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Time to rethink monetary policy

Image: Bank of England

When the first stuffed platypus was presented to European scientists, they dismissed it.  “What we have here,” they opined, “is some unfortunate lutrinae onto which some scoundrel has attached various anatidae parts.”  And so the innocent little platypus, which had been minding its own business until the European explorers arrived, was placed on the same zoological shelf as the Yeti.

The European scientists, you see, had a model.  A map of how the world’s animal species were ordered.  At the apex, predictably, were humans themselves.  Beneath them were anatomically similar apes and monkeys; followed by cats, dogs, pigs, etc.  What all of these “higher” species had in common, however, was that they were all mammals – creatures that carry their young in an internal womb, and that suckle them with milk.  This distinguished them from other, dissimilar species like birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects.

Then along comes this upstart platypus, not just looking like it possesses bird parts, but having the audacity to lay eggs!  For several decades, despite growing evidence that platypuses were real, European scientists continued to dismiss these reported sightings as fake news.  The platypus was an unfortunate intrusion into the scientists’ neatly ordered model of how the world worked.  Despite the philosophy of science demanding that a fact – like the existence of a platypus – that disproves a model is the very essence of falsifiability, the scientists chose to reject the fact rather than deconstruct and rebuild their model.

The same European scientists later – and infamously – rejected evidence for the existence of one of the platypus’s neighbours… the black swan… which brings us to a modern pseudoscience that also famously rejects reality in order to preserve the models that it has spent decades finessing.

Economic models have already proved their – very negative – worth in the worst possible way in the shape of the 2008 financial crash and the ensuing global depression.  This ought to have been enough for the entire economics profession to be given their marching orders and afforded their true place alongside aromatherapists, astrologers and homeopaths.  However, in 2008, governments lacked any acceptable alternative.  So despite knowing that an economic forecast was of equal value to flipping a coin, they put the same economists who had broken the system in charge of fixing it.

The economists did no such thing, of course.  The financial crisis of 2008 was the platypus of our age; something so out of step with the models that it could not reasonably be incorporated into them.  They even used the term “black swan” to describe it.

Any examination of the real economy over centuries, however, demonstrates that cyclical period of boom and bust – frequently punctuated by major financial crashes – are in fact the norm.  It is the so-called “Great Moderation” in the economists’ model that is the aberration… the thing so out of step with reality that it can reasonably be dismissed as fake news.

This, however, is merely the most obvious flaw in an economic model that is based on anomalies.  Most importantly, almost everything that economists are taught about how the economy works is based on what happened in the course of the two decade long mother of all anomalies; the post war boom 1953-1973.  As historian Paul Kennedy explains:

“The accumulated world industrial output between 1953 and 1973 was comparable in volume to that of the entire century and a half which separated 1953 from 1800.  The recovery of war-damaged economies, the development of new technologies, the continued shift from agriculture to industry, the harnessing of national resources within ‘planned economies,’ and the spread of industrialization to the Third World all helped to effect this dramatic change.  In an even more emphatic way, and for much the same reasons, the volume of world trade also grew spectacularly after 1945…”

In other words, economic modelling based on how the economy operated in the decades prior to the First World War might provide a closer fit to the real world in 2018.  The same is true for interest rates. As political economist Mark Blyth has shown, economists have modelled interest rates on the two decades around the historical high point in 1981.  However, for the entire period following the introduction of derivatives by the Dutch in the sixteenth century, the average interest rate is below four percent.

This is no trifling academic issue.  Interest rates have become the primary means by which economists – to whom our politicians have handed the leavers of power – seek to manage the economy.  The aim of “monetary policy” being to raise interest rates sufficiently high to prevent a recurrence of the inflation of the 1970s, while keeping them sufficiently low that they do not trigger or exacerbate a repeat of the 2008 crash.

The problem with this as of 2018 is that despite close to zero percent interest rates – and trillions of dollars, euros, pounds and yen in stimulus packages – the rate of inflation has barely moved.  Indeed, with growth rates stalling in the US, UK and Eurozone, deflation is more likely than inflation.  Despite this, the Federal Reserve, Bank of England and European Central Bank remain committed to raising interest rates and reversing quantitative easing… because that is what their model tells them that they should do.

