On August 6, 2018, British tax expert Richard Murphy who is becoming increasingly sympathetic to the principles of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) published a blog post, which recorded an exchange with one James Meadway, who is the economics advisor to the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell in Britain. The exchange took place on the social media page of a Labour Party insider who has long advocated a Land Tax, which McDonnell is on the public record as saying will “raise the funds we need” to help local government. He called it a “radical solution” (Source). An aside, but not an irrelevant one. It reflects the mindset of the inner economics camp in the British Labour Party, a mindset that is essentially in lockstep with the neoliberal narrative about fiscal policy. Anyway, his chief advisor evidently openly attacked MMT as “just plain old bad economics” and called it a “regression in left economic thinking” which would ultimately render the currency “entirely worthless” if applied. He also mused that any application of MMT would be “catastrophic” for Britain. Apparently, only the US can apply MMT principles. Well, the exchange was illustrative. First, the advisor, and which I guess means the person being advised, do not really understand what MMT is. Second, the Labour Party are claiming to be a “radical and transformative” force in British politics, yet hang on basic neoliberal myths about the monetary system, which is at the core of government policy implementation. Astounding really. This is Part 1 of a two-part series on this topic, most of it will be summarising past analysis. The focus here is on conceptual issues. Part 2 will focus more specifically on Balance of Payments issues.
At present, Europe is sweltering in both relative and absolute terms as the harsh summer ensues. In Australia, we are in drought after an unseasonably warm and dry Autumn. Drought is no stranger to Australia but the frequency and circumstances of the current period coupled with what is going on around Europe (including the cold spell I was caught up in Finland in February while the North Pole struggled with heat) tells us that weather patterns are changing. There is now credible research pointing in that direction. But the drought in Australia is demonstrating another thing – the hypocrisy of the way we deal with unemployment and the unemployed vis-a-vis other groups in society that we endow with higher privilege, especially in this neoliberal era. Australia is experiencing a serious drought and Federal and State governments are tripping over each other to offer very large support packages to farmers and their communities to tide them over while their income dries up (excuse the pun). There appears to be no limit to the support these governments are announcing. The Prime Minister is wandering around rural Australia promising this and that to help farmers make ends meet. Whenever I see these special assistance packages being handed out to the rural sector, which is politically well-organised, I reflect on the plight of the unemployed. With unemployment at elevated levels in Australia, the decision to hand out economic largesse to the farmers reeks of inconsistency. The unemployed have diminishing chances of getting a job at present and the income support provided by government is well below the poverty line. That poverty gap is increasing and the Government refuses to increase the benefit claiming fiscal incapacity. The comparison of the vastly different way the government treats farmers relative to unemployed highlights, once again, that the way we construct a problem significantly affects the way we seek to solve it. The neo-liberal era has intensified these inconsistencies which have undermined the capacity of public policy to achieve its purpose – to improve the welfare of all citizens. The research question is: Why do we tolerate such inconsistent ways of thinking about policy problems and their solutions?
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.
You know, an Italian won the British Open golf championship yesterday (the first Italian to ever win a golf major) because of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit negotiations. The causality is impeccable. I am sure about that, although it might take me a while to work it out. But if a British golfer cannot win their Open Championship (Rose tied for second, two shots back) then it must be because of Brexit. Everything else that goes wrong is, so why not the golf? It is the same when three former US policy makers, central bankers, Wall Street-types, claim that the US no longer “have to tools to counter the next financial crisis”. They know full well that that statement is a blatant lie. But they say it. To remain relevant as their stars dim? To do service to their conservative mates? All of the above and more. But the media grab the headline and the American public and the public in general is dealt another piece of neoliberal misinformation that helps entrench the hold on power by the elites. But things are changing, and these entrenched elites and the vested interests they serve don’t like it a bit.
Wednesday and a relatively short blog post after two rather long posts in the preceding two days. The first topic concerns the limits to government spending. The second brief topic reports on research where it was found that the music of AC-DC confounds Lady Beetles and soybean aphids. Who would have thought! Which was by far the most interesting research paper I have read this week after dealing with the likes of Stuart Holland on Monday and Tuesday. And then some music from around the world to smooth out the day.
