I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for some time, but a Tweet the other day reminded me that there was still major misunderstandings of what Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) represents and that it was time to clarify some of those errors in comprehension. Specifically, there is a current out there that considers MMT to be incorrectly labelled because according to the argument there is no theory involved. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would think that but the fact that they do tells me that I should write this blog post. As I noted yesterday, our Macroeconomics textbook to be published by Macmillan Palgrave in February 2019 is full of theory. It has a lot of description, taxonomy, accounting, history, and philosophy, but also a lot of theory that ties some of those other components together in a meaningful way. The T in MMT is not a misnomer. The Tweet I saw the other day also said there was nothing new in MMT so what’s with the modern bit! I have already dealt with that issue in the past.
This is Part 3 (and final) of my series responding to an iNET claim that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and mainstream macroeconomics were essentially at one in the way they understand the economy but differ on matters of which policy instrument (fiscal or monetary) to assign to counter stabilisation duties. In Part 1, I demonstrated how the core mainstream macroeconomic concepts bear no correspondence with the core MMT concepts, so it was surprising that someone would try to run an argument that the practical differences were really about policy assignment. In Part 2, we saw how the iNET authors created a stylised version of mainstream macroeconomics that ignored the fundamental building blocks (how they reach their conclusions about the real world), which means that they ignore important differences in the way MMT economists and mainstream macroeconomists interpret a given economic state. I will elaborate on that in this final part. Further, by reducing the body of work now known as MMT to be just ‘functional finance’, the iNET authors also, effectively, abandon any valid comparison between MMT and the mainstream, although they do not acknowledge that sleight of hand.
This is Part 2 of a three-part response to an iNET article (September 6, 2018) – Mainstream Macroeconomics and Modern Monetary Theory: What Really Divides Them?. In Part 1, I considered what we might take to the core body of mainstream macroeconomics and used the best-selling textbook from Gregory Mankiw as the representation. The material in that textbook is presented to students around the world as the current state of mainstream economic theory. While professional papers and policy papers might express the concepts more technically (formally), it is hard to claim that Mankiw’s representation is not representative of what current mainstream macroeconomics is about. Part 1 showed that there is little correspondence between the core propositions represented by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and the mainstream. Yet, the iNET authors want to claim that the differences between the two approaches to macroeconomics only really come down to a difference in “assignment of policy instruments” – jargon for MMT prefers fiscal policy while the mainstream prefers monetary policy as the primary counter-stabilising tool. Given the lack of conceptual and theoretical correspondence demonstrated in Part 1, it would seem surprising that there is really only just this difference in policy preference dividing MMT from the mainstream. If that was the case, then what is all the fuss about? Clearly, I consider the iNET article presents a sleight of hand and that the differences are, in fact, significant. So, in Part 2, I am tracing how the iNET authors came to their conclusion and what I think is problematic about it. This discussion will spill over into Part 3.
My office was subject to a random power failure for most of today because some greedy developer broke power lines in our area. So I am way behind and what was to be a two-part blog series will now have to extend into Wednesday (as a three-part series). That allows me more time today to catch up on other writing commitments. The three-part series will consider a recent intervention that was posted on the iNET site (September 6, 2018) – Mainstream Macroeconomics and Modern Monetary Theory: What Really Divides Them?. At the outset, the iNET project has been very disappointing. Very little ‘new’ economic thinking comes from it – its offerings are virtually indistinguishable from the New Keynesian consensus that dominates my profession. The GFC revealed how impoverished that consensus is. It has also given space for Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) to establish itself as a credible alternative body of theory (and practice). The problem is that the iNET initiative has been captured by the mainstream. And so the Groupthink continues. The article I refer to above is very disappointing. It claims to offer a synthesis between Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and mainstream macroeconomics by way of highlighting “what really divides” the two schools of thought. You might be surprised to know that according to these authors there is not much difference – only that mainstream economists think that monetary policy should be privileged to look after full employment and price stability and MMT economists (apparently) think fiscal policy should have that role. The authors claim that for the on-looker these minor differences are opaque in terms of outcomes (if the policies are applied properly) and suggest that there is really no reason for any debate at all. Accordingly, the New Keynesian consensus is just fine and the mainstream economists knew all the MMT stuff all along. It is an extraordinary exercise in sleight of hand engineered by constructing the comparison in terms of two ‘approaches’ that cull the main aspects of each. The real issue is why would they waste their time. Degenerative paradigms (or research programs in Imre Lakatos’ terminology) typically try to absorb challenging paradigms that, increasingly have more credibility and appeal, back into the mainstream through various dodges – ‘special case’, ‘we knew it all before’, ‘really nothing new’, etc. This is Part 1 of my response. It won’t be an easy three-part series but stick with it and I hope it gives you a lot of insights into the abysmal state of the mainstream macroeconomics profession.
The Project Syndicate is held out as an independent, quality source of Op Ed discussion. When you scan through the economists that contribute you see quite a pattern and it is the anathema of ‘independent’. There is really no commentary that is independent, if you consider the term relates to schools of thought that an economist might work within. We are all bound by the ideologies and language of those millieu. So I assess the input from an institution (like Project Syndicate) in terms of the heterodoxy of its offerings. A stream of economic contributions that are effectively drawn from the same side of macroeconomics is not what I call ‘independent’. And you see that in the recurring arguments that get published. In this blog post, I discuss Jeffrey Frankel’s latest UK Guardian article (August 29, 2018) – US will lack fiscal space to respond when next recession comes – which was syndicated from Project Syndicate. Frankel thinks that the US is about to experience a major recession and that its government has run out of fiscal space because it is not running surpluses. We could summarise my conclusion in one word – nonsense. But a more civilised response follows.
