A short blog post today (Wednesday and all). I am working on the revisions to our Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) textbook that will be published by Macmillan-Palgrave in November 2018. We have all the editorial and external reviews available now and are working through the editorial process to complete the final version. Mostly clarifications and style issues. There will be a slight rearrangement of chapter order and emphasis but nothing major. In the meantime, some thoughts on UBI and some music for today. A more detailed blog post will come along tomorrow.
Poverty arises for a number of reasons but a lack of income has to be a central characteristic of someone who is poor. And notwithstanding the increasing tendency for people who work full-time to be found earning wages that place them below the poverty line, the major reason for people having a lack of income is unemployment. That typically makes poverty a systemic event rather than an individual failure because mass unemployment is easy to understand – it occurs when the system fails to produce enough jobs to meet the desires for work by the available labour force. Then, to understand why the system fails in that way, we know that once the spending and saving decisions of the non-government sector are made, if there is still a spending shortfall in the economy, which generates the mass unemployment, then it has to be because the net spending position of the national government is short. That is, either the fiscal surplus is too large or (usually) the deficit is too small. In that sense, the introduction of a Job Guarantee would eliminate poverty arising from unemployment and the working poor because the Government could condition the minimum wage by where it set the Job Guarantee wage. If it truly desired to end poverty among those in employment then it would set the Job Guarantee accordingly. Others argue that a more direct way of dealing with poverty and lack of income is to just provide the income via a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). The BIG idea has captured the progressive side of politics and many on the Right. It is another one of those sneaky neo-liberal ideas that look good on the surface but are rotten not far below. Supporters of BIG are really absolving currency-issuing governments of their responsibility to use their fiscal capacities to ensure there are sufficient jobs created – whether in the non-government or government sector. They are thus going along with the neo-liberal attack on the right to work. Moreover, closer analysis reveals that the introduction of the BIG would not, under current institutional arrangements reduce poverty at all.
A reader pointed out the other day that a good idea remains a good idea even if bad people advocate it. This was in relation to my blog – Why are CEOs now supporting basic income guarantees?. It reprised an issue that has a long history in culture and the arts. Should we hate Wagner because it was symbolic for the Nazis? What about the work of Budd Schulberg who produced the screenplay for ‘On the Waterfront’ but was simultaneously dobbing people into the House Un-American Activities Committee? There are countless examples of this sort of quandary, or not, depending on your viewpoint. As I wrote in the earlier blog (cited abive), I am always suspicious when the elites advocate something. It is not just a taste for Wagner they are articulating. Generally, they are advocating further pathways that they can shore up their control and power. Which means bad things for the rest of us! The BIG is one of those pathways and it leads to impoverishment and an on-going capitalist domination. A basic income guarantee is not a path to nirvana – I see it as just a neo-liberal strategy for serfdom without the work.
This is Part 5 in the mini-series discussing the relative merits of the basic income guarantee proposal and the Job Guarantee proposal. It finishes this part of our discussion. Today, I consider how society establishes a fair transition environment to cope with climate change and the impacts of computerisation etc. I outline a coherent adjustment framework to allow these transitions to occur equitably and where they are not possible (due to limits on worker capacity) alternative visions of productive work are developed? I argue that while work, in general, is coercive under capitalism, the provision of employment guarantees is a more equitable approach than relying as the basic income advocates envision on the exploitation of some to provide the freedom for others. Further, I argue that the Job Guarantee is a better vehicle for creating new forms of productive work. Adopting a basic income guarantee in this context just amounts to surrender. Our manuscript is nearly finished and we hope to complete the hard edits in the next month or so and have the book available for sale by the end of this year. More information on that later.
This is Part 4 in the mini-series discussing the relative merits of the basic income guarantee proposal and the Job Guarantee proposal. It is the ‘robot edition’. The march of the robots is the latest pretext that basic income proponents (including the IMF now) use to justify their policy advocacy. There is some truth in the claims that the so-called ‘second machine age’, marked by the arrival of robots, is not only gathering speed, but is different from the first period of machine development with respect to its capacity to wipe out human involvement in production. But the claims are somewhat over the top. Further the claims that these trends are inevitable are in denial of the basic capacities of the state to legislate in the common interest. While the innovations in technology will free labour from repetitive and boring work and improve productivity in those tasks, there is no inevitability that robots will develop outside the legislative framework administered by the state and overrun humanity (even if the predictions of robot autonomy are at all realistic). We will surely need to develop a coherent adjustment framework to allow these transitions to occur equitably and where they are not possible (due to limits on worker capacity) alternative visions of productive work are developed?
