This is a draft I am working on for a leading US publication. For many regular readers it will be nothing new. But while there are several things I am probing at the moment which I would normally use my blog space to tease out, time is short this week (really) and so I have to combine things. In other words, the blog space and time today is being used to fulfill commitments with very tight deadlines. But, putting the arguments together in this way might just provide some different angles for people who haven’t thought about things in this way before.
Last Saturday, the Weekend Australian, Rupert Murdoch’s daily national newspaper, had a relative Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) avalanche, with two core MMT-style articles published and two that were supportive rather than hostile. That tells you something about the way the world is shifting. I have received a bit of flack for publishing an Op-Ed piece in that newspaper from those who style themselves as Leftists. It is the same old argument – dealing with the devil. And the same old reply – if you want to influence policy then you have to talk to those who make policy. It is easy plotting revolutions over lunch. There has been a lot of groundwork laid over the last several months to bring people into the conversation. It is quiet stuff. Discreet. And as things unfold I will make some of the developments public. At present, all I can say is that I have a document before the Prime Minister today and there is a lot of behind-the-scenes workshops/briefings going on at state-level. And, while activists spend a lot of time ‘pressuring’ this person and that person on social media, the big shifts that are going on at present, including the publication of Noel Pearson’s piece and my article, are not being helped by aggressive social media confrontations. Sometimes it is better to work in a subtle way and exploit networks where they are available. That is not to say that activism to promote MMT is not appreciated and helpful. But we do need to pick our path. Anyway, a number of people asked me to publish my article here because they cannot get behind The Australian’s paywall. So here is the penultimate version which is a few hundred words longer than the actual article, which I cannot provide due to copyright restrictions. I also cannot provide Noel Pearson’s accompanying and complementary article but it was magnificent.
Things are obviously getting desperate out there in financial media commentary land. If one could express written text in graphical terms then there are a number of financial journalists out there that look – like a rabbit caught in the headlights – that is in a state “of paralyzing surprise, fear, or bewilderment.” A good example of this increasingly observed syndrome is an article in The Australian newspaper today (June 30, 2020) by Adam Creighton – Never forget that governments have no money – it is always ours (subscription required). This sort of journalism is becoming an almost daily occurrence as it becomes obvious that capitalism is now on state life support systems and the extremities of government intervention are demonstrating very clearly what Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists have been saying – and the only ones that have been saying it – for 25 years or so. I often note that Japan has already pushed the fiscal and monetary policy parameters beyond the limits most countries have explored in peacetime and mainstream economists have systematically predicted various scales of disaster and have always been wrong. Now all countries are at extremes and still no fiscal disaster. But the mainstream mouthpieces – these financial journalists who seem to think the stuff they read in first-year text books from mainstream economics programs are in same way the basis for expertise and knowledge – are in advanced states of dissonance. Drivel follows.
In May 2020, the IMF published a new Working Paper (No 20/73) – Hysteresis and Business Cycles – which provides some insights into what happens during an economic cycle. The IMF are somewhat late to the party as they usually are. We have known about the concept and relevance of hysteresis since the 1980s. In terms of the academic work, I was one of the earliest contributors to the hysteresis literature in the world. I published several articles on the topic in the 1980s that came out of my PhD research as I was searching for solutions to the dominant view in the profession that the Phillips curve constraint prevented full employment from being sustained (the inflation impacts!). The lesson from this literature in part – especially in current times – is that governments should do everything possible to avoid recessions. The hysteresis notion tells us clearly that the future is path dependent. The longer and deeper the recession, the more damaging the consequences and the longer it takes to recover while enduring these elevated levels of misery. Organisations like the IMF have never embraced that sort of reasoning, until now it seems. They certainly didn’t act in this way during the Greek disaster. But, better late than never.
Insolvency is a corporate term which refers to a situation where a company is unable to pay contractual liabilities when they become due. From a balance sheet perspective, it means that the assets are valued below the liabilities. The term cannot be applied to a national government that does not issue liabilities in foreign currencies. Such a government can always meet its nominal liabilities irrespective of institutional arrangements it might have put in place to create contingent flows of numbers from one ‘box’ (account) to another ‘box’. Those arrangements do not override the intrinsic capacity of the legislator. So when the British press went crazy the other day reporting comments made by the Bank of England governor that the British government was on the cusp of insolvency, they did the British public a disservice. Donald Trump would have been finally justified in accusing the media of pushing out ‘fake’ news.
