Another relatively short blog today – it is holidays after all. There was an article in the New York Times (December 23, 2013) – Inequality for Dummies – by regular Op Ed columnist Bill Keller, who clearly thinks he represents the pragmatic, reasonable progressive “centre-left” as distinct from the “left-left” who have their heads in the sand and apparently are content to mouth of slogans to make themselves feel better but which do nothing to address reality or advance the progressive cause. My version of the topic is inverted. I usually think the “centre-left”, which used to be the centre-right or even further out to the right before neo-liberalism shifted the central point sharply so that it made Genghis Khan look downright reasonable, are gutless wonders who pretend to be progressives if it allows them to extra personal rents (rewards) and/or gain position of power in non-conservative political parties. I typically see the “centre-left” as part of the problem not part of the solution. So I read on.
The Financial Times article (December 19, 2013) – The long farewell to quantitative easing – concluded such: “Quantitative easing has demonstrated to politicians everywhere that it is possible to finance government deficits simply by printing money, a fact which had become obscure in the developed economies in previous decades. The umbilical link, previously unchallenged, between running a budget deficit and the requirement to sell bonds has been broken in the mind of the political system. Who knows what the long-term effects might be”. While mistakenly thinking crediting reserve accounts is activating any printing press it is true that there is no requirement to sell bonds to run government deficits. Today I am updating my analysis of the latest flow of funds data in the US. The US Federal Reserve recently put out the latest – Z.1 Financial Accounts of the United States – aka the Flow of Funds, Balance Sheets and Integrated Macroeconomic Accounts. If the FT author had have been studying this and related data he would have known years ago that there was no functional relationship between government net spending and its habit of issuing debt to the private sector. The former is financially unconstrained while the latter is just a system of corporate welfare. But recently, the government has given the game way by being the dominant purchaser of its own debt. Hysterical (as in comical) when you think about it!
There was an interesting article in the January 2012 edition of the Monthly Labor Review, published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics – Labor force projections to 2020: a more slowly growing workforce. I was reading this the other day in conjunction with a new report from the US Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia – On the Causes of Declines in the Labor Force Participation Rate, which was released on November 19, 2013. The latter paper is controversial because it suggests that the US labour market is much tighter than the actual unemployment rate would suggest. I would suggest otherwise and here is some preliminary analysis to back that view.
The conservatives are always dreaming up new attacks on the most disadvantaged people in our societies. in the US, the front line of the war on the poor is the on-going attacks on the Social Security system. As I’ve noted in the past this entire debate is based upon the around the’s claim that the system can go broke. I dealt with that issue in these blogs – Social security insolvency 101 and The time has come to tell the American people the truth – among others, and I won’t repeat the points. They are clear – the US Social Security Trust Funds are just elaborate accounting smokescreens that ultimately mean nothing if one comprehends the financial capacity of the US government. They represent a case of a government creating a farcical structure to administer some program and then elevating the structure to a false level of importance that actually leads them to introduce policies which undermine the initial purpose of the program – and all without any basis. The determinants of future standards of living will be the availability of sufficient real goods and services of an acceptable quality. If they are available the US government will be able to purchase them with the stroke of a computer key. But because the conservatives have everyone thinking the funds will go broke, they can then force ridiculous time-wasting concepts into the public debate. One such attack is the proposal to use Chained-CPI measures as the Cost-of-Living-Adjustment (COLA) index in social security pensions.
There was an article in the Atlantic yesterday (November 5, 2013) – How Washington Is Wrecking the Future, in 2 Charts – which reports in a related article in the UK Financial Times (November 3, 2013) – US public investment falls to lowest level since war. The essence of the articles is that the political landscape in the US has undermined the US President’s plans to spend more of public “infrastructure, science and education” which will undermine the future growth potential and prosperity of the US economy. A Bloomberg article (November 6, 2013) – Don’t Blame Congress for Cutbacks in Public Investment – criticised both analyses on the grounds that the cutbacks are relatively small and the culprit is state and local government in the US rather than the federal government. There is truth in both sides but neither really grasps the nettle and considers the cutbacks in government spending in the context of what is going on in the non-government sector. The cutbacks in public spending in the US over the last three years are unnecessary (financially) and the fiscal drag is keeping unemployment high and increasing the poverty rates.
