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.
The – Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights – for the UN was released this week (July 7, 2020). It was Philip Alston’s last report in that role. It is a shocking indictment of the way neoliberalism has distorted our societies and the way the governments with the capacity to ‘move mountains should they wish’ have been co-opted as agents of capital and perpetuate those distortions. The Report is 19 pages of horror. It also resonates with the latest information coming out of Australia’s Closing the Gap campaign, which aims to bring indigenous Australians up to the material level of non-indigenous Australians. The first ten years of the campaign have been an abject failure. And the latest targets don’t inspire any confidence that the outcomes will be any different. A lot of talk. A lot of consultants. But little effective action – for example, like just creating some jobs to reduce unemployment, allow for income security and poverty alleviation. How hard is it for the government to create some jobs?
Last Saturday, the Weekend Australian, Rupert Murdoch’s daily national newspaper, had a relative Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) avalanche, with two core MMT-style articles published and two that were supportive rather than hostile. That tells you something about the way the world is shifting. I have received a bit of flack for publishing an Op-Ed piece in that newspaper from those who style themselves as Leftists. It is the same old argument – dealing with the devil. And the same old reply – if you want to influence policy then you have to talk to those who make policy. It is easy plotting revolutions over lunch. There has been a lot of groundwork laid over the last several months to bring people into the conversation. It is quiet stuff. Discreet. And as things unfold I will make some of the developments public. At present, all I can say is that I have a document before the Prime Minister today and there is a lot of behind-the-scenes workshops/briefings going on at state-level. And, while activists spend a lot of time ‘pressuring’ this person and that person on social media, the big shifts that are going on at present, including the publication of Noel Pearson’s piece and my article, are not being helped by aggressive social media confrontations. Sometimes it is better to work in a subtle way and exploit networks where they are available. That is not to say that activism to promote MMT is not appreciated and helpful. But we do need to pick our path. Anyway, a number of people asked me to publish my article here because they cannot get behind The Australian’s paywall. So here is the penultimate version which is a few hundred words longer than the actual article, which I cannot provide due to copyright restrictions. I also cannot provide Noel Pearson’s accompanying and complementary article but it was magnificent.
We all know what the – Bandwagon effect – is. There is a lot of research literature in social psychology trying to understand why people who believe one thing one minute, suddenly ditch that belief system and appear to be proponents of a new belief system, often, in total contradiction to their previous views. The effect is related but distinct from the Groupthink phenomenon which I have written about extensively in relation to the way mainstream economics has maintained a hold on the public debate despite being unable to explain anything useful. Whatever the underlying explanations – social norms, conformity pressures, information cascades and the rest of it – the ‘Bandwagon effect’ is rampant at the moment among economists. It appears that everyone has become an expert on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and want to drop the term into their Op Eds, media articles etc despite, in many cases, writing in the not to distant past, ridiculous mainstream articles that are the anathema of MMT. I give those who are jumping on the bandwagon no credit at all. The reason is that these sort of shifts are dangerous. They typically misrepresent our work and attempt to interpret it within the old paradigm, which just leads to the general public, especially where the commentator has a high public profile, being mislead … as usual. Everyone, apparently is an MMTer now. But from what they say we know that is not the case. And just as this cohort swing to save face in what is a glaringly obvious empirical rejection of all the mainstream predictions and theoretical constructs, they will swing again and start talking about ‘budget repair’ and ‘inflation’ and ‘debt burdens on our grandchildren’ when the dust settles and the elites push to regain their dominant position. We should not be lulled into creating liaisons that are not sustainable or based on a true shift in view.
I did an extended interview over the weekend and during that interchange it became obvious that when a newcomer encounters the concept of the – Job Guarantee – for the first time, they may only see it in a narrow way, as a job creation program and fail to see it the way that the concept was developed as an integral part of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). When I started talking about the era in which I had first started thinking about using buffer stocks to maintain full employment, it became obvious that the sort of considerations that went into the concept of the buffer stock employment model (the Job Guarantee) had not been fully appreciated by the interviewer. That is no criticism. It is just an observation and a reflection of how long we have been pushing this MMT barrow. At the moment, all the talk is of ‘flattening the curve’ and that is exactly the function that I saw for the Job Guarantee as I toyed as a young postgraduate student and nascent academic with new ways of thinking about macroeconomics that would fight the Monetarist scourge that was dominating in the late 1970s. It was a different era and the challenges from a economic theory perspective were different. I think it is important to understand this context because, as the interview demonstrated, new ‘light bulbs’ go off when the concept of a Job Guarantee is put within the historical exigencies that were dominating when I came up with the idea. So the Job Guarantee flattened the curve long ago – the Phillips curve and that was, in my view, a highly significant development in the context of macroeconomics and makes MMT very different (in addition to a lot of other aspects). Unfortunately, while we knew how to flatten the curve back then, the Monetarist viral infestation continued and we have suffered the shocking consequences ever since.
