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.
I have discussed the work of the IMF Evaluation Office before. The IEO “provides objective and independent evaluation” of the IMF performance and operates “independently of IMF management” and reports to the Executive Board of the organisation. It is an independent as one could imagine in this milieu. I have just finished reading the 474-page Background Papers that the IEO released in 2016 and which formed the basis of its June 2016 Evaluation Report – The IMF and the Crises in Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. It is not a pretty story. It seems that the incompetence driven by the blind adherence to Groupthink that the earlier Reports had highlighted went a step further in the case of Greece into what I would consider to be criminality. The scale of the professional incompetence notwithstanding, the IEO found that IMF officials and economists violated the written and constitutional rules of their own organisation and failed to supply relevant documents for audit. So why are all these economists and officials still walking free, given the scale of the disaster they created?
When I was a student, that is, formally studying for degrees rather than the constant-learning approach which makes us permanent students, I was very interested in development economics and have carried that into the career phase of my work, including doing commissioned work for international agencies in Africa and Asia. One of the things I have come up against in that work has been the question of why are the nations in Africa, for example, so poor, when it is obvious to all and sundry that they possess massive resource wealth. My student days introduced me to dependency theory, which provided a solid framework for understanding the nature of underdevelopment. It stood in contrast to the mainstream development theory that was presented in most textbooks and which we would now call the neo-liberal approach. That approach is publicly enunciated by the IMF and the World Bank as if it is reality. In fact, it is a chimera! The framework of development aid and oversight put in place by the richer nations and mediated through the likes of the IMF and the World Bank can be seen more as a giant vacuum cleaner designed to suck resource and financial wealth out of the poorer nations either through legal or illegal means, whichever generates the largest flows. So while Africa is wealthy, its interaction with the world monetary and trade systems, leaves millions of its citizens in extreme poverty – unable to even purchase sufficient nutrition to live. It is a scandal of massive proportions and should become the target of all progressive governments (as they emerge).
Greece is back in the news as the IMF, the Germans and the European Commission slug it out pretending to talk tough and propose solutions to the Greek tragedy. There is no solution of course. All the debate about whether the primary surplus target should be 3.5 per cent of GDP (European Commission position) or slightly lower (IMF position) is just venal hot air. Anybody who knows anything and isn’t protecting their past mistakes would assess that a fairly large and sustained fiscal deficit is required in Greece to rebuild some of the lost capacity and to provide an inkling of hope to the youth who are facing a lifetime of diminished prospects as a result of the decisions the adults around them took. All the talk about ‘deficits mortgaging the grand kids future’ – sick. The austerity has meant the grand kids might not ever emerge given the constrained circumstances their would-be parents will face as they progress through adulthood. The reality remains – firmly – Greece should exit the Eurozone, convert any outstanding liabiliites into a new currency at parity, and stimulate its domestic economy with expansionary fiscal policy. It should continue to impose capital controls. As part of the stimulus, it should introduce an unconditional Job Guarantee at a decent wage to provide a pathway back into employment for the many that the Troika have rendered jobless.
This blog will be a bit different from my normal fare. It provides insights into how entrenched a destructive and mindless neo-liberal Groupthink pervades the economics profession. For the last several years I have been on the ‘expert’ panel for the Fairfax press Annual Economic Survey. Essentially, this assembles a group of well-known economists in Australia from the market, academic and institutional (for example, union) sectors and we wax lyrical about what we expect will happen in the year ahead. To be fair, there is a large element of chance in the exercise as there is in all forecasting. So I am never one to criticise when an organisation such as the IMF or the OECD or some bank economist gets a forecast wrong. The future is uncertain and we have no formal grounds for even forming probabilistic estimates, given we cannot even assemble a probability density function (an distributional ordering of all possible events ) to extract these probabilities. So guess work is guess work and you have to be guided by experience and an understanding of how the system operates and the elements within the relevant system interact. What I do rail against is the phenomenon of systematic bias in forecast errors. For example, the IMF always predicts stronger growth than occurs when it is advocating imposing austerity (thereby underestimating the costs of the policy). The systematic bias in their errors is traceable to the flawed models they use to generate the predictions, which, in turn, reflect their ideological slant against government deficits and in favour of fiscal surpluses (as a benchmark). As luck would have it, in the 2016 round of the Fairfax Scope survey, I was fortunate enough to achieve the status of Forecaster of the Year (shared with 2 other members of the panel) – see Scope 2017 economic survey: Stephen Anthony, Bill Mitchell; and Renee Fry-McKibbin tie for forecaster of the year – for detail. I tweeted over the weekend that as a result “MMT predicts well”. There was a lot underlying that three-word Tweet and it intersected with recent events that demonstrate how far gone mainstream macroeconomics is – it is in an advanced state of denial and has lost almost all traction on the real world.