Inflation and the making of macroeconomic policy in Australia, 1945-85

Everything you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask…

My PhD thesis is now available here.


This thesis traces the impact of inflation on the making of macroeconomic policy in Australia between the end of World War II and the mid-1980s. I take issue with accounts of policy change that focus primarily on ideological change on the part of policymakers. Instead, I present policy as strategic activity within a complex, evolving economic system which is not centred on policy, and in which, therefore, policy does not have a monopoly on initiative.

I draw on Marxian state theory and Tinbergian theory of economic policy to explore why counter-inflationary policy emerged as an imperative for the capitalist state and how it came to play a dominant role in organising macroeconomic policy in general. I also focus in detail on the development of central banking in Australia, drawing on post-Keynesian structuralist monetary theory. The body of the thesis is divided into two parts, one dealing with ‘the long 1950s’ and the other ‘the long 1970s’. Both are treated as periods of transition, rather than of stable policy regimes.

In the ‘long 1950s’ macroeconomic policy was brand new, and the authorities had to build an effective system of macroeconomic management, sometimes against the active opposition of other groups. A contradiction developed between full employment and price stability, and the latter was prioritised because of limits set by the balance-of-payments under the Bretton Woods international monetary system.

The ‘long 1970s’ was a period of crisis and distributional class conflict. The break-up of Bretton Woods and the movement towards flexible exchange rates changed the form of constraint but continued to impose a counter-inflationary imperative. Monetarism provided an organising and legitimating principle for extremely restrictive macroeconomic policy and the abandonment of full employment as a policy goal, even though policymakers were sceptical of its propositions. Finally, I discuss the movement towards deregulation as something which strengthened rather than undermined the central bank’s power to pursue monetary policy.

Back into the community

The average payout ratio is 70 per cent, 70 per cent of the $21 billion [profit the big four banks make] goes back into the community. There is a good story there.

– National Australia Bank chief executive Cameron Clyne to the Australian Financial Review, November 22, 2010 [Matthew Drummond: “Clyne turns on peers over banks row”]

It’s surely a sign of the regression of political discourse when a bank chief making a play for ‘the nice guy of banking’ title thinks the size of dividend payouts makes a good case for profits.

Published in: on 22 November, 2010 at 8:11 am  Leave a Comment  

Sectoral evolution in Australia

The Reserve Bank’s Bulletin this month includes an interesting little paper drawing an outline of the evolution of the structure of production and employment in Australia over the last few decades. [PDF] Staff economists Ellis Connolly and Christine Lewis provide no surprises – just the clarity of a long view with basic stats. (All graphs below are from the paper.)

Just about everybody works in services these days – more than 85 per cent of the employed workforce. That share has risen fairly steadily since the end of World War II, from just over 55 per cent. In the post-war period the growth of the service sector picked up the slack from the declining rate of growth in agriculture; since the late 1960s it has taken over from manufacturing too. In absolute terms, this is a story of service sector expansion rather than decline elsewhere: net employment growth since the war has been almost all about services. Mining has remained steady at around 1 per cent of employment.

When it comes to output shares rather than employment, the picture looks different. Manufacturing and agriculture shares in nominal value added are about the same as their shares of employment. But mining’s share is much bigger, at 7 per cent over the past decade, while services’ share is lower at 78 per cent. Mining is extremely capital intensive, and hence accounts for a much bigger share of value added and investment than its share in employment would suggest, while services tend to be more labour intensive.

When a sectoral category makes up around four-fifths of the economy, it loses much of its usefulness as a category. Connolly and Lewis break services down into five sub-sectors, and the data begin to get more interesting. The distribution and utilities sector – i.e., services related to moving and selling goods, energy and communications – has declined in its employment share since the 1960s. (It would be interesting to see a further breakdown of a category that includes everything from wastewater to supermarkets and internet service providers.) The employment share of social services enjoyed a great leap in the 1970s – and especially the Whitlam years – from around 13 per cent to 20 per cent, and climbed more slowly over the next three decades to reach 25 per cent, to become the largest service sector today. This includes education and health care, public and private, as well as public administration, police and so on.

Business services (including finance, insurance and real estate) have grown more steadily, but especially rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s before stabilising at around 17 per cent of employment over the 2000s. Personal services – restaurants, hotels, cinemas, etc. – had a modest burst of expansion in employment share in the 1980s and early 1990s, taking them from a steady 10 per cent to a steady 12-13 per cent since. Construction’s share has remained between 6 and 9 per cent since the 1970s, though responsible for much of the growth in the share of services as a whole over the 2000s.

