The UK Autumn Budget Statement – More Neoliberal Nonsense!

The Autumn statement would not be so bad if it was economically coherent, with the spending and taxing plans agreeable, or otherwise, according to one’s political opinion. However, it does not make any sense. Not only does it not “add up”, it is inconsistent with all the principles of arithmetic.

The right wing Tory MP John Redwood makes the point :

“In total the new estimates show us paying an extra £105 billion in tax over the five years”

George Osborne says:

” we will reach a surplus of £10.1 billion in 2019/20″

Note: it’s not just “about £10 billion” its  “£10.1 billion”. We’ve all got to admire just how precise George and his Treasury economists can be about these five year forecasts! As if !

There’s no chance of this happening with the UK running a ~ £90 billion deficit in its external deficit due to trade and other international payments.  It would mean that the UK economy would have to find ~ £100 billion every year to pay the import bill and also provide the government with its £10 billion surplus.

This, presumably, is close enough to John Redwood’s ” extra £105 billion in tax”?

George Osborne says that  “Britain will be out of the red and into the black” which is completely untrue. These figures mean the British economy will be in the red to the extent of ~£100 billion to pay for the Govt being ~£10 billion in the black,  and Britain’s overseas trading partners being ~£90 billion in the black.

It can’t possibly happen that way,  unless somehow the trade deficit can be turned into a trade surplus, and that aspect is totally ignored in George Osborne’s grand plan. The UK economy could not sustain a net loss of £100 billion even for one year – never mind on an annual basis. George Osborne will only send the economy into a downward spiral trying to achieve the impossible. An economy in a depressed state will also deliver depressed levels of taxation revenue.

In a couple of years time, the excuse for the plan failing , as it inevitably will , is likely to be that even though the Government has kept spending under control, taxation revenues will have not come in as expected. This will be attributed to: Problems in the eurozone, problems with world trade, problems with loss of revenue from North Sea oil, a new war in the Middle East maybe?

In other words, the same kind of ‘excuses’ as were put forward after the last similar plan failed, in the years following the Tory win in 2010, except the Govt could blame the Lib Dems then! If the Government cared to look for a reason, rather than an excuse, they would explain that their deficit has to be the sum of what everyone else saves. They don’t have direct control of that.

There’s a saying , usually incorrectly attributed to Einstein, about doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results, being a sign of madness.  Are the Tories mad, though, or just plain bad?


MMT and Economic Growth

Most economists , including the MMT variety, are wedded to the notion that economic growth in itself is a good thing. Of course, it has indeed been that over the last centuries. Few of us would be happy living under the same conditions as our 19th century forebears for example.Looking at inscriptions on the headstones of an old cemetery, or the reading of a few chapters of a Dickens novel provides enough evidence of the harsh living conditions that most endured then. Infant mortality was high. Many women died in their prime due to complications of childbirth. Improvements have largely been made possible by economic growth. In our modern economies we notice that unemployment falls when economies grow. Workers can negotiate higher wages as businesses can sell their products and services into marketplace. Everyone is happy. Governments get re-elected!

Economic growth is largely a product of human ingenuity. Give a group of workers the task of doing something, like making a car for example, when they have no experience of even seeing a car before and they’ll struggle to do it. The cars they produce won’t be very good. They will consume a lot of labour power and be relatively expensive, so that only the very wealthy can afford them. That was the case in the early years of the car industry. But as the workers gain more experience and apply their intelligence to the problems at hand, the cars are continually improved. The labour time to make each one falls as production techniques improve too. Fast forward to where we are now, and we have very good cars made very efficiently by far fewer workers at a fraction of the cost of a century ago. It is the same story in just about every industry we can think of.

Those in the Green movement question that we can have economic growth forever citing the fact that economic growth implies an exponential consumption of the finite resources which are available to us. It’s a good question and it’s one we are going to have to answer sooner or later. We might want to make a start on doing that now in the context of our present economic problems. In the UK and Europe we have seen no real economic growth since the 2008 GFC. The situation varies from country to country but typically GDP per person is just about what is was a decade ago. Even so, this is still approximately twice what it was a generation ago. So is everyone twice as happy now as they were then? Or are they exactly as happy as they were a decade ago?