This is the second and final part in my response to the Social Europe article by Stuart Holland (July 11, 2018) – Not An Abdication By The Left – where he attempts to eviscerate various writers who have dared to suggest that the “social democratic Left in Europe … has run out of ideas” or that “there has been an intellectual abdication by the Left”. He uses his experience as an advisor to Harold Wilson in the 1960s and to Jacques Delors in the early 1990s as an ‘authority’ for his rejection of the claims that the Left has abandoned its social democratic remit. He holds the likes of Delors and António Guterres has shining Left lights. In Part 1, I showed that the view that Delors and Guterres are beacons of Left history and that the social democratic Left has not sold out to the neoliberal orthodoxy (particularly at the political level) is unsustainable. Holland distorts history to suit his argument and is in denial of the facts. In Part 2, I trace the argument further by examining the 1993 Delors White Paper, which was meant to be the European Commission’s response to the mass unemployment that was bedevilling the Continent at the time (and remains, by the way) and later propositions that Holland was associated with in relation to Greece during the GFC. They further demonstrate that Stuart Holland is attempting to maintain an indefensible position.
Former Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky was quoted as saying during the 1979 Austrian election campaign that: “I am less worried about the budget deficits than by the need for the state to create jobs where private industry fails”. That is the statement of a social democrat. That is a progressive Left view. In June 1982, with French unemployment at 7.2 per cent (having risen from 2.4 per cent in 1974 after a near decade of austerity under the right-wing Prime Minister Raymond Barre), the French Minister of Economy and Finance cut 30 billion francs from government spending so that the fiscal deficit would remain below 3 per cent. In March 1983, the same Minister pressured his colleagues including President François Mitterrand, into imposing a further bout of austerity, cutting another 24 billion francs and increasing taxes by 40 billion francs. These were very deep cuts. The austerity under the so-called ‘Barre Plan’ had failed to reduce inflation. When the turn to austerity was repeated under Mitterand’s so-called Socialist government, France was already in a deep recession. Under the Socialist austerity period unemployment rose sharply to further to 9.3 per cent by 1987. By then the architect of that austerity, one Jacques Delors, was European Commission President and starting work on his next exercise in neoliberal carnage – the Eurozone. None of his behaviour during that period remotely signals a position we could call progressive or Left. Like his austerity turn (“tournant de la rigeur”), Delors had turned into just another neoliberal obsessed with fiscal surpluses, free markets (he oversaw the 1987 Single European Act), and privatisation (which he claimed was necessary to attract foreign direct investment) (Source). This is Part 1 of a two-part series on the abdication of the Left, which some still choose to deny.
Its Wednesday, so just a few short snippets that came to my attention, some comedy and some great music that has kept me company today while I have been working today. The first snippet concerns my revelation that fiscal policy in Australia is undermining the future of our grandchildren. Yes, an out-of-control government is spending our way to a future oblivion. The second snippet is my analysis of the latest INSA/YouGov German poll which shows that the euphoria if you can call it that which followed the formation of the GroKo has now dissipated and the AfD have overtaken the SPD in popularity. Which tells you that the progressive movements in Germany are failing. Why? Because they decided not to be progressive and, instead, decided to ape the conservatives. Not a good idea. The polls are showing why.
In examining the implications for an exit from a currency union, one of the issues that arises is the proportion of public debt that is issued under foreign law. This is a separate issue to the implications of foreign-currency denominated debt. Both issues are problematic and compromise a government’s capacity to remain solvent. I covered the former issue to some extent in my 2015 book – Eurozone Dystopia: Groupthink and Denial on a Grand Scale – when I was considering different strategies for exit. There has been some further research on the question of foreign law debt issuance by the ECB and its Working Paper No. 2162 – Foreign-law bonds: can they reduce sovereign borrowing costs? – published June 2018, has relevance. It is clear that a government reestablishing its sovereignty has the upper hand, especially if it has issued debt under its own legal system. Which is why the likes of the IMF and the European Commission has been keen to increasingly pressure governments to issue debt under foreign laws under the ruse that this is a show of faith to the private bond markets. Once again the increasing bias towards foreign-law debt is all about privileging private capital over the interests of citizens in national states. What is absolutely clear is that a sovereign government should never issue debt instruments under any legal system other than their own. What is even clearer – such a government has no need to issue any debt at all.