Last week, the results of a survey of Australian economists was released which showed that the majority supported freezing minimum wages, which normally are adjusted annually in June. The minimum wage case is currently being heard in the wage setting tribunal (Fair Work Commission) and a host of antagonists have assembled arguments to stop millions of the lowest paid workers getting a pay rise. In effect, they are advocating a real wage cut for these workers given inflation is running at around 1.8 per cent per annum at present. The Australian government is also claiming it will not extend the already inadequate fiscal support measures that have left more than a million low-paid, casual workers without any wage support since the lockdown began. And they have started winding back support in key sectors like child care which will impact disproportionately on low-paid women’s employment opportunities. But, some are still claiming that neoliberalism will not recover from this pandemic. That all the myths we have been fed about government fiscal policy capacity have been exposed for what they are and we will come out of this with a new economic paradigm. Not so fast. Not a lot will change yet. The struggle goes on.
For various reasons, I am often in Melbourne and over the last few trips I have avoided public transport (trams) for obvious reasons. In my wanderings to various destinations in the inner city I have noticed that many shops that have been trading since I grew up in that city have now disappeared as a result of the coronavirus lockdowns and the shift away from store-based retail. They were struggling before the virus hit and have now gone. Whole retail shopping strips are in trouble (the famed Chapel Street, Bridge Road, and now Victoria Street, to name just a few retail areas in serious decline). When I arrive at the airport and move into the city I get this overwhelming feeling that all this infrastructure we have built is becoming redundant in a post-Corona world. It also reinforces my view that governments are going to have a major role in transforming these urban spaces to be better suited for the needs of whatever future there is to be. This view was strengthened when I read a recent report from a research group at Cambridge University in the UK – Townscapes: England’s health inequalities (released May 2020) – which found that health inequalities in England are rising as a result of the pattern of urban development over the period of austerity. In some of the “most deprived set of towns” residents are “much worse off than the least deprived on a number of key measures”. I suspect, similar outcomes would be found in Australia and elsewhere, should the research be done. With the virus fast-tracking major shifts in the way we relate to retailing and service delivery, now is the time to implement a new urban plan to green up our urban spaces, ensure there is viable employment bases in all cities, and maintain a close link between the social and economic settlements, a link that has been increasingly broken under neoliberalism.
Governments save economies. Never let a mainstream economist tell you that government intervention is undesirable and that the ‘market’ will sort things out. Never let them tell you that large-scale government bond purchases by central banks lead to inflation. Never let them tell you that the government, when properly run, can run out of money. There is unlimited amounts of public purchasing capacity. The art is when to apply it and how much to release. That can only be determined by the behaviour of the non-government spending and saving and the state of idle capacity. It can never be determined by some arbitrary public debt threshold or deficit size. And the central bank can always buy however much debt they choose. At present the ECB is buying heaps and keeping the Member States solvent. That is not its state role but given there is no other institution in the Eurozone that can serve the fiscal function effectively and ‘safely’, it has to do that. Otherwise, the monetary union would quickly dissolve. I would take their bond buying programs further and write off all the debt they purchase. Immediately. Go on. Just type some zeros where they have recorded large positive Member State debt holdings. That would be something good to do in a terrible situation.
This is Part 2 of the two-part series which focuses on the question: If governments are not financially constrained in their spending why do they issue debt? Part 1 focused on the historical transition of the monetary system from gold standards to the modern fiat currency systems and we learned that the necessity to issue public debt disappeared as fixed exchange rates and convertibility was abandoned in the early 1970s. However, there are many justifications for continuing to issue debt that circulate. In this Part, I consider those justifications and conclude that the on-going practice of government’s issuing debt to the non-government sector is primarily an exercise in corporate welfare and should not be part of a progressive policy set.
One question that continually comes up when I do interviews is this: If governments are not financially constrained in their spending why do they issue debt? Usually, the question is expressed in an incredulous tone, meaning that the person asking the question considers this to be the gotcha moment, when they pierce the impeccable logic of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and show it for what it is – a sham. One problem is that there is a tendency to confuse motivation with function and many people sympathetic to MMT reduce it to simple statements that belie the reality. One such statement, relevant to this topic, is that government’s issue debt to allow the central bank to maintain a specific short-term interest rate target. Central banks have traditionally used government debt as an interest-rate maintenance tool. But that is a function of the debt rather than being the motivation for issuing the debt in the first place. So we explore those differences today as a means of clarifying the questions and confusions around this issue. This is Part 1 of a two-part series, which I will finish tomorrow.