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??
Life returns to a more normal situation today as I have arrived back in Australia. But I have plenty to catch up on today so to free up some time I am posting the full video of my first presentation in Maastricht (March 6, 2017) as part of the 2017 Joan Muysken lecture.
This blog will be a bit different from my normal fare. It provides insights into how entrenched a destructive and mindless neo-liberal Groupthink pervades the economics profession. For the last several years I have been on the ‘expert’ panel for the Fairfax press Annual Economic Survey. Essentially, this assembles a group of well-known economists in Australia from the market, academic and institutional (for example, union) sectors and we wax lyrical about what we expect will happen in the year ahead. To be fair, there is a large element of chance in the exercise as there is in all forecasting. So I am never one to criticise when an organisation such as the IMF or the OECD or some bank economist gets a forecast wrong. The future is uncertain and we have no formal grounds for even forming probabilistic estimates, given we cannot even assemble a probability density function (an distributional ordering of all possible events ) to extract these probabilities. So guess work is guess work and you have to be guided by experience and an understanding of how the system operates and the elements within the relevant system interact. What I do rail against is the phenomenon of systematic bias in forecast errors. For example, the IMF always predicts stronger growth than occurs when it is advocating imposing austerity (thereby underestimating the costs of the policy). The systematic bias in their errors is traceable to the flawed models they use to generate the predictions, which, in turn, reflect their ideological slant against government deficits and in favour of fiscal surpluses (as a benchmark). As luck would have it, in the 2016 round of the Fairfax Scope survey, I was fortunate enough to achieve the status of Forecaster of the Year (shared with 2 other members of the panel) – see Scope 2017 economic survey: Stephen Anthony, Bill Mitchell; and Renee Fry-McKibbin tie for forecaster of the year – for detail. I tweeted over the weekend that as a result “MMT predicts well”. There was a lot underlying that three-word Tweet and it intersected with recent events that demonstrate how far gone mainstream macroeconomics is – it is in an advanced state of denial and has lost almost all traction on the real world.
The dictionary says Post Truth is the “fact or state of being post-truth; a time period or situation in which facts have become less important than emotional persuasion”. But I prefer to be direct – not to mince words – Post Truth is lying, plain and simple. It is making stuff up that is untrue, in denial of the facts, and, in cases where volition drives the lying, using strategic and well-thought out tools of psychological persuasion, fear, threats etc to make it look as though the statements are factual rather than lies. The interesting thing for me at the moment in this respect is that we are increasingly being told we are now in this Post Truth era. That social media has created this Post Truth era and that something should be done about it. Oxford English Dictionary announced recently that the Word of the Year 2016 is…, you got it, “post-truth” which they claim is a “concept … [which] … has been in existence for the past decade”. Its use has apparently “spiked in frequency this year” as a result of the Brexit referendum and the US election. Two things then are worth noting. First, there is nothing new about the idea of lying to influence public opinion. Indeed, as I will explain (briefly) the whole edifice of mainstream economics, including New Keynesian economics has been ‘post-truth’ since its inception. Second, the fact that it is getting attention now is because the establishment are starting to feel the pinch – their usual media power is losing traction with the democratising influences of the Internet – and their cosy worlds of influence are under threat from a rabble. And this applies to so-called progressive Left (the socialist politicians in Europe, the Labour politicians in Australia, Britain and elsewhere) who have so bought into the neo-liberal myth machine that they cannot understand why they are now losing support from their traditional sources (working class people). The ‘post-truth’ era is apparently upon us. But the reality is that there is nothing new about lying in mainstream economics. It is built upon a lie. It is just that the lying that is spreading on the Internet (‘fake news sites’) are damaging the establishment. That is why they are now complaining. They have never complained about the incessant lying from the economics profession.
