Life as we knew it is changing fast, almost by the hour. Most of my speaking engagements, which were heavily booked for the foreseeable future, have been cancelled or deferred. All the gigs that my band was booked for have been cancelled until people start returning to the now, empty venues. And, more significantly, the ideologues are giving way to the pragmatists in the policy space. Almost (see below). The sudden realisation that even Germany will now spend large amounts to protect their economy exposes all the lies that have been used in the past (up until about yesterday) to stop governments doing what they should always do – maintain spending levels in the economy to sustain full employment and ensure no-one falls through the cracks and misses out on the material benefits of growth. In the early days of the GFC, I thought that the neoliberal era, supported by the mainstream macroeconomists, might be coming to an end. Maybe I was a decade out in my prediction. Perhaps this crisis, induced by a human sickness, will end the madness that has redistributed massive volumes of income to the top-end-of-town, sustained elevated levels of labour underutilisation and seen the traditional progressive political voices become mouthpieces and even agents for the neoliberal economic lies. I was wrong in 2008 on this score. I hope something good like this comes out of the current disaster. The coronavirus comes on top of already growing dissent over the failure of mainstream economic policy. It will redefine what governments can do with their obvious fiscal capacity and will demonstrate once-and-for-all the lies that the mainstream economists tell about deficits, inflation, interest rates, etc. It will categorically demonstrate the capacity of the currency-issuer. All that will lay the foundation for a better future, if we get beyond this current malaise.
I have long disagreed with Guy Standing about the solutions to unemployment. 20 years ago we crossed paths on panels and in the literature where he would argue that UBI was the way forward and I would argue that it was a neoliberal plot and that, instead, we needed to push for job creation. My view has always been that to surrender to the neoliberals on their claim that governments cannot generate sufficient jobs to satisfy the desires for work of the unemployed was a slippery slope. Standing continues to publish his fiction. In his latest Social Europe article (January 15, 2020) – Building a progressive alliance in Britain – he seeks to integrate UBI proposals with a recovery plan for British Labour. My view is that would not help Labour recover from the shots they fired into their own feet in the period before the December election by listening to the likes of Standing and those who advocated the Fiscal Credibility Rule and the reneging on the Brexit commitment. Standing’s aversion to job creation is in contradistinction with a recommendation from the Wetenschappelijke Raad Voor Het Regeringsbeleid (WRR or in English, The Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy) to the Dutch government to deal with the challenges of achieving “good work”, in part, by introducing a ‘basic job’ which in my parlance means by introducing a Job Guarantee. They are motivated by a deep vein of social science and medical research that extols the virtues of work beyond its obvious income generation qualities. Pushing a UBI in the light of that research is just a pitiful bailout.
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 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.
I have been doing some analysis of British and European Trade patterns over the Post World War 2 period. They reveal some very interesting insights that are seemingly lost in the on-going war by Europhiles against Brexit. One of the recurring themes in the Brexit debate is the so-called importance of membership of the European Union to on-going prosperity of Britain through trade. What the data reveals is that British exports growth did not accelerate with accession to the EU in 1973 and after the introduction of the ‘Single Market’, British exports to the EU started to level off and then decline rather sharply. In other words, Britain has been diversifying its exports and is less reliant on the EU than it was say in the early 1990s. The data also shows that the creation of the Single Market hasn’t even boosted intra-EU or intra-Eurozone trade. Additionally, and laterally, the data suggests that the introduction of the euro has not expanded intra-EMU trade. The claims by the Euro-elites that it would were a major part of their justification for pushing through to the common currency. I consider this sort of evidence has been largely ignored by those in the Remain camp, who prefer to base their assertions on the highly questionable ‘forecasts’ coming from neoliberal-inspired ‘models’, which have so far demonstrated an appalling record of accordance with the facts. The data I have shown here doesn’t provide an open and shut case for Brexit. But it does show that the importance of EU membership to Britain’s prosperity is probably overstated and that Britain will prosper if its own policy settings are appropriate.
