The Australian Bureau of Statistics has started publishing weekly employment data – Weekly Payroll Jobs and Wages in Australia, Week ending 4 April 2020 – which is drawn from a new series made available as a result of the Single Touch Payroll data provided by the Australian Tax Office. For the first time, researchers like me can have up to date information as the economy cycles. Usually we get the labour force data some 5-6 weeks behind time and although a lot doesn’t necessarily happen in a month, this crisis is the exception – the whole box-and-dice is collapsing so quickly that we need weekly data, like is provided in the US through the Department of Employment’s unemployment claimants data to stay in touch with how things are tracking. But for now I estimate that the unemployment rate rose to around 10.9 per cent in the 3 weeks to April 4, 2020 (up from 5.2 per cent for the March data – which was surveyed in the early part of the month). In that time, unemployment has more than doubled and is around 1.5 million and rising. The conclusion from my analysis of the latest available data (released April 21, 2020) – is that some sectors in the Australian labour market have experienced a sudden and catastrophic contraction – like nothing we have ever seen in the data. Both employment losses and major wage cuts are underway and the policy response is totally inadequate for the task. A much larger fiscal intervention is required and it has to be directed at workers rather than firms. I will say more about those issues next week. But I am guessing that the Government’s response so far is less than half of what it should have been – it needs at least another $A200 billion.
It is Wednesday and I offer a few snippets for readers today. I have a number of projects on the go at present and time is short today. Apart from introducing a stunning guitar player (now long dead) that very few people have ever heard of but is one of my favourites (what does that say?), I ask the question: Why does anyone read the New York Times? I also announce the development and publication of our latest Employment Vulnerability Index (EVI) now in its third iteration. You can look at colourful maps as a result of this work! And tomorrow I will be trawling through employment losses around the world. All along the path to releasing my 10-point plan later next week.
The survey week for the – Labour Force, Australia, March 2020 – data, released by the ABS today (April 16, 2020) was before the major policy interventions (lockdown etc). In other words, the data released today is not likely to resemble where the economy was by the end of March or where it is now. Even so, the results are indicative of a slowing economy with weak employment growth failing to outstrip the underlying population growth. As a consequence, unemployment rose by 20,300. Those numbers will be dwarfed in the coming months. The broad labour underutilisation rate (sum of unemployment and underemployment) rose by 0.2 points to 14 per cent. There were a total of 1,924 thousand workers either unemployed or underemployed. This is a deplorable result. My overall assessment is that the Australian labour market remains a considerable distance from full employment and that that distance is increasing. With the coronavirus about to dwarf everything, the prior need for a fiscal stimulus of around 2 per cent has changed to a fiscal stimulus requirement of several times that. There is clear room for some serious fiscal policy expansion at present and the Federal government’s attempts to date have been seriously under-whelming. I estimate the Government will have to inject at least another $A130 billion into the economy (around 40 per cent more than it already has). Not good times ahead.
I am monitoring the US Department of Labor’s weekly data releases for the unemployment insurance claimants account, that I reported in my last commentary on the US labour market – Tip of the iceberg – the US labour market catastrophe now playing out (April 6, 2020). Their latest release (April 9, 2020) – Unemployment Insurance Weekly Claims – shows that in the prior week ending April 4, 2020, the initial claims rose by 6,606,000, but this was down on the increase the week before by 261,000. In the last three weeks, the total initial claims is 16.8 million persons. The impacts are quite stark already. For example, as you will see, in just one month (March), service sector occupations have shed 36.7 per cent of the total jobs that were added in the ‘recovery’ period between January 2010 and February 2020. And given the timing of the surveys (biased towards earlier in the month), the situation was much worse by the end of March. It is quite obvious that this crisis is impacting heavily and disproportionately on the least-advantaged workers and communities in the US. This cohort always suffers during a recession. But this time, the specific occupation biases are exacerbating the problem and inequity, given the nature of the economic shock (closures, shutdowns etc). It means the fiscal support should be heavily weighted to assisting the most impacted both in terms of people, their families and the regions they live in. The maps show that the spatial impact of the downturn to date is also very uneven. As yet, I have not seen a commensurate response from the US government. The fiscal support funds so far announced do very little for the most impacted communities and people. They certainly shore up the top-end-of-town which, while predictable, will come back to haunt the nation in the years to come.
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.
