Posts Tagged ‘John Maynard Keynes’

John Quiggin on the Absolute Failure of Austerity

January 9, 2019

One of the other massively failing right-wing economic policies the Australian economist John Quibbin tackles in his book Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2010) is expansionary austerity. This is the full name for the theory of economic austerity foisted upon Europeans and Americans since the collapse of the banks in 2008. It’s also the term used to describe the policy generally of cutting government expenditure in order to reduce inflation. Quiggin shows how, whenever this policy was adopted by governments like the American, British, European and Japanese from the 1920s onwards, the result has always been recession, massive unemployment and poverty.

He notes that after the big bank bail-out of 2008, most economists returned to Keynesianism. However, the present system of austerity was introduced in Europe due to need to bail out the big European banks following the economic collapse of Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, and the consequent fall in government tax revenue. Quiggin then goes on to comment on how austerity was then presented to the public as being ultimately beneficial to the public, despite its obvious social injustice, before going on to describe how it was implemented, and its failure. He writes

The injustice of making hospital workers, police, and old age pensioners pay for the crisis, while the bankers who caused it are receiving even bigger bonuses than before, is glaringly obvious. So, just as with trickle-down economics, it was necessary to claim that everyone would be better off in the long run.

It was here that the Zombie idea of expansionary austerity emerged from the grave. Alesina and Ardagna, citing their dubious work from the 1990s, argued that the path to recovery lay in reducing public spending. They attracted the support of central bankers, ratings agencies, and financial markets, all of whom wanted to disclaim responsibility for the crisis they had created and get back to a system where they ruled the roost and profited handsomely as a result.

The shift to austerity was politically convenient for market liberals. Despite the fact that it was their own policies of financial deregulation that had produced the crisis, they used the pretext of austerity to push these policies even further. The Conservative government of David Cameron in Britain has been particularly active in this respect. Cameron has advanced the idea of a “Big Society”, meaning that voluntary groups are expected to take over core functions of the social welfare system. The Big Society has been a failure and has been largely laughed off the stage, but it has not stopped the government from pursuing a radical market liberal agenda, symbolized by measures such as the imposition of minimum income requirements on people seeking immigrant visas for their spouses.

Although the term expansionary austerity has not been much used in the United States, the swing to austerity policies began even earlier than elsewhere. After introducing a substantial, but still inadequate fiscal stimulus early in 2009, the Obama administration withdrew from the economic policy debate, preferring to focus on health policy and wait for the economy to recover.

Meanwhile the Republican Party, and particularly the Tea Party faction that emerged in 2009, embraced the idea, though not the terminology, of expansionary austerity and in particular the claim that reducing government spending is the way to prosperity. In the absence of any effective pushback from the Obama administration, the Tea Party was successful in discrediting Keynesian economic ideas.

Following Republican victories in the 2010 congressional elections, the administration accepted the case for austerity and sought a “grand bargain” with the Republicans. It was only after the Republicans brought the government to the brink of default on its debt in mid-2011 that Obama returned to the economic debate with his proposed American Jobs Act. While rhetorically effective, Obama’s proposals were, predictably, rejected by the Republicans in Congress.

At the state and local government level, austerity policies were in force from the beginning of the crisis. Because they are subject to balanced-budged requirements, state and local governments were forced to respond to declining tax revenues with cuts in expenditure. Initially, they received some support from the stimulus package, but as this source of funding ran out, they were forced to make cuts across the board, including scaling back vital services such as police, schools, and social welfare.

The theory of expansionary austerity has faced the test of experience and has failed. Wherever austerity policies have been applied, recovery from the crisis has been halted. At the end of 2011, the unemployment rate was above 8 percent in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the eurozone. In Britain, where the switch from stimulus to austerity began with the election of the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government in 2010, unemployment rose rapidly to its highest rate in seventeen years. In Europe, the risk of a new recession, or worse, remains severe at the time of writing.

Although the U.S. economy currently shows some superficial signs of recovery, the underlying reality is arguably even worse than it now is in Europe. Unemployment rates have fallen somewhat, but this mainly reflects the fact that millions of workers have given up the search for work altogether. The most important measure of labour market performance, the unemployment-population ration (that is, the proportion of the adult population who have jobs) fell sharply at the beginning of the cris and has never recovered. On the other hand, the forecast for Europe in the future looks even bleaker as the consequences of austerity begins to bite.

The reanimation of expansionary austerity represents zombie economics at its worst. Having failed utterly to deliver the promised benefits, the financial and political elite raised to power by market liberalism has pushed ahead with even greater intensity. In the wake of a crisis caused entirely by financial markets and the central banks and regulators that were supposed to control them, the burden of fixing the problem has been placed on ordinary workers, public services, the old, and the sick.

With their main theoretical claims, such as the Efficient Markets Hypothesis and Real Business Cycle in ruins, the advocates of market liberalism have fallen back on long-exploded claims, backed by shoddy research. Yet, in the absence of a coherent alternative, the policy program of expansionary austerity is being implemented, with disastrous results. (pp. 229-32, emphasis mine).

