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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.