Just a short blog post today (short in research) as I devote Wednesday’s to other writing and I have to travel a lot today. More a collection of snippets that I come across over the course of a day’s work. Today, we think about Bolivia and the right-wing thugs that have overthrown a legitimate government advancing the well-being of its people. We also see senior progressive politicians falling into a myriad of lies and misconceptions about the monetary system and handing political initiative to the right wing as a consequence, even though they think they are being clever in their framing. And we think of Japan a little. And then some music offerings or two.
This is the final part of my four-part Q&A series arising from my recent trip to Japan. In this post, I answer just one question. The answer goes to the heart of the relationship between the national government (finance division) and the central bank and illustrates the complexity of reserve accounting. So it needs some background by way of education. Recall that these questions about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) were raised with me during my recent trip to Japan. The public discussion about MMT in Japan is relatively advanced (compared to elsewhere). Political activists across the political spectrum are discussing and promoting MMT as a major way of expressing their opposition to fiscal austerity in Japan. The basics of MMT are now as well understood in Japan as anywhere and so the debate has moved onto more detailed queries, particularly with regard to policy applications. So as part of my current visit to Japan, I was asked to provide some guidance on a range of issues. In my presentations I addressed these matters. But I thought it would be productive to provide some written analysis so that everyone can advance their MMT understanding.
Only a short blog post today as it is Wednesday. My father, in fact, used to say that ‘leopards do not change their spots’, when referring to people who in one period behaved one way and then when sprung would pretend they were reformed. I was thinking about that when I noted that the queue to the magical reinvention door is getting longer by the day. This is the process, whereby a person, who previously advocated neoliberal macroeconomic policy interventions from the sidelines (as an academic economist or media commentator) and/or executed them from a position of power (say, as a Treasurer or Minister of Finance), starts attacking present day governments, who inherited their own fiscal surplus obsessions, and are, like they did themselves, driving their economies into the ground as a result of the same obsessions. Who is in the spotlight today? None other than the former Australian Treasurer, Paul Keating who was reported in the press this morning (October 30, 2019) – Paul Keating slams Liberal party ‘surplus virus’ (paywall) – as being critical of the current government for keeping the “Australian economy ‘idling at the lights'” as a result of “running Australia’s budget like a ‘corner shop'”. He urged the government to stimulate the economy with fiscal policy. Now before we get too excited, and this applies to all the goons who come out claiming they wanted fiscal stimulus all along, these characters typically blow their cover and reveal their true DNA when they reflect on their own track records on the subject. But it is an interesting, if not amusing, pastime watching these characters try to revise their CVs to look like they ‘knew it all along’ as they try desperately to retain relevance and get on the right side of history. We are not that stupid though.
This is Part 2 of my blog posts on population shifts in Japan. In – What is the problem with rising dependency ratios in Japan – Part 1? (October 28, 2019) – we considered the evolution of dependency ratios in Japan as a precursor to considering the nature of problems that accompany a rising dependency ratio. The purpose is to disabuse the public debate of the idea that rising dependency ratios constitute a fiscal crisis and point to the increasing prospect of fiscal insolvency. That erroneous assertion has been used as one of the justifications for pursuing austerity policies, which damage growth, cause rising unemployment and generally miss the point. The problem with this construction is that the solution adopted by the ‘sound finance’ lobby (austerity) to their ‘non problem’ only serves to exacerbate the real problem. Today, we will consider the productivity challenge that lies at the heart of the issues a nation with a rising dependency ratio will face.
Later this week I will be in Japan for a series of presentations and meetings with a broad spectrum of Japanese politics. The various hosts of the events which I will confirm in Wednesday’s blog post are all committed to advancing an MMT understanding in Japan and ending the hold that ‘sound finance’ has on the public policy debates and regularly lead to poorly contrived policy shifts (such as the recent sales tax hike) in pursuit of lower fiscal deficits. As part of my preparation for my presentations I have been studying various aspects of the Japanese situation so that I can address the issues with a solid evidence base. One of the recurring themes put forward by the ‘sound finance’ lobby (which includes much of the economics profession both inside and outside of Japan) is that its ‘challenging’ demography demands that the Government move to surplus to ‘save up’ to avoid the impending fiscal disaster associated with a rising dependency ratio. This issue is not confined to Japan, of course. It is just that Japan’s demography is a little further down the ageing road than other nations. But while rising dependency ratios matter and need attention, the construction of the problem by the ‘sound finance’ lobby misses the point completely and their ‘solution’ to their ‘non problem’ only serves to exacerbate the real problem. That is what today’s blog post is about. In Part 2, I will elaborate more on the nature of the productivity challenge and some of the options that have been suggested to deal with it.
