Universal Basic Income Is Inevitable, Unavoidable, and Incoming

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The last time I saw universal basic income discussed on television, it was laughed away by a Conservative MP as an absurd idea. The government giving away wads of cash responsibility-free to the entire population sounds entirely fantastical in this austerity-bound age, where “we just don’t have the money” is repeated endlessly as a mantra. Money, they say, does not grow on trees. (Only as figures on the screen of a computer).

In this world, universal basic income seems like a rather distant prospect. Yes, there are some proposals, like Switzerland and Finland, both of which are holding a referendum on universal basic income. But I expect neither of them to pass. The current political climate is just too patriarchal. We live in a world where free choice is unfashionable. The mass media demonizes the poor as feckless and too lazy and ignorant to make good choices about how to spend their income. Better that the government spend huge chunks of GDP employing bureaucrats to administer tests, to moralize on the virtues of work, and sanction the profligate.

But this world is fast changing, and the more I study the basic facts of economic life in the early 21st century, the more inevitable universal basic income begins to seem.

And no, it’s not because of the robots that are coming to take our jobs, as Erik Brynjolfsson suggests in his excellent The Second Machine Age. While automation is a major economic disruptor that will transform our economy, assuming that robots will dissolve jobs entirely is just buying into the same Lump of Labour fallacy that the Luddites fell for. Automation frees humans from drudgery and opens up the economy to new opportunities. Where once vast swathes of the population toiled in the fields as subsistence farmers, mechanization allowed these people to become industrial workers, and their descendants to become information and creative workers. As today’s industries are decimated, and as the market price of media falls closer and closer toward zero, new avenues will be opened up. New industries will be born in a neverending cycle of creative destruction. Yes, perhaps universal basic income will help ease the current transition that we are going through, but the transition is not the reason why universal basic income is inevitable.

So why is it inevitable? Take a look at Japan, and now the eurozone: economies where consumer price deflation has become an ongoing and entrenched reality. This occurrence has been married to economic stagnation and continued dips into recession. In Japan — which has been in the trap for over two decades — debt levels in the economy have remained high. The debt isn’t being inflated away as it would under a more “normal” rate of growth and inflation. And even in the countries that have avoided outright deflationary spirals, like the UK and the United States, inflation has been very low.

The most major reason, I am coming to believe, is rising efficiency and the growing superabundance of stuff. Cars are becoming more fuel efficient. Homes are becoming more fuel efficient. Vast quantities of solar energy and fracked oil are coming online. China’s growing economy continues to pump out vast quantities of consumer goods. And it’s not just this: people are better educated than ever before, and equipped with incredibly powerful productivity resources like laptops, iPads and smartphones. Information and media has fallen to an essentially free price. If price inflation is a function of the growth of the money supply against growth in the total amount of goods and services produced, then it is very clear why deflation and lowflation have become a problem in the developed world, even with central banks struggling to push out money to reinflate the credit bubble that burst in 2008.

Much, much more is coming down the pipeline. At the core of this As the cost of superabundant and super-accessible solar continues to fall, and as battery efficiencies continue to increase the price of energy for heating, lighting, cooking and transportation (e.g. self-driving electric cars, delivery trucks, and ultimately planes) is being slowly but powerfully pushed toward zero. Heck, if the cost of renewables continue to fall, and advances in AI and automation continue, in thirty or forty years most housework and yardwork will be renewables-powered, and done by robot. Water crises can be alleviated by solar-powered desalination, and resource pressures by solar-powered robot miners.

And just as computers and the internet have made huge quantities of media (such as this blog) free for users, 3-D printers and disassemblers will push the production of stuff much closer to free. People will simply be able to download blueprints from the internet, put their trash into a disassembler and print out new items. Obviously, this won’t work anytime soon for complex objects like smartphones, but every technology company in the world is hustling and grinding for more efficiency in their manufacturing processes. Not to mention that as more and more stuff is manufactured, and as we become more environmentally conscious and efficient at recycling, this huge global stockpile of stuff acts as another deflationary pressure.