Of course they aren’t. There’s much more unemployment and underemployment now. There are more homeless people than there were, there aremore people relying on food banks. The state of the NHS and the education system is worse than it was. In 1980, students still had grants, but now they don’t, even though supposedly we are a much wealthier society, notwithstanding the difficulties brought about by the 2008 crash. This is not what I remember being told by Sir Keith Joseph ( a Tory politician very close toMargaret Thatcher) in the early 70’s when we clashed at a student meeting where he was speaking. He criticised me, in particular, and the left in general, for being overly concerned with the redistribution of existing wealth and not enough about the creation of new wealth. His message was that social and economic problems, of which we were both aware existed, were best solved by having a more productive economy and allowing the wealth creators free rein to create wealth unhindered by State interference. It would have been inconceivable to the rest of the meeting, and maybe even to Keith Joseph and myself, that some 40 years later we’d have had the levels of growth we’ve had but still the same economic problems would remain unresolved.

We don’t need degrees in economic theory to know that if the proverbial ‘economic cake’ is much bigger but there are still those surviving on meagre rations, that the imbalance must be due to how that cake is cut. The question of who gets what does matter when discussing Economics. Economic growth has to be more than about mopping up surplus labour in a capitalist economy. If we do achieve some growth, that’s fine, we all can feel a bit better off. If we don’t, we should all feel that we are neither better nor worse off, instead of, as now, feeling that we have to run just to stand still. Do we need a different type of economy for that to happen? The critics of MMT might argue that it’s little more than a patch for the problems of a capitalist economy. I wouldn’t accept that but we do have to explain how MMT can work for everyone if we are to establish meaningful links with the political left. A Job Guarantee on a minimum wage won’t be enough for many.

If we do want that, we have in the words of Labour’s old Clause 4 to provide an economic theory which can help to “secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof”.


The Job Guarantee, MMT and the Redistribution of Wealth

One important component of MMT is known as the Job Guarantee (JG) or sometimes the Employer of Last Resort (ELR) . The idea is an unemployed worker would be offered a job by the Government instead of unemployment welfare benefit. The job would be for public purpose and pay a basic wage. This would effectively define a minimum wage for other workers too.  There’d be no point working for less than the JG wage somewhere else for example. The government would possibly pay out slightly more than it would in welfare benefits to support these jobs, but it would not be paying out money for nothing. It would be receiving something in return, for the benefit of society as a whole,  and would prevent useful resources, the labour power of millions of workers, from going to waste.

Instead of there being a pool of unemployed there would be a pool of JG workers. Instead of an unemployment rate there would be a JG rate. Whereas government now uses unemployment as a means of inflation control,  a future government would use the JG and the JG pay rate as a means of inflation control. Bill Mitchell likens the JG scheme to one previously used by the Australian government to stabilise the price of wool. It used to buy up wool, which might otherwise have been unsold,  at sales auctions to guarantee a floor price. Then, later as the price of wool might have risen, stocks were sold from the buffer supply to reduce wool prices.

One potential problem is with the rights of JG workers. If they feel they are being asked to work for a lower level of pay than they might consider to be socially acceptable, and also under conditions which might be less than acceptable, do they have a right to join a union and demand higher pay and better conditions? The scheme cannot work too well if that is the case because the minimum wage will then potentially be a source of inflation.

So, the question arises: can we really compare human workers with bales of wool?  Should workers be ‘sold’ from a buffer stock to lower the wages of other workers?  This does not sound, to my admittedly socialist ears,  like an appealing idea!  Trade unions have to have an input into the level of the minimum wage whether or not it is defined by the wage of a JG. Governments may be fair and just in defining a reasonable living wage or they may not be!

It is potentially only a problem if  unemployment is brought down to something like 4% and efforts to reduce it below this figure create inflationary tendencies in the economy. Some of those 4% will be people between jobs but some will be, for as variety of reasons, hard-to-place workers. They shouldn’t just be abandoned but neither should we be too hasty to introduce compulsory work. The meaning of ‘compulsory’ being that there would be no social benefits otherwise.

