We once believed the Earth was flat. Then someone sailed out to the edge and came back the other way or something like that with apologies to Pythagoras and others in 5BC. At some other point in history, alchemists were convinced that they could take base metals (for example, lead) and turn them into ‘noble’ metals (like gold). More recently, the German Nazis convinced a nation that there was a Master Race (them) which had to purify civilisation by exterminating the parasitic (non-Aryan) races. The lowest races were considered to be Lebensunwertes Leben. Millions died unnecessary and cruel deaths as a result of that piece of national deception. Sometimes these demonstrations of national ignorance are relatively benign. Other times, as history shows the outcomes are devastating. The World is, once again, in the grip of another major deception, which is generating negative consequences at the worse end of the scale. As Australia approaches May, fiscal hysteria reaches its apex each year. Add the prospect of a general election (as early as July 2016) and the lying politicians and the media frenzy that support them extend themselves beyond the normal day to day idiocy and prevarication. On the world stage, the IMF prances around, wiping the blood of millions of citizens that it has impoverished over the years with its incompetence and bloody-mindedness, lecturing nations on what they should do next. Whenever, a nation follows their advice unemployment and poverty rises and the top-end-of-town walk off with even more loot. Loot is what pirates stole. These looters, however, do not even have the panache and elan that we associate with the romance of piracy. They are just sociopaths and cheats. Welcome to a new day in neo-liberal hell!
The public policy debate in Australia today has been hijacked by two ridiculous interventions. The first, being a proposal that the states be given back their income tax powers (which they voluntarily forfeited in 1942). It is an attempt to align the large spending responsibilities that the Constitution places on the state governments with the capacity to raise revenue. The ideology behind the conservative proposal is to reduce the size of the federal government and to increase the likelihood of a Eurozone-type crisis where the non-currency issuing states would not be able to maintain first-class health and education systems. A far better and more modern solution to the spending-revenue mismatch would be for the currency-issuing federal government to assume responsibility for large-scale public infrastructure, education, health and other related expenditure areas that are currently the responsibility of the states. I will leave that at that for the moment. The second intervention came in the form of a publication, released yesterday (March 29, 2016), by the so-called Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) – Deficit to balance: budget repair options – which has been in the headlines over the last 24 hours. All the media outlets have been salivating over this report – some calling it the work of a “high-powered … Commission”, and I have not read one report as yet, which has given it any form of critical scrutiny. All the reports on all media forms have essentially acted as amplifiers – as press agents for CEDA. Which only goes to show how our national media fails to serve the people in areas that are of crucial importance to our national prosperity. The fact that such a report gets any coverage also confirms that in these crucial areas of public life, the debate is conducted within a fog of ignorance and lies. Almost all of the propositions that form the basis of this Report are just ideological myths perpetuated to advance the interests of capital over the workers.
I read a report just released yesterday (March 9, 2016) – The uneven impact of welfare reformby the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, which is located at the Sheffield Hallam University in Britain. It showed that the British Government is successfully prosecuting a class war against the disadvantaged and, increasingly, against segments of ‘middle’ Britain. It confirms the view I formed in 2010 when the Conservative government was elected and announced its first fiscal statement in June of that year that it was intent on pursuing some unfinished business – to wit, entrenching the attacks on workers and income support recipients and redistributing national income in favour of capital. These attacks were somewhat interrupted by the urgency to deal with the meltdown associated with the GFC. Leopards don’t change their spots and the Conservatives are intent on finishing off the agenda that began back in the 1970s with the attacks on unions and public services. I was thinking about the report as I was reflecting on a radio program I heard the other day about how the Australian National Library is being forced to make severe cuts to its archival services among other things in response to federal government austerity plans. Mindless is the first word that came into my head when I was listening to the program. In the case of Britain, the attacks are being dressed up as ‘welfare reform’. In the case of Australia, the spending cuts are being dressed up as ‘efficiency dividends’. The neo-liberal nomenclature is an attempt to obscure what is really going on – a massive attack on society, its disadvantaged, and its cultural institutions. Neo-liberals hate society and anything that provides inclusive access to all in the benefits that society can deliver. These cuts are deliberately targeted to reduce social inclusion and undermine information access.
The Australian government is currently engaging the population in an agonising discussion about taxation reform and proposed spending cuts. It is almost vaudeville when the Treasurer, or the Opposition Shadow Treasurer or some business leader gets up and gives us their ‘two bob’s worth’ of nonsense. We have a “revenue problem”, “no we don’t, we have a revenue problem”, “we need to raise taxes”, “no we don’t we need to cut spending”. Then the government appoints a former investment banker as Treasury Department head and he starts raving on about how government should limit its spending to a maximum of 25 per cent of GDP without any argument being provided as to why that limit is meaningful, how it is derived, how it can be achieved if desirable, and all the rest of it. Sounds like a good idea. The Eurozone has destructive fiscal rules (Stability and Growth Pact) that we just whipped out of thin air and sounded important. We may as well, like dumb sheep, follow the race to the bottom. Meanwhile, real GDP growth falls further below trend and the disadvantaged workers endure elevated levels of unemployment and hardship. It is enough to drive one to drink. And then yesterday, the Australian Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), which is one of those neo-liberal concoctions introduced by governments around the world to deflect responsibility for decisions from the politicians and frame the public debate in a particular way, published a new report (February 3, 2016) – National fiscal outlook – Report no. 01/2016. The mind boggles how people can write this stuff and go homeat night and take themselves seriously.