Although these shifts are long-run trends, they have run faster at some times than others. The most interesting thing Connolly and Lewis do with this data is to generate ‘structural change indices’ to show the waves of change. These indices measure the average movement in industry and state shares of nominal and real output, employment and investment, to give a simple indicator of structural change over the previous five years. Such a measure is only as meaningful of the categories into which the industry structure is divided – it clearly doesn’t capture movements within the categories. The figure shows two major waves of structural change since the 1960s – one during the 1970s, and one in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (Note that the indices are backward-looking in that each year’s figures compare the average shares of the previous five years with the average shares of the five years before that.)

In terms of real output and employment, the last decade has apparently been more structurally stable than the previous three decades, though not as stable as the 1960s. Things look different in nominal terms, largely because of the effect of booming commodity prices on the value of mining output. Connolly and Lewis expect the commodities price boom to have a delayed impact on the structure real output through the great increase in mining investment over the last half of the 2000s.

The structural change index for employment shows only one wave of accelerated change, rather than the two apparent with output, peaking at the turn of the 1980s, though never returning to the low level of the early 1960s. The 1970s were, of course, the decade that ended full employment. Connolly and Lewis make no connections between the structural shifts they chart and macroeconomic developments, but there would certainly be connections to draw. The reconfiguration of the last quarter of the 20th century was far from painless: manufacturing job growth collapsed long before services growth replaced them, and even in the 2000s unemployment remained well above that of the postwar period.

Connolly and Lewis include ‘economic reform’ among the factors behind the structural changes – in particular, deregulation of service industries and reduction of trade protection. It would be wrong to overemphasise the impact of policy, however – it probably had more impact on the timing of the ‘waves’ than on the long-run processes themselves. The growth of low labour cost manufacturing in East Asia inevitably undercut the profitability of many kinds of manufacturing here, while the proportion of incomes spent on consumer services has long shown a tendency to rise with those incomes.

Although mining accounts directly for a small proportion of output and a tiny proportion of employment in Australia, it is now responsible for more than half the value of exports. The conceptual framework used by Connolly and Lewis has its limitations in understanding the meaning of mining. First, as they note themselves, the sectoral break-down they use misses the cross-sectoral linkages through which mining activity has its multiplied effects: through services – especially construction – and manufacturing oriented towards the mining industry. The statistics on the inter-state shifts in population and output towards Western Australia and Queensland capture these effects of the mining boom better.

Second, to talk of ‘the structure of the Australian economy’ may give a misleading impression of the coherence of the economic system at a national level. To what extent does it make sense to think of mining exports as ‘national’ exports, when they are undertaken by multinationals funded primarily by international capital, employing relatively few people here? In the days of a fixed exchange rate, with foreign exchange centralised in the hands of the Reserve Bank, it was more natural to think of exports earning the currency needed to pay for imports. Now, there is no centralised nexus of international trade. This is not to say that mining is an enclave completely isolated from the mainly urban economy of the Southeast, but that the links are complex. Perhaps the most direct effect of the mining boom on the living standards of Sydneysiders and Melburnians comes through its effect on the exchange rate, cheapening foreign goods and services. The tax take from mining is another – and still a relatively undeveloped resource.

Published in: on 23 September, 2010 at 11:01 am  Leave a Comment  

The lucky country

The third annual report of the Workplace Research Centre’s Australia at Work project came out today. It’s a longitudinal study of the reported experiences of more than 6,000 workers. This year’s was bound to be interesting because it reports the effects of the ‘crisis’ over the last year. Apparently falling interest rates and petrol prices, as well as the stimulus package, have had a broader impact than un(der)employment:

The event that arguably had the most impact on the Australian economy and labour market in 2008 was the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in October. While expectations that the Australian economy would go into a technical recession were unmet, the impact was felt through a rise in unemployment and reports of further reductions in working hours. However, this report finds that only small sections of the workforce have endured negative impacts from the economic downturn. Around 8 per cent of all respondents report losing a job in the last year, and around two-fifths of these people are now in a job. While the levels of job insecurity remain very low among Australian employees, there has been an increase between 2008 and 2009, from 7 to 12 per cent. Insecurity is higher among private sector employees, at 14 per cent in 2009.