MMT doesn’t, IMO,  make this point at all clear in its theorising. Bill Mitchell has expressed his view as:

“The existing unemployment benefits scheme could be maintained alongside the JG program, depending on the government’s preference and conception of mutual responsibility.
My personal preference is to abandon the unemployment benefits scheme and free the associated administrative infrastructure for JG operations.
The concept of mutual obligation from the workers’ side would become straightforward because the receipt of income by the unemployed worker would be conditional on taking a JG job…..
I would also allow a person a short-period – perhaps two weeks – in between losing their job and starting a JG job – to sort out their affairs. This period would be covered by full JG pay.”

We can all have our ‘personal preferences’ . Mine would certainly NOT be to “abandon the unemployment benefits scheme ” until such time as we have a genuine socialist society and not just a so-called socialist government in charge of an essentially capitalist society or economy. No economic theory, including MMT, has much if anything to say about the desirability of wealth redistribution. The argument to concentrate on economic growth rather than redistribution, is I would argue, a neoliberal argument in itself. GDP per capita now in the UK is twice what it was in 1979 when Mrs Thatcher first won a general election. It is a similar ratio in most advanced countries too, so Mrs Thatcher cannot have been at all responsible for the UK growth!

Her accusation then,  and from her supporters too,  was  the left was being reactionary in its demands for redistribution and that all economic problems would be solved by having a more productive economy. This might be described as the ‘rising tide raises all boats’ theory. Experience should have taught us that the rising tide may well have raised luxury yachts but not necessarily “all boats”. We have more unemployment now than we had in 1979, more underemployment, more homeless, more people relying on food banks, and the NHS is in very poor shape. Clearly all problems have not been solved and will not be solved, regardless of the level of past and future economic growth, until the question of wealth redistribution is back on the political agenda.

By all means let us establish a  Job Guarantee but let us make it very clear we mean a Voluntary Job Guarantee. We should make sure the benefits of that extra production, that extra economic growth,  are used to equalise wealth distribution rather than those benefits ending up in the possession of the already ultra wealthy as has happened with previous economic growth.  Let’s see how that works out before even thinking about any compulsion.

Where does the Money come from in a Monopoly game?

It has been some time since I last played Monopoly. The Board Game.  As I remember we have several players and a banker who assumes a similar role to government in our economy. He hands out money at the start of the game. Whenever we pass GO, or draw a lucky card from the community chest we get a bit more. He charges us tax,  super-tax, and might put us in jail from time to time.

We don’t like it when that happens, but where does the money come from in a Monopoly game? The more right wing players might argue it comes from other players when they land on the their Mayfair or Park Lane properties which have houses and hotels on them! They like to think that wealth creates money rather than the reverse. But those of us who take a wider view know it all comes from the banker originally.

The government/banker is always in debt. He has to be. His debts are the players’ monetary assets. Penny for penny. Would the game work at all if he insisted on always balancing his budget?

PS Apologies if this is a statement of the bleeding obvious! But, many of our highly educated (over-educated?)  politicians still seem to be in need of such.

Do we really have austerity economics in the UK?

Many right wing commentators make the point that public spending is higher now than under the last Labour Government in both real and nominal terms. They dispute the charge made against the present government by the left that they are engaging in the ‘austerity economics’.  Even the deficit (they mean the government’s budget deficit)  they will admit, when pushed,  is higher than the last Labour government’s deficit. So why are we being so harsh when they are clearly doing their best? If we want austerity , they argue, just look at what happens in the Eurozone.

Is there any justification for their defence? Possibly. GDP per person is just about the same as it was a decade ago. There were no accusations of austerity economics then and most voters  in the UK felt fairly well off. Or, at least they did in sufficient numbers to re-elect a Labour Government in 2005. So, why is the general feeling that we are worse off now than we were then? If the published figures are correct, and there is no reason to dispute them as far as I know, then the problem must be one of distribution of the available income.

