A new two-party system?

Recent elections (notably including those for the European Parliament) have shown the evolution of what I’ve called a three-party system, replacing the alternation between soft and hard versions of neoliberalism dominant since the 1980s. The three parties in this analysis are the (a) remaining elements of the neoliberal consensus, (b) Trumpists[1], and (c) leftists, defined as broadly as possible to encompass greens, feminist, social democrats, old-style US liberals, as well as those who would consciously embrace the label “Left”.

When I wrote in 2016, the biggest loser from this process seemed to be the kind of soft neoliberalism exemplified by Blair, and many of the European social democratic parties. But that was before Trump and Brexit.

The striking development of the past few years has been the capitulation of the mainstream rightwing parties to various forms of Trumpism. That’s most obvious with the US Republicans. And, while some advocates of Brexit may still hope for a free-market utopia, its pretty clear now that this is unlikely to happen. The continuing desire to get Brexit done at all costs is all about culture wars, with Leavers cast as the British people and Remainers as out of touch elites. The same pattern is evident in Australia, where free market policies have been abandoned in favour of culture wars, to the extent that the government is seriously considering building coal-fired power stations, just to make a point.

I’m not well enough attuned to the nuances of European politics to discuss developments at the national level. In aggregate, though, it seems clear not only that the mainstream conservatives are losing ground electorally, but that they are moving towards Trumpism.

This suggests that the current three-party system might rapidly resolve itself into a new two-party system: Trumpists against everyone else, with the remnants of the old neoliberal duopoly being forced to take sides. This is already happening to some extent.

In this context, it was striking to read a piece in the Washington Post, of all places, slamming the “economically conservative, socially liberal” centrism of Howard Schultz, and pointing out that

Centrism,” in other words, has become a byword for the politics of the business elite. Defined left to right, on an x-axis, it may approximate the center of the political spectrum. But on a y-axis that represents socioeconomic status, it sits at the very top.

It’s hard to say where centrists will end up. On the one hand, they mostly benefit from the regressive tax policies and weak regulation that Trumpists have carried over from hard neoliberalism. On the other hand, the Trumpists have abandoned free markets for crony capitalism, typically favoring well-connected national insiders, exemplified by the US First Family. That poses problems for global corporations and fans of globalized capitalism like Tom Friedman, who still yearn for the halcyon days of the 1990s.

As ought to be obvious, I’m still working this out, so I’ll leave it to commenters from here.

fn1. I previously called this group “tribalists”, which was problematic. The Key characteristic is the identity politics of a formerly unchallenged dominant group facing the real or perceived prospect of becoming a politically weak minority, as with white Christians in the US. As Trump and others have shown, this kind of politics leads naturally to support for demagogic dictators and would-be dictators.

Opportunity cost, MMT and public spending (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

I’ve been busy for the last week doing events for Economics in Two Lessons, so I didn’t have time to take part in the discussion arising from Harry’s post on alternatives to Sanders’ proposal to wipe out college debt.

In one way, that’s a pity because the key point of the book is the idea of opportunity cost – the true cost of anything, for us as individuals, and for society as a whole, is what you must give up to get it. More precisely, it’s the best alternative available to us.

Harry’s post was all about opportunity cost – what would be the best use of $1.6 trillion in public funds. However, the discussion was inevitably enmeshed in the complexities and inequities of US education, while comments making broader arguments about opportunity cost reasoning weren’t discussed in detail.

One of those broader arguments is the idea that, thanks to Modern Monetary Theory, there’s no need to worry about such questions. In the “chartalist” reasoning underlyng MMT, the fact that governments can issue their own sovereign currency means that there is no need to “finance” public spending by taxation; rather taxation is a tool used to manage aggregate demand so as to keep the economy fully employed but not at a point where excess demand creates inflation. That (essentially correct) position can easily slide into the (only subtly different, but radically mistaken) view that governments can spend money on anything they like with no need for any increases in taxes or cuts in other spending.

As I will argue over the fold, a correct version of MMT makes no such claim. Unfortunately, while avoiding the error themselves, a lot of MMT theorists have not shown much willingness to set their more naive followers straight.

Read More »

Gleebooks Tomorrow

I’ll be doing the Sydney launch of my new book, Economics in Two Lessons at Gleebooks tomorrow (Thursday 27 June). I’ll be talking to the always insightful Peter Martin, so it should be a great event. Details here.

Last night’s Brisbane launch, at Avid Reader with Paul Barclay (ABC Radio, Big Ideas) was very successful

Less empty space than at Trump’s inauguration!

Freedom of contract or freedom of speech

A number of comments on the Folau case have made the point that Folau failed to pay attention to the terms of his contracts with Rugby Australia [1] and also with GoFundMe, with the implication that he has only himself to blame for the outcome .

That’s a cute debating point, but it’s not one that should be used by those of us concerned with protecting workers’ rights. The use of contractual terms to constrain what workers say and do outside working hours is a misuse of the power of employers and a danger to free speech on issues of all kinds. The fact that we don’t like Folau’s use of this freedom shouldn’t lead to a retreat from the principle that, within very broad limits, what we do and say in our own time is no business of the boss.

The issue with GoFundMe is less problematic: funding a legal dispute is not obviously part of the site’s mission[2]. But we should be wary of the idea that Internet platforms should be able to set whatever terms of service they like and interpret them as they wish.

fn1 As with just about everything in this case, the exact status of the contract is a matter of dispute

fn2 neither is this much-mocked request by two layabouts for money to fund a trip to Africa that is beyond the resources of the mother who is currently working two jobs to support them in idleness)..

A message from the recent past

That’s the headline from my latest piece in Inside Story, in Libra, Facebook’s newly announced cryptocurrency. Opening and closing paras below

Facebook’s announcement that it is launching a #cryptocurrency called Libra raises two questions. Will Libra compete with the most famous cryptocurrency, #Bitcoin ? And what is a cryptocurrency anyway?

Ultimately, the crucial part of the name is “crypto.” What Bitcoin and Libra have in common is a desire to avoid the constraints of government regulation of financial markets by burying their operations in layers of technological mystery. These aspirations, brought together in the term “fintech,” reflect the market libertarianism that dominated both the technology and finance worlds in the heady days of the 1990s, and persisted even after the global financial crisis of 2008. It remains to be seen whether such aspirations will flourish in the current, much less favourable environment