One of the stark facts about the academic economics discipline is its insularity and capacity to deliver influential prognoses on issues that affect the well-being of millions with scant regard to the actual consequences of their opinions and with little attention to what other social scientists have to say. The mainstream economists continually get things wrong but take no responsibility for the damage they cause to the well-being of the people. A 2015 paper – The Superiority of Economists – published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (Vol 29, No. 1) by Marion Fourcade, Etienne Ollion and Yann Algan is scathing in its assessment of the economics discipline. They say that mainstream economists largely ignore contributions by other social scientists and consider them inferior in technological sophistication, have a “predilection for methodological and theoretical precision over real-world accuracy”, largely ignore”the basic premise of much of the human sciences, namely that social processes shape individual preferences”, and parade an arrogance and superiority that masks the sterility of their analysis. In this context, I thought the 2015 Report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – Sociological perspectives poverty – was a breath of fresh air in its approach to understanding poverty. The empirical base it presents refutes most of the major assumptions and conclusions of economists who work in the field of poverty. A mainstream professor who was supervising my economics graduate program once said to me: “Bill you are a bright boy but you should be doing sociology”, which was an example of the negative control mechanism designed to weed out dissidents (like me). It didn’t work. But I always considered the disciplines of sociology and anthropology (not to mention psychology, political science, social welfare etc) to be important in my journey to become ‘well read’. Most economists, however, do not think that. Perhaps that is why I was able to be part of the development of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).
At present, the Australian Parliament is debating whether the unemployment benefit (called Newstart) should be increased. The conservative government is refusing to budge claiming it prefers to create jobs and get people of benefits – arguing that it will generate 1.25 million jobs over the next 5 years. The Opposition Labor Party are attacking them for being mean but are just rehearsing the massive hypocrisy that has defined that party since it became a voice for the ‘neoliberal lite’ path. Every time the Labor Party spokespersons criticise the Government for not bringing unemployment benefits above the poverty line, Australians should remember that when they were in office the Labor Ministers ran the same line – they wanted to move people into jobs and would not compromise their obsessive pursuit of a fiscal surplus. Same logic. Disgusting and dishonest then. As it is now. The fact is that the successive governments have forced the unemployed to remain jobless (through austerity policies) and then increasingly plunge into deeper poverty (by refusing to increase the income support level in line with movements in poverty lines). In this blog post, I show that even if the 1.25 million pledge is achieved (and there are reasons why they might struggle to achieve it), there would be thousands of workers remaining in a jobless state by June 2024. This denies the Government’s claim that the pledge will eliminate the need to increase the unemployment benefit. Given that the current policy mix is likely to force thousands to remain in elevated levels of unemployment, the unemployment benefit should be increased, immediately, by more than $A200 per week, in the first instance, for a single adult. And then the government should introduce a Job Guarantee to allow workers to transit from joblessness to work at a decent, socially inclusive minimum wage (well above the revised unemployment benefit level). That would be the responsible thing for government to do in this regard. I am not holding my breath.
The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), which represents income support recipients, in conjunction with Jobs Australia (a peak body for the not-for-profit job services providers) released a report last week (September 14, 2018) – Faces of Unemployment – which was a welcome return to a focus on joblessness and the need to provide more jobs, rather than the lame faux-progressive retreat to UBI advocacy that has dominated the policy debate for the last few years. However, once you start reading the analysis you realise that these supposedly ‘progressive’ organisations offer the same old neoliberal remedies to solving poverty and unemployment. They want: Compulsory, assisted job search, which is just coercion of jobless workers by Australia’s privatised job services industry that has an appalling record; 2. Wage subsidies in the private sector and Public sector wage subsidies – which never produce effective sustainable outcomes of sufficient magnitude to be called a solution; and vocational training, which is the same old ‘put workers on the training treadmill and shuffle the jobless queue’. This reinforces the theme I focus on a lot that the progressive elements in our society have become captured by the neoliberal mainstream and cannot think outside that frame. There is actually no mention or analysis of public sector job creation programs in the entire ACOSS/JA Report. Sadly, groups like ACOSS have a major public voice and the Federal government sees their advocacy as non-threatening because the type of policies they advocate are mainstream neoliberal and just more of what the Government, itself, thinks are viable. The irony (or disgrace) is that if these policies were effective then the ACOSS/JA Report would not have had to be written. Just imagine what they could have written about the “Faces of Unemployment” if a Job Guarantee program effectively wiped unemployment out. It would become a very short story of workers moving between jobs.
