This is the second and final part of my discussion of the – Economic Affairs Commitee (House of Lords) – hearings into – Quantitative Easing: Committee to examine whether inflationary fears justified, the future of QE, and the merits of ‘helicopter money’ approaches. In Part 1 we learned that statements made by notable central bank governors (or equivalent) to the public about what they are doing are highly questionable given the evidence given by two prominent witnesses to the House of Lords enquiry. The evidence doesn’t just refer to matters pertaining to the UK. We learned that it is obvious that large-scale government bond buying programs by central banks are funding fiscal deficits despite the denial from the central bank officials. In this Part, we find more revealing statements by the witnesses further suggest that the central bank officials, including those from the Reserve Bank of Australia governor, are, at best misleading. At worst – use your own words.
Remember on February 3, 2021, when the RBA governor Philip Lowe spoke at the National Press Club in Australia and told the audience that the Reserve Bank of Australia is not funding the federal government deficit, either in part, or, in full. This was in response to being asked whether the current situation that sees the RBA buying large swathes of government bonds are in any way consistent with Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Well, since he gave that speech and answered questions from Australia’s journalists, a very interesting session was held by the – Economic Affairs Committee (House of Lords) – in London as part of the Committee’s investigation into the ins-and-outs of Quantitative Easing (QE). And some very revealing statements were made in those hearings which the RBA governor might reflect on. They rather directly challenge the veracity of his public statements about MMT in recent years. They also expose the way in which public officials tell the public they are not doing A but B, while doing exactly A. The cat is progressively getting out of the bag.! This is Part 1 of a two-part series explaining how the cat is escaping.
One of the major complaints that Milton Friedman and his ilk made about the use of discretionary fiscal policy was that time lags made it ineffective and even dangerously inflationary. By the time the policy makers have worked out there is a problem and ground out the policy intervention, the problem has passed and the intervention then becomes unpredictable in consequence (and unnecessary anyway). The Financial Times article (March 29, 2021) – To compare the EU and US pandemic packages misses the point – written by Ireland’s finance minister reminded me of the Friedman debate in the 1960s. Apart from the fact that the article is highly misleading (aka spreading falsehoods), it actually exposes a major problem with the way the European Commission operates. If Friedman’s claim ever had any credibility, then, they would fairly accurately describe how the European Union deals with economic crises. Always too little, too late … and never particularly targetted at the problem. The debate remains relevant though as governments move away a strict reliance on monetary policy and realise that fiscal policy interventions are the only way forward. Most governments around the world are talking big on public infrastructure projects. However, the design of such interventions must be carefully considered because they can easily be dysfunctional. Further, thinking these projects are a replacement for short-term cash injections is also not advised. I consider these issues in this blog post.
On March 25, 2021, a member of the US House of Represenatives “introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives this week condemning Modern Monetary Theory, recognizing that its implementation would lead to higher deficits and inflation”, while a “companion bill” was introduced into the US Senate (Source). The full text of the proposed legislation is available – HERE. The Bill is full of factual errors. But I thought the most significant aspect is the ‘authorities’ they call upon for justification. A parade of mainstream economists and progressive economists are quoted to give support for the Bill. And I haven’t seen one disclaimer from those mentioned disassociating themselves from some of the wild inferences that the Bill makes. They have allowed themselves to be co-opted by their silence in this rather tawdry and dishonest exercise. That is not surprising at all.
While progressive-sort-of politicians, at least they say they are progressive, work out all the ways they can parrot mainstream macroeconomics textbooks about fiscal deficits and public debt to make themselves appear ‘credible’, even using credibility in the title of key fiscal rules they advocate, the world passes them by rather quickly. British Labour is crippled by, among other things like Europe, their belief that the City (finance) is powerful and the state has to appease the interests of the speculators. The Australian Labor Party is no different and so it goes everywhere. Give a traditional social democratic politician any latitude and they privatise, cut welfare spending, deregulate, give handouts to the top-end-of-town and more. We have four decades of this behaviour to back that accusation up. Well one of the more conservative central banks in the world – the Reserve Bank of Australia – is currently demonstrating what Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists have said all along – the financial markets can always be subjugated by the power of government, any time policy makers choose to exercise their capacity. It is time that these progressive types realised that and became much more ambitious and, yes, progressive, really progressive rather than adopting the sycophantic stance that the ‘financial markets will destroy our currency’, which has undermined traditional social democratic politics.