It is Wednesday and just a collection of snippets today. I am trying to finish a major piece of work and so that is what I am mostly doing today. And learning to program Geojson formats in R, so I can overcome the decision by Google to abandon their fusion table facility, which my research centre has relied on for some years to display map layers. And I have some press interviews to deal with. But today we consider the claim by the Financial Times editorial the other day that “Radical reforms are required to forge a society that will work for all”. It was an extraordinary statement from an institution like the FT to make for a start. But it reflects the desperation that is abroad right now – across all our nations – as the virus/lockdown story continues to worsen and the uncertainty grows. But I also think we should be careful not to adopt the view that everything is going to change as a result of this crisis. The elites are a plucky bunch, not the least because they have money and can buy military capacity. Changing the essential nature of neoliberalism, even if what has been displayed by all the state intervention in the last few months exposes all the myths that have been used to hide that essential nature, is harder than we might imagine. I think hard-edged class struggle is needed rather than middle-class talkfests that outline the latest gee-whiz reform proposals. The latter has been the story of the Europhile progressives for two decades or so as the Eurozone mess has unfolded. It hasn’t got them very far.
Last Thursday (March 26, 2020), the European Council met to discuss the way in which the European Union would deal with the coronavirus crisis. Not much happened. Well that is not exactly true. A lot happened in the sense that even when faced with the worst health crisis in a century that is already devastating the populations in Italy and Spain and creating economic havoc throughout, the leadership split along familiar lines and failed to come up with any solution. There was a lot of talk about solidarity and all the buzz words that the European leadership frequently outputs in their wordy statements. But very little action and lots of acrimony, division and back to form behaviour. My view is that the Member States should now just do whatever they consider it takes to bolster their health systems and protect their economies, which will involve significant fiscal deficits (multiples of the allowable limits under the Stability and Growth Pact), and trust that the ECB’s unlimited bond buying spree will back them. And when the Brussels technocrats start talking about Excessive Deficit Mechanisms and the rest of the blather, they should just show them the door. And if push comes to shove, they just should exit the whole rotten structure. But now is the time for defiance and disobedience. Now is the time that democracy fought back and told the elites to be quiet.
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.
The buzz-word at the moment in Australian government and policy circles is ‘hibernation’ – the government is hoping, that the economy can behave like a crocodile and find some ‘river bank’ and have a ‘good sleep’ until the pandemic is over, at which time, it will burst forth into a new growth phase and unless the virus mutates into something worse in the meantime then all will be well. Their policy interventions to date – while they have been like dragging a chain as their conservative instincts are being dragged very quickly into the demands and realities of real world macroeconomics, which is different to the nonsense that is taught by mainstream economists in our now depleted universities – have been crafted to ensure nothing important changes in a structural sense in our socio-economic lives. The problem is that the existing system, which they are hoping to put into hibernation for a while, is putrid to the core and needs major changes if we are to achieve a socio-ecological transformation. Remember the failings of neoliberalism? Remember climate change? Remember the poles melting? Remember the engineered cuts to workers who rely on penalty rates at weekends to maintain a sense of material prosperity? Remember the 13.7 per cent labour underutilisation rate? Remember the failed public transport and energy sectors, privatised and lacking in investment? Remember the financial markets that were exposed by the recent Royal Commission as corrupt, inefficient and downright dangerous to the our material and psychological prosperity? We don’t need a hibernation. We need the Government to take advantage of the dislocation that is currently occurring to make some basic changes. Like wiping out the gig economy. Like … read on. At present, the stimulus interventions, which are mostly about saving capitalism from itself. We should be demanding much more.
Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has been gaining more attention in Australia in recent weeks. I have been shifting my face-to-face speaking commitments slowly to on-line presentations. I will be announcing more systematic MMTed classes beginning via the Internet soon. And I will do some Live Youtube presentations as well. Last week, the well-known financial market journalist Alan Kohler used his weekly column in The Australian newspaper to discuss MMT – It’s Modern Monetary Theory time as the state steps in (March 23, 2020 – subscription required). Apart from his private corporate work in the financial markets (he writes a regular briefing and does an inflight business report for Qantas), Alan presents the finance report on the national broadcaster ABC nightly news program. He is also a regular columnist in the business pages. So he has high profile. I discussed my concerns with Alan’s representation of MMT in this blog post – It’s Modern Monetary Theory time! No, it always has been! (March 23, 2020). We made contact soon after that – I E-mailed him to tell him I had written a response to his column and he rang me and we arranged to talk further. On Wednesday last week (March 25, 2020), we spoke as part of Alan’s regular podcast – published at Eureka Report (which is a subscription business service). The 48-odd minute is also published here with some additional commentary.