As for Alesina and Ardagna, the two economists responsible for contemporary expansionary austerity, Quiggin shows how their research was seriously flawed, giving some of their biggest factual mistakes and accuracies on pages 225 and 226.

Earlier in the chapter he discusses the reasons why Keynes was ignored in the decades before the Second World War. The British treasury was terrified that adoption of government intervention in some areas would lead to further interventions in others. He also quotes the Polish economist, Michal Kalecki, who stated that market liberals were afraid of Keynsianism because it allowed governments to ignore the financial sector and empowered working people. He writes

Underlying the Treasury’s opposition to fiscal stimulus, however, was a fear, entirely justified in terms of the consequences for market liberal ideology, that a successful interventionist macroeconomic policy would pave the way for intervening in other areas and for the end of the liberal economic order based on the gold standard, unregulated financial markets, and a minimal state.

As the great Polish economist Michal Kalecki observed in 1943, market liberal fear the success of stimulatory fiscal policy more than its failure. If governments can maintain full employment through appropriate macroeconomic policies, they no longer need to worry about “business confidence” and can undertake policies without regard to the fluctuations of the financial markets. Moreover, workers cannot be kept in line if they are confident they can always find a new job. As far as the advocates of austerity are concerned, chronic, or at least periodic, high unemployment is a necessary part of a liberal economic order.

The fears of the Treasury were to be realized in the decades after 1945, when the combination of full employment and Keynsian macro-economic management provided support for the expansion of the welfare state, right control of the financial sector, and extensive government intervention in the economy, which produced the most broadly distributed prosperity of any period in economic history. (p. 14).

So the welfare state is being dismantled, the health service privatized and a high unemployment and mass poverty created simply to maintain the importance and power of the financial sector and private industry, and create a cowed workforce for industry. As an economic theory, austerity is thoroughly discredited, but is maintained as it was not by a right-wing media and political establishment. Robin Ramsay, the editor of Lobster, said in one of his columns that when he studied economics in the 1970s, monetarism was so discredited that it was regarded as a joke by his lecturers. He then suggested that the reason it was supported and implemented by Thatcher and her successors was simply because it offered a pretext for their real aims: to attack state intervention and the welfare state. It looks like he was right.

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Books against Austerity and Corporate Power in Parliament

July 23, 2016

Looking round Waterstone’s earlier in the day yesterday, I found a couple of books written against two of the leading political problems. One was Austerity, by Florian Schui. I found this in the business section. Written by an economist, the blurb on the back states that it shows through numerous examples why austerity doesn’t work, and how it is alien to capitalism. I didn’t buy it, as I’ve already got a number of books here I need read about the government’s failing economic policies and their cruel, mendacious and vicious attacks on the welfare state. I can’t therefore make any comments about it, except that a number of economists have repeatedly made the same point about austerity not working. Indeed, Basu and Stuckler make this point very early on in their The Body Economy: Why Austerity Kills. As for austerity being alien to capitalism, that is very much a novel viewpoint, as the response of the capitalists to recession has always been to demand cuts in wages and welfare spending, despite the fact that this harms the economy. This has also been repeatedly pointed out by economists and politicians like F.D. Roosevelt, Keynes and Tony Crosland. Crosland believed that the captains of industry should support the welfare state, as by giving workers extra money, the workers in turn supported industry through purchasing their products. Roosevelt made the same point when he introduced his very limited welfare reforms under the New Deal. But this is clearly a message the self-professed defenders of capitalism don’t want to hear, who would rather have the workers ground under food and placed in mass poverty, than given freedom, dignity, and greater purchasing power.

The other book was in the ‘new books’ section. This was entitled Parliament Inc. I’ve forgotten who it’s by, but it’s about how MPs are no longer working to represent us, but for the corporations, who fund their parties, supply staff and research experts, and offer them lucrative jobs afterwards through the revolving door. George Monbiot wrote something very similar a while ago in Corporate State, and Private Eye has been documenting the corporate corruption of politics for a very long time. Nevertheless, corporate power against the interests of the people politicians are supposed to represent has become a particularly acute issue over the past few years. One California businessman, who was actually a conservative, put out an internet petition to have members of Congress wear corporate logos on their jackets, where they had been sponsored by companies, rather than get their funding from ordinary people or their party. The corporate power of Wall Street, amongst others, is why the Democrat party dumped Bernie Sanders in favour of Shrillary through the votes of the ‘superdelegates’. It’s also very probably behind much of the New Labour attempts to oust Corbyn. Corbyn’s a radical, who threatens to end neoliberalism. And Blair and New Labour had a very cosy relationship with big business and corporate power. And hence the virulent denunciations of Jeremy Corbyn and his followers as Trotskyite hippies by the like of John Spellar.

