This is the second part of a three-part series discussing the political issues that give me confidence in the primacy of fiscal policy over monetary policy. The series is designed to help readers see that the recent criticisms of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) as being politically naive and unworkable in a real politic sense have all been addressed in the past. In Part 1, I gave examples of how ‘agile’ or ‘nimble’ fiscal policy can be when an elected government has it in their mind to use their spending and taxation capacities to change the direction of the non-government economic cycle. It is simply untrue that fiscal policy is inflexible and cannot make effective, well-designed policy interventions. In this second part, I will address aspects of how such interventions might be organised. Specifically, some people have advocated that MMT might replace the so-called ‘independent’ central bank, with an ‘independent’ fiscal authority, which they seem to think would take the ‘politics’ out of fiscal policy decision-making and focus it on advancing the well-being of the people. The intentions might be sound but the idea is the anathema of what progressives, interested in maintaining democratic accountability would propose. I consider such an independent fiscal authority would constitute the continuation of the neoliberal practice of depoliticisation and further increase the democratic deficit that is common in our nations these days. Politicians are elected to take responsibility and make decisions on our behalf. They should be always be held accountable for those decisions and not be allowed to defer responsibility to an external source (like an ‘independent’ central bank or an external fiscal authority).
I did an interview overnight with a WSJ journalist from London on the ‘political’ aspects of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). This blog post covers some of that conversation, although I started writing this a few weeks ago. Regular readers will recall I was promising a post about the ‘nimbleness’ of fiscal policy. That promise instigated the request from the WSJ. When I write about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), I try to be careful to distinguish between what we might consider the core MMT principles (theory, description, accounting) and the imposition of my own values (political and otherwise) that is informed by those core principles. That separation is important and should (but doesn’t) stop others misrepresenting the core principles by appealing to proposals that might flow from the value imposition. An example of this separation (and confusion), a topic which I receive many E-mails from people which seek clarification, is the concept of setting up an independent fiscal authority. The proposal to establish such an authority is not a core MMT principle. It might reflect an opinion that has been expressed by someone writing about MMT but that is as far as it goes. For the record, I am deeply opposed to establishing such an authority. It would constitute the continuation of the neoliberal practice of depoliticisation and further increase the democratic deficit that is common in our nations these days. Politicians are elected to take responsibility and make decisions on our behalf. Can we trust them? We have elections to deal with those issues. Should technocrats rule? Technocrats do not stand for election. They give advice but have no democratic responsibility. Is fiscal policy agile enough to be an effective source of counter-stabilisation against the non-government spending cycle? That is what this blog post is about. This is Part 1 of a three-part series. Part 2 will be published on Monday.
While many mainstream economists have been coming out to defend their reputations against the growing awareness that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) presents a direct challenge to their hegemony, some of the mainstream haven’t responded at all and continue to confirm what the standard mainstream macroeconomics is about and how far removed from MMT it really is. The MMT critics claim that there is nothing new in MMT (‘we knew it all along’) in one breathe, and then ‘MMT is crazy dangerous’ in another, without seemingly realising how conflicted that juxtaposition is. But when leading mainstreamers, who are not engaging with the public MMT discussion going on, publish their Op Ed pieces, we gain an insight into what the mainstream is really about despite all the attempts by other mainstreamers to co-opt as much of MMT as they can while still claiming it is crazy. A recent Op Ed article in the Wall Street Journal (March 20, 2019) – The Debt Crisis Is Coming Soon – by Harvard economics professor Martin Feldstein – is a great demonstration of the DNA of mainstream macroeconomics. MMT presents a diametrically opposed view to this standard mainstream analysis. There is no correspondence possible between the two positions.
