Today is my last day in London and I am tied up all day with meetings and activities and then later I am travelling back to Australia. So I invoked the guest blogger facility and asked Victor Quirk to share his views on employment guarantees. Victor has just finished a doctoral dissertation and has produced one of the most compelling research efforts I have had the pleasure to supervise. He chose a very challenging topic overall – the political constraints on full employment – and compiled a very rich argument based on a substantial interrogation of an extensive array of primary documents which he sourced from various national archives in Australia, Britain and the US. Now that Victor has finished his work I hope he will share more of it as a guest blogger. So … over to Victor.
I was a speaker at the Sydney Greens Forum yesterday and today I am on a panel with Bob Brown at the Greens National Conference in Adelaide. Regular readers will know that in the past months we have been engaging with the Greens after I wrote – Neo-liberals invade the Greens. The initial reaction towards me was hostility but that soon gave way to a more reasoned engagement which I have found to be extremely beneficial. That is why I accepted invitations to speak at their functions. While there is a long way to go in fully articulating a modern monetary paradigm within the context of the generally sophisticated social and environment policy that The Greens have already developed I think the possibilities are now there. One issue that does emerge in my discussions is that of whether a person should have to work under a Job Guarantee approach to full employment. That is, should the Job Guarantee be compulsory?
In the current edition of the German weekly Magazine Der Spiegel (“The Mirror”) there is an article about a “new idea to keep unemployment down” entitled Germany Mulls ‘Parking’ Unwanted Labor in New State-Funded Firms. The thrust of the proposal is that Germany is now examining a proposal to set up government-funded “transfer companies” for workers who lose their jobs as a means of keeping unemployment in check. A reader wrote to me saying that it sounds a bit like the Job Guarantee that I have been advocating for years! Closer examination suggests that while the Germans are starting to come to terms with how bad their economic situation is, they are still a long way off understanding how to get out of it. In that respect, they share the ignorance with most governments. However, being a Euro zone member, the German government has voluntarily lumbered itself with even more constraints that will make it harder to insulate its people from the ravages of the recession.
In the New York times article (December 26, 2004), from Larry Rohter – Argentina’s Economic Rally Defies Forecasts – it is reported that the Argentinian economy has made a surprising comeback. Rohter writes “When the Argentine economy collapsed in December 2001, doomsday predictions abounded. Unless it adopted orthodox economic policies and quickly cut a deal with its foreign creditors, hyperinflation would surely follow, the peso would become worthless, investment and foreign reserves would vanish and any prospect of growth would be strangled. But three years after Argentina declared a record debt default of more than $100 billion, the largest in history, the apocalypse has not arrived. Instead, the economy has grown by 8 percent for two consecutive years, exports have zoomed, the currency is stable, investors are gradually returning and unemployment has eased from record highs – all without a debt settlement or the standard measures required by the International Monetary Fund for its approval.”
I am back into my Wednesday pattern after experimenting or the last 10 weeks with the MMTed Q&A series. Soon there will more video content coming as skills are refined. So today I just report my notes as I analyse the latest Australian Tax Office payroll data – Weekly Payroll Jobs and Wages in Australia, Week ending 25 July 2020 – released yesterday (August 11, 2020) by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Regular readers will know that I have routinely analysed this dataset ever since it first became available in March this year. It uniqueness is that it provides the most recent data upon which an assessment of where the labour market is heading. The monthly labour force data is about two weeks old by the time this data comes out. And the most recent release gives some insights into what the impact of the renewed and severe lockdowns in Victoria (the second largest State economy) has been. The data shows that the jobs recovery has stalled and emphasises the need for more federal fiscal support – but that support does not appear to be forthcoming.
The – Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights – for the UN was released this week (July 7, 2020). It was Philip Alston’s last report in that role. It is a shocking indictment of the way neoliberalism has distorted our societies and the way the governments with the capacity to ‘move mountains should they wish’ have been co-opted as agents of capital and perpetuate those distortions. The Report is 19 pages of horror. It also resonates with the latest information coming out of Australia’s Closing the Gap campaign, which aims to bring indigenous Australians up to the material level of non-indigenous Australians. The first ten years of the campaign have been an abject failure. And the latest targets don’t inspire any confidence that the outcomes will be any different. A lot of talk. A lot of consultants. But little effective action – for example, like just creating some jobs to reduce unemployment, allow for income security and poverty alleviation. How hard is it for the government to create some jobs?
One bit of good news yesterday was that the Supercars event that has been imposed on the City of Newcastle over the last 3 years will not go ahead this year. This is an event that has massive state subsidies, creates health hazards for local residents, lies about crowd numbers to justify further state subsidies and severely divides the local community. They claim they love Newcastle, but with only a few events possible this year, they are clearly going where the highest subsidies are likely. So that is a relief for the inner city community. But there is not much else that one can be happy about right now. Today (May 19, 2020), the Australian Bureau of Statistics released their latest weekly employment data taken from Australian Tax Office data, which they release and analyse on a two-week cycle. The latest edition came out today – Weekly Payroll Jobs and Wages in Australia, Week ending 2 May 2020 – which covers the new data from April 18, 2020 to May 2, 2020. The data is suggesting that the worst of the job losses are now over, which doesn’t mean where we are at at present is nothing short of shocking. As the lockdown eases, we can now expect more jobs to come back. The question is how many businesses will go to the wall before we get a more usual scale of operation and interaction. My prediction is that many will disappear and so the recovery in employment will be protracted given how many jobs have been lost to date. A much larger fiscal intervention is required and it has to be directed at workers rather than firms and support direct job creation.
Last Thursday (April 30, 2020), the US Department of Labor’s – Unemployment Insurance Weekly Claims Report – showed a further 3,839,000 workers filed for unemployment benefits in the US, taking the cumulative total since March 14, 2020 to 30,589,000. In a labour force of 164 million odd, that implies the unemployment rate is already around 22 per cent. The highest rate endured during the Great Depression was 24.9 per cent in 1933, which prompted the US President to introduce the major job creation program to stop a social disaster – the New Deal. History tells us that the major job creation programs (starting with FERA then morphing into the WPA) were opposed by the conservative (mostly) Republicans in the Congress. As is now! It wasn’t just the unemployment that mattered. Hours of work were also cut for those who maintained their jobs and some estimates suggest over 50 per cent of America’s labour force were underutilised in one way or another (read David Kennedy’s 2001 book for a vivid account of this period). The problem now is that the US has a Presidency that is unlikely to take the bold steps that Roosevelt took in the 1930s, even though the latter was a fiscal conservative and the former does not appear to be so inclined. However, some nations are leading the way – and they put the more advanced nations to shame in this regard.
It is Wednesday so music and some snippets. I have updated the US unemployment claims data with a new map and state table. Shocking. We are working on updated estimates of what the Australian government would need to invest to run a Job Guarantee. We haven’t done that for a while because I didn’t want the press to get obsessed with dollar amounts. But as I am currently talking a lot about the Job Guarantee in the media, I thought some numbers would be useful as a comparative exercise against the JobKeeper wage subsidy, which is the central stimulus plank of the Australian government. The current estimates suggest that to create around 685 thousand jobs might require an outlay of $34 billion over the course of a year. That got me thinking. The main response of the Australian government is the $A133 billion over 6 months JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme. The Treasury claims it will be the difference between an unemployment rate of 10 per cent and 15 per cent. That difference is 685 thousand jobs. Then start doing some division and multiplication and you start to see that this doesn’t make sense as I explain below.
Last week’s (July 5, 2019) release by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) of their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – June 2019 – reveals a steady labour market with month-to-month volatility. The US labour market is still adding jobs, albeit at a slower pace than last year. The unemployment rate remains low (at 3.67 per cent) and the participation rate has moved up a tick, which is a good sign. It is also clear that there is still a substantial jobs deficit remaining and considerable scope for increased participation.
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.
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.
