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My response to a German critic of MMT – Part 1

Makroskop is a relatively new media publication in Germany edited by Heiner Flassbeck and Paul Steinhardt. It brings some of the ideas from Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and other analysis to German-language readers. It is not entirely sympathetic to MMT, differing on the importance of exchange rates. But it is mostly sympathetic. I declined to be a regular contributor when invited at the time they were starting the publication not because I objected to their mission (which I laud) but because their ‘business model’ was a subscription-based service and I consider my work to be open source and available to all, irrespective of whether one has the capacity or the willingness to pay. But I have agreed to contribute occasionally if the material is made open source, an exception to their usual material. Recently, the editors approached me to respond to an article they published from a German political scientist – Modern Monetary Theory: Einwände eines wohlwollenden Zweiflers or in English: Modern Monetary Theory – Questions from a Friendly Critic. The article constitutes the first serious engagement with MMT by German academics and thus warrants attention. Even if you cannot read German you will still be able to glean what the main issues raised in the German article were by the way I have written the English response. The issues raised are of general interest and allow some key principles of MMT to be explicated, which explains why I have taken the time to write a three-part response. Today is Part 1.

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Where do we get the funds from to pay our taxes and buy government debt?

I have been (involuntarily) copied into a rather lengthy Twitter exchange in the last week or so where a person who says he is ‘all over MMT’ (meaning I presume, that he understands its basic principles and levels of abstraction and subtlety) has been arguing ad nauseum that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) proponents are a laughing stock when they claim that taxes and debt-issuance do not fund the spending of a currency-issuing government. He points to the existing institutional structures in the US whereby tax receipts apparently go into a specific account at the central bank and governments are prevented from spending unless the account balance is positive. Also implicated, apparently, is the on-going sham about the ‘debt ceiling’, which according to the argument presented on Twitter is testament to the ‘fact’ that government deficits are funded by borrowings obtained from debt issuance. I received many E-mails about this issue in the last week from readers of my blog wondering what the veracity of these claims were – given they thought (in general) they sounded ‘convincing’. Were the original MMT proponents really overstating the matter and were these accounting arrangements evidence that in reality the government has to raise both tax revenue and funds from borrowing in order to deficit spend? Confusion reigns supreme it seems. Once one understands the underlying nature of the financial flows associated with government spending and taxation, it will become obvious that the argument presented above is superficial at best and fails to come to terms with the basic questions: where do the funds come from that we use to pay our taxes and buy government debt? Once we dig down to that level, the matter resolves quickly.

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The New Keynesian fiscal rules that mislead British Labour – Part 3

This is Part 3 (and final) in the series which examines the robustness of claims made by two British academics about the desirability of the British government (particularly Labour) adopting further fiscal constraints on their flexibility to advance well-being in that nation. Part 3 further develops the critique and focuses on the validity of tightening voluntary constraints on government and outsourcing key parts of the fiscal policy development process to so-called ‘independent’ fiscal councils or boards. We conclude that these suggestions would further entrench the neoliberal dominance of government policy and reduce its capacity to serve the wider interest. In effect, taking this sort of advice would be counterproductive for British Labour, which really needs to to further break out of its recent Blairite neoliberal past and present a truly progressive manifesto to the British people that will force the Tories to move closer to the centre and squeeze the extreme right-wing elements. This will require more than articulating progressive-sounding social and environmental policies. It will require more than proposals to renationalise the railways. Effectively, British Labour has to reframe the macroeconomic debate and eschew the sort of reasoning that the mainstream of my profession offers. It must, in my view, embrace Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) principles to free itself from the shackles of all the neoliberal mumbo jumbo that the New Keynesians continually offer as economic verities. The reality is the the New Keynesian approach has one output – an elaborate litany of lies.

