Milton Friedman and his gang at Chicago, including the ‘boys’ that went back and put their ‘free market’ wrecking ball through Chile under the butcher Pinochet, have really left a mess of confusion and lies behind in the hallowed halls of the academy, which in the 1970s seeped out, like slime, into the central banks and the treasury departments of the world. The overall intent of the literature they developed was to force governments to abandon so-called fiscal activism (the discretionary use of government spending and taxation policy to fine-tune total spending so as to achieve full employment), and, instead, empower central banks to disregard mass unemployment and fight inflation first. Several strands of their work – the Monetarist claim that aggregate policy should be reduced to a focus on the central bank controlling the money supply to control inflation (the market would deliver the rest (high employment and economic growth, etc); the promotion of a ‘natural rate of unemployment’ such that governments who tried to reduce the unemployment rate would only accelerate inflation; and the so-called Permanent Income Hypothesis (households ignored short-term movements in income when determining consumption spending), and others – were woven together to form a anti-government phalanx. Later, absurd notions such as rational expectations and real business cycles were added to the litany of Monetarist myths, which indoctrinated graduate students (who became policy makers) even further in the cause. Over time, his damaging legacy has been eroded by researchers and empirical facts but like all tight Groupthink communities the inner sanctum remain faithful and so the research findings haven’t permeated into major shifts in the academy. It will come – but these paradigm shifts take time.
I guess the venality of the new US Presidency isn’t creating enough news for the Australian press. On January 29, 2017, the Fairfax press wheeled out the veritable debt scaremongering in this article – Scott Morrison to lift credit limit as Australia’s debt hurtles towards $500 billion – reporting that the Australian government “will be forced to lift its own self-imposed credit limit in the coming months as debt hurtles towards half-a-trillion dollars”. Instead of writing about how stupid and unnecessary this ‘self-imposed limit’ is, the journalist wanted to talk about the disaster that awaits us as the debt of the currency issuing government “hurtles” like some asteroid to its death towards half-a-trillion dollars. As I said, must have been a day that imagination in the journalistic world was lacking. The worst part of the story is not the idiocy of its logic or the fact that it links to an inane Australian Debt Clock homepage, but, rather, the reported response from the Labor Party Shadow Treasurer. The Labor party is meant to represent the workers and claims to be the progressive force in Australian politics. That ladies and gentlemen is the sick joke of all time. This is a party that has abandoned its traditional remit (to defend the well-being of workers) and instead spouts neo-liberal gibberish without knowing it.
Readers who have now seen the latest Ken Loach movie – I, Daniel Blake – will know the frustration that it depicts when a disadvantaged citizen is confronted with the reality of having to deal with a national welfare agency. Many readers, presumably, have first hand experience of the labyrinthic procedures, rude staff, endless waiting on telephone lines, threatening letters and the rest of the wall that neo-liberal governments have erected to discourage access and/or push people of welfare benefits. While this access and receipt became a right of citizenship in the social democracies that emerged after the Second World War, the neo-liberal era has degraded those rights in favour of a bean-counter interpretation of the world – welfare payments are dollars that can always be saved to balance fiscal accounts and every opportunity should be taken to do so. Australia is way ahead of the game in terms of using government policies and processes to punish and isolate our most disadvantaged citizens so the Government can reduce its welfare spending a few million. We now allow our Government to implement the work of sociopaths and threaten poor citizens with imprisonment on the basis of half-cocked ‘automatic computer-matching’ algorithms that are allegedly tracking welfare fraud. The evidence suggests these processes are massively buggy and deliver wrong outcomes in almost all the cases of fraud they claim to detect. However, that hasn’t stopped the government from sending out tens of thousands of letters to the most disadvantaged among us accusing these people of receiving thousands of dollars in illegitimate welfare payments and threatening criminal prosecution if these alleged overpayments (now debts) are not paid back. Mostly, it seems, the debts are illusory – mistakes by the ingenious (not!) algorithm that was introduced to replace people sacked by the austerity push – sorry, by the Government’s “efficiency dividend” policy. Some people should be prosecuted for breaching human rights in this latest scandal!
