I wrote last week in this blog post – We have a new federal government – finally some decency will hopefully return (May 23, 2022) – that Australia had finally rid itself of the disastrous conservative government that had violated our nation for the last 9 or so years. It was a moment to celebrate, given that we could not have fallen much further in the eyes of the world and that our society was falling apart from the neglect and inaction of that government and the favours it did for the cronies in business that supported it. But I stress the temporality of ‘a moment’. The new Ministers were sworn in yesterday and have hit the road running with all sorts of press conferences and statements. Some of the things I am hearing sound like an improvement. But the statements from the new Treasurer suggest that nothing much has been learned from the GFC, the pandemic and the period in between. And unless he changes his tack, we won’t see anything ambitious achieved in the next 3 years.
Last night (March 30, 2022), the Federal Treasurer released the annual ‘fiscal statement’ (aka ‘The Budget’), which revealed to everyone how cynical these exercises have become. The statement is normally released in May but the Federal government has to go to the polls then and they are so far behind the Opposition Labor Party in the opinion polling that they decided to bring forward the fiscal statement as a last ditch attempt to bribe the voters with pennies. I hope it doesn’t work. This is one of the most dishonest and incompetent governments we have ever had to deal with – and that is saying something given our history. While everyone is talking about the cash splash – it is offset by a range of cuts and dissipates in a few months anyway – just after the election. And the Government is once again revealing it has not foresight – to deal with the major challenges – climate, aged care, health care, higher education, social housing, etc. I can barely even write about the statement it is so bad.
Here is my Wednesday news blog post which ends as usual with some music – today some consummate guitar playing. Today, I discuss the dispute about M4A in the US and clear up some misconceptions. Many think that Medicare for All is defunct in the US because the ruling party – the Democrats have essentially rejected the lobbying attempts. Some people who have associated themselves with Modern Monetary Theory have, it seems, been advocating a state-based campaign to get single-payer schemes installed at that level. Is this a violation of MMT principles? Some think so. I do not. It might reflect ignorance of the nature of the sector but it doesn’t amount to a rejection of MMT. Anyway, I am a federalist and I explain why. I also bring attention to some anti-colonial struggles in the Caribbean.
It’s Wednesday and I am retaining my practice into 2022 of only offering a sort of short commentary or news with music service on this day, unless a major data release (like the national accounts) comes out. The title of this blog post was inspired by an interview I listened to on the radio the other day with a leading epidemiologist who noted Australia was becoming like some Orwellian dystopia as the national government elevates spin to new levels and effectively jettisons any semblance of leadership. We are now being treated as fools by our national and state governments on a daily basis and it is now approaching dangerous levels.
Some recent research highlights the point I have made in the past that who your parents are matters for your future prospects. We all make choices as we emerge into the adult world, but the constraints that are dished up to us by our parents are in many cases more important in determining our future outcomes than the choices we make. The mainstream neoclassical explanation for income differentials focus on the choices – for education, training, and other career development pathways. From a policy perspective, I think it is more sensible to focus on the constraints as they are in many cases fairly easily altered by sensible government intervention. However, in the real world, not only are the constraints that individuals face conditioned by the circumstances that they are born into, but those circumstances also influence the choices the individuals make. Recent research has found that educational programs for parents in disadvantaged situations to show them what determines child development not only improves the lives of the adults involved but also delivers much better outcomes for their children. They are able to make better decisions which, in turn, improve the environment in which they are learning and building their skills. The policy implications are clear.
In 1983, I started a PhD at the University of Manchester working within the Phillips curve framework. At the time, all the talk was Monetarist – eschewing the use of fiscal policy to reduce unemployment. Unemployment was high after the OPEC oil shocks and governments were abandoning their responsibilities to reduce it because they had drunk the Monetarist Kool-aide. The Monetarists invented a concept – the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (NAIRU) or the ‘natural rate of unemployment’, which became part of the dominant macroeconomic approach and influenced policy makers to pursue microeconomic reform (deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing etc) and obsessing about fiscal surpluses. My work was an attempt to show this shift in thinking – away from a commitment to full employment was based on a lie. The whole NAIRU story was a fraud. I was largely ignored along with other progressive economists who were also producing credible research that refuted the main propositions. Some 40 years later, the ECB has produced a research paper which now supports the position I took back then. Millions of jobless people later!