Central to the model is a belief – based on those anomalous decades when we had growth on steroids and interest rates to match – that employment causes inflation.  So with the official rate of unemployment in the USA standing at 4.1 percent and the UK at 4.2 percent, the model is telling the economists at the central banks that inflation is already running out of control… even though it isn’t.  As Constance Bevitt, quoted in the New York Times puts it:

“When they talk about full employment, that ignores almost all of the people who have dropped out of the economy entirely. I think that they are examining the problem with assumptions from a different economic era. And they don’t know how to assess where we are now.”

Larry Elliott at the Guardian draws a similar conclusion about the UK:

“Britain’s flexible labour market has resulted in the development of a particular sort of economy over the past decade: low productivity, low investment and low wage. Since the turn of the millennium, business investment has grown by about 1% a year on average because companies have substituted cheap workers for capital. Labour has become a commodity to be bought as cheaply as possible, which might be good for individual firms, but means people have less money to buy goods and services – a shortfall in demand only partly filled by rising levels of debt. The idea that everyone is happy with a zero-hour contract is for the birds.

“Workers are cowed to an extent that has surprised the Bank of England. For years, the members of Threadneedle Street’s monetary policy committee (MPC) have been expecting falling unemployment to lead to rising wage pressure, but it hasn’t happened. When the financial crisis erupted in August 2007, the unemployment rate was 5.3% and annual wage growth was running at 4.7%. Today unemployment is 4.2% and earnings are growing at 2.8%.”

This is a very different economy to the one that operated between 1953 and 1973; a time when the workers’ share of productivity rose consistently.  In those days a semi-skilled manual worker had a sufficient wage to buy a home, support a family, run a car and afford a holiday.  In 2018, a semi-skilled manual worker living in the UK depends upon foodbanks and tax credits to remain solvent.

In short, despite mountains of evidence that the economists’ model bears no relation to the real world, like their nineteenth century zoological counter parts, they continue to reject any evidence that disproves the model as fake news.  One obvious reason for this is that all of us – whatever our specialisms – get a sinking feeling of despondency when some inconvenient fact comes along to tell us that it is time to go back to the drawing board.  Understandably, we test the inconvenient fact to destruction before deconstructing our models.  But even when the fact proves sufficiently resilient to be considered to be true, there remains the temptation to sweep it under the proverbial carpet and pretend that nothing is amiss.

There is, however, another reason why so many economists spend so many of their waking hours studiously ignoring reality when it whacks them over the head with the force of a steam hammer.  They simply do not see it.  That is, if you are on the kind of salary enjoyed by a member of one or other monetary policy committee, your lived experience will be so removed from the experience of ordinary working (and not working) people that you simply refuse to believe them when – either by anecdote or statistic – they inform you of just how bad things are down on Main Street.

The two proposed solutions to this latter problem involve the question of diversity.  Among its other work, the campaign group Positive Money has highlighted the race and gender disparity at the Bank of England.  However, were we to just swap some white male mainstream economists for some equivalent BME and female mainstream economists, this is unlikely to have much impact.  A second approach to diversity from radical economists such as Ann Pettifor is to break up the neoclassical economists’ monopoly by bringing in economists from different schools of economics.

Arguably, however, neither of these proposed solutions would be sufficient to solve the problem of economists refusal to allow facts to stand in the way of their models.  For this, something even more radical is required – a complete rethink of the way monetary policy is made.  The 2008 crash and the decade of near stagnation for 80 percent of us that followed has demonstrated that the approach of handing economic policy to technocrats has failed.  The unelected Bank of England or Federal Reserve Chairman can no longer be allowed to be the final authority.  Policy must ultimately reside with elected representatives  whose jobs are on the line if they mess up.

Of course it is entirely reasonable that our representatives base their decisions on the advice and recommendations of experts.  It is here that real diversity is required.  Not merely swapping white male economists for black female ones, or opening the door just wide enough for some token contrarian economists.  Rather, what is needed is for monetary policy committees to encompass a range of specialisms far beyond economics and the social sciences, together with representatives from trades unions, charities and business organisations that are more in touch with the realities of life in the real economy.

None of this is about to happen any time soon; not least because nobody voluntarily relinquishes power and privilege.  But another crisis is brewing; and there are signs that it will be bigger than 2008.  And when that crisis bursts over us, this time around we need to put these changes in place before the economists rally round and persuade our craven politicians that there is no alternative… because there is.

As you made it to the end…

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