Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Book review: Stephanie Kelton, the Deficit Myth

Without my reliable book seller, I would probably not have read this book. It arrived one day through my Covid-barrier letterbox. Once I had started reading, it completely changed my way of thinking and boosted my mood amidst the gloom that is modern politics and economics. Kelton demonstrates that, contrary to the British Prime Minister’s assertion, there actually is a magic money tree. I am going to resort to bullet points here. Here’s what Kelton tells us:

  • we do not pay tax to pay for services, we pay tax to “provision” the economy
  • governments do not tax and spend, they spend and tax
  • governments’ budgets do not work like household budgets
  • countries that have currency sovereignty (i.e. “issue” their own currency), cannot run out of money
  • the role of fiscal policy is to manage inflation, not the deficit.
  • austerity is both unnecessary and damaging economically and socially
  • deficits are a sign of a healthy economy – economies that are balanced are not innovative
  • a negative balance of payments does not mean that foreign powers have power over countries whose currencies they keep
  • currency “holders” convert their cash into interest-bearing bonds
  • countries with currency sovereignty can, and should, have full employment
  • the resources are there for countries with currency sovereignty to transform to carbon-zero economies.

That is almost enough for one book. There are plenty of reviews of this book for my readers can draw on, for example, Despan, 2020. As ever, there is no substitute for reading the book oneself. But let me take just a few of these bullet points and metabolise them.

Take Covid-19, the British Government has found £30bn to fund the furlough/job retention scheme to enable employers to retain staff when revenues are hard to generate. The Government found money to build emergency hospitals; purchase PPE (albeit inefficiently); and even pay us to eat out. The government has not disclosed how these initiatives will be paid for. The Conservative Government has spent millions of pounds on Brexit, most notoriously a £13.8m contract to a ferry firm without ferries. Oh, and those expensive nuclear weapons. Essentially, the Treasury is paying by creating money. Though by contrast, it would seem that Government spending on welfare payments to poorer people, on education, social care, etc., have to be justified and balanced by tax revenue.

Tax, more generally, is not as it seems. Kelton makes the argument that the reason that we pay tax is not to fund spending, but rather for provisioning. Governments need people to be economically active, to make things, to provide services, for progress. Tax, therefore, is the incentive for people to be economically active by ensuring that people have to give their labour and time in exchange for currency (money). There is a secondary purpose to tax, that of wealth redistribution. The obscene wealth concentration in the hands of a few known-individuals – Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel – does not serve society at all. The rich who get more money tend to save it rather than spend it. Give poor people money and they will spend it in the real economy. Take a $1bn off Jeff Bezos in tax and he is left with $109bn. Would he really notice? Plus, how much has Bezos increased his wealth during the pandemic which has necessitated large-scale public spending commitments? What can civil society do with $1bn? Rather a lot, I think.

People will argue – particularly in the USA – that rich people are serious philanthropists. Bill Gates’ foundation gives billions to the fight against malaria. Warren Buffet has endorsed Gates and will donate his fortune to Gates’ foundation upon his death. There are two problems – at least – with that argument. Many billionaires have become so rich by exploiting workers, communities and natural resources. Suddenly to give excess money “away” to causes that they decide are worthy seems wrong. They distribute excess money (they do not become St Francis of Asissi). They live well and maintain their political influence. And who is to say the causes selected by philanthropists are worthy and the most efficacious? Where is the transparency, the democracy, the accountability?

Back to Kelton’s main arguments, government deficits are, by definition,  surpluses or credits to others. I buy something (debit) and give money to someone else (credit) in return for something that I actually want. But unlike governments, my debit does have to be covered either by savings or borrowing. Governments only get into trouble when they borrow in currencies that are not their own. Cases such as Argentina are often floated as examples of how deficits are bad. Notwithstanding the fact that Argentina’s 2001 inflation-led crisis caused a default on foreign debt, it did reconfigure its economy to one that focused on domestic growth and full employment. Its government moved away from US dollars both in cash terms and also uncoupling interest rates to a foreign currency.

Inflation, unemployment and climate change

Inflation is a problem for economies. In my lifetime I have seen high inflation; though nothing compared to the hyper-inflation suffered by Germany in the 1930s which still scars the landscape and leads to economic conservativism within the country and forces austerity on countries such as Greece that share the currency (the Euro). Inflation is usually controlled by notionally-independent central banks. They increase interest rates to dampen down demand. 2 per cent inflation seems to be a common target in modern economies. Overshoot and the central bank will raise interest rates. That will also impact on the unemployment rate – but modern economy managers trade off inflation and employment. Higher unemployment is a price worth paying for keeping down inflation, unless you are, of course, someone being made unemployed. This trade-off can be seen at work in a recent article by Gordon Brown, UK PM during the financial crisis of 2008. In response to the Covid-19 crisis, he writes: “Now I am the first to say that the Bank needs a more demanding constitution, one that imposes a dual mandate: to take unemployment as seriously as inflation. This should be matched by an operational target stating that interest rates will not rise or stimulus end until unemployment falls to pre-crisis levels.” (Guardian, 15 September 2020).