It is highly surreal listening to radio/TV commentators talking about government financial affairs (fiscal balance etc). These so-called experts are paraded before the nation and the script is generally the same. The interviewer who knows virtually nothing but has the key triggers on hand (‘budget repair’, ‘ratings downgrade’, etc ad nauseum) asks the ‘well respected expert’ about the state of affairs and the answers are always the same – fictional. This charade plays out almost daily but reaches a hysterical fever pitch at the time the Government releases its annual fiscal statement (May) or its Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (December). The Government plays along with the charade releasing what it deems to be cleverly crafted documents, shifting revenue and spending across year lines to give one impression or another of the state of affairs. None of the charade is based on any fundamental economic understanding. None of it means anything other than a demonstration of a national scam to hide the truth from the ordinary citizen who for one reason or another relies on experts to summarise technical detail into meaningful sound bites. The nation then goes about its business in this cloud of ignorance, while the elites continue to suppress wages and living standards and march of with increasing shares of national income. They know what is going on and it is in their interests to keep the rest of us from having the same information. It is the same the world over. Well, here is what is going on with a framework that allows the reader to cut through the lies …
Last Monday’s blog – I, Daniel Blake – essential viewing – provided a review of the latest Ken Loach movie and put the institutional details with respect to the inhumane way the unemployment and sickness benefit support system had evolved in Britain in the context of earlier developments in Australia which pioneered this nasty ill-treatment of disadvantaged citizens. In today’s blog, I am updating the situation in Australia and discussing some recent (and shocking) data, which has come to light courtesy of the Senate estimates process within the Australian Parliament. There is one institution within Australia’s Parliamentary system that hasn’t fallen foul of the lying theatrics that define the main legislative process. I refer to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee which forces government bureaucrats to provide detailed data on contentious issues, which the ruling party (the government) prefers not to release or draw attention to. A most recent example demonstrates the total failure of a key aspect of the income support system in Australia and the reason is simple – a neo-liberal Groupthink has crippled the capacity of the Australian government to do anything constructive and obvious. Ideology allows policy makers to enact cruel and distasteful policy machinations on those who have all but nothing. Australia – where victims become criminals. It is disgusting really and makes one ashamed to show one’s passport when travelling.
The field of psychology is usually ignored by mainstream economists, which, in its typically arrogant and closed practice, adopts a series of a priori assumptions about human behaviour – the so-called Homo economicus – where were are always rational and self-interested and, as a result, always make choices that maximise our present and future well-being based on available market signals. Real world forces that condition actual human behaviour, such as cognitive biases and irrationality, in general, as well as cooperative and collective behaviour is ignored by mainstream neo-classical (free market) economic theory, because admitting its dominance in human decision-making would void the entire edifice of that theory and scuttle the authority that is given to the on-going narratives about deregulation, small government, privatisation, pernicious cutting of income support, and the rest of the economic policies that have defined this dysfunctional neo-liberal era. But humans do not behave in the way economists suggest. We are a complex mass of irrationality, custom, habit, and affect. We certainly use cognitive processes in our decision making but often we take shortcuts based on affect. These tendencies are pushing our behaviour back to what was normal before the credit binge that led to the GFC. This shift in our behaviour is associated with stagnation and entrenched mass unemployment. But the reason for these parlous outcomes is not that we have returned to more normal spending behaviour but, rather, because governments have not realised that they had to return to more normal behaviour as well. Instead of promoting the benefits of austerity (in the face of all evidence to the contrary), governments should have been promoting the benefits of continuous fiscal deficits to support non-government saving desires and maintain better employment outcomes and stronger income growth. The malaise advanced nations are stuck in at present is directly the result of ideologically-motivated choices made by governments to use to use fiscal policy properly. Neo-liberal ideology remains dominant but citizens are rebelling and something has to give.