On August 6, 2018, British tax expert Richard Murphy who is becoming increasingly sympathetic to the principles of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) published a blog post, which recorded an exchange with one James Meadway, who is the economics advisor to the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell in Britain. The exchange took place on the social media page of a Labour Party insider who has long advocated a Land Tax, which McDonnell is on the public record as saying will “raise the funds we need” to help local government. He called it a “radical solution” (Source). An aside, but not an irrelevant one. It reflects the mindset of the inner economics camp in the British Labour Party, a mindset that is essentially in lockstep with the neoliberal narrative about fiscal policy. Anyway, his chief advisor evidently openly attacked MMT as “just plain old bad economics” and called it a “regression in left economic thinking” which would ultimately render the currency “entirely worthless” if applied. He also mused that any application of MMT would be “catastrophic” for Britain. Apparently, only the US can apply MMT principles. Well, the exchange was illustrative. First, the advisor, and which I guess means the person being advised, do not really understand what MMT is. Second, the Labour Party are claiming to be a “radical and transformative” force in British politics, yet hang on basic neoliberal myths about the monetary system, which is at the core of government policy implementation. Astounding really. This is Part 1 of a two-part series on this topic, most of it will be summarising past analysis. The focus here is on conceptual issues. Part 2 will focus more specifically on Balance of Payments issues.
There is an interesting dilemma currently emerging in Australia, which provides an excellent case study on how governments can use fiscal policy effectively and the problems that are likely to arise in that application. At present, the Australian states are engaging in an infrastructure building boom with several large (mostly public sector) projects underway involving improvements to road, ports, water supply, railways, airports and more. I travel a lot and in each of the major cities you see major areas sectioned off as tunnels are being dug and buildings erected. Not all of the projects are desirable (for example, the West Connex freeway project in Sydney has trampled on peoples’ rights) and several prioritise the motor car over public transport. But many of the projects will deliver much better public transport options in the future. On a national accounts level, these projects have helped GDP growth continue as household consumption has moderated and private investment has been consistently weak to negative. But, and this is the point, there have been sporadic reports recounting how Australia is running out of cement, hard rock and concrete and other building materials, which is pushing up costs. This is the real resource constraint that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) emphasises as the limits to government spending, rather than any concocted financial constraints. If there are indeed shortages of real resources that are essential to infrastructure development then that places a limit on how fast governments can build these public goods. The other point is that as these shortages are emerging, there is still over 15 per cent of our available labour resources that are being unused in one way or another – 714,600 are unemployed, 1,123.9 thousand are underemployed, and participation rates are down so hidden unemployment has risen. So that indicates there is a need for higher deficits while the infrastructure bottlenecks suggest spending constraints are emerging. That is the challenge. Come in policies like the Job Guarantee.
On June 15, 2018, the OECD released their report – A Broken Social Elevator? How to Promote Social Mobility – which provided “new evidence on social mobility in the context of increased inequalities of income and opportunities in OECD and selected emerging economies”. If you are still wondering why the mainstream progressive political parties have lost ground in recent years, or why the Italian political landscape has shifted from a struggle between ‘progressive’ and conservative to one between anti-establishment and establishment (the latter including both the traditional progressive and conservative forces which are now virtually indistinguishable) then this evidence will help. It shows categorically that neoliberalism has failed to deliver prosperity for all. While the full employment era unambiguously created a dynamic environment where upward social mobility and declining inequalities in income, wealth, opportunity were the norm, the more recent neoliberal era has deliberately stifled those processes. It is no longer true that ‘all boats rise on a high tide’. The point is that this is a situation that our governments have allowed to arise and which they can alter if they so choose. We should be forcing them to restore the processes that deliver upward mobility. And that is where the “truth sandwich” comes in. Progressive politicians that bang on about ‘taxing the rich to deliver services to the poor’ or who ask ‘where is the money going to come from’ or who claim the ‘bond markets will rebel’ and all the rest of the neoliberal lying drivel should familiarise themselves with the way the sandwich works. It is a very tasty treat if you assemble it properly.
It is Wednesday and so I am only writing a few thoughts today for the blog, preferring to spend the day writing other more detailed academic material and doing final edits on our next Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) textbook (current publication date with Macmillan, November 2018). But I wanted to briefly reflect on the discussions over the last week about trade which seem to have sparked some emotion and disagreement. In particular, there has been a lot of misrepresentation of the MMT position and also a lot of mistaken reasoning. After that I will go back to listening to some post minimalist piano music.
I was running late yesterday and the blog post was already rather long so I left some matters concerning central banks for today. The question we address briefly today is what is the role of central banks in all these trade transactions. Does an export surplus country face an ever increasing money supply as central banks provide the counterparty service to traders who sell in a foreign currency but want their own currency (such as a manufacturer who incurs costs in say Yen but sales revenue in $AUD – as per our example yesterday)? There appears to be confusion on that front as well. So while I am not typically going to write a detailed blog post on a Wednesday, in the interests of continuity, here is Part 2 of the series on trade and currencies.