This is the third and final part of this series where I examine claims made by senior advisors to the British Labour Party that a fiscal policy that is designed using the insights provided by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) would be “catastrophic” and render the British pound worthless. In Part 1, I examined the misunderstanding as to what MMT actually is. A senior Labour advisor had claimed, in fact, that any application of MMT would be “catastrophic” for Britain. He talked about MMT “policy prescriptions”, which disclosed an ignorance about the nature of MMT. In Part 2, I considered the British Labour Party’s Fiscal Credibility Rule and demonstrated that its roots were in core neoliberal ideology and any strict adherence to it would not be consistent with progressive outcomes. I noted that it was likely to promote a private ‘debt-bias’ that was unsustainable. In this final part, I explore some economic history over the last five decades to give some further force to the argument presented in Part 2. And I finish by arguing that a well governed, rule of law abiding Britain with a government building and maintaining first-class infrastructure, with excellent public services (energy, transport, health, education, training, environmental certainty, etc), with a highly skilled labour force, and regulative certainty, would be a magnet for profit-seeking private investment irrespective of whether it was running a continuous fiscal deficit or not. Yet, it is highly likely, given Britain’s history, that such a deficit (both on current and capital contexts) would be required.
I am surprised at the hostility that Part 1 in this series created. I have received a lot of E-mails about it, many of which contained just a few words, the most recurring being Turkey! One character obviously needed to improve his/her spelling given that they thought it was appropriate to write along the lines that I should just ‘F*ck off to Terkey’. Apparently Turkey has become the new poster child to ‘prove’ Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) wrong. Good try! I also note the Twitterverse has been alight with attention seekers berating me for daring to comment on the sort of advice British Labour is receiving. Well here is Part 2. And because you all liked it so much, the series has been extended into a three-part series because there is a lot of detail to work through. Today, I revisit the fiscal rule issue, which is a necessary step in refuting the claim that MMT policy prescriptions (whatever they might be) will drive the British pound into worthless oblivion. And, you know what? If you don’t like what I write and make available publicly without charge, then you have an easy option – don’t read it. How easy is that? Today, I confirm that despite attempts by some to reconstruct Labour’s Fiscal Rule as being the exemplar of progressive policy making, its roots are core neoclassical economics (which in popular parlance makes it neoliberal) and it creates a dependence on an ever increasing accumulation of private debt to sustain growth. Far from solving a non-existent ‘deficit-bias’ it creates a private debt bias. Not something a Labour government or any progressive government should aspire to.
In my analysis of the UK fiscal statement that George Osborne released on March 23, 2011 – I don’t wanna know one thing about evil (April 29, 2011) – I noted that the imposition of fiscal austerity in Britain meant that any hope of growth was really dependent on a combination of export growth and household consumption growth. With the former source unlikely and household income growth sluggish (and falling in real terms), households would have to run deficits, which necessitated running down savings and/or increasing borrowing. British households were already overloaded with debt at the time. The New Keynesian economic orthodoxy claimed that my concerns about a growth strategy that was ultimately reliant on increasing household indebtedness were misplaced because the debt would be accompanied by increased wealth via rising house prices. Well the most recent data available from the British Office of National Statistics and other sources (house prices) shows that my concerns were real. Real housing prices have been falling for the last few years in Britain and are now growing at their slowest pace since 2013. Further, ONS data shows that “UK households have seen their outgoings surpass their income for the first time in nearly 30 years” and they “are borrowing more and saving less”. At the same time, households are accumulating more debt than assets and borrowing more by way of non-mortgage loans to cover the squeeze on disposable incomes. Also, it is not just mortgage debt that has been rising. The real burden of short-term household debt (credit cards etc) in Britain has risen dramatically over the last 20 years. The rising debt and household deficits are also concentrated at the lower end of the income distribution and wealth inequality is rising significantly. Then we learn that in excess of 30 per cent of British children are living in poverty. So in the face of withering fiscal austerity that is impacting severely on the prosperity of the current generation of adults, the policy failure is also ensuring that the disadvantage will be taken into the next generation of adults and their children. Deprivation breeds deprivation. This is a fundamental realignment of British society that will take it back to C19th-type relativities.
