In recent days, there has been some talk here about wealth effects and how they might complicate the interpretation of the multiplier. The claims made about that the multiplier understates the likely expansion as a result of the wealth effects is somewhat misleading but that is another story. The fact is that the inclusion of wealth effects has a long standing in economics. They were initially used as part of the mainstream denial that involuntary unemployment could exist in a market economy with flexible prices. This goes back to the famous Keynes versus Classics debates. In that debate, the mainstream argued that the wealth effects would be sufficient to restore full employment during a recession without any need for government intervention. The problem is that the ideas do not withstand scrutiny – either theoretically and empirically. They certainly do not provide a credible attack on the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) claim that fiscal policy intervention is required to combat a situation where aggregate demand is deficient relative to the productive capacity of the economy. This spending gap manifests as involuntary unemployment in the absence of an appropriate policy response. Given the ideological position that these “wealth effects” have occupied in the literature I am always suspicious when someone proposes we take them seriously. That is what this blog is about.
I have been working on the macroeconomics textbook today that Randy Wray and I are hoping to publish sometime next year. We have a publisher and now just have to complete the text which is progressing well. Also today I have been wondering why UK business firms are not horrified at the latest damaging policy announcement by the new conservative British government. My thoughts generalise to any government at present in terms of the obvious need to expand fiscal policy. I brought those two things together today – the practical need for continued fiscal support for private sector activity and the development of our textbook – by considering the macroeconomic origins of profits. It is an interesting story that very few people really understand because they think micro all the time when it comes to the understanding the profits of business firms whereas you have to start thinking from a macroeconomics perspective to really understand this. It also helps you understand the relationship between the government and non-government sector more fully – a relationship which is at the heart of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). So read on and see if you have thought about this before.
Many readers have written to me asking me to explain the British Treasury view during the Great Depression. This view was really the product of several decades of literature which culminated in the political process during the 1929 British election where the number one issue of the day was mass unemployment. The Treasury View was thoroughly discredited in the immediate period after it was articulated and comprised one side of the famous Keynes versus the Classics debate. When propositions – such as the Earth was flat – are shown to be incorrect constructions of reality the ideas cease to be knowledge and instead become historical curiosities which allow us to benchmark how far our education systems have taken us. However, the same cannot be said for my profession.
Whenever unemployment rises substantially – that is, whenever there is a recession, the conservatives hide out for a while because the rapid rise in joblessness does not resonate with their models of voluntary choice (that is, workers choosing leisure although they can never explain why workers would suddenly get lazy?) or with their claims that structural factors push the unemployment rate up (although welfare policies etc rarely alter much). Of-course, they love it when some “structural” policy changes during a recession which is why they are cock-a-hoop about the decision of the US government to extend unemployment benefits. It has given them some latitude to get back into the debate even if all the data is working against them. But they always oppose the use of fiscal policy and so typically, towards the tail-end of a recession, they attempt to justify the deplorable unemployment levels by playing the “structural card”. We are now seeing that again and I expect the propaganda to spread and proliferate. It should be rejected like the rest of the cant.
The central bankers have been meeting in Wyoming over the weekend as part of the annual Economic Symposium organised by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. While not all of the papers and discussion are yet available for public scrutiny there were some notable presentations (that you can access in full) which suggest that key central bankers are starting to realise that the economic crisis in not over and the fiscal-led recovery is slowing and that monetary policy alone cannot provide the solution. Moreover, one leading central banker indicated that monetary policy is not a suitable tool for controlling longer term problems such as price bubbles in specific asset classes. This view challenges the basis of the mainstream macroeconomics consensus that has dominated the policy debate for 30 odd years and culminated in the worst financial and economic crisis in 80 years. It is certanly a welcome trend in a debate which is typically flooded with ideological input from the mainstream macroeconomics profession.
Last year it was Reinhart and Rogoff being rammed down our throats as the deficit terrorists were claiming that governments in the advanced nations were on the cusp of defaulting on their sovereign debt. Their book was relentlessly misused by commentators and academics (like Niall Ferguson and others) and even the authors themselves left things ambiguous in interviews. The fact is that their research (if we dare call it that) is applicable to only a narrow set of situations none of them relevant in the contemporary setting. More recently, the deficit terrorists have been holding up a new effigy – a new hero. Another Harvard economist – Alberto Alesina. What is it about that place? Alesina has allegedly provided a solid theoretical case to support the absurd claims by the austerity proponents that cutting the very thing that is supporting growth at present will not damage that growth. He is now the new hero. Well it is another scam job! He chooses to use flawed orthodox textbook models to assert his case without mind to the situational context and other realities. He is no hero but just another mainstream economist seeking celebrity with zero substance to offer and very little else to sell other than a headline.
I am reserving Friday’s for no blog, short blog or normal blog depending on whether I can do other things and keep my weekend’s free of blog activity. In general I will use Friday’s to put a Quiz up for Saturday and prepare the Answers and Discussion for Sunday. If I have some “blog” time left and there is something interesting to write about then I will post it – like today. There was an interesting article in the UK Guardian (July 21, 2010) by Robert Skidelsky who was the biographer of John Maynard Keynes. The article – What do deficit slashers wear under their hair shirts? – probes the “assumptions made by the economists who demand rapid ‘fiscal consolidation'”. I thought that was interesting given that most of the published justifications for austerity rather vaguely invoke failed economic theories like Ricardian Equivalence and Rational Expectations. Skidelsky’s point is that these defunct macroeconomic doctrines which got us into this mess are now resurfacing as the dominant narrative. That spells disaster.
