Designed by | Gooyaabi

Was Neoliberal Overreach Inevitable?

In June 2017 a member of the hard left of the Labour party, reviled by the right and centre for his association with left wing leaders and movements around the world and for his anti-nuclear views, in a few short weeks went from one of the most unpopular party leaders ever to achieving the highest vote share for his party since Tony Blair was leader. While this unexpected turn of events was in part the result of mistakes by, and inadequacies of, the Conservative Prime Minister, there is no doubt that many Labour voters were attracted by a programme that unashamedly increased the size of the state.

Contrast this with the United States. A Republican congress seems intent on passing into law a bill that combines taking away health insurance from a large number of citizens with tax cuts for the very rich. Let me quote a series of tweetsfrom Paul Krugman:
“The thing I keep returning to on the Senate bill is the contrast between the intense hardship it imposes and the triviality of the gains. Losing health insurance -- especially if you're older, low-income, and unhealthy, which are precisely the people hit -- is a nightmare. And more than 20 million would face that nightmare. Meanwhile, the top 1% gets a tax cut. That cut is a lot of money, but because the 1% are already rich, it raises their after-tax income only 2 percent -- hardly life-changing. So vast suffering imposed to hand the rich a favor they'll barely even notice. How do we make sense of this, politically or morally?”

Or to put it another way, 200,000 moredeaths over the next ten years for a marginal increase in the after tax income of the 1%. This is no anachronism created by a Trump presidency, but an inevitable consequence of Republican control of Congress and the White House.

Although these two events appear to be in complete contrast, I think they are part of (in the US) and a consequence of (in the UK) a common process, which I will call neoliberal overreach. [1] Why neoliberal? Why overreach? Neoliberal is the easy part. Although some people get hung up on the word, I use it simply to refer to the set of ideas associated with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. That includes the goal of reducing the role of the state in many areas of society, including its role in either replacing or regulating markets and taxing individuals (see Kansas), particularly reducing taxes for the well off.

Overreach is more contentious. I use the term because I think, in the UK at least, the period from the 1990s until the global financial crisis could be described as a stable neoliberal hegemony. By this I mean that governments largely accepted the transformations that took place in the 1980s, even when Labour or Democrats were in power. Of course changes did occur. In the UK Labour were prepared to involve the state in alleviating poverty in ways that Thatcher never contemplated, but Labour’s concern did not extend to the other end of the income distribution, and the income share of the 1% continued to rise. They were prepared to see an expansion in the size of the state to meet a natural increase in the demand for health, but they also experimented with bringing in market elements into state provision. However none of these changes compared in size to what went before or came afterwards. (As Tom Clark argues, Labour did not change the [essentially neoliberal] political discourse.)

This period was also characterised in the UK and US by macroeconomic stability: inflation had been contained, perhaps through the delegation of monetary policy to central banks, and growth remained strong such that the high levels of unemployment seen in the 1980s gradually disappeared. This was the ‘great moderation’.

It was undone by a major flaw in the neoliberal project: the self-destructive nature of an unregulated financial sector. The reaction to that, if the left had remained in power, might have been greater controls on finance and perhaps some attempt to reduce inequality (as the two are related). But the left lost power, and we got what I call neoliberal overreach.

Neoliberal deceit in the UK

By 2008 the conversion of the right in the UK to neoliberal ideas was largely complete. This meant that they were determined to continue where Thatcher had left off. But they faced what appeared to be an insurmountable problem: voters wanted the NHS (and other public services) and they wanted more of it partly because they were getting older and wealthier. The recession gave the right the opportunity to continue the neoliberal project by deceit, using two mechanisms.

The first was austerity, which I have talked about many times, but alas what I and other macroeconomists say has so far reached only a small minority (a minority which, importantly, includes the Labour party). What I call deficit deceit was the pretence that we needed above all else to cut spending (that would reduce the size of the state) because otherwise the markets would not buy the government’s debt. There was never any real evidence to back this story up, and plenty to suggest it was nonsense. The fevered imagination of some market participants who turned out to be wrong does not count as evidence. But the politicsto make deficit deceit possible was all there: a recent financial crisis, consumers cutting back on debt themselves, a Treasury worried as Treasuries do, a central bank head who acted as central bank heads often do, and a Eurozone crisis that mediamacro made no attempt to understand.

The second deceit was immigration. Elements in society are apt to blame immigrants at a time of rising unemployment and falling real wages, and terrorism gave this an extra twist. The right and their supporters in the press had decided before the crisis that they could exploit fears over immigration to their advantage, and after the recession this became a more powerful weapon. They talked about how immigration was responsible for reduced access to public services and falling real wages, and they promised to bring levels of immigration down. It was deceit because those in charge knew full well that immigration benefited the economy in various ways and as a result they had no intention of really controlling it. But, as with austerity, the deceit worked: so much so that an already weak opposition appeared not to know how to respond.

Some may disapprove of the language I use here. Should a normally sober Oxford macroeconomist talk about political parties deliberately deceiving the electorate? It is not a view I have adopted lightly, but when a Chancellor repeatedly argues that public spending must be cut to meet deficit targets at the same time as reducing inheritance or corporation tax, or a Prime Minister continually repeats the lie that immigration reduces access to public services, what other conclusion can you come to? They could get away with this deceit because academic economists (the majority of whom know that austerity would reduce output, and that immigration improves the public finances) are largely ignored by the media.

Austerity and the deceit required to achieve it was neoliberal overreach in the UK. Austerity quickly became a disaster because it was done at just the wrong time, when monetary policy was unable to offset its effects. That hurt the economy a lot. Whether GDP was reduced by a few percentage points temporarily or permanently we may never know for sure. But for the political reasons I have already outlined, combined with feeble opposition, the Conservatives got away with it sufficiently to win a general election in 2015.

