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Fiscal sustainability 101 – Part 1

Greetings from Amsterdam where I am spending the next few days talking about what drives spatial changes in unemployment at a Tinbergen Institute regional science workshop. The spatial econometric work that I am outlining tomorrow provides the conceptual framework for the construction of the Employment Vulnerability Index, which received a lot of press earlier in the year. But while I was flying over here I thought about the concept of fiscal sustainability which is now getting a lot of press. So this is the first of a multi-part series on what constitutes a sustainable fiscal policy. Its that time again. Time to debrief!

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A sad little sojourn to Britain …

I have been doing work on international trends in unemployment today and spent some time on the UK economy. Of-course, Britain is in the news at present because its polity is melting down rapidly. We have been laughing a bit I am sure about the so-called rorts scandal, especially the story about the ducks not liking their island anyway. I laughed anyway. I also applauded the skilled research that tracked the island down on Google Earth. Anyway, the rorts scandal is a sideshow in a much bigger problem that is unfolding in Britain at present. Its labour market is in free fall!

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Debt and deficits again!

The euphoria over a 0.4 quarterly growth figure which translate into annualised GDP growth being at least 2.5 per cent less than would be required to keep the unemployment rate from rising should be attenuated by the fact that National Accounts data is very slow to come out. The picture it paints which conditions our current expectations and debates is old – at least 3 months old by definition. And it is sobering when amidst all the self-congratulation and applause for our strong export performance that newer data has come out today which suggests that GDP growth is probably now negative although we won’t find that out for three more months. Meanwhile the debt and deficits argument continues in the public debate. Here is an update.

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A response to (green) critics – finale (for now)!

Well the conservatives are scrapping between themselves, which is just as well because it might derail their drivel campaign about the trillion (whatever!) dollar debt wave that we are about to drown under. Me, I will surf it out with my longboard and enjoy the experience! Anyway, seems Mike wants to end our little engagement which is fine because tomorrow I will be talking about “R we or R we not”. National Accounts are out at 11.30. So this blog summarises where I think we are at. Remember that it started with the blog – Neoliberals invade The Greens! and the space theme continued with Mike conjuring up the Mitchell Strikes Back and today The return of Mitchell. Whatever, it is more clear than ever that the conservative macroeconomics has The Greens in its grip – sadly.

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Gold standard and fixed exchange rates – myths that still prevail

There has been a lot of E-mail traffic coming in after my blog on The Greens the other day. At the heart of the matter is the fundamental difficulty people have in appreciating that there has been a fundamental shift since the 1970s in the way our monetary system operates. This shift redefines how we should think about macroeconomics and the role of a national government which issues its own currency. The defenders of The Greens economic policy clearly misunderstand this historical shift. To really get to the heart of how a modern monetary system functions you have to appreciate the difference between a convertible and non-convertible currency and a fixed versus a flexible exchange rate system. The economics that apply to convertible currency-fixed exchange rate systems bears no relation to that which applies to the fiat currency-flexible exchange rate systems that prevail in most economies today. So before you attack my macroeconomics, make sure you understand what a government can do in a modern monetary paradigm. Otherwise, you are a dinosaur and they became extinct.

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More neo-liberal atrocities from the Fourth Estate

It is interesting when a local journalist exploits the work of a foreign journalist to perpetuate neo-liberal myths about the way the modern monetary economy works without any critical scrutiny of the underlying ideas that he is mimicking. So we have one US journalist reiterating the views of a so-called “top US policy maker” without critical scrutiny then being copied a few days later by a senior Australian journalist who also doesn’t bother to question whether the underlying economics being fed to his readers makes any sense at all. Pretty poor really – the power of the conservative press!

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Neo-liberals invade The Greens!

Some readers have asked me to comment on the economic policy of The Australian Greens and how it sits with the other major political parties. I base this assessment on what appears to be the policy statement which was current as at November 2008. There is not a single reference to employment, unemployment or full employment as key economic goals. Moreover, there is as much neo-liberal macroeconomics in the document as you would find in the papers espousing the approach of the main parties. And worse still … if The Greens actually tried to implement some of their macroeconomics principles then they would undermine most of their other major policy goals. So there is no joy to be found in this place for a progressive who understands how the modern monetary system operates.