After my day in the sun as a poet, I am back to being an economist. I have been researching operational issues relating to how a society can take back control and Reclaim the State, as part of the work I am doing for our follow up book (with Thomas Fazi) that I hope to get out next year sometime. The current book Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, 2017) is very conceptual. The Part 2 follow up will be conceptual in part but also operational. How to do it rather than what needs to be done. More specifically, I have been examining public procurement policies and how they have been captured by neoliberal interests to benefit capital at the expense of broader objectives (regional development, skill development, productivity growth, investment, employment, wages growth, etc). Over the last 3-4 decades, the way governments spend their money (contracting etc) has changed dramatically and governments have been bullied into acting as if they are ‘profit-maximising’ firms with no other agenda when making multi-billion dollar market purchases. However, in Britain this might change if British Labour are elected. Jeremy Corbyn announced this week that he was going to dramatically change the way the British government spends if he is elected. His ‘Build it in Britain’ strategy will scrap the narrow, neoliberal approaches to public procurement policies and instead use the spending capacity of government to advance broader goals. So while it might end up that a contract to a local firm requires higher government outlays, if that contract also delivers other benefits to the nation (as above) then the local firm would not be disadvantaged. Under the current ‘value for money’ hype local firms cannot ‘compete’ in many cases and these broader benefits are thus not generated. I see the ‘Build it in Britain’ strategy as an exercise in sensible logic and a major statement that the neoliberal command on British Labour is in retreat – for now anyway.
The Centre for European Reform, which must have little to do given the snail pace of so-called ‘reform’ that goes on in Europe, released a report over the weekend (June 23, 2018) – What’s the cost of Brexit so far? – which all the Europhile Remainers found filled their Tweet and other social media void for the day. I would have thought that they should have been happy, given England’s demolition of Panama in the soccer and 5-zip thrashing of Australia in the ODI cricket tournament. But no, they wanted to amplify the CER propaganda and makes themselves feel sad. Britain’s economy, apparently, is already 2.1 per cent smaller than it would have been had the vote to exit in June 2016 not won. And apparently, this has been a “hit to the public finances is now £23 billion per annum – or £440 million a week”. If you delve into the way the CER came up with these results you will quickly move on with a ho-hum and get back to the World Cup, which is infinitely more interesting (and that is saying something! read: I don’t enjoy soccer). The saying – Apples and Oranges – is relevant.
This is Part 2 in my two-part series analysing the 354-page report from the Scottish Growth Commission – Scotland – the new case for optimism: A strategy for inter-generational economic renaissance (released May 25, 2018). In Part 1, I considered their approach to fiscal rules and concluded, that in replicating the rules that the European Commission oversees as part of the Stability and Growth Pact, the newly independent Scotland would be biasing its policy settings towards austerity and unable to counter a major negative shock without incurring elevated levels of unemployment and poverty. In Part 2, I focus specifically on the currency issue. The Growth Commission recommends that Scotland retain the British pound, thereby surrendering its independence. Moreover, while it is part of the United Kingdom, the British policy settings have to consider the situation in Scotland. Once it leaves, it will still be bound by British fiscal and monetary settings but those settings would be designed to suit the remaining British nations. So if the British government continues with its austerity obsession, Scotland would be forced to endure that end. Hardly, the basis for an independent nation with progressive aspirations.
