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The inner Groupthink camp is breaking up – paradigm shift continues

Last week, there were some rather significant shifts in the public discourse surrounding macroeconomic policy and challenges made to the orthodox economics taboos that have been used to prevent governments from acting in the best interest of the citizens. First, the Australian treasurer broke away from the government’s previous obsession with fiscal surplus pursuit to announce that for the foreseeable future it was only going to concentrate on jobs and growth. In his statement, he basically refuted all the mainstream macroeconomic claims about fiscal deficits – higher interest rates, lower private investment, lower growth, lower private sector confidence etc. There is really nothing left of the mainstream position now and any politician or economist that tries to resurrect the ‘debt and deficit’ narratives of the past will find it hard gaining the same politician traction that they were able to garner some years ago at the height of the neoliberal period. And, if that was not enough, a former Federal treasurer attacked the ‘high priests’ of the central bank, demanding they buy up government bonds and help the government run “Mountainous” deficits to achieve full employment. The flood gates opened just a bit more after those interventions along the way to jettisoning all the mainstream nonsense that should have been abandoned decades ago.

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The Bandwagon effect – caution not credit is needed

We all know what the – Bandwagon effect – is. There is a lot of research literature in social psychology trying to understand why people who believe one thing one minute, suddenly ditch that belief system and appear to be proponents of a new belief system, often, in total contradiction to their previous views. The effect is related but distinct from the Groupthink phenomenon which I have written about extensively in relation to the way mainstream economics has maintained a hold on the public debate despite being unable to explain anything useful. Whatever the underlying explanations – social norms, conformity pressures, information cascades and the rest of it – the ‘Bandwagon effect’ is rampant at the moment among economists. It appears that everyone has become an expert on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and want to drop the term into their Op Eds, media articles etc despite, in many cases, writing in the not to distant past, ridiculous mainstream articles that are the anathema of MMT. I give those who are jumping on the bandwagon no credit at all. The reason is that these sort of shifts are dangerous. They typically misrepresent our work and attempt to interpret it within the old paradigm, which just leads to the general public, especially where the commentator has a high public profile, being mislead … as usual. Everyone, apparently is an MMTer now. But from what they say we know that is not the case. And just as this cohort swing to save face in what is a glaringly obvious empirical rejection of all the mainstream predictions and theoretical constructs, they will swing again and start talking about ‘budget repair’ and ‘inflation’ and ‘debt burdens on our grandchildren’ when the dust settles and the elites push to regain their dominant position. We should not be lulled into creating liaisons that are not sustainable or based on a true shift in view.

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Learning about epidemics

Today is Wednesday which means it is my short blog post day. I have been travelling a lot today. By the way, there are still some things which cannot be attended to via the Internet, Zoom or otherwise. As I continue to calculate various things along the way to my 10-point or something plan which I hope to have final by next Monday. But with limited time today as I dodge and weave to avoid the virus, I have been reading a lot of the research literature about modelling epidemics. It is quite interesting and nurtures my penchant for modelling, estimation, numerical forecasting etc. But it has helped me understand the reason governments are now inflicting massive economic damage on our nations in the name of ‘flattening the curve’. I cannot say I know much about all this. But I know more than I did a week ago. Knowledge is good. And, generally, you get that from the scientific research literature rather than blogs and Twitter. I exclude economics (unless it is about MMT) from that recommendation. Back with my unemployment modelling tomorrow.

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The coronavirus crisis – a particular type of shock – Part 1