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A new agenda for our union movement

I was in Sydney today doing various things (see below). It was an interesting day but this morning’s activity gave me some hope that there are community leaders out there who want to fight back and jettison the neo-liberal garbage that is constraining their ability to deliver social equity and job security for their members. My input to the discussion was to tie this in to the macroeconomic debate. These macroeconomic matters – which I write hundreds of thousands of words every year about – really lie at the heart of the problems facing low wage workers and the unemployed. Unless we successfully counter the orthodoxy then tinkering around the edges will be all that we can do. I realise the macroeconomic concepts are difficult to talk about in an accessible way. I also realise that the neo-liberal orthodoxy has been incredibly successful in inculcating notions that the Federal budget is akin to a household budget. Readers of this blog will know it can never be that way. So the challenge for our community leaders is to develop a macro narrative which can permeate the public debate and slowly redefine how we see government; what goals we want the government to pursue (full employment) and how they do business with employers. That is an interesting challenge and I like things like that.

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Redefining full employment … again!

In the 1980s, as high unemployment persisted following the 1975 OPEC oil shock and the stagflation that accompanied it and then the 1982 recession and its aftermath, neo-liberals started to seek new ways of justifying the lack of government action in restoring full employment. Being very clever, they came up with an ingenious solution – redefine what full employment means. So as the unemployment rate rose they claimed that the so-called “equilibrium unemployment rate” had also risen which meant that attempts to reduce it by expansionary policy would be inflationary. They claimed the only way the government could act was to initiate “structural reforms” aka privatisation, labour market deregulation, anti-union legislation and harsh welfare measures. Why should we be so surprised that they are at it again? The truth is that recessions cause structural imbalances which are corrected again if economic growth is strong enough in the post recession phase.

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Ratings agencies and higher interest rates

On Friday, April 24, 2009 there was a story in the Australian entitled Deficit spike may lift rates as Government considers $300bn debt blowout which introduced the next step in the neo-liberal fight to retain control of the policy debate – the dreaded ratings agencies. Accordingly, the Government spending (wait for it) … “blows out the deficit” and this will “jeopardise Australia’s triple-A credit rating, leading to higher interest rates.” So if you cannot win the “crowding out” battle to justify an attack on deficit spending its time to wheel out those credit rating agencies to scare the children of our land. As you will read this sort of reasoning is nonsensical in the extreme.

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How large should the deficit be?

Today I am in Melbourne (my home town) presenting a workshop on skills development for the new green jobs economy which is a joint Victorian Government/Brotherhood of St Laurence show. But that is not what I am writing about here. Regular readers of billy blog will know that when I talk about budget deficits I typically stress two points: (a) that the Government is not financially constrained and therefore all the hoopla about debt and future tax burdens are just a waste of time. But just because the Government can buy whatever is for sale by crediting relevant bank accounts doesn’t mean they should not place limits on the size of the deficit; and so (b) given the federal deficit “finances” private saving, it should therefore be aim to “fill” the spending gap left by the private desire to save. If the Government does that then it can maintain full employment and price stability and move towards a more equitable society. So it is of importance that we have some idea of the size of this spending (or output) gap.

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Will we really pay higher interest rates?

In this blog, we consider the debt question (again) with streamlined language to ensure it is accessible to all who choose to read it. Yesterday I asked whether future taxes will be higher, which is now being claimed by conservatives who are running a relentless political campaign against the demise of neo-liberalism. Today, the partner claim: will we be paying higher interest rates because of the borrowing? Answer: no! Whether interest rates are higher or lower in the future will have little to do with the movements in today’s budget balance. It is possible that voluntary arrangements set in place by the Australian government in the past will drive interest rates up. But if that occurs it will because the Government wants higher interest rates rather than having anything to do with the net spending that is being engaged in to stop employment growth falling off the cliff. So time to discuss bond markets a bit.