It is Wednesday – so just a few observations and then we get down a bit dirty (funky that is). Today, I consider the GND a bit, critics of MMT, Japan, and more. Never a dull moment really. I didn’t really intend writing much but when you piece together a few thoughts, the words flow and so it is. The main issue is the recurring one – the lets have a little, some or no MMT narrative. This misconception regularly crops up in social media (blog posts, Twitter etc) and tells me that people are still not exactly clear about what MMT is, even those who hold themselves as speaking for MMT in one way or another. As I have written often, MMT is not a regime that you ‘apply’ or ‘switch to’ or ‘introduce’. An application of this misconception is prominent at the moment in the Green New Deal discussions. The argument appears to be that we should not tie progressive policies (for example, the Green New Deal) to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) given the hostility that many might have for the latter but who are sympathetic with the former. Apparently, it is better to couch the Green New Deal in mainstream macroeconomic concepts to make the idea acceptable to the population. That sounds like accepting Donald Trump’s current ravings about the scourge of socialism. It amounts to deliberately lying to the public about one aspect of the economics of the GND just to get support for the interventions. I doubt anyone who thinks democracy is a good thing would support such a public scam. And so it goes.
The – Final Report – from Australia’s Royal Commission into to Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry was released to the public yesterday. The Commission was conducted under highly restricted terms of reference and barely scratched the surface of what goes on in this sector because the conservative federal government that was finally forced into establishing it didn’t want their mates to be exposed. Even so, the Report reveals massive fraud, deception and all manner of cheating behaviour from the major players in the financial sector. But its recommendations are pathetic. It is highly likely that no-one will go to jail for their criminal misconduct and no board member will lose anything as a result of their incompetence. Yet, if an indigenous Australia commits a minor infraction they go straight to jail to not pass go! It is also clear than commentators who appear in influential media publications and predict the worse then steer their readers to financial services they offer themselves should be held to account for the veracity of their claims. If a commentator is making money from their predictions then they should be subject to professional negligence claims if these predictions are systematically incorrect. That shift in law would prevent outlandish and wrongful commentary entering the public domain and influencing the way unsuspecting and/or unknowing customers invest their savings.
Remember back in early 2009, when the then head of the European Central Bank Jean-Claude Trichet (boasted that the “euro … is a success … it helps to secure prosperity in participating states”. He was still making these claims in October 2018. At an event in honour of he and former German finance minister Theodor Waigel, organised by the Banque de France, Trichet said that “the euro is a historic success … in terms of credibility, resilience, adaptability, popular support and real growth during its first 20 years is impressive”. He particularly singled out the “delivery of price stability”. Well the latest data confirms beyond doubt that the ECB has failed to deliver on its price stability charter. Further, the descent back into recession in Italy and probably Germany in the December-quarter 2018 tells us that this reliance on monetary policy to stimulate growth while maintaining ridiculous levels of fiscal rectitude has undermined growth and unnecessarily condemned millions to unemployment and rising poverty.
This is the second and final part of this cameo set, which aims to clear up a few major blind spots in peoples’ embrace with Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). This is all repetition. I don’t apologise for that and it does not reflect a slack or bad editorial approach from yours truly as some critics have claimed. Repetition is how we learn. Reinforcing things in different ways (aka repetition) helps people come to terms with concepts and ideas that give them dissonance. MMT is certainly about dissonance as the current level of hostility towards our work is demonstrating. It is also challenging existing ‘fiefdoms’ in the academy and beyond, which also creates aggression and retaliation. The problem is that most of the current criticism merely rehearses the same tired lines of inquiry. A stack of mainstream (New Keynesian) economists now regularly claim they ‘knew it all along’. The short and truthful response is – ‘no they didn’t. The standard mainstream macroeconomic theory cannot accommodate MMT principles unless it jettisons its core propositions and becomes something else. At any rate, as noted in – Operationalising core MMT principles – Part 1 – I am happy to help clarify quandaries that newcomers have with MMT if they are genuinely trying to work out what it is all about. I have no desire to interact with ‘critics’ who are just defending mainstream macroeconomics in its death throes and have no genuine interest in really understanding MMT beyond the superficial and no penchant for reading the now lengthy body of work we have generated in the academic literature. Yesterday, I considered a typical inquiry about an important operational detail of implementing a Job Guarantee. Today, I consider a related topic. If a government is facing a situation where it needs to shift workers to the Job Guarantee pool to stabilise inflation, how does it do that? The ‘critics’ often claim we only advocate tax increases to fight inflation and because they are politically tricky to engineer MMT essentially fails to have an effective price anchor. Today, I bring together many past blog posts to summarise the MMT position on counter-stabilising fiscal policy for those that might be struggling to put it all together.