Further, the Job Guarantee is a better vehicle for handling these type of transitions and creating new forms of productive work. Adopting a basic income guarantee in this context just amounts to surrender.
This is Part 3 in the mini-series discussing the relative merits of the basic income guarantee proposal and the Job Guarantee proposal. While there is a lot of literature out there on the merits of introducing a basic income guarantee very rarely will you read a detailed account of the macroeconomic implications of such a scheme. It is inescapable that the basic income proposal lacks what I call an inflation anchor. That is, to provide an adequate stipend and generate full employment (ensure there are enough jobs for all who want to work), the basic income guarantee is inherently inflationary and sets in place destructive macroeconomic dynamics which make it unsustainable. To suppress the inherent inflationary bias of the proposal, the stipend has to be so low that the recipients are freed from work but not poverty. The Job Guarantee, by way of contrast, is designed to provide an explicit inflation anchor and allows the government to continuously maintain full employment and provide a decent wage to those who from time to time will be in the Job Guarantee pool. It does not rely on poverty wages or unemployment to maintain price stability. That alone is a fundamental advantage of the Job Guarantee over the basic income guarantee – it is sustainable.
This is Part 2 in the mini-series discussing the relative merits of the basic income guarantee proposal and the Job Guarantee proposal. The topic of a basic income guarantee seems to evoke a lot of passion and in all the discussions I rarely read anyone going carefully through the macroeconomic implications of bringing in a scheme. I get lots of E-mails accusing me in varying degrees of politeness of being on a moral crusade in my opposition to basic income proposals. I wonder how much of my work over the years such correspondents have read. Not much is my conclusion. Whatever you think of the morality of having a system where some people work while others are supported in one way or another without having to work, even though they could (so I exclude the aged, sick, severely disabled here), the fact remains that a policy proposal won’t get much traction from me if it has a deep inflation bias and adopts neo-liberal explanations for economic outcomes like unemployment. I will also never support a proposal that absolves the national government from taking responsibility for providing enough work via its currency capacities and treats individuals expediently as ‘consumption units’ – to be maintained at minimum material levels. Anyway, we explore a few of those issues in this blog.
This is Part 1 in my mini-series on my version of the debate between employment guarantees and income guarantees. An earlier post rightfully belongs in the series as Part 0 – Work is important for human well-being. This discussion will form part of the Part 3 of my next book (with co-author, Italian journalist Thomas Fazi) which traces the way the Left fell prey to what we call the globalisation myth and started to believe that the state had withered and was powerless in the face of the transnational movements of goods and services and capital flows. Accordingly, social democratic politicians frequently opine that national economic policy must be acceptable to the global financial markets and compromise the well-being of their citizens as a result. In Part 3 of the book, which we are now completing, we aim to present a ‘Progressive Manifesto’ to guide policy design and policy choices for progressive governments. We also hope that the ‘Manifesto’ will empower community groups by demonstrating that the TINA mantra, where these alleged goals of the amorphous global financial markets are prioritised over real goals like full employment, renewable energy and revitalised manufacturing sectors is bereft and a range of policy options, now taboo in this neo-liberal world, are available. Wherever one turns these days, a so-called progressive pops up with a megaphone (conceptual) shouting that a basic income guarantee is the panacea for all manner of evil – starting back some years ago with unemployment and moving more recently, as that rationale was exposed, to the need to counter the expected ravages of the second machine age. As regular readers will know I am a leading advocate for employment guarantees. I consider basic income proposals to represent a surrender to the neo-liberal forces – an acceptance of the inevitability of mass unemployment. Further, the robot argument doesn’t cut it. Anyway, in Part 1 – Work is important for human well-being – I considered the need to broaden the definition of productive work. I also emphasised the importance of an on-going availability of work for human well-being. In Part 2, we sketch the arguments that have been advanced to justify the basic income proposal and find them inconsistent, illogical and deficient.
