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.
It is Wednesday so very little blog writing today. One question I often get asked is what would happen if the bond market investors in a nation stopped bidding for the debt instruments being offered in the regular auctions. Interestingly, overnight I was sent some news from a Deutsche Bank information service written by their New York-based Chief International Economist, who signs himself off as “Torsten Sløk, Ph.D”. It related to these issues. The problem is that Dr Sløk seemed to want to take a snide shot at Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and just made a fool of himself. It goes on. This is what the point is.
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.
I am travelling across Europe today and so am just writing this in between various commitments. I will soon be back home in Australia and have received a lot of E-mails about the way the Australian media has been treating the recent upsurge in attention about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). The short description is appalling – one-sided, no balance and hardly about MMT at all, despite dismissing our work as garbage. So par for the course really. While most of the articles have just been syndicated hashes of the foreign criticisms that have been published elsewhere from Krugman, Rogoff, Summers and others. But there was one article by a local journalist who tried to predict which side of history would end up looking good in all this and chose, wrongly I think, to throw his cap in with the New Keynesians. More alarmingly though is that this local effort clearly followed the international trend by setting out a fiction and then tearing into that fiction claiming to his readers that this was about MMT. He missed the mark and ended up totally confusing himself. So par for the course.
The US-based Eastern Economic Association, which aims to promote “educational and scholarly exchange on economic affairs”, held its annual conference in New York over the weekend just gone. One of the panels focused on “New Views of Money” and I am reliably told turned into a bash MMT session as yet another disaffected economist, feeling a little attention deficit, sought to demolish our work. The technique is becoming rather standardised: construct MMT as something that it is not; refer to hardly any primary sources and only those that can be twisted with word ploys to fit into the argument; use this false construction to accuse MMT authors that are not cited of a range of sins; conclude that MMT is useless – either because the things it has right were known anyway and the novelties are wrong, proceed as normal. In denial. Afraid to admit you are part of a degenerative paradigm that has lost credibility. Bluster your way forward muttering something about optimising transversality conditions that need to be met. Feel happy to be part of the conga line. Well that conga line is heading for oblivion I hope. Where it belongs. On the scrap heap of anti-knowledge.
On February 21, 2019, the British Office of National Statistics (ONS) released the latest fiscal data for the British government – Public sector finances, UK: January 2019. There was a lot of press reaction applauding the result and even progressive writers found it possible to misrepresent what the data actually is telling us has been happening. The fact that the British government recorded a fiscal surplus of £14.9 billion in January 2019 was touted in terms of creating a ‘war chest’ that the Government will be able to delve into when the next crisis arrives (which might be soon if the current Brexit mishaps continue). The reality, is, of course, totally different. There is no stored up spending capacity (stock) created when a government runs a surplus. What is actually happening is that the net flows out of the economy to the government squeeze an already over-indebted non-government sector for liquidity and destroy that much of its wealth portfolio. Moreover, while all and sundry, including the Euro-leaning Left are frothing at the mouth over Brexit, new data now allows us to compute the losses arising from the deliberate strategy of fiscal austerity that the Government has pursued. Guess what? They appear to dwarf all the Project Fear estimates of losses arising from Brexit (notwithstanding the flaky nature of those estimates). Where is the Guardian’s column Austerity Watch to match its hapless Brexit Watch column? Where is the relentless stream of articles from Guardian journalists and Op Writers about austerity? Sorry, that would take up space which is occupied by the relentless stream of articles about Brexit?
It is Wednesday and despite being on the other side of the Planet than usual (in Helsinki at present) I am still not intending to write a detailed blog post today. I am quite busy here – teaching MMT to graduate students and other things. But I wanted to follow up on a few details I didn’t have time to write about yesterday concerning the role that NAIRU estimates play in maintaining the ideological dominance of neoliberalism. And some more details about the Textbook launch in London on Friday, and then some beautiful music, as is my practice (these days) on Wednesdays. As you will see, my ‘short’ blog post didn’t quite turn out that way. Such is the tendency of an inveterate writer.
There is a campaign on the Internet calling itself CANOO (the Campaign against nonsense output gaps) which one Robin Brooks, economist at the Institute of International Finance and former Goldman Sachs and IMF employee, is pursuing. You cannot easily access his written memos on this because the IIF forces you to pay for them. However, there is nothing novel about his claims and the points he is making are well-known. However, they are points that are worthwhile repeating at loud volume because the implications of the ‘nonsense’ are devastating to the well-being of workers, particularly those most vulnerable to precarious work and unemployment. So while the CANOO is just dredging up old issues I am very glad that it is. The concept of biased estimates of output gaps and so-called ‘full employment unemployment rates’ goes to the heart of the way the neoliberal economists, who dominate policy making units in government and places like the IMF, the OECD and the European Commission, create technical smokescreens to justify their dirty work. The more people find out about the basis of the scam the better. I have been working on this issue (estimating, writing and publishing) since the late 1970s as a graduate student. So welcome Robin Brooks, and make a lot of noise.
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.