Apparently the British Left is “fizzing with ideas for a smarter economy” according to the UK Guardian article (May 12, 2019) – The zeitgeist has shifted. Now the left is fizzing with ideas for a smarter economy – written by Will Hutton. I can’t say I sensed an outbreak of fizz. But in the colloquial language from where I come from, the term fizzer means “Something that promised excitement but instead was a disappointment”, Yes, Hutton’s fizzers include promoting the insights of a long-standing (pun intended) critic of employment guarantees, who prefers people to be propped up as consumption units by a UBI, and, yes, surely, if Hutton is involved, reversing the “tragedy” of the democratic choice the British people made to exit the EU. Apparently, “Remain” is the “great progressive social force of the moment” and if Britain was to leave the EU it would “stand in the way of any of it ever being implemented”, where “it” refers to all these ‘left’ fizzers. It is hard getting one’s head around this logic. A restoration of democracy and sovereignty apparently disables the elected government from using its currency-issuing capacity to deliver a progressive program aimed at advancing well-being. But, staying in a corporatist cabal which has embodied neoliberalism in the core legal structure of its existence and allows corporations to sue governments which threaten their profits and is unaccountable to the people is the exemplar of progression. This stuff is in the world of the pixies!
I have been doing research on local government funding in the UK recently as part of preparation for a workshop I am presenting in London on Sunday, May 12, 2019. The workshop – Local Government Funding: Challenging the Status Quo – is primarily designed to tackle this issue from an Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) perspective. My brief is to speak about the way in which flawed understandings of the capacities of currency-issuing governments, combined with a vicious, ideological attack on working people from a government fully invested in neoliberal transfers to the elites, have ravaged the capacity of local government in the UK to deliver essential public services. See the Events Page for more details. It is a public event and I hope people support it. In – The austerity attack on British local government – Part 1 (April 30, 2019) – I examined the way in which the central government austerity had impacted on the major service areas in Britain and considered some of the motivations that have been driving this agenda. In this Part, I am examining the way in which these cuts have been distributed at the local government level. How their grants have been cut and how they have been forced to rely on their own income bases to maintain a semblance of service delivery. I also consider the shifting composition of service delivery in the face of these cuts from broader areas that define a sophisticated society to the raw essentials of human social care. I clearly cannot provide a complete account of what has been going on in two blog posts and that is not my purpose anyway. For example, I am not considering the controversial Universal Credit scheme and the way housing benefits, previously paid by councils have been rolled into that scheme. So bear that in mind when reading. Any reasonable person observing what has been going on in Britain would conclude that this period of Tory government has been a disaster for the well-being of citizens and regions.
On Sunday, May 12, 2019, I will be presenting a workshop in London on – Local Government Funding: Challenging the Status Quo. Basically, I will be speaking about the way in which flawed understandings of the capacities of currency-issuing governments, combined with a vicious, ideological attack on working people from a government fully invested in neoliberal transfers to the elites, have ravaged the capacity of local government in the UK to deliver essential public services. See the Events Page for more details. It is a public event and I hope people support it. To prepare for that workshop, I have been digging deeply into the data to fully acquaint myself with how the ideological austerity push has been distributed across central and local government service delivery. It is no easy task. The data is a ‘dog’s breakfast’ and coming to summary positions is quite time consuming. There are also nuances in the way local government is structured (particularly since the Thatcher years where devolution and cost-shifting was accelerated), which mean that care must be taken in making sensible comparisons. Here are some of the things I found. I have learned a lot in this process, which is a good thing. This is Part 1 of a two-part series.
