Showing posts with label Great Depression. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Great Depression. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

At last we’ve been shown the virus game plan. Boring

I grew up in the Great Depression. Well, not really, but there were times when it certainly felt like it. The Depression was my father’s favourite topic of breakfast conversation and I got to hear a lot about it, particularly the questionable behaviour of someone called Jack Lang.

It wasn’t until long after my father had been "promoted to Glory", as the Salvos say, I learnt from my sisters that the Depression had been his finest hour. In those terrible times, a generous government made thousands of unemployed men trudge from town to town to be eligible for "the susso" – a woefully inadequate sustenance allowance, often paid in kind.

Men moving around the backblocks of Queensland soon learnt to come to the back door of my father’s Salvation Army quarters, where the captain would go to quite extraordinary lengths to help them along their way.

Now, I’m not for a moment implying that what we’re about to go through as we cope with the coronavirus bears any comparison with the Depression, which lasted for most of the 1930s and drove the rate of unemployment to reach 20 or 30 per cent.

No, I’m just saying this crisis will turn our lives on their head for so much of this year that we’ll remember it for the rest of our lives and won’t fail to tell our kids about it in years to come.

It’s clear that, after a few weeks of unthinking panic and silliness, we’ve reached the business end of the epidemic as "community transmission" – spreading of the disease between people who had no known contact with a confirmed case or who had arrived from a badly affected country – begins in earnest and the authorities get progressively tougher in imposing "social distancing" – slowing the spread of the virus by keeping people apart.

This is a steep learning curve for everyone: politicians, medical experts and even all-knowing journalists. But the road map of where we’re headed, what it involves and roughly how long it will last – say, six months – is now apparent.

The authorities faced a choice between letting the contagion rip – getting it over quickly, but with an overwhelmed health system, serious cases going untreated and too many oldies and medically compromised people dying – or trying to slow the spread so the health system copes and deaths are minimised.

Unsurprisingly, they chose to "flatten the curve", using self-quarantine of people who may have the disease or do have a mild case, self-isolation (staying at home to avoid contact with others) and social distancing – banning large gatherings, restricting travel, maybe closing schools, encouraging people to work from home, and urging people to minimise their contact with others.

While slowing the spread reduces the number of deaths, it’s by no means certain it will reduce the number of people contracting the disease. The big price to be paid is prolonging the disruption to people’s daily lives and, hence, to the economy. Less paid work will be done, many will earn less income, less money will be spent, and unemployment and underemployment will rise.

A less obvious price is that the extraordinary lengths we will be going to to limit deaths will leave many people fearing the virus is a much greater risk to their health than it is. The great majority of people who get it will suffer no worse than a bout of flu. But the fear may be a good thing if it makes the hale and hearty more diligent in their hand-washing and avoidance of social contact.

Have you realised what this means for most of us? We’re about to go though a period of weeks or months of staying at home and rarely going out. This is obvious for the elderly and health-impaired, but will also apply to those who have to work from home, those casual workers whose shifts are cancelled, school and uni students attending classes online, and parents who can’t work because they have kids to mind (and shouldn’t be asking old grandparents to help out).

As I contemplate it for myself (I’ll soon be off on five weeks’ staycation), a word springs to mind, starting with b and ending in -ing. Social work academics are writing papers about "cabin fever" – fever in more ways than one.

It won’t be lost on a lot of people that the arrival of pandemics – this may be the worst, but it’s not the first and won’t be the last – is an unwelcome consequence of the globalisation of the world economy.

Against that, however, the digital revolution has made it easier for many screen-based workers to work from home and for students to view lectures. Teleconferencing is a reasonable substitute for face-to-face meetings and interstate business trips. The range of home entertainment is a lot wider and of better quality since the advent of such things as streaming video. You may not be able to attend football matches, but you can still watch them on telly.

Mobile phones make it much easier to co-ordinate with family members, and Facebook lets you keep up with friends. And not forgetting that e-commerce lets you keep spending. Which will be nice. But it doesn’t change the fact that "social distancing" is contrary to all our instincts as social animals.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

How Keynesianism came to Australia

Whenever you meet someone who uses the words Keynes or Keynesian as a swear word – or as synonyms for socialist – know that their adherence to neoliberal dogma far exceeds their understanding of mainstream economics.

Though John Maynard Keynes' (rhymes with gains) magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, was published in 1936, and he died 10 years later at 62, most economists – including many who wouldn't want to be called Keynesians – acknowledge him as the greatest economist of the 20th century.

