This is Part 2 of an irregular series I am writing on some of the complexities of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) that are often overlooked by those who rely on reading airport-style books or Op Eds on the topic. In – Exploring the essence of MMT – Part 1 (March 29, 2022) – I dealt with some conceptual issues about values and theory. Today, I am considering the way to think about the – Job Guarantee – within the MMT framework. The Job Guarantee is at the centre of MMT because it contains an insight that is missing from the mainstream economics – the concept of spending on a price rule. This insight leads to the conclusion that the price level is determined by what the monopoly issuer of the fiat currency – the government is prepared to pay for goods and services. This, in turn, means that the Job Guarantee goes well beyond being a job creation program and constitutes within MMT a comprehensive macroeconomic stability framework – where the so-called trade-off between inflation and unemployment (Phillips Curve) is eliminated. However, while in the real world, complexity enters the scene and we need to be aware of the nuances so that we do not fall into the trap of thinking of the Job Guarantee as an inflation killer.
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.
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.
When Kevin Rudd was faced with the threat posed by the unfolding GFC in late 2008 his government became very pragmatic and immediately ditched the narrative they had been pushing out throughout that year about inflation being a threat and the need for tighter fiscal policy and surpluses. They introduced, in two rounds, a fairly significant fiscal stimulus (around 4.2 per cent of GDP) which effectively saved the Australian economy from entering a recession. A significant part of that intervention was that it had various temporal properties – a cash handout in December 2008 designed to get spending power into the hands of consumers just before Xmas (the famous ‘flat screen’ payment – there were a lot of TVs purchased), which obviously was an immediate focus, and, a longer term component, which included their plan to put insulation into every home. This was aimed at job creation clearly, to address the cyclical needs, but, it was also intended to address the longer term climate crisis, that were beyond the GFC cycle. When appraising what government’s should be doing now – to deal with the socio-economic consequences of the medical crisis – that style of thinking is essential. The questions that need to be asked are: 1. What can be done now to avert an economic collapse? 2. What do we want to change about the pre-structure of the economy into the future? 3. How can we use the stimulus intervention to make those changes, while addressing Question 1. In this blog post, I go through some of that style of thinking. I also provide some specific estimates of the investment needed to introduce a Job Guarantee in Australia.
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.
Last week (October 7, 2019), the ILO released its latest report on Timor-Leste – Timor-Leste labour force surveys 2010-2013-2016: Main trends based on harmonized data. I have been waiting for this publication as it provides the most coherent labour market data for TL. I am working on a detailed Job Guarantee proposal and I needed the ILO data. In this vein, I have also been reviewing the most recent fiscal statement from the Timor-Leste Government to see what direction of policy is taking, which will further help me understand the opportunities. TL is one of the poorest nations. It has a very fast growing and young population. Around 70 per cent of the workforce is ‘self-employed’ in the agricultural sector despite that sector enjoying only modest growth (9 per cent between 2000 and 2017) which has seen it slip in importance from 24.5 per cent of total GDP in 2000 to just 9.2 per cent in 2017 (latest data). The growth in employment in TL has been largely confined to Dili and is mostly in self-employment with limited job security and capacity for wages growth. There are two factors constraining the growth of quality employment: (a) the lack of investment in education and skills development; and (b) the lack of diversity in the structure of the economy, with the oil and gas sector accounting for 43 per cent of total output (2017) but generating very few employment opportunities. Governance issues (rule of law, contractual enforcement, political uncertainty) also contribute to a lack of capital formation, which, in turn, constrains employment growth. What is needed are policies to diversify the economy both in industrial structure and in spatial terms (promote growth outside of Dili), strong investment in education and health, and job opportunities that are suitable to the unmet needs in regional areas and the skill levels of the citizens who live there. Once I investigate the data more deeply I will publish a Job Guarantee proposal. But here are some necessary thoughts that condition my approach.
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!
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.