Economists like to think in terms of demand and supply. Often by assuming the independence of the two, they make huge errors, none the least being when in the 1930s they advocated wage cuts to cure the unemployment arising from the Great Depression, on the assumption that the cuts would reduce costs for firms and encourage them to hire more. But they failed to understand that economy-wide wage cuts would undermine aggregate spending, upon which production decisions, and, ultimately, employment decisions depended. The coronavirus outbreak is one of those events that emphasises the interdependence between the demand and supply sides of the economy. It is a supply shock – in that it has reduced the growth in output supply as firms stop producing because their workforces are quarantined. And that shock then feeds into a demand impact as the laid off workers lose incomes and reduce their spending accordingly. However, there is also a separate demand shock associated with the crisis, quite apart from the supply impetus. The fear and uncertainty associated with a possible pandemic has meant that consumers are altering their spending patterns rather quickly with airline travel and other such activities falling sharply. So this is a very special type of calamity that doesn’t fit the usual types of shocks that economies endure. And as a consequence, it makes the task of designing an economic policy response rather more difficult. But make no mistake. Fiscal deficits will have to rise substantially for an extended period and governments will have to do things they have never really contemplated before if a deep recession is to be avoided. This is Part 1 of a two-part series of my current assessment of the coronavirus crisis, or whatever you want to call it.

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The Weekend Quiz – December 14-15, 2019 – answers and discussion

Here are the answers with discussion for this Weekend’s Quiz. The information provided should help you work out why you missed a question or three! If you haven’t already done the Quiz from yesterday then have a go at it before you read the answers. I hope this helps you develop an understanding of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and its application to macroeconomic thinking. Comments as usual welcome, especially if I have made an error.

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The ‘rats’ are deserting the mainstream ship – and everyone wants in

It is Wednesday today and only a short blog post. I am heading to New York city today from London. More on that tomorrow. It is clear now that journalists from all over the globe are starting to pick up on the shifts in policy thinking that I have been writing about – the admission by policy makers that monetary policy has reached the end of its effective life (not that it was ever particularly effective) and that there is a crying need for a return to fiscal dominance, which was the norm before the neoliberal era began several decades ago. We have not yet reached the stage where the dots are being fully joined – monetary policy dominance dead -> fiscal policy dominance desirable -> neoliberalism dead. But that will have to come because the fiscal policy activism will have to be aimed at addressing targets that have been neglected by the neoliberal era – real wages growth, quality and security of employment, restoration of public services, environmental care priorities, scope and quality of public infrastructure, and the like. But as the journalists are starting to file copy on this topic, some are very lazy – and just want to have it on the record that they were part of the throng. One of the laziest offerings I have read was published today in the Australian on-line newspaper, The New Daily (September 23, 2019) – The economic weapon too hot for the RBA to mention: Helicopter money – and written by finance journalist Michael Pascoe, who is usually more careful with his words. While many might think any publicity is good for the spread of our Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) work, my view is that falsely constructing MMT can add to the already stifling dissonance among the public that has been mislead for years by the framing and language of the mainstream economists.

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The Weekend Quiz – July 6-7, 2019 – answers and discussion

Here are the answers with discussion for this Weekend’s Quiz. The information provided should help you work out why you missed a question or three! If you haven’t already done the Quiz from yesterday then have a go at it before you read the answers. I hope this helps you develop an understanding of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and its application to macroeconomic thinking. Comments as usual welcome, especially if I have made an error.

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Talking of elephants – plain old, garden variety fiscal policy

If there were two lessons that can be taken from the GFC among others then we should know, once and for all, that, first, monetary policy (in all its glorious forms these days) is not a very effective tool for influencing the level of economic activity nor the price level, and, second, that fiscal policy is very effective in manipulating total spending and activity. Of course, those lessons provided the evidence that turned macroeconomics on its head because for several decades, as the Monetarist surge morphed into all manner of variants, tried to eulogise the primacy of monetary policy and rejected the use of fiscal policy. There were all sorts of justifications – time invariance, lags, politicians cannot be trusted, etc – but at the heart of the shift towards supposedly independent central banks was the political desire to neuter the capacity of governments to use their currency capacity to advance the well-being of the many, while at the same time, using that same capacity to advance the interests and real income shares of the few. Depoliticisation worked a treat for the top-end-of-town. The problem is that the lessons have not been learned and all manner of commentators still think that monetary policy is the king. Eventually, we will move beyond that but the pain of holding on to the myth is damaging for people, especially those who are without work, are underemployed or have been forced into early retirement by the poor economic performance in this austerity-biased era.

