Gordon Campbell on the centre-left’s quest for economic ‘credibility’

Yesterday, the Guardian published a long, fascinating account of the infighting and tactical manoeuvring within Ed Miliband’s UK Labour leadership team during the last eighteen months before their election defeat in May.

By sheer coincidence, the Miliband post mortem came out almost at exactly the same time as the New Zealand media were leaked a copy of the official NZ Labour Party review of David Cunliffe’s equally doomed campaign. In both cases, there’s an irresistible temptation to blame the leader for an outcome for which, at worst, they were only partly responsible. Routinely, the wider problems get interred with the fallen leader’s political bones, only to rise again to confront the next leader. While reading the Guardian account, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Miliband as he faced (a) constant demands for new policies, ‘aspirational’ policies, policies that will inspire and transform, but within a political climate where (b) only the current economic settings are deemed to be ‘credible’.

It’s a bit like watching someone trying to do cartwheels in a straitjacket. Never pretty.

The scare quotes around ‘credible’ and ‘aspirational’ are deliberate. They’re very tired words, and are a code for saying : admit the Tories are right about the economy, and only then will we deem your views (a) worthy of respect and (b) exempt from critical analysis. Miliband’s famous failure to mention the deficit in a crucial speech is a good example of the pathology involved. According to the Guardian, the speech had gone through various incarnations, and Miliband was still juggling the bits of various versions when he inadvertedly omitted the paragraph about the deficit. While still coming off stage, he apparently realized his ‘mistake’ with horror and retreated disconsolately to his hotel room to brood in isolation while the various members of his team argued over whether the media would notice it, whether it was such a catastrophe and if so, who had been to blame for consigning such a crucial theme to a paragraph that could be accidentally overlooked in this fashion etc etc.

Back in the real world, did not mentioning the deficit really matter – in itself, or compared to say, David Cameron routinely not mentioning poverty or health funding or income inequality or climate change or 101 other things in any of his given speeches? It mattered only because in the rarified climate of political unreality, Labour/Green economic credentials are deemed to be permanently in question, and so any such ‘lapse’ is likely to be seized upon as confirmation of the stereotype. David Cunliffe and Russel Norman can probably sympathise with Miliband.

In other words, it is the dated tenets that still tend to be the yardstick by which economic policy is gauged. In the Beltway, it is always the 1980s, as if Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – and their ideas – had never died. In political discourse, it doesn’t seem to matter that the Thatcherite doctrines of austerity and de-regulation were discredited long ago, along with the centrist Blairite version that replaced them. Yet the disjunct between political debate and economic reality still seems almost total.

That’s why for instance, it feels a bit odd to see that the US business press carrying stories that Big Oil is now lobbying for a carbon tax which, Bloomberg News says flatly, can no longer be typecast as a lefty plot. Here in New Zealand though, the Key government is still living in denial about the need to put a realistic price on carbon, and wants to indulge our corporates to do likewise. For over a year, the Greens have been proposing a fiscally neutral carbon tax, offset by cuts to income and business tax. Politically, that’s still seen here to be an extreme position – will James Shaw give those crazy Greens a bit more ‘credibility’ is this week’s favourite political meme – even though the proposal is evidently far more consistent with the emerging global consensus than the willful neglect being promoted by Key and his cronies. Big Oil’s letter on carbon tax is here.

There are other examples. Again, from the US business press, we find this story, headlined “Leading Economists Now Lean Left” above an interesting enumeration of the failures of the old orthodoxy. A right wing columnist in Forbes magazine recently echoed these sentiments, and concluded that the rising dominance of left wing economic formulations was not simply due to the winds of intellectual fashion, but was evidence-based:

What’s important is that this isn’t just a restatement of long-time core liberal commitments, but a conclusion that is drawn from recent trends in empirical research. For example, the strain of minimum wage research led by Arin Dube and co-authors that suggests little to no impacts of a higher minimum wage… there are an increasing number of pundits and economists who look at the literature on minimum wages and other research on labour markets and conclude that the stronger unions, higher wages, and more labour market regulations are a good idea.

In the past week, this column by the Australian economist John Quiggin about the last gasp of neo-liberalism has been widely circulated. In a related article, Mike Konczal in the Nation extends that critique to the centrist, Blairite positions, and to the kind of problems that we’ve grown very familiar with from Bill English.

With inflation falling, the government faces a crisis of consistently weak demand, as opposed to a crisis of too much debt… [S]ix years into the recovery, wages are still down for most workers… Workers have never been more educated, but the result is just fiercer fighting for jobs… This failure explains why liberal politicians will sound more confidently liberal in 2016: The dominant ideology pulling them toward business interests has failed

Those problems – minimal inflation, flat demand, relatively few high paying jobs being created outside the housing construction in Christchurch and Auckland – went by completely unaddressed by English in his recent Budget. No one called his credibility into question. Only the young fogeys in the Act Party are still clinging to the failed nostrums of the 1980s. Bloomberg aptly summarises them as: if you see a government intervention in the economy, attack it. If there’s a regulation, cut it. If there’s a tax, lower it. If there’s a state-owned industry, privatize it.

The political virtue of that approach is that it is simple. The real life problem is that it is simple-minded. As James Shaw ponders what his critics will judge to be ‘credible’ and ‘aspirational’ one can only hope that reality, and not Beltway wisdom, will be his guide.

Hip hop 2015 and The Platters

Hip hop producers have always ranged far and wide for inspiration and there’s no better example than the terrific new track “Excuse Me” by Harlem’s poet of gentrification, A$AP Rocky. The sample that imbues the track with its distinctive drone and buzz is from an old Christmas song by the 1950s group, The Platters. Its worth hearing the two side by side : if only to wonder how A$AP Rocky’s production team came to realise the two elements would fit together so well.

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