19 economies that have been starved of investment and infrastructure development. This Saturday (May 30, 2020) marks the 75th Anniversary of the release of the famous ‘White Paper on Full Employment’, which outlined the responsibilities that the Australian government took on to ensure there were jobs for all workers who were wanting work. This White Paper really defined the Post-WW2 consensus and began a period of low unemployment, upward social mobility, the development of public education and health, declining income and wealth inequality and stable wage shares as real wages kept pace with national productivity growth. It wasn’t nirvana because lots of issues were still in need of solutions (for example, gender attitudes, indigenous inclusion, etc). But it was a blue print for an inclusive society with growing material prosperity. The vision was abandoned sometime in the 1970s as neoliberalism took centre stage and political parties on both sides of the fence gave up talking about full employment. To restore full employment as a primary social goal and government responsibility is an agenda I have pursed all my career. We should all read the ‘White Paper’ and recast it in modern terms and fight like hell for a similar vision that is apposite for the times and crises we now face.
Its Wednesday, so a collection of snippets, ads and music. One of the things I am working on as part of my book venture with Thomas Fazi, our followup to – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017) – is the way the Left and Right are responding to the current crisis. It is clear to me that the Right are seeing it as a way to really entrench new beach head gains on their long term agenda to divert public spending away from general welfare towards the top-end-of-town and to use the legislative/regulative structures of government to further their aims to divert more of the national income produced towards capital, particularly financial capital. Meanwhile, it looks as if the Left has gone to asleep – or better – they haven’t really woken from their long-term slumber as they dream their standard narrative that global capital has made the state unable to pursue independent fiscal agendas that will improve the lot of all humanity. So I am looking into that sort of narrative and collecting evidence as one does to compile into a coherent argument.
Welcome to The Weekend Quiz. The quiz tests whether you have been paying attention or not to the blog posts that I post. See how you go with the following questions. Your results are only known to you and no records are retained.
It is Wednesday and I offer a few snippets for readers today. I have a number of projects on the go at present and time is short today. Apart from introducing a stunning guitar player (now long dead) that very few people have ever heard of but is one of my favourites (what does that say?), I ask the question: Why does anyone read the New York Times? I also announce the development and publication of our latest Employment Vulnerability Index (EVI) now in its third iteration. You can look at colourful maps as a result of this work! And tomorrow I will be trawling through employment losses around the world. All along the path to releasing my 10-point plan later next week.
Major developments across the globe in monetary and fiscal policy keep happening on a daily basis at present. We are now hearing conservatives, who previously made careers out of claims that government deficits would send nations broke and more, appearing in the media now claiming “We need the state to bail out the entire nation”. Not too many economists are pushing the line that the market will deal with this crisis. They all the want the state to be front and centre as their own personal empires (income etc) becomes vulnerable. In a normal downturn there is not much sympathy for the most disadvantaged workers who bear the brunt of the unemployment. Now it is different. This crisis has the potential to wipe out the middle classes and the professional classes. And suddenly, who would have thought – the nation state is apparently back, all powerful and being begged to intervene. It is wake up time. Now no-one can be unclear about the fiscal capacity of the state. They now know that politicians who claim they don’t have enough money to do things were lying all along. They just didn’t want to do them. And when this health crisis was over we have to demand that the governments continue to lead the way financially and work out solutions to the socio-ecological climate crisis. No-one can say there is not enough funds to do whatever it takes. We all know now there are unlimited funds. The question must turn to the best way to use them. I also provide in this post some further estimates of the labour market disaster that Australia is facing as part of the development of my 10-point or something plan. It is all pretty confronting.