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Marxists getting all tied up on MMT

Its Wednesday and so only a discursive type blog post (that is, very little actual research to report). I have been thinking about the so-called Marxist-inspired critiques of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and just the other day another one popped up in the form of the long article by Paul Mason. One of the things that I have noted about these critiques is that they deploy the same sort of attack against MMT that mainstream economics has traditionally deployed against Marxist economics. One would think they would at least be consistent. It won’t take me all that long to explain that.

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The German undervaluation obsession is resistant to ‘reform’

Martin Höpner, who works at the Max-Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, recently sent me a copy of his latest paper – The German Undervaluation Regime under Bretton Woods: How Germany Became the Nightmare of the World Economy (published January 2019). He presented this research at a Makroskop workshop in Wurzburg on October 13, 2018 – I was on the same panel as him at that workshop and enjoyed some very productive conversation about these issues. It is a very interesting historical analysis of the way that the German elites (central bank, industry groups, banks, politicians, and trade unions) have collaborated since the 1950s to suppress domestic consumption and maintain the nation’s export competitiveness, even though this has undermined material prosperity for workers. The relevance of the analysis to current debates about the Eurozone and its capacity for reform are that the undervaluation regime is entrenched in Germany’s institutions, its history, its culture, and its power elites and have been that way for many decades. What the Europhile progressives, who still think reform is possible, have to show is that this entrenched position can somehow be abandoned. They have never provided any convincing argument to substantiate that hope/belief. That is why I continue to call them out as dreamers – good intentions but naive to history.

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Left-liberals and neoliberals really should not be in the same party

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.

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IMF continues to tread the ridiculous path

I am back in Australia now and I don’t have to stand on my head to write (a reference to the hassles of trying to maintain some order while travelling to different destinations on an almost daily basis). Last week, the IMF released its so-called – Fiscal Monitor October 2018 – and the mainstream financial press had a ‘picnic’ claiming all sorts of disaster scenarios would follow from the sort of financial situations revealed in the publication. At the time of the publication I was in London and the British press went crazy after the IMF publication – predicting that taxes would have to rise and fiscal surpluses would have to be maintained and increased to bring the government’s balance sheet back into balance. Yes, apparently the British government, which issues its own currency, has ‘shareholders’ who care about its Profit and Loss statement and the flow implications of the latter for the Balance Sheet of the Government. Anyone who knows anything quickly realises this is a ruse. There is no meaningful application of the ‘finances’ pertaining to a private corporation to the ‘finances’ of a currency-issuing government. A currency-issuing government’s ‘balance sheet’ provides no help in our understanding of what spending capacities such a government has.

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Brexit doom predictions – the Y2K of today

The UK Guardian has been publishing a ‘Brexit Watch’ page for some months now claiming it is is a “look at key indicators to see what effect the Brexit process has on growth, prosperity and trade”. They wheel out some economists who typically twist whatever data is actually analysed into fitting their anti-Brexit obsession. The problem is that the data or issue they choose to highlight is usually very selective, and, then, is often partial in its coverage. I commented on the way the Brexit debate is distorted by these characters in this blog post – How to distort the Brexit debate – exclude significant factors! (June 25, 2018) and specifically on the ‘Brexit Watch’ distortions in this post – The ‘if it is bad it must be Brexit’ deception in Britain (May 31, 2018) among others. Yesterday’s UK Guardian column by Larry Elliot (August 27, 2018) – Britons seem relatively relaxed in the face of Brexit apocalypse – does provide some balance by discussing why the general public is not taking these economist ‘beat ups’ about Brexit very seriously at all. This is a case of a profession that systematically makes extreme predictions and forecasts which rarely come to pass. The general public works out fairly quickly that when a mainstream economist says the sky is about to fall in it is time to get the beach gear out because it will be fine and sunny!

