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Revolutions in Economic Policy

The Commission on Economic Justice hosted by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has just published a substantial and comprehensive reporton the UK economy called ‘Time for Change’. I hope to write about aspects of that report later, but its basic premise is that we need a revolution in economic policy making, akin to the revolutions enacted by the post-war Attlee government and Mrs. Thatcher. The thinking behind the idea of economic policy revolutions is outlined by Alfie Stirling and Laurie Laybourne-Langton in a paperin The Political Quarterly.

The authors adapt the ideas of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to economic policy. I do not want to get hung up on the legitimacy or details of this. The basic idea that some periods involve profound changes in economic policy is not really contentious. Also the idea that the ‘failing paradigm’ will first try to adapt itself before being replaced by the revolutionary idea is straightforward. You only need to look at the state of current politics in the UK and US to take seriously the idea that what could be called the neoliberal era - the set of policies and world view associated with Thatcher and Reagan - is coming to an end.

There is a lot in the paper that I agree with, at least until the conclusions. [1] But I think my main critical comment would be that the paper focuses too much on macroeconomics, and as a result goes a little astray. It is if, having borrowed Kuhn’s idea and applied it to economic policy, the authors feel obliged to keep going back to an actual academic discipline, macroeconomic theory, rather than staying with economic policy as a whole. Let me set out first how I see the macroeconomic transformation that took place around the time of Thatcher and Reagan.

A key mistake that many people make is to say that conventional Keynesian macroeconomic theory was unable to explain stagflation, and that policymakers adopted monetarism or new classical ideas as a result. The basis for understanding stagflation and reducing inflation was known since at leastFriedman’s famous address in 1968 giving his account of the expectations augmented Phillips curve. This Phillips curve was not used to guide monetary or fiscal policy before the end of the 1970s because most policy makers and some economists were reluctant to raise unemployment as a way of reducing inflation. [2]

In the UK this use of demand management to control inflation (or its counterpart, which was to abandon attempts at direct control like incomes policies) coincided with the election of Thatcher, but in the US it was initiated by Paul Volcker under Jimmy Carter. In both the UK and US it was associated with attempts to control monetary aggregates, but this lasted only a few years. You could argue that abandoning incomes policies was neoliberal, but to me it looks like the inevitable result of double digit inflation.

There was a revolution in macroeconomic theory, but I have argued elsewherethat it does not fit into the Kuhnian framework. The New Classical Counter Revolution (NCCR) did not come up with an alternative analysis of inflation: instead their concerns were more methodological. It is true that that many who promoted the NCCR also favoured neoliberalism, and you could relate reductionism to individualism (and hence neoliberalism), but I think the appeal of the NCCR owed much more to a collection of good ideas that the then mainstream resisted, like rational expectations.

Inflation targeting by central banks involves an attempt to manage the economy in much the same way as Keynesian fiscal activism had done before. The central bank is a part of the state. Central bank independence didn’t come to the UK until 1997, and existed in the US well before Reagan. What I callthe Consensus Assignment (monetary to demand management, fiscal to debt control) was dealt a fatal blow by the GFC, but the popularity of this assignment owes little to neoliberalism. Attempts to link inflation targeting to neoliberalism, which are frequent, are in my view a mistake.

Trying to fit macroeconomics into an account of the rise of neoliberalism is therefore problematic, and more importantly it detracts from the real economic policy revolution that neoliberalism represented, which was a change in the attitude of policymakers to state intervention of almost any kind. Out went government partnership with industry (described as ‘picking winners’), together with a regional and industrial policy serious enough to counteract the effects of globalisation and technical change. There was a corresponding shift from the collective (including attacking trade unions) to the individual, together with the idea that ‘wealth creators’ (aka high earners) had to be incentivised by cutting ‘punitive’ taxation. Public money became ‘taxpayers money’ and so on.

All this was a successful neoliberal revolution, where by success I mean it took hold for decades. It, together with subsequent overreach, has caused serious problems and is therefore ripe for review. But ironically the attempt at a truly neoliberal macro policy - hands-off monetary targeting with no demand management - failed within a few years of being tried.

[1] I should say why I think the conclusions do not follow from the rest of the paper. There are some simple mistakes, such as “the failure of these same models to predict accurately the effects of the UK vote to leave the EU threatens to renew the crisis of confidence in economic theory.” But there is also an implicit very misleading equation pair: neoliberal policy=mainstream economics, revolution=heterodoxy.

First, the two previous revolutions in macro theory came from within the mainstream, not from outside. Second, neither austerity or Brexit have anything to do with mainstream economics. More generally, mainstream economics is as much a critique of neoliberalism as a support. As a result, a revolution in economic policy making could quite easily originate from within mainstream economics (see here, for example).

[2] Today, that view has been revived by members of the MMT school, who call using the Phillips curve to control inflation amoral.



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