When the governments in the advanced nations abandoned full employment as an overarching macroeconomic objective, and instead, starting pursuing what I have called full employability, they stopped seeing unemployment as a policy target (to be minimised) and began using it as a policy tool to suppress inflation. As mass unemployment rose, the politics were massaged by the mainstream of my profession who claimed that the level of unemployment that constituted full employment had risen (this was the NAIRU era) and so there was really no problem. Governments adopted the neoliberal line that they ‘didn’t create jobs’ and had to target fiscal surpluses to ensure their position was ‘sustainable’. The costs in lost income and human suffering have been enormous – most people would not have any idea of the massive scale of these losses that accumulate day after day. Now, it seems, the ‘sound finance’ school is going a step further. We are probably facing an environmental emergency in the coming period (years, decades) but the question commentators keep asking is not what we can do about it but ‘how can we pay for it’? So ‘sound finance’ has already destroyed the lives of millions of people around the world as a result of mass unemployment and poverty, now it is turning its focus on the rest of us. Madness. Paradigm change has to come sooner rather than later.
It is Wednesday and just a short blog post today (short is relative I know). There was a proposal published recently (April 2019) by the British-based Autonomy Research Ltd – The Ecological Limits of Work. Autonomy pushed basic income and shorter working weeks with a healthy the ‘robots are coming’ agenda to boot. In its most recent ‘report’, Autonomy is claiming we have to dramatically cut working hours – like dramatically – but seems oblivious to the link between nominal and real. I think we will make more progress if we construct Green New Deal solutions within the current institutional realities. And, I just got my flame suit out of the cupboard where it sits on constant standby!
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.
I am travelling all day today and I will resurface, in blog terms, on Monday. A quiz will pop up tomorrow as usual. For now a brief excursion into the Dutch press, which has decided to join the wannabees attacking Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). The scenario outlined in the article I read earlier today takes the criticisms to a new level. We are no longer worried about hyperinflation, crowding out, sky high interest rates. No, things are likely to get much worse than that. If any government takes on MMT (noting it is not a regime that can be taken on) to operationalise a Green New Deal then tax rates will have to rise to around 100 per cent, households and firms will stop working and producing, and a massive famine in possible where millions die. Sort of Project Fear stuff that has marked the Remain position in the Brexit debate!
Everywhere I read it seems, the ‘Green New Deal’ appears. I wrote a bit about it last week in my evaluation of the latest US job numbers – US labour market moderated in November and considerable slack remains (December 11, 2018). The point I made there was that a shift to a green economy would possibly generate around 21 million jobs (14 per cent of total US employment), which given reasonable estimates of excess capacity would require a huge shift in the employment structure and multiples of the available idle labour supply. Of course, that is the objective – to shift workers from fossil fuel, carbon intensive industries into sustainable activities. That is no easy task and would require a fundamental shift in the government-market balance in terms of resource allocation. The market alone will not accomplish that shift in a desirable manner. Cue – more regional and occupation planning. I have also been seeing an increasing number of Tweets talking about a ‘Just Transition’ framework, something I have written about in the past. And there are now Tweets out there equating that with a Job Guarantee. At that point, we get ahead of ourselves. We must see the Job Guarantee in perspective and not ask it to do too much. That is what this blog post is about.
I am doing some work on the way technology can be chosen to maximise employment in the pursuit of advancing general well-being. This is in the context of some work I am doing on advancing what is known as ‘relative pro-poor growth’ strategies in Africa via employment creation programs and draws on my earlier work in South Africa on the Expanded Public Works Program. In the current work, I have been assessing ways in which the Labour Intensive Public Works program in Ghana has been deployed to serve this purpose. The problem one confronts when working as a development economist in less well-off nations is that the institutional bias promoted by the IMF and the World Bank is towards advancing, at best, what we term ‘absolute pro-poor growth’. But that sort of agenda typically fails to strengthen other aspects of a strong civil society because it is almost always accompanied by rising inequality which continues to concentrate power and influence at the top and leads to resources being disproportionately expropriated by the wealthy (and usually foreign) classes. Institutions such as democracy, justice, law and order and causes such as environmental sustainability are then compromised.
