Everybody is concerned with ‘herd immunity’ at present as the pandemic continues on ravaging our social and economic lives. But I have been studying the concept of ‘herd mentality’ for some years, aka – Groupthink. Mainstream macroeconomics is sustained, not by any internal logical consistency (on which it fails), by close congruency with the empirical data (on which it fails), which are the usual qualities of a dominant system of ideas, but, rather, by (using modern terminology) its long-standing and on-going cancel culture. So it is rather amusing to read one of the leading voices in that paradigm, Kenneth ‘Spreadsheet’ Rogoff, whinging on the Internet that ‘cancel culture’ is being used to undermine the reputations of one of his mates (Larry Summers). Both continue to get platforms in the world media without trouble to push their vapid ideas into the narrative. The antithesis of cancel culture it would seem. What is going on is that more people are realising that the prognostications of mainstream macroeconomics are deeply flawed, and, while many may not know the technicalities and the theoretical complexities, they can see the empirical dissonance, and that means they know a – lemon – when they see one. And social media has given more people a voice and they are using that to call these characters out for what they are. And the sense of invulnerability that pervades all disciplines riddled with Groupthink is being questioned.
Don’t say its over until its over. There has been progress in the macroeconomics narrative since the GFC, which accelerated during the pandemic. Governments have certainly expanded fiscal deficits and taken on more debt and the usual hysteria, which many of those same governments helped to ferment in the public debate, has fallen away. Obviously, for political reasons, a government that has previously been terrorising the population about the dangers of deficits and rising debt as a cover for ideologically-driven austerity programs, has no incentive in continuing those narratives while they have been dragged into maintaining capitalism on life support. The question has been whether these narratives will return once the health emergency starts to fade a little. There is clear evidence emerging that the lessons that the pandemic has taught us are not being absorbed by the economics commentariat, who dominate the public space with their opinions. Two clear examples of this came out this week (already) in the Australian press, which replicates the sort of commentary I am increasingly seeing around the globe. Deeply sad.
My Wednesday blog post with a few snippets. Don’t forget to enrol in our MOOC which begins next week. Also, some news from Britain that shows once again the British Labour Party has the gun aimed straight at its foot. And some comments on yesterday’s Australian government decision to increase the unemployment benefit by $25 per week and claiming this was appropriate – when it still means the recipients are $163 per week below the accepted poverty line. Enforced poverty by a government that refuses to create enough jobs and then punishes the victims of the policy failure. This all amounts to War and we can sing along to that after getting angry about the rest.
It is Wednesday and I have been tied up all day working on the MOOC that will be launched in early March. We have been filming a lot and it is starting to take shape (see below for more details on how you can enrol). So just a light blog day but that doesn’t mean what I am writing is trivial. The two stories demonstrate how far we have to go on the progressive side of the debate before we actually make progress. It is, unfortunately a repeating tale and it is hard to define a strategy that will get through the blockades that some progressives erect that sustain neoliberalism at its most elemental level. While the British Labour Party is aiming to reinvent itself by pitching its message at the worst element of the voters that it has lost in recent years – patriotism, flags etc – that sort of nonsense – progressives in Australia are revealing how regressive they can be.
As part of the paradigmic turmoil that is confronting mainstream economists, we are witnessing some very interesting strategies. Imagine you establish a set of principles that are seemingly inviolable. They are the bedrock of the belief system, even though it is not called that. These principles then offer all sorts of predictions about, yes, the real world. They are without nuance. The predictions are so worrying, that politicians, whether they are knowing or not, proceed with caution in some cases, and, in other cases, openly damage the well-being of citizens because they have been told that shock therapy is better than a long drawn out demise into ‘le marasme’. The authority for all the carnage that follows (unemployment, poverty, pension cuts, degraded public infrastructure and services, etc) is these ‘inviolable principles’. Economists swan around the world preaching them and bullying students and others into accepting them as gospel. The policy advice is hard and fast. Governments must stay credible. Except one day they completely change tack and all the policy advice that established certain actions to be totally taboo become the norm. We observe things are better as a result. Does this mean those ‘inviolable principles’ were bunk all along? Not according to the mainstream economists who are trying to position themselves on the right side of history. Apparently, their optimising New Keynesian models can totally justify fiscal dominance and central bank funding fiscal deficits when yesterday such actions were taboo. Which leg are they trying to pull?
