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.
I am now back in Australia after the latest cross-country run and so am falling back to routine. Which means a relatively short Wednesday blog post. Yesterday, the Reserve Bank of Australia cut their policy interest rate by 0.25 points to 0.75 per cent, a record low level. The RBA governor cited the weakness in the labour market as the reason for the cut and continued to suggest that the Government, which is pursuing its mindless austerity goal to record a fiscal surplus as the economy tumbles towards recession, should expand fiscal policy to kick-start growth. Once again, a central bank is being pushed into ‘record-making’ policy territory because the treasury-side of government will not use its fiscal capacity responsibly. This is now a global trend and even the likes of Dr Schwarze Null is calling for more fiscal action. Another day passes that demonstrates the mainstream New Keynesian approach is rapidly being abandoned by policy makers and an era of fiscal dominance approaches. Not before time.
Japan is about to walk the plank again when it follows through on a previous government decision to increase the consumption tax by a further 2 per cent on October 1, 2019. That means it rises from 8 per cent to 10 per cent. The latest fiscal documents suggest the government is hyper-sensitive to the historical experience, which tells us that each time they have fallen prey to the deficit terrorists who have bullied them into believing that their fiscal position is about to collapse, consumption expenditure falls sharply and the government has to respond by increasing the deficit even further to compensate. But, notwithstanding their caution (as evidenced by some permanent and temporary spending measures to offset the significant loss of non-government purchasing power that will follow the consumption tax hike, the fact remains that the policy shift will be undermine non-government spending and growth and is totally unnecessary. Moreover, the main problem in Japan at present is the lack of spending overall – non-government consumption expenditure has not yet recovered from the last consumption tax hike in April 2014. So far from raising taxes, the data on the ground is telling us that they should be increasing the fiscal deficit. This is another example of a few conservative politicians, being told by unaccountable mainstream economists to introduce policies that will damage the material prosperity of the ordinary Japanese worker and their families. And when we consider that the time is approaching when the debt-servicing burden for the government is approaching negative territory, then the consumption tax hike looks even more ridiculous.
It is Wednesday today and only a short blog post. I am heading to New York city today from London. More on that tomorrow. It is clear now that journalists from all over the globe are starting to pick up on the shifts in policy thinking that I have been writing about – the admission by policy makers that monetary policy has reached the end of its effective life (not that it was ever particularly effective) and that there is a crying need for a return to fiscal dominance, which was the norm before the neoliberal era began several decades ago. We have not yet reached the stage where the dots are being fully joined – monetary policy dominance dead -> fiscal policy dominance desirable -> neoliberalism dead. But that will have to come because the fiscal policy activism will have to be aimed at addressing targets that have been neglected by the neoliberal era – real wages growth, quality and security of employment, restoration of public services, environmental care priorities, scope and quality of public infrastructure, and the like. But as the journalists are starting to file copy on this topic, some are very lazy – and just want to have it on the record that they were part of the throng. One of the laziest offerings I have read was published today in the Australian on-line newspaper, The New Daily (September 23, 2019) – The economic weapon too hot for the RBA to mention: Helicopter money – and written by finance journalist Michael Pascoe, who is usually more careful with his words. While many might think any publicity is good for the spread of our Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) work, my view is that falsely constructing MMT can add to the already stifling dissonance among the public that has been mislead for years by the framing and language of the mainstream economists.
I am typing some of this on the train from Brighton back to London, after a day of speaking events in Brighton, where the British Labour Party conference is currently being held. I spoke at two events: (a) the GIMMS event on MMT and the Green New Deal and a video will be available soon; and (b) at an event alongside British Labour MP Chris Williamson, where were talked about how an Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) understanding can enhance the progressive policy cause and advance a transformation towards a ‘socialist’ (whatever that might be) state. It was great to see everyone at the events. The second event was attended by many people involved in the Labour Party itself and I hope that being exposed to new ideas will activate further grassroots resistance to the neoliberal system that undermines our material prosperity. So this two-part series is a reflection on the state of economic policy thinking within British Labour in the context of the paradigm shift that is going on now, around the world, in macroeconomic policy thinking. As I noted in – Part 1 – we are now seeing economists and policy makers, lining up, to tell us that a reliance on monetary policy has run its course and a new era of fiscal policy dominance is the only viable way ahead. That means that New Keynesian economics is over. That means that fiscal credibility rules that reflect an adherence to neoliberal constructs will need to be abandoned. And it seems that British Labour are lagging behind these major shifts that have been going on in economic policy thinking. Only Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) offers a consistent and credible path for Labour to make the shift into this era.