This is the third part in a on-going series that I am writing about Deep Adaptation, Degrowth and related concepts, all of which are designed to provide some sort of pathway beyond the current mess that the world is in with respect to climate, inequality, poverty, excessive consumption, and excessive population growth. Today, I consider how Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) fits into the transition agenda and discuss the labour market dislocation that will accompany the transition to degrowth.
It’s Wednesday and today we discuss the latest inflationary expectations data from the US, which tells me that my assessment that this episode will be a transitory phenomenon, diametric to the experience of the 1979s, was sound, despite the flack I have received over the last several months. The data is now showing consistent, cross-month declines in expected inflation and the latest CPI shows an easing of the general CPI pressure. AS the supply chains return to something like pre-pandemic capacities, then the easing will continue. It is too early to say that this period of elevated CPI rises is over but it sure looks like it and wages have barely moved. Once we get our heads around that I provide some information about an interesting ‘golf’ experiment and finish with some great keyboard playing.
This is Part 2 of an irregular series I am writing on some of the complexities of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) that are often overlooked by those who rely on reading airport-style books or Op Eds on the topic. In – Exploring the essence of MMT – Part 1 (March 29, 2022) – I dealt with some conceptual issues about values and theory. Today, I am considering the way to think about the – Job Guarantee – within the MMT framework. The Job Guarantee is at the centre of MMT because it contains an insight that is missing from the mainstream economics – the concept of spending on a price rule. This insight leads to the conclusion that the price level is determined by what the monopoly issuer of the fiat currency – the government is prepared to pay for goods and services. This, in turn, means that the Job Guarantee goes well beyond being a job creation program and constitutes within MMT a comprehensive macroeconomic stability framework – where the so-called trade-off between inflation and unemployment (Phillips Curve) is eliminated. However, while in the real world, complexity enters the scene and we need to be aware of the nuances so that we do not fall into the trap of thinking of the Job Guarantee as an inflation killer.
Some years ago, I did some work for the Asian Development Bank on Pakistan and Central Asia. It was a really interesting experience because it taught me a lot about the challenges facing poorer regions who have dependencies on imported energy and food and limited export opportunities. Since then I have been studying a number of countries and am convinced that development strategies have to fundamentally change if the poorer nations are to achieve any hope of sustainable development. At present, I am working on the development of such a framework, which will incorporate the best-practices proposed by scholars who similarly reject the traditional IMF/World Bank development model. Specifically, I am focusing on Timor-Leste, which is about to stage a presidential election (March 19, 2022). Xanana Gusmão’s party – National Congress for Timorese Reconstruction (CNRT) – has backed former president Jose Ramos-Horta against the incumbent Fretilin President, Francisco Guterres and the third candidate Martinho Gusmão (United Party for Development and Democracy – PUDD). It appears that if Jose Ramos-Horta is elected, there will be a dissolution of parliament and early elections will be held after a period of political turbulence following the 2017 election. Early indications are that Ramos-Horta is well placed after the conduct of Guterres in recent years. The new government must consider a new development strategy and so I am working to provide some structure to that goal from a Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) perspective.
When I first came up with the idea of a buffer stock employment approach to maintain full employment and discipline the inflationary process (back in 1978), the literature on guaranteed incomes was still in its infancy. The idea of a basic income guarantee was still mostly constructed within the framework Milton Friedman had laid out in his negative income tax approach, which I first came across when reading his 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, while I was an undergraduate. I wasn’t taken with the idea and the preferred an approach to income security that not only integrated job security but also had a built-in inflation anchor. When I developed that idea, inflation was still conceived of the main problem and governments were fast abandoning full employment commitments because mainstream economists told them TINA. I thought otherwise. However, as I developed the buffer stock approach further in the 1990s as part of the first work that we now call Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), nuances about additional cash transfers became part of our approach. I refined those ideas in work I did developing a minimum wage framework for the South African government in 2008. I was reminded of all this when I read a report in New Scientist last week (January 24, 2022) – Giving low-income US families $4000 a year boosts child brain activity. Some might think this justifies the BIG approach, whereas it strengthens the case for a multi-dimensional – Job Guarantee.
When I was a postgraduate student at Monash University in Melbourne, I had many debates with a senior academic who would become a co-author early in my academic career, about the relative importance of choice and constraint. In the standard mainstream choice-theoretic framework, people are conceived as maximising satisfaction through the choices they make subject to the opportunity set they face (the constraints). This simplistic version of human decision-making dominates mainstream economics and leads to nonsensical conclusions such that unemployment is a voluntary state where people are choosing leisure (a good) over work (bad) to maximise their well-being because the income coming from work (a good) is not sufficient on an hourly basis to offset the disutility that work engenders. That sort of thinking permeates the discipline. My former colleague kept saying that people make choices and you cannot deny that. The discussions were in relation to poverty incidence. My position was that it is trivial to say people make choices. We do, every day, but to understand complex phenomena such as poverty, it is better to focus on the constraints. That focus is likely to be more revealing. A person can be making choices but if their opportunity set is very narrow and any choice dooms that person to poverty then it doesn’t make much sense to dwell on the ‘free’ choice angle. Structuralists also agree with my emphasis here. Earlier this year (February 8, 2021), some academics associated with MIT in the US published a working paper – Why do people stay poor – and its results are revealing.
