Regular readers will know that for the last few years I have been documenting the way that the dominant paradigm in macroeconomics (New Keynesianism) is slowly disintegrating as the dissonance between its empirical predictions and reality becomes too great to ignore and justify. The once-in-a-century pandemic hasn’t given us much to celebrate in 2020. One cause for optimism, perhaps, is that we might finally jettison the mainstream economics fictions about government deficits and debt, which have hampered prosperity over several decades. Last week (August 27, 2020), the US Federal Reserve Bank Chairman, Jerome Powell made a path breaking speech – New Economic Challenges and the Fed’s Monetary Policy Review – at the annual economic policy symposium sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City at Jackson Hole. On the same day, the Federal Reserve Bank released a statement – Federal Open Market Committee announces approval of updates to its Statement on Longer-Run Goals and Monetary Policy Strategy. We have now entered a new phase of the paradigm shift in macroeconomics.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) published the June-quarter – Private New Capital Expenditure and Expected Expenditure, Australia – data today as part of the sequence of data releases relating to next Wednesday’s release of the second quarter National Accounts. Remember that this data is ‘backward’ looking, in that it tells us what has gone in the three months from April to the end of June. But it does provide the first signal of the impact of the first-stage lockdowns in April have had on capital formation. Today’s release confirms the worst with Total new capital expenditure falling by 5.9 per cent in the quarter and 11.5 per cent over the last 12 months. Investment in Building and structures fell by 4.4 per cent over the quarter and 9.4 per cent over the 12 month period, while investment in Equipment, plant and machinery fell by 7.6 per cent for the quarter and 13.8 per cent over the year. Crucially expected investment for 2020-21 has nose-dived (down 12.6 per cent on previous plans). By allowing the economy to go into recession and sustain mass unemployment and falling sales, the Australian government has made matters worse. Within the safe health constraints, it could have easily added another $A100 billion to its stimulus and seen unemployment drop to relatively low levels, major construction work undertaken in social housing to address the chronic shortfall, and invest in forward-looking green infrastructure. Instead, it has chosen to penny pinch and today’s figures are just the start of the damage this policy void is causing. This is another case of neo-liberal austerity white-anting the capacity of the economy to deliver prosperity for all.
It’s Wednesday and my light blog day produces a video or two. The first is a presentation I recently made to the New Zealand Fabian Society and the second is some exquisite trumpet playing from Chet Baker.
At last week’s National Cabinet meeting (August 21, 2020), the governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia continued to play a political role in the economic debate despite hiding behind the veil of ‘independence’ from such matters. A few weeks ago, the federal government claimed the state and territory governments were not doing enough by way of fiscal stimulus to reduce the job losses associated with the pandemic. The Federal government is essentially trying to force the political consequences of its own failure to increase its net spending by enough and the resulting real economic damage that has resulted onto the states and territories. The RBA governor seems to be playing along with this agenda. Last Friday, he called for the states and territories to double their fiscal stimulus outlays (by $A40 billion) and stop fussing about credit ratings. The problem is that if they did that, the conservatives would immediately start claiming the debt was unsustainable and would damage the states’ credit ratings. Just as they regularly do to advance their political agendas to cut the size of state governments. While the mainstream economists urge ‘fiscal decentralisation’ they do so because they know states are not currency issuers and will then be open to attacks about tax burdens etc, which then bias the political debate towards cutting services etc. In general, the spending responsibilities should be at the level of the currency-issuer. And, the RBA governor should get back to fulfilling the legal charter of the RBA – to ensure there is full employment and price stability. His institution is achieving neither – with negative inflation and massive labour underutilisation. If he really wanted to increase job creation he could signal that the RBA would purchase any debt issued by governments at all levels who announced, and, made operational, large scale job creation programs. That would work.
Today, the Prime Minister of Australia indicated that the ‘effective’ unemployment rate in Australia is heading to 13 per cent as a result of the harsh lockdowns that have just begun in Victoria as it reels under a second wave of coronavirus (Source). The effective rate incorporates the official estimate (based on activity tests – search and willingness), the number of workers who have dropped out of the labour force due to a lack of opportunities, and those on wage subsidies who are not working at all. The Stage 4 Melbourne lockdown for the next six weeks will cut GDP by a further 2.5 per cent. While economists fuss about microeconomic losses, the daily output and income losses from the unemployment and underemployment are massive, not to mention the huge personal, family and community losses. A responsible government, which issues its own currency and can procure any productive resources that are idle, would be doing everything it could to ensure these losses do not occur. It is not rocket science. The Federal government could ensure those who are unable to work due to the lockdown maintain their current incomes. The overwhelming impression I am getting as we enter the fourth month of this crisis is that the federal polity in Australia is lost. The scale of the disaster has so confronted the neoliberal DNA of the major parties that they are failing to articulate a coherent and viable short- and medium-term plan to deal with the crisis. The challenge is for the government to abandon its inclination to see a ‘return to surplus’ as a benchmark it aspires to. That mentality is making this disaster a catastrophe. We can do much better.
