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The Ministry for the Future has some MMT lessons on fiscal policy

A close friend send me some pages from a book she is reading – Ministry for the Future – by author Kim Stanley Robinson, which was published in 2020. It is about an organisation that is chartered with defending the rights of future generations and they pursue various projects accordingly. Its major challenge is climate change, after a “deadly heat wave in India” and the narrative allows the author to entertain very interesting discussions about economics, ecology and society. It is classified as “hard science fiction” because while the work reflects the imagination of the author, he bases the narrative on “scientific accuracy and non-fiction descriptions of history and social science” to bring home the challenges we face with climate etc. The pages I received came from Chapter 73 (pages 365-366), which has a two-page discussion about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). The author writes in his future scenario that “Enough governments were convinced by MMT to try it. That it influenced so much policy through the late thirties was regarded as a sign either of progress or of desperate fantasy solutions.” While the discussion is interesting, I want to focus on one of the ideas the author presents because they illustrate an important distinction between ‘Keynesian’ and ‘Post Keynesian’ thought on fiscal policy and MMT analysis.

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Taxation is an indispensable anti-inflation policy tool in Modern Monetary Theory

There was an unedifying and fairly undignified war on Twitter recently about whether Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economics advocate using taxes to deal with inflation. Like all these Twitter ‘debates’, the opening proposition was a ‘gotcha’ attempt that was correct from one angle but then missed the point when it was applied to whether MMT is a valid framework or not. The responses from the MMT ‘activists’ were also overly defensive and reflected the fact that they had fallen for the framing trap presented by the antagonist. In this blog post, I want to clarify the MMT position on the use of taxes and inflation policy. What you will learn is that both positions presented in that Twitter war were largely erroneous, and, conflated concepts, either knowingly (probably not) or unknowingly, to leave a muddy mess. As the cloud became thicker, the ‘debate’ descended, as all these Twitter exchanges seem to, into unhelpful accusations of racial insult, claims of ignorance and stupidity, and worse. Not very helpful.

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The Japanese denial story – Part 2

Here is Part 2 of my analysis of the claim that Japan is not a good demonstration of what happens when macroeconomic policies are pushed beyond their usual limits. I have long argued that trying to apply a mainstream macroeconomics (New Keynesian) framework to the Japanese situation yields nonsensical predictions about rising interest rates, accelerating inflation, rising bond yields and government insolvency. Nothing like that scenario has emerged since Japan has introduced economic policies that ran counter to the mainstream consensus since the 1990s. Japan demonstrates key Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) principles and those that seek to deny that are really forced to invent a parallel-universe version of MMT to make their case. That version is meaningless. In Part 2, we extend that analysis to consider trade transactions, the fear of inflation, and the argument that the current generation are selfishly leaving their children higher tax burdens while we party on.

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The Japanese denial story – Part 1

Well, it’s 2022 already and we enter the 18th year of this blog. Regular readers will know that I have studied the Japanese economy in considerable detail over the course of my career and when it experienced one of the largest commercial asset price bubble busts in history in early 1992, the questions I was asking and the data I was looking out were important in framing the way I have done macroeconomics since. I consider Japan to be one of the nations that was early to embrace the madness of neoliberalism – credit binge, wild property speculation then crash – and the first nation to abandon it in favour of more responsible fiscal policy – which given the circumstances required on-going fiscal deficits exceeding 10 per cent of GDP at times. Its policy approach – including the relatively high deficits, the zero interest rate policy of the Bank of Japan, and then the massive bond-buying program by the same, became the target for various New Keynesian macroeconomists (including Krugman) to prophesise doom. Their textbook models predicted the worst – rising interest rates, accelerating inflation, rising bond yields and then government insolvency as bond markets bailed out and the currency plummetted. Nothing like that scenario emerged. Japan was playing out policies that ran counter to the mainstream consensus in the 1990s and beyond and I learned so much from understanding why things happened there as a consequence. This is Part 1 of a two-part discussion about why Japan demonstrates key MMT principles and how those who wish to deny that reality have to invent a parallel-universe version of MMT to make their case.

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Turkey tells us nothing about MMT – but MMT tells us a lot about why Turkey is in trouble

I have noticed a lot of Internet traffic about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and the situation in Turkey at present. Apparently, as the narrative goes, MMT is finally being revealed as a fraud because Turkey’s economy is going backwards and its currency is depreciating rapidly. The logic, it seems, is that if a nation enters rough economic waters and the financial markets sell its currency (although remember someone has to be buying it simultaneously) then that proves MMT is false. An extraordinarily naive viewpoint if you think about it. This viewpoint has somehow missed the train on understanding what MMT actually is and seems to think that MMT economists have seen Turkey as a policy model. In this blog post, I consider some aspects of this naivety. It won’t silence the critiques, but it, hopefully will educate those who are interested in the topic and are learning about MMT.

