I have long disagreed with Guy Standing about the solutions to unemployment. 20 years ago we crossed paths on panels and in the literature where he would argue that UBI was the way forward and I would argue that it was a neoliberal plot and that, instead, we needed to push for job creation. My view has always been that to surrender to the neoliberals on their claim that governments cannot generate sufficient jobs to satisfy the desires for work of the unemployed was a slippery slope. Standing continues to publish his fiction. In his latest Social Europe article (January 15, 2020) – Building a progressive alliance in Britain – he seeks to integrate UBI proposals with a recovery plan for British Labour. My view is that would not help Labour recover from the shots they fired into their own feet in the period before the December election by listening to the likes of Standing and those who advocated the Fiscal Credibility Rule and the reneging on the Brexit commitment. Standing’s aversion to job creation is in contradistinction with a recommendation from the Wetenschappelijke Raad Voor Het Regeringsbeleid (WRR or in English, The Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy) to the Dutch government to deal with the challenges of achieving “good work”, in part, by introducing a ‘basic job’ which in my parlance means by introducing a Job Guarantee. They are motivated by a deep vein of social science and medical research that extols the virtues of work beyond its obvious income generation qualities. Pushing a UBI in the light of that research is just a pitiful bailout.
How things are changing. After the British election in December, the policy terrain in the UK has shifted such that the Tories are now being lectured to about the dangers of a stimulus package, while British Labour seems to be promoting leadership candidates that mostly were part of the problem that led to their failure. In the latter context, we are seeing King or, should I say Queen makers, who I would have thought were unelectable trying to influence the leadership choice. And former Labour advisors tweeting and what have you about what Labour should be doing when it was their advice that got the Party into the mess it is currently in. Meanwhile, the Tories have an almost open field to finish the first stage of the Brexit process off, and, secure the ongoing support of the voters that abandoned Labour in the election. The Tories will have restored sovereignty to Britain and freed themselves from the restrictive, neoliberal environment of the European Union. Now don’t get me wrong, I have no truck for the Tories. And all along, I considered that Brexit would deliver great outcomes for Britain in the hands of the Labour party as long as they simultaneously abandoned their neoliberal obsession with fiscal rectitude, as expressed by their ridiculous Fiscal Credibility Rule. Labour will now have to rue their ill-conceived abandonment of the Leave voters in favour of the cosmo Remainers. For now, the Tories have open slather – the worst of the outcomes possible. However, the only attenuating factor is that Boris Johnson is a smart operator and will be keen to ensure that the voters in the Midlands and the North remain Tory on an ongoing basis. That means he will have to do abandon the Tory austerity bias and invest billions into the regions that have been torn apart by his parties obsession with fiscal surpluses. That might, for a while, provide some good news for Britain.
In the last few days, since the British General Election last Thursday, I have seen the rising denial of so-called progressives trying to come up with all sorts of excuses for Labour’s devastating defeat. I have seen various aggregations of the votes presented on Twitter and elsewhere attempting to claim that, in fact, the vote was a vote for Remain rather than Brexit. The line being spun is that the Tories do not have a mandate to implement Brexit, that the strong majority of British voters want to remain in the European Union and that, and that Labour’s defeat was about other things. Other things certainly impacted – such as the UK Guardian’s relentless and ridiculous campaign against Jeremy Corbyn which gave air to the anti-semitism ruse. And, the continued passive insurgency within the Parliamentary Labour Party from the Blairites who could not move beyond the past. And, the neoliberal framing that John McDonnell insisted on using to disseminate his economic plan, as a result of being advised poorly by a bunch of economists who couldn’t even get their studid Fiscal Credibility Rule right (given they had to change it at the last minute when it was obvious to all that it would fail). And John McDonnell himself, who told the British people in the months leading up to the election that he would support Remain. And the Deputy leader, who should have been expelled long ago from the Party. And those who conspired to ditch Chris Williamson for the most spurious reasons and thus cost Labour the seat of Derby North. And on it goes. But the result that transpired has been staring the Labour party in the face since the June 2016 Referendum and the Party chose to ignore the warnings. And the so-called progressive apparatchiks, economists and others, who were advising the Labour Party, not only told the Party leaders to ignore the warnings but actively set about vilifying those on the Left, including yours truly, every chance they could. The egg is … as they say!
