Party Games

The news over the last few days seems to have been dominated by the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as the new president of the European Commission, and David Cameron’s unsuccessful attempt to thwart his appointment. Putting aside the issue of whether Juncker is a suitable person for the role or not, Cameron’s naked politicking brought to mind the Yes Minister Christmas special “Party Games”. Though not exactly the same, there are enough similarities to provide the excuse I need to share some clips.

The episode is set up by Hacker discussing European plans to standardise the sausage:

After convincing the EEC to allow Britain to keep the name “British sausage”, Hacker decides to boost his popularity by first pretending the sausage issue is still live and then giving an impassioned speech railing against European regulations:

What’s this got to do with Cameron? Not a lot, but I do question his sincerity in opposing Juncker. ISTM he was looking for a fight to pick with the EU and decided this was his moment. He could have entered this fight 6 months ago when the process for choosing the next Commission president was being decided, but it seems to have been agreed without much fuss. It looks like he just did it to appeal to his party and a certain section of the electorate. Some polls taken over the weekend seem to show his opposition to Juncker may indeed have been popular with the public, but given he failed in his bid to stop his appointment, I’m not sure he’ll get much lasting credit, and it’s pissed off a lot of people in Europe which might impact on his stated desire to secure important reforms to the way the EU is run.

BTW, the whole episode of Party Games is also on Youtube. If you haven’t seen it before, watch it here. It’s a joy:

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Response from the BBC about lack of coverage of anti-austerity demo

I submitted a complaint on Sunday to the BBC about their lack of coverage of Saturday’s anti-austerity march in London. I think many others (hundreds?) did too. Today I got a response, and I thought I’d stick it up here to see if it’s the same to what others have received:

“We covered this demonstration on the BBC News Channel with five reports throughout Saturday evening, on the BBC News website on Sunday, as well as on social media. We choose which stories we cover based on how newsworthy they are and what else is happening and we didn’t provide extensive coverage because of a number of bigger national and international news stories that day, including the escalating crisis in Iraq, British citizens fighting in Syria and the death of Gerry Conlon. 

We frequently report on the UK economy and what it means for the British public. We also reflect the concerns of people such as those demonstrating, and others who hold opposing views, across our daily news output on TV, radio as well as online, and we also explore them in more depth including in our political programming and current affairs investigations, debates on ‘Question Time’ and during interviews and analysis on programmes such as ‘PM’ and ‘Newsnight’. Inevitably, there may be disagreements over the level of prominence we give to stories, but we believe our coverage of this subject has been fair and impartial.”

So an admission that (by omission) that they didn’t cover the march while it was taking place, and a reference to where they cover dissent elsewhere. What do people think? Convincing? I’ve now decided to complain whenever I see similar instances of bias or omission. I’d urge you to do the same. Hopefully if enough people complain, they will at least take it into consideration when covering (or not) future news stories.

Ask the BBC why it didn’t cover the anti-austerity demo – here’s what you can expect!

This demo started at the BBC in London. There must have been a conscious decision made to ignore it. I’ve stuck my complaint in. I await the standard dismissive response.

Vox Political

This is what happened when a friend of Vox Political, going by the monicker Sick Britain, contacted the BBC to ask why there has been no coverage of today’s (June 21) anti-austerity demonstration in London, which was attended by more than 50,000 people.

The BBC has mentioned the demonstration – as a pretext for a discussion of government austerity policies on Any Questions and Any Answers (both on Radio 4) but the national public service broadcaster’s news bulletins were mysteriously silent about it throughout the day of the event itself.

This seems particularly odd when one considers the fact that the demo began outside Broadcasting House, and that I’m told extra security guards were on duty today, while the entrances were protected with metal fencing.

Some of you may wish to complain to the BBC about its lack of coverage. Here’s how you can do it:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/complain-online/

Phone: 03700 100…

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Calling bullshit on Labour’s “fiscal realism”

Yesterday we had the launch of the IPPR’s “Condition of Britain” report which I blogged about here. I criticised it for its lack of ambition and its blithe surrender to the ineviabilty of austerity. Indeed, at the launch, IPPR director Nick Pearce referred to austerity as “fiscal realism”. This attitude is pretty typical of Labour people and their hangers-on. I think “fiscal defeatism” would be more accurate. I spotted another example of this defeatism today on the Labourlist blog, in an article written by Labour blogger Emma Burnell. The article is about the IPPR report and starts with this:

“How does social democracy work when there isn’t any money? That is the question that has been taxing those at the top of the Labour Party for some time.”

