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).
Its Wednesday, so just a short blog post. I had a day of meetings and other commitments today. But we have some fun at the IMF to discuss (briefly). On April 11, 2019, IMF boss Madame Lagarde gave a press conference to open the 2019 Spring Meetings. The Transcript – includes the Madame waxing lyrical about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). And you might have confused the press conference for a stand-up comedy routine except you would have to be ‘in the know’ to laugh. But the significant aspect of the conference came when a question from Japan focused on MMT. In attempting to put down our work, Madame Lagarde actually admitted that a situation where the government runs big fiscal deficits, has a large-scale and on-going public debt-issuance program, where the central bank buys substantial proportions of that issuance, apparently ‘works’ under conditions that the currency-issuing government can always control. MMT 101. QED. Have a laugh.
In Part 1, I introduced the discussion about the use of industry policies in the Keynesian period after World War 2. Most nations adopted a mixed planning-market based system for allocating productive resources and the state was always central in setting out planning parameters, direct ownership and employment, and regulation. It was a system that researchers described as being “highly successful”. Two approaches to industrialisation were taken: (a) export-oriented (for example, South Korea); and (b) import-substitution (for example, India), although in most cases, nations used both strategies. As neoliberalism emerged and the fixed exchange rate system broke down in the early 1970s, the IMF, whose purpose was intrinsically tied to providing foreign reserves to nations under the fixed exchange rate system, no longer had a purpose. They reinvented themselves as the neoliberal attack dog for corporations and global capital. They also provided cover for governments who were embracing the Monetarist ideas of Milton Friedman and intent on imposing fiscal austerity. These governments had become captured by corporate interests and by appealing to external demands from bodies such as the IMF, these governments could depoliticise harsh policy shifts away from Keynesian full employment. I used Britain as an example. Tony Benn, a Left Labour member in the British Parliament and Secretary for Industry, proposed an alternative industrial plan to revitalise British industry in 1975. It was rejected at the time by Harold Wilson and Denis Healey, who were intent on imposing fiscal austerity and deregulating. They used the scare that the IMF would have to bailout Britain as a ruse to force their Monetarist ideology onto the British Labour Party. It was no surprise that in an era where governments started abandoning fiscal support to maintain full employment, deregulated labour and financial markets, and abandoned domestic protections for their industries, many industries would go to the wall. The IMF claimed that this shows industry policy focused on import-substitution can never work. But the culprit was not flawed industry policy. Rather, it was the withdrawal of all the accompanying support structures that made it work, but which ran counter to the neoliberal ideology of ‘free markets’. Now the IMF is having a rethink based on the devastation that neoliberalism has caused. On March 26, 2019, the IMF published a new working paper (19/74) – The Return of the Policy That Shall Not Be Named: Principles of Industrial Policy. Now, we are reading that the IMF has conceded that industry policy interventions that were the basis of economic planning in the Keynesian era were highly successful and only stopped being so, in some cases, when fiscal austerity was imposed and trade controls were abandoned in the 1970s. This is Part 2 of the two-part series on this topic.
In 1975, Tony Benn, a Left Labour member in the British Parliament and Secretary for Industry, proposed an alternative industrial plan to revitalise British industry. At the time, the Prime Minister and Chancellor were becoming attracted to Monetarism and started framing and implementing the austerity-type fiscal strategies that are common today. Benn opposed this approach, and, instead proposed a far-reaching alternative economic strategy that involved increased industrial planning to revitalise British industry. The growing ‘free market’ orthodoxy at the time, spearheaded by the IMF and the World Bank, which had transformed into neoliberal enforcement agencies, were vehemently opposed to any form of industry policies or state intervention. As a result, Benn was basically shut out of the debate and this helped transform social democratic politics into the mess it is today. Ironically, now the IMF is changing its tune. It has recently rediscovered how effective industry policies of the type Benn was proposed actually can be if supported by coherent policy structures. Irony two is that these supportive policy structures are the opposite to those typically proposed by the IMF. At the time, there were economists (such as yours truly) who knew that the descent into neoliberalism would be a disaster and hamper growth and more equal distributions of wealth and income. But that view was also shut out. Now, without shame, the IMF are basically admitting the decades of insufferable neoliberal policies that they forced onto nations may have been wrong. Industry policy is back in focus. Imagine if they never had seduced the world with their snake oil. British politics, for one, would have been quite different. Brexit could very well happened in 1975 under a Labour government. And more. This is Part 1 of a two-part series which will finish tomorrow.
I was going to write about Jamaica today but this topic emerged that I thought I should deal with before I write about the home of reggae. In fact, some of the material is input into a reasoned discussion about Jamaica so it logically precedes it. With the increasing profile of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), social media activists are wont to talk about MMT in various ways that, in many cases, do not bear resemblance to our work. But that doesn’t stop them claiming things about what we have written or said and then proceeding to say how this is a ‘big problem’ with MMT that they cannot accept. Then their own local commentators chime in reinforcing the point. It is obvious that the original writer hasn’t read our work or if they have they haven’t grasped it (including the nuance and subtlety) but still feels privileged to hold themselves out as experts to wax lyrical about the technical flaws in the said work. This gets amplified by the responses from the readership who have probably read even less – to the point that we end up with MMT being constructed as something ridiculous and foreign to its original. Sort of like start by saying you are discussing 2, call it 3 and say it equals 4. It is a problem because it confounds people and also gives those who oppose our work ways to further misrepresent it in the public debate.