Ironically, the best defence the Tories have against the charge of austerity economics is that there would be no austerity if everyone had a fairer share of what was available. They might not go for that though!  GDP per person is now twice as high as it was when Mrs Thatcher first won a general election. She and her government were of the opinion that the left were reactionary in quibbling about the distribution of the proverbial cake, and that it was better for all if we just concentrated our efforts into making a bigger cake.

Well, we’ve done that. The cake is now twice the size, but there are more homeless now than there were then, with higher levels of unemployment and underemployment. Terms like “Zero Hours Contracts”  and “Food Banks”are in existence now which weren’t then. So why the problem? It has to be caused by how the available wealth and income is divided.  There is no alternative explanation.

That would be the socialist explanation of why we have austerity. An economist would perhaps adopt a different tack as has Professor Bill Mitchell:

“Austerity occurs when the government runs deficits that are too small relative to the spending and saving decisions of the non-government sector. In this context, it is moot where the revenue comes from. The impacts of running insufficient fiscal deficits usually does impact on the poor and disadvantaged, most notably, because it causes mass unemployment and/or underemployment. And I don’t diminish the concern we should have for those distributional consequences. But from a macroeconomics perspective that is not the point. Austerity is about the sufficiency of the deficit contribution to total spending and national income generation.”

So how does this work with the present bout of austerity in the UK?

John Redwood recently made the following claim on his blog:

“The most recent figures show the UK deficit gradually reducing, with tax revenues growing more quickly than the growth in public spending, as planned.”

There are two problems here: Firstly he, I would suggest David Cameron and George Osborne too,  thinks that reduction is a good thing. Secondly,  he thinks the UK’s deficit is the same as the Govt’s budget deficit which it clearly isn’t. A better description of the UK’s deficit is the net loss of ££ to pay for the net import bill and which is currently some 5% of GDP.

So, it must follow that if Government reduces its own deficit to below 5%, as it has recently done, that it is simply pushing the economy into recession. That’s austerity. Everyone will run increasingly short of money. Gross aggregate demand can then only be maintained by increased private sector borrowing which of course just inflates the bubble economy.

London property is rated as the most overvalued in the world with a bubble index of 1.88 and the rest of SE England can’t be far behind.

If the Government wants to run a a 5% deficit in trade it has to run something like a 7-8% deficit in its budget to allow those in the economy who wish to save (rather than borrow) some capacity to do so.

Pushing it down to only 4% is a recipe for disaster. The economy is now hanging by a thread. The bubble will burst sooner rather than later and we all know what happens to real economies when bubble economies burst.

Even looking at this kind of economics from a right wing perspective, I can’t see it makes any sense. Firstly it will reduce the electoral chances of the Tory Party. Voters who become economically disadvantaged and become reliant on State support will vote for parties offering better rather than worse support. Secondly, it will hinder their desire for a smaller state. That is only going to be possible when workers have sufficient spending power to afford private sector alternatives to those services the State now provides.

“We need deficits because people want to buy gilts” – Richard Murphy

Richard Murphy published an interesting  article “On budget surpluses and the economic illiteracy of the Fiscal Charter”  yesterday in which he made several important points such as “we need deficits because people want to buy gilts” and “if the government runs a surplus someone else has to run a deficit”.

Absolutely right and well said, Richard! I hope everyone who’s even the slightest bit worried about our deficit and so-called “national debt” reads this very important piece of what will be ‘news’ to them. Maybe John McDonnell has finally seen the light? There’s nothing wrong with a a change of mind when new evidence and new arguments compel that. Intelligent people change their views all the time as more information becomes avaialble.

The question to be resolved, and I must admit I’m not totally clear on the answer, is if we should sell gilts. Is the fact that people want to buy them a good enough reason to sell them? Why can’t we just allow people to put their money on deposit. Offer the a fixed interest rate, say 2%, and tell them “That’s it. Take it or leave it”.

Some would say 2% was way too high. We should pay 0%. So what will happen then? If we discourage people saving, deliberately creating enough inflation to make 0% , or even 2% very unattractive, we’ll theoretically have no deficits at all.

Because Government Deficit = Savings of the Non-Government

Is that what people really want? Is George Osborne aware that what he needs to do to achieve his surplus is create more inflation and stop selling gilts?