Last week, I wrote about how the IMF is presenting a somewhat nuanced view these days. See – IMF now claiming continued inequality risks opening a “social and political seismic crack” (April 21, 2021). But, there was a warning for those who might think this suggests the institution is leaving its mainstream macroeconomics past behind them though. Rather, I think what is going on is a series of ad hoc responses to the growing anomalies that the institution faces between the observed reality and the sort of predictions it has been making based on its core paradigmatic approach. We are observing a specific form of dissonance in many of the current contributions coming out of mainstream economics. This takes two forms: (a) an incomplete response to the current situation (pandemic, GFC aftermath, climate change) where there are conflicting signals being sent; and (b) a tortured attempt to absorb pragmatic narratives within a theoretical structure that cannot consistently accept that absorption. The IMF’s latest blog post (April 20, 2021) – A Future with High Public Debt: Low-for-Long Is Not Low Forever – is a good example of both forms of this dissonance.
It is Wednesday and I have had lots of unscheduled commitments (that just come out of the blue) to attend to today. So not much writing. I did have time to read the latest IMF – Fiscal Monitor, April 2021 : A Fair Shot – which was published on April 7, 2021. The schizoid nature of this institution continues to evolve and it will be hard for the austerity mavens to unambiguously use it as a cover for their arguments when they resume their call for public sector spending cuts etc. Music follows.
Its Wednesday and only a short blog post day. I have been following the disaster unfolding in Timor-Leste over the last few days as I continue to compile research material as part of the development of a plan to increase the resilience of the Island state. We know that accumulating new public infrastructure is a key to the growth process. It crowds-in private investment, which leverages off the capacity provided by such infrastructure. A lack of essential public infrastructure is a major aspect of poverty and exclusion. While natural disasters impact on all nations when afflicted, the problem for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like Timor-Leste is that they regularly face major capital destruction as a result of natural disasters and do not have the capacity to defend themselves and reduce the consequences of the events. Climate change is rendering this problem more severe. This is where the creation of a new multilateral agency to replace the corrupt IMF is necessary.
One of the major complaints that Milton Friedman and his ilk made about the use of discretionary fiscal policy was that time lags made it ineffective and even dangerously inflationary. By the time the policy makers have worked out there is a problem and ground out the policy intervention, the problem has passed and the intervention then becomes unpredictable in consequence (and unnecessary anyway). The Financial Times article (March 29, 2021) – To compare the EU and US pandemic packages misses the point – written by Ireland’s finance minister reminded me of the Friedman debate in the 1960s. Apart from the fact that the article is highly misleading (aka spreading falsehoods), it actually exposes a major problem with the way the European Commission operates. If Friedman’s claim ever had any credibility, then, they would fairly accurately describe how the European Union deals with economic crises. Always too little, too late … and never particularly targetted at the problem. The debate remains relevant though as governments move away a strict reliance on monetary policy and realise that fiscal policy interventions are the only way forward. Most governments around the world are talking big on public infrastructure projects. However, the design of such interventions must be carefully considered because they can easily be dysfunctional. Further, thinking these projects are a replacement for short-term cash injections is also not advised. I consider these issues in this blog post.
There is clearly confusion among mainstream economists as the fractures in their paradigm are being revealed on an almost daily basis. And the more venal ideological motivations are also becoming clearer, that is, if they weren’t already completely transparent. On January 21, 2021, the World Bank published a Policy Research Working Paper – Does Central Bank Independence Increase Inequality? – which demonstrated that the way central banking has been conducted in this neoliberal era has been instrumental in the increasing income inequality that has manifested. A month earlier (December 21, 2020), we read that the IMF is waging a campaign against the democratically elected Ecuadorian government to further restrict its fiscal discretion as it struggles with a terrible pandemic situation, and set in place rules that will allow further resource plunder by foreign corporations. The latter really tells you that despite claims by mainstream economists that they have shifted away from the mainstream austerity bias, the truth is different. A quite remarkable juxtaposition that just demonstrates how confused this lot must be at present. Their attempts to cover their motivations in technical authority are clearly failing.