It's true that the "monetarist" counter-attack on Keynesian orthodoxy led by Milton Friedman in the 1970s and early 1980s led to lasting changes in prevailing views about how the macro economy should be managed – mainly, that the primary instrument used to stabilise demand should be monetary policy (interest rates) rather than fiscal policy (the budget).

But the monetarists' advocacy of using control of the money supply to limit inflation was soon abandoned as unworkable, and these days few economists would want to be called monetarist.

What remains is a host of fundamentally Keynesian ideas. First is the distinction between micro-economics (study of particular markets) and macro-economics, study of the economy as a whole.

Then there's the idea that governments should seek to stabilise the fluctuations in aggregate (total) demand as the economy moves through the business cycle, a notion rejected by some "new classical" academic economists, but daily practised by the world's central banks and treasuries.

Macro-economists' obsession with fluctuations in gross domestic product is a product of Keynesian thinking, made possible by the development of "national income accounting" by Keynes' followers.

The General Theory was Keynes' attempt to explain how the Great Depression of the 1930s occurred – when the prevailing "neo-classical" orthodoxy said it couldn't occur – and how the world could return to healthy economic growth.

Eventually, it led to a revolution in the way economists thought about the macro economy. Neo-classical theory was out, Keynesian theory was in. Usually, radically different ideas can take years to be accepted – but this time, not so much in Australia.

In his book published earlier this year, A History of Australasian Economic Thought, Alex Millmow, an associate professor at Federation University in Ballarat, explains how Keynesianism​ came to Oz.

Although The General Theory laid out Keynes' new approach in all its exciting but confusing glory, the thinking of Keynes and his associates at Cambridge University in England had been developing since the start of the Depression in late 1929, and expressed in several of his earlier books and papers.

Australian academic economists had also been puzzling over the causes and cure of the international slump. They'd been closely involved in our initial policy response, to devalue the Australian pound, cut wages by 10 per cent and try to balance the budget.

Only slowly did the evolving thinking of Keynes and his circle in Cambridge cause them to doubt the wisdom of this deflationary approach, which made things worse, and shift to the opposite tack of using government spending on capital works to stimulate economic activity and create jobs at a time of mass unemployment.

Cambridge was then the Mecca of economics – especially for Australians – meaning our academics had plenty of contact. Our leading economist of the era was Lyndhurst Falkiner Giblin, a Tasmanian based at the University of Melbourne.

Anther leader was Douglas Copland, a Kiwi also at Melbourne Uni. They were early and influential, if cautious and qualified, supporters of the Keynesian approach.

Among the Australians who studied at Cambridge and brought back Keynesian thinking was E. Ronald Walker (later Sir Edward Walker; several of these people ended up as knights), based at the University of Sydney.

Over the years, Walker did most to inculcate Keynesian macro-economics among Australian academics and students. Another Aussie who returned from Cambridge as a convert was Syd Butlin, also at Sydney, who became our greatest economic historian.

Keynes was interested in how Australia had been hit by the Depression. Among his colleagues and students who made extended visits to Australia in the 1930s was Colin Clark, who stayed on after accepting an invitation to become a top bureaucrat in the Queensland government.

Clark was a brilliant economic statistician, who played a leading part in the development of what these days are known in every country as the national accounts.

When a Labor federal treasurer, Edward "Red Ted" Theodore, proposed a program of reflation in 1931, to counter the effects of the earlier deflationary measures, he quoted Keynes in his support. His plan was blocked by the Senate.

All this explains why Keynesian ideas were widely accepted by Australian economists even before the publication of The General Theory in 1936.

Publication came just as our first royal commission into "the monetary and banking systems" was getting under way. Many economists gave evidence, making a more influential contribution than the bankers, who defended the status quo.

The leading member of the commission, who wrote most of its report, was Richard Mills, an economics professor from Sydney University. Its other member of note was Ben Chifley, future Labor treasurer and prime minister, whose part in the commission caused his biographer to call him "a Keynesian of the first hour".

It's key finding was that "the Commonwealth Bank [then Australia's central bank, as well as a government-owned trading bank] should make its chief consideration the reduction of fluctuations in general economic activity in Australia".

The commission's recommendations shaped the regulation of Australian banking – including establishment of the Reserve Bank of Australia in 1959 – until the advent of financial deregulation in the mid-1980s.

As Millmow has observed elsewhere, the latest banking royal commission is unlikely to be nearly as influential as the first.

The federal government's national mobilisation following the outbreak of war in 1939, then the preparations for "postwar reconstruction and development", saw the full acceptance of Keynesian economics.