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Australia is becoming an Orwellian dystopia

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.

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Teaching disadvantaged adults about child development is an effective way to reduce inequality

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.

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The NAIRU should have been buried decades ago

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!

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Bank of England finds QE did not increase bank lending: who would have thought

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.

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Poverty is about lack of opportunity not individual characteristics

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.

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Why flat wages growth in Australia tells us nothing about the impact of migration on the labour market

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.

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When labour shortages just signal management caprice – case study

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’.

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Countries than run continuous deficits do not seem to endure accelerating inflation or currency crises

There was a conference in Berlin recently (25th FMM Conference: Macroeconomics of Socio-Ecological Transition run by the Hans-Böckler-Stiftung), which sponsored a session on “The Relevance of Hajo Riese’s Monetary Keynesianism to Current Issues”. One of the papers at that session provided what the authors believed is a damning critique of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Unfortunately, the critique falls short like most of them. I normally don’t respond to these increasing attacks on our work, but given this was a more academic critique and I was in an earlier period of my career interested in the work of Hajo Riese, I think the critique highlights some general issues that many readers still struggle to work through.

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Federal Reserve research paper kills another core New Keynesian idea about inflation expectations

The New York Times article (October 1, 2021, updated October 15, 2021) – Nobody Really Knows How the Economy Works. A Fed Paper Is the Latest Sign – reported on a paper by one Jeremy B. Rudd, who is a senior advisor in the Research and Statistics division at the Federal Reserve Bank in the US. The paper – Why Do We Think That Inflation Expectations Matter for Inflation? (And Should We?) – published as Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2021-062, by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, argues that a core aspect of New Keynesian macroeconomic orthodoxy “rests on extremely shaky foundations … and adhering to it uncritically could easily lead to serious policy errors.” The paper rejects the central notion in mainstream macro that the trajectory of inflation is driven by expectations. The idea that expectations are the key force has led central banks deliberately using the unemployed to fight an (imaginary) inflation threat. It has led fiscal authorities to pursue contractionary policies that have forced millions into unemployment. The Rudd paper is important because it shows the mainstream edifice is collapsing – it jettisons an other core concept. There is not much left in mainstream economics that hasn’t been rejected by evidence or exposed as being theoretically inconsistent.

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Video of presentation for Wattle Partners – October 15, 2021

Last week, I did a seminar with a Melbourne financial market group (Wattle Partners), who I regularly help in their education programs. It took the form of an informal (somewhat structured) conversation about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and more practical applications of the MMT understanding. There were several questions from the audience that we didn’t get time to answer in the allotted time so today I am honouring my agreement to provide answers, which might be of interest to the broader readership, if only to reinforce knowledge. The video of the interaction is also available now and you can watch it here.

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