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The New Keynesian fiscal rules that mislead British Labour – Part 2

This is Part 2 of my Three Part exposition of how the standard New Keynesian approach to the specification of fiscal rules will generate poor advice for politicians desiring to achieve progressive socio-economic goals. The paper I am using to represent the New Keynesian approach has, by all indications, been somewhat influential in the formation of the macroeconomic approach currently being espoused by the British Labour Party. In that sense, the critique aims to disabuse the Labour politicians and their apparatchiks of building policy options based on fake economic knowledge, and, instead, embrace the principles of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which provides an accurate depiction of how the monetary system actually operates and the policy options for a currency-issuing government such as in Britain, and the likely consequences of deploying these options. The one major lesson that comes out is that the New Keynesian approach is an elaborate fraud. It plays around with so-called ‘optimising’ models asserting human behaviour that no other social scientist believes remotely captures the essence of human decision-making, and then derives conclusions from these models that are claimed to apply to the world we live in. Prior to the GFC, these ‘models’ didn’t even consider the financial sector. The fact is that nothing of value in terms of specifying what a government should do can be gleaned from a New Keynesian approach. It is barren.

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The New Keynesian fiscal rules that mislead British Labour – Part 1

The British Labour Party is currently leading the Tories in the latest YouGov opinion polls (February 19-20, Tories 40 per cent (and declining), Labour 42 per cent (and rising). They should be further in front, given the disarray of the Conservatives as they try to negotiate within their own party something remotely acceptable about Brexit. When there is this degree of political capital available, in this case for the Labour Party, a party should use it to redefine policy agendas that have gone awry. To build a narrative that will advance their cause for the future decades. British Labour has a chance to break out of its recent Blairite neoliberal past and present a truly progressive manifesto to the British people that will force the Tories to move closer to the centre and squeeze the extreme right-wing elements. In part, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, Labour is making progressive noises on a number of fronts. But ultimately, where it really matters – the macroeconomic narrative – they are remaining firmly neoliberal and this will blight their chances of pursuing a truly progressive agenda. One of the glaring mistakes the Labour Party has made is to accept advice from neoliberal economists (so-called New Keynesians) who have instilled in them a need for fiscal rules. This is a three-part analysis of the sort of advice that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are getting and why they should ignore it. I have split it into two parts because it is long and quite involved at times.

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Planning public works – history has a lot to say if we listen properly

A few weeks ago, in my three part series answering questions about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), I addressed the issue often raised about the fiscal policy emphasis in MMT, that it is difficult to time government spending injections to match the cyclical need. These criticisms go back a long way and were used by the likes of Milton Friedman to build up his case against discretionary fiscal activism in favour of monetary rules. Of course, that was an ideological preference, given the Monetarists wanted ‘small’ government and technocrats implementing economic policy. The basic precepts of Monetarism have not stood the test of time and the GFC and its aftermath have showed, beyond doubt, that monetary policy is an ineffective means of stimulating aggregate spending and that fiscal policy is the best way to counter non-government spending collapses. In those blogs, I outlined several ways in which fiscal policy could overcome ‘timing’ issues and deliver prompt stimulus when needed and be able to contract the stimulus in a timely manner once non-government confidence and spending had recovered. The points I raised are not new and have been discussed and made operational many times in the past. A tweet from my MMT colleague Stephanie Kelton last week reminded us of this again when the US National Resources Planning Board (NPP) was mentioned with a link to the The Internet Archive is a “non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more” and is a fabulous resource for researchers. Reading the Report from the NPP is like music to the ears! History has a lot to say if we listen properly.

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An MMT response to Jared Bernstein – Part 3

This is the third and final part of my response to an article posted by American political analyst Jared Berstein (January 7, 2018) – Questions for the MMTers. In this blog I deal with the last question that he poses to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists, which relates to whether currency issuing governments have to raise revenue in order to “pay for public goods” and whether prudent policy requires the cyclically-adjusted fiscal balance to be zero at full employment to ensure “social insurance programs” are protected. The answer to both queries is a firm No! But there are nuances that need to be explained in some detail. While Jared Bernstein represents a typical ‘progressive’ view of macroeconomics and is sympathetic to some of the core propositions of MMT, this three-part series has shown that the gap between that (neoliberal oriented) view and Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is wide. 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. For space reasons, I have decided to make this a three-part response. I also hope the three-part series have helped those who already embrace the core body of MMT to deepen their knowledge and render them more powerful advocates in the struggle against the destructive dominant macroeconomics of neoliberalism.

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An MMT response to Jared Bernstein – Part 2

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.

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An MMT response to Jared Bernstein – Part 1

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.

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Reclaiming the State

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.

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