In yesterday’s short blog post – Some Brexit dynamics while across the Channel Europe is in denial (January 2, 2019), I noted that various European Commission officials were boasting about how great the monetary union had been over the last 20 years. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had the audacity (and delusion) to claim it had “delivered prosperity and protection to our citizens. it has become a symbol of unity, sovereignty and stability”. I think he was either drunk or in a parallel universe or both. I provided two graph (GDP growth and employment) to show how poorly performed the monetary union has been since its inception. Today, I want to bring to your attention a Bank of International Settlements (BIS) research report which categorically finds that the European banks during the pre-crisis period not only fuelled the massive boom in sub-prime loans and doomed-to-fail assets that were floating around at the time, but also “enabled the housing booms in Ireland and Spain”. Rather than the US banking system being primarily responsible for the pre-crash buildup of private debt, the European banks were also helping the “leveraging-up of US households”. The “European banks produced, not just invested in, US mortgage-backed securities”. This role is not well understood or recognised. And it was because the Single Market mentality of the neoliberal European Union which abandoned proper prudential oversight and regulation allowed it to happen. So much for “prosperity”, “protection” and “stability”.
On December 19, 2018, the Federal Reserve Bank Open Market Committee (FOMC), which determines the monetary policy settings in the US, increased the policy interest rate by 25 basis points to 2.5 per cent, as part of its plan to ‘normalise’ monetary policy. Even within the parameters of their own logic, it is hard to see any inflation threat. Long-term inflationary expectations suggest that people expect an unchanged situation over the next decade. Which suggests that the current unemployment rate is not seen as a threat to the price level. Now, while the FOMC decision may or may not cause some slow down in real GDP growth, given the blunt and ambiguous nature of monetary policy adjustments, the really disturbing aspect of the policy change is the fact that the FOMC members were plotting to push up unemployment by more than 1.2 million people as a plan to lower the inflation rate by a few basis points. Not only is that an obscene revelation but the fact that the FOMC use economic models that cannot tell them that the economic costs of such a shift are massive compared to any benefits that might arise from a slightly lower inflation rate tells us that policy is being made using deeply flawed, useless economic theory and models. Moral bankruptcy and incompetence rules.
This is the second and final part in my discussion about the latest attempts by the IMF and notable New Keynesian macroeconomists to keep the ‘fiscal contraction expansion’ lie alive. The crisis in Italy is once again giving these characters a ‘playing field’ to rehearse their destructive ideas that rose to prominence during the worst days of the GFC, when the European Commission and the IMF (along with the OECD and other groups) touted the idea of ‘growth friendly’ austerity. Nations were told that if they savagely cut public spending their economies would grow because interest rates would be lower and private investment would more than fill the gap left by the spending cuts. History tells us that the application of this nonsense caused devastation throughout, with Greece being the showcase nation. The damage and carnage left by the application of these mainstream New Keynesian ideas are still reverberating in elevated unemployment rates, high poverty rates, broken communities and increased suicide rates, to name a few of the pathologies it engendered. In their article – The Italian Budget: A Case of Contractionary Fiscal Expansion? – Olivier Blanchard and Jeromin Zettlemeyer, from the Peter Peterson Institute for International Economics continue to argue the case for austerity in Italy as the only way to engender growth. In this second part of my analysis of their argument I show that there is little evidential basis for concluding that Italy is a special case. I argue that imposing fiscal austerity on Italy will turn out badly. The broader conclusion is that the mainstream economics profession has learned very little from the GFC. For them the story stays the same. It is one that we should reject in every circle it arises.