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.
It is Wednesday and so a short blog. I am working on a number of things at present but getting the material sorted for my next book with Thomas Fazi is a priority at the moment. My snippet today though is about a study that has just come out in the American Political Science Review – Bias in Perceptions of Public Opinion among Political Elites – by two US academics. The title is indicative. They explore what they argue is a disjuncture between what the politicians think voters want and what the voters actually want. This lack of congruence is also biased towards right-wing views. So, the politicians “believed that much more of the public in their constituencies preferred conservative policies than actually did”. They trace this bias to biases in the way the politicians get their information. The takeaway is that the progressive side of the debate has to be more active in framing distinctive messages and using multiple ways and avenues to communicate those messages to the candidates seeking election and the politicians that have been elected. And it must refrain from using conservative frames which advisors think neutralise difficult concepts etc. I think this sort of research provides some hope. I will be writing more about this in the weeks to come. And after that listen to some really classic minimalism from the C19th, which you might suspect on listening is very contemporary such was the genius of the composer.
My home town (where I was born and still spend a lot of time) is Melbourne, Victoria. It is a glorious place, at least the inner suburbs within about 3-4 kms of the city centre where I hang out mostly. It recently ‘lost’ its top place in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Index (most pleasant place to live) to Vienna (Source). One wag thought it might have been because the Economist got confused between Australia and Austria. Economists are easily confused! But the reason I mentioned this is because it is symptomatic of how neoliberalism has reconstructed our realities and degraded our sense of community. The ‘competitive’ narrative, even though firms go all out to use power and deception to fix and rig markets in their favour, now dominates our perception. While I identify with Melbourne and would think a significant part of my identity is linked to that identification, the neoliberal narrative with its distinctive language, aims to reconstruct the community and communities of Melbourne, not as social and cultural artifacts, but as ‘products’ competing with other cities of the world for supremacy. I was thinking about this as I scope out the structure of the next book that Thomas Fazi and I will publish next year as a follow-up to our current book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, 2017). Thomas and I have advanced our ideas and we will, in part, be focusing on how communities and the nation state work together to advance progressive outcomes. In our first book together, we set out how nation states can operate from a technical perspective and what they should do to provide for a progressive future. In the next book, we will dig deeper into the ways people and their communities have to re-empower themselves. Language, construction, vocabulary, and framing are all significant in this regard.
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.
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.
I have written about the concept of dynamic efficiency before. The most recent blog post on this theme was – The ‘truth sandwich’ and the impacts of neoliberalism (June 19, 2018) – which examined how social mobility across generations has been declining as a result of the decades of entrenched unemployment driven by neoliberal austerity biases. I also outlined the proposition in this blog post – US labour market reality debunks mainstream view about structural impediments (January 15, 2018). The point of all this is that establishing high pressure labour markets brings about more than just workers who want to work having jobs. It brings other major benefits that workers can enjoy and forces firms and governments to manage their affairs differently from when there is entrenched unemployment. The UBI proponents never really understand that point as they continue to surrender to the proposition that mass unemployment is inevitable and all the governments should do is keep people alive with some guaranteed income. All these dynamic efficiency gains are then not realised and capital has the run of the field.
You know, an Italian won the British Open golf championship yesterday (the first Italian to ever win a golf major) because of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit negotiations. The causality is impeccable. I am sure about that, although it might take me a while to work it out. But if a British golfer cannot win their Open Championship (Rose tied for second, two shots back) then it must be because of Brexit. Everything else that goes wrong is, so why not the golf? It is the same when three former US policy makers, central bankers, Wall Street-types, claim that the US no longer “have to tools to counter the next financial crisis”. They know full well that that statement is a blatant lie. But they say it. To remain relevant as their stars dim? To do service to their conservative mates? All of the above and more. But the media grab the headline and the American public and the public in general is dealt another piece of neoliberal misinformation that helps entrench the hold on power by the elites. But things are changing, and these entrenched elites and the vested interests they serve don’t like it a bit.
This is the second and final part in my response to the Social Europe article by Stuart Holland (July 11, 2018) – Not An Abdication By The Left – where he attempts to eviscerate various writers who have dared to suggest that the “social democratic Left in Europe … has run out of ideas” or that “there has been an intellectual abdication by the Left”. He uses his experience as an advisor to Harold Wilson in the 1960s and to Jacques Delors in the early 1990s as an ‘authority’ for his rejection of the claims that the Left has abandoned its social democratic remit. He holds the likes of Delors and António Guterres has shining Left lights. In Part 1, I showed that the view that Delors and Guterres are beacons of Left history and that the social democratic Left has not sold out to the neoliberal orthodoxy (particularly at the political level) is unsustainable. Holland distorts history to suit his argument and is in denial of the facts. In Part 2, I trace the argument further by examining the 1993 Delors White Paper, which was meant to be the European Commission’s response to the mass unemployment that was bedevilling the Continent at the time (and remains, by the way) and later propositions that Holland was associated with in relation to Greece during the GFC. They further demonstrate that Stuart Holland is attempting to maintain an indefensible position.
Former Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky was quoted as saying during the 1979 Austrian election campaign that: “I am less worried about the budget deficits than by the need for the state to create jobs where private industry fails”. That is the statement of a social democrat. That is a progressive Left view. In June 1982, with French unemployment at 7.2 per cent (having risen from 2.4 per cent in 1974 after a near decade of austerity under the right-wing Prime Minister Raymond Barre), the French Minister of Economy and Finance cut 30 billion francs from government spending so that the fiscal deficit would remain below 3 per cent. In March 1983, the same Minister pressured his colleagues including President François Mitterrand, into imposing a further bout of austerity, cutting another 24 billion francs and increasing taxes by 40 billion francs. These were very deep cuts. The austerity under the so-called ‘Barre Plan’ had failed to reduce inflation. When the turn to austerity was repeated under Mitterand’s so-called Socialist government, France was already in a deep recession. Under the Socialist austerity period unemployment rose sharply to further to 9.3 per cent by 1987. By then the architect of that austerity, one Jacques Delors, was European Commission President and starting work on his next exercise in neoliberal carnage – the Eurozone. None of his behaviour during that period remotely signals a position we could call progressive or Left. Like his austerity turn (“tournant de la rigeur”), Delors had turned into just another neoliberal obsessed with fiscal surpluses, free markets (he oversaw the 1987 Single European Act), and privatisation (which he claimed was necessary to attract foreign direct investment) (Source). This is Part 1 of a two-part series on the abdication of the Left, which some still choose to deny.
Reuters reported (July 8, 2018) that the awful Madame Lagarde was in France last week lecturing people on how the “joint euro zone budget could be designed with conditions so that it does not become a no-strings transfer of rich countries’ cash to poorer members”. Meanwhile, Jürgen Habermas was lecturing all and sundry on how a “frightened retreat behind national borders cannot be the correct response to … the politically uncontrollable functional imperatives of a global capitalism that is being driven by unregulated financial markets” (Source). Meanwhile, in the UK, the ‘Remainers’ think staying in the corrupt EU is a good idea because the Tories are so incompetent and divided. The state of the world. Misperceptions, misinformation and just plain poor analysis. There are tremendous opportunities for the Left to make political gains. But if they don’t abandon the type of ideas and language that is exemplified by Habermas’s latest entreaty and if they don’t undermine the likes of Lagarde and the Remainers (the pan-Europe contingent) then they will, once again, miss the boat.