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The ‘if it is bad it must be Brexit’ deception in Britain

The UK Guardian has its ‘Brexit Watch’ page, which is regularly updated with commentaries from this and that ‘expert’, purporting to provide a sort of on-going scorecard of what is happening on that front. Many commentaries usually include some statement to the effect that “Brexit is a disaster”. That particular opinion appeared in the header of the most recent ‘Brexit Watch’ update (May 29, 2018) – ‘Brexit is a disaster’ – experts debate the latest economic data – which followed the release by the British Office of National Statistics (ONS) of the – Second estimate of GDP: January to March 2018 (released May 25, 2018) – which showed that the British economy (based on the latest updated data) increased by 0.1 per cent in the first-quarter 2018 and ONS said that “we see a continuation of a pattern of slowing growth, in part reflecting a slowing in the growth of consumer-facing industries”. One contributor to the ‘Brexit Watch’ article (David Blanchflower) had his wind-up ‘Brexit is Bad Doll’ working overtime blaming the Referendum vote and the uncertainty that has followed for the poor GDP performance, particularly the decline in business investment. So if its bad its Brexit is the repeating message. If its good, just wait, it will be bad again soon and then it will be Brexit. That is the repeating message. However, if you read the New York Times article (May 28, 2018) – In Britain, Austerity Is Changing Everything – you get a very different narrative. You can guess which one I think is more accurate.

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The Weekend Quiz – January 13-14, 2018 – answers and discussion

Here are the answers with discussion for this Weekend’s Quiz. The information provided should help you work out why you missed a question or three! If you haven’t already done the Quiz from yesterday then have a go at it before you read the answers. I hope this helps you develop an understanding of modern monetary theory (MMT) and its application to macroeconomic thinking. Comments as usual welcome, especially if I have made an error.

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British productivity slump – all down to George Osborne’s austerity obsession

Apparently, whenever some poor economic news is published about the United Kingdom, journalists have to weave in their on-going gripe about the outpouring of democracy in June last year that saw the Brexit vote to leave successful. Its hysterical really. The most recent example is from the otherwise sensible Aditya Chakrabortty from the UK Guardian (October 17, 2017) – Who’s to blame for Brexit’s fantasy politics? The experts, of course. The story has nothing much to do with the June 2016 Referendum but more about massive forecasting failures of the Office of Budget Responsibility. But somehow the story opines about the lies told about Brexit and a fiscal “bloodbath” – the latter being the description for the fact that the fiscal deficit is likely to increase a little as a result of a slower than expected economic growth outcome. The UK Guardian continually writes about these two obsessions – the first that Brexit will be a disaster and the second that the fiscal position of the British government is in jeopardy and will undermine the capacity of the government to defend the economy if a major downturn comes along (as a result of the ‘Brexit disaster’). The narratives are interlinked – Brexit is bad, it will cause deficits to rise which are bad, and the government will be powerless as a result of the rising deficits to stop the bad consequences of Brexit – which is a big bad. All propositions are largely nonsense. Brexit will be bad if the British government continues to implement neoliberal policy. Rising deficits do not alter the spending capacity of government. And as a currency-issuing government, Britain can always arrest a recession, if there is political will. The fact is that the OBR forecast errors are just part of the neoliberal lie. And the productivity growth slump the OBR has now ‘discovered’ predates the Brexit referendum by years and is all down to the misplaced austerity imposed by George Osborne in June 2010. But it is disappointing to read this sort of stuff being repeated by so-called progressive commentator. There is clearly more work to be done via education.

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Amazing what politics does to people

In 2012, while unemployment and underemployment was still at elevated levels after rising in the early days of the GFC, non-government spending was weak, the external deficit was around 4 per cent of GDP, real GDP growth remained well below its trend in the 5 years before the GFC, and the economy was no-where near full employment, the then Treasurer, Wayne Swan launched into the largest fiscal shift away from deficit in recent history (in the modern era since 1970). He was obsessed with ‘getting the budget back into surplus’ in the following year because somehow he had gleaned from the work of John Maynard Keynes that a responsible government has to pay back deficits with surpluses. The Australian government’s deficit had risen because tax revenue had fallen as a result of the slowdown in activity and because the Government introduced a rather large fiscal stimulus, which saved Australia from going down the recession route that other nations were mired in. Maintaining that deficit or enlarging it with further stimulus is what a responsible government should have done. But Swan, apparently thought that with Europe heading further into the morass (as a result of mindless austerity) that he had to show the world what a good government does – run surpluses. Apparently, he thought the credit rating agencies would close the government down. Apparently, he thought inflation would runaway from its low levels. Apparently, he believed the lie that fiscal deficits pushed up interest rates. Apparently, he didn’t know that introducing fiscal contraction when non-government spending was weak would further slow the economy and damage confidence. All of which happened. Quite obviously he didn’t know a thing. Swan, ever the politician (but in opposition now) is apparently thinking differently – now he is claiming fiscal deficits have to rise to push the economy towards full employment. This chameleon-like performance is rather sickening given the damage he caused when he was actually the Treasurer in charge of fiscal policy and full of neo-liberal lies and confusion.