There have been some positive changes that have resulted from the economic downturn. While reports of increased living costs peaked in the first half of 2008, the GFC saw Australian interest rates plummet, petrol prices return to previous levels and the Government distribute a series of stimulatory cash hand-outs. The ease on costs of living is reflected in respondents’ reports of living standards. The proportion of people finding it ‘very difficult’ or ‘difficult’ to get by on their current household income has dropped from 20 per cent in 2008 to 16 per cent in 2009. Correspondingly, those ‘living comfortably’ or ‘doing really well’ has increased from 41 to 45 per cent in the same period. [p. i]

Sydney Morning Herald op-eds translated into formal logic

The first in an occasional series. Now I don’t really know my syllogisms from my enthymemes, so further translation may be required. Sydney Morning Herald op-eds do not necessarily lend themselves to a logical treatment, and I have taken the liberty of supplying some unstated but necessary propositions. In other cases, I have unable to discern the missing propositions and have accordingly left them out. Unfortunately, this means not all premises lead to conclusions and not all conclusions derive from premises.

Elizabeth Farrelly, 19 October, 2009: Wake up, Greens, and savour the organic pork belly

1. Books about organic cooking ought to be literary and aesthetic delights, and contain jokes.

2. A book I bought about organic cooking turned out to be nether literarily nor aesthetically delightful, nor did it contain jokes.

3. The nature of books about organic cooking reflects the green agenda.

Therefore: 4. The green agenda is flawed by its lack of literary and aesthetic delight, particularly in regard to jokes.

5. The green agenda is naturally conservative.

6. The voters of the Higgins electorate are naturally conservative.

7. The Green Party is radical.

8. At the upcoming Higgins by-election, the winner will be the Party whose character reflects the views of the voters of the Higgins electorate.

9. The Green Party should attempt to win the upcoming Higgins by-election and future elections of its type.

Therefore: 10. The Green Party should stop being radical and become naturally conservative.

11. A clear sign of the Green Party becoming naturally conservative would be the appearance of a recipe for organic pork belly in future books about organic cooking.

Published in: on 20 November, 2009 at 10:37 am  Comments (4)  

Choleric Economic Man


Recessions are part of human nature, says Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens [pdf]:

No country has managed to eliminate the business cycle. No country ever will, because the cycle is driven by human psychology, which finds expression in financial behaviour as well as ‘real’ behaviour. We are seemingly just made – ‘hardwired’, as some would put it – in a way that makes us prone to bouts of optimism and pessimism. Occasionally, we are prone to periods of myopic disregard for risk followed, in short order, by an almost complete unwillingness to accept risk. [p. 2]

‘Behavioural finance’ is one of the new big things in economics. It ditches the assumption of rationality but keeps the methodological individualism. 

Better explanations for booms and busts ditch the methodological individualism, and it follows from that that psychological states don’t matter so much. Rationality we can actually keep, but (1) bureaucratic rather than personal rationality, (2) embodied in a variety of fundamentally different kinds of institution, and (3) bearing in mind that ‘rationality’ does not mean ‘omniscience’ and certainly not ‘knowledge of the future’. (The last might go without saying, but the term has slipped a long way in economic theory.)

Published in: on 9 November, 2009 at 10:40 am  Leave a Comment  

Social democratic utopianism and capitalist realism

This is an essay I wrote for a local newsletter. It’s fairly long and I thought about breaking it up across a few posts, but what the hell…

King Dork

King Dork

‘Social democracy’ means a lot of different things to different people, and its meanings have slipped around over the decades. Once upon a time it could be synonymous with socialism; nowadays it is a title claimed by the most moderate governments and some of the drippiest Third Way intellectuals of the ‘centre-left’. Further left, it still works as a rallying point for more radical energies. In the past, a definition of the social democratic project might have been something like ‘the project of reforming capitalism in the interests of the working class’. That is broad enough to cover a fair spectrum of radicalism, but still distinguishes it from liberal reform projects.

Nowadays, however, self-proclaimed social democrats are much more likely to speak for people in general, rather than a class, though perhaps with special reference to those from ‘socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds’, women, and ethnic minorities. Environmental concerns are likely to be central, with the likes of Clive Hamilton and David McKnight arguing explicitly against a preoccupation with ‘deprivation’ or class. It is now more difficult to draw a line between social democracy and liberalism. Though spectrum of radicalism remains, today’s social democrats might be defined broadly in terms of a desire to ‘restrain the market’, though often enough they are at pains to emphasise their understanding of the efficiency of the market in its proper place.

