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.
The citizens of Timor-Leste went to the polls on Saturday in an effort to elect a government. The reports last night indicate that Xanana Gusmao’s Party, in a three-party coalition Parliamentary Majority Alliance (AMP, which includes Taur Matan Ruak’s group) have toppled the incumbent Fretilin leadership. At the last election (July 2017), the Fretilin Party led by Mari Alkatiri was able to form minority government (with Democratic Party support) after a third party (KHUNTO) pulled out. A stalemate emerged. Some commentators called it a ‘constitutional crisis’, in that, the minority government could not function effectively. After some years of stable politics, Timor-Leste has been going through a period of political volatility as a new generation of politicians enter the scene and replace the older stagers who were dominant at the formation of this tiny island state in 2002. I won’t go into the politics of the election battle but both major parties promised to fast-track economic development to make some dent into a growing poverty problem. This is a country that has been enduring decades of foreign occupation and before that more than 250 years of colonial servitude. The latter (Portugal) imposed Catholicism on the people while the former (Indonesia) spat-the-dummy when they were finally forced out in 1999 and destroyed vital public and private infrastructure as they marched back across the border.
Some years ago, I started collecting information about the so-called Maghreb countries, which typically refers to the region spanned by Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, although sometimes Libya and Mauritania are also included in the aggregation. You will find it referred to as the Barbary Coast in English literature. I was interested (as a long-term project when I get old :-)) to write a book about how nations broke away from the yoke of colonialism only to fall into the hands of the IMF and the World Bank, which over time were becoming the leading attack dogs for the neoliberal domination of governments. That book is coming in the future. But I have also been interested in the way the Eurozone Member States have moved into Northern Africa to extract as much surplus as they can from exploiting the resources these African nations have. You know a nation is in trouble when there are nightly riots which were motivated by economic desperation and a pernicious new (so-called) Finance Law, which became law on January 1, 2018. I am, of course, talking about Tunisia. With high levels of unemployment and underemployment and a lack of job opportunities particularly severe in the interior regions, the IMF decided, in its infinite neoliberal stupidity, to force the Tunisian government to impose a harsh austerity program including pushing up value added taxes which have had the effect of driving up medicine, food and energy prices and impacting on those most affected by the lack of jobs. Smart thinking! The riots have now followed.
The IMF put out a new working Paper last week (January 23, 2018)) – Economic Convergence in the Euro Area: Coming Together or Drifting Apart? – which while they don’t admit it demonstrates that the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) has failed to achieve its most basic aims – economic convergence. The stated aim of European integration has always been to achieve a convergence in the living standards of those within the European Union. That goes back to the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which established the EEC (Common Market). It has been reiterated many times in official documents since. It was a centrepiece of the 1989 Delors Report, which was the final design document for the Treaty of Maastricht and the creation of the EMU. The success or otherwise of the system must therefore be judged in terms of its basic goals and one of them was to create this convergence. The IMF finds that the EMU has, in fact, created increased divergence across a number of indicators – GDP per capita, productivity growth, etc. It also finds that the basic architecture of the EMU, which has allowed nominal convergence to occur has been a destabilising force. It finds that the Stability and Growth Pact criteria has created an environment where fiscal policy has become pro-cyclical, which is the exemplar of irresponsible and damaging policy implementation. Overall, the conclusion has to be drawn that the EMU, at its most elemental level, has failed and defies effective reforms that would make it workable. It should be scrapped or nations should exercise their own volition and exit before it causes them further damage.
Just before Xmas (December 22, 2017), the IMF proved once again that leopards don’t change their spots. Thy released a Working Paper (No. 17/286) – Australia’s Fiscal Framework: Revisiting Options for a Fiscal Anchor – that demonstrated they hadn’t learned a thing from the last decade of crisis and fiscal interventions (stimulative and opposite). The paper demonstrates no understanding of context, history, or the role that fiscal policy should play in advancing general well-being. It is a technical exercise laden with the ideology of mainstream macroeconomics that fails badly. The problem is that the mainstream political parties (on both sides of the fence – Labor and Conservative – although pretending there is a fence is somewhat far-fetched these days) will use it against each other, and, in their shameful ignorance, against the best interests of the nation and the people that live within its borders. And … on reflection using the leopard example is an insult to the leopards. The IMF is an ugly, destructive institution that should be defunded and their buildings given over to the homeless.