I have been watching in my spare time (yes) the 2010 first season of the HBO series – The Newsroom – which could be about events in US this week, so persistent has been the moronic behaviour that nations’ polity. There is growing evidence that the US Republicans are now an extremist party with a substantially tenuous grip on reality. They clearly do not understand that an economic depression is likely to follow their refusal to prevent the US Treasury to continue spending according to the current laws that the US Congress passed and which, together with the tax code, determine the current deficit. They clearly do not understand how deficits arise and the function they serve. The US might hold themselves out to be the world leaders in a range of areas but this debate is revealing how stupid the government representatives have become.
The triumphalism of British Chancellor George Osborne in recent weeks, as a modicum of positive economic news seeps out of the – Old Dart – or should I say Britain (given the Old Dart strictly refers to England), is almost too much to bear. Moreover, stand ready for a phalanx of I-told-you-so-mainstream-economists coming out in force lecturing all and sundry about the benefits of fiscal austerity. These characters have been hanging tough for any sign of growth (they have been waiting some years) so they could all chime in that austerity has created the conditions for the growth. They choose to misunderstand any evidence that might cast doubt on that (spurious) correlation. The reality is very different. Austerity has undermined growth and retarded the economies where it has been imposed. All economies eventually resume growth. But the legacy of the policy failure will remain for years to come. All I can say to these triumphal ones is – Careful before you leap!
Today, among other things, I have been analysing the fantastic dataset produced by the US Census bureau – Business Dynamics Statistics – which allows us to understand in much more detail, the underlying drivers of employment growth in the US by age and size of firm across sectors. I have done a lot of work on this topic in the past and this sort of dataset is a gold mine. It allows us, for example, to examine the veracity of the oft-repeated claims by conservative politicians and lobbyists that small business is the employment engine of the modern economies and all sorts of concessions and deregulation (mostly directed at underlying job security, wages and conditions for workers) are required to allow small business to do its work. The simple conclusion of today’s data analysis is that the age of the firm is more important in understanding net job creation in the US than the size of the firm. Here are some tentative results that may or may not be of interest.
The Politics of Envy – that old chestnut from the neo-liberals – is bandied around every time there is any insinuation that the capitalist system produces distributional outcomes that are not remotely proportional to the effort put into production. Whenever governments challenge the distributional outcomes – for example, propose increasing taxes on the higher income recipients (note I don’t use the word “earners”) there is hell to cry and the defense put up always appeals to the old tags – “socialist class warriors undermining incentive”, “envy”, etc. In the 1980s, when privatisation formed the first wave of the neo-liberal onslaught, we all apparently became “capitalists” or “shareholders”. We were told that it was dinosauric to think in terms of the old class categories – labour and capital. That was just so “yesterday” and we should just get over it and realise that we all had a stake in a system where reduced regulation and oversight would produce unimaginable wealth, even if the first manifestations of this new “incentivised” economy channelled increasing shares of real income to the highest percentiles in the distribution. No worries, “trickle-down” would spread the largesse. We know better now – and increasingly the recognition, exemplified in 2006 by Warren Buffett’s suggestion that “There’s class warfare, all right … but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning” (Source), is that class is alive and well and in prosecuting their demands for higher shares of real income, the elites have not only caused the crisis but are now, in recovery, reinstating the dynamics that will lead to the next crisis. The big changes in policy structures that have to be made to avoid another global crisis are not even remotely on the radar.
The hoopla over the US government voluntarily imposed debt ceiling is about to begin again with the US Treasury Secretary predicting that the government will run out of money in mid-October. He must have been listening to his President who told an audience at the State University of New York the other day, that in the face of rising demands for more government expenditure of education “At some point, the government’s going to run out of money” (Source). It is not the first time he has made that claim. Please read my blog – The US government has run short of money – for more discussion on this point. The debt ceiling is one of those ridiculous conventions that government introduce which from time to time provide some quaint, if not bizarre, theatre. But none of the conservatives will have the intestinal fortitude to really drive the US government artificially broke anyway. Anyway, all this was amusing me as I read the latest – US Federal Reserve Flow of Funds – data the other day. That data tells us that the US government can buy as much of its own debt as it chooses. Game over!