Last week, the British Labour Party released its election – Manifesto 2019 – which they describe as “the most radical, hopeful, people-focused, fully-costed plan in modern times”. There is a lot to like about that Manifesto from a progressive perspective. However, in my mind, there were two unresolved tensions that I think damage the Party’s credibility. The first, is its, yes, continued embrace of neoliberal macroeconomic frames, epitomised by its so-called Fiscal Credibility Rule that has already had to be changed because so-called independent analysts agreed with my assessment that the manifesto and the ‘Rule’ were inconsistent. The second, is the Party’s position on Brexit, which I believe continues to hamper its chances of election and also brings into focus the inconsistencies in the Party’s stance and behaviour over the last 2 years. Elections are not won by counting votes up. Rather, they are won by winning seats, which means that votes are counted in specific constituencies (electorates). I have maintained the view that the Labour Party’s meandering position on Brexit, to satisfy the Europhile urban members, would damage them, given that the majority of their members of parliament were elected by Leave majority constituencies. Seats not votes win elections. It doesn’t matter if the majority of Labour voters are Remainers, if their are spatial disproportionalities in the vote spread. The latest YouGov MRP estimates of voter intention for the upcoming election indicate that my assessment may, in fact, turn out to be accurate.
Over the years it’s been clear to me that we live in a fictional world when it comes to economic matters. The mainstream has created this world that bears little relationship to reality and which serves the interests of a few at the expense of the majority. But the way in which this fiction is inculcated in the framing and language of our public debates leads the majority to think that the conduct of economic policy is somehow in their best interests, even if, at times, governments claim we have to swallow a bitter pill in order to get well again. The bitter pill always punishes the lower to middle-income groups, rarely the top-end-of-town. The fiction is so deeply ingrained that even progressive political campaigns are framed within it. I have railed against that all my career because I cannot align a belief that democratic choice requires accurate information with the reality that we make these choices in a fog of fiction. I have always considered the role of the progressive forces in politics, as a matter of priority, should be to be the agents of education, so that these democratic choices reflect our realities. I have never supported so-called ‘progressive’ parties that choose, for ‘political’ purposes, to lie to the electorates by adopting neoliberal framing and language as a way of minimising any difficulties that might arise, initially, from the dissonance that accompanies exposure to the truth, after years of believing in lies. It seems that the British Labour Party continues to promote a false narrative to support and otherwise stellar plan for national renewal. But, as history tells us, a plan built on false financial foundations, falters when circumstances change and the false foundations become the issue rather than the plan.
The Brexit issue in Britain has been marked by many different estimates of GDP (income) loss arising from different configurations of the Brexit. The media is flush with lurid headlines about the catastrophe awaiting Britain. As regular readers will appreciate, I am not convinced by any of those predictions. But as I said the day after the Referendum in this blog post – Why the Leave victory is a great outcome (June 27, 2016) – that when I tweeted it was a ‘great outcome’ I didn’t say that good would come out of it. I also didn’t suggest that it would be a short-term recovery of prosperity or that the workers would benefit. I was referring to the fact that class struggle now has a clearer focus within the British political debate. There is now a dynamic for a truly progressive leadership to emerge and bring the disenfranchised along with them and wipe out the neo-liberal hydra once and for all.” I think that is lost in this debate. When the British Labour Party claim the latest agreement will irrevocably damage workers’ rights or environmental protections they seem to be implying that they will never be in power again. No legislation or regulation is irrevocable in a democracy. But being part of the EU will always tie a nation to the EU’s rules which usurp any national interests. That is why I maintain strong support for the concept of Brexit. But amidst all these predictions of gloom and doom, I was listening to the radio last week and heard some statistics that are truly alarming. The on-going GDP losses from the obesity epidemic in the UK, which will increase over time rather significantly, are significant when compared to the estimates of GDP loss arising from Brexit. I wonder why that fact isn’t part of the daily narratives coming out from the Remain crowd to justify their view that the 2016 Referendum result should be disregarded so they can have another go at getting their own way!
