On a day that the Federal government was telling Australians that it was time to celebrate as a result of the fiscal situation achieving balance, the unemployment and underemployment rates rose. This is neoliberalism – August 2019 style. The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest data today – Labour Force, Australia, August 2019 – which reveals a fairly weak labour market with where employment growth is not strong enough to absorb the increasing labour force as participation continues to creep up. As a result, unemployment rose again, albeit modestly. The disturbing trend in this rather weak environment is that underemployment rose by 0.2 points) to 8.6 per cent further and the total labour underutilisation rate (unemployment plus underemployment) rose as a consequence to 13.7 per cent. In the last two months, underemployment has risen by 0.4 points. Both the unemployment and underemployment rates are persisting around these elevated levels of wastage making a mockery of claims by commentators that Australia is close to full employment and that the fiscal position represents something desirable. The unemployment rate is 7 percentage points above what even the central bank considers to the level where inflationary pressures might be sourced from the labour market. This persistence in labour wastage indicates that the policy settings are to tight (biased to austerity) and deliberately reducing growth and income generation. My overall assessment is the current situation can best be characterised as remaining in a fairly weak state.
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).
Only a short blog post today – in terms of actual researched content. Plenty of announcements and news though, a cartoon, and some great music. I have been meaning to write about the household income and wealth data that the ABS released in July, which showed that real income and wealth growth over a significant period for low income families has been close to zero, while the top 20 per cent have enjoyed rather massive gains. These trends are unsustainable. A nation cannot continually be distributing income to the top earners who spend less overall while starving the lower income cohorts of income growth. A nation cannot also continually create wealth accumulation opportunities for the richest while the rest go backwards. These trends generate spending crises, asset bubbles and social instability. That is what is emerging in Australia at present.
At different times, the manias spread through the world’s financial and economic commentariat. We have had regular predictions that Japan was about to collapse, with a mix of hyperinflation, government insolvency, Bank of Japan negative capital and more. During the GFC, the mainstream economists were out in force predicting accelerating inflation (because of QE and rising fiscal deficits), rising bond yields and government insolvency issues (because of rising deficits and debt ratios) and more. And policy makers have often acted on these manias and reneged on taking responsible fiscal decisions – for example, they have terminated stimulus initiatives too early because the financial markets screamed blue murder (after they had been adequately bailed out that is). In the last week, we have had the ‘inverted yield curve’ mania spreading and predictions of impending recession. This has allowed all sorts of special interest groups (the anti-Brexit crowd, the anti-fiscal policy crowd, the gold bug crowd, anti-trade sanctions crowd) to jump up and down with various versions of ‘I told you so’. The problem is that the ‘inverted yield curve’ is not signalling a future recession but a total failure of the dominant mainstream macroeconomics. The policy world has shifted, slowly but surely, away from a dependence on monetary policy towards a new era of fiscal dominance. We are on the cusp of that shift and bond yields are reflecting, in part, the sentiment that is driving that shift.
It is Wednesday and my blog post-lite day. A few topics – thugs in Britain. Mindless ‘progressive’ journalism trying to tell readers that while Gordon Brown could use fiscal policy tools (spending and taxation) to advantage to stimulate the British economy, Boris Johnson cannot. Piffle and the lies from the UK Guardian are getting more desperate by the week. And some notes on guns. Then a nice bit of guitar playing. Tomorrow, I will be extending my ideas on the Green New Deal.
I am working on a manifesto (‘White Paper’) linking Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) with a Green New Deal (GND) concept. I will announce an important strategic coalition I am forming to advance this agenda in the coming period and some great events to present the framework. As part of that process, I have been sketching some of the important guiding principles that I consider to be essential if a massive socio-economic transformation like the Green New Deal (or whatever we want to call the strategy) is to be successful. Lessons from history are a good starting point to understand why things go awry. In that respect, the largest national infrastructure project that Australia has embarked on for decades – the National Broadband Network (NBN) – is a object lesson in how not to conduct government policy when nation building. The Green New Deal is about nation building – creating a framework of infrastructure, education, skills development, employment, distributive mechanisms and more to take nations into the next century while reversing the environmental degradation that industrialisation and mass consumerism has wrought. The central role of the government as the currency issuer will be paramount. The whole transformation will not be successful while policy makers hang onto mainstream macroeconomic views about government financial capacities, which manifests into obsessions about achieving fiscal surpluses. This is why an understanding of MMT is central to any proposal to advance a GND. Without that understanding, we will always encounter the nonsensical issues that have plagued the NBN development and left it in a state of chaos and near-redundancy, when it should have underpinned our technological network for decades to come.
