Eurostat released the latest fiscal data for 2018 on Tuesday (April 23, 2019) which showed that – Euro area government deficit at 0.5% and EU28 at 0.6% of GDP – apparently a cause for celebration if you can believe the news reports that have accompanied the data release. The problem is that these numbers are meaningless without a context. And a relevant context is how well the monetary system is accommodating the advancement of material well-being among the citizens of Europe. On that ‘functional’ criterion, the horror story, more or less continues. Data relating to the real world (as opposed to the world of fiscal numbers on bits of paper) tell us that the damage from the GFC interacting with a dysfunctional monetary system design still lingers and the 19 Member States are still highly vulnerable to the next crisis. The austerity mindset remains and these fiscal outcomes indicate a failure of policy. Nothing to celebrate at all.
In a few weeks I am off to Britain again to participate in a series of events. Two of these events will be in Scotland where we (Warren and I) will discuss, as outsiders, issues pertaining to the monetary arrangements that might accompany a move to Scottish independence. It is a controversial issue in itself, but, unfortunately, is also intertwined with the vexed issue of EU membership. And the complication then becomes that progressives, who might otherwise be attracted to the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) way of understanding the monetary system, also exhibit the standard misconstrued Europhile view that the EU, neoliberal though it is, can be reformed and that an independent Scotland should be part of that mess. And, in doing so, they then take problematic positions on the currency question. So a sort of ‘nest of vipers’ sort of situation, from the Aesop’s fable – The Farmer and the Viper. As in the Fable, the Europhiles embrace of the EU will always pay them back in grief. Anyway, while I am always cautious discussing the pro and con of situations where I have no direct material stake and a less than full understanding of specific cultural and historical influences that are at work, the Scottish question is interesting and demonstrates many of points that nations should be cogniscant of when discussing monetary sovereignty. And besides I have to get up in Edinburgh and Glasgow in a few weeks so as a researcher I am trained to be prepared and seek the best understanding that I can of the complexity of the situation. I will be writing a few posts on the Scottish issue as I prepare for that speaking tour.
This morning, I declared that I was angry on a multitude of levels. I am part of a local community group that is fighting greedy developers, corporate real estate speculators and a compliant local council over an outrageous abuse of planning. That really gets me mad. NSW, the state I reside in mostly, just re-elected a corrupt conservative government, largely because the former leader of the Labor opposition couldn’t keep his hands out of the clothing of a female journalist and his successor mouthed off about Asians taking our jobs. Bloody hell, the Labor Party had it won, and then lost it. Angry. Then we go a little higher in the hierarchy to the fiscal statement (aka ‘The Budget’) which the conservative Australian government brought down last night. And outrageous piece of chicanery and economic malpractice. What is worse is the head of the Federal Opposition’s policy think tank – the John Curtin Research Centre – put out an Op Ed late last week accusing the Conservative government of not doing enough to “address debt” and shirking “serious, structural repair” and not having a public “debt ceiling”. What the F&*k! Did the IMF write this piece? The ‘think tank’ claims it is a “social democratic think-tank dedicated to developing ideas and policies for a better Australia”. Yes, folks that is what social democracy means in Australia – neoliberalism! More on the fiscal statement in what follows. And if I wasn’t already hugely mad enough with all of that, I read that the British Labour Party is desperate for Britain to stay in the Single Market – lock-stock-and-barrel. What! This is the most advanced expression of neoliberalism. I guess it is consistent with their ridiculous ‘Fiscal Credibility Rule’ that keeps the current Labour Party firmly in the Blairite tradition – scared to death of those creeping, amorphous financial markets and so lacking in confidence that they hang on to the grim lies that Dennis Healey introduced to Labour narratives in the mid-1970s. Mad as hell about that! And then we get to Brexit central. The people voted in a majority to LEAVE! It was a correct decision for the long-term, progressive future of Britain. The cosmopolitan liberals couldn’t cope with the idea of, maybe, having to queue up at the border of the 27-nation European Union when they go on their next ski holiday. Their answer – vilify the voters who knew the EU was the exemplar of neoliberalism and do everything to stop the departure. Enter a totally incompetent Tory government to oversee the departure and you get an almighty mess. For once I agree with the former Bank of England governor – Britain should get out next week with no deal and announce a major fiscal stimulus to keep the economy moving while adjustment occurs. So I am glad I have a full head of hair! Then I read another plethora of anti-MMT pieces and my humour improved. A bit of comedy is always important!
This is the final part of my three-part series on the why I have confidence in the primacy of fiscal policy over monetary policy and eschew any proposals, by other Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) advocates or others, to 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. Such a proposal is not core MMT. It is an opinion that, in my view, is based on deeply flawed logic and would would constitute the continuation of the neoliberal practice of depoliticisation and further increase the democratic deficit that is common in our nations these days. In this final part, I extend the reasons that progressives should oppose such outsourced decision-making and, instead, advocate the introduction of processes that always make our elected politicians fully responsible for the decisions they take on our behalf. Our polity 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 fiscal authority).
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.