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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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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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