US Department of Labor’s latest unemployment claimant data is worrying with the claimants in the week to January 9, 2021 rising to 1,151,051 a shift of 231,335. This is the highest level since the week ending July 25, 2020 and confirms what we now know – that unless a nation deals with the health crisis and gets the virus infections under control (preferably to the point of zero community transmission), it cannot hope for a sustainable economic recovery. The data is the result of lockdowns leading to layoffs in the hospitality and recreation sectors which has pushed the US economy back into contraction. The rise in new claimants follows the payroll data that revealed that employment had fallen by 140,000 (net) – see this blog post for analysis of that data release – US labour market recovery has ended as health problem intensifies (January 11, 2021). And given the nature of the employment most impacted, you can be sure that socio-economic inequalities will have risen. I will write about that last issue another day.
Its Wednesday and as usual I am not writing much here. Further, I have many commitments today (see one of them below). So we just have some information for you plus a podcast I did recently. And, finally, some Bob and Johnny for our music segment.
We need to get a few things straight. And this is partly for those out there who seem to think that the extent of literature on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) or the Job Guarantee within MMT is confined to collections of Tweets that allow 280 characters or Unicode glyphs. One doesn’t become an expert on ‘full employment’ or ‘political economy’ because they have suddenly realised there is a major crisis in the labour market and have decided to strategically place their organisations for self-serving purposes to be champions of full employment. There is an enormous literature on the Job Guarantee and I have been a major contributor along with my valued colleagues. This is a crucial time in history and one of the glaring deficiencies in the current crisis and economic management in general is the lack of an employment safety net. This is what MMT has to say about that safety net and stabilisation framework.
One of the stark facts about the academic economics discipline is its insularity and capacity to deliver influential prognoses on issues that affect the well-being of millions with scant regard to the actual consequences of their opinions and with little attention to what other social scientists have to say. The mainstream economists continually get things wrong but take no responsibility for the damage they cause to the well-being of the people. A 2015 paper – The Superiority of Economists – published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (Vol 29, No. 1) by Marion Fourcade, Etienne Ollion and Yann Algan is scathing in its assessment of the economics discipline. They say that mainstream economists largely ignore contributions by other social scientists and consider them inferior in technological sophistication, have a “predilection for methodological and theoretical precision over real-world accuracy”, largely ignore”the basic premise of much of the human sciences, namely that social processes shape individual preferences”, and parade an arrogance and superiority that masks the sterility of their analysis. In this context, I thought the 2015 Report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – Sociological perspectives poverty – was a breath of fresh air in its approach to understanding poverty. The empirical base it presents refutes most of the major assumptions and conclusions of economists who work in the field of poverty. A mainstream professor who was supervising my economics graduate program once said to me: “Bill you are a bright boy but you should be doing sociology”, which was an example of the negative control mechanism designed to weed out dissidents (like me). It didn’t work. But I always considered the disciplines of sociology and anthropology (not to mention psychology, political science, social welfare etc) to be important in my journey to become ‘well read’. Most economists, however, do not think that. Perhaps that is why I was able to be part of the development of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).
At present, the Australian Parliament is debating whether the unemployment benefit (called Newstart) should be increased. The conservative government is refusing to budge claiming it prefers to create jobs and get people of benefits – arguing that it will generate 1.25 million jobs over the next 5 years. The Opposition Labor Party are attacking them for being mean but are just rehearsing the massive hypocrisy that has defined that party since it became a voice for the ‘neoliberal lite’ path. Every time the Labor Party spokespersons criticise the Government for not bringing unemployment benefits above the poverty line, Australians should remember that when they were in office the Labor Ministers ran the same line – they wanted to move people into jobs and would not compromise their obsessive pursuit of a fiscal surplus. Same logic. Disgusting and dishonest then. As it is now. The fact is that the successive governments have forced the unemployed to remain jobless (through austerity policies) and then increasingly plunge into deeper poverty (by refusing to increase the income support level in line with movements in poverty lines). In this blog post, I show that even if the 1.25 million pledge is achieved (and there are reasons why they might struggle to achieve it), there would be thousands of workers remaining in a jobless state by June 2024. This denies the Government’s claim that the pledge will eliminate the need to increase the unemployment benefit. Given that the current policy mix is likely to force thousands to remain in elevated levels of unemployment, the unemployment benefit should be increased, immediately, by more than $A200 per week, in the first instance, for a single adult. And then the government should introduce a Job Guarantee to allow workers to transit from joblessness to work at a decent, socially inclusive minimum wage (well above the revised unemployment benefit level). That would be the responsible thing for government to do in this regard. I am not holding my breath.
The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), which represents income support recipients, in conjunction with Jobs Australia (a peak body for the not-for-profit job services providers) released a report last week (September 14, 2018) – Faces of Unemployment – which was a welcome return to a focus on joblessness and the need to provide more jobs, rather than the lame faux-progressive retreat to UBI advocacy that has dominated the policy debate for the last few years. However, once you start reading the analysis you realise that these supposedly ‘progressive’ organisations offer the same old neoliberal remedies to solving poverty and unemployment. They want: Compulsory, assisted job search, which is just coercion of jobless workers by Australia’s privatised job services industry that has an appalling record; 2. Wage subsidies in the private sector and Public sector wage subsidies – which never produce effective sustainable outcomes of sufficient magnitude to be called a solution; and vocational training, which is the same old ‘put workers on the training treadmill and shuffle the jobless queue’. This reinforces the theme I focus on a lot that the progressive elements in our society have become captured by the neoliberal mainstream and cannot think outside that frame. There is actually no mention or analysis of public sector job creation programs in the entire ACOSS/JA Report. Sadly, groups like ACOSS have a major public voice and the Federal government sees their advocacy as non-threatening because the type of policies they advocate are mainstream neoliberal and just more of what the Government, itself, thinks are viable. The irony (or disgrace) is that if these policies were effective then the ACOSS/JA Report would not have had to be written. Just imagine what they could have written about the “Faces of Unemployment” if a Job Guarantee program effectively wiped unemployment out. It would become a very short story of workers moving between jobs.