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MMT economists do not seek to enumerate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin

One of the recurring criticisms that mainstream economists make of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is that does not follow the rules of formalism that have become the norm in the economics profession. The implication is that by not following these conventions, MMT economists are unable to say anything precise and scientific. Apparently, a literary discourse cannot convey anything that is sound. Pity that some of the greatest contributions to human knowledge have come from those who could write properly. But this criticism of MMT is about something else again. Dominant academic communities develop their own rules of enquiry, which encompass perspectives of the field to be studied, procedures to be followed, methods and techniques to be used and the end goals of the analysis. If those communities become riddled with Groupthink, then a degree of uniformity in practice becomes expected and enforced either subtly through peer group pressure or more coercively through publication, grant and promotional practices, which effectively determine whether a person will advance or be cast aside. The criticism waged against MMT economists that we don’t follow the normal rules of exposition is really an attempt to enforce the discipline of the mainstream (New Keynesian) community and avoid discussion of substantive issues, such as empirical congruence or extent of anomaly. If the dominant paradigm can convince young scholars and the public that its techniques and methods are the only sound way in which to conduct scientific enquiry and highlight an emerging threat as not being up to speed then it can avoid the scrutiny.

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Reading Beardsley Ruml carefully

Many social media commentators that have become interested in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) regularly cite sections of the article written by businessman and former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Beardsley Ruml – Taxes for Revenue Are Obsolete – which appeared in the January 1946 edition of the American Affairs journal. The article was actually a speech that he made “before the American Bar Association during the last year of the war”. Some claim that the content provides an early underpinning for Chartalism, upon with MMT is, in part, derived. I disagree. If you read his work carefully, rather than selectively quoting convenient sentences, and, that work includes his more substantial book that was published in 1945 and from which the article cited above was derived, you would get no MMT succour. He was basically lobbying for zero corporate taxation and he expressed rather orthodox views about fiscal policy at the time, which are very non-MMT in substance.

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MMT and Power – Part 2

This is Part 2 of a series that is developing here on the topic of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and power. I often read that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is defective because it has no theory of power relations. Some critics link this in their narrative to their claim that MMT also has no theory of inflation. They then proceed to attack concepts such as employment buffers, on the grounds, that MMT cannot propose a solution to inflation if it has no understanding of how power relations cause inflation. These criticisms don’t come from the conservative side of the policy debate but rather from the so-called Left, although I wonder just how ‘left’ some of the commentators who cast these aspersions actually are. The problem with these criticisms is that they have clearly adopted a partial approach to their understanding of what MMT is, presumably through not reading the literature widely enough, but also because of the way, some MMT proponents choose to represent our work. In Part 1, I examined how the economics discipline evolved from political economy to a narrow focus on the ‘economy’ as if it existed in a void of power. I also disabused readers of the notion that MMT ignores the link between money and the real econoy, which is a regular claim offered by critics from the Left. I also questioned critics who seem to want MMT to be a theory of everything. As I regularly point out MMT cannot predict who wins the football this week, but that isn’t a criticism. In Part 2, I am going to complicate things a little by expanding on the MMT is the MMT is a lens narrative as if we can neatly separate values from facts. I will also explain how power enters into the dominant theory of inflation in MMT.

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MMT and Power – Part 1

I often read that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is defective because it has no theory of power relations. Some critics link this in their narrative to their claim that MMT also has no theory of inflation. They then proceed to attack concepts such as employment buffers, on the grounds, that MMT cannot propose a solution to inflation if it has no understanding of how power relations cause inflation. These criticisms don’t come from the conservative side of the policy debate but rather from the so-called Left, although I wonder just how ‘left’ some of the commentators who cast these aspersions actually are. The problem with these criticisms is that they have clearly adopted a partial approach to their understanding of what MMT is, presumably through not reading the literature widely enough, but also because of the way, some MMT proponents choose to represent our work. In this two part series, I propose to interrogate this issue and demonstrate that power and class is central to any contribution I have made to the development of the MMT literature. Part 1 sets the context and illustrates why some people might be confused.

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The Cambridge Controversy – a fundamental refutation of orthodox economic theory – Part 2

This is Part 2 in a two part series that deals with the importance of the = Cambridge capital controversy – which saw economists associated with Cambridge University in England and MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts argue about the validity of neoclassical distribution theory. Most recently, in response to a New York Times article about Joan Robinson, one of the key protagonists in that controversy, Paul Krugman declared the Controversy “a huge intellectual muddle” which was really unimportant in the scheme of things. That just revealed his ignorance and/or his part in an on-going denial that the basis of the framework he operates in is deeply flawed and has no scientific legitimacy. In this Part, we get down to the complexity (as best I can without becoming too technical) of the debates. The import though is clear – orthodox economics, which is still taught on a daily basis in our universities and which people like Krugman use to make money by writing textbooks about is based on a series of myths that cannot be sustained, both logically, in terms of their own internal consistency, and, in relation to saying anything about the real world we live in.

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