Kelton argues convincingly that countries with sovereign currencies can run their economies with a “good jobs guarantee”. Monetary policy has it that there is a natural level of unemployment – NAIRU. The Economist Martin Goodfried puts a figure on it: 7 per cent! In the USA, that might be as many as 12 million Americans “naturally” without work and a whole lot more who are under-employed. To keep that number of people unemployed is not some law of economics (there are no laws of real economics), it is purely a political decision predicated on a non-existent law of rising wages caused by too much employment and hence bargaining power of labour leading to inflation. When wages rise, interest rates should increase to prevent inflation from occurring.

Mainstream economics has it that unemployment benefit is sufficient to provide for the needs of people without work. Critically for the neo-liberal economists, the rate needs to be set sufficiently low so as to provide the incentive for the unemployed to take any paid work rather than be idle. The gig economy is, arguably, the result of this mentality; that is insecure and sporadic work. However, this argument is pretty phoney – most people are motivated by a sense of purpose, much of which comes from engaging in meaningful work. But the rich – for example, those who earn six-figure sums – do not work harder the more they receive in salary and bonuses. They merely accumulate believing themselves to be worth the money they are paid. Moreover, they bias the policy of their firms in order to maximise the benefits they receive. For example, if remuneration is linked to share price, CEOs may engage in share buy-backs rather than invest in innovation and new products.

Kelton identifies seven deficits that do matter. These are: employment, infrastructure, education, climate, democracy, health and savings. Let me take a couple of those deficits, starting with employment. Kelton argues that progressive governments would use the state apparatus to employ all unemployed labour on a wage that sustains individuals and families until full employment returns in the natural economic and business cycles. A good job guarantee (the good is important here) can maintain aggregate demand even in a downturn because everyone who wants to work can do so. This potentially makes the downturn of shorter duration. All citizens would be covered (not everyone is eligible for unemployment benefits either because they have not paid-in to the insurance system, or they have exhausted their “entitlement”) and purposeful work is at the heart of such a programme. Moreover, skills are retained and/or enhanced. Kelton argues further that these public works should be based in communities and the work itself should focus on developing communities – whether it be public service, caring (for elderly and children alike) or business development/entrepreneurship. It is also clear that such a job-guarantee programme could be beneficial as societies pursue environmental sustainability. It is also feasible for people to change their own direction from accumulation to sharing and “de-growth”.

That leads to the second deficit that matters, climate change. Kelton rehearses many of the arguments made by key writers in this field such as Mike Berners-Lee, David Wallace-Wells, Tim Lang, Bruno Latour, etc. If governments persist with a neo-liberal, deficit-avoidance economic mindset, then climate change will impact human society at the upper, catastrophic-end of the climate-modelled scenarios. There is no financial block on investment in green technologies. It is political. Sovereign currency issuers such as the USA and the UK can generate the financial resources needed to eliminate carbon as the source of all energy and limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius.

In conclusion, Kelton is a credible critic of existing monetary policy. She demonstrates how we can as a society have the things we need. Society has never been provided for by taxation. It has always been spend and tax, not tax and spend. Tax does not provide the resources for public spending, it is primarily a tool of redistribution. Some rich people are not keen on that, for some reason.

Updated, 15 September 2020 to incorporate quote by Gordon Brown

My last Samsung

A few years’ ago, I watched a documentary about corruption at Olympus (the Japanese camera/optics firm). I was rather disturbed by it. To the western viewer, there was unacceptable fraud being perpetrated by Japanese executives. The British-company president at the time, Michael Woodford, found that dealing with it was not straightforward and could be dangerous. What he could not understand with his capitalist mindset was that losses were not only about honour in Japanese society, but also about social welfare – the interests of generations of employees (Olympus people) were intertwined with the fortunes of the company. The Japanese executives did what they could to avoid the collapse of the company for that reason – something that is difficult for a western mindset to embrace.

So in reading Geoffrey Cain’s book (left) about South Korea’s Samsung corporation, packed full of examples of fraudulent business activities, should I try to understand the cultural imperatives and conclude the book was a good read? Which it is, though the style as a thriller is annoying, but that is just me again. Samsung is a family business traded on foreign stock markets. It is the cornerstone of the South Korean economy, run as a business empire with a patriarch who can be convicted numerous times for services to the ruling family and somehow evade the full force of the criminal justice system. The book concludes just at the point where the current patriarch, Lee Jae-yong (Jay Lee), was facing a re-trial on bribery charges after a successful appeal by prosecutors to the Supreme Court.