These deflationary pressures will gradually seep into services as more and more processes become automated and powered by efficiency increasing machines, drones and robots. This will gradually come to encompass the old inflationary bugbears of medical care, educational costs and construction and maintenance costs. Of course, I don’t expect this dislocation to result in permanent incurable unemployment. People will find stuff to do, and new fields will open up, many of which we are yet to imagine. But the price trend is clear to me: lots and lots of lowflation and deflation. This, ultimately, is at the heart of capitalism. The race for efficiency. The race to do more with less (including less productivity). The race for the lowest costs.

I’ve written about this before. I jokingly called it “hyperdeflation.”

And the obvious outcome, at the very least, is global Japan. This, of course, is not a complete disaster. Japan remains a relatively rich and stable country, even after twenty years of deflation. But Japan’s high level of debt — and particularly government debt — does pose a major concern.  Yes, as a sovereign currency issuer borrowing in its own currency the Japanese government runs no risk of actual default. But slow growth and deflation are stagnationary. And without growth and inflation, the government will have to raise taxes to cover the deficit, spiking the punchbowl and continuing the cycle of debt deflation. And of course, all of the Bank of Japan’s attempts at reigniting inflation and inflating away that debt through complicated monetary operations in financial markets have up until now proven pretty ineffectual.

This is where some form of universal basic income comes in: ultimately, the most direct stimulus for lifting inflation and triggering productive economic activity is putting cash in the people’s hands. What I am suggesting is that printing money and giving it away to people — as opposed to trying to push it out through the complicated and convoluted transmission mechanism of financial sector lending — will ultimately become governments’ major backstop against debt deflation, as well as the temporary joblessness and economic inequality created by technological acceleration. Everything else, thus far, has been pushing on a string. And the deflationary pressure is only going to become stronger as efficiency rises and rises.

Throw enough newly-created money into the economy, inject inflation, and nominal tax revenues can rise to cover the debt load. Similarly, if inflation gets too high, cut back on the money-creation or take money out of circulation and bring inflation into check, just as central banks have done for the last century.

The biggest obstacle to this, in my view, is the interests of those with lots of money, who like deflation because it increases their purchasing power. But in the end, rich people aren’t just sitting on hoards of cash. Most of them do have businesses that would benefit from their clients having higher incomes so as to increase spending, and thus their incomes. Indeed, in a debt-deflationary spiral with default cascades, many of these rentiers would face the same ruin as their clients, as their clients default on their obligations.

And yes, I know that there are legal obstacles to fully-blown helicopter money, chiefly the notion of central bank independence. But I am an advocate of central bank independence, for a variety of reasons. Indeed, I don’t think that universal basic income should be a function of fiscal spending at all, not least because I think that dispassionate and economically literate central bankers tend to be better managers of monetary expansion and contraction than politically motivated — and generally less economically literate — politicians. So everything I am describing can and should be envisioned as a function of monetary policy. Indeed, what I am advocating for is a new set of core monetary policy tools for the 21st century.

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Can Tightening Fight the Collateral Shortage?

Tyler Durden of Zero Hedge claims that any taper in QE will be a response to the collateral shortage — the fact that quantitative easing has stripped an important part of the market’s collateral base for rehypothecation out of the market. With less collateral in the market, there is less of a base for credit creation. The implication here is that quantitative easing is tightening rather than easing credit conditions. The evidence? Breakdown in the Treasuries market resulting in soaring fails-to-deliver and fails-to-receive:

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Tyler notes:

Simply put, the main reason the Fed is tapering has nothing to do with the economy and everything to do with the TBAC presentation (rehypothecation and collateral shortages) and that the US is now running smaller deficits!!!

I don’t disagree with this. The ultra-low rate environment (that is still an ultra-low rate environment in spite of the small spike in Treasuries since murmurs of the taper began) on everything from Treasuries to junk bonds is symptomatic of a collateral shortage. Quantitative easing may ease the base money supply (as an anti-deflationary response to the ongoing deflation of the shadow money supply since 2008), but it tightens the supply of collateral.

