This week’s theme seems to be the about how the so-called progressive side of the economic and political debate keeps kicking ‘own goals’ (given a lot of this is happening in Britain where they play soccer) or finding creative ways to ‘face plant’ (moving to Europe where there is more snow). Over the other side of the Atlantic, as America approaches its mid-term elections, so-called progressive forces who give solace to the New Democrats, aka Neoliberal Democrats are railing against fiscal deficits and demanding that the left-liberals in the Democratic Party be pushed out and that the voters be urged to elect candidates who will impose austerity by cutting welfare and health expenditure and more. And then we have progressive think tanks pumping out stuff about banking that you would only find in a mainstream macroeconomic textbook. This is the state of play on the progressive side of politics. The demise of social democratic political movements is continuing and it is because they have become corrupted from within by neoliberals. And then we had a little demonstration in London yesterday of the way in which the British Labour Fiscal Rule will bring the Party grief. The Tories are just warming up on that one.
One of the themes that has emerged in the discussions of the British Labour Party Fiscal Credibility Rule (which should be renamed the Fiscal Incredulous Rule) is when is the right time for a political party to show leadership and start educating the public on new ideas. The Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) project has been, in part, about educating people even if our ideas have been strongly resisted by the mainstream. The mainstream (New Keynesian) paradigm in economics is degenerative (meaning it has little empirical validation) and eventually it will fade into historical obscurity. For many of us that cannot come quickly enough. The defenders of the Rule argue that progressive politicians have to tread carefully or else the amorphous financial markets will turn on them and destroy their initiatives. The problem is that by kowtowing to the City or Wall Street, the progressive political forces become captured and redundant. Witness the electoral demise of social democratic parties over the last several decades. The conditions are ripe (see below) for a courageous head-on attack on these financial market elites and educate the public so that they allow elected governments to legislate for all rather than serving the interests of the elites, which has become the norm over the last several decades. The problem is that progressive political forces are also taking advice from mainstream economists who use the tools of neoliberalism. The upshot is that progressive political leadership is absent but desperately required.
The weekend before last I was in Germany (and Bavaria) at the same time as the – Bavarian state election. The results for the SPD (Social Democratic Party) were disastrous losing 20 seats (down from 42) and gaining only 9.7 per cent of the vote (down from 20.6 per cent). The Greens came second, winning 20 extra seats (to 38) and 17.5 per cent of the vote (8.6 per cent last election), while the neo-fascist AfD party, which did not contest the last election, came in fourth, gaining 22 seats (10.2 per cent of the vote). There is a growing fear that the AfD and its counterparts across Europe will grow further and push Europe back into its dark fascist days. One would not conclude that from the Bavarian voting patterns. Further, to construct what is going on in Europe as a right-wing counter to a ‘social democratised’ Europe, which is a common narrative among the Europhile Left is seriously missing the point. The social democratisation of Europe has been in retreat for decades under the onslaught of a very sophisticated campaign from the elites on the Right and often it has been the traditional Left political parties that have pushed the neoliberal agenda more vigorously than the conservatives. The AfD is a sideshow in this deeper take over of our democracies by capital. Root and branch change is needed not a few ‘reforms’ around the edges to make the Eurozone less of a disaster for workers than it currently is.
This is another addition in the ‘Exploring the effectiveness of social media’ series, which I last discussed in the blog post of the same name – Exploring the effectiveness of social media (September 5, 2018). This is current research I am doing with Dr Louisa Connors and we will discuss it at the The Second International Conference of Modern Monetary Theory (New York, September 28-30), that is, later this week. There is no doubt that social media (among other things) has played a major role in building a non-academic audience for Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). As I noted in the previous blog post on this topic, it is not clear that MMT advocates fully utilise social media in a way that advances advocacy even though it is clear that advocacy is the intent of the social media activity. The earlier blog post examined some of the reasons why Twitter use for example might be counterproductive. This blog post extends the discussion about the strategic use of social media.
Regular readers will know that I have spent a lot of time writing about the demise of the Left political parties as they became subsumed with neoliberal economic ideology, which blurred the political landscape as the ‘centre’ moved to the Right. That topic was the focus of our current book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017). The neoliberal infestation has left these parties with declining electoral support, fractured internal organisations and cultures, and a seeming inability to abandon their flawed economic narratives. But there is a mirror image to this demise and that is playing out on the conservative side of politics. In Australia in the last week (but building for years) the far right conservative elements from within the government have brought down their own leader and our Prime Minister in a spiteful clash of ideologies between the more moderate elements in their party and the extremes out on the right. The internal tensions that drove this suicidal mission are being played out around the world. Think about the way that Trump is compromising the Republican party. Think about how Brexit is splitting Tory ranks in Britain. And so on. The problem for the conservatives is that citizens are realising that the neoliberal economic approach has failed to deliver on its promises. And that economic model is ‘owned’ by the conservatives. The adoption of neoliberal economics by social democratic parties is not part of their DNA. It is largely because their ranks have been infested by careerists who have come from the ‘elites’ and have little resonance with workers. The gaps in the policy space that these fractures have created is being occupied by extremist groups. It will be much easier for progressive parties to reclaim that space than it will be for the conservatives who are in the process of a death spiral. But to do that, the social democratic movements has to abandon every vestige of neoliberal economics – the concepts, policies and language and framing. That is the challenge.
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.