My blog post last week – On the path to MMT becoming mainstream (April 17, 2018) – discussed the way in which the language and concepts that have been developed by the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) authors are now permeating mainstream narratives and the media. While this has increased the pushback and hostility from both the Right and Left opposition to MMT, it is also a sign that the public understanding of the way in which the monetary system works and the policy options available to currency-issuing governments, is improving. Most recently, there is been a flurry in the US media discussing employment guarantees, which is a welcome relief from the previous saturation coverage of impoverished UBI ideas. It is fabulous, that at the policy level, the idea that the state can eliminate mass (involuntary) unemployment if it so chooses is becoming more acceptable. That’s down, in part, to the great work being done there by my MMT colleagues. There are also derivative public sector job creation proposals getting ‘airplay’ which I do not consider to be MMT-inspired nor are what I would call Job Guarantee initiatives, but which are still, to their credit, raising awareness of the need for the state to ensure there are sufficient jobs for all rather than dispatch citizens who are unable to find work to the unemployment queue. The push back is increasing and that is a sign that dissonance is being felt by the neoliberals who oppose the state taking responsibility for mass unemployment and using its fiscal capacity to render it a thing of the past. Many of the critics from the Left do not have the courage to come out and say they prefer the alternative to a Job Guarantee, which is entrenched unemployment. That leaves them carping away with no legs to stand on. The Right objections are venal as they always are – they want mass unemployment to persist to dampen wages growth and allow more real income to be captured by the top-end-of-town.
I have noticed a new phenomenon – a sort of new myopia – has emerged as the blogoshphere has expanded. The knowledge set that people think they are empowering themselves with becomes rather constricted – sometimes to a selection of blogs they may have read, sometimes even to the last blog they read on a topic. So we get a range of views and prognostications emerging – held out as expert commentary in many cases – upon the basis of perhaps just a few blogs having been read. As a long-term blogger, I also see this syndrome in the comments section of blogs. Someone new turns up it seems having read the latest offering from someone and launches into an array of criticisms which have been previously addressed but the commentator hasn’t bothered to read. The point is that research is a lengthy process and opinions should only be formed with conviction when one is convinced they have read all the major offerings in the area of interest and considered the evidence base. Which brings me to the real point. Before I wrote blogs I had generated 25 or so years of academic research material – in journal articles, books, book chapters, commissioned reports – hundreds of items of work. That is standard fare for an active researcher chasing competitive grants. That is where one’s contribution to ‘knowledge’ (as far as it is) is to be found. I only started writing blogs as a way of promoting Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) to a broader audience that would never read my academic work. I think that has been a successful strategy. But it has also created this ‘new myopia’. People think that the knowledge set available lies exclusively in blogs. It doesn’t. My blogs cut corners in writing style, referencing, and leave things unsaid that a more formal treatment would cover. The aim of the blog is accessibility and to provide an introduction to ideas which will encourage readers to delve further and arm themselves with deeper knowledge so as to promote informed progressive activism. A case in point is recent deliberations about one of my pet topics – the Job Guarantee.
Economists often use the so-called Unemployment-Vacancy (UV) ratio, which is the number of official unemployed divided by the number of unfilled vacancies at any point in time, to measure the strength of the labour market. The latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) shows that the UV ratio in Australia is currently at 4. This means that there are four unemployed workers per unfilled vacancy – a sign of a relatively weak labour market. However, a new Report from Anglicare researchers in Australia, which was released yesterday, shows that when we disaggregate the analysis and examine a match of vacancies by worker in each skill level, the UV ratios for the most disadvantaged workers is much higher. The obvious solution for the federal government is to introduce a Job Guarantee, which effectively ensures the UV ratio for the most disadvantaged workers would be equal to unity. In other words, there would always be a job opportunity available that would suit the most unskilled worker in the nation. That is what today’s blog is about.
The unemployment rate in Finland is climbing steadily and in October 2015 was 9.6 per cent (seasonally adjusted) and the employment to population ratio stood at 60.1 per cent and was trending down. Finland is fast becoming the next basket case of the Eurozone. What was once a highly supportive society is steadily being turned into a austerity-ridden backwater. The latest news, however, that the Finnish government is due to debate a proposal to provide every citizen with a basic income of €800 a month has excited the progressives – unfortunately. The proposal currently being prepared by the national agency that administers the Finnish welfare system (KELA) would offer this basic allowance in lieu of all other existing benefit payments. It would be paid regardless of whether the person received income from any other source. I have been considering the Finnish welfare system over the last month or so since my visit there in October. This is in relation to a series of queries I had from activists there who were keen on the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) Job Guarantee proposal but were wondering how it would situate itself within the existing system of unemployment benefits in Finland. This blog captures my thoughts on both of those topics.
Its my Friday lay day blog and I am working on various projects today so I will cut this blog relatively short. Two things came up this week that I thought were interesting but only require a noting by way of blog entry. The first was a report about a mini-Job Guarantee type program in the New Mexico city of Albuquerque, which is demonstrating that public job creation programs can change peoples’ lives for the better when there is no hope and no other opportunities. The second story I read that was interesting was the Wolf Street Report (October 24, 2015) – Barcelona Threatens to Print Parallel Currency, Madrid Seethes – which discussed the plan by “Barcelona’s left-wing city council plans to roll out a cash-less local currency that has the potential to become the largest of its kind in the world”. The austerity-mavens in Madrid and their puppet masters in Brussels will be having conniptions at the prospect.
