It is Wednesday in Australia and my usual blog-light day to give me more time to write other things. Although, today (in Europe as I type) I had a long flight from Athens to Paris where I am speaking to the French Senate Commission at a reception this evening. I also had to leave Athens early, so when I reached Paris and found my hotel, I took off to the Jardin du Luxembourg for a 10kms run (laps of the grounds). My trip to Athens was very successful and I will be in a position to talk about that in the weeks to come once some work has been finalised and the plan developed. But today, I want to briefly comment on a story from the Guardian’s Larry Elliot (February 14, 2020) – PM’s Treasury power grab doomed to fail, warn former insiders – which reported that some Labour Party ‘insiders’ (aka gutless morons who won’t publicly take responsibility for spreading rumours) had determined that the current government ministers would not be able to win a power struggle against the powerful H.M. Treasury, who would withhold crucial information from the government to maintain their hegemony. What? The inference was that “the Treasury’s independence” – that is, in other, more accurate words, the right of unelected and unaccountable technocrats to impose their right-wing, neoliberal austerity ideology on the democratically-elected government – was a Labour ideal that should be preserved and that those awful Tories were trying to assert democratic control of its public service institutions.
On February 7, 2020, the Reserve Bank of Australia’s Governor, Philip Lowe appeared before the Federal House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics to discuss the – Reserve Bank of Australia Annual Report 2019 – which is a bi-annual event where the Parliament scrutinises the activities of the unelected and largely unaccountable central bank. The – Transcript – of the session makes interesting reading. The discussion highlighted how mainstream economists fail to understand the nature of the monetary system. Last year, the Federal government introduced a fiscal stimulus (tax cut) as a bribe in the May election campaign. But economic growth continued to slow, in the face of flat real wages growth and an overall fiscal contraction (despite the tax cuts). The tax cuts didn’t stimulate private spending growth and mainstream economists then claim this proves that fiscal policy is ineffective, and by implication, that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is a load of nonsense. The problem is that the tax cuts were used by households to reduce the precarious debt levels that have been building up as they try to maintain spending growth in the face of fiscal drag and flat real wages growth. All that this episode tells us is that the government really should have introduced a much larger fiscal stimulus in the first place to help the balance sheet restructuring effort and provide net growth stimulus.
Thursday is my last teaching day in Helsinki. The Tour moves onto Dublin tomorrow where I hope to learn a lot about the implications of the recent Irish election where Sinn Féin came out of nowhere, as they say, to gain the most votes by some margin and 37 seats, only one less than right-wing conservative party Fianna Fáil and two more than the other right-wing conservative party, the ruling Fine Gael. I have various meetings coming up in Helsinki on Thursday as I finish up this year’s Helsinki visit (although I will be back in June for other commitments). So today I am publishing the video of my presentation at the Italian Senate last Friday (February 7, 2020).
I guess I cannot avoid commenting on the European Commission’s recently released (February 5, 2020) – Economic governance review – which, allegedly, “seeks to assess how effective the economic surveillance framework has been in achieving three key objectives: ensuring sustainable government finances and economic growth, as well as avoiding macroeconomic imbalances; … promoting convergence in Member States’ economic performance.” The short answer is that the framework has failed on all fronts. The Member State fiscal situations are always mostly teetering on the edge of insolvency and only the ECB has been bailing them out; macroeconomic imbalances that really matter, such as the on-going illegal German external surpluses persist, and divergence is the Eurozone norm. Why? Another simple answer: because the architecture of the currency union is deeply flawed and biases the economies to crisis and makes them vulnerable, in an existential sense, to fluctuations in global activity. Why would they have done that? Answer: the triumph of neoliberal ideology over reason.
I am doing the Thursday is Wednesday trick again today, given that I posted Part 2 of my detailed response to enquiries about MMT and what I term the MMT Project yesterday, and that I have promised myself to use Wednesday’s for other writing. I am also quite busy in Helsinki today with commitments so only a short post today. So just a brief comment on the latest fiasco from ‘Mr Spreadsheet’ Kenneth Rogoff as he stares into the abyss of irrelevance and is trying to hand on like grim death to any shred of credibility. He has none. If he ever did, the spreadsheet scandal finished it. But he never did anyway.
Today, I am in the mountains north of Melbourne (Healesville) talking to the – Chair Forum – which is a gathering of all the Superannuation Fund Board chairs. I am presenting the argument that the reliance on monetary policy and the pursuit of fiscal austerity in this neoliberal era, which has been pushed to ridiculous extremes around the globe, has culminated in the socio-economic and ecological crisis that besets the world and is pushing more and more policy makers to express their doubts about the previous policy consensus. I will obviously frame this in the context of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), given that our work has been the only consistent voice in this debate over a quarter of the century. What economists are suddenly coming to realise has been core MMT knowledge from the outset.
If it quacks then it is a duck! If it uses neoliberal frames, narratives, language and concepts then it is neoliberal. Framing a lie just privileges the lie – and we get nowhere. The Progressive Economic Forum purports to bring “together a Council of eminent economists and academics to develop a new macroeconomic programme for the UK”. Their goals have some overlap with what I consider to be reasonable – reducing economic insecurity and inequality, climate action, etc. Some of their policies approaches are anathema (for example, UBI). Many of their council have been close advisors to the Labour Party at various times, including most recently. And they promote a macroeconomics that is not only incorrect but dangerously coincident with the mainstream thinking that has been part of the problem they claim eager to solve. And the failure of the Labour Party to win the December election against a Tory government that had inflicted awful austerity on the people is testament to the fact that their progressive narrative is in need of a radical change. The latest example of how this ‘progressive narrative’ really just reinforces the neoliberal frames they rail against is an Op Ed from a senior PEF council member (January 24, 2020) – – which was a promotional piece for his latest book. I do not recommend anyone purchasing the book.
On August 10, 2015, the Library of the Canadian Parliament released one of their In Brief research publications – How the Bank of Canada Creates Money for the Federal Government: Operational and Legal Aspects – which described the operational interactions between the Bank and the Canadian Treasury that facilitate government spending in some detail. It allows ordinary citizens to come to terms with some of the essential capacities of the currency-issuing Canadian government, which Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) highlights as a starting point towards achieving an understanding of how the monetary system operates. The description is in contradistinction to the way the mainstream macroeconomics text discuss this part of the economy. It leads to an analysis where we learn that the Bank of Canada holds a significant stock of government debt which it is allocated at auction time on an non-competitive basis. And that this capacity is unlimited and entirely within historical practice. In other words, we learn the operational way in which the government is free of financial constraints.
Wednesday blog post – so only a few snippets including some discussion about Germany’s latest extreme outcome – a record fiscal surplus, which the Ministry of Finance is claiming is responsible. Judged by the fact that the economy has ground to a halt and there is a massive infrastructure deficit in the country as a result of a systematic starving of capital expenditure by the government, one has to ask: are they joking! The surplus was, in part, the result of the German government not spending allocated public investment funds because there are insufficient skilled public servants on tap to manage the projects. So the government has hacked into skilled employment first, then it finds that there are not enough qualified officials left to oversee essential projects. So capital formation contracts and the allocated funds go unspent. So, the Government records a surplus and cheers while bridges, roads, hospitals, IT infrastructure, transport infrastructure decays further. Modern day Germany – ridiculous.
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.