Today is Wednesday and I have been tied up a lot with various meetings – all on-line these days. I don’t enjoy them as much as face-to-face, given that I spent a considerable part of each day in front of my computer or with my head in books and so the human contact is a welcome variation. But needs must, as they say. Anyway, just a few snippets today, being Wednesday. I can say that in between all this Zooming and writing, I have now nearly put together a complete on-line learning system which I am now trialling. This will be the support platform for – MMTed – which I hope to make operational sometime in the coming months. One of the issues that I touched on yesterday, which is now starting to crawl out of the slime, is the “what will happen to all the debt when the crisis is over” story. And, it is not just a narrative being promoted by the Right or the conservatives. The Federal Labour Party spokespersons and those hanging around the edges have started to push the narrative. As the Prime Minister told us the other day in relation to the people who are panic buying “Stop it! It’s Ridiculous!” I think he was actually talking about those (morons) who are starting the deficit hysteria before the deficits have even actually risen much. For their own health, I urge them to “stop it”. Imagine how apoplectic they are all going to be once the deficit goes to 10 per cent or more and the RBA is buying up all the debt. My god.
When the Remain vote lost the June 2016 Referendum there was a sense of denial. They had lost but only because of the ingrates that voted the Leave. And sooner, rather than later, those dolts would soon have the so-called Bregrets and another vote would be held and the Remainers would win. That sense of denial persisted past the 2017 General Election, which should have consolidated Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but didn’t. The biting sense of privilege that the Remain camp seemed to construct for itself slowly but surely ate into the Labour Party leadership, regularly feeding news stories to the press and social media about the impending doom facing the British economy (Project Fear), and pushing the myth (supported by all sorts of interpretable public polls) that a ‘peoples’ vote’ (I am not sure what they thought the Referendum was) was inevitable and would reverse the 2016 choice and restore equanimity. And the Labour leadership crumbled in the face of this onslaught from within and abandoned their previous commitments to their constituencies, which the majority of their elected MPs represented, and went along with this ‘peoples’ vote’ nonsense. The Tories, meanwhile, realised that the underlying sentiment that drove the Brexit choice was consolidating and pushed through a General Election which categorically demonstrated that the Labour Party were nowhere near the mark. That was a disastrous loss in any one’s estimation for Labour. But, still in denial, the apparatchiks in the Party, the hangers on, the wannabees, whatever you choose to call them are out there on social media now claiming that, in fact, despite the humiliating devastation at the December 15 polls, that the Labour Party’s agenda has been accepted as the norm – ‘we won the argument’ – and that they as good as won the election. And meanwhile, the leading contender for the leadership is suggesting they will campaign to be readmitted to the European Union. It is hard to make this sort of stuff up. A lost generation for Labour coming up unless it gets real.
It is Wednesday and I have a long trip by plane and road to Victoria where I am speaking at a major business conference in the mountains outside of Melbourne tomorrow morning. So only a few things today that I have been thinking about. Remember the 2010 film – Inside Job – which documented how my profession had become corrupted by the financial services sector into producing, allegedly, independent research reports extolling the virtues of deregulation etc and not admitting they were being paid for by the beneficiaries of the propaganda masquerading as research. It shows how corruption runs deep in the economics profession to accompany the incompetence that mainstream macroeconomists display. Well, I have been following an unfolding story about how Uber has decided to draw on that corrupt tendency for their own gains. It is not a pretty story. And then we have the so-called social media trend of cancel culture which is meant to be about matters of principles but leave the proponents caught up in a rather dirty pool of hypocrisy.
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.
When I was a relatively junior academic, one of the things I was interested in was how labour market prejudice is influenced by the state of the economic cycle. This was a period when Australia was undergoing a deep recession (early 1990s) and it was clear that hostility to immigrants had risen during this period. I was interested to see whether this was related. The interest goes back to my postgraduate days when I was studying labour economics and we considered labour market discrimination in some detail. Then, it was clear from the literature, that employers who used racial profiling to screen job candidates would lose out if the labour market was strong, but could indulge their negative views about different racial groups without loss in times of recession. But we didn’t do much work on supply-side attitudes – that is, what do other workers think? In more recent times, I have done detailed research projects with mental health professionals studying the best way to provide job opportunities for young people with episodic illnesses. The research revealed that one of the problems in placing these workers in conventional workplaces is the prejudice that other workers displayed towards them. We worked on ways to attenuate that resistance. So I have had a long record of studying and being interested in these matters. In this blog post, I consider whether prejudice is counter-cyclical. In the UK, for example, the British Social Attitudes survey found that in 2014, around a third of British people were racially prejudiced and this ratio spiked during the GFC. Clearly, there are many factors contributing to this rather distasteful result, but if austerity is exacerbating the underlying factors, then we have another reason to oppose it. This research also bears on the Brexit debate.