The latest labour force data released today by the Australian Bureau of Statistics – Labour Force data – for September 2017 shows that total employment growth was positive but weaker than last month with most of the action coming via part-time employment. However, total hours worked continued to rise, which suggests that employers are offering extra hours to existing jobs. Unemployment declined with a constant labour force participation rate, which says that employment growth was slightly stronger than the underlying population growth – a good sign. Labour underutilisation overall (underemployment and unemployment) was at 13.6 per cent summing to 1,814 thousand persons, which tells you that there is still considerable slack in the labour market. The teenage labour market showed modest improvement but remains in a poor state. Overall, my assessment from last month remains – it still to early to conclude that the uncertainty of the last few years is giving way to sustained growth.
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.
I read a social media quip today from someone who said they had “been banned from their library for moving the books on trickle down economics into the mythology section”. That is pure class. The mover not the banner. But the sentiment is relevant to today’s blog on the latest evidence available on the European Commission’s much-touted Youth Guarantee, that was launched in December 2012 and became operational in April 2013. I say ‘operational’ although given the performance of the initiative that might be somewhat of an overstatement. The latest evidence comes from the European Court of Auditors, which is charged with assessing European Commission policy initiatives. The Report – Youth unemployment – have EU policies made a difference? – which was released on April 4, 2017, is not very complementary at all about the Youth Employment Initiative. In fact, one is not being unfair to conclude after reading it that the whole initiative has been an over-hyped (by the Commission) and grossly underfunded failure – as it was destined to be from the start. It is hard to put any other spin on it. None of the Member States involved have achieved their stated objectives to integrate the NEET cohort “into the labour market in a sustainable way”. The ECA found that the policy intervention has made only a “very limited” contribution and was not sufficiently funded from the start. Bad news but then it is hardly surprising. When the scheme was announced it was clear that its emphasis, design and funding commitments would lead to this type of outcome. One didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to be able to see that.
On May 5, 2017, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their latest labour market data – Employment Situation Summary – April 2017 – which showed that total non-farm employment from the payroll survey rose by 211,00 in April up from the miserable 98,000 the previous month. The unemployment rate fell from 4.5 per cent to 4.4 per cent. The estimate of employment change from the Labour Force Survey was also positive (156 thousand net jobs added). Last month, we wondered whether the poor showing signalled the beginning of a slowdown after the positive ‘Trump’ spike or whether it was just a monthly variation that will iron itself out over the longer period. We are probability safer concluding it was monthly variation. Whatever the direction, there is still a large jobs deficit remaining and other indicators suggest the labour market is still below where it was prior to the crisis.
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.
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??
Some years ago I was asked to design a framework for the implementation of minimum wage system in South Africa as part of an ILO project my research group was involved. We were evaluating the first five years of the Expanded Public Works Programme in South Africa, which was a cut-down employment guarantee program (limited by supply-side constraints on public expenditure largely conditioned by the bullying of the South African government by the IMF). One of the issues I had to deal with was the belief among many economists that the existing cash transfer system introduced by the South African government after 1994 should be expanded into a full-blown Basic Income Guarantee and that any notion of employment guarantees should be rejected. Our work demonstrated quite clearly (in my view) the flawed logic in this argument. The cash transfer system was productive as it stood but was no reasonably extensible into a widespread income guarantee without significant negative consequences. The creation of an employment guarantee scheme to absorb the social transfers and leave them as supplemental to cope with varying family structures was a much better option. That conclusion holds for less developed nations and advanced nations alike.
The European Commission released a new report yesterday (October 4, 2016) – The Youth Guarantee and Youth Employment Initiative three years on – which provides an updated evaluation of the progress of the policy framework designed to reduce youth unemployment. The results are as one would expect after taking into account the design limitations of the Youth Guarantee – pretty disappointing. We learn that for the 20 countries for which there is available data – “Of the 2.5 million young people that left YG schemes … during 2015, less than 0.9 million (35.5%) were known to be in employment, education or training 6 months after exit”. That is an appalling result really and signifies that the design of the program should be reappraised and changed to accord with characteristics of an ideal Job Guarantee program. These results are unsurprising, dismal though they are.