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Australia’s household debt problem is not new – it is a neo-liberal product

One of the defining features of the neo-liberal era has been the buildup of private debt, particularly household debt. The banks and policy makers all assured us that this was fine because wealth was being built with the debt until, of course, it came tumbling down for many as a result of the GFC. Recent commentary on Australia’s record household debt problem and the increasing number of Australian households that are now on the brink of insolvency and cannot pay their bills seems to think this is a new outcome – the result of record low interest rates as thew central bank (RBA) tries to curb the descent into recession. The fact is that the problem emerged in the 1980s as neo-liberalism took hold of the policy process. We have to understand that period to fully appreciate the household debt problem now.

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A lying government pushing economy towards recession and greater inequality

It is highly surreal listening to radio/TV commentators talking about government financial affairs (fiscal balance etc). These so-called experts are paraded before the nation and the script is generally the same. The interviewer who knows virtually nothing but has the key triggers on hand (‘budget repair’, ‘ratings downgrade’, etc ad nauseum) asks the ‘well respected expert’ about the state of affairs and the answers are always the same – fictional. This charade plays out almost daily but reaches a hysterical fever pitch at the time the Government releases its annual fiscal statement (May) or its Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (December). The Government plays along with the charade releasing what it deems to be cleverly crafted documents, shifting revenue and spending across year lines to give one impression or another of the state of affairs. None of the charade is based on any fundamental economic understanding. None of it means anything other than a demonstration of a national scam to hide the truth from the ordinary citizen who for one reason or another relies on experts to summarise technical detail into meaningful sound bites. The nation then goes about its business in this cloud of ignorance, while the elites continue to suppress wages and living standards and march of with increasing shares of national income. They know what is going on and it is in their interests to keep the rest of us from having the same information. It is the same the world over. Well, here is what is going on with a framework that allows the reader to cut through the lies …

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Our affect is driving us back to a need for continuous fiscal deficits

The field of psychology is usually ignored by mainstream economists, which, in its typically arrogant and closed practice, adopts a series of a priori assumptions about human behaviour – the so-called Homo economicus – where were are always rational and self-interested and, as a result, always make choices that maximise our present and future well-being based on available market signals. Real world forces that condition actual human behaviour, such as cognitive biases and irrationality, in general, as well as cooperative and collective behaviour is ignored by mainstream neo-classical (free market) economic theory, because admitting its dominance in human decision-making would void the entire edifice of that theory and scuttle the authority that is given to the on-going narratives about deregulation, small government, privatisation, pernicious cutting of income support, and the rest of the economic policies that have defined this dysfunctional neo-liberal era. But humans do not behave in the way economists suggest. We are a complex mass of irrationality, custom, habit, and affect. We certainly use cognitive processes in our decision making but often we take shortcuts based on affect. These tendencies are pushing our behaviour back to what was normal before the credit binge that led to the GFC. This shift in our behaviour is associated with stagnation and entrenched mass unemployment. But the reason for these parlous outcomes is not that we have returned to more normal spending behaviour but, rather, because governments have not realised that they had to return to more normal behaviour as well. Instead of promoting the benefits of austerity (in the face of all evidence to the contrary), governments should have been promoting the benefits of continuous fiscal deficits to support non-government saving desires and maintain better employment outcomes and stronger income growth. The malaise advanced nations are stuck in at present is directly the result of ideologically-motivated choices made by governments to use to use fiscal policy properly. Neo-liberal ideology remains dominant but citizens are rebelling and something has to give.

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