Some years ago (June 27, 2007), Harvard economist Dani Rodrik outlined what he called his “impossibility theorem”, which said that “democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible: we can combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full”. In his brief article – The inescapable trilemma of the world economy – he made the case that “deep economic integration required we eliminate all transaction costs … in … cross-border dealings” and that “Nation-states are a fundamental source of such transaction costs”. Ergo, if you want ‘deep’ integration then the Nation-state has to surrender. His “trilemma” guides his view of how the “international economic system” should be reformed. He think that if “want more globalization, we must either give up some democracy or some national sovereignty”. This view has been adopted by political parties as if the conceptual framework is in some way binding. The trilemma has been skillfully sold as a narrative by right-wing think tanks and others who serve the interests of capital. The so-called progressive politicians have fallen into the trap and have shifted their political parties closer and closer to their right-wing opponents, such that now it is hard to distinguish between the major parties in most nations. The reality is that while the impossibility theorem beguiles the Left – its applicability as a binding constraint on government is limited. It is as vapid as the statements made by these career politicians on both sides of politics that they serve the people.
There are many misconceptions about what a government who understands the capacity it has as the currency-issuer can do. As Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) becomes more visible in the public arena, it is evident that people still do not fully grasp the constraints facing such a government. At the more popularist end of the MMT blogosphere you will read statements such that if only the government understood that it can run fiscal deficits with impunity then all would be well in the world. In this blog I want to set a few of those misconceptions straight. The discussion that follows is a continuation of my recent examination of external constraints on governments who seek to maintain full employment. It specifically focuses on less-developed countries and the options that a currency-issuing government might face in such a nation, where essentials like food and energy have to be imported. While there are some general statements that can be made with respect to MMT that apply to any nation where the government issues its own currency, floats its exchange rate, and does not incur foreign currency-denominated debt, we also have to acknowledge special cases that need special policy attention. In the latter case, the specific problems facing a nation cannot be easily overcome just by increasing fiscal deficits. That is not to say that these governments should fall prey to the IMF austerity line. In all likelihood they will still have to run fiscal deficits but that will not be enough to sustain the population. We are about to consider the bottom line here – the real resource constraint. I have written about this before but the message still seems to get lost.
The late Canadian economist Harry Johnson, who came at the subject from the Monetarist persuasion, was correct when he wrote in 1969 (reference below) that “The adoption of flexible exchange rates would have the great advantage of freeing governments to use their instruments of domestic policy for the pursuit of domestic objectives, while at the same time removing the pressures to intervene in international trade and payments for balance-of-payments reasons.” How does this square with those who believe that even currency-issuing governments are constrained in their fiscal flexibility by an alleged balance of payments constraint. So-called progressive economists, particularly, are enamoured with the idea that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is flawed because it doesn’t recognise the fiscal limits imposed by the need to maintain a stable external balance. In this blog, we trace the arguments.
One of the first things that conservatives (and most economists which is typically a highly overlapping set) raise when Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) proponents suggest that increased deficits are essential to reduce mass unemployment is the so-called balance of payments constraint. Accordingly, we are told that the capacity of a nation to increase domestic employment is limited by the external sector. And these constraints have become more severe in this age of multinational firms with their global supply chains and the increased volume of global capital flows. I will address the specific issue of a balance of payments constraint on real GDP growth (that is, the limits of fiscal stimulus) in a future blog. But today I want to consider the so-called Exchange Rate Pass-Through (ERPT) effects of that are part of the balance of payments constraint story. The mainstream narrative goes like this. Higher wage demands associated with full employment and/or stronger imports associated with higher fiscal deficits lead to external imbalances due to rising imports and loss of competitiveness in international markets (eroding export potential). In a system of flexible exchange rates, the currency begins to lose value relative to all other currencies and the rising import prices (in terms of the local currency) are passed-through to the domestic price level – with accelerating inflation being the result. If governments persist in pursuing domestic full employment policies the domestic inflation worsens and the hyperinflation is the result, with a chronically depreciated currency. Real standards of living fall and a general malaise overwhelms the nation and its citizens. I am sure you have heard that narrative before – it is almost a constant noise coming from the deficit phobes. Like most of the conservative economic claims and I include the austerity-lite Leftist parties in this group, it turns out that reality is a bit different. Here is some discussion on that issue.
Wolfgang Merkel wrote in his recent Op Ed (February 5, 2016) – Economy, Culture And Discourse: Social Democracy In A Cosmopolitanism Trap? – that “we are dealing with a partially deliberate, partially careless surrender of the state’s capacity to regulate and intervene in an economy that structurally creates socio-economic inequality and erodes the fundamental democratic principle of political equality”. I highlight, the “partially deliberate, partially careless surrender” description of what has occurred over the last several decades as neo-liberalism has gained traction. Today’s blog continues my series that will form the content for my next book (due out later this year) about the impacts of globalisation on the capacities of the nation state. Our contention (I am writing this with Italian journalist and author Thomas Fazi) is that there has been no diminuition in the power of the state to impact on the domestic economy. The neo-liberal era has seen many commentators deny that proposition, yet, knowingly advocate use of these powers to further advantage capital at the expense of labour. The state is still central to the picture – it just helps capital more and workers less than it did during the full employment period in the Post World War II decades.
