Tag Archives: Economic inequality

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”.

 

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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.

Never mind the deficit just vote for the recovery!

It’s difficult to know who to back in next month’s UK elections. Europe is a major issue which the most normally sensible parties, or at least the parties who the public normally consider to be the more sensible,  have largely chosen to ignore  in the run up. The events in the eurozone are highly significant, in particular the Greek crisis,  yet those in the most pro-EU parties don’t want to talk about them at all.

There’s next to nothing about it on Labour’s main website, Labourlist, for example.

Funny that!  Those who believe in a united Europe, as many of our more ardent EU advocates clearly do, should feel as strongly about unemployed young people in Spain or poverty in Greece as about hardship in the UK.  Yet, if they ever remember to make a critical comment, it is not because they wish to change anything. The just expired Parliament has seen a complete absence of Labour opposition to any new laws or powers for the EU.

If the UK today had 50% youth unemployment as the south of Euroland currently suffers, Labour would never let us all hear the end of it – and rightly so. If the UK had Greek levels of unemployment, and a Greek cost of living crisis which has depressed average real incomes by almost a quarter since 2007, again we would not hear the end of it, as Labour would rightly think it completely unacceptable. So why is it that these people who believe in pan European solidarity have nothing to say about the scandal of poverty and joblessness in large chunks of Euroland? Why are they not insisting on new policies for the EU?

The situation is far from ideal but it’s probably best to vote for the party who you feel will produce the best recovery. The recovery, when it happens, will fix all deficit problems. Firstly a healthy economy will mean increased taxation revenue. Secondly, if the economy is healthy no-one is going to worry about debts and deficit anyway. The US$ is surging at present as investors buy up $ securities. Are they worried about a $17 trillion (or is it $18 trillion by now?) debt?

I don’t think so. There are those in the USA who can’t make head nor tail of it all and are pushing for a balanced budget. I can’t see them getting anywhere but heaven help us all if they do!

Who controls the economy?

Economic control is to some extent decided  by the democratic process – but nowhere near to the extent that most voters would think.  Naturally, those who have the most money have the most influence.  If they decide to spend big time then the government needs to increase taxes to slow down the economy and prevent inflation. These are levied largely on those who have much less. If the very wealthy decide to acquire a mountain of cash, then the government needs to run high budget deficits to keep the economy moving.

That may be acceptable if the extent of inequality was close to what most citizens would consider reasonable.

But, is it?

This is the extent of the inequality, and the perceived inequality,  in America and it’s probably not much different elsewhere.