The UK Guardian has been publishing a ‘Brexit Watch’ page for some months now claiming it is is a “look at key indicators to see what effect the Brexit process has on growth, prosperity and trade”. They wheel out some economists who typically twist whatever data is actually analysed into fitting their anti-Brexit obsession. The problem is that the data or issue they choose to highlight is usually very selective, and, then, is often partial in its coverage. I commented on the way the Brexit debate is distorted by these characters in this blog post – How to distort the Brexit debate – exclude significant factors! (June 25, 2018) and specifically on the ‘Brexit Watch’ distortions in this post – The ‘if it is bad it must be Brexit’ deception in Britain (May 31, 2018) among others. Yesterday’s UK Guardian column by Larry Elliot (August 27, 2018) – Britons seem relatively relaxed in the face of Brexit apocalypse – does provide some balance by discussing why the general public is not taking these economist ‘beat ups’ about Brexit very seriously at all. This is a case of a profession that systematically makes extreme predictions and forecasts which rarely come to pass. The general public works out fairly quickly that when a mainstream economist says the sky is about to fall in it is time to get the beach gear out because it will be fine and sunny!
Regular readers will know that I have spent a lot of time writing about the demise of the Left political parties as they became subsumed with neoliberal economic ideology, which blurred the political landscape as the ‘centre’ moved to the Right. That topic was the focus of our current book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017). The neoliberal infestation has left these parties with declining electoral support, fractured internal organisations and cultures, and a seeming inability to abandon their flawed economic narratives. But there is a mirror image to this demise and that is playing out on the conservative side of politics. In Australia in the last week (but building for years) the far right conservative elements from within the government have brought down their own leader and our Prime Minister in a spiteful clash of ideologies between the more moderate elements in their party and the extremes out on the right. The internal tensions that drove this suicidal mission are being played out around the world. Think about the way that Trump is compromising the Republican party. Think about how Brexit is splitting Tory ranks in Britain. And so on. The problem for the conservatives is that citizens are realising that the neoliberal economic approach has failed to deliver on its promises. And that economic model is ‘owned’ by the conservatives. The adoption of neoliberal economics by social democratic parties is not part of their DNA. It is largely because their ranks have been infested by careerists who have come from the ‘elites’ and have little resonance with workers. The gaps in the policy space that these fractures have created is being occupied by extremist groups. It will be much easier for progressive parties to reclaim that space than it will be for the conservatives who are in the process of a death spiral. But to do that, the social democratic movements has to abandon every vestige of neoliberal economics – the concepts, policies and language and framing. That is the challenge.
One of the principle ways in which so-called progressive political parties (particularly those in the social democratic tradition) seek to differentiate themselves from conservatives is to advocate large-scale public infrastructure investment as a way of advancing public good. You can see evidence of that in most nations. Nation-building initiatives tend to be popular and also are less sensitive to the usual attacks that are made on public spending when income support and other welfare-type programs are debated. Capital worked out long ago that public spending on infrastructure provided untold benefits by way of profits and influence. In the neoliberal era, the bias towards ‘competitive tendering’ and public-private partnerships has meant that private profit tends to dictate where and what public infrastructure is built. The problem is that large-scale projects tend to become objects of capture for the top-end-of-town. Research shows that these ‘megaprojects’ typically deliver massive cost overruns and significantly lower benefits than are first estimated when decisions are being made about what large projects to fund. Further, evidence suggests that this is due to corrupt and incompetent behaviour by private project managers (representing their companies) and empire-building public officials. They lie about the costs and benefits so as to distort the decision-making processes in their favour. Any progressive government thus must be mindful of these tendencies and behaviours. A progressive policy agenda needs to be more than just outlining a whole lot of nice sounding public infrastructure projects that the government will pursue. The whole machinery of public procurement that has emerged in this neoliberal era needs to be abandoned and replaced with decision-making processes and rules that privilege the advancement of public well-being over profit.
This is my short Wednesday offering, which will be quite short considering the last two days have been (necessary) epics. My three-part series created somewhat of a social media storm, which means people are interested in the topic and I think that is healthy. Democracy is strengthened if people educate themselves and contest propositions that are abroad in the debate. But, as I noted yesterday, social media storms have a way of getting out of control and out of the realm of being complementary to a more considered educative process and interaction. What the recent Twitter storm has demonstrated is that key people are just willing to make spurious accusations (aka lies) without having taken the time to consider the depth of the literature that is available on any topic. That is not helpful to democracy. It undermines it. Anyway, in this short blog post, I consider some of the responses to my three-part series. As a footnote, I have now retitled the three-part series “MMT is just plain good economics” rather than using the quotation from the British Shadow Chancellor’s advisor who said that “MMT is just plain bad old economics”. Framing. I took the points of several commentators on this blog seriously in this regard. Thanks.
This is the third and final part of this series where I examine claims made by senior advisors to the British Labour Party that a fiscal policy that is designed using the insights provided by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) would be “catastrophic” and render the British pound worthless. In Part 1, I examined the misunderstanding as to what MMT actually is. A senior Labour advisor had claimed, in fact, that any application of MMT would be “catastrophic” for Britain. He talked about MMT “policy prescriptions”, which disclosed an ignorance about the nature of MMT. In Part 2, I considered the British Labour Party’s Fiscal Credibility Rule and demonstrated that its roots were in core neoliberal ideology and any strict adherence to it would not be consistent with progressive outcomes. I noted that it was likely to promote a private ‘debt-bias’ that was unsustainable. In this final part, I explore some economic history over the last five decades to give some further force to the argument presented in Part 2. And I finish by arguing that a well governed, rule of law abiding Britain with a government building and maintaining first-class infrastructure, with excellent public services (energy, transport, health, education, training, environmental certainty, etc), with a highly skilled labour force, and regulative certainty, would be a magnet for profit-seeking private investment irrespective of whether it was running a continuous fiscal deficit or not. Yet, it is highly likely, given Britain’s history, that such a deficit (both on current and capital contexts) would be required.
I am surprised at the hostility that Part 1 in this series created. I have received a lot of E-mails about it, many of which contained just a few words, the most recurring being Turkey! One character obviously needed to improve his/her spelling given that they thought it was appropriate to write along the lines that I should just ‘F*ck off to Terkey’. Apparently Turkey has become the new poster child to ‘prove’ Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) wrong. Good try! I also note the Twitterverse has been alight with attention seekers berating me for daring to comment on the sort of advice British Labour is receiving. Well here is Part 2. And because you all liked it so much, the series has been extended into a three-part series because there is a lot of detail to work through. Today, I revisit the fiscal rule issue, which is a necessary step in refuting the claim that MMT policy prescriptions (whatever they might be) will drive the British pound into worthless oblivion. And, you know what? If you don’t like what I write and make available publicly without charge, then you have an easy option – don’t read it. How easy is that? Today, I confirm that despite attempts by some to reconstruct Labour’s Fiscal Rule as being the exemplar of progressive policy making, its roots are core neoclassical economics (which in popular parlance makes it neoliberal) and it creates a dependence on an ever increasing accumulation of private debt to sustain growth. Far from solving a non-existent ‘deficit-bias’ it creates a private debt bias. Not something a Labour government or any progressive government should aspire to.
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.