In assessing the role of the multilateral international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the OECD, one has to have an idea of what their purpose is. The IMF was created to provide funding support to nations under the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates when their trading accounts endangered their capacity to sustain the agreed parities. After the system collapsed in August 1971 (effectively), the IMF had no further purpose. It reinvented itself as a neo-liberal attack dog on government intervention, and, as such, has no progressive (productive) role to play and should be scrapped. Similarly, the World Bank. The OECD was created (as the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC)) to manage the Marshall Plan funds that Canada and the US provided to reconstruct Europe at the end of World War II. It has similarly outlived its productive purpose and is now a major source of disinformation. Even in the realm of fiction, there are much better fiction writers than exist within the bowels of the OECD in Paris. Its latest entreaty, specifically – Using the fiscal levers to escape the low-growth trap – from the exemplifies the way in which the OECD chooses to perpetuate myths about government policy options, even when its message might appear reasonable to progressive eyes and ears. That is the problem really, by buying into the neo-liberal scam that mainstream economists have been running for the last 3 or 4 decades, progressive politicians and their apparatchiks have no room to move and will applaud the OECD’s current message, not realising how destructive that complicity becomes. That has been the problem all along and Trump, Brexit and the rising extremism in Europe is the outcome. Reap what you sow!
The new governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia (our central bank) gave a speech in Melbourne yesterday (November 15, 2016) – Buffers and Options to the annual dinner of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA). CEDA is a seedy type of organisation that typically advances the neo-liberal agenda. Please read my blog – The CEDA Report – one of the worst ever – for more discussion on this point. But that is not the topic today. The new governor has already began his tenure in disappointing fashion. I discussed his first foray into public life in this role in the blog – First appearance by Australia’s new central bank governor disappointing. His latest public intervention suggests he is hardening this stance – perpetuating the myths that a currency-issuing government is dependent on bond markets for its spending capacity and that public borrowing puts a burden on future generations. While today’s blog is about Australia, the principles elucidated are universal.
There is now a so-called “New View of fiscal policy”, which, in fact, is not all that different to the “Old View” although the proponents are hell-bent on convincing us (and presumably themselves) otherwise. The iterative bumbling along of mainstream economists, dammed by reality but steeped in denial, continues. The latest iteration comes from the Chairman of the US Council of Economic Advisors, one Jason Furman, who was supervised in his doctoral studies by Greg Mankiw at Harvard. He is also “closely linked to Robert Rubin” a classic “Wall Street insider” who was Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and a gung-ho deregulator with a seedy past (in January 2009, he was named by Marketwatch as one of the “10 most unethical people in business”). Please see – Being shamed and disgraced is not enough – for more on Rubin. Furman’s lineage is thus not good. Furman supports free trade, social security private accounts and Wal-Mart’s labour practices which allows it to offer such low prices (for junk!) (Source). Furman is part of the core ‘Democrat neo-liberal establishment’, which received its comeuppance in last week’s Presidential election. His views on fiscal policy should come as no surprise then.
It is always a good sign when some fiscal deficit terrorist or another bleeds in the media that they’re not getting enough attention. Yesterday (October 12, 2016), the Forbes Magazine published an Op Ed (although I wouldn’t call the content educational in any way) by a commentator with the Twitter username @bthebudgetguy – The Deficit Was A Big, Big Loser In Sunday Night’s Debate Between Trump And Clinton. It is not the first time the author has entertained this theme. His bleat? That the current political farce that Americans call the Presidential election campaign is ignoring the state of the fiscal balance. Oh my! What a travesty. The two liars, masquerading as Presidential candidates, have the audacity to talk about other irrelevant things and leave the most irrelevant thing I can think of neglected. But what this tells me is that the millions that the likes of the Peter Peterson Foundation and its ilk have spent on trying to scare Americans witless about the fiscal debt and the US public debt situation has been wasted. That is something to celebrate in fact.