This is the second part of my response to an article posted by American political analyst Jared Berstein (January 7, 2018) – Questions for the MMTers. Part 1 considered the thorny issue of the capacity of fiscal policy to be an effective counter-stabilising force over the economic cycle, in particular to be able to prevent an economy from ‘overheating’ (whatever that is in fact). Jared Berstein prescribes some sort of Monetarist solution where all the counter-stabilising functions are embedded in the central bank which he erroneously thinks can “take money out of the economy” at will. It cannot and its main policy tool – interest rate setting – is a very ineffective tool for influencing the state of nominal demand. In Part 2, I consider his other claims which draw on draw on the flawed analysis of Paul Krugman about bond issuance. An understanding of MMT shows that none of these claims carry weight. It is likely that continuous deficits will be required even at full employment given the leakages from the income-spending cycle in the non-government sector. Jared Bernstein represents a typical ‘progressive’ view of macroeconomics but the gap between that (neoliberal oriented) view and Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is wide. For space reasons, I have decided to make this a three-part response. I will post Part 3 tomorrow or Thursday. I hope this three-part series might help the (neoliberal) progressives to abandon some of these erroneous macroeconomic notions and move towards the MMT position, which will give them much more latitude to actually implement their progressive policy agenda.
There was an article posted by American political analyst Jared Berstein yesterday (January 7, 2018) – Questions for the MMTers – which I thought was a very civilised exercise in engagement from someone who is clearly representative of the more standard Democratic Party view, that the US government has to move towards balancing its fiscal position and reducing government debt in order to meet the social security challenges posed by an ageing population and the accompanying increase in dependency ratios. He is sympathetic to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), given that he wrote “there’s no distance between my views and a core principal of MMT: the need for deficit spending when the economy is below full employment”. In other words, he notes that “MMT or whomever else argues on behalf of expansionary fiscal policy is correct”. But that is a fairly standard ‘progressive’ position when the economic cycle is below full capacity. This position typically alters quite dramatically when so-called longer terms considerations are brought into the picture. Jared Bernstein worries about the inflationary consequences of fiscal policy (so do MMT economists by the way) and thinks central banks should be the primary macroeconomic policy makers (MMT economists reject this). He also thinks that if the government doesn’t sell bonds to match its deficits then there will be “currency debasing”. MMT economists have pointed out the fallacies of that proposition but he is still in the dark about it. And he also things that fiscal position should be balanced at full employment. MMT economists do not agree with that proposition pointing out that it all depends on the state of saving and spending decisions in the non-government sector. It is likely that continuous deficits will be required even at full employment given the leakages from the income-spending cycle in the non-government sector. So while his queries are conciliatory and written in an inquiring fashion, the gulf between this typical ‘progressive’ view of macroeconomics and MMT is rather wide. This is Part 1 of a two-part series that responds to the questions that Jared Bernstein raises and hopefully puts the record a bit straighter.
On June 3, 1951, the Socialist International association was formed in London. It is still going. It is “a worldwide association of political parties, most of which seek to establish democratic socialism”. Its roots date back to the C19th (to the First International formed in 1864) when it was considered beneficial to unite national working class movements into a global force to overthrow Capitalism. Internal bickering among various factions led to various dissolutions and reformations over the last 150 odd years. In 2013, the membership split when the German SPD decided to set up an competing group, the Progressive Alliance, which saw a host of so-called social democratic parties (including the Australian Labor Party) join and desert the SI. Both bodies are dogged by internecine conflict and members who have fallen for the neo-liberal macroeconomic myths. More recently, DIEM25 has emerged to pursue a Pan-European vision of Left-wing politics. The more recent dynamics of these movements deny power of the nation state in a globalised economy and global financial flows. They are all failing because of this denial.
I am travelling most of today and thus my usual blog will resume tomorrow. Yesterday, an interview that I did for RadioNZ (the public broadcaster) on Friday was aired on their popular Sunday Show. You can access the interview overleaf. You can also access the video of my presentation on Friday (July 28, 2017) at the University of Victoria, Wellington. That should keep you all busy.
Over the course of my academic career and even outside of that I have often been regaled with the claim (as if it is science) that capitalism is the ‘natural’ system for humans because our nature biases us to competitiveness and selfishness. So Marx’s famous epithet in his Critique of the Gotha program (1875) – “from each according to their ability to each according to their need” – was dismissed as being against our natural tendencies – a denial of basic human nature. It then followed that planned economies and economies where governments intervened strongly to ensure equitable distribution of opportunities and outcomes, was in some way contrived and would surely fail because our human nature would find ways to thwart such interference. This has been a compelling and dominant narrative over the last several decades as neo-liberal think tanks, biased media outlets, and politicians from both sides of politics (homogenised into a common economic mantra) reinforced it continuously in print, spoken word and policy. We shifted from living in societies where collective will and equity was deemed important organising principles to living in economies where every outcome was in the hands of the individual – including mass unemployment – and the concept of systemic failure that could be ameliorated by state intervention was rejected. State intervention was cast as the devil. It is no surprise that economic outcomes for a rising proportion of the population deteriorated as we shifted from society to economy – from collectivism to individualism. It turns out that the research into human nature, motivation, decision-making etc largely rejects the ‘competitive selfish individual’ narrative. We are intrinsically cooperative and care about equity. Our basic propensities appear to be collective and cooperative. Funny about that.