There was an article in The Lancet from its editor (September 26, 2020) – Offline: COVID-19 is not a pandemic – which questioned the “narrow approach” that governments were taking to the coronavirus pandemic based on the assumption that “the cause of this crisis … [is] … an infectious disease”. His argument is a whole of medical professionals have become prominent in daily press briefings and the like as they trot out the results of epidemic models and news agencies interview “infectious disease specialists” every other day. But the reality is that “(t)wo categories of disease are interacting within specific populations” – COVID-19 and “an array of non-communicable diseases” which are “clustering within social groups according to patterns of inequality deeply embedded in our societies”. He thus used the term ‘syndemic’ rather than pandemic to highlight the socio-economic distribution of the pandemic and focus attention on inequality and other forms of socio-economic disadvantage which interact with biological dimensions to determine health outcomes. He focuses on co-morbidities but I would focus on poor working conditions, poor housing, inadequate nutrition, the stress of poverty and poor urban planning that segments populations into leafy, low-density suburbs and suburban hell-holes where people are crammed in like whatever due to social inequalities and deficient government policy interventions.
Why does the Shadow Chancellor of Britain have a WWW page entry at the Institute for Fiscal Studies? HERE. Perhaps when you read this you will have the answer. What follows is bad. It won’t make anyone happy – my critics or those who agree with the analysis. But that is what has happened in the progressive world as lots of ‘progressives’ added the neoliberal qualifier to their progressiveness and paraded around claiming technical superiority and insights on economic policy that the old progressives just could not grasp. They have become so enthralled by their own cute logic that they cannot see they are handing the opposite side of politics electoral victory on a consistent basis. After you read this you might understand why I say that the British Labour may as well just not turn up at the next election.
It’s Wednesday and I usually try to write less blog material. But given the holiday on Monday and a couple of interesting developments, I thought I would write a bit more today. And after that, you still get some great piano playing to make wading through central bank discussions worth while. The Financial Times article (January 4, 2021) – Investors believe BoE’s QE programme is designed to finance UK deficit – is interesting because it provides one more piece of evidence that exposes the claims of mainstream macroeconomists operating in the dominant New Keynesian tradition. The facts that emerge are that the major bond market players do not believe the Bank of England statements about its bond-buying program which have tried to deny the reality that the central bank is essentially buying up all the debt issued by the Treasury as it expands its fiscal deficits. This disbelief undermines many key propositions that students get rammed down their throats in macroeconomics courses. It also provides further credence to the approach taken by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).
Yesterday, I discussed the results of recent research that demonstrated the ‘trickle down’ hypothesis, which has been used to justify the sequence of tax cuts for high income recipients, was without any empirical foundation. While mainstream economists have been enchanted with that hypothesis, heterodox (including Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists have never considered it had any validity – neither theoretical nor empirical. But it is good that mainstream researchers are now ratifying that long-held view. Today, I am discussing another case of the mainstream catching up. When I say catching up, the implications of these new empirical studies are devastating for key propositions that the mainstream macroeconomists maintain. The ECB Working Paper series published an interesting paper (No. 2509) yesterday (December 21, 2020) by an Italian economist from the Bank of Italy – Losers amongst the losers: the welfare effects of the Great Recession across cohorts. In brief, the research found that younger people bear disproportionate burdens during recession in the short-run, but also, face diminished prospects over the longer-term. The paper bears on some of the major fictions that have been propagated to disabuse governments of using fiscal deficits to smooth out the economic cycle – namely, the alleged burden that is created by the current generation’s excesses (the deficit) for their children and grandchildren (who according to the narrative have to pay back the debt incurred by the excesses). This is another case of evidence being produced that ratify the analysis that MMT economists have been advancing for the last 25 years.
On December 10, 2014, I wrote this blog post – Trickle down economics – the evidence is damning. The discussion was about how inequality undermines growth and that redistribution of national income towards higher income groups does not stimulate income growth for lower income groups. It provided evidence that destroys the basic tenets of mainstream economics and supports a wider social and economic involvement of government in the provision of public services and infrastructure, particularly to low income groups. The ‘trickle down’ fiction was propagated in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and dovetailed with the emerging dominance of supply-side thinking. Behind ‘trickle-down’ was a nasty neo-liberal plot to undermine state activity and rewind the gains made by the workers under the welfare states and unionism over the course of the C20th. Now a new report from researchers at the London School of Economics – The Economic Consequences of Major Tax Cuts for the Rich – repeats the evidence, and, perhaps because we are further down the road in realising how deficient mainstream macroeconomics is, new evidence of something that we have known since the ideas first came out of the sewers, might push the paradigm shift a little further.