It does not quite add up. But then why should it. Spin is spin. On the one hand, we are being constantly told that the world has entered a new era of secular stagnation, driven by an ageing population and a fall off in productive innovation, and we just have to get used to the elevated levels of unemployment that come with that. Yet, other spin doctors are talking about the innovation revolution, the second machine-age, where the march of the robots who will be embedded with AI that will make them smarter than us, big data, automation, the Internet of Things, and more will render work obsolete. In both cases, apparently, the introduction of a guaranteed income is recommended. Suspicious? Then there is more. When CEOs of big companies start advocating a policy that they claim will improve the lot of workers I become immediately suspicious. And why would people with a progressive bent advocate policies that are part of the continuing conservative ambition to achieve social control and which essentially amount to an abandonment of responsibility that government has for maintaining employment for those who cannot otherwise find jobs? So what is with this rush of support for a basic income guarantee (BIG) from all sides of politics??
When I first came up with the idea of a buffer stock employment approach to maintain full employment and discipline the inflationary process (back in 1978), the literature on guaranteed incomes was still in its infancy. The idea of a basic income guarantee was still mostly constructed within the framework Milton Friedman had laid out in his negative income tax approach, which I first came across when reading his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, while I was an undergraduate. I wasn’t taken with the idea and the preferred an approach to income security that not only integrated job security but also had a built-in inflation anchor. When I developed that idea, inflation was still conceived of the main problem and governments were fast abandoning full employment commitments because mainstream economists told them TINA. I thought otherwise. However, as I developed the buffer stock approach further in the 1990s as part of the first work that we now call Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), nuances about additional cash transfers became part of our approach. I refined those ideas in work I did developing a minimum wage framework for the South African government in 2008. I was reminded of all this when I read a report in New Scientist last week (January 24, 2022) – Giving low-income US families $4000 a year boosts child brain activity. Some might think this justifies the BIG approach, whereas it strengthens the case for a multi-dimensional – Job Guarantee.
Given I provided a detailed National Account analysis yesterday, I am using today as a blog lite day with just some snippets and then a musical offering – as per my usual Wednesday practice. I did an interview for Real Progressives last week and some of the social media reaction has been hysterical – claims that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has gone political and that MMT advocates abandoning the capitalist system and so on so forth. Some of this stuff is coming from self-identified ‘progressives’, which makes me wonder how much meaning term retains. In some cases, the attacks were really Trojan horses for the dislike of my Brexit stance or my attacks on the British Labour Party for pushing an unworkable and neo-liberal inspired fiscal credibility rule, which they had to change just before the election anyway because it was unworkable in its original form. So the resentment of those who hang onto the ‘European dream’ for the UK manifests as stupid, lying attacks on anything I say. Fine. More importantly, Switzerland is having a little ‘Brexit’ sort of move itesel, that has angered the European Union and is another chink in the now very depleted European ‘dream’. And if all that is a bit much, we can finish with some Jazz.
I noted yesterday that I was appearing at a Seminar via Zoom with my MMT colleague, Pavlina Tcherneva, where we will discuss the concept of a social contract and where Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) fits into that, especially in the context of our idea of employment guarantees. The seminar – MMT and the new social contract: Lessons from Covid-19 – will be held on Saturday, February 27, 2021, from 10:00 Australian Eastern Daylight time and you can find details of how you can participate – HERE. I was thinking about what I would contribute to this workshop and rather than just rehearse the standard discussion about the Job Guarantee I have thought going back to square one would be a good place to start. This is especially a good thing to do, given that I increasingly see progressive people embrace the concept but try to do ‘too much’ with it. That is, place too much emphasis on it, especially in the context of Green Transitions. Pouring all our activist and political energy into getting a Job Guarantee up is not a sensible strategy for reasons I will explain. Second, a lot of critics, especially those who talk big on Twitter about ‘Bill Mitchell wanting people to starve’, clearly haven’t gone back to understand the roots of the concept and where it fits in. So today, I want to further clarify some significant issues that arise when both sides – pro and con – come in contact with the concept of employment buffer stocks for the first time and think they know all about.
We have been doing a lot of work developing the MOOC at the University of Newcastle which will also mark the first – MMTed material. We will follow up the MOOC with more detailed learning options in subsequent months. Tomorrow, we will be filming some more material for the MOOC and I think you will enjoy what we have planned when the MOOC begins on March 3, 2021. As part of the planning I have been thinking of simplified frameworks for teaching rather complicated concepts and relationships. Here is an example of that sort of thinking.
