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.
While the Europhile progressives are publishing papers and holding talkfests to discuss their latest EU reform proposals, the on-going reality of the European Union continues to reveal itself – the pretense that there is a rule of law operating – as laid out in the Treaties and the idea that all are equal under that law. When I was researching my 2015 book – Eurozone Dystopia: Groupthink and Denial on a Grand Scale – and over the long period I have studied the concept of European integration it was obvious to me that despite the chimera of a strict, rule-based system that is run by technocrats, the actual practice of the Union is vicariously ad hoc – rules applied in cases where doing otherwise would present ideological problems, abandonment of the rules and outright illegal behaviour when there the interests of the corporate elites are at stake or the existence of the Union is threatened. And while law breaking, relevant officials produce complicated justifications of their behaviour as if what they are doing is within the boundaries specified by the Treaties. The Europhile progressives, meanwhile, continue to hold this embarrassing monstrosity out as the exemplar of freedom, globalism, cosmopolitanism and sophistication. They have reached such a state of denial that what is obvious to those looking in from the outside escapes their attention, or, in the mould of the European technocrats they just ride along with the spurious justifications for the unjustifiable. Europe in 2019.
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!
The way in which Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has become politicised and misrepresented is quite something. The critics have all fallen into the same pattern. They rehearse a few statements that they claim represents what MMT is about, and, which they know will shock people who read and/or listen to them, into concluding that the proponents of MMT understandings are crazy. A whole host of wannabees are now jumping on the bandwagon. And last week, 5 Republican Senators in the US Congress tabled a bill which claims it is “the duty of the Senate to condemn Modern Monetary Theory and recognizing that the implementation of Modern Monetary Theory would lead to higher deficits and higher inflation”. For a start, these goons haven’t even cottoned on to the fact that one cannot implement Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – they are surrounded by it, every day of their lives. But then if they had got that far, they would have also realised that the rest of their arguments in the draft legislation is equally ridiculous. We are making progress though – and the more they come out of the woodwork the better. So far not a blow has stuck.
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.
Last week’s (December 7, 2018) release by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – November 2018 – showed that total non-farm payroll employment rose by 155,000 and the unemployment rate was essentially unchanged at 3.7 per cent. Participation was steady. While the US labour market is reaching unemployment rates not seen since the late 1960s, the participation rate is still well below the pre-GFC levels and a substantial jobs deficit remains. Other indicators suggest there is still considerable slack in the labour market, especially outside the labour force (marginal workers) and among the underemployed. Taken together, the US labour market moderated in November but remains some distance from full employment.
At present, Europe is sweltering in both relative and absolute terms as the harsh summer ensues. In Australia, we are in drought after an unseasonably warm and dry Autumn. Drought is no stranger to Australia but the frequency and circumstances of the current period coupled with what is going on around Europe (including the cold spell I was caught up in Finland in February while the North Pole struggled with heat) tells us that weather patterns are changing. There is now credible research pointing in that direction. But the drought in Australia is demonstrating another thing – the hypocrisy of the way we deal with unemployment and the unemployed vis-a-vis other groups in society that we endow with higher privilege, especially in this neoliberal era. Australia is experiencing a serious drought and Federal and State governments are tripping over each other to offer very large support packages to farmers and their communities to tide them over while their income dries up (excuse the pun). There appears to be no limit to the support these governments are announcing. The Prime Minister is wandering around rural Australia promising this and that to help farmers make ends meet. Whenever I see these special assistance packages being handed out to the rural sector, which is politically well-organised, I reflect on the plight of the unemployed. With unemployment at elevated levels in Australia, the decision to hand out economic largesse to the farmers reeks of inconsistency. The unemployed have diminishing chances of getting a job at present and the income support provided by government is well below the poverty line. That poverty gap is increasing and the Government refuses to increase the benefit claiming fiscal incapacity. The comparison of the vastly different way the government treats farmers relative to unemployed highlights, once again, that the way we construct a problem significantly affects the way we seek to solve it. The neo-liberal era has intensified these inconsistencies which have undermined the capacity of public policy to achieve its purpose – to improve the welfare of all citizens. The research question is: Why do we tolerate such inconsistent ways of thinking about policy problems and their solutions?
There was an article in the International Politics and Society journal (August 27, 2017) – Robin Hood had the right idea – which continues to demonstrate, how in my view, the Left has gone down a deadend path with respect to financial market reform and re-establishing a credible progressive agenda. The sub-title of the article ‘Why the left needs to deliver on the financial transaction tax’ indicates that the author, Stephany Griffith-Jones, who has long advocated positions I am sympathetic to (particularly with respect to development economics), thinks a financial tax is a viable strategy for the Left to push. The problem is that none of these ‘Robin Hood solutions’ are viable and are based on faulty understandings of the way monetary systems operate.
In the September-quarter 2016, Australia recorded negative GDP growth (-0.5 per cent). Over the last two years, employment growth has been flat and over the last 12 months, full-time employment has dived. Underemployment has risen sharply while unemployment remains at elevated levels and participation at depressed levels (meaning hidden unemployment has risen). And over the last four quarters, wages growth in Australia has been at record lows. Sounds bad. Well for some – make that most of us. But yesterday, the ABS shone a light on one cohort of income recipients – capital – profits rose in the December-quarter by 20.1 per cent. What? And wages fell by 0.5 per cent. Phew, I thought there might be some sharing of the spoils going on – you know, the top-end-of-town letting the workers in on the action a bit. This data comes as Australian workers are being shafted by rises in energy prices as a consequence of large companies, many foreign-owned, being given carte blanche to our national energy resources. A major union’s response today has been to call for a gas reservation policy to guarantee domestic supply (which is waning as we export our heads off). Unfortunately, while the call appears to be based on reason – lower prices, guarantees to local industry etc – any move to a domestic reservation policy would slow down the shift to renewables and just shift profits from export to import operations. It is not the sort of regulation that a progressive should support.
Australia is suffering the conjunction of a number of events in recent weeks which demonstrate the poverty of the neo-liberal approach that governments on both sides of the political fence have followed over the last three decades. Electricity prices are rising and the governments have bowed to pressure from the power companies to end the favourable feed-in tariffs that promoted the widespread adoption of solar power by households. Further, our climate change denying federal government has seized on recent power outages in South Australia to attack that state’s accelerated move to renewable energy. The federal government claims it validates its decision to back coal (and they are planning to provide $A1 billion to the Adani group to build transport infrastructure for a new coal development that will never be economic. The problem with the federal narrative is that in the extreme weather Australia is now enduring (very prolonged hot spells with major bush fires) the state with about the lowest renewable mix in its electricity also had to cut power late last week. Further investigation shows that the privatised electricity generating sector has been deliberately manipulating the supply of power (maintaining spare capacity) to exploit price spikes while the captive regulator turns off power to thousands of homes and businesses. Profits before public service – that is what privatisation has delivered. And then, we have to put up with a rising ‘star’ treasurer who thinks government infrastructure spending is unfair to future generations and more privatisation is required. It is best not to put all this together – it is not good for one’s equanimity.