I have been (involuntarily) copied into a rather lengthy Twitter exchange in the last week or so where a person who says he is ‘all over MMT’ (meaning I presume, that he understands its basic principles and levels of abstraction and subtlety) has been arguing ad nauseum that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) proponents are a laughing stock when they claim that taxes and debt-issuance do not fund the spending of a currency-issuing government. He points to the existing institutional structures in the US whereby tax receipts apparently go into a specific account at the central bank and governments are prevented from spending unless the account balance is positive. Also implicated, apparently, is the on-going sham about the ‘debt ceiling’, which according to the argument presented on Twitter is testament to the ‘fact’ that government deficits are funded by borrowings obtained from debt issuance. I received many E-mails about this issue in the last week from readers of my blog wondering what the veracity of these claims were – given they thought (in general) they sounded ‘convincing’. Were the original MMT proponents really overstating the matter and were these accounting arrangements evidence that in reality the government has to raise both tax revenue and funds from borrowing in order to deficit spend? Confusion reigns supreme it seems. Once one understands the underlying nature of the financial flows associated with government spending and taxation, it will become obvious that the argument presented above is superficial at best and fails to come to terms with the basic questions: where do the funds come from that we use to pay our taxes and buy government debt? Once we dig down to that level, the matter resolves quickly.
I have all that much time today to write this up and it is going to be one of those multi-part blogs given the depth of the historical literature I am digging into. So this is Part 1. The topic centres on an agreement between the US Federal Reserve System (the central bank federation in the US) and the US Treasury to peg the interest rate on government bonds in 1942. What the agreement demonstrated is that a central bank can always control yields on government bonds, which includes keeping them at zero (or even negative in the current case of Japan). What it demonstrates is that private bonds markets, no matter how much they might huff and puff about their own importance or at least the conservatives who are ‘fan boys’ of the bond markets), the government always rules because of its currency monopoly
The Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based research foundation that analyses health care systems, recently released an interested international comparison of the performance of such systems across a number of criteria (July 2017) – Mirror, Mirror 2017: International Comparison Reflects Flaws and Opportunities for Better U.S. Health Care. Health care is one of several policy areas where the debate descends into fiasco because the typical application of mainstream economics obscures a widespread understanding of how the monetary system operates and the opportunities that system provides a currency-issuing government. Once an understanding of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is achieved the choices available in health care policy become more obvious and better decision-making is likely. The Commonwealth Fund report provides useful information in this regard, although the MMT understanding has to come separately.
There are many examples of high profile players in the political arena trying to revise history and reinvent themselves to suit the new climate they are operating in. Tony Blair is a notable example in recent months where he sought to influence the upcoming British election by casting aspersions on the current Labour Party leadership. His past record is so abysmal that anyone in their right mind would just go away and stay silent. But this sort of person – the revisionist reinventers – have a thick hide and a sense of entitlement that most of us couldn’t imagine. I read an article in the American Prospect Magazine last week (June 1, 2017) – The Democrats’ ‘Working-Class Problem’ – written by Stanley B. Greenberg, an American pollster who “works with center-left political parties in the United States and abroad” and so claims to have insights into why people vote the way they do. This was a classic example of being lectured about a problem when the lecturer is himself part of the problem but, seemingly, fails to see that.
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.
Maybe the Australian Government should examine all its contracts with the biggest 121 companies in Australia and cancel them. Perhaps it should, where these companies provide public infrastructure consider setting up not-for-profit public companies to compete against the private 121 (thus lowering prices) and direct all public procurement to these new public institutions. The reason I suggest that is because the Business Council of Australia, which represents the largest companies in Australia (membership equals 121) is demanding the Australian government introduce rather sharp spending cuts or “suffer the consequences”. Okay, a good place to start, might therefore be to cut all public assistance to the companies that are members of the BCA, which would generate huge reductions in government spending. Do you think they would be so aggressive if that was on the table? Not a chance. This is a tawdry lot of corporatists who have had a long history of whingeing about government intervention unless, of course, it is helping grease the profits of their membership. Why the media has given their latest calls for fiscal rectitude the coverage it has reflects on the quality of our media these days.
The dictionary says Post Truth is the “fact or state of being post-truth; a time period or situation in which facts have become less important than emotional persuasion”. But I prefer to be direct – not to mince words – Post Truth is lying, plain and simple. It is making stuff up that is untrue, in denial of the facts, and, in cases where volition drives the lying, using strategic and well-thought out tools of psychological persuasion, fear, threats etc to make it look as though the statements are factual rather than lies. The interesting thing for me at the moment in this respect is that we are increasingly being told we are now in this Post Truth era. That social media has created this Post Truth era and that something should be done about it. Oxford English Dictionary announced recently that the Word of the Year 2016 is…, you got it, “post-truth” which they claim is a “concept … [which] … has been in existence for the past decade”. Its use has apparently “spiked in frequency this year” as a result of the Brexit referendum and the US election. Two things then are worth noting. First, there is nothing new about the idea of lying to influence public opinion. Indeed, as I will explain (briefly) the whole edifice of mainstream economics, including New Keynesian economics has been ‘post-truth’ since its inception. Second, the fact that it is getting attention now is because the establishment are starting to feel the pinch – their usual media power is losing traction with the democratising influences of the Internet – and their cosy worlds of influence are under threat from a rabble. And this applies to so-called progressive Left (the socialist politicians in Europe, the Labour politicians in Australia, Britain and elsewhere) who have so bought into the neo-liberal myth machine that they cannot understand why they are now losing support from their traditional sources (working class people). The ‘post-truth’ era is apparently upon us. But the reality is that there is nothing new about lying in mainstream economics. It is built upon a lie. It is just that the lying that is spreading on the Internet (‘fake news sites’) are damaging the establishment. That is why they are now complaining. They have never complained about the incessant lying from the economics profession.