On August 19, 1964, the then US President Lyndon B. Johnson established the – National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress. He established the Commission in response to growing concern during the deep 1960-61 recession that the unemployment had been created by the pace of technological change. Ring a bell! He wanted to an inquiry to explore this issue and come up with recommendations on how to deal with the possibility that automation was wiping out jobs and the future would be bleak. Before the Commission had reported, the Federal government had reversed its fiscal austerity and the resulting stimulus had driven the unemployment back down to relatively low levels. The Commission noted that unemployment was largely the result of inadequate total spending and that the Government had the tools at its disposal to eliminate it. They considered that there would be workers (low-skill etc) who would suffer more displacement from technology than those with more skill etc, but that ultimately even those workers would be able to get jobs if the public deficit was large enough. In this regard, they eschewed pointless training programs that did not provide immediate access to jobs. Instead, they recommended (among other things) the introduction of a Job Guarantee (Public Service Employment) financed by the Federal government but administered at all levels of government. It would pay the Federal minimum wage and be available on demand. This is the preferred Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) approach and rejects solutions that rely on the provision of a basic income guarantee to resolve the problems created by unemployment.
Readers who have now seen the latest Ken Loach movie – I, Daniel Blake – will know the frustration that it depicts when a disadvantaged citizen is confronted with the reality of having to deal with a national welfare agency. Many readers, presumably, have first hand experience of the labyrinthic procedures, rude staff, endless waiting on telephone lines, threatening letters and the rest of the wall that neo-liberal governments have erected to discourage access and/or push people of welfare benefits. While this access and receipt became a right of citizenship in the social democracies that emerged after the Second World War, the neo-liberal era has degraded those rights in favour of a bean-counter interpretation of the world – welfare payments are dollars that can always be saved to balance fiscal accounts and every opportunity should be taken to do so. Australia is way ahead of the game in terms of using government policies and processes to punish and isolate our most disadvantaged citizens so the Government can reduce its welfare spending a few million. We now allow our Government to implement the work of sociopaths and threaten poor citizens with imprisonment on the basis of half-cocked ‘automatic computer-matching’ algorithms that are allegedly tracking welfare fraud. The evidence suggests these processes are massively buggy and deliver wrong outcomes in almost all the cases of fraud they claim to detect. However, that hasn’t stopped the government from sending out tens of thousands of letters to the most disadvantaged among us accusing these people of receiving thousands of dollars in illegitimate welfare payments and threatening criminal prosecution if these alleged overpayments (now debts) are not paid back. Mostly, it seems, the debts are illusory – mistakes by the ingenious (not!) algorithm that was introduced to replace people sacked by the austerity push – sorry, by the Government’s “efficiency dividend” policy. Some people should be prosecuted for breaching human rights in this latest scandal!
Last Monday’s blog – I, Daniel Blake – essential viewing – provided a review of the latest Ken Loach movie and put the institutional details with respect to the inhumane way the unemployment and sickness benefit support system had evolved in Britain in the context of earlier developments in Australia which pioneered this nasty ill-treatment of disadvantaged citizens. In today’s blog, I am updating the situation in Australia and discussing some recent (and shocking) data, which has come to light courtesy of the Senate estimates process within the Australian Parliament. There is one institution within Australia’s Parliamentary system that hasn’t fallen foul of the lying theatrics that define the main legislative process. I refer to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee which forces government bureaucrats to provide detailed data on contentious issues, which the ruling party (the government) prefers not to release or draw attention to. A most recent example demonstrates the total failure of a key aspect of the income support system in Australia and the reason is simple – a neo-liberal Groupthink has crippled the capacity of the Australian government to do anything constructive and obvious. Ideology allows policy makers to enact cruel and distasteful policy machinations on those who have all but nothing. Australia – where victims become criminals. It is disgusting really and makes one ashamed to show one’s passport when travelling.
