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.
Yesterday in my blog post – The coronavirus crisis – a particular type of shock – Part 1 (March 10, 2020) – I discussed some of the considerations that governments need to take into account when dealing with the economic damage that will result from the coronavirus crisis. I did not consider the health issues because I am unqualified to assess those other than to take into consideration what the health professionals are now saying as they gain more knowledge of the particular disease. In Part 2 today, I extend that discussion and outline some specific issues that bear on the size and design of any fiscal intervention.
Economists like to think in terms of demand and supply. Often by assuming the independence of the two, they make huge errors, none the least being when in the 1930s they advocated wage cuts to cure the unemployment arising from the Great Depression, on the assumption that the cuts would reduce costs for firms and encourage them to hire more. But they failed to understand that economy-wide wage cuts would undermine aggregate spending, upon which production decisions, and, ultimately, employment decisions depended. The coronavirus outbreak is one of those events that emphasises the interdependence between the demand and supply sides of the economy. It is a supply shock – in that it has reduced the growth in output supply as firms stop producing because their workforces are quarantined. And that shock then feeds into a demand impact as the laid off workers lose incomes and reduce their spending accordingly. However, there is also a separate demand shock associated with the crisis, quite apart from the supply impetus. The fear and uncertainty associated with a possible pandemic has meant that consumers are altering their spending patterns rather quickly with airline travel and other such activities falling sharply. So this is a very special type of calamity that doesn’t fit the usual types of shocks that economies endure. And as a consequence, it makes the task of designing an economic policy response rather more difficult. But make no mistake. Fiscal deficits will have to rise substantially for an extended period and governments will have to do things they have never really contemplated before if a deep recession is to be avoided. This is Part 1 of a two-part series of my current assessment of the coronavirus crisis, or whatever you want to call it.