The 354-page report from the Scottish Growth Commission – Scotland – the new case for optimism: A strategy for inter-generational economic renaissance (released May 25, 2018) – could have been published by the IMF given its adherence to the flawed neoliberal macroeconomic framework that that institution imposes on everything. It is too generous to call the Growth Commission’s work ‘analysis’ – a series of unfounded assertions with logical extrapolation from that flawed basis is more accurate. If Scotland were to create an independent nation on the basis of the ‘blueprint’ outlined in the Growth Commission’s Report then it would soon be heading into a mediocre oblivion – a future where it would be unable to effectively counteract the fluctuations of non-government sector spending and a future where fiscal policy was forced to be pro-cyclical. Scotland would end up another failed austerity state. This is Part 1 of a two-part series where I examine the Report and its implications. In Part 2, I will examine the currency issues in more detail. I hope to be in Scotland in early October as part of my next speaking tour of Europe – more details later.
The UK Guardian has its ‘Brexit Watch’ page, which is regularly updated with commentaries from this and that ‘expert’, purporting to provide a sort of on-going scorecard of what is happening on that front. Many commentaries usually include some statement to the effect that “Brexit is a disaster”. That particular opinion appeared in the header of the most recent ‘Brexit Watch’ update (May 29, 2018) – ‘Brexit is a disaster’ – experts debate the latest economic data – which followed the release by the British Office of National Statistics (ONS) of the – Second estimate of GDP: January to March 2018 (released May 25, 2018) – which showed that the British economy (based on the latest updated data) increased by 0.1 per cent in the first-quarter 2018 and ONS said that “we see a continuation of a pattern of slowing growth, in part reflecting a slowing in the growth of consumer-facing industries”. One contributor to the ‘Brexit Watch’ article (David Blanchflower) had his wind-up ‘Brexit is Bad Doll’ working overtime blaming the Referendum vote and the uncertainty that has followed for the poor GDP performance, particularly the decline in business investment. So if its bad its Brexit is the repeating message. If its good, just wait, it will be bad again soon and then it will be Brexit. That is the repeating message. However, if you read the New York Times article (May 28, 2018) – In Britain, Austerity Is Changing Everything – you get a very different narrative. You can guess which one I think is more accurate.
Although this blog post considers some very technical material its message is simple. Mainstream macroeconomic models that are used to determine policy choices by governments are deeply flawed and the evidence strongly supports a central thrust of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – that fiscal policy is powerful and that austerity will kill growth. In that sense, it helps us understand why various nations and blocs (such as the Eurozone) struggled after the onset of the GFC. It also explains why the deliberate attack on Greek prosperity by the Troika was so successful in demolishing any prospect of growth – an outcome that the official dogma resolutely denied as they constructed one vicious bailout after another. It also explains why New Keynesian approaches to macroeconomics are flawed and should be ignored. I was reminded this week by a research paper I had read last year (thanks Adam for the reminder) which presents a devastating critique (though muted in central bank speak) of the mainstream approach to macroeconomic modelling. A research paper from the ECB (May 2017, No 2058) – On the sources of business cycles: implications for DSGE models – provides a categorical critique of DSGE models and a range of other stunts that mainstream economists have tried to introduce to get away from the obvious – economic cycles are demand driven.
The German propagandist Joseph Goebbels would have loved the so-called ‘NHS Funding Tool’ that the London-based Institute of Fiscal Studies has wasted hours of labour producing and making available on the Internet. In fact, history would show that the German menace was probably more circumspect in his propaganda activities that the IFS, which has set about to deliberately distort the public debate in the UK over NHS funding. Its latest entry (May 24, 2018) – Securing the future: funding health and social care to the 2030s – is nothing short of a disgraceful grab for headlines. The problem is that reports such as this then feed into an uncritical press, which then furthers the fictional world that my profession has created to hide their ideological preferences against public intervention – in this case, public health systems. The IFS Report is a typical case of neoliberal analysis, which contains hidden constraints that are designed to lead towards the TINA conclusion. Britain can afford to have a first-class NHS if it chooses and the real resources are available and people desire for them to be used in that sector rather than elsewhere. My bet is that the country would be much better off if there were less bankers and investment speculators (the occupations that the neoliberals revere) and more resources in the health sector. At present, constructing the NHS challenges, which are real and growing, as a tax rise or bust type scenario is dishonest in the extreme.