The media has been giving a lot of attention in the last week to the 10-year anniversary of the Lehman Brothers crash which occurred on September 15, 2008 and marked the realisation, after months of denial, that there was a financial crisis underway. Lots of articles have been published recently about what we have learned from this historical episode. I thought that the Rolling Stone article by Matt Taibbi (September 13, 2018) – Ten Years After the Crash, We’ve Learned Nothing – pretty much summed it up. We have learned very little. Commentators still construct the crisis as a sovereign debt problem and demand that governments reduce fiscal deficits to give them ‘space’ to defend the economy in the next crisis. They are also noting that the balance sheets of the non-government sector components – households and firms – are looking rather precarious. They also tie that in with flat wages growth and a run down in household saving. But the link between the fiscal data and the non-government borrowing data is never made. So we are moving headlong into the next crisis with very little understanding of the relationship between government and non-government. And we are increasingly relying on private sector debt buildup to fund growth as governments retreat. Everything about that is wrong.
This is Part 3 (and final) of my series responding to an iNET claim that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and mainstream macroeconomics were essentially at one in the way they understand the economy but differ on matters of which policy instrument (fiscal or monetary) to assign to counter stabilisation duties. In Part 1, I demonstrated how the core mainstream macroeconomic concepts bear no correspondence with the core MMT concepts, so it was surprising that someone would try to run an argument that the practical differences were really about policy assignment. In Part 2, we saw how the iNET authors created a stylised version of mainstream macroeconomics that ignored the fundamental building blocks (how they reach their conclusions about the real world), which means that they ignore important differences in the way MMT economists and mainstream macroeconomists interpret a given economic state. I will elaborate on that in this final part. Further, by reducing the body of work now known as MMT to be just ‘functional finance’, the iNET authors also, effectively, abandon any valid comparison between MMT and the mainstream, although they do not acknowledge that sleight of hand.
This is Part 2 of a three-part response to an iNET article (September 6, 2018) – Mainstream Macroeconomics and Modern Monetary Theory: What Really Divides Them?. In Part 1, I considered what we might take to the core body of mainstream macroeconomics and used the best-selling textbook from Gregory Mankiw as the representation. The material in that textbook is presented to students around the world as the current state of mainstream economic theory. While professional papers and policy papers might express the concepts more technically (formally), it is hard to claim that Mankiw’s representation is not representative of what current mainstream macroeconomics is about. Part 1 showed that there is little correspondence between the core propositions represented by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and the mainstream. Yet, the iNET authors want to claim that the differences between the two approaches to macroeconomics only really come down to a difference in “assignment of policy instruments” – jargon for MMT prefers fiscal policy while the mainstream prefers monetary policy as the primary counter-stabilising tool. Given the lack of conceptual and theoretical correspondence demonstrated in Part 1, it would seem surprising that there is really only just this difference in policy preference dividing MMT from the mainstream. If that was the case, then what is all the fuss about? Clearly, I consider the iNET article presents a sleight of hand and that the differences are, in fact, significant. So, in Part 2, I am tracing how the iNET authors came to their conclusion and what I think is problematic about it. This discussion will spill over into Part 3.
My office was subject to a random power failure for most of today because some greedy developer broke power lines in our area. So I am way behind and what was to be a two-part blog series will now have to extend into Wednesday (as a three-part series). That allows me more time today to catch up on other writing commitments. The three-part series will consider a recent intervention that was posted on the iNET site (September 6, 2018) – Mainstream Macroeconomics and Modern Monetary Theory: What Really Divides Them?. At the outset, the iNET project has been very disappointing. Very little ‘new’ economic thinking comes from it – its offerings are virtually indistinguishable from the New Keynesian consensus that dominates my profession. The GFC revealed how impoverished that consensus is. It has also given space for Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) to establish itself as a credible alternative body of theory (and practice). The problem is that the iNET initiative has been captured by the mainstream. And so the Groupthink continues. The article I refer to above is very disappointing. It claims to offer a synthesis between Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and mainstream macroeconomics by way of highlighting “what really divides” the two schools of thought. You might be surprised to know that according to these authors there is not much difference – only that mainstream economists think that monetary policy should be privileged to look after full employment and price stability and MMT economists (apparently) think fiscal policy should have that role. The authors claim that for the on-looker these minor differences are opaque in terms of outcomes (if the policies are applied properly) and suggest that there is really no reason for any debate at all. Accordingly, the New Keynesian consensus is just fine and the mainstream economists knew all the MMT stuff all along. It is an extraordinary exercise in sleight of hand engineered by constructing the comparison in terms of two ‘approaches’ that cull the main aspects of each. The real issue is why would they waste their time. Degenerative paradigms (or research programs in Imre Lakatos’ terminology) typically try to absorb challenging paradigms that, increasingly have more credibility and appeal, back into the mainstream through various dodges – ‘special case’, ‘we knew it all before’, ‘really nothing new’, etc. This is Part 1 of my response. It won’t be an easy three-part series but stick with it and I hope it gives you a lot of insights into the abysmal state of the mainstream macroeconomics profession.