The evidence on this is clear — expanding government deficits post-2008 did not bridge the gap in securities issuance that the financial crisis and central bank interventions created:

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The obvious point, at least to me, is that it seems easier and certainly less Rube Goldberg-esque to fight the collateral shortage by running bigger Federal deficits until private market securities issuance can take its place. Unfortunately quantitative easing itself is something of a Rube Goldberg machine with an extremely convoluted transmission mechanism, and fiscal policy is not part of the Fed’s mandate.

But I am not sure that tightening can fight the collateral shortage at all. The money supply is still shrunken from the pre-crisis peak (much less the pre-crisis trend) even after all the quantitative easing. Yes, many have talked of the Federal Reserve inflating the money supply, but the broadest measures of the money supply are smaller than they were before the quantitative easing even started. This deflation is starting to show up in price trends, with core PCE falling below 1% — its lowest level in history. Simply, without the meagre inflation of the money supply that quantitative easing is providing, steep deflation seems highly likely. I don’t think the Fed can stop.

Why Does Anyone Think the Fed Will Taper?

Simon Kennedy of Bloomberg claims:

The world economy should brace itself for a slowing of stimulus by the Federal Reserve if history is any guide.

Personally, I think this is nutty stuff. In enacting QE3, Bernanke made pretty explicit he was targeting the unemployment rate; the “full-employment” side of the Fed’s dual mandate. And how’s that doing?

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It looks like its coming down — although, we are still a very long way from full employment. And a lot of that decrease, as the civilian employment-population ratio insinuates, is due to discouraged workers dropping out of the labour force:

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Moreover, of course, quantitative easing — substituting zero-yielding cash into the money supply for low-yielding assets — is about the Federal Reserve attempting to reinflate the shrunken money supply resulting from the collapse of shadow intermediation in 2008. And the broad money supply remains extremely shrunken, even after all the QE:

And the bigger story is that America is still stuck in a huge private deleveraging phase, burdened with a humungous debt load:

Japan, of course, tapered its stimuli multiple times at the faintest whiff of recovery. Bernanke and Yellen will be aware of this.

Much more likely than abandoning stimulus is the conclusion by the next Fed chair — probably Yellen — that the current transmission mechanisms are ineffective, and the adoption of more direct monetary policy, including helicopter money.

This is Blowback

The YouTube video depicting Mohammed is nothing more than the straw that broke the camel’s back. This kind of violent uprising against American power and interests in the region has been a long time in the making. It is not just the continuation of drone strikes which often kill civilians in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan, either. Nor is it the American invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor is it the United States and the West’s support for various deeply unpopular regimes such as the monarchies in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (and formerly Iran). Nor is it that America has long favoured Israel over the Arab states, condemning, invading and fomenting revolution in Muslim nations for the pursuit of nuclear weapons while turning a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear weapons and its continued expansion into the West Bank.

Mark LeVine, Professor of Middle Eastern history at U.C. Irvine, writes:

Americans and Europeans are no doubt looking at the protests over the “film”, recalling the even more violent protests during the Danish cartoon affair, and shaking their heads one more at the seeming irrationality and backwardness of Muslims, who would let a work of “art”, particularly one as trivial as this, drive them to mass protests and violence.

Yet Muslims in Egypt, Libya and around the world equally look at American actions, from sanctions against and then an invasion of Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and sent the country back to the Stone Age, to unflinching support for Israel and all the Arab authoritarian regimes (secular and royal alike) and drone strikes that always seem to kill unintended civilians “by mistake”, and wonder with equal bewilderment how “we” can be so barbaric and uncivilised.

All of these things (and many more) have contributed to Muslim and Arab anger toward the United States and the West. Yet the underlying fact of all of these historical threads has been the United States’ oil-driven foreign policy. Very simply, the United States has for over half a century pursued a foreign policy in the region geared toward maintaining the flow of oil out of the region at any cost — even at the cost of inflaming the irrational and psychopathic religious elements that have long existed in the region.

This is not to defend the barbaric elements who resort to violence and aggression as a means of expressing their disappointment with U.S. foreign policy. It is merely to recognise that you do not stir the hornet’s nest and then expect not to get stung. 