I read an August 2020 Bank of England Staff Working Paper (No.883) – Does quantitative easing boost bank lending to the real economy or cause other bank asset reallocation? The case of the UK – recently, which investigates whether the large bond-buying program of the Bank stimulates bank lending. They find that there was no stimulus to lending. Which would only be a surprise if one thought that mainstream monetary economics had anything useful to say. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists were not at all surprised by this finding.The reality is that the lack of bank lending during the GFC had nothing to do with a liquidity shortfall within the banking sector. It had all to do with a lack of credit-worthy borrowers – which should tell you that bank reserves do not constrain bank lending. The fact that mainstream institutions such as the Bank of England are now publishing this sort of research, which undermines the mainstream theory is the interesting fact.
When I was a postgraduate student at Monash University in Melbourne, I had many debates with a senior academic who would become a co-author early in my academic career, about the relative importance of choice and constraint. In the standard mainstream choice-theoretic framework, people are conceived as maximising satisfaction through the choices they make subject to the opportunity set they face (the constraints). This simplistic version of human decision-making dominates mainstream economics and leads to nonsensical conclusions such that unemployment is a voluntary state where people are choosing leisure (a good) over work (bad) to maximise their well-being because the income coming from work (a good) is not sufficient on an hourly basis to offset the disutility that work engenders. That sort of thinking permeates the discipline. My former colleague kept saying that people make choices and you cannot deny that. The discussions were in relation to poverty incidence. My position was that it is trivial to say people make choices. We do, every day, but to understand complex phenomena such as poverty, it is better to focus on the constraints. That focus is likely to be more revealing. A person can be making choices but if their opportunity set is very narrow and any choice dooms that person to poverty then it doesn’t make much sense to dwell on the ‘free’ choice angle. Structuralists also agree with my emphasis here. Earlier this year (February 8, 2021), some academics associated with MIT in the US published a working paper – Why do people stay poor – and its results are revealing.
One of the important concepts one learns in studying the way firms work with respect to pricing and markups is the distinction between quantity and price adjustment over the course of an economic cycle. When economists talk of supply and demand, they usually refer to price adjustment, where prices adjust up or down when there is an imbalance between these aggregates. Orthodox economics presumes that prices adjust, for example, to eliminate an excess supply, which they apply to the labour market and conclude that the cure for mass unemployment is wage cutting. The problem is that in many circumstances, firms use quantity adjustments long before they contemplate price adjustments, because the former involves lower costs. The Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) ran a story from its business reporters today (November 16, 2021) – As migration restarts, will it hold down wages for everyone? – which has also become a feature news segment on its television coverage today. The analysis presented is seriously misleading. It not only fails to characterise the problem properly but buys into a highly contentious debate about whether migration has negative impacts on the labour market prospects for local workers. It behoves analysts to actually construct the problem correctly before they start taking sides in this debate. The ABC article fails in that regard which is disappointing. Their failure also reflects the lack of diversity in opinion they seek these days. They chose to simply rehearse the arguments presented by one pro-migration analysis as if it was definitive rather than seek expert opinion from neutral analysis. But it also demonstrates why understanding the difference between quantity and price adjustment is crucial to getting the conclusions right.
I have been researching the so-called labour shortage that business types are talking about relentlessly as part of their on-going strategy to undermine the conditions of work and make more profit. In the course of that enquiry, I came across an interesting juxtaposition between two US companies that illustrate a lot of what we have known about for years but have allowed this relentless, neoliberal, race-to-the-bottom to obscure. Well-paid workers with job security, work better and are happy workers. Companies that pursue the ‘race-to-the-bottom’ strategy and seek to build profits by trashing the conditions they offer workers eventually struggle to prosper because their bad reputation undermines their ability to attract productive workers. In the case we discuss today, the so-called ‘labour shortage’ is really just a signal of management caprice. Rather than being a shortage of workers, there is a shortage of workers who will tolerate the indignity of low wages, onerous conditions and capricious management. It is also a union versus non-union type of discussion where the unionised work places generate high productivity and worker attachment, while the non-unionised workplaces find it hard to attract reliable staff and blame it all on ‘labour shortages’.