Our illustrious prime minister channels this rhetoric, writing in his February Monthly essay of “that particular brand of free-market fundamentalism, extreme capitalism and excessive greed which became the economic orthodoxy of our time.” [p.20] “Not for the first time in history,” he goes on to say,

the international challenge for social democrats is to save capitalism from itself: to recognise the great strengths of open, competitive markets while rejecting the extreme capitalism and unrestrained greed that have perverted so much of the global financial system in recent times… The second challenge for social democrats is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater… Social democracy’s continuing philosophical claim to political legitimacy is its capacity to balance the private and the public, profit and wages, the market and the state. That philosophy once again speaks with clarity and cogency to the challenges of our time. [pp. 20-21]

Whether Rudd can speak for social democracy is a question we’ll come back to. In any case, in that essay he gives a pretty good impression of a real social democrat. He, or whatever aide pulled the thing together, knew the buttons to push. And the fact that this stuff was said publicly by the prime minister seems to many a sign the the ideological wind has changed. If Rudd is a virtuosic opportunist – and that is a prerequisite for the job – until a few months before it had been more opportune for him to describe himself again and again as an ‘economic conservative’. But the global financial crisis apparently showed that economic rationalism, or neoliberalism, or whatever you want to call it, was rubbish. To quote the learned leader again:

The time has come, off the back of the current crisis, to proclaim that the great neo-liberal experiment of the past 30 years has failed, that the emperor has no clothes. Neo-liberalism, and the free-market fundamentalism it has produced, has been revealed as little more than personal greed dressed up as an economic philosophy… Others have argued that we are seeing a more fundamental regime change: the third in postwar history, starting with the Keynesian model, from the 1940s to the ’70s; the neo-liberal ascendancy, from 1978 to 2008; followed by a new regime, which is currently being shaped… [S]eismic changes are underway, fault lines yielding to fractures which in time may yield to even deeper tectonic shifts. Neither governments nor the peoples they represent any longer have confidence in an unregulated system of extreme capitalism. [pp. 25, 29]

That the ALP was in power for much of the period of ‘neoliberal ascendancy’ is inconvenient for Rudd’s claim that “the political home of neo-liberalism in Australia is, of course, the Liberal Party itself” [p. 27]. (Hawke and Keating, he claims, were ‘economic modernisers’, not neoliberals.) But it’s not necessarily a problem for the broader argument: social democrats who kept the faith through all those years in the wilderness can explain Labor’s apostasy in terms of its own ideological slide. Labor moved with the zeitgeist; partly because it was enthusiastically taken in, like Keating, and partly out of electoral necessity, because the media was taken in. Now the zeitgeist moves back. (more…)

1.5 Conclusion

Alright, having so much trouble fitting all my material on inflation theory into a couple of thousand words, so I’ve decided to make it a whole new chapter. The upside is that this chapter is finished! The downside is that all the chapter references above are now wrong! Here’s the summary of the chapter as a whole. You may notice some subtle differences of emphasis from the body of the chapter, in point #4 in particular; that’s partly thanks to the helpful discussions in the comments here. Eventually I’ll rework the earlier sections a little, correspondingly. But in general, I’m pretty happy with this chapter. Hopefully the next one will come faster.

A draft thesis section. This is a draft of an unfinished document, please don’t quote without getting in touch first. Quoting in blogs is fine.

Previous section / Next section

In this chapter I have set out my approach to understanding economic policy and its historical development within the broader social structure of capitalism. To summarise:

  1. Economic policy exists at the boundary between two relatively independent systems, the state and the economy. These two systems are only relatively independent, because each is necessary to the other’s reproduction, and they are not even institutionally separate, in that, for example, the economic system depends everywhere on a system of laws and their enforcement, while state activities involve the use of money and wage-labour.
  2. The capitalist state has historically evolved certain structures and processes which deal with dysfunctions in the economic system, and thus modified the way in which the two structures reproduce themselves as a whole. Two fields in which state involvement has been especially important are the reproduction of labour-power and the management of money. This evolution can be understood in more-or-less functionalist terms, though it is of course driven by conscious political activity – within legislative, executive and judicial structures – focused on solving specific ‘problems’, which dysfunctions appear as politically. This is definitely not to say the process is driven by a singular state subject.
  3. However, in the course of the Great Depression and the Second World War, something like a unified strategic actor in the field of economic policy emerged (though the unity is of course contingent and can break down). It was unified partly on the basis of new macroeconomic theory which posited it as such an actor, calling for a rational and combined use of certain state structures which had already developed independently within the economic system for other reasons. It involved especially the use of state budgets (fiscal policy), central banking (monetary policy) and arbitration system (wages policy) as instruments.
  4. The work of Jan Tinbergen on economic policy illustrates well the ‘point of view’ from the ‘subjectivity’ of economic policy. The economic system appears as a problem to be solved – in fact, even abstractly represented as a system of equations. However, the contradictions of the system – especially those arising from the conflicting aims of classes and other groups with the social power to pursue them – mean that it may lack a solution. Contradictions can reappear at a policy level, with instruments torn in different directions. This can motivate policy attempts to restructure its own apparatus and to reshape the economic system itself to attack the social power bases of the groups in pursuit of functionality. Meanwhile, groups themselves are actively seeking to improve their own strategic position. This may include attempts to use political power to restrain or direct policy itself. However, the fact that policy has come to be held responsible for the functionality of the system as a whole places powerful selective pressures on political possibilities.
  5. My use of this conception of economic policy to explain the development of counter-inflation policy in Australia between 1945 and 1985 is in sharp contrast to the standard neoclassical ‘new macroeconomic consensus’s’ narrative of its own emergence, as essentially the triumph of correct views over error. Here I briefly pointed to some problems in the standard narrative, and signalled some aspects of my own story, which will be expanded upon in the coming chapters.

