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Fiscal austerity – the newest fallacy of composition

The origins of macroeconomics trace back to the recognition that the mainstream economics approach to aggregation was rendered bereft by the concept of the Fallacy of Composition which refers to errors in logic that arise “when one infers that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole (or even of every proper part)” (Source). So the fallacy of composition refers to situations where individually logical actions are collectively irrational. These fallacies are rife in the way mainstream macroeconomists reason and serve to undermine their policy responses. The current push for austerity across the globe is another glaring example of this type of flawed reasoning. The very fact that austerity is being widely advocated will generate the conditions that will see it fail as a growth strategy. We never really learn.

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Deficits are our saving

Even the most simple understandings are lost in the public debate about budget deficits and public debt. The Flat Earth Theorists who whip up deficit hysteria each day like to stun people with large numbers. They produce debt clocks that relentlessly tick over and try to get us to believe that impending doom is upon us. But if we just take a deep breath and think the situation through we would see that the ticking debt clock is really just a measure of the portion of non-government wealth embodied in public debt. We would then learn that budget deficits are just the mirror image of non-government savings. Saving is usually considered to be something we should aim for. Increased wealth is also something we usually aspire to. So the increasing deficits and increased debt outstanding is, in fact, beneficial to the private sector (overall). Once we understand that then the deficit hysteria becomes transparently ideological. These characters just hate government and want to get their greedy hands on more of the real pie.

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Taxpayers do not fund anything

At times some document from the past is discovered that no-one much has read or paid any attention to but which offers fundamental insights into the options facing governments operating a monetary system based on a fiat currency. We have available now one such document which I will discuss in some detail. The essential insight can be summarised by the title of the blog – taxpayers do not fund anything. So when you hear commentators and politicians and the like use terms like “taxpayers’ funds are being mis-spent” etc, you can immediately conclude they do not understand how the monetary system functions. At that point, it is advisable to ignore what they have to say – given it is likely to be erroneous as a result of the initial false premises. The problem is that the public policy debate is largely based on these false premises. As a result, the policy positions that emerge are typically inferior and in many cases extremely damaging to the fortunes of the disadvantaged.

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A modern monetary theory lullaby

In recent comments on my blog concern was expressed about continuous deficits. I consider these concerns reflect a misunderstanding of the role deficits play in a modern monetary system. Specifically, it still appears that the absolute size of the deficit is some indicator of good and bad and that bigger is worse than smaller. Then at some size (unspecified) the deficit becomes unsustainable. There was interesting discussion about this topic in relation to the simple model presented in the blog – Some neighbours arrive. In today’s blog I continue addressing some of these concerns so that those who are uncertain will have a clear basis on which to differentiate hysteria from reality. We might all sleep a bit better tonight as a consequence – hence the title of today’s blog!

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Barnaby, better to walk before we run

Today I have been thinking about the macroeconomics textbook that Randy Wray and I are writing at present. We hope to complete it in the coming year. I also get many E-mails from readers expressing confusion with some of the basic national income concepts that underpin modern monetary theory (MMT). In recent days in the comments area, we have seen elaborate examples from utopia/dystopia which while interesting fail the basic national income tests of stock-flow consistency. Most of the logic used by deficit terrorists to underscore their demands for fiscal austerity are also based on a failure to understand these fundamental principles. So once again I provide a simple model to help us organise our thoughts and to delve into the elemental concepts. It is clear that in order to come to terms with more complicated aspects of MMT, one has to “walk before they can run”. So its back home today.

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Who is in charge?

Today I was looking over some macro data from Ireland which is leading the charge among the peripheral EMU nations (the so-called PIIGS) to impoverish its citizens because: (a) the amorphous bond markets have told them too; and (b) they had previously surrendered their policy sovereignty. Their actions are all contingent on the vague belief that the private sector will fill the space left by the austerity campaign. The neo-liberals are full of these sorts of claims. More likely what will happen is a drawn out near-depression and rising social unrest and dislocation. But as long as the Irish do it to themselves then the Brussels-Frankfurt bullies will leave them to demolish their economy. It raises the question who is in charge – the investors or the government? The answer is that the government is always in charge but what they need to do to assert that authority varies depending on the currency arrangements they have in place.

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What causes mass unemployment?

Today we consider the causes of mass unemployment of the sort that most nations are enduring at present. This also involves the consideration of the relationship between wages and employment. This is an area in economics that has been hotly contested across paradigm lines for years. Mainstream economic commentators still claim that the employment situation can be improved if wages are cut. They are wrong. Modern monetary theory (MMT) is clear – mass unemployment arises when the budget deficit is too low. To reduce unemployment you have to increase aggregate demand. If private spending growth declines then net public spending has to fill the gap. In engaging this debate, we also have to be careful about using experience in one sector to make generalisations about the overall macroeconomic outcomes that might accompany a policy change.

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On voluntary constraints that undermine public purpose

It was a very quiet day at the office today. The day started out pretty much as normal – a bit of a surf down at Nobbys Beach in small waves with a few of the regulars out. Then as I was driving to work I wondered where everyone was. Anyway, an easy drive. Then I noticed there were no E-mails, no newspapers, no-one at the office … and only one Twitter from Sean Carmody saying he was going off-line for the day. Maybe this is my big chance to take control of economic policy and fix the current malaise? That would be good. There would be some legislative changes immediately. The first I would make (for the US) was the topic of a report in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (December 24, 2009) which noted that the US Congress had raised the debt ceiling to allow the US Treasury to borrow through to Fedruary 2010. Hmm, get rid of that legislation as a first step. Then on we would go.

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Building bank reserves is not inflationary

Today I am working in Dubbo, which is in the western region of NSW and getting into the remote parts of the state. There is a great beauty to enjoy in remote Australia which often passes people by. My field trip is in relation to continuing work I am doing with indigenous communities in this region. I will report on this work in due course. But today’s blog continues the theme I developed yesterday on bank reserves. In yesterday’s blog – Building bank reserves will not expand credit – I examined the dynamics of bank reserves but left a few issues on hold because I ran out of time. One issue is the possible impact of expanding bank reserves on inflation. This is in part central to the mainstream hysteria at present about the likely legacies of the monetary policy response to the crisis. The conclusion is that everyone can relax – the only problem with the monetary policy response is that it will be ineffective and more fiscal policy effort is required.

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Building bank reserves will not expand credit

In his latest New York Times article (December 10, 2009) – Bernanke’s Unfinished Mission – Paul Krugman reveals that he doesn’t really understand much about macroeconomics. Sometimes you read a columnist and try to find extra meaning that is not in the words to give them the benefit of the doubt. At times, Krugman like other columnists sounds positively reasonable and advances arguments that are consistent with modern monetary theory (MMT). But then there is always a give-away article that appears eventually that makes it clear – this analyst really doesn’t get it. In Krugman’s case, he doesn’t seem to have learned from his disastrous foray into Japan’s “lost decade” policy debate.

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