Its my Friday lay day blog. So a rather short blog but with a research trail that can occupy the reader for hours if they pursue all the links. It seems that the mainstream American is rather progressive. Who would have thought given that public opinion is being continually drowned out by the deafening shrieking from the conservative think tanks and their media bully boys. In March 2013, a research paper from Northwestern and Princeton academics – Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans – demonstrated the vastly different policy preferences held by high income Americans (in this case the top 1 per cent of the income distribution) relative to the general public. The research was motivated by the observation that the “wealthy exert more political influence than the less affluent do” and so if their preferences were not representative of American society in general then that would be “troubling for democratic policy making”. The authors find that the high income earners in the US are not only very active politically but hold ultra conservative views “concerning taxation, economic regulation, and especially social welfare programs” that are not remotely shared by the general public. The results might surprise people.
There are still those who criticise the concept of a Job Guarantee. I have received a lot of E-mail’s lately about a claim that the introduction of a Job Guarantee would be de-stabilising in a growth phase unless there is some time limit put on the jobs or the wage is flexible. Apparently, in a growing economy, the stimulus provided in the form of Job Guarantee wages (relative to what occurs when unemployment buffer stocks are deployed) will drive the economy into an inflationary spiral, which will then necessitate harsher than otherwise fiscal and monetary policy contraction. Further, the Job Guarantee is claimed to limit the size of the private sector relative to a system of unemployed buffer stocks and this distorts resource allocation and would undermine our overall material standards of living. The criticisms have been dealt with before – there appears to be a cyclical sort of pattern where newcomers seize on past criticisms and recycle them, without bothering to read the original literature on employment buffer stocks, which includes my work and several other authors. That literature considered all these possible issues – 15-20 years ago.
In my search for new terminology and descriptors I am no longer going to use “minimum wage” to describe the wage that a currency-issuing government should pay when implementing a Job Guarantee (JG). In the past I have written that to avoid disturbing private sector wage structure and to ensure the JG is consistent with stable inflation, the JG wage rate is best set at the minimum wage level. I have also indicated that the minimum wage should not be determined by the capacity to pay of the private sector, but should, rather be an expression of the aspiration of the society of the lowest acceptable standard of living. My view is that any private operators who cannot “afford” to pay the minimum should exit the economy. I also have proposed that the JG wage should be supplemented with a wide range of social wage expenditures, including adequate levels of public education, health, child care, and access to legal aid. Finally, I have stressed for many years that the JG does not replace conventional use of fiscal policy to achieve appropriate social and economic outcomes. In general, the JG would be accompanied by higher levels of public sector spending on public goods and infrastructure. I have written several times, in various outlets (academic, Op Ed, blog), that I see the JG as part of a fundamental transformative agenda to broaden the concept of work and to allow all people to receive a dignified and appropriate access to the distribution system. That message doesn’t seem to get through. So from now on the JG wage will be referred to as the living wage. Further, recent discussions of the JG reveal that commentators who criticise it do so from a standpoint of ignorance – a problem that is engendered by the blogosphere, which should be a liberating force, but in my view seems to unfortunately spawn narrow-mindedness and an anti-intellectual approach to policy debates.
Even though the US government has shutdown, the BLS is still open for data downloads. That is something. More on that data another day. Today I have been working on a formal academic paper (to be presented at a conference in December) which examines the concept of “capacity-constrained” unemployment. This concept says that capacity constraints may create bottlenecks in production before unemployment has been significant reduced (this would be exacerbated if there are significant procyclical labour supply responses). In this case any expansion in government demand may have insignificant real effects – that is, the real output gap is not large enough to allow all the unemployed to gain productive jobs. This argument is often use to attack the Job Guarantee. It can be shown that while private sector investment, which is government by profitability considerations can be insufficient (during and after a recession) to expand potential output fast enough to re-absorb the unemployed who lost their jobs in the downturn, such a situation does not apply to a currency-issuing government intent on introducing a Job Guarantee. The point is that the introduction of a Job Guarantee job simultaneously creates the extra productive capacity required for program viability.
This is a background blog which will support the release of my Fantasy Budget 2013-14, which will be part of Crikey’s Budget coverage leading up to the delivery of the Federal Budget on May 14, 2013. This blog will provide a detailed analysis of the investment the federal government would have to make to introduce a Job Guarantee. You will see how surprisingly small that investment is.