1.4 Inflation as a policy problem

So a longer delay than I hoped in putting up the rest of the first chapter. Partly that’s because we’ve had visitors, but mainly because I’ve found it tough to whittle down the huge mess of a draft. This was a tough section to write because it summarises later chapters, and it’s hard to find a balance between incomprehensible density and taking up too much space with stuff that will be repeated later. I have ended up leaning towards the dense because all this stuff will be expanded on in the substantive chapters. The density shows especially in the last couple of paragraphs here; it may be better to just cut them and leave to the later chapters. Two more sections still to come, which is going to make this a long chapter – and it may end up being split in two.

A draft thesis section. This is a draft of an unfinished document, please don’t quote without getting in touch first. Quoting in blogs is fine.

Previous section / Next section

December 19, 1969: Friedman's curve shifts upward

December 19, 1969: Friedman's curve shifts upward

Understanding inflation as a policy problem requires an understanding both of its causes – at least as perceived by policymakers – and of the relationships of these causes with policy instruments and other policy goals. If there were a clear chain of influence between a policy instrument and the target of a stable price level, and no competing demands on the instrument, inflation would present no particular problem. The message of the monetarists is that such is the case: the only barrier to price stability is a failure to understand inflation’s nature as “always and everywhere” a question of the money supply (a clear chain of policy influence) and/or that policy can have no long-run effect on unemployment (no competing demands on the instrument). From such a perspective, inflation is a problem only because policymakers misunderstand it – or because they pander to a public that misunderstands it.

In the ‘new macroeconomic consensus’ of the 1990s and 2000s, the monetarist preoccupation with the money supply has been replaced by a focus on the ‘correct’ interest rate. [Arestis, 2007; Arestis and Sawyer, 2008] But the conception of the history of counter-inflation policy – as the eventual triumph of correctness over error – remains. Inflation is explained as a result of what the authorities failed to do. This is the centrepiece of a new crop of neoclassical research into the stagflationary episode of the 1970s. Despite significant debate on the details among this recent literature, Cecchetti et al [2007: 8] note that “[a]ll of these accounts view the Great Inflation as a result of monetary policy error and the Inflation Stabilisation as a restoration of more effective monetary policy.” For example, Nelson [2004] puts forward the ‘monetary policy neglect hypothesis’, while from a different perspective Cecchetti et al [2007: 42] themselves explain ‘the Great Inflation’ in terms of policy deviations from the Taylor rule:

Summing up the international comparisons, three of the four countries exhibit a qualitatively similar pattern in which deviations from a simple policy rule in the 1970s and early 1980s are consistent with the timing of the increases and declines in trend inflation (and its volatility). The peak in the inflation trend and the undershooting of interest rates relative to those implied by a Taylor rule generally occurred around the mid-1970s. There also is some evidence that increases in deviations from policy rules (in an accommodative direction) accompanied increases in trend inflation in the early 1970s.

Yet the Taylor rule – that a central bank should set interest rates according to a formula linking them to the output gap and the distance between actual and target inflation – was not formulated until 1993, as The Economist [2007] dryly notes in reporting on this research. To ‘explain’ the 1970s inflation in this way shows a great deal of confidence that economists have finally worked out how inflation works for once and for all. As we will see, the notion that “the mystery element in monetary policy” [Coombs, 1971 (1954)] has finally been cleared up has been a recurring theme in economic thought. Time and again, paradigms have been knocked over and pre-Enlightenment history re-written as a tragicomedy of grievous, incomprehensible error.