I don’t think these books and their authors are isolated voices either. I think as time goes on, more and more authors, journalists and economists will start attacking neoliberalism and corporate power, as it becomes increasingly obvious that neoliberal economics aren’t working. And neither, thanks to the corporations, is parliament.

Further Keynsian Arguments against Cutting Wages to Lower Unemployment

March 10, 2014

Keynes Book Cover

On Saturday I presented some of the arguments from Keynsian economics in Michael Stewart’s book Keynes and After (London; Penguin 1986) against the Conservative policy, based on Monetarist and Neoliberal economics, that cutting wages will automatically create more jobs as labour becomes more economical to employ. In addition to those I blogged about on Saturday, Stewart makes a number of other arguments against the policy. One of these concerns economies of scale, which state that if unemployment falls, then real wages will actually rise. He states

Thirdly, there is the troublesome fact that in many industries there are increasing, not decreasing, returns to scale: in other words, as output and employment increase, labour productivity rises and unit costs fall. This fact has some awkward implications for much conventional economic theory; in particular it means that as the economy expands and unemployment falls from, say, 10 per cent to 5 per cent, real wages must rise, not fall. (As we noted in Chapter 5, Keynes did not incorporate this insight into the General Theory, but highlighted it in an article in the Economic Journal in 1939) If it is true that real wages will rise as unemployment falls, to postulate, as the monetarists do, that it is necessary to reduce real wages in order to reduce unemployment would seem to be startlingly perverse.

Which again suggests that the Tory policy of cutting wages may be creating unemployment. Not that they have any motivation to see unemployment fall. The Angry Yorkshireman has stated several times that Neoliberal theory after von Hayek and von Mises states that there should be a constant pool of the unemployed at 6 per cent.

Stewart also discusses the way the massive growth in unemployment during the early 1980s actually affected different groups of workers. Some workers actually saw their wages rise, while at the same time suffering unemployment, while the unskilled workers at the bottom of the pile suffered a drop in wages as well as being hit the most by unemployment. Stewart states

Finally, there is some evidence about what actually happened when unemployment in Britain started its big rise early in 1980, and in particular what happened to different groups of workers. Between 1979 and 1983 the real earnings of non-manual workers rose by 10 per cent, while the employment of these manual workers fell by 8 per cent. The real earnings of non-manual workers, on the other hand, rose by 19 per cent – but unemployment of these workers rose by 12 per cent. Even more striking is what happened at the top and bottom of the earnings scale. The real hourly earnings of the top 10 10 per cent of adult male earners (among whom unemployment is very low) rose by 19 per cent between 1979 and 1984. The real hourly earnings of the bottom 10 per cent, which suffered heavily from the rise in unemployment during these five years, actually fell slightly over the period. Thus it is very hard to believe that what happens to real wages determines what happens to employment. The correct inference is surely that the demand for labour determines employment and real wages. Over the four or five years after 1979, groups of workers whose services were in demand suffered little unemployment, and enjoyed rising real wages. Groups of workers whose services were not in demand suffered heavy unemployment, and found it difficult to maintain, let alone increase, their real wage.

He then suggests some methods by which unemployment could be reduced.

The moral of these figures, then, is that if unemployment is to be reduced among low-paid manual workers, the demand for their labour must be increased. One way of doing this (a crucially important ‘supply-side’ measure’) is to train or retrain them in skills that are in demand. Another, more controversial, measure is to reduce or eliminate employers’ social security contributions for the low paid, thus making them more attractive to employ without reducing the take-home payoff the workers themselves. But the basic answer is the Keynsian one: to increase effective demand. This will raise employment and reduce unemployment. It may or may not lead to a fall in real wages, depending on the shape of the average wage curve. But any such fall in the real wage will be the effect, not the cause, of the rise in employment. As Keynes himself put it,

The propensity to consume and the rate of new investment determine between them the volume of employment, and the volume of employment is uniquely related to a given level of real wages – not the other way round.

Blair’s government did have a policy of retraining the unemployed through the establishment of computer literacy courses, which were free to those without jobs. This has, however, been subverted by Osborne and co. into various courses, which are simply chiefly designed to teach the unemployed how to look for work and be a good employee, in order to be successful at job interviews. These have been constructed as a way of psychologically reinforcing the attitude that the unemployed are to be blame for their condition, rather than the economy or the government’s own employment policies.

Osborne is also trying to make the employment of the young unemployed more attractive by cutting employers’ NI contributions. It’s a policy which will also mean that these same workers will thus lack government social security coverage – another policy designed to punish the working class in favour of the employers.

The government has not, however, done anything to create demand, following the dictates of Neoliberal economic policy that this would be bad, quite apart from the employers’ class interests, which bitterly resent government interference, except, of course, when it is being subsidised. But until that happens, any policies the government launches ostensibly to tackle unemployment will fail. Not that this worries them, as the Neoliberal economics they have adopted demands that labour should be cheap and so their should be a constant pool of unemployed. They thus have absolutely no desire to see a fall in unemployment, merely its continuing disguise in order to win elections.