In the last month or so, we have seen the IMF publish material that is critical of what they call neo-liberalism. They now claim that the sort of policies that the IMF and the OECD have championed for several decades have damaged the well-being of people and societies. They now advocate policy positions that are diametrically opposite their past recommendations (for example, in relation to capital controls). In the most recent OECD Economic Outlook we now read that their is an “urgent need” for fiscal expansion – for large-scale expenditure on public infrastructure and education – despite this organisation advocating the opposite policies at the height of the crisis. It is too early to say whether these ‘swallows’ constitute a break-down of the neo-liberal Groupthink that has dominated these institutions over the last several decades. But for now, we should welcome the change of position, albeit from elements within these institutions. They are now advocating policies that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) proponents have consistently proposed throughout the crisis. If only! The damage caused by the interventions of the IMF and the OECD in advancing austerity would have been avoided had these new positions been taken early on in the crisis. The other question is who within these organisations is going to pay for their previous incompetence?
There was another article in the financial media this weekend running the hypothesis that the stagnant economic conditions that Australia has found itself in is a “new normal”. This is now a repeating theme. I disagree with it. It ignores some basic realities and is ideologically loaded towards an austerity interpretation of the world. The article in the Fairfax press (May 21, 2016) – Low pay growth, price rises and the new normal – claims that the “central question in macro-economics today” is whether we are “waiting … for the economy to get back to normal, or has the economy shifted to a “new normal?”. I would pose the question differently. Waiting implies that we think it is just a matter of time before the ‘market’ does its work and restores normality. Moreover, Australia like most of the rest of the world remains locked in the aftermath of what we call a ‘balance sheet’ recession. As I explained to various audiences in Spain during my recent visit, this type of event is unusual (atypical or abnormal) and requires a quite different policy response to a normal V-shaped recession where private investment spending falls, governments stimulate, confidence returns and growth gets back fairly quickly on its trend path. The losses might be large but the recession and aftermath are short. A balance sheet recession requires elevated levels of fiscal deficits being maintained for many years to support growth as non-government sector spending remains below the norm while it reduces its debt levels (via increased saving). The problem in Australia, like elsewhere, is that governments have been hectored by neo-liberal ideologues to prematurely withdraw or reduce the fiscal support and growth has stalled. A range of problems then follow.
Yesterday (May 2, 2016), the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) dropped the short-term policy interest rate by 25 basis points (1/4 of a percent) to 1.75 per cent, a record low as a result of its assessment of a weakening economy and the deflation that has now been revealed by the ABS. I wrote about the latest CPI data in this blog – Australia enters the deflation league of sorry nations. The fact that the RBA is trying to stimulate growth is a sad testament to the current conduct of the Australian government (and the Treasury), which despite all the lying rhetoric that its corporate tax cuts, revealed in last night’s fiscal statement will stimulate jobs growth, is actually continuing to undermine growth. The fiscal contraction implied by last night’s statement by the Federal Treasurer is modest next year and then gets sharper in the year after (2017-18). Many would conclude that the contractionary shift is benign. However, in the context that the strategy is being delivered, the actual need is for the discretionary fiscal deficit to rise by around 1 to 1.5 per cent of GDP, at least, not contract at all. The federal government has moderated its ‘surplus at all costs’ mania which dominated the macroeconomic policy debate a few years ago but is still aiming for a surplus (or close to it) within 4 years. It will fail in that goal because the non-government spending behaviour will not allow that outcome and the government’s own fiscal contraction over that period will undermine growth further. The early statements by the Federal opposition are also idiotic. It is claiming it would make ‘tougher’ decisions (that is, cut the deficit more sharply). That just means it would end up with higher levels of unemployment than the conservatives will under their current strategy. Both unemployment levels will be unacceptable. Neither major political party in Australia is fit for office!
The smug Australian government – conservative to the core, dishonest on a daily basis, running a daily scare campaign that all that matters is the fiscal deficit and how our AAA rating from the (corrupt) rating agencies will be lost if we don’t record a fiscal surplus as soon as possible. It fails to mention that we have around 15 per cent (at least) of our willing labour resources not being utilised at present. It fails to mention that inequality and poverty is on the rise. And now, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has told us that this is a government that has finally plunged the nation into a deflationary spiral. We are now so obsessed with fiscal balances that do not matter that we ignore the things that actually impact on the well-being of the citizens. And now deflation has arrived. The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the Consumer Price Index, Australia – data for the March-quarter 2016 yesterday. The March-quarter inflation rate was negative (-0.2 per cent), which means Australia has now entered a deflationary period – a reflection of our poorly performing economy. The annual inflation rate is 1.3 per cent, which is well below the Reserve Bank of Australia’s lower target bound of 2 per cent. The RBA’s preferred core inflation measures – the Weighted Median and Trimmed Mean – are also now below the lower target bound and are trending sharply down. Various measures of inflationary expectations are also falling, quite sharply, including the longer-term, market-based forecasts. It is time for a change in policy direction although next week’s fiscal statement (aka ‘The Budget’) will likely just reinforce the current malaise. A sorry state.
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.