My own story is very different. First, I recognise that inflation has no single cause; rather, it develops from the conjuncture of a number of conditions. It may be argued that this is implicit in the ‘new consensus’ literature with its acknowledgement that ‘potential output’ (i.e., the level of real output associated with a stable rate of inflation) and the corresponding rate of unemployment are not fixed, but depend on factors such as labour productivity, the institutional structure of the labour market, and so on. However, the main point of these models is precisely to fix all these diverse factors in place, at least ‘in the short run’, and in focusing the attention on a few variables, the structure itself is reified and slips into the theoretical unconscious. The apparatus of the output gap, the ‘non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment’ (NAIRU), and the Taylor rule form an assemblage of a number of factors which could be pulled apart and reassembled in different ways. The particular form it takes represents a decision about which factors to take as given – permanently or in the short run – and which to treat as variables.

Second, I argue that the changing way in which the theoretical structure was assembled not only informed policy but was strongly influenced by the development of policy itself. The material shape of the state policy apparatus within the economic system, and policy strategy in using it, were among the complex of factors determining inflation. For theory, what was considered a constant, what was an exogenous variable, and what was a policy variable depended partly on policy capacity. Or, rather, it depended, on what was perceived as policy capacity, which was subject to dispute. Furthermore, given that price stability was one of a number of policy goals, there was the possibility that policy capacity that could potentially be brought to bear on inflation would not be fully available, given inflation’s interrelationship with other goals. In particular, I argue that inflation theory developed alongside counter-inflation policy in the tension between price stability, full employment and ‘external balance’. Finally, the field on which these tensions played out reflected not only the developing capacities and strategies of policy, but also those of other social actors. All these factors influenced the structure of inflation theory, which in turn informed policy strategy.

So, while my narrative could be read as a long pre-history of the ‘new macroeconomic consensus’ which finally cohered in the 1990s, it is not teleological, while that consensus’s own origin myth is: the consensus was right all along, even before it was formulated, and economists and policymakers eventually realised it. Instead, I present a narrative of a development that could have been different. Policy change comes from contradictions, both internal to policy and external clashes of policy with the defence (and offence) lines of other group-actors. Consequently, also, there is no suggestion in my story that policy history has ended with the consensus: my excavation of the past points to contradictions which still exist below the surface today. (See Chapter 9.)

The non-expectations-augmented Phillips curve relating (inversely) unemployment and inflation is the beginning of the new consensus story, which presents it as the pre-monetarist Keynesian theory of inflation. In my own narrative, it is only the half-way point, already representing a conglomeration of factors which had previously been theoretically separate. It rose to prominence in the 1960s because it appeared to unify two strands of Keynesian inflation theory: ‘demand-pull’ theory focusing on inflation’s relationship with effective demand, and ‘cost-push’ theory centred on its relationship with money-wage growth. These two strands of theory matched separate avenues of policy influence: the first implicated aggregate demand management through fiscal and monetary policy, while the second implicated wages policy. The rise of the Phillips curve internationally was related to the failure of policy to secure direct influence over the money-wage. Targeting it indirectly with aggregate demand put the goal of price stability in conflict with that of full employment, though policy often still aimed to ‘shift the curve’ rather than accept a fixed trade-off. In Australia, where the arbitration system seemed to put the money-wage closer to policy control, the Phillips curve took longer to find policy favour, though a trade-off between unemployment and inflation was recognised as a possibility early on. (See Chapter 4.)

It is far from the case that policy was unaware of the potential for inflationary momentum before the introduction of expectations into Phillips curve models by Phelps [1967] and Friedman [1968]. On the contrary, the reaction of money-wages to price inflation was at the centre of Australian policy attention. Even in the Phillips curve literature, there is recognition that experience of inflation could shift the curve – right from Samuelson and Solow’s [1960] original Phillips curve article. The changing way in which inflationary momentum was understood is in itself an interesting story, but as I argue in Chapter 7, is not an explanation for the policy turn of the 1970s. I show that expectations-augmenting the Phillips curve does not explain the 1970s jump in the ‘non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment’ apparent in such models. The explanation for this jump must be sought elsewhere. I present the policy upheaval of the 1970s and 1980s not in terms of policymakers seeing the light, but as a result of the need to reconcile expectations of a growth rate of real living standards and employment with an economic system that could no longer provide them.