Given I provided a detailed National Account analysis yesterday, I am using today as a blog lite day with just some snippets and then a musical offering – as per my usual Wednesday practice. I did an interview for Real Progressives last week and some of the social media reaction has been hysterical – claims that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has gone political and that MMT advocates abandoning the capitalist system and so on so forth. Some of this stuff is coming from self-identified ‘progressives’, which makes me wonder how much meaning term retains. In some cases, the attacks were really Trojan horses for the dislike of my Brexit stance or my attacks on the British Labour Party for pushing an unworkable and neo-liberal inspired fiscal credibility rule, which they had to change just before the election anyway because it was unworkable in its original form. So the resentment of those who hang onto the ‘European dream’ for the UK manifests as stupid, lying attacks on anything I say. Fine. More importantly, Switzerland is having a little ‘Brexit’ sort of move itesel, that has angered the European Union and is another chink in the now very depleted European ‘dream’. And if all that is a bit much, we can finish with some Jazz.
I noted yesterday that I was appearing at a Seminar via Zoom with my MMT colleague, Pavlina Tcherneva, where we will discuss the concept of a social contract and where Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) fits into that, especially in the context of our idea of employment guarantees. The seminar – MMT and the new social contract: Lessons from Covid-19 – will be held on Saturday, February 27, 2021, from 10:00 Australian Eastern Daylight time and you can find details of how you can participate – HERE. I was thinking about what I would contribute to this workshop and rather than just rehearse the standard discussion about the Job Guarantee I have thought going back to square one would be a good place to start. This is especially a good thing to do, given that I increasingly see progressive people embrace the concept but try to do ‘too much’ with it. That is, place too much emphasis on it, especially in the context of Green Transitions. Pouring all our activist and political energy into getting a Job Guarantee up is not a sensible strategy for reasons I will explain. Second, a lot of critics, especially those who talk big on Twitter about ‘Bill Mitchell wanting people to starve’, clearly haven’t gone back to understand the roots of the concept and where it fits in. So today, I want to further clarify some significant issues that arise when both sides – pro and con – come in contact with the concept of employment buffer stocks for the first time and think they know all about.
Yesterday, I discussed the results of recent research that demonstrated the ‘trickle down’ hypothesis, which has been used to justify the sequence of tax cuts for high income recipients, was without any empirical foundation. While mainstream economists have been enchanted with that hypothesis, heterodox (including Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists have never considered it had any validity – neither theoretical nor empirical. But it is good that mainstream researchers are now ratifying that long-held view. Today, I am discussing another case of the mainstream catching up. When I say catching up, the implications of these new empirical studies are devastating for key propositions that the mainstream macroeconomists maintain. The ECB Working Paper series published an interesting paper (No. 2509) yesterday (December 21, 2020) by an Italian economist from the Bank of Italy – Losers amongst the losers: the welfare effects of the Great Recession across cohorts. In brief, the research found that younger people bear disproportionate burdens during recession in the short-run, but also, face diminished prospects over the longer-term. The paper bears on some of the major fictions that have been propagated to disabuse governments of using fiscal deficits to smooth out the economic cycle – namely, the alleged burden that is created by the current generation’s excesses (the deficit) for their children and grandchildren (who according to the narrative have to pay back the debt incurred by the excesses). This is another case of evidence being produced that ratify the analysis that MMT economists have been advancing for the last 25 years.
Today the UK Guardian editorial – The Guardian view on Rishi Sunak: time to create jobs, not anxiety – endorsed the introduction of a Job Guarantee to alleviate the terrible unemployment situation that Britain will create in the coming 12 months. Existing programs from the British government are “too small and too reliant on private companies to help much”. Even after the pandemic is solved (hopefully via vaccine) “the unemployment crisis will remain”. That is a positive step from the Guardian. And, it runs counter to the way many progressives are viewing the solution box, with UBI still figuring among their main options. The problem is that the UBI cannot deliver on its promises to everyone. But this blog post is not about UBI. As the Job Guarantee gains more profile in the public debate, several mainstream economists are now taking aim at it. The latest attempt, which I choose not to link to because it is not worth reading in full, invokes one of the arguments that mainstream economists developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s to justify their attacks on discretionary fiscal policy and elevate rules-based monetary policy to become the primary, counter-stabilisation tool. It was, of course part of the neoliberal putsch that has seen sub-optimal outcomes ever since for most of us and superlative outcomes for the top ends of the income distribution. The reason I note this argument is because it is general in nature and should be understood. In other words, I do not have to talk about the paper that introduces this attack on the Job Guarantee, because it just mimics the standard criticisms of government policy making that have been around for ages. So any time some new government policy approach is proposed, these characters just whip out this tired old defense. But it is useful for my readers to be on the lookout for it.