The University of New South Wales Business School seems to be making headlines for all the wrong reasons. They have (at least) two attention-seeking academics that are not helping the reputation of the University. The first, thought he was being smart by trying to put Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) down and lie about my own work only to make a fool of himself. I note that someone at The Conversation, which damaged its credibility publishing the piece, has now edited the original piece (taken my name out of the text). The stupidity of the attack on MMT remains however. I dealt with that in this blog post – When mainstream economists jump the shark and lose it completely (January 23, 2017). Now, another academic who thinks somehow she is a wonderful communicator bringing economics to the public, is causing a national debate about freedom of speech and all the rest of it. She is arguing that the Australia should not have followed its lockdown strategy, and, instead should have allowed around up to 25,000 Australians to die in order to protect the economy. So far, only 155 have died. The controversy is being constructed as one of free speech and academic freedom. But academics should only be free to make statements using their university attribution if they are based on evidence that can be supported. I don’t dispute the academic’s right to be provocative. I do dispute her command of the evidence and her ignorance of matters macroeconomic. That is the problem here. Short recommendation: I would not study economics in this Department.
On Saturday (July 25, 2020), The Australian published another Op Ed that I wrote in collaboration with Noel Pearson. I understand that many people (mostly abroad) were unable to access the article (as a result of paywall restrictions on certain devices). I am unable to post the final article due to copyright restrictions but I can provide the draft article which was not too different from the final version. It also seems that the faux-progressives have somehow decided that our partnership (Noel and I) symbolises how Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and the Job Guarantee is actually some sort of far right plot to rid the world of welfare support for the disadvantaged and enslave them in onerous Gulag work camps. It is quite amusing really but worrying at the same time. Our partnership is confusing people who cannot cope with nuance and complexity. The so-called Left have characterised Noel as being somehow on the Right, which leads them to conclude that I am selling out on my progressive credentials by working with him. Conversely, the Right, who think Noel is one of them, are accusing him of being used by a Communist (me). Hilarious. If only they knew!
Today, the Australian Treasurer is out in force telling us that the fiscal situation is dire and that they have to start making cutbacks. Meanwhile in the real world, the unemployment rate continues to rise, businesses continue to fail, and the lowest paid workers, are being forced to continue working in dangerous health situations because they cannot ‘afford’ to stay at home like the better paid workers and protect their health. Its doesn’t bear scrutiny. My research centre released an updated report this week that also bears on the situation. The current fiscal stimulus is probably, at least $A100 billion short of where it should be, yet the government is announcing cuts. It will not turn out well. Meanwhile, across town, the Reserve Bank governor has been trying to deny the RBA has the currency capacity to allow the Treasury to keep spending without issuing debt. Already, the Labor party are making political points out of the rising public debt, which just makes them unelectable really, rather than savvy. The RBA governor’s intervention also just proved he is prepared to deny history and evidence to make political points, which had the other consequence of demonstrating how lacking in ‘independence’ the central bank is from the political process. And so it goes on.
Last week (July 14, 2020), a former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), Stephen Grenville wrote an article – Modern Monetary Theory and mainstream economics converging. The title suggests a gathering of minds between two paradigms – the degenerative mainstream macroeconomics and the emerging Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). I wouldn’t represent what is happening in that way. Convergence implies a harmonious process. The reality is that some of the mainstream economists have realised that their approach is deeply flawed and events over many years have demonstrated those flaws, while ratifying the empirical content of central MMT propositions. Our position has been consistent over 25 years. Now, the mainstream is fracturing and economists are trying to save face and remain relevant by suggesting, in various ways, that they knew all of the MMT insights all along, or variants on that theme. They didn’t. They were deeply opposed and hostile to key MMT insights that are now becoming widely acknowledged as correct. In trying to maintain this image of convergence, Stephen Grenville’s article, while quite insightful in many ways, misleads his readership and mispresents key MMT elements.
Today’s blog post is a draft for another deadline I have this week, this time writing for a European publication on the state of affairs in the Eurozone. I have four major pieces of work to finalise this week so, as in yesterday, I am using this time to progress those goals. For many regular readers it will be nothing new. But, putting the arguments together in this way might just provide some different angles for people who haven’t thought about things in this way before. Regular transmission will resume on Thursday (probably).