In a few weeks I am off to Britain again to participate in a series of events. Two of these events will be in Scotland where we (Warren and I) will discuss, as outsiders, issues pertaining to the monetary arrangements that might accompany a move to Scottish independence. It is a controversial issue in itself, but, unfortunately, is also intertwined with the vexed issue of EU membership. And the complication then becomes that progressives, who might otherwise be attracted to the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) way of understanding the monetary system, also exhibit the standard misconstrued Europhile view that the EU, neoliberal though it is, can be reformed and that an independent Scotland should be part of that mess. And, in doing so, they then take problematic positions on the currency question. So a sort of ‘nest of vipers’ sort of situation, from the Aesop’s fable – The Farmer and the Viper. As in the Fable, the Europhiles embrace of the EU will always pay them back in grief. Anyway, while I am always cautious discussing the pro and con of situations where I have no direct material stake and a less than full understanding of specific cultural and historical influences that are at work, the Scottish question is interesting and demonstrates many of points that nations should be cogniscant of when discussing monetary sovereignty. And besides I have to get up in Edinburgh and Glasgow in a few weeks so as a researcher I am trained to be prepared and seek the best understanding that I can of the complexity of the situation. I will be writing a few posts on the Scottish issue as I prepare for that speaking tour.
It appears that the Brexit process in Britain will now stall. My understanding of the Referendum was the majority of British people who voted wanted to leave the EU and that the politicians from all sides of politics unambiguously stated they would honour the outcome, whichever way the vote fell. That is what democracies are about. A lot of people are disappointed by vote outcomes. They have to grin and bear it. But in the case of the Brexit vote, the Remainers have never accepted the outcome and have used various means – foul or otherwise – to undermine the choice of the majority. There have been regional strains involved and social class strains (cosmopolitans and the rest) involved. There have been nasty imputations that those who voted to Leave were ignorant, racist or otherwise not entitled to cast an opinion. The Europhile Left had conniptions because their dream looked like evaporating. I use the term ‘dream’ deliberately – as in, not ground in reality. As the incompetence of the Tory government in managing the exit process reaches new heights – embarrassing heights – the Europhile Left has become emboldened and are now reasserting their claims that the British Labour Party should articulate a clear Remain position and push to reform the prevailing European treaties, which embed neoliberalism in their core. Talk about dreaming.
In Part 1, I introduced the discussion about the use of industry policies in the Keynesian period after World War 2. Most nations adopted a mixed planning-market based system for allocating productive resources and the state was always central in setting out planning parameters, direct ownership and employment, and regulation. It was a system that researchers described as being “highly successful”. Two approaches to industrialisation were taken: (a) export-oriented (for example, South Korea); and (b) import-substitution (for example, India), although in most cases, nations used both strategies. As neoliberalism emerged and the fixed exchange rate system broke down in the early 1970s, the IMF, whose purpose was intrinsically tied to providing foreign reserves to nations under the fixed exchange rate system, no longer had a purpose. They reinvented themselves as the neoliberal attack dog for corporations and global capital. They also provided cover for governments who were embracing the Monetarist ideas of Milton Friedman and intent on imposing fiscal austerity. These governments had become captured by corporate interests and by appealing to external demands from bodies such as the IMF, these governments could depoliticise harsh policy shifts away from Keynesian full employment. I used Britain as an example. Tony Benn, a Left Labour member in the British Parliament and Secretary for Industry, proposed an alternative industrial plan to revitalise British industry in 1975. It was rejected at the time by Harold Wilson and Denis Healey, who were intent on imposing fiscal austerity and deregulating. They used the scare that the IMF would have to bailout Britain as a ruse to force their Monetarist ideology onto the British Labour Party. It was no surprise that in an era where governments started abandoning fiscal support to maintain full employment, deregulated labour and financial markets, and abandoned domestic protections for their industries, many industries would go to the wall. The IMF claimed that this shows industry policy focused on import-substitution can never work. But the culprit was not flawed industry policy. Rather, it was the withdrawal of all the accompanying support structures that made it work, but which ran counter to the neoliberal ideology of ‘free markets’. Now the IMF is having a rethink based on the devastation that neoliberalism has caused. On March 26, 2019, the IMF published a new working paper (19/74) – The Return of the Policy That Shall Not Be Named: Principles of Industrial Policy. Now, we are reading that the IMF has conceded that industry policy interventions that were the basis of economic planning in the Keynesian era were highly successful and only stopped being so, in some cases, when fiscal austerity was imposed and trade controls were abandoned in the 1970s. This is Part 2 of the two-part series on this topic.
