By William K. Black
April 11, 2019 Bloomington, MN
Part 7a of the MMT Series
Tom Friedman’s April 2, 2019 column concluded “The United Kingdom Has Gone Mad.” To which, the only possible response is – ‘you just noticed?’ The UK went ‘mad’ 22 years ago when Parliament elected the odious Tony Blair Prime Minister. I think many Tory policies were mad long before that date, but the Labour Party opposed them. The entire UK did not go ‘mad’ until Blair created “New Labour” and adopted Tory policies and became PM in 1997. Blair explicitly modeled the name and the adoption of neoliberal economic and military policies on Bill Clinton and the “New Democrats.” The UK became ‘mad’ when both of its major parties adopted the neoliberal economic and military policies that Friedman celebrates and proselytizes. I am dividing this article into two subparts for reasons of length. This part deals with the general madness. The next part (7b) explains its relevance to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).
Friedman’s April 2, 2019 column was about Brexit, which understandably sticks in the craw of the populist spreader of the myth that the world is becoming ‘flat’ and a ‘hyper-meritocracy.’ The wealthy rig the world to make it tilt sharply. Plutocrats tilt it to ensure that a huge and increasing share of the world’s wealth flows to them. Friedman is the most infamous shill for those plutocrats. The plutocrats tilt and warp the economy unevenly to favor not simply the wealthy, but a favored subset that is typically the opposite of a meritocracy (kakistocracy). Worse, the world tilts toward catastrophe because the ultra-wealthy kakistocracy’s political pawns have produced environments so criminogenic that they produce our recurrent, intensifying financial crises. Friedman is shocked that one of the two epicenters of the global kakistocracy and plutocracy – the City of London – has forced the UK to follow policies so self-destructive and rapacious that vast swaths of the UK rose in opposition by voting for Brexit. The City of London, of course, hates Brexit.
Friedman’s column does not consider the data on the primary reason a majority of UK citizens voted in favor of Brexit – a policy he considers ‘mad.’ Austerity was the decisive factor that changed the expected vote on Brexit from ‘remain’ to ‘leave.’ (The linked article discusses what drove support for Ukip. That UK party’s single issue was pushing Brexit.) Polling data confirms that these predominantly working class voters devastated by austerity were the key to the public’s vote in favor of Brexit.
Welfare cuts and other austerity measures implemented under the Conservatives pushed vital swing voters to back Brexit and won the EU referendum for the Leave campaign, according to a new report.
Research published by the Social Market Foundation suggests the best indicator of a person’s referendum vote was not age or education, but happiness or sadness about their personal finances – with unhappy people tending to vote Leave and contented ones preferring Remain.
The report, which analysed the level of cuts in each area of the UK alongside each area’s growth in support for Ukip, argues that had it not been for austerity, the referendum would not have turned out the way it did.
It found that in districts that received the average austerity shock, Ukip vote shares were on average 11.62 percentage points higher in the most recent local elections prior to the referendum than in districts with little exposure to austerity.
As well as area-level analysis, the report looked at individual-level data and found that some people directly affected by welfare cuts shifted their political support to Ukip and rejected the political establishment.
“Households exposed to the bedroom tax increasingly shifted to support Ukip and experienced economic grievances as they fell behind with their rent payments due to the cuts,” the paper stated.
As much as 9 percentage points of the 52 per cent support for Leave – around 3 million votes – was decided by concern about austerity and related issues, the researchers estimated.
It suggests that without the effect of the “austerity shock” on welfare and public services, the Leave share of the referendum vote could have been as low as 43 per cent, delivering a comfortable win for Remain.
Austerity means that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is relevant to the story. MMT scholars protested against UK austerity and warned it would harm the recovery. It did. Austerity always inflicts its harm unevenly. It is an enormous economic advantage to the wealthy, and a horrific burden on the working class and the poor. In the UK context, that meant that austerity made the City of London elites that did so much to cause and profit from the orgy of “control fraud and predation” that caused the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) even wealthier while devastating huge parts of the UK inhabited by working class families. (“Control fraud and predation” is a criminology term that describes what happens when those who control a seemingly legitimate firm use it as a ‘weapon’ to defraud or predate on others.)