I have just finished reading a report published by the Transnational Institute (TNI), which is an “international research and advocacy institute committed to building a just, democratic and sustainable world”. The Report (published November 19, 2018) – Democracy Not For Sale – is harrowing, to say the least. We learn that in an advanced European nation with a glorious tradition and history an increasing number of people are being denial access to basic nutrition solely as a result of economic policy changes that have been imposed on it by outside agencies (European Commission, European Central Bank and the IMF). The Report shows how the food supply has been negatively impacted by the austerity programs; how food prices have been forced up at the same time as incomes have been forced down, and how collective and cooperative arrangements have been destroyed by privatisation and deregulation impositions. The Report concludes that the Greek State and the Eurozone Member States violated the Greek people’s right to food as a result of the austerity measures required by three Memorandums of Understanding (2010, 2012 and 2015). In other words, the austerity packages imposed on Greece contravened international human rights law. Not one person has gone to prison as a result of this deliberate and calculated violation of human rights.
I am doing some work on the way technology can be chosen to maximise employment in the pursuit of advancing general well-being. This is in the context of some work I am doing on advancing what is known as ‘relative pro-poor growth’ strategies in Africa via employment creation programs and draws on my earlier work in South Africa on the Expanded Public Works Program. In the current work, I have been assessing ways in which the Labour Intensive Public Works program in Ghana has been deployed to serve this purpose. The problem one confronts when working as a development economist in less well-off nations is that the institutional bias promoted by the IMF and the World Bank is towards advancing, at best, what we term ‘absolute pro-poor growth’. But that sort of agenda typically fails to strengthen other aspects of a strong civil society because it is almost always accompanied by rising inequality which continues to concentrate power and influence at the top and leads to resources being disproportionately expropriated by the wealthy (and usually foreign) classes. Institutions such as democracy, justice, law and order and causes such as environmental sustainability are then compromised.
The IMF hitman in Europe, one Poul Thomsem recently published a European Money and Finance Forum (SUERF) Policy Note (October 2018) – A Financial Union for the Euro Area – where he basically told us that any changes that the IMF will allow to occur in the Eurozone architecture will be minimal and will not stop Member States “from being forced to undertake large pro-cyclical fiscal adjustments when the next shock or major downturn hits”. The term “large pro-cyclical fiscal adjustments” means harsh fiscal austerity at the same time as the non-government sector spending in those Member States is collapsing. Fiscal policy thus reinforces the non-government spending withdrawal and worsens the outcome for employment, growth, income generation etc. Why? Because “all member countries” must “respect the Stability and Growth Pact”. End of story. Welcome to the Eurozone dystopia – the world where governments must follow rules set by technocrats which are incapable of delivering sustained prosperity for all but clearly suit the top-end-of-town. He then waxed lyrical about a whole set of neoliberal financial market reforms that the IMF is proposing which will further diminish the capacity of the Member States. But, at that point, he just starts to dream. The Member States are already deeply suspicious of the financial reforms that have been introduced to date, ineffective as they are. They are not about to cede more power to Brussels and Frankfurt any time soon.
Pathetic was the first word that came to mind when I read this article – The Italian Budget: A Case of Contractionary Fiscal Expansion? – written by Olivier Blanchard and Jeromin Zettlemeyer, from the Peter Peterson Institute for International Economics. Here is a former IMF chief economist and a former German economic bureaucrat continuing to rehearse the failed ‘fiscal contraction expansion’ lie that rose to prominence during the worst days of the GFC, when the European Commission and the IMF (along with the OECD and other groups) touted the idea of ‘growth friendly’ austerity. Nations were told that if they savagely cut public spending their economies would grow because interest rates would be lower and private investment would more than fill the gap left by the spending cuts. History tells us that the application of this nonsense caused devastation throughout, with Greece being the showcase nation. The damage and carnage left by the application of these mainstream New Keynesian ideas are still reverberating in elevated unemployment rates, high poverty rates, broken communities and increased suicide rates, to name a few of the pathologies it engendered. But the ‘boys are back in town’ (sorry Thin Lizzy) and Blanchard and Zettlemeyer are falling in behind the IMF and the European Commission against the current Italian government by demanding fiscal cutbacks. It will turn out badly for Italy if the government buckles under this sort of pressure. It once again shows that the mainstream economics profession has learned very little from the GFC. For them the story stays the same. It is one that we should reject in every circle it arises. This is Part 1 of a two-part analysis of the latest incarnation of this ruse my profession inflicts on societies.
I am back in Australia now and I don’t have to stand on my head to write (a reference to the hassles of trying to maintain some order while travelling to different destinations on an almost daily basis). Last week, the IMF released its so-called – Fiscal Monitor October 2018 – and the mainstream financial press had a ‘picnic’ claiming all sorts of disaster scenarios would follow from the sort of financial situations revealed in the publication. At the time of the publication I was in London and the British press went crazy after the IMF publication – predicting that taxes would have to rise and fiscal surpluses would have to be maintained and increased to bring the government’s balance sheet back into balance. Yes, apparently the British government, which issues its own currency, has ‘shareholders’ who care about its Profit and Loss statement and the flow implications of the latter for the Balance Sheet of the Government. Anyone who knows anything quickly realises this is a ruse. There is no meaningful application of the ‘finances’ pertaining to a private corporation to the ‘finances’ of a currency-issuing government. A currency-issuing government’s ‘balance sheet’ provides no help in our understanding of what spending capacities such a government has.