There is now a so-called “New View of fiscal policy”, which, in fact, is not all that different to the “Old View” although the proponents are hell-bent on convincing us (and presumably themselves) otherwise. The iterative bumbling along of mainstream economists, dammed by reality but steeped in denial, continues. The latest iteration comes from the Chairman of the US Council of Economic Advisors, one Jason Furman, who was supervised in his doctoral studies by Greg Mankiw at Harvard. He is also “closely linked to Robert Rubin” a classic “Wall Street insider” who was Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton and a gung-ho deregulator with a seedy past (in January 2009, he was named by Marketwatch as one of the “10 most unethical people in business”). Please see – Being shamed and disgraced is not enough – for more on Rubin. Furman’s lineage is thus not good. Furman supports free trade, social security private accounts and Wal-Mart’s labour practices which allows it to offer such low prices (for junk!) (Source). Furman is part of the core ‘Democrat neo-liberal establishment’, which received its comeuppance in last week’s Presidential election. His views on fiscal policy should come as no surprise then.
I am currently working on a book commissioned by Edward Elgar which will form an anthology of influential Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) literature – how it evolved – with a long introduction by me tying all this literature together. It has been a simmering project for the last 18 months and I haven’t mentioned it here until now. The first task was to assemble the literature and then the next task was that the publisher (EE) has to get copyright clearance from the original holders. The second process has taken some time and I have had to alter the proposed table of contents because we cannot get copyright clearance. The reason I mention this is that the work of Hyman Minsky is not among the literature I have selected as being influential in the intellectual development of MMT. That is not to say that some of his earlier work was of no interest. Quite the contrary. But when he makes statements that appear to be consistent with MMT propositions, he is, in my view, just channelling the likes of Abba Lerner and his functional finance. But later in his career, Minsky started to articulate ideas that were consistent with ‘sound finance’, which Lerner had opposed, and, which is anathema to MMT.
When a News Corp newspaper starts writing articles that reflect the insights provided by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) you know that progress in the dissemination of those ideas is being made. Even if they don’t get things exactly right. The Dow Jones & Company (owned by News Corp) daily, the Wall Street Journal carried an article last week (October 31, 2016) – Message from the Gilt Market: U.K. Can Never Run Out of Pound – which leaves no room for doubt. The London-based journalist Jon Sindreu wrote that “Among facts that take a stubbornly long time to sink in, here’s one: Countries that borrow in their own currencies never have to default on their debt”. So never again allow a person in your company to suggest otherwise. There are many like facts that seem to evade the understanding of journalists, politicians and others who desire to push the neo-liberal line. I say ‘seem’ because it is certain that many of these neo-lib banner carriers know full well they lie when they make claims about currency-issuing governments running out of money and the like. They are ideological warriors after all and in war, anything seemingly goes.
Yesterday (May 2, 2016), the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) dropped the short-term policy interest rate by 25 basis points (1/4 of a percent) to 1.75 per cent, a record low as a result of its assessment of a weakening economy and the deflation that has now been revealed by the ABS. I wrote about the latest CPI data in this blog – Australia enters the deflation league of sorry nations. The fact that the RBA is trying to stimulate growth is a sad testament to the current conduct of the Australian government (and the Treasury), which despite all the lying rhetoric that its corporate tax cuts, revealed in last night’s fiscal statement will stimulate jobs growth, is actually continuing to undermine growth. The fiscal contraction implied by last night’s statement by the Federal Treasurer is modest next year and then gets sharper in the year after (2017-18). Many would conclude that the contractionary shift is benign. However, in the context that the strategy is being delivered, the actual need is for the discretionary fiscal deficit to rise by around 1 to 1.5 per cent of GDP, at least, not contract at all. The federal government has moderated its ‘surplus at all costs’ mania which dominated the macroeconomic policy debate a few years ago but is still aiming for a surplus (or close to it) within 4 years. It will fail in that goal because the non-government spending behaviour will not allow that outcome and the government’s own fiscal contraction over that period will undermine growth further. The early statements by the Federal opposition are also idiotic. It is claiming it would make ‘tougher’ decisions (that is, cut the deficit more sharply). That just means it would end up with higher levels of unemployment than the conservatives will under their current strategy. Both unemployment levels will be unacceptable. Neither major political party in Australia is fit for office!