In yesterday’s blog post – Australian national accounts – growth continues but deep uncertainty looms (September 5, 2018), my theme was that the current period of economic growth in Australia was being built on what we might consider to be quicksand – increasing household debt and a run-down in household saving. Australia’s household saving ratio is now down to 1 per cent and falling, which is taking us back to the madness of pre-GFC. By any stretch this is an unsustainable growth path. Last Monday (September 3, 2018), the Australian Bureau of Statistics published their data series – Business Indicators, Australia, June 2018 and – Retail Trade, Australia, July 2018. The latter gives a more recent estimate of what the economy is doing, given the national accounts data that came out yesterday covers the period from April to June. Things are definitely not going in the right direction. The data shows that the benefits of growth are being disproportionately captured by profits and wages are lagging well behind. Overall, this is a recipe for disaster.
A short blog post today as it is Wednesday. I have also been travelling a lot and have been reading a lot. And have been otherwise distracted. But I thought this information was worth writing a few paragraphs about for the record. Last week, I wrote a blog post – The fundamental realignment of British society via fiscal austerity (July 30, 2018) – about some of the more unsavoury impacts of the British government’s austerity push. I highlighted how the current growth strategy was precarious because it was reliant on the private domestic sector accumulating increasing debt to maintain consumption growth at a time when the external sector was draining growth, private investment was weak and the government was hell bent on cutting services and infrastructure investment. The ONS data shows that “UK households have seen their outgoings surpass their income for the first time in nearly 30 years” and they “are borrowing more and saving less”. A recipe for disaster. A report published in Australia late last week – 14th Household Financial Comfort Report (August 2018) – provides “in-depth and critical insights into the financial situation of Australians based on a survey of 1,500 households”. It is not a pretty story and demonstrates the global uniformity of the neoliberal approach, which is characterised on ever increasing private debt and falling commitments to sustain public services. The GFC only temporarily interrupted this agenda that aims to reverse decades of gains for workers and their families under social democratic governments.
It is Wednesday and so a shorter blog post today while I spend more time writing other things. But there was one issue that was raised in the comments in the last week following my blog post – Build it in Britain is just sensible logic (July 26, 2018) – that I thought warranted attention. The government is not a household is a core Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) proposition because it separates the currency issuer from the currency user and allows us to appreciate the constraints that each has on its spending capacities. In the case of a household, there are both real and financial resource constraints which limit its spending and necessitate strategies being put in place to facilitate that spending (getting income, running down savings, borrowing, selling assets). In the case of a currency-issuing government the only constraints beyond the political are the available real resource that are for sale in that currency. Beyond that, the government sector thus assumes broad responsibilities as the currency issuer, which are not necessarily borne by individual consumers. Its objectives are different. Which brings trade into the picture. Another core MMT proposition is that imports are a benefit and exports are a cost. So why would I support Jeremy Corbyn’s Build it in Britain policy, which is really an import competing strategy? Simple, the government is not a household.
It is Wednesday and my blog-light day. I am travelling a lot today and so have little time anyway for blog activities. Today, though, I reflect on the current demand by the conservatives in Australia to privatise our national broadcaster. This is a brazen attempt by mindless people, who are scared of knowing about the world beyond their own prejudices and sense of entitlement, to shut down a broadcaster they perceive to be an ideological threat. The amusing aspect is that this lot are too stupid to realise that the ABC is not left-leaning anyway. It increasingly runs news and economic commentary that is neoliberal to the core! But it remains that a public broadcaster has an essential role to play in a media landscape where profit rules content. The ABC has a long tradition of providing quality programs and analysis and while it has gone off the rails in recent years with its economic analysis (bowing to the neoliberal norm) it still provides excellent material to the public without advertisements that the commercial broadcasters have (and would never) provide. I also have some nice music offerings today.
Although this blog post considers some very technical material its message is simple. Mainstream macroeconomic models that are used to determine policy choices by governments are deeply flawed and the evidence strongly supports a central thrust of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – that fiscal policy is powerful and that austerity will kill growth. In that sense, it helps us understand why various nations and blocs (such as the Eurozone) struggled after the onset of the GFC. It also explains why the deliberate attack on Greek prosperity by the Troika was so successful in demolishing any prospect of growth – an outcome that the official dogma resolutely denied as they constructed one vicious bailout after another. It also explains why New Keynesian approaches to macroeconomics are flawed and should be ignored. I was reminded this week by a research paper I had read last year (thanks Adam for the reminder) which presents a devastating critique (though muted in central bank speak) of the mainstream approach to macroeconomic modelling. A research paper from the ECB (May 2017, No 2058) – On the sources of business cycles: implications for DSGE models – provides a categorical critique of DSGE models and a range of other stunts that mainstream economists have tried to introduce to get away from the obvious – economic cycles are demand driven.
I was going to write about the situation in Timor-Leste after its national elections were held on Saturday. But I will hold that over for another day as I get some more information. So today, I think we can learn a lot from an issue raised in the Bloomberg article (May 14, 2018) – Kuroda’s Stimulus Saves Japan $45 Billion, Easing Debt Pressures – which discusses the QE program in Japan and introduces several of the basic errors that mainstream financial commentators make when discussing these issues. The article traverses all the usual suspects including the misconception that numbers in official accounts are ‘costs’ to government and that smaller numbers in official accounts mean the government can put larger numbers in other accounts than it might have been able to. These articles are as pervasive as they are erroneous. Hopefully, as the precepts of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) spread and are understood more journalists will endure scrutiny of the rubbish they write and the public commentary and debate will progress towards a more reasonable – realistic – appraisal of what is going on in the world of finance and money. This article is one of the worst I have read this year so far. And there have been some real terrors!