Yesterday in my blog post – The coronavirus crisis – a particular type of shock – Part 1 (March 10, 2020) – I discussed some of the considerations that governments need to take into account when dealing with the economic damage that will result from the coronavirus crisis. I did not consider the health issues because I am unqualified to assess those other than to take into consideration what the health professionals are now saying as they gain more knowledge of the particular disease. In Part 2 today, I extend that discussion and outline some specific issues that bear on the size and design of any fiscal intervention.
Economists like to think in terms of demand and supply. Often by assuming the independence of the two, they make huge errors, none the least being when in the 1930s they advocated wage cuts to cure the unemployment arising from the Great Depression, on the assumption that the cuts would reduce costs for firms and encourage them to hire more. But they failed to understand that economy-wide wage cuts would undermine aggregate spending, upon which production decisions, and, ultimately, employment decisions depended. The coronavirus outbreak is one of those events that emphasises the interdependence between the demand and supply sides of the economy. It is a supply shock – in that it has reduced the growth in output supply as firms stop producing because their workforces are quarantined. And that shock then feeds into a demand impact as the laid off workers lose incomes and reduce their spending accordingly. However, there is also a separate demand shock associated with the crisis, quite apart from the supply impetus. The fear and uncertainty associated with a possible pandemic has meant that consumers are altering their spending patterns rather quickly with airline travel and other such activities falling sharply. So this is a very special type of calamity that doesn’t fit the usual types of shocks that economies endure. And as a consequence, it makes the task of designing an economic policy response rather more difficult. But make no mistake. Fiscal deficits will have to rise substantially for an extended period and governments will have to do things they have never really contemplated before if a deep recession is to be avoided. This is Part 1 of a two-part series of my current assessment of the coronavirus crisis, or whatever you want to call it.
One of the themes I exercised when speaking in Europe recently, particularly when presenting at the French Senate Commission and the Ministry of Finance, was that by pushing European integration into an unworkable currency union and refusing to budge, the European political class was undermining the valid aspects of the ‘European Project’, which the likes of Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman saw as a way of bringing peace to the Continent after several attempts by Germany to usurp the rights of citizens in other European nations through military endeavours. Research released by the The PopuList Project, which is a UK Guardian motivated attempt to bring together academics and journalist to study shifts in European voting sentiment since 1989, is rather alarming for those who hang on to hope that the European Union is capable of progressive reform. And the latest shenanigans in the European Commission and the Council over the ‘Budget’ is indicative of why the PopuList Project is generating such results. If there was foresight among the leaders in Europe they would take a step back and restore national currencies and restore the quality of European democracy, which has been significantly compromised since the 1990s.
It is Wednesday in Australia and my usual blog-light day to give me more time to write other things. Although, today (in Europe as I type) I had a long flight from Athens to Paris where I am speaking to the French Senate Commission at a reception this evening. I also had to leave Athens early, so when I reached Paris and found my hotel, I took off to the Jardin du Luxembourg for a 10kms run (laps of the grounds). My trip to Athens was very successful and I will be in a position to talk about that in the weeks to come once some work has been finalised and the plan developed. But today, I want to briefly comment on a story from the Guardian’s Larry Elliot (February 14, 2020) – PM’s Treasury power grab doomed to fail, warn former insiders – which reported that some Labour Party ‘insiders’ (aka gutless morons who won’t publicly take responsibility for spreading rumours) had determined that the current government ministers would not be able to win a power struggle against the powerful H.M. Treasury, who would withhold crucial information from the government to maintain their hegemony. What? The inference was that “the Treasury’s independence” – that is, in other, more accurate words, the right of unelected and unaccountable technocrats to impose their right-wing, neoliberal austerity ideology on the democratically-elected government – was a Labour ideal that should be preserved and that those awful Tories were trying to assert democratic control of its public service institutions.