I get a lot of E-mails that accuse me of being politically naive. The accusations were rekindled by yesterday’s blog – British labour lost in a neo-liberal haze. I imagine if I wrote a blog where I outlined support for Marine Le Pen in the context of a two-way fight against the worse-of-the-worst neo-liberals Emmanuel Macron the accusations would turn uglier even. My support for Brexit was met with similar hostility from a range of (self-styled) ‘progressives’ as being naive and offensive. Why, Brexit was a conservative plot wasn’t it? How could I have missed that? Progressives are now advocating votes for Macron even though they know he is an archetype neo-liberal – the anathema of what they believe. And they tell me every day in these E-mail tirades and other blogs that I should give people like Jeremy Corbyn some slack because he knows better than me that to advocate a major departure from the neo-liberal macroeconomic narrative would be political suicide. So why don’t I just shut up and recognise that politics is beyond my grasp and I should desist. Basically that is the message I get regularly. Well, I am sorry to say, such views completely misunderstand the role of an academic and the way in which resistance is constructed.
There was an exchange in the British House of Commons a few weeks ago (sitting on April 19, 2017), which really summarised why the Tories will win the British election and why Jeremy Corbyn has led the Labour Party there into an abyss of neo-liberal mumbo jumbo where there is no way out but loss. It was during the Parliamentary time when the Prime Minister lists her engagements for the day (a cute aspect of Westminster systems). You can follow the exchange in the Hansard entry – Volume 624. It will make your skin crawl. I guess that is what one gets from reading Parliamentary records. The upshot is that the British labour lost in a neo-liberal haze and marching forthrightly towards its Waterloo. The aftermath will not be pretty.
One of the things I have noted with regularity is that readers and other second-generation Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) bloggers often fall into the error which we might characterise as the “When we have MMT things will be different” syndrome. Or the “we need to change to MMT principles to make things better” syndrome. Thinking that MMT constitutes a regime change is incorrect and steers one away from the core issues. In this blog, I reflect on that syndrome and some other aspects of the development of ideas, which I hope will provide readers with a clearer picture of what the core (early) MMT developers (Mosler, Bell/Kelton, Wray, Mitchell, Tcherneva, Fullwiler) had in mind when we set out in the early 1990s to construct a better way of doing macroeconomics. The point is that while MMT constitutes a regime change in economic thinking within the academy it does not constitute a regime change in the way the monetary system operates. We need to separate the operational principles exposed by MMT academics from their ideological values to really come to terms with the fact that MMT is what is, not what might be.
How many times have to heard a politician claim they had to cut government spending and move the fiscal balance to surplus because they had to engender the confidence of the bond markets. Apparently, this narrative alleges that if bond markets are not ‘confident’ (whatever that means) then they will stop begging treasury departments for more debt issues and the government, in question, will run out of money and then pensions will stop being paid and the public service will be sacked and public trains and buses will stop running and before we know it the skies will blacken and collapse on us. The narrative ignores the usual statistics that bid-to-cover ratios are typically high (hence my ‘begging’ terminology) which are supplemented by well documented cases where the bond dealers (including banks etc) do actually beg central banks to stop driving yields down in maturity segments where these characters have pitched their “business model” (read: where they make the most profits). The facts are exactly the opposite to the neo-liberal pitch. Currency-issuing governments never need to worry about how bond markets ‘feel’. Essentially, the bond markets are irrelevant to the ability of such a government to design and implement its fiscal plans. And, the central bank always can counteract any tendencies that the bond markets might seek to impose where governments do actually issue debt.
It does not quite add up. But then why should it. Spin is spin. On the one hand, we are being constantly told that the world has entered a new era of secular stagnation, driven by an ageing population and a fall off in productive innovation, and we just have to get used to the elevated levels of unemployment that come with that. Yet, other spin doctors are talking about the innovation revolution, the second machine-age, where the march of the robots who will be embedded with AI that will make them smarter than us, big data, automation, the Internet of Things, and more will render work obsolete. In both cases, apparently, the introduction of a guaranteed income is recommended. Suspicious? Then there is more. When CEOs of big companies start advocating a policy that they claim will improve the lot of workers I become immediately suspicious. And why would people with a progressive bent advocate policies that are part of the continuing conservative ambition to achieve social control and which essentially amount to an abandonment of responsibility that government has for maintaining employment for those who cannot otherwise find jobs? So what is with this rush of support for a basic income guarantee (BIG) from all sides of politics??