Friedman, Blair, and Clinton’s Four Defining Acts of Madness
Why did Friedman ignore austerity? The UK went ‘mad’ when Tony Blair championed four neoliberal policies that caused massive harm.
- The three ‘D’s’ – deregulation, desupervision, and de facto decriminalization
- The ‘race to the bottom’ between the City of London and Wall Street to attract the biggest, most fraudulent bankers
- The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003
- Austerity in response to the Great Financial Crisis (GFC)
Friedman, infamously, was among the most prominent cheerleaders for these ‘mad’ policies. Friedman loves ‘globalization’ and the most far reaching, dominating, and harmful form of it is global finance. Friedman has a ‘mad’ view about financial crises and globalization. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (1990: 462), he admitted that deregulation and globalization would cause immense harm. He was writing in the heart of the savings and loan debacle. “Global financial crises will be the norm in this coming era.” He added to emphasize that point: “crises will be endemic” (emphasis added).
Friedman was correct to admit that the policies he cheered would produce “endemic” financial crises. What he did not discuss was the “endemic” financial crises’ costs. He did not discuss how we should prevent the crises or respond to them when they occurred. Professor Alexander Field of Santa Clara University published a study in 2017 that estimated the U.S. cumulative output losses over the course of the GFC and its recovery as $41.7 trillion (Table I, p. 95). A trillion is a thousand billion. The figure for the EU should be substantially larger because its infliction of austerity slowed its recovery.
The U.S. figure, however, would have been smaller had President Obama not made his infamous pivot towards austerity and the “Grand Bargain” that he sought to negotiate with Republicans to weaken the safety net. It was really the Grand Betrayal of his campaign promises and the American people. Friedman does not want to discuss his praise of the three “De’s” and the “race to the bottom” between the City of London and Wall Street that created the intense “criminogenic environment” in both financial centers and drove the control fraud and predation epidemics that drove the GFC. Friedman does not want to discuss his praise of EU austerity and Obama’s effort to negotiate the Grand Betrayal.
Blair, Clinton and Gore, Obama, and Friedman went “mad” long before Obama sought to negotiate the Grand Betrayal. Consider Friedman’s admission that the trends he champions are certain to cause “endemic” global financial crises. That is a ‘mad’ trend. We desperately need to reverse it. The S&L regulators contained the ‘debacle’ before it caused any economic crisis, but it cost $150 billion to resolve. We did so by reversing the deregulatory trend. The Enron era frauds, at peak, caused a $7 trillion dollar loss of market capitalization and helped spark a moderate recession. The GFC caused a $41.7 trillion loss in U.S. output, a larger loss in EU output, a global financial crisis, and the Great Recession. If the trend continues, the “endemic” global financial crises will cause catastrophic harm. What is Friedman’s policy answer to such a devastating trend? Friedman gives this sage advice in his column decrying the UK going ‘mad.’
What do the most effective leaders today have in common? They wake up every morning and ask themselves the same questions: “What world am I living in? What are the biggest trends in this world? And how do I educate my citizens about this world and align my policies so more of my people can get the best out of these trends and cushion the worst?”
What Friedman describes and praises is mad. It is mad to treat a “trend” as inevitable. Trends are the product of institutional factors that create incentives. Institutional structures – the three “de’s” plus a race to the bottom creates the perverse incentives that create an environment so criminogenic that it will produce “control fraud” and “control predation” epidemics so harmful that they will make global financial crises “endemic.” The “most effective leaders” would never accept “trends” that were so harmful. They would work on an emergency basis to end the trends producing “endemic” global financial crises.
Similarly, the “trends” on climate change are catastrophic. It is “mad” to accept those trends – we must urgently reverse those trends.
Friedman pretends to be vigorous on climate, but his own words demonstrate that he thinks the goal should be to “cushion the worst” harms. He wants to allow a suicidal trend to continue. That is mad.
