While the Europhile progressives are publishing papers and holding talkfests to discuss their latest EU reform proposals, the on-going reality of the European Union continues to reveal itself – the pretense that there is a rule of law operating – as laid out in the Treaties and the idea that all are equal under that law. When I was researching my 2015 book – Eurozone Dystopia: Groupthink and Denial on a Grand Scale – and over the long period I have studied the concept of European integration it was obvious to me that despite the chimera of a strict, rule-based system that is run by technocrats, the actual practice of the Union is vicariously ad hoc – rules applied in cases where doing otherwise would present ideological problems, abandonment of the rules and outright illegal behaviour when there the interests of the corporate elites are at stake or the existence of the Union is threatened. And while law breaking, relevant officials produce complicated justifications of their behaviour as if what they are doing is within the boundaries specified by the Treaties. The Europhile progressives, meanwhile, continue to hold this embarrassing monstrosity out as the exemplar of freedom, globalism, cosmopolitanism and sophistication. They have reached such a state of denial that what is obvious to those looking in from the outside escapes their attention, or, in the mould of the European technocrats they just ride along with the spurious justifications for the unjustifiable. Europe in 2019.
Various people are vying for the key positions in the European structures (EC President, ECB head, and a range of other positions) at the moment. The presence of French and German interests typically dominate these outcomes, although as a result of the Treaty of Lisbon changes, more weight was given to the jockeying of the various political coalitions that find their way into the European Parliament. But that process has new been compromised by the decline of the traditional parties as other political forces (Greens, En Marche, Liberal Democrats etc) have gained ground. So Europe is back to its Franco-German rivalry and emerging out of that process is the unthinkable – Bundesbank President, Jens Weidmann – becoming a front-runner to take over the ECB role. He is a man with a past and his current ‘political’ statements, as he lobbies for the position he clearly covets, appear to contradict that past. A leopard never changes its spots. Beware.
Last week, the EU finance ministers (the ‘Eurogroup’) met (June 13, 2019) in Luxembourg as part of their regular schedule. There was a lot of talk in the lead-up to the meeting whether Emmanual Macron’s push for a more coherent EU fiscal capacity to act as a counter-stabilisation capacity for the beleaguered Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). As is normal, there was no progress made and the press reports said that the finance ministers “continued to clash over almost every feature of the new fiscal tool, including the source of funding” (Source). No surprises at all. So the ‘fix the roof while the sun is shining’ agenda, that many Europhile Left commentators have been hoping for, was abandoned. The roof still has gaping holes and the EMU will once again fail badly when the next economic cyclical downturn comes through. And further, the lack of leadership in the fiscal area is creating a massive dilemma for the ECB and its conduct of monetary policy. In effect, the lacuna is demonstrating to all and sundry that monetary policy is incapable of achieving the aims despite the ECB deliberately breaching the legal framework established for it in the Treaties. The Eurozone dysfunction goes to a new level – and it is a time of growth.
If there were two lessons that can be taken from the GFC among others then we should know, once and for all, that, first, monetary policy (in all its glorious forms these days) is not a very effective tool for influencing the level of economic activity nor the price level, and, second, that fiscal policy is very effective in manipulating total spending and activity. Of course, those lessons provided the evidence that turned macroeconomics on its head because for several decades, as the Monetarist surge morphed into all manner of variants, tried to eulogise the primacy of monetary policy and rejected the use of fiscal policy. There were all sorts of justifications – time invariance, lags, politicians cannot be trusted, etc – but at the heart of the shift towards supposedly independent central banks was the political desire to neuter the capacity of governments to use their currency capacity to advance the well-being of the many, while at the same time, using that same capacity to advance the interests and real income shares of the few. Depoliticisation worked a treat for the top-end-of-town. The problem is that the lessons have not been learned and all manner of commentators still think that monetary policy is the king. Eventually, we will move beyond that but the pain of holding on to the myth is damaging for people, especially those who are without work, are underemployed or have been forced into early retirement by the poor economic performance in this austerity-biased era.
I am in London today (Monday) and have two events. First, I am doing a ‘Train the Trainers’ workshop for – The Gower Initiative for Modern Monetary Studies – where we will work through some techniques and concepts to help activists educate others about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Second, I am meeting with some Labour Party Members of Parliament who are keen to learn more about MMT and incorporate its insights into their political work. Get the drift? People wanting to learn and setting up pathways where that learning can occur. Which means they take advantage of access to one of the founders of MMT to find out what it is about, rather than adopt a superficial version of our work, which they might have heard about when Joe told Aalia, who had picked it up from Eddie, who had been having a conversation with Robyn about something that Abdul had told Amelia, who had read it in some Tweet that was reporting an article written by Kenneth ‘Mr False Spreadsheet’ Rogoff criticising MMT. That is the way to learn.