In 1975, Tony Benn, a Left Labour member in the British Parliament and Secretary for Industry, proposed an alternative industrial plan to revitalise British industry. At the time, the Prime Minister and Chancellor were becoming attracted to Monetarism and started framing and implementing the austerity-type fiscal strategies that are common today. Benn opposed this approach, and, instead proposed a far-reaching alternative economic strategy that involved increased industrial planning to revitalise British industry. The growing ‘free market’ orthodoxy at the time, spearheaded by the IMF and the World Bank, which had transformed into neoliberal enforcement agencies, were vehemently opposed to any form of industry policies or state intervention. As a result, Benn was basically shut out of the debate and this helped transform social democratic politics into the mess it is today. Ironically, now the IMF is changing its tune. It has recently rediscovered how effective industry policies of the type Benn was proposed actually can be if supported by coherent policy structures. Irony two is that these supportive policy structures are the opposite to those typically proposed by the IMF. At the time, there were economists (such as yours truly) who knew that the descent into neoliberalism would be a disaster and hamper growth and more equal distributions of wealth and income. But that view was also shut out. Now, without shame, the IMF are basically admitting the decades of insufferable neoliberal policies that they forced onto nations may have been wrong. Industry policy is back in focus. Imagine if they never had seduced the world with their snake oil. British politics, for one, would have been quite different. Brexit could very well happened in 1975 under a Labour government. And more. This is Part 1 of a two-part series which will finish tomorrow.
The 1975 song – The People United Will Never Be Defeated – which was written in sympathy with the Chileans after the brutal Pinochet coup and other national struggles (for example, in Italy and Germany) raises the question: Who are ‘The People’. Relatedly, in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) we talk about a currency-issuing government being able to pursue public purpose which advances the well-being of the people. Who is the public and the people in that context? I ask these questions because they are germane to research on cosmopolitanism and the Left view of the European Union and similar arrangements that reflect an antipathy towards the concept of the ‘nation state’ and the belief that progressive advance can only be organised at a supra-national level in order to be effective. Today’s blog post just continues that theme based on current research.
I have just finished reading a recently published book – The European Illusion – written by academics associated with Attac Austria and it demonstrates the dilemma that European progressives have created for themselves. The 348-page book is freely available in – PDF – for download. The dilemma slowly reveals itself as the various chapters unfold. The format of the book is odd – conventional prose, interviews between the contributors, and opinion pieces. As we transit through the book we learn that the European Union is neoliberal central. Okay, that is a helpful start to a progressive vision. Then we read that, as such, it is impossible to reform. We learn that movements such as DiEM 25 are dreamers. Getting better! But then we read that Lexit strategies are unhelpful and a sort of Project Fear rationale is proffered – risky, uncertain and the rest. So, on the one hand, the EU is a disaster that has deliberately set out to destroy the working class and that that cannot be reformed. But, on the other hand – TINA – it is counterproductive to dismantle it. Solution – a grassroots campaign of rebellion – “strategic disobedience”. It beggars belief actually. Apparently, we can democratise neoliberal central by disobeying the EU rules, even though the EU cannot be reformed. Yes, and pigs might fly!
The increasing uprising against Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) in the media is salutory because it means our ideas are now considered to be a threat to the mainstream economics (for example, Paul Krugman now buying into the carping) and to the heterodox tradition (for example, the British economists who self-identify with that tradition). The high profile debate around the Green New Deal has been associated with MMT and this has brought all sort of crazy attacks on MMT from those who think they are ‘green’ but haven’t traversed out of ‘Monetarist-type’ economics thinking. And then I note that apparently the Green New Deal is being expropriated by Europhiles to wedge those who consider Lexit and Brexit to be the only way to re-establish progressive society and politics. Apparently, the Europhiles are arguing that you cannot be both Lexit/Brexit and support the Green New Deal. Curious logic. And, of course, a desperate attempt by the Europhiles to grasp at anything to discredit both Brexit and MMT, given that there is a high proportion of MMTers who prefer Britain leave the EU and that the EU disappears in its current form. And so it goes. Wolfgang Streek recently published an interesting academic article that bears on this discussion. That is what this blog post is about.