As governments around the world are setting about to scorch their economies with austerity programs very little opposition is coming from my profession. It is quite astounding to me that the more extreme elements (the Ricardian Equivalence theories) are holding sway at present. These notions have been discredited often (see my blog – Pushing the fantasy barrow for a discussion). Generally, the austerity push is not being supported by any credible economic theory which enjoys empirical support. I get the impression that policy makers are now altering settings in an ad hoc manner without any real understanding of how the economy works. It is a triumph of neo-liberal dogman. However, in terms of evidence-based critiques of the austerity push, Bloomberg Opinion published an interesting article (July 13, 2010) – U.K. Bust Needs Big Spender – written by UK academic Vicki Chick and author/debt activist Ann Pettifor (thanks BM). The Op Ed summarises a more detailed research paper which demonstrates that key assumptions of the austerity proponents do not hold over a long historical period. The short message is that things are going to get worse.
The daily rhetoric being used to promote fiscal austerity maybe couched in the urgency of the day but we have heard it all before. In this blog I just reflect on history a little to remind the reader that previous attempts to carve public net spending, based on the “expectations” belief government was not going to tax everybody out of existence, failed to deliver. The expected spontaneous upsurge in private activity has never happened in the way the mainstream macroeconomic supply-siders predicted. Further, the chief proponents usually let it out in some way that the chief motivation for their vehement pursuit of budget cuts was to advance their ideological agendas. Of-course, the arguments used to justify the cuts were never presented as political or class-based. The public is easily duped. They have been in the past and they are being conned again now. My role is to keep providing the material and the arguments for the demand-side activists to take into the public debate.
I have returned from the US after participating at the Fiscal Sustainability Teach-In and Counter Conference held in Washington D.C. last week. It was a good event and has stimulated a host of follow-up blogs from the activists who promoted the event. On the way home, I read the most recent report from Citi Group (who were saved from bankruptcy by public funds – they were among the first to have their hands out) which is predicting major sovereign defaults. It was clear that Citi Group was advocating very harsh fiscal austerity measures. How often have you heard the statement that the current economic crisis is evidence that “we are living beyond our means” and that the policy austerity that has to be introduced to “pay back the debt” is an inevitable consequence of our proliflacy – both individual and national?
Today’s blog is a little different to most, although don’t worry, I will get onto familiar themes soon enough. Today I am considering the latest broadside from controversial German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who Jurgen Habermas referred to as a fascist. Sloterdijk responded to that criticism by labelling Habermas, in turn, a fascist. That debate was about bi-genetics and Sloterdijk’s implicit support for a “master race”. It was an interesting debate in itself and goes to the fundamental discomfort that exists in Germany about their past. But today I am considering his views on freedom and governments who he labels fiscal thieves and suggests that modern democracies have conspired to allow ever increasing numbers to live of the toil of others courtesy of state intervention.
I am currently researching the way in which the labour market functions to discipline the inflationary process has fundamentally changed over the last 20 years as underemployment has risen. I will have more to say on that at another time as the work advances. But today it led me into considering research that demonstrates that different employment protection (higher dismissal costs etc) standards across the EMU have been instrumental in explaining the differentials in unemployment that are now evident. So nations with more protection have fared better in the crisis than nations which more vigorously pursued the neo-liberal flexibility agenda (that is, creating rising proportions of precarious employment). This type of research puts the debate now raging in the Eurozone that nations have to adjust by drastically cutting wages and conditions into a different light.
It is interesting how one’s ideology screens out options and alters the way we examine a problem. I was reminded of this when I read two articles in the Times the other day (December 23, 2009) – Thrifty families accused of prolonging the recession and – No evidence Britons can save the day which both focused on movements in the savings ratio. The claim is that with UK households now saving more to reduce their exposure to debt, the UK economy is facing a double dip recession. The ideological screening arises because they seem to think it is inevitable that rising savings will lead to a deepening recession. In doing so they fail to realise that the moves by the British government to “reign in the deficit” are the what will make this inevitable. If their world view was less tainted both articles would have focused on the spurious nature of the deficit terrorism rather than the desirable trend towards rising saving ratios in Britain (and elsewhere).
Today I have been working on a new book and have been deeply emeshed in paradigmic debates. The practical relevance, other than the work gives me another day’s pay to maintain my part in keeping aggregate demand growth moving, is that two Nobel prize winners (Phelps and Krugman) have had a recent paradigmic dispute about similar themes. One attack was implicit (Phelps on Keynesians), the other very direct and personal (Krugman on Phelps). Neither understand modern monetary theory (MMT) although Krugman is closer than Phelps. Phelps’s work, in my view, has been used by neo-liberals for years to undermine the employment prospects of millions of workers. It is also a primary IMF tool for keep less developing countries poor. Sounds like a topic to be discussed.
Several readers have asked me to explain in a little more detail what I mean by statements such as investment brings forth its own saving or government budget deficits finance non-government saving. So this blog is about those topics and takes you on journey from what you won’t learn if you study macroeconomics in a typical university through to a clearer understanding of the way macroeconomies work via modern monetary theory (MMT).
The media is increasingly reporting that the RBA will hike interest rates by the end of 2009. I consider this to be a nonsensical suggestion given that unemployment and underemployment will still be rising and it is unclear whether employment growth will be anything than near zero at that time. From a theoretical perspective, at the root of all the conjecture, whether the journalists actually realise it or not, is a concept called the “neutral rate of interest”, which is just another neo-liberal smokescreen. That is what this blog is about.