Many issues that become ‘hot topics’ in public debates are really non-questions despite the heat they raise. All sorts of experts advance views, television current affairs programs trawl over them with various of these experts making careers for themselves, politicians take up hours of their time and our time discussing them, yet, when you really break the issue down – there is nothing much to see. The seemingly very erudite debates, discussions, opinions are all based on false starting premises, which are assumed and rarely discussed. This sort of charade is all the legacy of living in the fictional world created by my profession, which has distorted public discourse so badly that we now have people saying old people should be allowed to die terrible deaths from COVID so the young people can have jobs. These are old people who worked all their lives to help build our nations, who fought in World Wars to defend our freedom from daunting enemies, old people who cared for us personally, and old people who mostly, probably, have the joy of life before them each day they open their eyes, just like any of us. The problem is that the whole construction is based on a false premise: being that there has to be widespread economic damage if we choose to protect the health of our peoples. That premise is based on the failure to understand that the currency-issuing government can attenuate any economic losses if it chooses to adopt appropriate economic policy interventions. The fact that real GDP and employment has fallen significantly this year is testament to a failure to use fiscal capacity. We should be better informed before we get into elaborate but flawed debates that essentially come down to turning one population cohort against another.
Japan has a new leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who, given the majority of the LDP in the Diet will become prime minister in the coming days. He was interviewed over the weekend about the current crisis and the role that the Japanese government can play to attenuate the costs. He stated clearly that there was no limit to government debt issuance. The meaning of this statement is clear. The Japanese government should ignore claims that its public debt ratio is too high or is facing impending insolvency or bond-market revolts or any of the other manic predictions that economists who do not know better keep making. Instead, as Yoshihide Suga noted, the challenge is jobs and incomes. The only limits are real resource constraints and when there is a pandemic and rising unemployment, those constraints ease and the fiscal space for more net spending increases. At least one world leader understands that.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) published the June-quarter – Private New Capital Expenditure and Expected Expenditure, Australia – data today as part of the sequence of data releases relating to next Wednesday’s release of the second quarter National Accounts. Remember that this data is ‘backward’ looking, in that it tells us what has gone in the three months from April to the end of June. But it does provide the first signal of the impact of the first-stage lockdowns in April have had on capital formation. Today’s release confirms the worst with Total new capital expenditure falling by 5.9 per cent in the quarter and 11.5 per cent over the last 12 months. Investment in Building and structures fell by 4.4 per cent over the quarter and 9.4 per cent over the 12 month period, while investment in Equipment, plant and machinery fell by 7.6 per cent for the quarter and 13.8 per cent over the year. Crucially expected investment for 2020-21 has nose-dived (down 12.6 per cent on previous plans). By allowing the economy to go into recession and sustain mass unemployment and falling sales, the Australian government has made matters worse. Within the safe health constraints, it could have easily added another $A100 billion to its stimulus and seen unemployment drop to relatively low levels, major construction work undertaken in social housing to address the chronic shortfall, and invest in forward-looking green infrastructure. Instead, it has chosen to penny pinch and today’s figures are just the start of the damage this policy void is causing. This is another case of neo-liberal austerity white-anting the capacity of the economy to deliver prosperity for all.
The University of New South Wales Business School seems to be making headlines for all the wrong reasons. They have (at least) two attention-seeking academics that are not helping the reputation of the University. The first, thought he was being smart by trying to put Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) down and lie about my own work only to make a fool of himself. I note that someone at The Conversation, which damaged its credibility publishing the piece, has now edited the original piece (taken my name out of the text). The stupidity of the attack on MMT remains however. I dealt with that in this blog post – When mainstream economists jump the shark and lose it completely (January 23, 2017). Now, another academic who thinks somehow she is a wonderful communicator bringing economics to the public, is causing a national debate about freedom of speech and all the rest of it. She is arguing that the Australia should not have followed its lockdown strategy, and, instead should have allowed around up to 25,000 Australians to die in order to protect the economy. So far, only 155 have died. The controversy is being constructed as one of free speech and academic freedom. But academics should only be free to make statements using their university attribution if they are based on evidence that can be supported. I don’t dispute the academic’s right to be provocative. I do dispute her command of the evidence and her ignorance of matters macroeconomic. That is the problem here. Short recommendation: I would not study economics in this Department.
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.