It’s very common to read articles from “centre-left” people starting with an assertion like this, but my reason for mentioning this article is because of the response in the comments from fellow blogger Peter Martin. I hope he won’t mind me sharing it here:

Who says there isn’t any money? The amount of money in the economy is at least as high as it has ever been on any measure M0, M1, M2 etc. Whichever one you care to choose.

So to accept that “there isn’t any money” is to accept the political opinion, or rather the political propaganda, of the neo-liberals. We might expect to see that phrase on Conservativehome , and perhaps others of the same ilk such as “living beyond our means”, “spending more than we earn” , “spending like a drunken sailor”, “maxing out our credit card”. They are all nonsense. These are not phrases to be used on a Labour website. They are a neo-liberal fabrication to justify the reduction in the social wage. To make us all compete for every job vacancy. To ensure that we’ll take a minimum wage job knowing that if we don’t there will be ten others who will.

Anyone with an ounce of commonsense can see we are living below our means. We have building workers standing idle who could be building houses, hospitals and schools. We have youngsters who have worked hard to achieve teaching qualifications who can’t find a teaching job. Therefore the class sizes in our schools are bigger than they need be. We have young people who could be doing a 1001 things to make a contribution to society instead of festering in enforced idleness.

Every person on the dole represents a waste of resources.

Bravo sir! I think Peter is very good at explaining things clearly and more importantly concisely. It’s quite a rare skill. You can find his excellent blog here.

IPPR Report – Another Case of Garbage In, Garbage Out

Labour leader Ed Miliband launched a heavily-trailed new report this morning produced by Labour’s favourite thinktank the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) called “The Condition of Britain”. It has been said that it’s a report that will “define social democracy in the coming decade” and that it is “a Magna Carta for social democracy in the 21st century“. I think some people are too easily impressed.

The report (all 280 pages of it), contains 28 recommendations, which Labour seems to be largely adopting as party policy. The recommendation that caught the headlines was the one recommending scrapping benefits for 18-21 year olds, and replacing them with a means-tested “youth allowance”. This is so similar to Tory Party policy that George Osborne’s bitch Matt Hancock accused Labour of stealing their policy. Reading through the other recommendations though, it’s striking just how unambitious they are. Nothing is a great departure from the current direction of travel, and any of them could be adopted as Tory or Lib Dem policies without any eyebrows being raised.

Why is this? The IPPR label themselves as “centre-left”, and Labour should be looking for some eye-catching policies to differentiate themselves from the opposition. I think the problem is one of GIGO, or “garbage in, garbage out”. The underlying assumption before the report was even written was that austerity is a given, there is no money and every new commitment must be matched by a cut or tax hike elsewhere. So they paint themselves into a box and then say to themselves “within these constraints we have arbitrarily imposed on ourselves, what can we suggest to be different from the other lot? Answer: not very much it seems!

It seems to me that if they actually want to make a difference, the starting point needs to be “what would we like to do in an ideal world”, and work back from there. So in an ideal world, we might like to build everyone a mansion. Unfortunately, there is not enough land, building materials or labour to achieve that, but there may be enough of those things to ensure eveyone can live in decent accomodation at an affordable price. So what’s the IPPR’s recommendation on housing?

£Councils should be able to retain and reinvest a share of any savings achieved by local action to reduce housing benefit spending in their area. In addition to their existing powers, they should also be given greater freedom to borrow responsibly against their housing assets and income.”

We have quite a convoluted suggestion where somehow it is worked out a council has “saved” on housing benefit through their actions, and they can then use some of these savings to build houses, or they can borrow money to do the same. I’m not sure we should be encouraging councils to borrow more. They can go bust, and won’t be able to borrow at as low rates as central government (who can always borrow at 0% should they wish). Implicit is the IPPR’s recommendation is that there is enough land, labour and materials to build enough houses. If that’s so, wouldn’t a better suggestion be that central government just gives the money to build housing directly to local councils? Why over-complicate things?

Similar criticisms can be levelled at other recommendations. If you start with garbage assertions about the inevitability of austerity, the solutions you come up with are bound to be severely limited. It just makes Labour look a bit, well pointless.

The two surprising NHS surveys the government hopes you don’t see

A good one to bookmark for the next time you hear someone try to argue the NHS isn’t one of the best health systems in the world.

Pride's Purge

(not satire – it’s the UK today!)

There has been a concerted campaign in the mainstream press over the last few years to smear the NHS.

Here’s a recent example:

Daily Telegraph uses death of baby and outright lies to smear NHS

This is all part of the government’s misinformation campaign to discredit the NHS so it can turn over as much of it as possible to private healthcare companies.

