It is my Wednesday blog post and my relative ‘blog day off’. But there has been an issue I want to write briefly about that has come up recently and has become a recurring theme. I am writing today to put the matter on the public record so that spurious claims that arise elsewhere have no traction. As our Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) work gains popularity, all manner of critics have started coming out of the woodwork. There is now, quite a diversity of these characters, reflecting both ends of the ideological spectrum and places in-between. The mainstream economists and those who profess to be ‘free marketeers’ bring out their big guns pretty quickly – inflation and socialism/Stalinism. Standard stuff that any progressive proposal to use government fiscal policy gets bombarded with since time immemorial. Easily dismissed. More recently, those who claim to be on the ‘progressive’ side of the debate have become more vociferous in their attacks, sensing, I suspect, that MMT have supplanted their relevance as the defenders of the anti-neoliberal wisdom. These characters resort to all sorts of snide-type attacks ranging from accusations of anti-Semitism (which I have covered previously), siding with Wall Street, ‘America-first corporatist sycophants’ (latest ridiculous book from G. Epstein as an example), giving succour to fascists and the Alt-Right, and that sort of stuff. Today, I want to address that last claim, which recently has been raised by a number of so-called progressive critics.
It is now clear that to most observers that the use of monetary policy to stimulate major changes in economic activity in either direction is fraught. Central bankers in many nations have been pulling all sorts of policy ‘rabbits’ out of the hat over the last decade or more and their targets have not moved as much or in many cases in the direction they had hoped. Not only has this shown up the lack of credibility of mainstream macroeconomics but it is now leading to a major shift in policy thinking, which will tear down the neoliberal shibboleths that the use of fiscal policy as a counter-stabilisation tool is undesirable and ineffective. In effect, there is a realignment going on between policy responsibility and democratic accountability, something that the neoliberal forces worked hard to breach by placing primary responsibility onto the decisions of unelected and unaccountable monetary policy committees. And this shift is bringing new players to the fore who are intent on denying that even fiscal policy can stave off major downturns in non-government spending. These sort of attacks from a mainstream are unsurprising given its credibility is in tatters. But they are also coming from the self-proclaimed Left, who seem opposed to a reliance on nation states, and in the British context, this debate is caught up in the Brexit matter, where the Europhile Left are pulling any argument they can write down quickly enough to try to prevent Britain leaving the EU, as it appears it now will (and that couldn’t come quickly enough).
It is Wednesday and a quite blog writing day for me. I have to catch a flight a bit later and finish some other things before I do that. But I receive a lot of E-mails from readers puzzled by the fact that the low-interest rate environment (even negative) has not stimulated economic activity to the point of accelerating inflation. As part of the paradigm shift that is now, finally, occurring in macroeconomic policy-making, the RBA governor Phillip Lowe continued his theme that monetary policy has basically exhausted its counter-stabilisation potential, when he made his – Remarks at Jackson Hole Symposium (August 25, 2019). He talked about the “the elevated expectations that monetary policy can deliver economic prosperity” against the reality that central banks do not have “the best lever” to manage the economy. This theme has been expressed by many central bankers now. And there is emerging research to show that the low-interest rate environment is actually achieving the opposite – reducing the inflationary pressures. This is no surprise to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists. Our basic presumption is that monetary policy is an ineffective tool for modifying aggregate spending and that rising interest rates, which are designed to quell inflationary pressures, probably actually intensify those pressures through their impact on business costs. Today, I will briefly discuss a paper I read yesterday that adds to the growing research evidence on this theme.
This is Part 2 (and final) in my discussion about what the financial markets might learn from gaining a Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) understanding. I noted in Part 1 – that the motivation in writing this series was the increased interest being shown by some of the large financial sector entities (investment banks, sovereign funds, etc) in MMT, which is manifesting in the growing speaking invitations I am receiving. This development tells me that our work is gaining traction despite the visceral, knee-jerk attacks from the populist academic type economists (Krugman, Summers, Rogoff, and all the rest that have jumped on their bandwagon) who are trying to save their reputations as their message becomes increasingly vapid. While accepting these invitations raises issues about motivation – they want to make money, I want to educate – these groups are influential in a number of ways. They help to set the pattern of investment (both in real and financial terms), they hire graduates and can thus influence the type of standards deemed acceptable, and they influence government policy. Through education one hopes that these influences help turn the tide away from narrow ‘Gordon Gekko’ type behaviour towards advancing a dialogue and policy structure that improves general well-being. I also hope that it will further create dissonance in the academic sphere to highlight the poverty (fake knowledge) of the mainstream macroeconomic orthodoxy.
If there were two lessons that can be taken from the GFC among others then we should know, once and for all, that, first, monetary policy (in all its glorious forms these days) is not a very effective tool for influencing the level of economic activity nor the price level, and, second, that fiscal policy is very effective in manipulating total spending and activity. Of course, those lessons provided the evidence that turned macroeconomics on its head because for several decades, as the Monetarist surge morphed into all manner of variants, tried to eulogise the primacy of monetary policy and rejected the use of fiscal policy. There were all sorts of justifications – time invariance, lags, politicians cannot be trusted, etc – but at the heart of the shift towards supposedly independent central banks was the political desire to neuter the capacity of governments to use their currency capacity to advance the well-being of the many, while at the same time, using that same capacity to advance the interests and real income shares of the few. Depoliticisation worked a treat for the top-end-of-town. The problem is that the lessons have not been learned and all manner of commentators still think that monetary policy is the king. Eventually, we will move beyond that but the pain of holding on to the myth is damaging for people, especially those who are without work, are underemployed or have been forced into early retirement by the poor economic performance in this austerity-biased era.
The debates about MMT are expanding. There are weird offerings springing up each day. I read something yesterday about how MMT is really just Marxism in disguise and therefore a plot to overthrow entrepreneurship. Well in a socialist society there will still be a monetary system! Most of the critiques just get to their point quickly – MMT is about wild printing presses undermining the value of the currency! That should summarise 25 years of our work nicely. But there are also other developments on a global scale. A few weeks ago there was a lengthy debate in the Japanese parliament during a House of Representatives Committee hearing considering whether the October sales tax hikes should continue. The Finance Minister, Taro Aso was confronted by Committee members who indicated that it was useless denying that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) was some abstract theory that was wrong because the Japanese are already “doing it”. The Minister told the hearing that MMT was dangerous and would undermine financial markets if anyone said otherwise. An interesting discussion took place. It highlighted some key features of MMT. It also indicates that progress is being made in the process of education aimed at giving people a better understanding of how the monetary system that we live within operates.
Its Wednesday, so just a short blog post. I had a day of meetings and other commitments today. But we have some fun at the IMF to discuss (briefly). On April 11, 2019, IMF boss Madame Lagarde gave a press conference to open the 2019 Spring Meetings. The Transcript – includes the Madame waxing lyrical about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). And you might have confused the press conference for a stand-up comedy routine except you would have to be ‘in the know’ to laugh. But the significant aspect of the conference came when a question from Japan focused on MMT. In attempting to put down our work, Madame Lagarde actually admitted that a situation where the government runs big fiscal deficits, has a large-scale and on-going public debt-issuance program, where the central bank buys substantial proportions of that issuance, apparently ‘works’ under conditions that the currency-issuing government can always control. MMT 101. QED. Have a laugh.
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.
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.