And the sad thing is that stirring the hornet’s nest is totally avoidable. There is plenty of oil and energy capacity in the world beyond the middle east. The United States is misallocating capital by spending time, resources, energy and manpower on occupying the middle east and playing world policeman. Every dollar taken out of the economy by the IRS to be spent drone striking the middle east into the stone age is a dollar of lost productivity for the private market. It is a dollar of productivity that the market could have been spent increasing American energy capacity and energy infrastructure in the United States — whether that is in oil, natural gas, solar, wind or hydroelectric.

And this effect can spiral; every dollar spent on arming and training bin Laden and his allies to fight the Soviet Union begot many more thousands of dollars of military spending when bin Laden’s mercenaries turned their firepower onto the United States, and the United States chose to spend over ten years and counting occupying Afghanistan (rightly known as the graveyard of empires). It is likely that the current uprisings will trigger even more U.S. interventionism in the region (indeed it already has as marines have already been dispatched to Yemen) costing billions or even trillions of dollars more money (especially if an invasion of Iran is the ultimate outcome). This in turn is likely to trigger even fiercer resistance to America from the Islamist elements, and so the spiral continues on.

The only way out of this money-sucking, resource-sucking, life-sucking trap that is very literally obliterating the American empire is to swallow pride and get out of the middle east, to stop misallocating American resources and productivity on unwinnable wars.

But neither major Presidential candidate is interested in such a policy. Perhaps it is because war is a great profit source for the military-industrial complex, the force to which both the Democratic and Republican parties are beholden?

In any case, we should expect to see much more of this:

Source: Reuters

Does Easy Monetary Policy Enrich the Financial Sector?

Yesterday, I strongly insinuated that easy monetary policy enriches the financial sector at the expense of the wider society. I realise that I need to illustrate this more fully than just to say that when the central bank engages in monetary policy, the financial sector gets the new money first and so receives an ex nihilo transfer of purchasing power (the Cantillon Effect).

The first inkling I had that this could be the case was looking at the effects of quantitative easing (monetary base expansion) on equities (S&P500 Index), corporate profits and employment.

While quantitative easing has dramatically reinflated corporate profits, and equities, it has not had a similar effect on employment (nor wages).

However there are lots other factors involved (including government layoffs), and employment (and wages) is much stickier than either corporate profits or equities. It will be hard to fully assess the effects of quantitative easing on employment outcomes without more hindsight (but the last four years does not look good).

What is clear, though, is that following QE financial sector profits have rebounded spectacularly toward the pre-2008 peak, while nonfinancial sector profits have not:

Yet it is not true that in recent years the growth of financial profits or financial assets has been preceded by growth in the monetary base; the peak for financial profits occurred before QE even began. In fact, the growth in the monetary base from 2008 reflects a catching-up relative to the huge growth seen in credit since the end of Bretton Woods. During the post-Bretton Woods era, growth of financial assets in the financial sector has significantly outpaced growth of financial assets in the nonfinancial sector, and growth of household financial assets:


This disparity has not been driven by growth in the monetary base, which lagged behind until 2008. Instead it has been driven by other forms of money supply growth, specifically credit growth.

This is the relationship between financial sector asset growth, and growth of the money supply:

And growth of the money supply inversely correlates with changes in the Federal Funds rate; in other words, as interest rates have been lowered credit creation has spiked, and vice verse:

The extent to which M2 is driven by the Federal Funds rate (or vice verse) is not really relevant; the point is that the Fed’s chosen transmission mechanism is inherently favourable to the financial sector.

The easing of credit conditions (in other words, the enhancement of banks’ ability to create credit and thus enhance their own purchasing power) following the breakdown of Bretton Woods — as opposed to monetary base expansion — seems to have driven the growth in credit and financialisation. It has not (at least previous to 2008) been a case of central banks printing money and handing it to the financial sector; it has been a case of the financial sector being set free from credit constraints.