It is Wednesday so some snippets and some music – sad music this week because it signals the death of one of the great pioneers of Jamaican music last week. I am holding a Mini-Music Festival today – right here on my blog. Join in an celebrate a legend. But a few economics matters first pertaining to the Job Guarantee and the nonsensical arguments I have been seeing in the media about it being a system of enslavement and not better than a system that forces workers into unemployment.
We need to get a few things straight. And this is partly for those out there who seem to think that the extent of literature on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) or the Job Guarantee within MMT is confined to collections of Tweets that allow 280 characters or Unicode glyphs. One doesn’t become an expert on ‘full employment’ or ‘political economy’ because they have suddenly realised there is a major crisis in the labour market and have decided to strategically place their organisations for self-serving purposes to be champions of full employment. There is an enormous literature on the Job Guarantee and I have been a major contributor along with my valued colleagues. This is a crucial time in history and one of the glaring deficiencies in the current crisis and economic management in general is the lack of an employment safety net. This is what MMT has to say about that safety net and stabilisation framework.
As the public scrutiny of the body of work we now refer to as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) widens there is a lot of misinformation abroad that distorts or otherwise undermines what has been done to date. Most, but not all the misinformation or emphasis comes from those who attack our work. Their criticisms usually disclose an incomplete understanding of where MMT came from and what the core propositions and logic are. They stylise, usually using terms and constructs that are present in mainstream thinking, but inapplicable to an MMT way of thinking, and end up spitting out things like ‘printing money’ etc, which they think represents a devastating rejection of our work. As part of my own work, and I do this in liaison with Warren Mosler, I am interested in documenting the train of events that led to what we now call MMT. I love history and think it is very important in helping us understand things. So today I am continuing to examine archives to trace the provenance of key MMT concepts. And I am continuing to document the idea of a Job Guarantee, which is central to the MMT framework, despite many who claim to be MMTers thinking otherwise. I have noted in the recent press, claims that the origins of the buffer stock employment approach that became the Job Guarantee was the work of Hyman Minsky. Nothing could be further from the truth as you will see. It is important, in my view, to make the provenance very clear and that is what this blog post is about.
It is now clear that to most observers that the use of monetary policy to stimulate major changes in economic activity in either direction is fraught. Central bankers in many nations have been pulling all sorts of policy ‘rabbits’ out of the hat over the last decade or more and their targets have not moved as much or in many cases in the direction they had hoped. Not only has this shown up the lack of credibility of mainstream macroeconomics but it is now leading to a major shift in policy thinking, which will tear down the neoliberal shibboleths that the use of fiscal policy as a counter-stabilisation tool is undesirable and ineffective. In effect, there is a realignment going on between policy responsibility and democratic accountability, something that the neoliberal forces worked hard to breach by placing primary responsibility onto the decisions of unelected and unaccountable monetary policy committees. And this shift is bringing new players to the fore who are intent on denying that even fiscal policy can stave off major downturns in non-government spending. These sort of attacks from a mainstream are unsurprising given its credibility is in tatters. But they are also coming from the self-proclaimed Left, who seem opposed to a reliance on nation states, and in the British context, this debate is caught up in the Brexit matter, where the Europhile Left are pulling any argument they can write down quickly enough to try to prevent Britain leaving the EU, as it appears it now will (and that couldn’t come quickly enough).
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 just finished reading a report published by the Transnational Institute (TNI), which is an “international research and advocacy institute committed to building a just, democratic and sustainable world”. The Report (published November 19, 2018) – Democracy Not For Sale – is harrowing, to say the least. We learn that in an advanced European nation with a glorious tradition and history an increasing number of people are being denial access to basic nutrition solely as a result of economic policy changes that have been imposed on it by outside agencies (European Commission, European Central Bank and the IMF). The Report shows how the food supply has been negatively impacted by the austerity programs; how food prices have been forced up at the same time as incomes have been forced down, and how collective and cooperative arrangements have been destroyed by privatisation and deregulation impositions. The Report concludes that the Greek State and the Eurozone Member States violated the Greek people’s right to food as a result of the austerity measures required by three Memorandums of Understanding (2010, 2012 and 2015). In other words, the austerity packages imposed on Greece contravened international human rights law. Not one person has gone to prison as a result of this deliberate and calculated violation of human rights.
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.