I noted yesterday that I was appearing at a Seminar via Zoom with my MMT colleague, Pavlina Tcherneva, where we will discuss the concept of a social contract and where Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) fits into that, especially in the context of our idea of employment guarantees. The seminar – MMT and the new social contract: Lessons from Covid-19 – will be held on Saturday, February 27, 2021, from 10:00 Australian Eastern Daylight time and you can find details of how you can participate – HERE. I was thinking about what I would contribute to this workshop and rather than just rehearse the standard discussion about the Job Guarantee I have thought going back to square one would be a good place to start. This is especially a good thing to do, given that I increasingly see progressive people embrace the concept but try to do ‘too much’ with it. That is, place too much emphasis on it, especially in the context of Green Transitions. Pouring all our activist and political energy into getting a Job Guarantee up is not a sensible strategy for reasons I will explain. Second, a lot of critics, especially those who talk big on Twitter about ‘Bill Mitchell wanting people to starve’, clearly haven’t gone back to understand the roots of the concept and where it fits in. So today, I want to further clarify some significant issues that arise when both sides – pro and con – come in contact with the concept of employment buffer stocks for the first time and think they know all about.
As part of the paradigmic turmoil that is confronting mainstream economists, we are witnessing some very interesting strategies. Imagine you establish a set of principles that are seemingly inviolable. They are the bedrock of the belief system, even though it is not called that. These principles then offer all sorts of predictions about, yes, the real world. They are without nuance. The predictions are so worrying, that politicians, whether they are knowing or not, proceed with caution in some cases, and, in other cases, openly damage the well-being of citizens because they have been told that shock therapy is better than a long drawn out demise into ‘le marasme’. The authority for all the carnage that follows (unemployment, poverty, pension cuts, degraded public infrastructure and services, etc) is these ‘inviolable principles’. Economists swan around the world preaching them and bullying students and others into accepting them as gospel. The policy advice is hard and fast. Governments must stay credible. Except one day they completely change tack and all the policy advice that established certain actions to be totally taboo become the norm. We observe things are better as a result. Does this mean those ‘inviolable principles’ were bunk all along? Not according to the mainstream economists who are trying to position themselves on the right side of history. Apparently, their optimising New Keynesian models can totally justify fiscal dominance and central bank funding fiscal deficits when yesterday such actions were taboo. Which leg are they trying to pull?
I guess if mainstream economists use Milton Friedmanesque smears they think that will be sufficent to discredit Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). There have been a few critiques in the financial media recently along those lines. The authors tell their readers that they get the impression that MMT is just about a free lunch. Throw in Zimbabwe or Weimar are few times during the article and there you have it – rather tawdry attempts at maintaining mainstream thinking when the world has entered a new era of fiscal dominance as policy makers discard their reliance on monetary policy to stabilise economies. This policy shift is diametric to what mainstream macroeconomists have been advocating for decades as they repeatedly warned that high deficits and public debt levels and large-scale central bank bond purchases would lead to disaster. However, their predictions have been dramatically wrong and provide no meaningful guidance to available fiscal space nor the consequences of these policy extremes for interest rates and inflation. The world is leaving them behind and it is interesting to see how they are trying to reposition themselves.
As governments grapple with the dissonance that the pandemic is causing them – realising that their old mainstream economics narratives are not going to cut it any more but still reluctant to admit that and pass onto a new phase of creative policy making – we are observing these contradictions in both statements about fiscal policy and monetary policy. The Australian government, for example, is convinced tax cuts are required but have observed that recent tax cuts, before the pandemic hardly stimulated any spending. Further research from the US is demonstrating that payments to households under the – Coronavirus Aid and Economic Security (CARES) Act – may not have resulting in the spending boost that was modelled as part of the policy design. And then on the monetary policy front, central bankers like Madame Lagarde are strutting around making grand statements about becoming flexible with their definition of price stability (that is, saying they will allow for higher inflation before they increase rates) despite not being able to remotely meet their current stability levels with deflation looming. I covered a statement along similar lines from the US Federal Reserve Bank boss recently – US Federal Reserve statement signals a new phase in the paradigm shift in macroeconomics (August 31, 2020). It all adds up to what happens when a paradigm is shifting and the old school are caught out – no longer able to really offer anything of use but hanging on to their status nonetheless. Pragmatism usually passes them by as it will in this case.