Philip Arestis [2007]:”What is the new consensus in macroeconomics?”, in Philip Arestis (ed.), Is There a New Consensus in Macroeconomics?, Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Philip Arestis and Malcolm Sawyer [2008]: “A critical reconsideration of the foundations of monetary policy in the new consensus macroeconomics framework”, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 32:5, pp. 761-79.

Stephen Cecchetti, Peter Hooper, Bruce C. Kasman, Kermit L. Schoenholtz and Mark W. Watson [2007]: “Understanding the evolving inflation process”, paper presented to U.S. Monetary Policy Forum, available at, accessed 11 June, 2008.

H. C. Coombs [1971 (1954)]: “The development of monetary policy in Australia”, in Neil Runcie, Australian Monetary and Fiscal Policy: selected readings, v. 1, Hodder and Stoughton, Sydney, pp. 22-43, originally the English, Scottish and Australian Bank Limited Research Lecture, 1954.

The Economist [2007]: “Anatomy of a hump”, The Economist, 10 March.

Milton Friedman [1968]: “The role of monetary policy”, American Economic Review, 58:1, pp. 1-17.

Edward Nelson [2004]: “The Great Inflation of the Seventies: what really happened?”, Working Paper 2004-001, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Edmund S. Phelps [1967]: “Phillips curves, expectations of inflation and optimal unemployment over time”, Economica, 34: 135, pp. 254-81.

Paul A. Samuelson and Robert M. Solow [1960]: “Analytical aspects of anti-inflation policy”, American Economic Review, 50:2, pp. 177-94.

1.3 (II) Thinking like a state about economic contradictions: Tinbergen

A draft thesis section. This is a draft of an unfinished document, please don’t quote without getting in touch first. Quoting in blogs is fine.

Previous section / Next section

Much of the policy theory inspired by Tinbergen’s work took on board only the idea of the formal models. The medium really was the message here, because the lesson of representing the policy system as a system of equations is that if conflicts are to be avoided, there must be one instrument per target, just as a solvable system of equations requires one equation per unknown. The best-known result here, which I discuss in Chapter 3, is the idea pervading 1950s theories of the balance of payments: that the apparent contradiction between external balance and full employment could be resolved with an extra policy instrument, the exchange rate. But Tinbergen’s own views are more subtle, because he is also preoccupied with both the technical and the social limits to the use of policy instruments. The bare system of equations implies that so long as there are equal numbers of instruments and targets, it does not much matter which instrument is assigned to which target. But Tinbergen, a practical policymaker as well as a theorist, recognises the material reality of the instruments: that using a policy instrument is both rarely as simple as choosing a value for a variable, but works within limits, and often has ‘side-effects’ on groups within society which they resist.

Tinbergen thinks of such things in terms of ‘boundary conditions’, which could in principle be imposed as limits to variable values within the system of equations1, but for the practising policymaker are of course much more nebulous and ill-defined. A classic instance of a technical boundary condition in the neoclassical-Keynesian literature is the ‘liquidity trap’ in which expansionary monetary policy fails to influence the interest rate beyond a certain point. In practice policy is continually grappling with many kinds of slippages in the effectiveness of its instruments. For example, investment was long seen in the postwar period to be interest-inelastic, so that interest rate adjustment would affect aggregate demand only at levels which were, in practice, inconceivable. On the fiscal side, there were real practical limits to the rate at which government expenditure could increase or decrease coming from the simple fact that it was not merely a component of ‘aggregate demand’ but also spent on real things – infrastructure, etc. – which could not be turned on and off like a tap.2

Then there are the boundary conditions arising from social groups’ ‘defence lines’. Tinbergen [1966: 26] mentions, for example, limits to taxation beyond which the costs of evasion outweigh the desired effects, and wage reductions provoking worker rebellion. Here class conflict intrudes upon the system of equations, and once it does, there is no guarantee of a ‘solution’, especially when the defence lines of different groups are simply incompatible, or irreconcilable by policy in its current form. Tinbergen gives a telling example from his own experience as a Dutch policymaker:

In the situation of that year [1950] and as far as the model used was a true representation of the Dutch economy, the calculations showed that the target set would require a wage decrease of 5%, a decrease in profit margins of some 13%, an increase in labour productivity of 4% and an increase in indirect taxes equal to 2% of prices. Both the wage decrease and the profit reduction seemed to be beyond the boundary conditions. A long list of alternative targets was then studied. Accepting a boundary condition of no reduction in the nominal wage meant the necessity of still heavier reductions in profit margins and a heavier increase in indirect taxes; accepting a boundary condition of no profit margin reduction implied impossible requirements as to labour: either a reduction in real wages of 13% or a reduction of employment by the same percentage, both accompanied by increases in labour productivity. [Tinbergen, 1966: 60]