I use the descriptor ‘failure’ in a selective way, although it is probably the meaning that that vast majority of citizens would ascribe to the term. In this context, I’m thinking that successful policy improves the lives of the most disadvantaged citizens in a region. A small minority of people might think of success in terms of how rich the top end of the distribution becomes (in wealth or income). Yesterday (January 25, 2016), a UK research group, the Centre for Cities released their latest – Cities Outlook 2016 – which is a comprehensive analysis of how the larger cities in Britain are performing across a variety of indicators. In this release, the theme was centred on the claim by the British Chancellor that his policy design was intending to produce a “higher wage, low-welfare economy in Britain”. The report suggests the British government has failed and that “almost half of lower wages, and higher welfare, than the national average” and “welfare spending since 2010 has grown at a much faster rate in high-wage cities”. I’ve also been trying to disentangle the impacts of deindustrialisation on urban spaces, which began in the 1980s, from the more recent impacts of policy austerity, driven by misguided understandings of the capacities of currency-issuing governments. I want to address the claim from the Left, that the shifting patterns of capitalist production across regional spaces, is inevitable and undermines the capacity of cities to prosper. The shifting patterns might be inevitable but the conclusion that is drawn about the options available to cities are largely incorrect.
I have been continuing the research for my next book (hopefully to be finished by May 2016) on the way in which the neo-liberals convinced policy makers including those in progressive social democratic political parties that the globalisation of finance and capital flows meant that the currency-issuing state was no longer capable of maintaining full employment through appropriate use of fiscal policies. The tenet we are entertaining is that the state never went away, it was just co-opted by capital to serve its interests. This will be a two-part blog and centres on a critical period in economic history in the mid-1970s, which marked the break with the full employment system which had moderated the excesses of capitalism. This was the period when the neo-liberal period dawned, and which steadily, opened the way for these excesses to reemerge, in all their indecent indulgence and destruction. It is also the period in which a series of economic myths crystallised into the mainstream narrative we know today, which opposes government deficits and allows unemployment to remain elevated at excessive levels. It is really important to understand what went on then because we are living with the legacy of the falsehoods introduced during this period.
Today, some more analysis of the debate about globalisation and the capacities of the nation-state. We consider the debates in the early 1970s about the power of transnational corporations and the claims that they undermined the capacity of the nation-state to further the interests of the population. On the one hand, the free-market liberals claimed that the emergence of the transnational corporation was a move towards increased global efficiency and the nation-state, which served narrower interests, would be swept aside, along with its regulative structures, by this trend. Global welfare (and solutions to international poverty) would be maximised by the demolition of national borders by transnational capitalism. This view considered the nation-state to be ‘dispensable’ – that it only served narrow interests and the global organisation of production no longer required national governments to operate in this way. The Marxist position was, understandably, at odds with this view. It considered the nation-state to be indispensable to the growing needs of international capital. This was in the sense that governments could provide essential stability to reduce the risk of transnational operations. My position is more in line with the latter view although it clearly recognises the relevance (and power) of the national governments in which they choose to operate. Further, these transnational corporations are typically very large firms within the nations they operate. it is hard to differentiate the political clout that being large exerted from the influence of being global. Certainly, the early literature was not clear on that issue.
In today’s blog, I continue the discussion that I started last Thursday, and, specifically, focus on the critique that commentators have made about the loss of state control of their economies as a result of globalisation. The thesis advanced by many analysts is that globalisation has reduced the capacity of the nation-state and forced governments to adopt free market policies at the microeconomic level and austerity at the macroeconomic level, for fear that capital flight will destroy their economies. It is a neatly packaged thesis that the political Left has imbibed, and, in doing so, has undermined the progressive basis of these institutions and left voters with little choice between right-wing parties and the social democratic parties who formally represented the interests of workers and acted as mediators in the class conflict between labour and capital. The major distinguishing feature these days between these two types of parties, who were previously poles apart in approach and mandate sought, is that the so-called progressive side of politics now claims it will implement austerity in a fairer way. These austerity-lite parties, buying into the myth that globalisation has undermined the capacity of the state to pursue full employment policies with equitable income distribution, do not challenge the basis of austerity, but just quibble over who should pay for it. The aim of this research which will appear in my next book (with co-author Thomas Fazi) is to outline a manifesto by which progressive activists and political movements can claim back the space the current generation of sham progressives have ceded to the neo-liberals.
I was having a talk with a friend in San Francisco last Monday about globalisation and the capacity of the state, which is the topic of the upcoming book I am working on (manuscript due around May 2015). He made the comment that globalisation had meant that the state can now only do bad and can no longer do good. I asked him whether he was talking about globalisation (the international nature of finance and supply chains) or neo-liberalism (free market economics) and he said “neo-liberalism is a disease – that is the problem and since the 1970s it has meant the state is restricted to doing bad”. The point I was digging at was that progressives often conflates the two concepts which then leads to flawed conclusions about what the state can and cannot do. Further, when he talked about the state doing bad he was really talking about the impact on the average person and those who are disadvantaged. He wasn’t talking about the so-called top-end-of-town, which have without any question done very well since the 1970s. And that is my next point – the state hasn’t gone way or been rendered impotent by neo-liberalism as many on the Left believe and angst over. As the currency issuer it is still very powerful. It just serves the interests of a different cohort now relative to the cohort it served during the full employment period that followed the Second World War. In doing so, it has shifted from being a mediator of class conflict to serving the interests of capital in its battle to appropriate ever increasing shares of real income from labour. That is a wholly different narrative to the one that emerges when globalisation is conflated with neo-liberalism – as if they are parts of the same process.