Australia was established a federation in 1901 after being a collection of colonies after the British consficated the land space from the indigenous population that had been here for more than 30,000 years. In 1916, the Australian government as one of the important early initiatives in establishing Australia as a nation under white rule created the – Commonwealth Serum Laboratories – as a national manufacturer of vaccines. Its early priorities was to produce antivenom to deal with snake bites, insulin and tetanus vaccines, and, later, vaccines for diptheria, whooping cough, and polio. It became a leader in manufacturing blood products for HIV and more. It was a jewel in Australia’s crown, guaranteeing that we could deal with the dangerous human conditions with our own capacity and without being held ransom by profit-seeking corporations. In 1994, the Labor government privatised the public body, claiming it did not have sufficient funds to update some equipment. The Government has now contracted this private corporation (CSL) to the tune of $A1.7 billion to supply the AstraZeneca vaccine, while at the same time, refusing to provide pandemic support to workers in the arts and university sectors.
It is clear that the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) management is at odds with the elected Federal Government over the current state of the economy and what needs to be done to get through the COVID-19 pandemic. The Federal government is about to significantly wind back its fiscal stimulus, which although was insufficient at the outset, did help reduce the damage that the health responses to the pandemic caused (lockdowns, etc). The Government has the view that the private sector will now rebound quickly especially as the vaccination process has begun. The RBA though is clearly not convinced and its senior officials are wont to point out (regularly) that growth will struggle for years unless the stimulus is maintained and the government promotes an environment where wages can grow more quickly. The RBA clearly blames the Government for the record low growth in wages given the penchant of the latter to impose wage freezes and wage caps on public sector workers, which spill over into poor private sector outcomes. And that is quite apart from the damage that Government industrial relations legislation has done to the capacity of unions to gain wages growth for workers. The chances that we will break out of this malaise are close to zero. The Government is anti-union and anti-wages growth. It thinks that suppressing wages growth to historically record lows and further attacking the unions, will drive the wage share down even further (as the profit share rises). And, of course, the funding of the conservative political forces largely comes from the beneficiaries of these trends. For the vast majority of Australians the situation gets worse. Our real incomes stagnate and to maintain consumption levels we have to borrow more, even though household debt is at record levels in relation to disposable income. It is not a sustainable future but the damage will get worse until there is a pushback from the population. And one of the things holding that back is the deplorable state of the Australian Labor Party in electoral terms. We can generalise all this to most nations. The neoliberal score card: Biggest F you can find.
The capacity of prominent people in economics to attempt to airbrush history and forget what they said and did in the past continues to amaze me. It always has. The problem for them though is that there is a public record. Yet, the mainstream media seems to ignore that public record as they give these characters continued coverage without noting the contradictions and about turns that have been going on. The issue is the past keeps catching up with these characters but they just maintain their authority in the public debate as they freely morph between contradictory and inconsistent positions, without ever having to provide any sort of accounting for those shifts. It would clearly help if the media held these people to account because then the public would realise that some of the things that they had said in the past, which led, because they had positions of power, to devastating policy impacts on workers and their families, were false all along and should never re-enter the policy debate.
My MOOC is in full-swing (over 3000 participants) and I am quite busy getting Week 2 up and running and then Weeks 3 and 4. So, today, we have our regular guest blogger, Professor Scott Baum from Griffith University who has been one of my regular research colleagues over a long period of time. Today he is examining the creeping tendency in the political debate and media to start to focus on questions like when will the debt be paid back. Journalists have been asking me to estimate the quarter when Australia can return to fiscal surplus, as if that is a target to aspire to. Anyway, over to Scott …
When we elect governments we should expect that they will do what they promised and represent our best interests. We don’t expect them to represent a small, privileged sector of the economy at the expense of the rest of it. The problem is that we overlay these aspirations onto an economic ownership system which has a different logic to our understanding of the operations of a democratic state. And mainstream economics gives reverence and priority to the logic of capitalism rather than ensuring that the quality of democracy is maintained. Which reflects its origins – as an apologist for the unequal ownership of the material means of production and the consequences that arise from that inequality. We keep seeing a restatement of that priority from prominent policy makers and while that generation is in charge it will be hard to really shift the paradigm.