On December 10, 2014, I wrote this blog post – Trickle down economics – the evidence is damning. The discussion was about how inequality undermines growth and that redistribution of national income towards higher income groups does not stimulate income growth for lower income groups. It provided evidence that destroys the basic tenets of mainstream economics and supports a wider social and economic involvement of government in the provision of public services and infrastructure, particularly to low income groups. The ‘trickle down’ fiction was propagated in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and dovetailed with the emerging dominance of supply-side thinking. Behind ‘trickle-down’ was a nasty neo-liberal plot to undermine state activity and rewind the gains made by the workers under the welfare states and unionism over the course of the C20th. Now a new report from researchers at the London School of Economics – The Economic Consequences of Major Tax Cuts for the Rich – repeats the evidence, and, perhaps because we are further down the road in realising how deficient mainstream macroeconomics is, new evidence of something that we have known since the ideas first came out of the sewers, might push the paradigm shift a little further.
Yesterday (October 21, 2020), the British Office of National Statistics (ONS) released the latest – Public sector finances, UK: September 2020 – which, predictably tells us that government borrowing was “£28.4 billion more than in September 2019 and the third-highest borrowing in any month since records began in 1993” and that the public debt ratio has risen to “103.5% of … GDP … this was the highest debt to GDP ratio since … 1960.” Shock horror. While I yawn. The financial media went to town on the data. The Financial Times article (October 22, 2020) – UK government borrowing reaches record in first half of fiscal year – claimed the second wave that is now sweeping the northern hemisphere “have dampened hopes” that the stimulus “could be quickly scaled back” which has “fuelled concerns over the US’s mounting public debt”. It didn’t clarify as to who was concerned or why. The old canards seem to die slowly. Meanwhile, the IMF has changed tack somewhat after its tawdry display during the GFC. Overall, we should be relaxed about the records being set (deficits, public debt) and focus on what the net spending is doing to advance our interests. Focusing on the financial parameters will just divert our attention away from what is important.
When a nation or region is experiencing the worst crisis the IMF always comes to the party and makes it worse. The latest evidence from those who study the detail of IMF interventions across the globe have found that the IMF has imposed harsh conditionalities (healthcare spending cuts, cuts to jobless assistance, cuts to public service wages and employment) in 76 out of the 91 loans it has extended to nations in peril as a result of the pandemic. On the other hand, data show that the wealth of billionaires has scaled new heights between April 2020 to July 2020 – a 42.4 per cent increase in their total wealth. If all that doesn’t tell us that the neoliberal system has overextended it indecency and rebellion is required then what else would? The point is that when disaster strikes the poorest nations, the IMF guarantees to make it worse. It should be dissolved immediately through defunding from national states and a new progressive, multilateral institution created that helps people not punishes them.
I have been commissioned to write the Introduction (Preface) to the upcoming book – The Last Colonial Currency: A History of the CFA Franc – by Fanny Pigeaud and Ndongo Samba Sylla, which is an English version of the original 2018 book, L’arme invisible de la Françafrique. It will soon be published by Pluto Press (UK) – as soon as I finish this introduction. The book is incredibly important because it shows the role that currency arrangements play in perpetuating colonial oppression and supporting the extractive mechanisms that the wealthy have used for centuries to further their ambitions. It also resonates with more recent neoliberal trends where these extractive mechanisms, formerly between the colonialist (metropolis) and the occupied peripheral or satellite nation, have morphed into intra-national urban-regional divides. I am very appreciative for the chance to write this introduction for these great authors. This is Part 1. Part 2 follows tomorrow. And then you can all rush out and purchase the book.
There was an IMF paper released in April 2018 – The Aggregate and Distributional Effects of Financial Globalization: Evidence from Macro and Sectoral Data – that had a long title but a fairly succinct message. It indicates that the IMF is still in a sort of schizoid process where the evidential base has built up so against the political voice and practice that the IMF has indulged itself as a front-line neoliberal attack dog that elements in its research division are breaking ranks and revealing interesting information. In part, the Brexit debate in Britain has been characterised by economists supporting the Remain argument claiming that free capital flows within Europe (and Britain) are the vehicle for strong output growth and better living standards. They claim that when Britain leaves the EU global capital flows will be more restricted in and out of Britain and that will be damaging. It is really just a rehearsal of the standard mainstream economic claims found in monetary, trade and macroeconomics textbooks. What the IMF paper does is provide what they call a “fresh look at the at the aggregate and distributional effects of policies to liberalize international capital flows” and the researchers find that, “financial globalization … have led on average to limited output gains while contributing to significant increases in inequality”. That is, the pie hasn’t really grown much as a result of all these free trade moves but a growing share is being taken by an increasingly wealthier few. And workers are the losers.