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Fiscal space has nothing to do with public debt ratios or the size of deficits

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.

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MMT is just plain good economics – Part 1

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.

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Real resource constraints and fiscal policy design

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.

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The ‘truth sandwich’ and the impacts of neoliberalism

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.

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A surplus of trade discussions

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.

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Trade and finance mysteries – Part 2

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.

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Trade and external finance mysteries – Part 1

I have received many E-mails and direct twitter messages overnight and today following the ‘debate’ on Real Progressives yesterday, where trade issues and related financial transactions were discussed. I saw that section of the debate (after the fact) and concluded that only one of the guests knew what happened when nations exported and imported. But it appears that readers of this blog who listened to the debate were confused by what they heard. So, today, by request, I aim to clarify a few of these issues. They are in fact fairly simple to understand once you trace through the transactions carefully, so it is a surprise that basic errors were expressed in the ‘debate’. So here is the way Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) helps you understand trade transactions.

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On the path to MMT becoming mainstream

Over the last few years, it is clear that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is achieving a higher profile and the attacks are starting to come thick and fast. I see these attacks as being a positive development because it demonstrates that recognition has been achieved and a threat to mainstream ideas is now perceived by those who desire to hang on to the status quo. Hostility and attack is a stage in the process of a new set of ideas becoming accepted, ultimately. Clearly, some new interventions never receive acceptance because they are proven to be flawed in one way or another. But I doubt the body of work that is now known as MMT will be discarded quite so easily given my assessment that is is coherent, logically consistent and grounded in a strong evidence base. As part of this evolution there are now lots of what I call ‘sort of’ contributions coming from mainstream commentators. One of the ways in which mainstreamers save face is to claim they ‘knew it all along’ and that the existing body of practice can easily accommodate what might be considered ‘nuances’ or ‘special cases’. We are seeing that more now, with the more progressive mainstream economists claiming there is nothing ‘new’ about MMT that it is just what they knew anyway. Even though that approach is disingenuous it is part of the evolution towards acceptance. People have positions to protect. These ‘sort of’ contributions demonstrate a sort of half-way mentality – a growing awareness of MMT but with a deep resistance to its implications. A good example is the UK Guardian’s editorial (April 15, 2018) – The Guardian view on QE: the economy needs more than a magic money tree.

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My response to a German critic of MMT – Part 3

This is the third (and final) part of my response to an article published by the German-language service Makroskop (March 20, 2018) – Modern Monetary Theory: Einwände eines wohlwollenden Zweiflers (Modern Monetary Theory – Questions from a Friendly Critic) – and written by Martin Höpner, who is a political scientist associated with the Max-Planck-Institut für Gesellschaftsforschung (Max Planck Institute for Social Research – MPIfG) in Cologne. Today, we will discuss inflation and round up the evaluation of his input to the debate. The overriding conclusion is this. As a researcher, I am instinctively driven to dig deep before I make public comment. It is easy to think you have an idea that is novel and then venture forth with it. One usually finds, fairly quickly, once you start digging into the literature, that the idea is anything but novel. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has been around for around 25 years now (give or take) but has really only gained traction in this era of social media (blogs, tweets, YouTube, etc). Many of the issues raised in the Makroskop article have been covered extensively over the last 25 years. Many academic and non-academic articles have been written by us on these issues. Thus, if my response here is not sufficient, then I urge readers to consult the massive literature we have built up for further clarification.

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My response to a German critic of MMT – Part 2

This is the second part of my response to an article published by the German-language service Makroskop (March 20, 2018) – Modern Monetary Theory: Einwände eines wohlwollenden Zweiflers (Modern Monetary Theory – Questions from a Friendly Critic) – and written by Martin Höpner, who is a political scientist associated with the Max-Planck-Institut für Gesellschaftsforschung (Max Planck Institute for Social Research – MPIfG) in Cologne. In this part we discuss bond yields and bond issuance. I had originally planned a two-part series but the issues are detailed and to keep each post at a manageable length, I have opted to spread the response over three separate posts. In Part 3 (next week) we will discuss inflation and round up the evaluation of his input to the debate.

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