The charges are intimately linked to Lee Jae-yong’s attempts to retain control over the company and not pay much inheritance tax in the process. Although Samsung is traded on stock markets,

car

1999 Samsung SQ5, later called SM5

investors do not buy a stake in the parent; there is a lot of cross-shareholding that does two things. It blurs the precise nature of who owns what whilst ensuring a controlling role for family members. It is a conglomerate, but at the same time not. Family members control the affiliate businesses including a theme park, a hospital, shipbuilding, fashion and chipsets. It made motor cars in my lifetime (right) The cross-shareholding allows the family to retain control with relatively small shareholding. The structure is frequently adjusted in the interests of the Lee family.

In 2015 one of these adjustments involved two affiliates merging to the considerable detriment of the financial interests of the existing shareholders of one of those affiliates, C&T such that it was being valued at less-than zero. As Cain notes: “Samsung argued that this was an attempt to consolidate business units…Jay Lee owned a 23 percent stake in Cheil Industries, the company acquiring Samsung C&T [Construction and Trading], which in turn owned a 4 percent stake in Samsung Electronics, the crown jewel. The merger would simplify and solidify Jay Lee’s control of Samsung Electronics through this shareholding web, starting with Cheil at the top” (p245). To make matters worse, the family managed to convince one of the largest institutional investors, The National Pension Service (NPS), to support the merger despite it not being in the interests of its own stakeholders; namely, South Korean pensioners and those hoping to retire on a pension. In the end, a combination of the devaluing of the NPS’s shareholding and the stock market’s response, it lost $500m – a straight transfer from the people to an industrial elite!

Even a US hedge fund, Elliott Management, led by Paul Elliott Singer, failed to stop it. Singer himself was described by Bloomberg as “The World’s Most Feared Investor”. Samsung engaged in some pretty unsavoury propaganda to discredit him. Singer is Jewish and Samsung went full-on antisemitism even going to the point of setting up a website called “Vulture Man” with a slide show depicting a vulture, thought to be a caricature of Singer, “whose sadistic practices consisted of plotting and preying on the poor and disenfranchised around the world” (p250).

Samsung’s origins are uncomfortable from a 21st Century context. Its founder, BC Lee, was educated in Japan and was enamoured to say the least by Japanese Zaibatsu, powerful family-dominated industrial and financial business empires, which fell victim to post-war reconstruction. Lee’s first business operation was in supplying vegetables to Japanese soldiers in Manchuria. That story itself has unsavoury implications, though from a business perspective, perfectly reasonable. A man familiar with Japanese cuisine supplies vegetables to customers in Manchuria. The fact that they were an occupying force is neither here nor there.

After WWII, the South was invaded by the North; 3 years’ of war saw most of Lee’s assets taken or looted. Lee then entered sugar refining and wool spinning, banking, insurance and chemicals. Samsung was intimately involved in the economic transformation of the country arising from the military coup in 1961 led by General Park Chung-hee after some horsetrading over the scope of Samsung business interests. Actually, the state wanted the banks.

selfieThe transformation into an electronics firm started to take shape with the acquisition of a semi-conductor firm in 1974. Always a supplier, Samsung powered the first iPhone. In fact without very close collaboration between the two firms the iPhone would not have made it to the market and that infamous 2007 presentation by Steve Jobs at the Macworld convention would not have happened. That event is itself a tale of trade-off and compromise.

Samsung seems to have been obsessed with beating competitors. First, Sony in terms of design and LCD screens/televisions. More famously, beating Apple, particularly in the American market for which Samsung employed a crack team of marketers led by Todd Pendleton. Their White Glove project culminated in one of the most famous non-selfies when Ellen deGeneres tried to make a selfie  with Meryl Streep using a Galaxy mobile at the Oscars ceremony in 2014. It ended up being the most-retweeted Tweet (right) featuring other stars such as Julia Roberts, Channing Tatum, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o, Jared Leto. And Kevin Spacey.

It is at this point in the book that I realise how meaningless life is.

The politics are much more interesting than the marketing; and much more unsavoury. Further words are expended on the PR disaster of the Galaxy Note 7 and the company’s insufficient recall policy and unwillingness to come clean about the cause, or indeed the danger. Readers will not be surprised to learn that there turns out to be considerable institutional causes over-and-above the design flaws. And then there is the premature release of the folding-screen phone that was so delicate that it broke by looking at it. Cain concludes, however, that we, the consumers, are just seduced by good products in nice cases. We will overlook the behaviour of the manufacturer in pursuit of consumption. My Samsung  S8+ is now into its fourth year. That is a testament to the product (and a bit to my care and attention to it). My next mobile will not be a Samsung.

25 October 2020 – death of Lee Kun-hee announced: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/oct/25/lee-kun-hee-samsung-electronics-chairman-dies-aged-78

Pics: Samsung SQ5: raul • CC BY-SA 3.0