Which is why you probably won’t have seen much in the mainstream press of a recent international survey which has ranked the UK’s NHS number 1 in the world for healthcare – above countries like Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and Norway:

nhs

But there’s another shocking recent survey you probably won’t have heard much about either.

The latest NHS staff survey shows over 70% of NHS workers think there are no longer enough staff to enable them to do their jobs properly:

NHS1

If the government has its way and keeps on…

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Backlog of assessments for ESA. Double the passport backlog, but none of the coverage

Via the Vox Political blog, I learn that it was admitted yesterday by the DWP that there was a backlog of 700,000 assessments for ESA claims. ESA is Employment and Support Allowance, a sickness benefit for those unable to work. 400,000 of the 700,000 backlog are new claims – that is people who feel they are too sick to work have lodged a claim for ESA, but have not had their claim assessed. While they wait, they have to make do with a lower level of benefit. The longer they have to wait to be assessed, the more anxious they are likely to become, risking exacerbating their health problems. The risk of falling into serious hardship also increases the longer they have to wait. The remaining 300,000 will be existing ESA claimants awaiting re-assessment of their claims. Any delay there brings with it the stress and worry of not knowing whether the outcome of this reassessment may mean their ESA is removed altogether.

I raise this now because at the same time, this week there has been wall to wall coverage of the Passport Offices backlog of about 300,000 passport applications. I don’t want to diminish the seriousness of this issue. Delays in processing applications could cause people to miss holidays they had saved up for, to miss weddings, funerals, or job interviews. It needs sorting out. At the same time though, it doesn’t seem in the same league as the ESA backlog, and yet a search for “Passport Office backlog” on Google News yields 13,400 results, while “ESA claims backlog” shows only 7 results.

The Labour Party have been jumping up and down about the passport issue (even though they had the same problems while in office), but on ESA (with a couple of exceptions), they have been silent. I suppose it isn’t surprising they go for the easy option, but it is rather sad.

Archive film of the 1945 General Election

Someone shared this video with me today, and I thought I’d share it with you. It’s a kind of public information film made by the British Council to show the world what Britain was about. This one focuses on the 1945 General Election, and in particular the contest in the constituency of Kettering, where a young John Profumo (whatever happened to him?) is trying to defend his seat against a strong Labour Party challenge.

It’s striking how similar a lot of it seems in terms of the process. Profumo makes a speech against apathy, we see him riding round in a car speaking out of a loud-speaker and the actual act of voting (giving your name at the polling station, having your name marked off, voting in the booth, all done with paper and pencil) is pretty much the same as now. The film explains that the counting of the votes had to take place many days later (like in Tower Hamlets a couple of weeks ago, but for a very different reason), so that all of our servicemen still overseas could cast their votes and have them flown back. The counting of the votes then, as now, was done by hand. Anyway, enjoy.

Modern Monetary Theory vs Mainstream Macroeconomics

In my last blog, I introduced the basics of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). While looking through my drafts folder tonight, I found this table I’d copied from this blog post by Bill Mitchell. It gives some commonly heard macroeconomic propositions, and gives an alternative MMT view on each proposition. It’s quite a succinct summary of how a lot of the things to do with the economy that are often stated as fact, are certainly arguable at best, and at worst, are total nonsense.