A little bit of a different blog post format today. I mentioned in this blog post – Apparently core MMT idea is now supported by the mainstream (October 16, 2019) – that the Japanese government had taken issued a statement, by way of a formal answer to a series of questions from Japanese CDR politician Kazuma Nakatani on the opening day of the new Parliament (October 4, 2019). The Japanese government reply was not available in full at the time I wrote that but it was reported in the Japanese Media that the Government response could be summarised as “As a government, we don’t implement policy based on the idea that Japan is a successful case of MMT because its inflation and interest rates are not rising despite massive debt … We are working to restore fiscal health”. Which I thought was an interesting way of trying to deny the undeniable but also missed the point somewhat – being that MMT is not a ‘case’ but rather just provides an alternative lens to understanding the way in which modern monetary systems operate, the capacities of the currency-issuing government within those monetary systems, and the consequences of particular policy choices. In that context, over the last 3 odd decades, the Japanese government has pushed policy into new domains – large-scale central bank government bond purchases with continuous, and, at times, relatively large fiscal deficits yet has seen interest rates fall to zero and below, inflation low to negative and negative long-term bond yields. The consequences of the policy choices have been anathema to those predicted by mainstream macroeconomists. Japan has essentially defied mainstream economics and demonstrated its falsities. The only body of macroeconomic thought that gets close to explaining the Japanese situation is Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). That is why our work is being discussed at the highest levels in Japan. Anyway, today, I can present full translations of the Questions and the Government response with my annotations of that response. My translation was considerably enhanced by Kobayashi Chie and I thank her heaps for her help.
It is Wednesday and I am travelling a lot today with limited opportunity to write. I am reading a lot though. Highly significant political debates with far reaching effects on the well-being of citizens once policies are implemented are conducted on a daily basis in our national Parliaments and in the media with little correspondence to reality. This is the norm for debates on macroeconomics, which dominate political news every day. There is this fictional world that has been created to keep citizens in check. When the painful policies the neoliberals haul out inflict pain, the solution is to blame something erroneous, attack it, which then just causes more pain. This is the norm these days when it comes to macroeconomic policy. And for the rest of us we suffer in the real world but reason in this fictional world, which is why it persists.
The Brexit issue in Britain has been marked by many different estimates of GDP (income) loss arising from different configurations of the Brexit. The media is flush with lurid headlines about the catastrophe awaiting Britain. As regular readers will appreciate, I am not convinced by any of those predictions. But as I said the day after the Referendum in this blog post – Why the Leave victory is a great outcome (June 27, 2016) – that when I tweeted it was a ‘great outcome’ I didn’t say that good would come out of it. I also didn’t suggest that it would be a short-term recovery of prosperity or that the workers would benefit. I was referring to the fact that class struggle now has a clearer focus within the British political debate. There is now a dynamic for a truly progressive leadership to emerge and bring the disenfranchised along with them and wipe out the neo-liberal hydra once and for all.” I think that is lost in this debate. When the British Labour Party claim the latest agreement will irrevocably damage workers’ rights or environmental protections they seem to be implying that they will never be in power again. No legislation or regulation is irrevocable in a democracy. But being part of the EU will always tie a nation to the EU’s rules which usurp any national interests. That is why I maintain strong support for the concept of Brexit. But amidst all these predictions of gloom and doom, I was listening to the radio last week and heard some statistics that are truly alarming. The on-going GDP losses from the obesity epidemic in the UK, which will increase over time rather significantly, are significant when compared to the estimates of GDP loss arising from Brexit. I wonder why that fact isn’t part of the daily narratives coming out from the Remain crowd to justify their view that the 2016 Referendum result should be disregarded so they can have another go at getting their own way!
As Mario Draghi’s tenure at the helm of the ECB draws to a close, he becomes (slightly) more pointed and looser with his public statements. On Friday (October 11, 2019), he gave a speech – Policymaking, responsibility and uncertainty – at the Università Cattolica in Milan on the occasion of receiving the Laurea Honoris Causa (honorary degree). He broadened the scope of his policy ambit by saying that “I will not focus strictly on monetary policy or the business of central banking, but I would like instead to share my thoughts on the nature of policy responsibility.” In the same week, the Eurogroup (the European Finance Ministers) of the European Commission released a press release – Remarks by Mário Centeno following the Eurogroup meeting of 9 October 2019 (October 10, 2019) – which announced that they had agreed to a “a budgetary instrument for the euro area – the so-called BICC”. Don’t get too excited. The BICC will only achieve the status of an “Inter-Governmental Agreement”, meaning it will not be embodied in the Treaties. Also, the Member States will have to contribute funds in advance and must “co-finance” withdrawals. And, as usual, there was no mention of the fund size, which will be miniscule if history tells us anything. But this is all context for Mario Draghi’s Speech.
Last Friday (October 4, 2019), a group of former central bank governors and/or officials in Europe, issued a statement damming the conduct of the European Central Bank. You can read the full text at Bloomberg – Memorandum on ECB Monetary Policy by Issing, Stark, Schlesinger. The timing of the intervention is interesting given the change of boss at the ECB is imminent. As I explain in what follows, the Memorandum should be disregarded. Its central contentions are mostly correct but the alternative world it would have Europe follow would be a disaster for many of the Member States and the people that live within them. It would almost certainly result in the collapse of the monetary union – which would be a good outcome – in the face of massive income and job losses and the social and political instability that would follow – which would be a bad outcome. What it tells me is that the monetary union is a massive failure. It would be far better to dissolve it in an orderly manner to avoid those massive income and job losses and to support the restoration of full currency sovereignty and national central banks. That would be the sensible thing to do.