This would seem to have been accentuated by growth in nontraditional credit products (what Friedrich Hayek called pseudo-money, in other words non-monetary credit) in the shadow banking sector:


Similarly, derivatives:


Monetary policy in the post-Bretton Woods era has taken a number of forms; interest rate policy, monetary base policy, and regulatory policy. The association between growth in the financial sector, credit growth and interest rate policy shows that monetary growth (whether that is in the form of base money, credit or nontraditional credit instruments) enriches the recipients of new money as anticipated by Cantillon.

This underscores the need for a monetary and credit system that distributes money in a way that does not favour any particular sector — especially not the endemically corrupt financial sector.

UPDATE:

Tyler Durden answers my question in one graph:

The Cantillon Effect

Expansionary monetary policy constitutes a transfer of purchasing power away from those who hold old money to whoever gets new money. This is known as the Cantillon Effect, after 18th Century economist Richard Cantillon who first proposed it. In the immediate term, as more dollars are created, each one translates to a smaller slice of all goods and services produced.

How we measure this phenomenon and its size depends how we define money. This is illustrated below.

Here’s GDP expressed in terms of the monetary base:

Here’s GDP expressed in terms of M2:

And here’s GDP expressed in terms of total debt:

What is clear is that the dramatic expansion of the monetary base that we saw after 2008 is merely catching up with the more gradual growth of debt that took place in the 90s and 00s.

While it is my hunch that overblown credit bubbles are better liquidated than reflated (not least because the reflation of a corrupt and dysfunctional financial sector entails huge moral hazard), it is true the Fed’s efforts to inflate the money supply have so far prevented a default cascade. We should expect that such initiatives will continue, not least because Bernanke has a deep intellectual investment in reflationism.

This focus on reflationary money supply expansion was fully expected by those familiar with Ben Bernanke’s academic record. What I find more surprising, though, is the Fed’s focus on banks and financial institutions rather than the wider population.

It’s not just the banks that are struggling to deleverage. The overwhelming majority of nongovernment debt is held by households and nonfinancials:

The nonfinancial sectors need debt relief much, much more than the financial sector. Yet the Fed shoots off new money solely into the financial system, to Wall Street and the TBTF banks. It is the financial institutions that have gained the most from these transfers of purchasing power, building up huge hoards of excess reserves:

There is a way to counteract the Cantillon Effect, and expand the money supply without transferring purchasing power to the financial sector (or any other sector). This is to directly distribute the new money uniformly to individuals for the purpose of debt relief; those with debt have to use the new money to pay it down (thus reducing the debt load), those without debt are free to invest it or spend it as they like.

Steve Keen notes:

While we delever, investment by American corporations will be timid, and economic growth will be faltering at best. The stimulus imparted by government deficits will attenuate the downturn — and the much larger scale of government spending now than in the 1930s explains why this far greater deleveraging process has not led to as severe a Depression — but deficits alone will not be enough. If America is to avoid two “lost decades”, the level of private debt has to be reduced by deliberate cancellation, as well as by the slow processes of deleveraging and bankruptcy.

In ancient times, this was done by a Jubilee, but the securitization of debt since the 1980s has complicated this enormously. Whereas only the moneylenders lost under an ancient Jubilee, debt cancellation today would bankrupt many pension funds, municipalities and the like who purchased securitized debt instruments from banks. I have therefore proposed that a “Modern Debt Jubilee” should take the form of “Quantitative Easing for the Public”: monetary injections by the Federal Reserve not into the reserve accounts of banks, but into the bank accounts of the public — but on condition that its first function must be to pay debts down. This would reduce debt directly, but not advantage debtors over savers, and would reduce the profitability of the financial sector while not affecting its solvency.

Without a policy of this nature, America is destined to spend up to two decades learning the truth of Michael Hudson’s simple aphorism that “Debts that can’t be repaid, won’t be repaid”.

The Fed’s singular focus on the financial sector is perplexing and frustrating, not least because growth remains stagnant, unemployment remains elevated, industrial production remains weak and America’s financial sector remains a seething cesspit of corruption and moral hazard, where segregated accounts are routinely raided by corrupt CEOs, and where government-backstopped TBTF banks still routinely speculate with the taxpayers’ money.

The corrupt and overblown financial sector is the last sector that deserves a boost in purchasing power. It’s time this ended.