There is an interesting dilemma currently emerging in Australia, which provides an excellent case study on how governments can use fiscal policy effectively and the problems that are likely to arise in that application. At present, the Australian states are engaging in an infrastructure building boom with several large (mostly public sector) projects underway involving improvements to road, ports, water supply, railways, airports and more. I travel a lot and in each of the major cities you see major areas sectioned off as tunnels are being dug and buildings erected. Not all of the projects are desirable (for example, the West Connex freeway project in Sydney has trampled on peoples’ rights) and several prioritise the motor car over public transport. But many of the projects will deliver much better public transport options in the future. On a national accounts level, these projects have helped GDP growth continue as household consumption has moderated and private investment has been consistently weak to negative. But, and this is the point, there have been sporadic reports recounting how Australia is running out of cement, hard rock and concrete and other building materials, which is pushing up costs. This is the real resource constraint that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) emphasises as the limits to government spending, rather than any concocted financial constraints. If there are indeed shortages of real resources that are essential to infrastructure development then that places a limit on how fast governments can build these public goods. The other point is that as these shortages are emerging, there is still over 15 per cent of our available labour resources that are being unused in one way or another – 714,600 are unemployed, 1,123.9 thousand are underemployed, and participation rates are down so hidden unemployment has risen. So that indicates there is a need for higher deficits while the infrastructure bottlenecks suggest spending constraints are emerging. That is the challenge. Come in policies like the Job Guarantee.
When I was a student, that is, formally studying for degrees rather than the constant-learning approach which makes us permanent students, I was very interested in development economics and have carried that into the career phase of my work, including doing commissioned work for international agencies in Africa and Asia. One of the things I have come up against in that work has been the question of why are the nations in Africa, for example, so poor, when it is obvious to all and sundry that they possess massive resource wealth. My student days introduced me to dependency theory, which provided a solid framework for understanding the nature of underdevelopment. It stood in contrast to the mainstream development theory that was presented in most textbooks and which we would now call the neo-liberal approach. That approach is publicly enunciated by the IMF and the World Bank as if it is reality. In fact, it is a chimera! The framework of development aid and oversight put in place by the richer nations and mediated through the likes of the IMF and the World Bank can be seen more as a giant vacuum cleaner designed to suck resource and financial wealth out of the poorer nations either through legal or illegal means, whichever generates the largest flows. So while Africa is wealthy, its interaction with the world monetary and trade systems, leaves millions of its citizens in extreme poverty – unable to even purchase sufficient nutrition to live. It is a scandal of massive proportions and should become the target of all progressive governments (as they emerge).
I am travelling most of today and do not have much time. However, there were a few more issues I wanted to raise in relation to the ‘Free Trade’ mini-series of blogs but on Tuesday I ran short of time and thus I thought I would take this chance to round the discussion off. So this blog might be considered Part 4 in that series on free trade. In Part 1, I showed how the mainstream economics concept of ‘free trade’ is never attainable in reality and so what goes for ‘free trade’ is really a stacked deck of cards that has increasingly allowed large financial capital interests to rough ride over workers, consumers and undermine the democratic status of elected governments. In Part 2, I considered the myth of the free market, the damage that ‘free trade’ causes’. In Part 3, fair trade was considered along with so-called ‘free trade’ agreements. Today, some nuances and additional thoughts are provided. The aim of this mini-series is to build a progressives case for opposition to moves to ‘free trade’ and instead adopt as a principle the concept of ‘fair trade’, as long as it doesn’t compromise the democratic legitimacy of the elected government. There is also a video of my keynote presentation at UMKC in September 2016 available in this blog.