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On things nautical!

The only nautical analogy that I have carried through my days as a professional economist is the one that apparentely John F. Kennedy coined – A rising tide lifts all boats. It was used by famous American progressive economist Arthur Okun in the 1960s to motivate his research on upgrading benefits of what he called the high pressure economy. It was an aspirational term used to goad national governments into fiscal action to ensure that the economy was always as close to full employment (high pressure) as possible. Accordingly, when the economy is at high pressure, both the strong and the weak prosper. Labour participation is strong, unemployment is at the irreducible minimum, labour productivity is high, wages are high and a number of upgrading effects across social classes and generations occur. Children from disadvantaged families get a chance to transcend poverty and workers who are displaced by global economic changes are able to be re-absorbed into productive work. Direct public sector job creation is a significant part of the national government’s responsibilities in this regard. If the private sector is incapable of providing enough jobs then there is only one sector left, ladies and gentlemen. Today I read of a new nautical analogy and my how times have changed! Its time to debrief again!

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A simple personal calling card economy

Some readers have asked me to provide a simplified explanation of how the modern monetary economy works which is devoid of all the jargon that economists hide within. As part of another earlier blog, I did present a simple fiscal game which provides all the essential insights you require to understand how a modern monetary economy actually operates. Like all models it is stylisation. But there is nothing that I could add by way of complexity that would change the fundamental conclusions and understandings. So to make the model easier to find for reference purposes later on I an presenting it again as a stand-alone blog. Read on!

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Size of deficit 101

I rode my bike 80 kms early this morning (usual Sunday) in the beautiful Autumn weather that Newcastle (NSW) enjoys this time of year. The Pacific Ocean looks superb (although there is nothing surfable in sight – maybe tomorrow morning). The sun was out and we were heading for 26-27 degrees. Then it had to happen. When I returned home I opened this morning’s newspaper and came across an authoritative headline: US faces huge deficit blow-out, with the sub-line “Program cuts, tax hikes likely.” The journalist (added to my bogan list) probably got 0 out of 5 on last night’s quiz. Well the truth is that almost everything the journalist wrote is wrong if he is talking about the real world. Anyway, I thought so. Its that time again. Time to debrief.

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Public infrastructure 101 – Part 1

I read a headline in the Australian newspaper yesterday (March 19) – Nation building funding crisis as private sector fails to find cash. What? Nation building requires significant budget deficits. When was it dependent on the private sector having to trump up cash? I soon recalled that we have been living in the Public Private Partnership (PPP) era where governments have relinquished their responsibilities to build essential public infrastructure that not only supports a sense of public good but also underpins the prosperity of the private market economy. Its that time again. Time to debrief.

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ABC bias … what might have been

Lat night’s ABC 7.30 Report had a segment titled Australian economy resilient in tough times. It was so bad I was prompted to write to the ABC complaining of their neo-liberal bias. All the commentators were the usual coterie of investment bankers and private consultants all of who have particular vested interests which are not disclosed when they are held out by the ABC as so-called experts! Not one independent researcher was included in the segment. In another world, this might have been the way the show evolved.

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The origins of the economic crisis

A good way to understand the origins of the current economic crisis in Australia is to examine the historical behaviour of key macroeconomic aggregates. The previous Federal Government claimed they were responsibly managing the fiscal and monetary parameters and creating a resilient competitive economy. This was a spurious claim they were in fact setting Australia up for crisis. The reality is that the previous government created an economy which was always going to crash badly.

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Fiscal stimulus effects …

Opposition leader Turnbull has decided to go to the wall in opposing the $42 billion package. In particular, they want tax cuts rather than the $12.7 billion in cash handouts. He said they will not be provide economic stimulus and that December’s $10.4 billion in handouts had not worked. Soon after Turnbull provided these conclusions the ABS released the latest retail trade figures which showed that consumer spending shot up by 3.8 per cent in December, the highest monthly increase since August 2000 (since the GST came in).

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