I am currently working on a book commissioned by Edward Elgar which will form an anthology of influential Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) literature – how it evolved – with a long introduction by me tying all this literature together. It has been a simmering project for the last 18 months and I haven’t mentioned it here until now. The first task was to assemble the literature and then the next task was that the publisher (EE) has to get copyright clearance from the original holders. The second process has taken some time and I have had to alter the proposed table of contents because we cannot get copyright clearance. The reason I mention this is that the work of Hyman Minsky is not among the literature I have selected as being influential in the intellectual development of MMT. That is not to say that some of his earlier work was of no interest. Quite the contrary. But when he makes statements that appear to be consistent with MMT propositions, he is, in my view, just channelling the likes of Abba Lerner and his functional finance. But later in his career, Minsky started to articulate ideas that were consistent with ‘sound finance’, which Lerner had opposed, and, which is anathema to MMT.
On the Wikipedia page for economist Ricardo Reis we learn he was “Influenced by: Greg Mankiw”, which basically should tell you everything. Everything that is that would lead to the conclusion that his macroeconomics is plain wrong. Yet his connections in the profession are strong and has prestigious academic appointments, is ensconced in senior editorial positions on influential economics journals, advises central banks in the US and has regular Op Ed space in a leading Portuguese newspaper (his homenation). These facts tell you what is wrong with my profession. That someone can write articles that are just so off the mark yet have significant influence in the profession and be held out in the public debate as to be someone who is worth listening to and being reported on. I have received many E-mails in the last few days about the proposal offered by Reis at Jackson Hole last week. Many readers are still confused and actually thought the proposal had credibility. Let me be clear – bank lending is not influenced by the reserve positions of the banks. Without credit-worthy borrowers lining up to access loans, the banks could have all the reserves in the world and the central bank could invoke any number of nifty ‘indexing’ or other support payment schemes on those reserves, and the banks would still not lend. And with those credit-worthy borrowers lining up to access loans, the banks will always lend irrespective of their current reserve position or the nifty support schemes the central bank might dream up. Core Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) 101!
I noted in Monday’s blog – Modern Monetary Theory – what is new about it? – that I am working on a paper (with my colleague Martin Watts) that will form the basis of a a keynote talk I will give at the – International Post Keynesian Conference – which will be held at the University of Missouri – Kansas City between September 15-18, 2016. That talk will now be held at 15:30 on Saturday, September. 17, 2016. I also listed four areas where we would discuss the novel contribution that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has made to macroeconomics, despite the claims of both mainstream economists and some Post Keynesians that there is nothing new in MMT. The first two blogs on this topic covered the juxtaposition of employment versus unemployment buffer stocks and the implications of that for how we view the Phillips curve, a central framework in macroeconomics linking inflation to developments in the real sector (unemployment etc). Today’s blog considers another section of the paper – the dynamics of fiscal deficits and public debt. We consider the difference between deficit doves, who consider fiscal deficits are appropriate under some conditions but should be balanced over some definable economic cycle, which we argue has been the standard Post Keynesian position, and the MMT approach to deficits, which considers the desirable deficit outcome at any point in time to be a function of the state of non-government spending and the utilisation of the productive capacity of the economy. We argue that fiscal rules expressed in terms of some rigid balance to GDP target are not only meaningless but dangerous. Fiscal rules in MMT are only meaningful if related to the state of non-government spending and the utilisation of the productive capacity of the economy. This body of MMT work is clearly novel and improves on the extant Post Keynesian literature in the subject which was either silent or lame on these topics.
In yesterday’s Part 1 of this two-part blog – Modern Monetary Theory – what is new about it? – I introduced the idea that a major new contribution of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) to economic theory was in its treatment of inflation and the Phillips curve. This is part of a keynote presentation I will be giving at the International Post Keynesian Conference – which will be held at the University of Missouri – Kansas City between September 15-18, 2016. The keynote presentation is scheduled for Friday, September 16 at 17:00. The topic of my keynote presentation will ‘What is new about MMT?’ and will challenge several critics from both the neo-liberal mainstream and from within the Post Keynesian family that, indeed, there is nothing new about MMT – they knew it all along! I contest that when they say this they are lying and doing so to cover up the inadequacies of their own failed analytical frameworks whether they be mainstream or Post Keynesian.