Remember back just a few months ago. We are in Britain. All the Remainers are jumping up and down about Brexit. We hardly see anything about it now as the UK moves towards a no deal with the EU. Times have overtaken all that non-event stuff. Now the developments are confounding the mainstream economists – again. There will be all sorts of reinventing history and ad hoc reasoning going on, but the latest data demonstrates quite clearly that what students are taught in mainstream macroeconomics provides no basis for an understanding of how the monetary system operates. All the predictions that a mainstream program would generate about the likely effects of current treasury and central bank behaviour would be wrong. Only MMT provides the body of knowledge that is requisite for understanding these trends.
It is getting to the stage that one gets bored reading critiques of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) by leading mainstream economists. As the critiques have escalated over the last few years, I can safely say that not one has really said anything: (a) that the core body of work we have developed hasn’t already considered and dealt with – about 20 years ago!; (b) which means, none of the long line of the would be demolition team has achieved their aim. And when they write Op Ed articles that basically just say – oh, MMT economists ignore “the demand for money” and “MMT falls flat on its face” when inflation emerges as part of the emergence out of this crisis, I get bored. Really, is that the best they can come up with. The latest entreaty in the boring stakes comes from Willem Buiter, who seems to have left the commercial banking sector and gone back into academic life. His latest Op Ed – The Problem With MMT (May 4, 2020) – is not his best work. Boring is the best descriptor. Why did he bother? Did he think he had to establish his relevance. He would have been better concentrating on the archaic mess that his mainstream framework is in. Anyway, sorry to end the week like this.
Last Thursday (April 30, 2020), the US Department of Labor’s – Unemployment Insurance Weekly Claims Report – showed a further 3,839,000 workers filed for unemployment benefits in the US, taking the cumulative total since March 14, 2020 to 30,589,000. In a labour force of 164 million odd, that implies the unemployment rate is already around 22 per cent. The highest rate endured during the Great Depression was 24.9 per cent in 1933, which prompted the US President to introduce the major job creation program to stop a social disaster – the New Deal. History tells us that the major job creation programs (starting with FERA then morphing into the WPA) were opposed by the conservative (mostly) Republicans in the Congress. As is now! It wasn’t just the unemployment that mattered. Hours of work were also cut for those who maintained their jobs and some estimates suggest over 50 per cent of America’s labour force were underutilised in one way or another (read David Kennedy’s 2001 book for a vivid account of this period). The problem now is that the US has a Presidency that is unlikely to take the bold steps that Roosevelt took in the 1930s, even though the latter was a fiscal conservative and the former does not appear to be so inclined. However, some nations are leading the way – and they put the more advanced nations to shame in this regard.
It is quite amusing really watching the way orthodox economists who know the game is up work like gymnasts to avoid actually spelling out directly what the facts are but spill the beans anyway. Last week (April 23, 2020), an ‘external member’ of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, one – Gertjan Vlieghe – gave a speech – Monetary policy and the Bank of England’s balance sheet. If the message was taken seriously, then the way monetary economics and macroeconomics is taught in our universities should change dramatically. At present, there is only one textbook that seriously caters for the message that is inherent in the speech – Macroeconomics (Mitchell, Wray and Watts). The speech leaves out important insights but essentially allows the reader to appreciate what Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has been on about, in part, for 25 years.
Things are a little odd when a Minister for Finance & Public Expenditure and Reform of a nation (Ireland) informs the press that if his government isn’t cautious in its fiscal response to the largest medical and economic crisis in a century then the “bond vigilantes” will turn on them. And this is in the context of governments around the world issuing long-term debt at negative interest rates and the relevant central bank is buying billions of government bonds with its currency-issuing capacity. But that is what the Irish Finance Minister did last week ((Source). Fear of God strategy Number 1. That still works in god-fearing places. He referred to the “the fiscal architecture we are anchored in within the euro area” which will ultimately impose Excessive Deficit Procedures as the medical crisis eases (see his April 23, 2020, Speech on Stability Programme Update). Code for a renewed bout of austerity once people have stopped dying. A wonderful prospect. And while currency-issuing governments around the world are introducing variously large direct fiscal stimulus packages (that is, spending going into the economy immediately), the European Union is once again demonstrating their inability to respond to crisis. Nothing has been learned from the GFC.
It’s Wednesday, and a quiet day for writing blog posts for me. But I want to comment briefly on the latest economic news that sees the IMF claiming the Australian economy will contract by 6.7 per cent in 2020 and the Treasury estimates that the unemployment rate will rise to 10 per cent (double) by June this year. While this all sounds shocking, the emerging narrative in the media and among politicians is that this is sort of inevitable given the health crisis and the Government’s Job Keeper wage subsidy, which the Treasury claims will constrain the unemployment rate rise to 10 per cent rather than 15 per cent without it is a jolly decent thing for the politicians to have done and keeping the unemployment rate down to 10 per cent is a “tremendous achievement”. Well, apart from the wage subsidy leaving a million workers outside of any benefit and cutting wages for thousands who will receive the support, I fail to see why the unemployment rate should rise at all. The government has options: (a) wax lyrical about achieving a disaster – 10 per cent unemployment; or (b) create jobs via a Job Guarantee and see the unemployment rate fall to 2 per cent or so. For the neoliberals who run the place and their media supporters, a 10 per cent as a “remarkable achievement” and that is the TINA narrative they are pumping out to assuage the population. For the likes of yours truly, a 10 per cent unemployment rate is not a “tremendous achievement” – it is a sign of total policy failure. The government can always intervene and create sufficient jobs that will be of benefit to the society, can be designed to be safe in the current health context, and maintain the connection for most of us with paid work? Even if some of them would require the workers stay at home while being paid. For me that is a no-brainer.