Mainstream macroeconomics Modern Monetary Theory
Budget deficits are bad Budget deficits are neither good nor bad and are required where the spending intentions of the non-government sector are insufficient to ensure full utilisation of available productive resources.
Budget surpluses are good Budget surpluses are neither good nor bad and may be harmful in some circumstances if they involve a drag on growth in situations where there are idle resources.
Budget surpluses contribute to national saving There is no sense to the concept that a currency-issuing government saves in its own currency. Saving is an act of foregoing current spending to enhance future spending possibilities and applies to a financially-constrained non-government entity. The government never needs prior funds in order to spend and thus never needs to “save”.
Budget should be balanced over the business cycle Budget should be allowed to adjust to the level of net spending required to achieve and sustain full employment given the spending decisions of the non-government sector, irrespective of the state of the business cycle.
Budget deficits drive up interest rates because they compete for scarce private saving Private saving is not finite and is related to income. Spending always brings forth its own saving because saving rises and falls with income movements, which are directly related to movements in spending.
Bond markets determine funding costs of government Central bank sets interest rate and can control any segment of the yield curve it chooses. The costs of government spending are the real resources that are utilised in any particular public program.
Budget deficits mean higher taxes in the future Budget deficits never need to be paid back. Every generation can freely choose the level of taxation it pays.
The government will run out of fiscal space (money) Fiscal space is more accurately defined as the available real goods and services available for sale in the currency of issue. The currency-issuing government can always purchase whatever is for sale in its own currency. Such a government can never run out of its own currency.
Budget deficits equals big government Budget deficits may reflect large or small government. Even small governments will need to run continuous deficits if there is a desire of the non-government sector to save overall and the policy aim is to maintain full employment levels of national income.
Government spending is inflationary All spending (private or public) carries an inflation risk. Government spending is not inflationary while real resources are idle (ie. There is unemployment). All spending is inflationary if it drives nominal aggregate demand faster than the real capacity of the economy to absorb it.
Issuing bonds to the private sector reduces the inflation risk of deficits There is no difference in the inflation risk attached to a particular level of net public spending when the government matches its deficit $-for-$ with bond issuance relative to a situation where it issues no debt. The inflation risk is embodied in the spending rather than the monetary arrangements that are associated with it (bond-issuance or not).
Intergenerational burdens are linked to inherited budget deficits in the form of debt that have to be paid back. Intergenerational burdens are linked to the availability of real resources. For example, a generation that exhausts a non-renewable resource imposes a burden on the next generation. A future generation cannot transfer real resources back in time.
Unemployment is used to control interest rate Employment is used to control interest rate
Sovereign issuer of currency is at risk of default Sovereign issuer of currency is never at risk of default. The issuer of a currency can always meet any liabilities it incurs in that currency.
Taxpayer money Public currency. The taxpayer does not fund anything. Taxes are a device to free up real resources so our agent, the government can instigate a socio-economy program for our collective benefit.
Humans make rational decisions based on self-interest Humans are complex and rarely predictable, reason and emotion are inseparable.

The Basics of Modern Monetary Theory

I haven’t done a post specifically about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) for a while now, although that is the perspective from which I approach a lot of the issues I blog about. With that in mind, I thought I’d go back to basics and write a beginner’s guide to MMT as I see it. Any errors that follow will be mine alone. Please let me know if you spot one!

What is MMT? Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is a branch of the heterodox Post Keynesian school of economics. At a basic level it is comprised of the following ideas:

  1. Taxes drive money;
  2. Taxes and borrowing don’t pay for government spending;
  3. Countries like the UK cannot go bust;
  4. Functional finance;
  5. Sectoral balances;
  6. Endogenous money;
  7. Governments should pursue full employment;
  8. Focus on real resources, not money.

So what do all these things means? In turn then:

1. Taxes drive money In theory, anyone can start their own currency. You or I could just print up some notes in our garage.  The trick though is getting it accepted. MMT posits that in order for governments to get its citizens to accept and use their currency, it is sufficient for them to impose a tax in that currency. Provided they are able to enforce the payment of the tax, people will be willing to work for payment in that currency in order to pay the tax. So the necessity to pay the tax in the government’s currency drives demand for that currency and ensures it has a value.

Further reading:

MMP Blog #8: Taxes Drive Money

Tax-driven Money: Additional Evidence from the History of Thought, Economic History, and Economic Policy

2. Taxes and borrowing don’t pay for government spending While governments do need to tax, MMT says that they do not do it to pay for their spending. Indeed, MMTers argue that government spending must come first. How can anyone pay a tax denominated in the government’s currency unless the government first spends it into the economy? So what are taxes for? We have already seen one function of tax in point 1. Taxes drive the nations currency. They also act to ‘make room’ for the governments spending, preventing that spending from generating inflation. Progressive taxes are also used for re distributive purposes to help a government meet it social aims, and taxes can also be effective to incentivise or disincentivise certain behaviours (e.g. smoking, drinking, polluting). But what about government borrowing? At the moment, if the amount of tax collected is less than the amount a government spends, it ‘borrows’ the rest by issuing government bonds. The amount it borrows is repaid with interest. MMT though, argues that similar to taxation, this borrowing is not undertaken to finance its spending, but to maintain its target interest rate. Under current arrangements, if a government didn’t match its spending to taxes plus borrowing, this would create excess reserves in the banking system, and this would drive overnight interest rates down to zero. Government borrowing also acts as a risk-free source of savings to the private sector, including pension funds.

