When we elect governments we should expect that they will do what they promised and represent our best interests. We don’t expect them to represent a small, privileged sector of the economy at the expense of the rest of it. The problem is that we overlay these aspirations onto an economic ownership system which has a different logic to our understanding of the operations of a democratic state. And mainstream economics gives reverence and priority to the logic of capitalism rather than ensuring that the quality of democracy is maintained. Which reflects its origins – as an apologist for the unequal ownership of the material means of production and the consequences that arise from that inequality. We keep seeing a restatement of that priority from prominent policy makers and while that generation is in charge it will be hard to really shift the paradigm.
The tensions in the public policy debate between economists is intensifying and on show in Europe, where these sort of obvious conflicts between adherence to dogma and a recognition that ‘out-the-box’ solutions are not only possible but preferred. More of these latter thought offerings are starting to appear as more people come to understand that the mainstream dogma has become more of a security blanket for reputations rather than saying anything about reality. One such proposal emerged last week in the form of a letter to the major European newspapers signed by more than 100 economists and politicians calling for the ECB to write-off its massive public debt holdings, which currently amount to around 25 per cent of total outstanding public debt. It is a good idea but some of the framing leaves a lot to be desired. At any rate, central banks everywhere should be buying up massive amounts of government debt and hitting the keyboard with zeros and writing it off. The world would be a much better place if they did that.
There is a new variant of the global virus spreading again after being subdued throughout 2020. This is a very dangerous variant and if it takes hold will guarantee massive human suffering, and, a further, substantial shift in national income towards the top-end-of-town. I refer to the creeping infestation that is starting to pop up claiming that austerity will be required to pay for all the “profligacy” associated with government approach to the pandemic. I have seen this virus in the wild and it is creepy and being spread by those who seem to want to gain attention as time passes them by. Overheating threats, austerity threats – it is all part of the economics establishment trying to remain relevant. A vaccine will not work. They need to be permanently isolated.
It’s Wednesday and a blog-light day as usual combined with some great jazz. But it is worth commenting briefly on yesterday’s monetary policy decision, which saw the Reserve Bank of Australia hold its policy rate at the record low of 0.1 per cent. That was no surprise. Mildly surprising given all the hype about the size of the public debt at present was the RBA’s decision to expand its asset purchasing program by an addition $A100 billion. In effect, the RBA is doing what many central banks are now doing – buying up the debt that has been issued to match (not fund) the expansion of fiscal deficits by governments as they try to deal with the negative consequences of the pandemic. While all this has helped the Australian economy record the disastrous economic impacts of the virus the state of affairs is still very poor. And the RBA knows that and is urging extending fiscal and monetary policy support until “at least” 2024. Yet, the Federal government is starting to talk about cutting fiscal support next month. This tension in aggregate policy was evident before the crisis. And it has been a global tension. The neoliberals haven’t disappeared. Austerity is in the wind. More struggle is necessary.
As part of the paradigmic turmoil that is confronting mainstream economists, we are witnessing some very interesting strategies. Imagine you establish a set of principles that are seemingly inviolable. They are the bedrock of the belief system, even though it is not called that. These principles then offer all sorts of predictions about, yes, the real world. They are without nuance. The predictions are so worrying, that politicians, whether they are knowing or not, proceed with caution in some cases, and, in other cases, openly damage the well-being of citizens because they have been told that shock therapy is better than a long drawn out demise into ‘le marasme’. The authority for all the carnage that follows (unemployment, poverty, pension cuts, degraded public infrastructure and services, etc) is these ‘inviolable principles’. Economists swan around the world preaching them and bullying students and others into accepting them as gospel. The policy advice is hard and fast. Governments must stay credible. Except one day they completely change tack and all the policy advice that established certain actions to be totally taboo become the norm. We observe things are better as a result. Does this mean those ‘inviolable principles’ were bunk all along? Not according to the mainstream economists who are trying to position themselves on the right side of history. Apparently, their optimising New Keynesian models can totally justify fiscal dominance and central bank funding fiscal deficits when yesterday such actions were taboo. Which leg are they trying to pull?
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.
Last week, I wrote this blog post – OECD is apparently now anti austerity – warning, the leopard hasn’t changed its spots (January 12, 2021) – which warned against accepting the idea the growing number of mainstream economists, who were now advocating fiscal dominance, was evidence of a fundamental shift in New Keynesian thinking about macroeconomics. The reality is that they haven’t really shifted much at all and Max Planck’s postulate that paradigms shift one funeral at a time remains true. There are very few cases where the senior members of a dominant paradigm, voluntarily abandon their views when the evidence becomes overwhelmingly against them. They iterate, they declare ad hoc anomalies, they try to voice ideas that a new rival paradigm is articulating which resonate better with the data. This sort of strategy is common across academic disciplines which are under assault from a combination of poor predictive performance (data incongruity) and the arrival of a more convincing alternative paradigm. It is in full swing in macroeconomics now. But don’t believe these characters are suddenly accepting Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and realising their previous belief system was never a sound way of characterising our fiat monetary systems. If you dig you discover these characters remain charlatans and will do almost anything to maintain their status as the dominant economists.
Why does the Shadow Chancellor of Britain have a WWW page entry at the Institute for Fiscal Studies? HERE. Perhaps when you read this you will have the answer. What follows is bad. It won’t make anyone happy – my critics or those who agree with the analysis. But that is what has happened in the progressive world as lots of ‘progressives’ added the neoliberal qualifier to their progressiveness and paraded around claiming technical superiority and insights on economic policy that the old progressives just could not grasp. They have become so enthralled by their own cute logic that they cannot see they are handing the opposite side of politics electoral victory on a consistent basis. After you read this you might understand why I say that the British Labour may as well just not turn up at the next election.
In the last week, we have heard from the Chief Economist at the OECD (Laurence Boone), who has been touted on social media as offering a fundamental shift in economic thinking at the institution towards fiscal dominance. This is an example of a series of public statements by various New Keynesian (that is, mainstream macroeconomists) who are apparently defining the new macroeconomics of fiscal dominance. The point is this. Within the mainstream macroeconomics there was always scope for discretionary fiscal intervention under certain conditions. The conditionality is what separates their version of the possibilities from those identified and explained by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Just because these characters are coming out of their austerity bunkers to scramble to what they think is the right side of history doesn’t mean their underlying economics has changed. If you dig, you will find the same framework in place, just nuanced a little to suit the times. But the leopard hasn’t changed its spots. The underlying train wreck is still there and will be rehearsed again at some future date unless we push forward in abandoning the whole New Keynesian approach.
It’s Wednesday and I usually try to write less blog material. But given the holiday on Monday and a couple of interesting developments, I thought I would write a bit more today. And after that, you still get some great piano playing to make wading through central bank discussions worth while. The Financial Times article (January 4, 2021) – Investors believe BoE’s QE programme is designed to finance UK deficit – is interesting because it provides one more piece of evidence that exposes the claims of mainstream macroeconomists operating in the dominant New Keynesian tradition. The facts that emerge are that the major bond market players do not believe the Bank of England statements about its bond-buying program which have tried to deny the reality that the central bank is essentially buying up all the debt issued by the Treasury as it expands its fiscal deficits. This disbelief undermines many key propositions that students get rammed down their throats in macroeconomics courses. It also provides further credence to the approach taken by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).