“Effective leaders” do not ask: “what world am I living in?” They ask: “what world should we make?” We make our world through the democratic process when we create our institutions and our rule of law. When we create a criminogenic or predatory environment, we ensure that fraud and predation will become epidemic and crises “endemic.” It is mad to do so, yet that is what we have been doing for nearly 40 years. It is mad to continue a mad policy when we see it produce endemic and growing financial crises that cause catastrophic harm. Friedman is the world’s most willing apologist for the plutocrats that create these perverse environments. He celebrates their alleged brilliance and claims they are spurring huge gains in productivity. Data destroys his apologies. Productivity in the EU and the U.S. has fallen sharply during the period we have been making finance ever more criminogenic. That, of course, is what economists and criminologists would predict. Thinking that by eroding the rule of law to the point that we have made global financial crises “endemic” is a good way to spur economic growth is mad. Austerity and public bailouts of fraudulent financial firms is, however, a spectacularly effective policy to aid plutocrats and kleptocrats.
Friedman’s heroes and their ‘mad’ neoliberal policies made the world so criminogenic that global financial crises became “endemic.” Friedman’s heroes and their ‘mad’ decision to invade Iraq was one part farce and twelve parts tragedy. President Bush, of course, leads the list of those who were ‘mad’ when it came to Iraq. Again, the tragedy is that the leaders of both major parties in the U.S. and the UK shared this madness. Friedman was their most notorious cheerleader and apologist for their “muscular” military policies that invading Iraq epitomized. His ‘mad’ policies, 16 years later, continue to cause immense suffering and disrupt the Middle East. Friedman has a bro-crush on Blair, so his trademark obsequiousness to powerful males reached nauseating levels in his writings about Blair.
Two years ago, Friedman wrote a column praising Blair as the exemplar of the ideal leader, but admitting that Blair was enormously “unpopular” among UK citizens. The UK public despises Blair for championing the four acts of madness that produced the GFC, a ‘mad’ response (austerity plus bailouts of the City’s fraudulent and predatory bankers) to the GFC that made it far more damaging, particularly to the working class, and the catastrophic invasion of Iraq. The UK citizenry also detests Blair for his greed since leaving office in becoming wealthy by shilling for the world’s worst dictators and for his hypocrisy in presenting that odious behavior as ‘charitable.’ (Yes, he continued to copy Bill Clinton’s tactics after leaving office.) Blair got as wrong as it is possible to get wrong the six great issues he faced.
- Blair optimized the criminogenic policies that produced the epidemics of control fraud and predation that drove the GFC.
- He responded to that catastrophe by bailing out the biggest and worst bankers and banks.
- He failed to hold accountable those elite crooks and predators for their actions or even ‘claw back’ their gains from fraud and predation.
- He and his successor he chose created the self-inflicted wound of austerity that further enriched the elites and impoverished the working class.
- He championed and was the leading defender of the invasion of Iraq
- He disgraced his Nation after leaving office.
Friedman’s Juvenile Enthusiasm for ‘Muscular Diplomacy’ (Invading other Nations)
Friedman ignores the reasons his nation despises Blair, except for Blair’s push to invade Iraq and defending it even when the facts proved that the pretexts for invasion were falsehoods and the horrific harm of the invasion became evident. Friedman, following our family rule that is impossible to compete with unintentional self-parody, presented Blair in and April 22, 2005 column as a martyr torched by an ignorant public for his courageous and ‘principled’ championing of invading Iraq. By that date, Friedman knew that the pretexts for the invasion of Iraq were falsehoods, that the war had caused catastrophic harm, and that invading Iraq had harmed the allied efforts in Afghanistan. The invasion had failed to produce a movement to real democracy in the Mideast, a fantasy that Friedman promoted. It was a strategic gift to Iran, which Friedman hates.
In deciding to throw in Britain’s lot with President Bush on the Iraq war, Mr. Blair not only defied the overwhelming antiwar sentiment of his own party, but public opinion in Britain generally. “Blair risked complete self-immolation on a principle,” noted Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a pro-Democratic U.S. think tank.