Further reading:

Taxes for revenue are obsolete

Government bonds and interest rate maintenance

3. Countries like the UK cannot go bust In the run up to the 2010 UK General Election, it was said loudly and often that the UK was on the brink of bankruptcy, about the go the same way as Greece. We had run out of money. MMT says this is nonsense. Governments like the UK who issue their own currency cannot go bust, in the sense that they cannot run out of money. In this sense the UK differs from the Eurozone countries, who, since joining the Euro, no longer issue their own currencies. They are now currency users. This point is often missed when discussing government debts. The usual story is that when ‘the markets’ see government debts rising, they start to worry about how the debt will be repaid and so demand higher rates of interest before they will lend more. This happened in some of the Eurozone counties before the European Central Bank stepped in to stabilise the markets for these countries debt. Countries like the UK though have central banks that can always intervene if interest rates start to rise, so the risk of an interest rate spike here is low to non-existent. Interest rates on government debt are a policy choice for the currency-issuing government. To maintain the maximum flexibility over an economy, MMT recommends countries maintain their own free floating currency, and to only borrow in that currency.

Further reading:

There is no solvency issue for a sovereign government

Why do politician tell us Debt/Deficit myths which they must know to be untrue?

4. Functional Finance Functional finance is an approach to fiscal policy adopted by MMTers but first espoused by economist Abba Lerner. Functional finance has three rules:

  1. The government shall maintain a reasonable level of demand at all times. If there is too little spending and, thus, excessive unemployment, the government shall reduce taxes or increase its own spending. If there is too much spending, the government shall prevent inflation by reducing its own expenditures or by increasing taxes.
  2. By borrowing money when it wishes to raise the rate of interest and by lending money or repaying debt when it wishes to lower the rate of interest, the government shall maintain that rate of interest that induces the optimum amount of investment.
  3. If either of the first two rules conflicts with principles of ‘sound finance’ or of balancing the budget, or of limiting the national debt, so much the worse for these principles. The government press shall print any money that may be needed to carry out rules 1 and 2.

Further reading:

Functional Finance

Functional finance and modern monetary theory

5. Sectoral balances Sectoral balances is an approach to viewing the financial makeup of the macro economy, popularised by economist Wynne Godley. It helps not to view things like the government deficit in isolation, but rather to see it in the context of what’s happening elsewhere in the economy. In the three sector version of Godley’s sectoral balances: Government balance = Private sector balance – Foreign sector balance If we apply this to the UK, we see a government deficit of 6%, a private sector balance (private sector sayings  – private sector investment) of 2% and a foreign balance (exports – imports) of -4%. MMTers argue that the natural state for the private sector is surplus, so for countries with trade deficits, a government deficit will also be the norm. If the government tries to reduce or eliminate its deficit, it will only succeed if the private sector is willing to reduce or eliminate its surplus.

Further reading:

What Happens When the Government Tightens its Belt?

UK Sectoral Balances and Private Debt Levels

6. Endogenous Money Endogenous money is the idea that rather than the central bank determining the amount of money in the economy – exogenously, the amount of money is instead determined by the supply and demand of loans. In shorthand, MMTers (and Post Keynesians in general) would say, “Loans create deposits”. That is to say that banks create money by extending loans to customers, while at the same time creating a corresponding deposit. This runs contrary to what is generally taught to students of economics – that savings are loaned out with banks acting purely as intermediaries, or at best leveraging an initial injection of government money by a predetermined ratio.

Further reading:

The Endogenous Money Approach

Money creation in the modern economy

7. Governments should pursue full employment In the post war period up until the early 70s, Western governments were committed to the principle of full employment, and largely achieved this, with the unemployment rate averaging around 3% in the UK throughout that period. The Conservatives famous “Labour Isn’t Working” campaign poster of 1979 was powerful because unemployment had reached previously unthinkable levels of 1 million. Today, the Government start high-fiving each other when unemployment falls below 2.5 million. MMTers argue that achieving full employment again is very much a realistic and achievable goal, but it means abandoning modern notions that “governments don’t create jobs”, and accepting that capitalism left to its own devices will never employ all those willing and able to work. A key tenet of MMT is that governments should act as the ’employer of last resort’, offering work to all those who are willing and able to work, but unable to find a job.

Further reading:

The Job Guarantee: A Government Plan for Full Employment

The job guarantee is a vehicle for progressive change

8. Focus on real resources, not money While politicians tell us there is no money left, millions are without sufficient work and resources lie idle. MMT argues that we should focus on these real things – people and resources – rather than money which is just a tool for putting those people and resources to work. Governments can and should spend money into the economy when the private sector cannot or will not to maximise the potential output of the economy.

Further reading:

Modern Monetary Theory: The Last Progressive Left Standing

Scottish Independence – A Modern Money Analyisis

Those are some of the basics of MMT then, not that I can capture it all in 1,500 words. For more reading, try some of the links on my blogroll.