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.
This post continues my thinking and analysis of the issues relating to the design of a fiscal intervention by the Australian government to ameliorate the damaging consequences of the coronavirus dislocation. Today, I delve a little bit back in history to provide some perspective on the current fiscal considerations. Further, I consider some of the problems already emerging in the policy response. And finally, I consider the lessons of history provide an important guide to the sort of interventions that the Australian government might usefully deploy. While the analysis is focused on Australia at present, the principles developed are portable across national boundaries. And the underlying Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) understanding is applicable everywhere there is a monetary system. This series of blog posts are building up to the production of my 10-point or something plan to address the crisis.
Life as we knew it is changing fast, almost by the hour. Most of my speaking engagements, which were heavily booked for the foreseeable future, have been cancelled or deferred. All the gigs that my band was booked for have been cancelled until people start returning to the now, empty venues. And, more significantly, the ideologues are giving way to the pragmatists in the policy space. Almost (see below). The sudden realisation that even Germany will now spend large amounts to protect their economy exposes all the lies that have been used in the past (up until about yesterday) to stop governments doing what they should always do – maintain spending levels in the economy to sustain full employment and ensure no-one falls through the cracks and misses out on the material benefits of growth. In the early days of the GFC, I thought that the neoliberal era, supported by the mainstream macroeconomists, might be coming to an end. Maybe I was a decade out in my prediction. Perhaps this crisis, induced by a human sickness, will end the madness that has redistributed massive volumes of income to the top-end-of-town, sustained elevated levels of labour underutilisation and seen the traditional progressive political voices become mouthpieces and even agents for the neoliberal economic lies. I was wrong in 2008 on this score. I hope something good like this comes out of the current disaster. The coronavirus comes on top of already growing dissent over the failure of mainstream economic policy. It will redefine what governments can do with their obvious fiscal capacity and will demonstrate once-and-for-all the lies that the mainstream economists tell about deficits, inflation, interest rates, etc. It will categorically demonstrate the capacity of the currency-issuer. All that will lay the foundation for a better future, if we get beyond this current malaise.
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.
I am back into my usual patterns, which means that I plan to write less on a Wednesday for my blog than other days. I have a number of projects underway at present – academic and advocacy – and I need to devote writing time to those. Given that yesterday I wrote about the Australian National Accounts data release and today I have to travel a lot, it is another case of Thursday becomes Wednesday and I offer some snippets. I will write a detailed account of my view on how to deal with the coronavirus from an Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) perspective next week. But today I want to highlight something that just ‘goes through to the keeper’ (cricket reference meaning no-one pays attention to it) but is significant in understanding what is wrong with the Eurozone. I refer to information that is contained in the latest – Annual Report 2019 – released last week by the Deutsche Bundesbank. If you juxtapose that with another report on the Greek health system you get a fairly clear view on what is wrong with the whole EU set up.
One of the enduring myths that mainstream macroeconomists and the politicians that rely on their lies to depoliticise their own unpopular actions continue to propagate is that of ‘central bank independence’. This is the claim that macroeconomic policy making improved in the ‘neoliberal’ era following the emergence of Monetarism because monetary policy was firmly in the hands of technocratic bankers who were not part of the political cycle. As such, they could make decisions based on fundamentals rather than the requirements of the political cycle. The corollary was that vote-greedy politicians, who operate on short-term political cycles, would be willing to compromise the ‘longer-term’ health of the economy to splurge on populist programs that might increase their chances of re-election. As a result of the mismatch between the political cycle and the, longer, economic cycle, the neoliberal solution was to make monetary policy independent of the political cycle. Except, of course, it didn’t and cannot. The latest scaremongering about the ‘loss’ of central bank independence was published in the UK Guardian last week (February 28, 2020) – From the Fed to Bank of England, central banks must up their game. The author is a former deputy governor of the Bank of England Board and former director general of the CBI. The interesting point about the article was not the further elaboration of the myth, but, rather, his assessment that the chances of reforming the European Union treaties in any direction “are vanishingly small”. Read: zero. From the mouth of the elites. I hope our Europhile Left colleagues absorbed that bit, at least.
On February 7, 2020, the Reserve Bank of Australia’s Governor, Philip Lowe appeared before the Federal House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics to discuss the – Reserve Bank of Australia Annual Report 2019 – which is a bi-annual event where the Parliament scrutinises the activities of the unelected and largely unaccountable central bank. The – Transcript – of the session makes interesting reading. The discussion highlighted how mainstream economists fail to understand the nature of the monetary system. Last year, the Federal government introduced a fiscal stimulus (tax cut) as a bribe in the May election campaign. But economic growth continued to slow, in the face of flat real wages growth and an overall fiscal contraction (despite the tax cuts). The tax cuts didn’t stimulate private spending growth and mainstream economists then claim this proves that fiscal policy is ineffective, and by implication, that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is a load of nonsense. The problem is that the tax cuts were used by households to reduce the precarious debt levels that have been building up as they try to maintain spending growth in the face of fiscal drag and flat real wages growth. All that this episode tells us is that the government really should have introduced a much larger fiscal stimulus in the first place to help the balance sheet restructuring effort and provide net growth stimulus.
I am doing the Thursday is Wednesday trick again today, given that I posted Part 2 of my detailed response to enquiries about MMT and what I term the MMT Project yesterday, and that I have promised myself to use Wednesday’s for other writing. I am also quite busy in Helsinki today with commitments so only a short post today. So just a brief comment on the latest fiasco from ‘Mr Spreadsheet’ Kenneth Rogoff as he stares into the abyss of irrelevance and is trying to hand on like grim death to any shred of credibility. He has none. If he ever did, the spreadsheet scandal finished it. But he never did anyway.
Today, I am in the mountains north of Melbourne (Healesville) talking to the – Chair Forum – which is a gathering of all the Superannuation Fund Board chairs. I am presenting the argument that the reliance on monetary policy and the pursuit of fiscal austerity in this neoliberal era, which has been pushed to ridiculous extremes around the globe, has culminated in the socio-economic and ecological crisis that besets the world and is pushing more and more policy makers to express their doubts about the previous policy consensus. I will obviously frame this in the context of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), given that our work has been the only consistent voice in this debate over a quarter of the century. What economists are suddenly coming to realise has been core MMT knowledge from the outset.