This is the second and final part of my recent discussion on the what a Green New Deal requires. All manner of proposals seem to have become part of the GND. The problem is that many of these proposals sell the idea short and will fail to achieve what is really required – a massive transformation of society and the role the government plays within it. The imprecision is exacerbated by progressives who are afraid to go too far outside the neoliberal mould for fear of being shut out of the debate. So we get ‘modest’ proposals, hunkered down in neoliberal framing as if to step up to the plate confidently is a step too far. In Part 1, I argued that the progressive side of the climate debate became entrapped, early on, by ‘free market’ framing, in the sense that the political response to climate action has typically emphasised using the ‘price system’ to create disincentives for polluting activities. In Part 2, I argue that we have to abandon our notion that the role of government in meeting the climate challenge is to make capitalism work better via price incentives. Rather, we have to accept and promote the imperative that governments take a central role in infrastructure provision, rules-based regulation (telling carbon producers to cease operation) and introducing new technologies.
All over the globe now there are cries for a Green New Deal. What constitutes the GND is another matter. Like the concept of the Job Guarantee, there are now countless versions springing out of various groups, some that only seem to offer a short-term, short-week job or other arrangements that fall short of the way Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) constructs the concept. There is only one Job Guarantee in the modern parlance and that is the MMT concept. Other job creation programs are fine but they should stop using the term Job Guarantee, which is a comprehensive macroeconomic stability framework rather than a job creation program per se. In the same vein, all manner of proposals seem to have become part of the GND. The problem is that many of these proposals sell the idea short and will fail to achieve what is really required – a massive transformation of society and the role the government plays within it. The imprecision is exacerbated by progressives who are afraid to go too far outside the neoliberal mould for fear of being shut out of the debate. So we get ‘modest’ proposals, hunkered down in neoliberal framing as if to step up to the plate confidently is a step too far. This is Part 1 of a two-part blog post series on my thoughts on the failure of the environmental Left and climate action activists to frame their ambitions adequately.
It is Wednesday and I have only a short blog post today as I have had a lot of commitments that stop me from writing. But I did read a recent Australian Treasury paper – Wage Growth in Australia: Lessons from Longitudinal Microdata (July 2019) – which purports to model the reasons why there is wage stagnation in Australia. The results were presented at the Australian Economists Conference earlier this week and set off a storm because it appeared, at first blush, to blame workers lassitude and excessive risk averse attitudes for the lack of wages growth. I read it slightly differently. It tells me that, first, the Treasury is reluctant to acknowledge the legislative attacks on unions’ capacities to gain wage increases that have been characteristic of the neoliberal era; and, second, that the unions might take the message as a call to arms – take the employers on more often through costly industrial action within the tight legal environment that is left to them.
It is Wednesday and so a less intensive blog post. Note how I no longer claim it will be shorter. The less intensive claim refers to how much research I have to put in to write the post. Apart from some beautiful music, the topic for today is yesterday’s RBA decision to cut interest rates to record low levels. The decision won’t save the economy from recession and highlights the sort of desperation that central bankers now face as governments shunt the responsibility of counterstabilisation onto them while claiming that achieving fiscal surpluses is the brief of the treasuries. This self-defeating strategy – failing to use the most effective policy tool in favour of an ineffective tool is the neoliberal way. It is the recipe that New Keynesian macroeconomics offers. It is mindless, ideological nonsense and the problem is that it is not the top-end-of-town that suffers from the negative outcomes that follow. Quite the opposite in fact.