On January 23, 2016, a former Australian Treasurer Peter Costello (1996-2007) gave a speech to the Young Liberals (the youth movement of the conservative party in Australia) – Balanced Budgets as a Youth Policy – which was sad in the sense that some people never get over being dumped as out of touch and unpopular and was ridiculous in the sense that it is a denial of reality and macroeconomic understanding. He mounted the same old arguments that have been used to justify the pursuit of fiscal surpluses (grandchildren etc) but failed to recognise that his period as Treasurer was abnormal in terms of our history and left the nation exposed to the GFC as a result of the massive buildup in private sector debt over his period of tenure. The only reason he achieved the surpluses was because growth was driven by the household credit binge which ultimately proved to be unsustainable. Fiscal deficits are historically normal and should not be resisted. They are the mirror image in a national accounting sense of non-government surpluses, which historically, have proven to be the best basis for sustained growth and low unemployment.
Australia has been caught up in a almost national hysteria the last few days as the Federal government’s Mid-Year Economics and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) release approached. The MYEFO was released yesterday (December 15, 2015) and the sky is still firmly above us, albeit slightly overcast today with storms approaching. I can assure everyone the storms are meteorological events associated with the early summer rather than any moves by international credit rating agencies to detonate their heavy artillery and sink the continent into the Pacific and Indian oceans. The mainstream media coverage of the buildup to the MYEFO has been nothing short of extraordinary and demonstrates that no matter how wealthy a nation’s per capita, how educated it’s people appear to be, public debate is conducted at levels of ignorance that the cavemen and women would laugh at. I have spoken to several journalists in the last few days who by their questioning expose a basic lack of understanding of the macroeconomic implications of the data that has been released in the MYEFO. Basically, the Outlook shows that the federal fiscal deficit is larger than previously estimated (in the May 2015 Fiscal Statement aka ‘The Budget’) and this demonstrates the automatic stabilisers in operation to put a floor under the slowing economy. This counter-cyclical movement is something that we should be comforted by because as private spending contracts and the economy slows the expansion of the deficit limits, to some extent, the job losses and the number of businesses that might become insolvent. However, the mainstream reaction has been hysterical (as in hysteria) with all sorts of predictions about national insolvency, credit rating agencies downgrading us, and “deficits for as long as you can see”. The problem is that the so-called average Australian believes all this nonsense and doesn’t understand that the rising deficit is a good thing in the context of poor developments in private spending.
The fiscal position of a government that issues its own currency should never be a focus of attention other than to understand why it have evolved to its current level – whether it is reflecting mainly discretionary policy choices or cyclical effects (automatic stabilisers). If there was accelerating inflation and high GDP growth then one might be tempted to conclude the fiscal deficit is to expansionary and needs to be cut back. One might equally conclude that private spending is too strong and needs to be cut back. But when there is declining growth and very high and persistent labour underutilisation rates, it is hard to argue that the fiscal deficit needs to be cut. It is, in fact, lunacy!
It is a public holiday in Australia today – Queen’s Birthday, a reflection of our past as a colony. Not a lot has actually changed and we still cannot shed the monarchy. Anyway, not many people reflect on the monarchy today given it is deep winter and football matches are on as part of the holiday. But in keeping with the holiday spirit, I will only write a short blog today. The topic is why no-one should vote for the Australian Labor Party although the argument is applicable to all parties like it, who formerly represented the interests of workers and who are now dominated by politicians who have embraced the neo-liberal macroeconomic myths as if they are truths and, if that wasn’t bad enough, have become active proselytizers of this destructive religion. I might write a few words about the on-going Eurozone saga too, given the extraordinary comments by leading European politicians overnight. Then I will head like thousands of others to the football!
Last night, the Australian Federal Treasurer brought down his second ‘fiscal statement’ (aka, the Federal ‘Budget’). I try to avoid the term ‘budget’ when discussing national government fiscal balances because it leads to a confusion between a the finances of a household, which uses the currency and is financially constrained and the finances of a sovereign government, which is never revenue constrained because it is the monopoly issuer of the currency. In last night’s fiscal statement, the Treasurer committed the Government to a policy path that will entrench mass unemployment (over 6 per cent for the next three years and not much below that in 2018-19). In each of the next four years, the fiscal shift is contractionary despite claims that it is a ‘big-spending budget’. It has nothing much to do with economics and all to do with the dramatic failure of last year’s fiscal strategy and the resulting plunge in electoral support. With an election next year, the Federal government has tried to run a fiscal policy with headline appeal but the reality is that the outcomes will continue to undermine the well-being of the disadvantaged. It will also fail to achieve its own fiscal targets because the in-built growth assumptions are too optimistic. Finally, it exposes the lie that the Government peddled in the lead up to the last election that on-going deficits would cripple the economy and send the nation bust. In that sense, the government is looking like the Tories in Britain in 2012 when they cut short the ridiculous austerity push which had sent the economy back into recession and instead allowed for an on-going deficit. The deficit wasn’t nearly large enough and so growth there has been pitiful. But it was large enough to support some growth. The same will be the case in Australia.
The ABC news report (May 4, 2015) – Budget figures likened to Stephen King novel as Deloitte predicts $14.1 billion blowout for 2015-2016 – is one of the worst pieces of journalism you will ever read. There is no critical scrutiny in this report at all. It clearly just takes the press release from the private consulting firm and summarises it for public consumption. That is not balanced reporting or good journalism. The ABC is our national broadcaster, funded from the public purse and reaches all the population. It is also a free resource so there are no barriers to entry to consumption. It therefore has a responsibility to provide balanced reporting and should never become partisan. The problem is that on economics matters it has become a neo-liberal mouthpiece and continually gives headline space to mainstream economics organisations who make money from selling spurious advice about the economy. The only reasonable thing that this ABC Report is that the headline likens the fiscal analysis of Deloitte Access Economics, a Canberra-based economic consultancy firm, to fictional prose, which I think is an accurate assessment.