Neither Marshall nor Friedman presented an honest ‘principle’ one advances by invading another nation on the basis of fake facts and turning the nation you invade into a vast charnel house. The U.S. and the UK lost lives and treasure and the invasion was a geopolitical blunder of epic proportions for the U.S. and UK.
Friedman’s claimed ‘principle’ was actually despicable propaganda.
Mr. Blair took a principled position to depose Saddam and keep Britain tightly aligned with America. He did so, among other reasons, because he believed that the advance of freedom and the defeat of fascism — whether Islamo-fascism or Nazi fascism — were quintessential and indispensable “liberal” foreign policy goals.
Saddam Hussein was many bad things, but he neither a ‘fascist’ nor driven by ‘Islamic’ views. He was notoriously secular. There is no such thing as ‘Islamo-fascism.’ That was a phrase invented by bigots to attack Islam. There are scores of anti-democratic world leaders. Deciding to invade and ‘liberate’ nations only when their populations were overwhelmingly Islamic is the opposite of “principle” – it is prejudice powered by propaganda.
Friedman’s April 22, 2015 column had to abandon the lies that formed the pretext for the invasion of Iraq. There were no ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD) and Iraqis government had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. Friedman was happy to supply new lies (‘Islamo-fascism’). By 2015, Friedman was at his most despicable and juvenile.
In sum, Tony Blair has redefined British liberalism. He has made liberalism about embracing, managing and cushioning globalization, about embracing and expanding freedom — through muscular diplomacy where possible and force where necessary — and about embracing fiscal discipline.
Seriously, ‘real men’ (gender intentional) embrace “muscular diplomacy.” We “expand[ed] freedom” by invading Iraq! In 2005, when he knew that the pretexts for the invasion were lies and the invasion had produced a catastrophe, Friedman enthused like a 16 year old boy about the masculine joys of “muscular diplomacy” (invasion) and chastised Democrats for not being sufficiently enthusiastic about invading Iraq.
[T]heir own ambivalence toward muscular diplomacy, cost Democrats just enough votes in the American center to allow a mistake-prone Bush team to squeak by in 2004.
The Friedman doctrine is that Democrats should have beaten the “mistake-prone” Bush by enthusiastically embracing Bush’s worst mistake – invading Iraq. How did that sentence not sound “mad” to Friedman when he wrote it?
Friedman is the exemplar of our family rule that it is impossible to compete with unintentional self-parody. He reached his lowest level, literally blasphemous, in a March 16, 2013 column claiming that Blair invaded Iraq in an act of selfless religious devotion to cure the ills of the world.
What does Tony Blair get that George Bush doesn’t? The only way I can explain it is by a concept from the Kabbalah called ”tikkun olam.” It means, ”to repair the world.” If you listened to Tony Blair’s speeches in recent weeks they contain something so strikingly absent from Mr. Bush’s. Tony Blair constantly puts the struggle for a better Iraq within a broader context of moral concerns. Tony Blair always leaves you with the impression that for him the Iraq war is just one hammer and one nail in an effort to do tikkun olam, to repair the world.
I leave the disproof of this blasphemy to the reader.
The Faux ‘Progressive’ Faux ‘Think’ Tank and Faux Growth
The obvious question is what the “Progressive Policy Institute” is that shared Friedman’s masculine joy about invading Iraq – a quintessentially anti-progressive and “mad” policy. It is the New Democrats’ and New Labour’s anti-progressive shop. At all times, Blair copied Clinton. A 2015 Guardian article demonstrated PPI’s message discipline and its blindness to reality. The PPI talisman was “growth.”
At Columbia University in New York this weekend, the Progressive Policy Institute, which helped Bill Clinton and Tony Blair pioneer so-called third way politics in the 1990s, held a closed-door strategy session for congressional staffers that was designed to find ways of promoting growth.
“There is no question that the prevailing temper of the Democratic party is populist: strongly sceptical of what we like to call capitalism and angry about the perceived power of the monied elite in politics,” said PPI president and founder Will Marshall.
“But inequality is not the biggest problem we face: it is symptomatic of the biggest problem we face, which is slow growth.”