Several new articles have appeared in the last few weeks in the major media outlets expressing surprise that central banks have had little effect on economic growth despite the rather massive buildup of their ‘balance sheets’ via various types of quantitative easing programs. I have indicated before that I am coming to the view that most of the media, politicians, central bankers and other likely types (IMF and European Commission officials etc) seem to be in a constant state of ‘surprise’ as each day of reality fails to confirm what they said yesterday or last week (allowing for lags :-)). What a group of surprised people we have to effectively run our nations on behalf of capital. Poor souls, constantly be shocked out of their certainties. That is what Groupthink does – creates mobs that deny reality until it smacks them so hard in the face that they can only utter “that was surprising!” And in that context, the latest media trend appears to be something along the lines of ‘well let’s get the turbines moving’ or ‘those helicopters are about to launch’ and when we read that and what follows we learn that the media input into our lives only reinforces the smokescreen of ignorance that we conduct our daily lives within.
In September 2010, The Project Syndicate, which markets itself as providing the “Smartest Op-Ed Articles from the World’s Thought Leaders” gave space to Martin Feldstein – Japan’s Savings Crisis. Like a cracked record, Feldstein rehearsed his usual idiotic claims that interest rates in Japan would rise because “of the continuing decline in Japan’s household saving rate” and that “the higher interest rate would eventually raise the government’s interest bill by about 4% of GDP. And that would push a 7%-of-GDP fiscal deficit to 11%”. Then, so the story goes, “This vicious spiral of rising deficits and debt would be likely to push interest rates even higher, causing the spiral to accelerate”. At which point, Japan sinks slowly into the sea never to be seen again. It turns out that the real world is a little different to what students read about in mainstream macroeconomics textbooks. At the risk of understatement I should have said very (completely) different. Better rephrase that to say – what appears in mainstream macroeconomics textbooks bears little or no relation to the reality we all live in. Anyway, events over the last week in Japan have once again meant that this has been just another week of humiliation for mainstream macroeconomics – one of many.
On June 10, 2015, the Italian finance minister wrote an Op Ed article for the UK Guardian – Couldn’t Brussels bail out the jobless? – which continued the call from those who sought ‘reform’ of the Economic and Monetary Union in Europe for a European-wide unemployment insurance scheme. This idea continues to resonate within European circles and is held out as a major improvement to the failed Eurozone system. My response is that if this is as far as the political imagination can go in Europe among progressives then there is little hope that the EMU will become a vehicle for sustained prosperity. The creation of a European-wide unemployment insurance scheme is better than the current situation where the responsibility for providing income support to the unemployed outside of the private insurance arrangements is left to their Member States who surrendered their currency sovereignty upon joining the Eurozone. But, it is a weak palliative at best and fails to address the basic problem of mass unemployment, which is inadequate capacity for Member States to run fiscal deficits of a size necessary to bridge the spending gap left by the savings desires of the non-government sector. Until the European debate shifts towards that issue and the policy players and the people who elect them realise that the fiscal design of the Eurozone is flawed at the most elemental level and that the fiscal rules superimposed upon that flawed design only serve to exacerbate the initial failure to construct a sustainable monetary union. Introducing a European-wide unemployment insurance scheme does not take us very far down that road of enlightenment.
The British Office of National Statistics published the – Gross Domestic Product Preliminary Estimate, Quarter 3 2015 – yesterday (October 27, 2015) which showed, unsurprisingly, that the British economy is slowing and heading back into recession under current policy settings. The annual real GDP growth rate declined for the third successive quarter as the impacts of the world slowdown and domestic policy austerity start to take their toll. The British government really has to reflect back on 2012 and realise that with non-government spending weak and a household sector carrying very high levels of indebtedness, now is not the time to be trying to cut discretionary net public spending. There is a need for a public spending injection to restore growth while the world works out which way it is going to go.