Populism and anti-neoliberalism

The deceit over immigration was also key to a second disaster: the vote to leave the EU. Although the case to Remain in the EU was led by the Prime Minister and Chancellor, neither could combat anti-immigration rhetoric with a positive case because of their earlier deception. For this reason alone you could also label Brexit as a consequence of neoliberal overreach. More importantly, factions on the right that actively campaigned for Brexit did so in part because they believed they could only achieve their regulation free neoliberal nirvana by doing so.

As Jan-Werner Müller writes
“The image of an irresistible populist “wave” was always misleading. Farage did not bring about Brexit all by himself. He needed the help of established Conservatives such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove (both now serve in Prime Minister Theresa May’s post-election cabinet). Likewise Trump was not elected as the candidate of a grassroots protest movement of the white working class; he represented a very established party and received the blessing of Republican heavyweights such as Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich.”

It would be wrong to say that Brexit or Trump represent an evolution of neoliberalism. Both promote strong restrictions to trade, and so it would be more accurateto view Brexit as a split within neoliberalism. [2] What is clearer to me is that populism is a consequence of neoliberalism as reflected in the policies of the political right. In the UK immigration was used as a scapegoat for the impact of austerity, which fuelled the Brexit vote. In the US one of the first acts of Reagan was to repeal the Fairness Doctrine, which led eventually to the precursor and cheerleaders for Trump: talk radio and Fox news. In addition neoliberalism demonises any kind of regional or industrial strategy designed to alleviate the impact of globalisation.

Why was it Corbyn who led the revolt against austerity in 2017 rather than Miliband in 2015? One obvious explanation is that the more ‘moderate’ left in both the UK, much of Europe and the Democratic establishment in the US had become compromised by neoliberal hegemony. Instead it required those who had stayed faithful to socialist ideas together with the young who had not witnessed the defeats of the 1980s to mount an effective opposition to austerity and perhaps neoliberalism more generally. [***]

I am less familiar with the details of US politics, which are clearly different in some ways from the UK. The way the Republican party has co-opted both race and culture to their cause is different and clearly crucial. But there are plenty of similarities as well. Both countries have had austerity combined with tax cuts for the rich. Both countries have a right wing media which politicians can no longer control, leading to Brexit and Trump respectively. Bernie Sanders, like Corbyn, came from nowhere preaching socialism, but unlike the UK the established Democratic party halted his rise to power.

Was Overreach Inevitable

I’m not going to speculate whether and by how much this neoliberal overreach will prove fatal: whether Corbyn’s ‘glorious defeat’ marks the ‘death throes of neoliberalism’ or something more modest. Instead I want to ask whether overreach was inevitable, and if so why. Many in the centre ground of politics would argue that it would have been perfectly feasible, after the financial crisis, to change neoliberalism in some areas but maintain it in others. It is conceivable that this is where we will end up. But when you add up what ‘some areas’ would amount to, it becomes clear that it would be hard to label the subsequent regime neoliberal.

I think it is quite possible to imagine reforming finance in a way that allows neoliberalism to function elsewhere. Whether it is politically possible without additional reforms I will come to. If we think about populism, one key economic force behind its rise has been globalisation (see Dani Rodrik herefor example). If we want to retain the benefits of globalisation, then counteracting its negative impact on some groups or communities becomes essential. Whether that involves the state directly, or indirectly through an industrial strategy, neither of those solutions is neoliberal.

Then consider inequality. I would argue that inequality, and more specifically the extreme wealth of a small number of individuals, has played an important role in both neoliberal overreach (in the US, the obsession within the Republican party with tax cuts for the wealthy) and populism (the financing of the Brexit campaign, Trump himself). More generally, extreme wealth disparities fuelpolitical corruption. Yet ‘freeing’ ‘wealth creators’ of the ‘burden’ of taxation is central to neoliberalism: just look at how the loaded language in this sentence has become commonplace.

Indeed it could well be that gross inequality at the very top is an important dynamic created by neoliberalism. Piketty, Saez and Stantcheva have shown (paper) how reductions in top rates of tax - a hallmark of neoliberalism in the 1980s - may itself have encouraged rent seeking by CEOs which makes inequality even worse. Rent extractors naturally seek political defences to preserve their wealth, and the mechanisms that sets in place may not embody any sense of morality, leading to the grotesque spectacle of Republican lawmakers depriving huge numbers of health insurance to be able to cut taxes for those at the top. It may also explain why the controls on finance actually implemented have been so modest, and in the US so fragile.

The other key dynamic in neoliberal overreach has to be the ideology itself. In the UK surveys suggest that fewer than 10% of the population favour cutting taxes and government spending to achieve a smaller state (see my next post). There is equally no appetite to privatise key state functions: indeed renationalisation of some industries is quite popular. Yet the need to reduce the size and scope of the state has become embedded in the political right. Given that, it is not hard to understand the motivation behind the twin deceits of austerity and immigration control by Conservative led governments.

The dynamic consequences of extreme inequality and an unpopular ideology both suggest that neoliberal overreach may not be a bug but a feature.

[1] Reasons why this discussion might focus on the US and UK are discussed here.

[2] Among those who voted for Brexit, the two main groups were social conservatives who had a social rather than economic fear of immigration and the left behind who were deceived into thinking it was the EU and immigration that was behind their plight rather than neoliberalism itself. Liberal leavers may amount to little more than a few MPs and small businesses. Even among Conservative MPs, it is not clear that neoliberalism was the key factorin determining their position on Brexit.

***Postscript 06/07/17  It came out after I had written this post, but this article by William Davies expresses much better what I was trying to say in this paragraph.  


Post a Comment