Al From, a leading figure of the centre-left who chaired the Democratic Leadership Council during the first Clinton presidency, argues that a focus on inequality, though understandable after the banking crash, risks driving all candidates too far from policies that would promote growth.
“Culturally, the country has progressed a lot and we are not going back,” says From, who points especially to changing attitudes to gay marriage and women’s rights. “But the question is whether a major political party can sustain itself solely on cultural issues and can have a real shot at governing, if it doesn’t have a growth agenda as part of its programme.”
Representative Kind, the head of the House caucus of New Democrats and a strong Hillary supporter, was willing to give a quotation explaining that Hillary was lying about her opposition to Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in order to deceive Democratic primary voters.
“I’d lie if I said I wasn’t disappointed with the statement that she made on TPP,” says Representative Kind. “Everyone knew where she was on that and where she will be, but given the necessities of the moment and a tough Democratic primary, she felt she needed to go there initially.”
Al From, the long-time leader of the New Democrats, was willing to quoted presenting an even more cynical illustration of New Democrat realpolitik and another ode to growth.
Paradoxically, some New Democrats may even relish a Sanders resurgence, pointing to the similar experience of Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour party, which they claim will ultimately prove the folly of pandering to the left.
“If we are going to be a governing party we have to [focus more on economic growth], but there is not going to be any pressure in the presidential process until we lose an election or two,” concludes From.
The New Democrats’ problems include nominating their candidate (Hillary) and losing to Donald Trump. The bigger problem is that they think that we should tolerate extraordinary “income inequality” to “promote growth.” What has happened to U.S. growth rates as inequality surged? Growth has fallen sharply. Epidemics of control fraud and predation cause (real) growth to become negative. Bubbles hide this reality by creating data that are nonsense, but once the bubble collapses, the real economic situation emerges. The collapse eviscerates growth, but the expansion of the bubble means allocates credit inefficiently, which harms growth. Austerity gratuitously increases the lost growth. The key to preventing this lost growth is an effective rule of law preventing the epidemics of control fraud and predation.
The New Democrats and Blair are terrible on each of these essential prerequisites of real economic growth. Bill Clinton was exceptionally lucky in the timing of his presidency. His supposed economic success was the product of the immense dot.com bubble and the even larger housing bubble. The housing bubble expanded throughout his eight years in office. President Bush continued Clinton and Gore’s assault on the rule of law by making even deeper cuts in federal banking regulators and ‘preempting’ state attorney generals’ efforts to stop the three epidemics of control fraud (plus predation) that drove the GFC. Clinton and Bush made the same promise – ‘deregulation’ would spur a sharp increase in growth. It did the opposite. An effective rule of law – and regulation is an essential aspect of that rule of law – is essential to produce real growth. When you strip away the bubbles, you strip away the Clinton and Bush growth and see the reality.
“The U.S. figure, however, would have been smaller had President Obama not made his infamous pivot towards austerity and the “Grand Bargain” that he sought to negotiate with Republicans to weaken the safety net. It was really the Grand Betrayal of his campaign promises and the American people.”
There are “square deals” and bad deals. You don’t achieve justice by cutting the baby in half. The Democrats “pragmatic” policies of appeasement helped bring Trump to the White House. That’s very much different from seeking honorable solutions that most people are able to live with.
“He and his successor he chose created the self-inflicted wound of austerity that further enriched the elites and impoverished the working class.”
Is there perhaps a “pecking order” gene, that absent strong support and awareness for justice, nudges us to abuse those deprived of power? The poor, the weakened elderly, children, the disabled, and social minorities are traditional targets for such abuse, and in a sufficiently laissez faire society, people are inclined to look the other way. Apart from vainglorious self-celebrating of narcissistic bullies, this seems like a formula for an ugly life experience for all involved. Many anti-utopian examples exist in the world and in history, but this chaffs the empathetic strands of our nature; and sometimes social progress is made. It’s just that the battle is never final, and vigilance, courage, and effort can take no more than momentary rests. Power tends to corrupt unless we stand against it, and up for one another.