We all know what the – Bandwagon effect – is. There is a lot of research literature in social psychology trying to understand why people who believe one thing one minute, suddenly ditch that belief system and appear to be proponents of a new belief system, often, in total contradiction to their previous views. The effect is related but distinct from the Groupthink phenomenon which I have written about extensively in relation to the way mainstream economics has maintained a hold on the public debate despite being unable to explain anything useful. Whatever the underlying explanations – social norms, conformity pressures, information cascades and the rest of it – the ‘Bandwagon effect’ is rampant at the moment among economists. It appears that everyone has become an expert on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and want to drop the term into their Op Eds, media articles etc despite, in many cases, writing in the not to distant past, ridiculous mainstream articles that are the anathema of MMT. I give those who are jumping on the bandwagon no credit at all. The reason is that these sort of shifts are dangerous. They typically misrepresent our work and attempt to interpret it within the old paradigm, which just leads to the general public, especially where the commentator has a high public profile, being mislead … as usual. Everyone, apparently is an MMTer now. But from what they say we know that is not the case. And just as this cohort swing to save face in what is a glaringly obvious empirical rejection of all the mainstream predictions and theoretical constructs, they will swing again and start talking about ‘budget repair’ and ‘inflation’ and ‘debt burdens on our grandchildren’ when the dust settles and the elites push to regain their dominant position. We should not be lulled into creating liaisons that are not sustainable or based on a true shift in view.
It is Wednesday and just a collection of snippets today. I am trying to finish a major piece of work and so that is what I am mostly doing today. And learning to program Geojson formats in R, so I can overcome the decision by Google to abandon their fusion table facility, which my research centre has relied on for some years to display map layers. And I have some press interviews to deal with. But today we consider the claim by the Financial Times editorial the other day that “Radical reforms are required to forge a society that will work for all”. It was an extraordinary statement from an institution like the FT to make for a start. But it reflects the desperation that is abroad right now – across all our nations – as the virus/lockdown story continues to worsen and the uncertainty grows. But I also think we should be careful not to adopt the view that everything is going to change as a result of this crisis. The elites are a plucky bunch, not the least because they have money and can buy military capacity. Changing the essential nature of neoliberalism, even if what has been displayed by all the state intervention in the last few months exposes all the myths that have been used to hide that essential nature, is harder than we might imagine. I think hard-edged class struggle is needed rather than middle-class talkfests that outline the latest gee-whiz reform proposals. The latter has been the story of the Europhile progressives for two decades or so as the Eurozone mess has unfolded. It hasn’t got them very far.
I did an extended interview over the weekend and during that interchange it became obvious that when a newcomer encounters the concept of the – Job Guarantee – for the first time, they may only see it in a narrow way, as a job creation program and fail to see it the way that the concept was developed as an integral part of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). When I started talking about the era in which I had first started thinking about using buffer stocks to maintain full employment, it became obvious that the sort of considerations that went into the concept of the buffer stock employment model (the Job Guarantee) had not been fully appreciated by the interviewer. That is no criticism. It is just an observation and a reflection of how long we have been pushing this MMT barrow. At the moment, all the talk is of ‘flattening the curve’ and that is exactly the function that I saw for the Job Guarantee as I toyed as a young postgraduate student and nascent academic with new ways of thinking about macroeconomics that would fight the Monetarist scourge that was dominating in the late 1970s. It was a different era and the challenges from a economic theory perspective were different. I think it is important to understand this context because, as the interview demonstrated, new ‘light bulbs’ go off when the concept of a Job Guarantee is put within the historical exigencies that were dominating when I came up with the idea. So the Job Guarantee flattened the curve long ago – the Phillips curve and that was, in my view, a highly significant development in the context of macroeconomics and makes MMT very different (in addition to a lot of other aspects). Unfortunately, while we knew how to flatten the curve back then, the Monetarist viral infestation continued and we have suffered the shocking consequences ever since.
Today is Wednesday and I have been tied up a lot with various meetings – all on-line these days. I don’t enjoy them as much as face-to-face, given that I spent a considerable part of each day in front of my computer or with my head in books and so the human contact is a welcome variation. But needs must, as they say. Anyway, just a few snippets today, being Wednesday. I can say that in between all this Zooming and writing, I have now nearly put together a complete on-line learning system which I am now trialling. This will be the support platform for – MMTed – which I hope to make operational sometime in the coming months. One of the issues that I touched on yesterday, which is now starting to crawl out of the slime, is the “what will happen to all the debt when the crisis is over” story. And, it is not just a narrative being promoted by the Right or the conservatives. The Federal Labour Party spokespersons and those hanging around the edges have started to push the narrative. As the Prime Minister told us the other day in relation to the people who are panic buying “Stop it! It’s Ridiculous!” I think he was actually talking about those (morons) who are starting the deficit hysteria before the deficits have even actually risen much. For their own health, I urge them to “stop it”. Imagine how apoplectic they are all going to be once the deficit goes to 10 per cent or more and the RBA is buying up all the debt. My god.