Given I presented a full analysis of the National Accounts release yesterday, I am calling today Wednesday and not writing much by way of blog posting, to give me more time to write other things that have to be done. But there is one issue that I will deal with today and regularly comes up and indicates that we are making progress. And after that we can all ‘Rise and Shine’ with some beautiful music.
Regular readers will know that for the last few years I have been documenting the way that the dominant paradigm in macroeconomics (New Keynesianism) is slowly disintegrating as the dissonance between its empirical predictions and reality becomes too great to ignore and justify. The once-in-a-century pandemic hasn’t given us much to celebrate in 2020. One cause for optimism, perhaps, is that we might finally jettison the mainstream economics fictions about government deficits and debt, which have hampered prosperity over several decades. Last week (August 27, 2020), the US Federal Reserve Bank Chairman, Jerome Powell made a path breaking speech – New Economic Challenges and the Fed’s Monetary Policy Review – at the annual economic policy symposium sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City at Jackson Hole. On the same day, the Federal Reserve Bank released a statement – Federal Open Market Committee announces approval of updates to its Statement on Longer-Run Goals and Monetary Policy Strategy. We have now entered a new phase of the paradigm shift in macroeconomics.
It’s Wednesday and my light blog day produces a video or two. The first is a presentation I recently made to the New Zealand Fabian Society and the second is some exquisite trumpet playing from Chet Baker.
It is getting to the stage that one gets bored reading critiques of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) by leading mainstream economists. As the critiques have escalated over the last few years, I can safely say that not one has really said anything: (a) that the core body of work we have developed hasn’t already considered and dealt with – about 20 years ago!; (b) which means, none of the long line of the would be demolition team has achieved their aim. And when they write Op Ed articles that basically just say – oh, MMT economists ignore “the demand for money” and “MMT falls flat on its face” when inflation emerges as part of the emergence out of this crisis, I get bored. Really, is that the best they can come up with. The latest entreaty in the boring stakes comes from Willem Buiter, who seems to have left the commercial banking sector and gone back into academic life. His latest Op Ed – The Problem With MMT (May 4, 2020) – is not his best work. Boring is the best descriptor. Why did he bother? Did he think he had to establish his relevance. He would have been better concentrating on the archaic mess that his mainstream framework is in. Anyway, sorry to end the week like this.
It is quite amusing really watching the way orthodox economists who know the game is up work like gymnasts to avoid actually spelling out directly what the facts are but spill the beans anyway. Last week (April 23, 2020), an ‘external member’ of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, one – Gertjan Vlieghe – gave a speech – Monetary policy and the Bank of England’s balance sheet. If the message was taken seriously, then the way monetary economics and macroeconomics is taught in our universities should change dramatically. At present, there is only one textbook that seriously caters for the message that is inherent in the speech – Macroeconomics (Mitchell, Wray and Watts). The speech leaves out important insights but essentially allows the reader to appreciate what Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has been on about, in part, for 25 years.
As the public scrutiny of the body of work we now refer to as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) widens there is a lot of misinformation abroad that distorts or otherwise undermines what has been done to date. Most, but not all the misinformation or emphasis comes from those who attack our work. Their criticisms usually disclose an incomplete understanding of where MMT came from and what the core propositions and logic are. They stylise, usually using terms and constructs that are present in mainstream thinking, but inapplicable to an MMT way of thinking, and end up spitting out things like ‘printing money’ etc, which they think represents a devastating rejection of our work. As part of my own work, and I do this in liaison with Warren Mosler, I am interested in documenting the train of events that led to what we now call MMT. I love history and think it is very important in helping us understand things. So today I am continuing to examine archives to trace the provenance of key MMT concepts. And I am continuing to document the idea of a Job Guarantee, which is central to the MMT framework, despite many who claim to be MMTers thinking otherwise. I have noted in the recent press, claims that the origins of the buffer stock employment approach that became the Job Guarantee was the work of Hyman Minsky. Nothing could be further from the truth as you will see. It is important, in my view, to make the provenance very clear and that is what this blog post is about.