I have been reading several reports in the past week – ranging from studies using dodgy input-output tables to claim the regions that voted most enthusiastically for Brexit will suffer the most – part of the never ending ‘modelling’ of the alleged disaster – to reports by the historians tracking the impact of austerity on the rise of the Nazis in pre-war Germany. All interesting. I am particularly researching the way in which the Common Agricultural Policy impacted on Britain and why it will be good to be free of it. But one report struck me as fundamental to the way in which neoliberalism has led societies astray and damaged the most defenseless citizens of the world. On December 13, 2017, the World Bank and the World Health Organisation (WHO) published its latest – Tracking Universal Health Coverage: 2017 Global Monitoring Report. This is an audit report to keep track of the progress towards the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which were agreed upon in September 2015. One of those goals is health and well-being and within that ambit comes, among other targets, universal health care provision. We learn that “at least half of the world’s population cannot obtain essential health services” and health care service deficiencies are chronic at the poorer end of the income and wealth distribution. The reason is not a lack of real resources to be deployed. Rather, these appalling results are persisting because governments apply neoliberal ‘sound finance’ principles to their spending choices (with the IMF bullying them to do so). So we find major cuts to health care service provision in nations because they claim they cannot raise enough revenue to pay for the provision. In currency-issuing nations, no matter how low the average income levels are, that sort of claim is always spurious.
In our new book Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, 2017) – Thomas Fazi and I argue that a new progressive agenda would see the abolition of the IMF and the World Bank and the creation of a new multilateral institution that is entrusted with ensuring poor nations can access necessary funds to prevent their societies collapsing. This organisation would not be a bulwark for inflicting neoliberal policies on the poorer nations, but rather, a body that assisted nations in developing first-class health, education and environmental care capacities and infrastructure in a fully employed environment. It would help insulate such nations from the vicissitudes of global finance by supporting capital controls and other anti-speculative policy tools. The current multilateral framework dominated by the likes of the IMF and the World Bank have failed categorically in this regard. Recent research, which, in part consolidates a rich body of research going back to 1987, has found that the so-called ‘structural adjustment policies’ that accompany assistance from these organisations have materially damaged child and maternal health in the nations where these conditionality programs have been imposed. The IMF likes to talk about intergenerational fairness, especially in relation to the alleged burdens that fiscal deficits leave for future generations, but then they support and implement policies that unambiguously damage the health and well-being of children in poorer nations, while allowing real resources to be sucked out of those nations to the benefit of the global rich. A criminal enterprise.
It is clear that the British Tories are looking like the tawdry lot they are as the infighting over the leadership goes on, more often rising to the surface these days as wannabees circle the failing leader Therese May. Her performance at the Tory Annual Conference was poor, and I am not referring to her obvious difficulties with the flu (or whatever it was). I have been stricken with the flu since I left the US a few weeks ago and occasionally struggled for a voice as I gave talks every days for the 2 weeks that followed. It is obvious there is little policy substance in the Tories now and it is only a matter of time before she is ejected. At the same time, the British Labour Party leadership is showing increased confidence and are better articulating a position, that is resonating with the public. They are even starting to look like an Oppositional Left party for the first time in years and I hope that shift continues and they drop all the neoliberal macroeconomic nonsense they still utter, thinking that this is what people want to hear. A growing number of people are educating themselves on the alternative (Modern Monetary Theory, MMT) and demanding their leaders frame the debate accordingly and use language that reinforces that progressive frame. And, in that context, it didn’t take long for the mainstream media to start to invoke the scaremongering again. It is pathetic really. The New York Times article (October 5, 2017) – Get Ready for Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn – rehearses some of these ‘fears’. It is also true that the Shadow Chancellor has expressed concern himself about these matters – without clearly stating how a sovereign state can override anything much the global financial markets might desire to do that is contrary to national well-being.
Earlier in the week I was in Britain. Walking around the streets of Brighton, for example, was a stark reminder of how a wealthy nation can leave large numbers of people behind in terms of material well-being, opportunity and, if you study the faces of the people, hope. I am used to seeing poverty and mental illness on the streets of the US cities but in Brighton, England it very visible now as Britain has struggled under the yoke of austerity. Swathes of people living from day to day without hope under the current policy structures, damaging themselves through visible alcohol and substance abuse, cold from lack of shelter and adequate clothing, and the rest of it. And then a little diversion around the City area of London, where the overcoats the men wear cost upwards of £2,000 and the faces are full of intent. Two worlds really. I was thinking about those recent experiences when I read the latest release from the IMF (September 20, 2017) – Growth That Reaches Everyone: Facts, Factors, Tools. Their analysis continues the slow move of the IMF to acknowledging, not only the reality the world faces, but also, by implication, the massive costs that this institution has inflicted on poor people around the world.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City has just hosted its annual Economic Policy Symposium at Jackson Hole in Wyoming where central banks, treasury officials, financial market types and (mainstream) economists from the academy and business gather to discuss economic policy. As you might expect, the agenda is set by the mainstream view of the world and there is little diversity in the discussion. A Groupthink reinforcing session. One paper that was interesting was from two US Berkeley academics – Fiscal Stimulus and Fiscal Sustainability – which the news reports claimed suggested that governments should be increasing fiscal expansion even though they may be carrying high levels of public debt. The conclusion reached by the paper is correct but the methodology is mainstream and so progressives should not get carried away with the idea that there is signs that some give is emerging, which will lead to more progressive outcomes. A progressive solution will only come when the neo-liberal dominance of my profession is terminated and an entirely new macroeconomics paradigm based on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is established. There is still a long way to go though.