So Italy has now gone the way of the UK and the US in its referendum vote – rejecting the establishment but not sure on what to do instead. It seems that the US voters have been duped by a conman (noting he beat a conwoman). Now Renzi is to go and we will see what happens next. But the trends around the world are unmistakable. Ordinary folk are in rebellion and for good reason. Last night I saw the latest Ken Loach film – I, Daniel Blake, which is a grinding, shocking statement of how society has been so compromised by the neo-liberalism that these voting patterns are rebelling against. I would say that as an Australian the film was a little less shocking than it might have been because our stupid nation led the way in introducing the tyrannical administrative processes that accompany income support systems in this neo-liberal era. Britain (under Tony Blair – never let it be forgotten – he did more than lie about Iraq) followed Australia’s lead in this respect. So, Australians have seen this dystopia for more than 18 years now – and while I hope we have not become inured to it – normalised it – it has been part of our awareness for a long time. Nonetheless, the film is shocking in what it says about the societal compromise and the rise and normalisation of sociopathic relationships between state and citizen.
Today, I am in Madrid for the start of the public events associated with the promotion of the Spanish version of my current book – Eurozone Dystopia: Groupthink and Denial on a Grand Scale. I travelled this morning from Granada to Madrid and am tied up for the rest of the day. So here is a video of a keynote address I presented on April 19, 2016 to the inaugural Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union Conference Solving Our Unemployment Crisis in Melbourne, Australia. You can find out more about the Union from their – homePage – and their – Facebook Page. They need more members and the support (funding, promotion etc) from all employed people who care about the problem of unemployment. The talk and questions go for about 37 minutes.
In Australia successive governments (Labor and conservative) have refused to lift the unemployment benefit in line with inflation. As a result the real benefit has fallen dramatically and the unemployment benefit recipients now live well below the accepted poverty line. There have also been attacks on those who live on single parent pensions, disability pensions and other forms of income support associated with disadvantage and dislocation from the labour market. In the US, the Congress cut entitlements to unemployment benefits long before the damage from the crisis was over. In Britain, both sides of politics talk tough about cutting welfare benefits and the Conservatives has indicated that it will cut benefits significantly to force people to find employment. In the Eurozone, massive damage is being inflicted on the most disadvantaged workers as the austerity mavens hack into welfare payments. All these policy ventures are informed by the intellectually bankrupt profession that I belong to. In universities around the world, mainstream economists prattle on about ‘corner solutions’, which in English means that the provision of income support associated with unemployment subsidises the same and leads to less search effort and welfare dependency. The claim is that if benefits are cut people will search for jobs and ‘fiscal stress’ will be relieved. There is a sanctimonious moralism about it all as well buttressed by terminology such as “lifters and leaners”, “dole bludgers”, “job snobs”, “cruisers” as if those in disadvantage without work have chosen that state as a deliberate strategy to bludge on the rest of the population. The problem for all of this is that the credible research comes to the exact opposite conclusion: employment commitment is highest where the generosity of the welfare state is the highest. The neo-liberals need to go suck that for a while.
This morning I gave a Keynote presentation to the Jobs Australia conference in Melbourne, which is a gathering of people who work in what I call the extra industry – the ‘unemployment industry’ – which has sprung up in the neo-liberal period to manage the unemployment that the government has deliberately created as a result of its obsession with fiscal austerity (trying to run surpluses when increased and on-going deficits are required). I take no umbrage with individuals who work in the ‘industry’ but its productivity is close to zero (you cannot search for jobs that are not there) and they have become co-opted servants of the pernicious government policy regime. The facts are clear – we have erected a massive corporate sector funded by government to manage the fiscal failure. The problem is that all these job service providers are not just shunting inanimate widgets around into so-called training schemes etc but are dealing with very disadvantaged people, which the capitalist system is excluding from the opportunity to engage in paid and productive work. The ‘unemployment sector’ is the Government’s front-line attack dog on the victims of the policy failure.