Some years ago, I promised to write about 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. I never wrote the blog posts because I considered the material was a little difficult for a blog audience. Also, while of great interest to me, the topic was not necessarily compulsory reading for those trying to come to terms with Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). But today, I relent. For two reasons. First, I think my readership has reached much higher levels of economic literacy over the last 15 years and can handle a challenge. But, more importantly, there are times when the mainstream characters, who have been claiming that there is nothing new in MMT and that they knew it all along and all the important results can be explained within an orthodox New Keynesian approach, reveal their true colours. Their hubris sees them get ahead of themselves and they show they never really understood the basics that undermine their own approach. Such was the case this week when Paul Krugman declared the Controversy “a huge intellectual muddle” and “a tortured debate that illuminated nothing much”. Well, that just goes to show how the mainstream denial functions. A body of work comes along and blows the dominant paradigm out of the water, and the response is to ignore it as a meaningless muddle. Their current attacks on MMT are just another application of that approach, which I first encountered as a student while studying the capital debates. Given the complexity of this issue and the amount of material, this will be a two-part series. Today, we learn the historical context, which will convince you that this was not idle or arcane discussion. This was a debate that went to the heart of the existence of capitalism and the defenders of that system – the mainstream economists did everything they could to defend the myths that they had erected to make the system look fair. They failed but went on anyway. Here is Part 1.
This is the second and final part of my discussion of the – Economic Affairs Commitee (House of Lords) – hearings into – Quantitative Easing: Committee to examine whether inflationary fears justified, the future of QE, and the merits of ‘helicopter money’ approaches. In Part 1 we learned that statements made by notable central bank governors (or equivalent) to the public about what they are doing are highly questionable given the evidence given by two prominent witnesses to the House of Lords enquiry. The evidence doesn’t just refer to matters pertaining to the UK. We learned that it is obvious that large-scale government bond buying programs by central banks are funding fiscal deficits despite the denial from the central bank officials. In this Part, we find more revealing statements by the witnesses further suggest that the central bank officials, including those from the Reserve Bank of Australia governor, are, at best misleading. At worst – use your own words.
Remember on February 3, 2021, when the RBA governor Philip Lowe spoke at the National Press Club in Australia and told the audience that the Reserve Bank of Australia is not funding the federal government deficit, either in part, or, in full. This was in response to being asked whether the current situation that sees the RBA buying large swathes of government bonds are in any way consistent with Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Well, since he gave that speech and answered questions from Australia’s journalists, a very interesting session was held by the – Economic Affairs Committee (House of Lords) – in London as part of the Committee’s investigation into the ins-and-outs of Quantitative Easing (QE). And some very revealing statements were made in those hearings which the RBA governor might reflect on. They rather directly challenge the veracity of his public statements about MMT in recent years. They also expose the way in which public officials tell the public they are not doing A but B, while doing exactly A. The cat is progressively getting out of the bag.! This is Part 1 of a two-part series explaining how the cat is escaping.
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.