Social contradictions are then manifest as policy contradictions, and something has to give: policymakers are driven into ‘qualitative policy’, i.e., attempts to change the structure of the economy, which in such cases must involve an attack on one or more groups’ capacity to maintain their defence lines, and/or moral suasion convincing them to pull back their demands ‘for the sake of the national economy’. To complete the picture, we need to recognise that the state does not have a monopoly on initiative in the changing structure of the economy. Tinbergen [ibid: 149] gestures towards this in his distinction between (policy) ‘induced’ and ‘spontaneous’ changes in organisation, but spontaneous developments – that is, change emerging from the socio-economic system independently of policy – get no further mention. In reality, many ‘policy problems’ emerge not from any deliberate action on the part of authorities, but from the dynamics of the wider system and changes in subjective consciousness and strategy within classes, groups and institutions.

As long as we remember that Tinbergen’s instruments, parameters and targets are social relations, and ‘boundary conditions’ often tied up with the expectations and consciousness of classes and class fractions, the framework is helpful in specifying the Jessop-Poulantzas concept of ‘strategic selectivity’ for the particular realm of economic policy. It is not a deterministic approach because it acknowledges the creative agency of policymakers and other actor-groups. The projects of the latter of course impinge upon economic policy from outside policymaking in two ways: (1) through directly political attempts to influence or capture legislative and executive capacities of the state; and (2) through power bases within the economic sphere, such as those occupied by capital by virtue of their control of investment, or labour through industrial organisation. Nevertheless, the approach recognises that a serious limit is placed on economic policy by the imperative that it all hang together – that the capitalist economic system is not one which can be bent into any shape, and in fact in many ways is not very flexible at all. This imperative exerts a strategic selectivity on political projects, and even motivates policy attempts to reshape aspects of the economic system to shift the power bases of actor-groups within it, or ideological attempts to manage expectations, in order to work out contradictions.

This leads to a different analysis of the relationship between class and politics than one which seeks to explain political ebbs and flows as a consequence of the ‘balance of class forces’. Rather, the ‘balance’ can be seen as – at least in part – a result of the selective pressure of this need for the socio-economic system to function, which requires that the state do particular things and not others. Causation runs both ways. Functional failures do not force political adaptation. But when they manifest as crises, they change the political dynamic so that political actors are expected to resolve them one way or another, even though their ability to do so may be uncertain. Policy action which fails to end a crisis is likely to be ‘deselected’, along with its ideological champions in the political sphere.3

Bob Jessop

Bob Jessop

For the state involves a paradox. On the one hand, it is just one institutional ensemble among others within a social formation; on the other, it is peculiarly charged with overall responsibility for maintaining the cohesion of the social formation of which it is merely a part. Its paradoxical position as both part and whole of society means that it is continually called upon by diverse social forces to resolve society’s problems and is equally continually doomed to generate ‘state failure’ since so many of society’s problems lie well beyond its control and may even be aggravated by attempted intervention. [Jessop, 2007: 7]

Thus my thesis attempts to explain the shifts in the policy importance of inflation in my period – which, I will argue, goes some way towards explaining much wider policy shifts – in terms of its ‘strategic selection’ by the responsibility of economic policy to maintain cohesion of the socio-economic system as a whole. This is in contrast to explanations centred around ideological ‘paradigm shifts’ or those which take ‘the balance of class forces’ to be entirely causally prior to political-economic change.

1“With sufficiently complicated non-linear equations all phenomena of saturation, bottlenecks, etc., will be accounted for and no boundary conditions will have to be added. Boundary conditions are needed only as corrections on too simple linear equations.” [Tinbergen, 1966: 54]

2“This may be so for physical reasons: if government building activity were an instrument, this activity cannot surpass the production capacity present in the relevant industry.” [Tinbergen, 1966: 59]

3Radical political projects aiming to fundamentally alter the economic system face an extremely formidable challenge on this front, in that any single reform incompatible with overall cohesion is likely to be ‘rejected’ by the system as a whole; everything needs to change before anything in particular can.


Bob Jessop [2008]: State Power: a strategic-relational approach, Polity, Cambridge.

Jan Tinbergen [1966]: Economic Policy: principles and design, North-Holland, Amsterdam.