Eurostat released the latest fiscal data for 2018 on Tuesday (April 23, 2019) which showed that – Euro area government deficit at 0.5% and EU28 at 0.6% of GDP – apparently a cause for celebration if you can believe the news reports that have accompanied the data release. The problem is that these numbers are meaningless without a context. And a relevant context is how well the monetary system is accommodating the advancement of material well-being among the citizens of Europe. On that ‘functional’ criterion, the horror story, more or less continues. Data relating to the real world (as opposed to the world of fiscal numbers on bits of paper) tell us that the damage from the GFC interacting with a dysfunctional monetary system design still lingers and the 19 Member States are still highly vulnerable to the next crisis. The austerity mindset remains and these fiscal outcomes indicate a failure of policy. Nothing to celebrate at all.
Wednesday today and a short blog. I also have to travel a lot today. But some brief comments on an interesting article from French commentator Michel Lepetit – Nourrir le débat sur une annulation partielle (370 mds€) de la dette publique (April 15, 2019) – which means more or less “Promoting the debate on a partial cancellation (€370 billion) of public debt”. The article proposes that the Banque de France cancels its holding of French government debt (the €370 billion), which could also lead other national central banks in the Eurosystem following suit with respect to their own government debt holdings. He argues that the cancellation (write off) would have no negative social impacts and could help Eurozone governments fund the transition to a low-carbon future. Above all, it reflects an understanding of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Michel Lepetit argues that the QE implemented by central banks, especially since the GFC demonstrates the patent failure of the foundations of monetarist dogma (“l’échec patent des fondements du dogme monétariste”).
I was asked by an Austrian friend the other day if I could provide some questions to a journalist friend of theirs (András Szigètvari from Der Standard) in who was about to interview Sabine Lautenschläger who is Member of the Executive Board of the ECB and former Vice-President of the Bundesbank. I dutifully complied and the – Interview with Der Standard – was published on April 1, 2019. April 1 is known as April Fools’ Day, a tradition that spans continents and culture. In Germany, apparently, April 1 is a day where ridiculous stories are told at the expense of the listener, to elicit uproarious laughter (so-called “Aprilscherz”) (Source). I won’t be as unkind to assert that Ms Lautenschläger was acting out the tradition even though what she was saying could easily be mistaken for a planned ruse. Perhaps the joke was on her!
This is the final part of my three-part series on the why I have confidence in the primacy of fiscal policy over monetary policy and eschew any proposals, by other Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) advocates or others, to replace the so-called ‘independent’ central bank, with an ‘independent’ fiscal authority, which they seem to think would take the ‘politics’ out of fiscal policy decision-making and focus it on advancing the well-being of the people. Such a proposal is not core MMT. It is an opinion that, in my view, is based on deeply flawed logic and would would constitute the continuation of the neoliberal practice of depoliticisation and further increase the democratic deficit that is common in our nations these days. In this final part, I extend the reasons that progressives should oppose such outsourced decision-making and, instead, advocate the introduction of processes that always make our elected politicians fully responsible for the decisions they take on our behalf. Our polity should be always be held accountable for those decisions and not be allowed to defer responsibility to an external source (like an ‘independent’ central bank or fiscal authority).
This is the second part of a three-part series discussing the political issues that give me confidence in the primacy of fiscal policy over monetary policy. The series is designed to help readers see that the recent criticisms of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) as being politically naive and unworkable in a real politic sense have all been addressed in the past. In Part 1, I gave examples of how ‘agile’ or ‘nimble’ fiscal policy can be when an elected government has it in their mind to use their spending and taxation capacities to change the direction of the non-government economic cycle. It is simply untrue that fiscal policy is inflexible and cannot make effective, well-designed policy interventions. In this second part, I will address aspects of how such interventions might be organised. Specifically, some people have advocated that MMT might replace the so-called ‘independent’ central bank, with an ‘independent’ fiscal authority, which they seem to think would take the ‘politics’ out of fiscal policy decision-making and focus it on advancing the well-being of the people. The intentions might be sound but the idea is the anathema of what progressives, interested in maintaining democratic accountability would propose. I consider such an independent fiscal authority would constitute the continuation of the neoliberal practice of depoliticisation and further increase the democratic deficit that is common in our nations these days. Politicians are elected to take responsibility and make decisions on our behalf. They should be always be held accountable for those decisions and not be allowed to defer responsibility to an external source (like an ‘independent’ central bank or an external fiscal authority).