A short blog post today – being Wednesday. I am still catching up on things after being away for a few weeks. The British Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) offered its latest contribution to Project Fear this week with their claim that the fiscal response to a no-deal Brexit would “would send government debt to its highest level in more than half a century”. Sounds scary. Which, of course, was the intention. That is what Project Fear is about. Creating illusions of disaster to discipline the political debate in a particular direction. Nothing new about that. But the media, including the UK Guardian had lurid headlines such as – No-deal Brexit would ‘push national debt to levels last seen in 60s’ (October 8, 2019). But if you think about it the worst case estimates are hardly anything to worry about, even if we took the estimates seriously and were concerned about movements in public debt ratios for a currency-issuing nation (which I am not). Here are a few graphs so that all my British friends can come from under their bed covers and face the day with a smile as the No-Deal data gets closer.
I am typing some of this on the train from Brighton back to London, after a day of speaking events in Brighton, where the British Labour Party conference is currently being held. I spoke at two events: (a) the GIMMS event on MMT and the Green New Deal and a video will be available soon; and (b) at an event alongside British Labour MP Chris Williamson, where were talked about how an Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) understanding can enhance the progressive policy cause and advance a transformation towards a ‘socialist’ (whatever that might be) state. It was great to see everyone at the events. The second event was attended by many people involved in the Labour Party itself and I hope that being exposed to new ideas will activate further grassroots resistance to the neoliberal system that undermines our material prosperity. So this two-part series is a reflection on the state of economic policy thinking within British Labour in the context of the paradigm shift that is going on now, around the world, in macroeconomic policy thinking. As I noted in – Part 1 – we are now seeing economists and policy makers, lining up, to tell us that a reliance on monetary policy has run its course and a new era of fiscal policy dominance is the only viable way ahead. That means that New Keynesian economics is over. That means that fiscal credibility rules that reflect an adherence to neoliberal constructs will need to be abandoned. And it seems that British Labour are lagging behind these major shifts that have been going on in economic policy thinking. Only Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) offers a consistent and credible path for Labour to make the shift into this era.
As I type this (Sunday), I am heading to Brighton, England from Edinburgh. We had two sessions in Edinburgh yesterday (Saturday) and it was great to share ideas with some really committed people. We had to dodge a Hollywood closure of the streets (‘Fast and Furious 9 had commandeered the inner city to film a car or two swerving out of control or whatever, and I hope the city received heaps for the inconvenience to its citizens. But, with the direction now south, and tomorrow’s two events (more later), I am thinking the place of the British Labour Party in the progressive struggle. It doesn’t look good to me. The news overnight has been that the Party’s “head of policy and the author of the party’s last election manifesto” (quoting the Times today) has quit the Party claiming “I no longer have faith we will succeed”. The blame game starts and, as usual, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is in focus. The Times cartoon had the caption “They’ve got what it takes to form a government” with two ducks (in Brighton) looking at a sign against a wall saying “Labour Civil War Chaos”. What should we make of all this? My take is this: there is a clear paradigm shift going on in macroeconomic policy thinking. Every day (it seems) a new article pops up with someone claiming monetary policy has run its course and a new era of fiscal policy dominance is the only viable way ahead. That means that the central bank imprimatur on policy – determining whether such policy can continue to be effective and relying on interest rate adjustments etc as the primary counter-stabilisation policy – is over. That means that New Keynesian economics is over. That means that fiscal credibility rules that are neoliberal central are over. And that is why I think British Labour are looking poorly in the polls. They have taken advice from a number of characters who have pushed them into a ‘New Keynesian’ mindset and they are now ‘yesterday’s news’. They have missed the boat on these major shifts that have been going on. That is why they need a major shift in macroeconomic thinking. Only Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) offers a consistent and credible path for them to make that shift.
I have recently had discussions with a PhD student of mine who was interested in exploring the cyclical link between productivity growth and the economic cycle in the context of the intergenerational debate about ageing and the challenge to improve the former. The issue is that sound finance – the mainstream macroeconomics approach – constructs the rising dependency ratio as a problem of government financial resources (not being able to afford health care and pensions) and prescribes fiscal austerity on the pretext that the government needs to save money to pay for these future imposts. Meanwhile, the real challenge of the rising dependency is that the next generation will have to be more productive than the last to maintain real standards of living and if austerity undermines productivity growth then it just exacerbates the ageing problem. My contention has always been the latter. That governments should use their fiscal capacity now to make sure there is a first-class education and training system in a growth environment to prepare us for the future when more people will have passed the usual concept of working age. This question also is hot at the moment in the Brexit debate in Britain and in this blog post I offer some empirical analysis to clear away some of the myths that the Remainers have been spreading.