On February 7, 2020, the Reserve Bank of Australia’s Governor, Philip Lowe appeared before the Federal House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics to discuss the – Reserve Bank of Australia Annual Report 2019 – which is a bi-annual event where the Parliament scrutinises the activities of the unelected and largely unaccountable central bank. The – Transcript – of the session makes interesting reading. The discussion highlighted how mainstream economists fail to understand the nature of the monetary system. Last year, the Federal government introduced a fiscal stimulus (tax cut) as a bribe in the May election campaign. But economic growth continued to slow, in the face of flat real wages growth and an overall fiscal contraction (despite the tax cuts). The tax cuts didn’t stimulate private spending growth and mainstream economists then claim this proves that fiscal policy is ineffective, and by implication, that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is a load of nonsense. The problem is that the tax cuts were used by households to reduce the precarious debt levels that have been building up as they try to maintain spending growth in the face of fiscal drag and flat real wages growth. All that this episode tells us is that the government really should have introduced a much larger fiscal stimulus in the first place to help the balance sheet restructuring effort and provide net growth stimulus.
Thursday is my last teaching day in Helsinki. The Tour moves onto Dublin tomorrow where I hope to learn a lot about the implications of the recent Irish election where Sinn Féin came out of nowhere, as they say, to gain the most votes by some margin and 37 seats, only one less than right-wing conservative party Fianna Fáil and two more than the other right-wing conservative party, the ruling Fine Gael. I have various meetings coming up in Helsinki on Thursday as I finish up this year’s Helsinki visit (although I will be back in June for other commitments). So today I am publishing the video of my presentation at the Italian Senate last Friday (February 7, 2020).
I guess I cannot avoid commenting on the European Commission’s recently released (February 5, 2020) – Economic governance review – which, allegedly, “seeks to assess how effective the economic surveillance framework has been in achieving three key objectives: ensuring sustainable government finances and economic growth, as well as avoiding macroeconomic imbalances; … promoting convergence in Member States’ economic performance.” The short answer is that the framework has failed on all fronts. The Member State fiscal situations are always mostly teetering on the edge of insolvency and only the ECB has been bailing them out; macroeconomic imbalances that really matter, such as the on-going illegal German external surpluses persist, and divergence is the Eurozone norm. Why? Another simple answer: because the architecture of the currency union is deeply flawed and biases the economies to crisis and makes them vulnerable, in an existential sense, to fluctuations in global activity. Why would they have done that? Answer: the triumph of neoliberal ideology over reason.
I am doing the Thursday is Wednesday trick again today, given that I posted Part 2 of my detailed response to enquiries about MMT and what I term the MMT Project yesterday, and that I have promised myself to use Wednesday’s for other writing. I am also quite busy in Helsinki today with commitments so only a short post today. So just a brief comment on the latest fiasco from ‘Mr Spreadsheet’ Kenneth Rogoff as he stares into the abyss of irrelevance and is trying to hand on like grim death to any shred of credibility. He has none. If he ever did, the spreadsheet scandal finished it. But he never did anyway.
Today, I am in the mountains north of Melbourne (Healesville) talking to the – Chair Forum – which is a gathering of all the Superannuation Fund Board chairs. I am presenting the argument that the reliance on monetary policy and the pursuit of fiscal austerity in this neoliberal era, which has been pushed to ridiculous extremes around the globe, has culminated in the socio-economic and ecological crisis that besets the world and is pushing more and more policy makers to express their doubts about the previous policy consensus. I will obviously frame this in the context of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), given that our work has been the only consistent voice in this debate over a quarter of the century. What economists are suddenly coming to realise has been core MMT knowledge from the outset.
If it quacks then it is a duck! If it uses neoliberal frames, narratives, language and concepts then it is neoliberal. Framing a lie just privileges the lie – and we get nowhere. The Progressive Economic Forum purports to bring “together a Council of eminent economists and academics to develop a new macroeconomic programme for the UK”. Their goals have some overlap with what I consider to be reasonable – reducing economic insecurity and inequality, climate action, etc. Some of their policies approaches are anathema (for example, UBI). Many of their council have been close advisors to the Labour Party at various times, including most recently. And they promote a macroeconomics that is not only incorrect but dangerously coincident with the mainstream thinking that has been part of the problem they claim eager to solve. And the failure of the Labour Party to win the December election against a Tory government that had inflicted awful austerity on the people is testament to the fact that their progressive narrative is in need of a radical change. The latest example of how this ‘progressive narrative’ really just reinforces the neoliberal frames they rail against is an Op Ed from a senior PEF council member (January 24, 2020) – – which was a promotional piece for his latest book. I do not recommend anyone purchasing the book.