On August 19, 1964, the then US President Lyndon B. Johnson established the – National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress. He established the Commission in response to growing concern during the deep 1960-61 recession that the unemployment had been created by the pace of technological change. Ring a bell! He wanted to an inquiry to explore this issue and come up with recommendations on how to deal with the possibility that automation was wiping out jobs and the future would be bleak. Before the Commission had reported, the Federal government had reversed its fiscal austerity and the resulting stimulus had driven the unemployment back down to relatively low levels. The Commission noted that unemployment was largely the result of inadequate total spending and that the Government had the tools at its disposal to eliminate it. They considered that there would be workers (low-skill etc) who would suffer more displacement from technology than those with more skill etc, but that ultimately even those workers would be able to get jobs if the public deficit was large enough. In this regard, they eschewed pointless training programs that did not provide immediate access to jobs. Instead, they recommended (among other things) the introduction of a Job Guarantee (Public Service Employment) financed by the Federal government but administered at all levels of government. It would pay the Federal minimum wage and be available on demand. This is the preferred Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) approach and rejects solutions that rely on the provision of a basic income guarantee to resolve the problems created by unemployment.
Readers who have now seen the latest Ken Loach movie – I, Daniel Blake – will know the frustration that it depicts when a disadvantaged citizen is confronted with the reality of having to deal with a national welfare agency. Many readers, presumably, have first hand experience of the labyrinthic procedures, rude staff, endless waiting on telephone lines, threatening letters and the rest of the wall that neo-liberal governments have erected to discourage access and/or push people of welfare benefits. While this access and receipt became a right of citizenship in the social democracies that emerged after the Second World War, the neo-liberal era has degraded those rights in favour of a bean-counter interpretation of the world – welfare payments are dollars that can always be saved to balance fiscal accounts and every opportunity should be taken to do so. Australia is way ahead of the game in terms of using government policies and processes to punish and isolate our most disadvantaged citizens so the Government can reduce its welfare spending a few million. We now allow our Government to implement the work of sociopaths and threaten poor citizens with imprisonment on the basis of half-cocked ‘automatic computer-matching’ algorithms that are allegedly tracking welfare fraud. The evidence suggests these processes are massively buggy and deliver wrong outcomes in almost all the cases of fraud they claim to detect. However, that hasn’t stopped the government from sending out tens of thousands of letters to the most disadvantaged among us accusing these people of receiving thousands of dollars in illegitimate welfare payments and threatening criminal prosecution if these alleged overpayments (now debts) are not paid back. Mostly, it seems, the debts are illusory – mistakes by the ingenious (not!) algorithm that was introduced to replace people sacked by the austerity push – sorry, by the Government’s “efficiency dividend” policy. Some people should be prosecuted for breaching human rights in this latest scandal!
Last Monday’s blog – I, Daniel Blake – essential viewing – provided a review of the latest Ken Loach movie and put the institutional details with respect to the inhumane way the unemployment and sickness benefit support system had evolved in Britain in the context of earlier developments in Australia which pioneered this nasty ill-treatment of disadvantaged citizens. In today’s blog, I am updating the situation in Australia and discussing some recent (and shocking) data, which has come to light courtesy of the Senate estimates process within the Australian Parliament. There is one institution within Australia’s Parliamentary system that hasn’t fallen foul of the lying theatrics that define the main legislative process. I refer to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee which forces government bureaucrats to provide detailed data on contentious issues, which the ruling party (the government) prefers not to release or draw attention to. A most recent example demonstrates the total failure of a key aspect of the income support system in Australia and the reason is simple – a neo-liberal Groupthink has crippled the capacity of the Australian government to do anything constructive and obvious. Ideology allows policy makers to enact cruel and distasteful policy machinations on those who have all but nothing. Australia – where victims become criminals. It is disgusting really and makes one ashamed to show one’s passport when travelling.
So Italy has now gone the way of the UK and the US in its referendum vote – rejecting the establishment but not sure on what to do instead. It seems that the US voters have been duped by a conman (noting he beat a conwoman). Now Renzi is to go and we will see what happens next. But the trends around the world are unmistakable. Ordinary folk are in rebellion and for good reason. Last night I saw the latest Ken Loach film – I, Daniel Blake, which is a grinding, shocking statement of how society has been so compromised by the neo-liberalism that these voting patterns are rebelling against. I would say that as an Australian the film was a little less shocking than it might have been because our stupid nation led the way in introducing the tyrannical administrative processes that accompany income support systems in this neo-liberal era. Britain (under Tony Blair – never let it be forgotten – he did more than lie about Iraq) followed Australia’s lead in this respect. So, Australians have seen this dystopia for more than 18 years now – and while I hope we have not become inured to it – normalised it – it has been part of our awareness for a long time. Nonetheless, the film is shocking in what it says about the societal compromise and the rise and normalisation of sociopathic relationships between state and citizen.