Here are the answers with discussion for yesterday’s quiz. The information provided should help you work out why you missed a question or three! If you haven’t already done the Quiz from yesterday then have a go at it before you read the answers. I hope this helps you develop an understanding of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and its application to macroeconomic thinking. Comments as usual welcome, especially if I have made an error.
A sovereign national government has to tax in order to spend
The answer is True.
First, to clear the ground we state clearly that a sovereign government is the monopoly issuer of the currency and is never revenue-constrained. So it never has to “obey” the constraints that the private sector always has to obey.
The foundation of many mainstream macroeconomic arguments is the fallacious analogy they draw between the budget of a household/corporation and the government budget. However, there is no parallel between the household (for example) which is clearly revenue-constrained because it uses the currency in issue and the national government, which is the issuer of that same currency.
The choice (and constraint) sets facing a household and a sovereign government are not alike in any way, except that both can only buy what is available for sale. After that point, there is no similarity or analogy that can be exploited.
Of-course, the evolution in the 1960s of the literature on the so-called government budget constraint (GBC), was part of a deliberate strategy to argue that the microeconomic constraint facing the individual applied to a national government as well. Accordingly, they claimed that while the individual had to “finance” its spending and choose between competing spending opportunities, the same constraints applied to the national government. This provided the conservatives who hated public activity and were advocating small government, with the ammunition it needed.
So the government can always spend if there are goods and services available for purchase, which may include idle labour resources. This is not the same thing as saying the government can always spend without concern for other dimensions in the aggregate economy.
For example, if the economy was at full capacity and the government tried to undertake a major nation building exercise then it might hit inflationary problems – it would have to compete at market prices for resources and bid them away from their existing uses.
In those circumstances, the government may – if it thought it was politically reasonable to build the infrastructure – quell demand for those resources elsewhere – that is, create some unemployment. How? By increasing taxes.
So to answer the question correctly, you need to understand the role that taxes play in a fiat currency system.
In a fiat monetary system the currency has no intrinsic worth. Further the government has no intrinsic financial constraint. Once we realise that government spending is not revenue-constrained then we have to analyse the functions of taxation in a different light. The starting point of this new understanding is that taxation functions to promote offers from private individuals to government of goods and services in return for the necessary funds to extinguish the tax liabilities.
In this way, it is clear that the imposition of taxes creates unemployment (people seeking paid work) in the non-government sector and allows a transfer of real goods and services from the non-government to the government sector, which in turn, facilitates the government’s economic and social program.
The crucial point is that the funds necessary to pay the tax liabilities are provided to the non-government sector by government spending. Accordingly, government spending provides the paid work which eliminates the unemployment created by the taxes.
So it is now possible to see why mass unemployment arises. It is the introduction of State Money (government taxing and spending) into a non-monetary economics that raises the spectre of involuntary unemployment. As a matter of accounting, for aggregate output to be sold, total spending must equal total income (whether actual income generated in production is fully spent or not each period). Involuntary unemployment is idle labour offered for sale with no buyers at current prices (wages).
Unemployment occurs when the private sector, in aggregate, desires to earn the monetary unit of account, but doesn’t desire to spend all it earns, other things equal. As a result, involuntary inventory accumulation among sellers of goods and services translates into decreased output and employment. In this situation, nominal (or real) wage cuts per se do not clear the labour market, unless those cuts somehow eliminate the private sector desire to net save, and thereby increase spending.
The purpose of State Money is for the government to move real resources from private to public domain. It does so by first levying a tax, which creates a notional demand for its currency of issue. To obtain funds needed to pay taxes and net save, non-government agents offer real goods and services for sale in exchange for the needed units of the currency. This includes, of-course, the offer of labour by the unemployed. The obvious conclusion is that unemployment occurs when net government spending is too low to accommodate the need to pay taxes and the desire to net save.
This analysis also sets the limits on government spending. It is clear that government spending has to be sufficient to allow taxes to be paid. In addition, net government spending is required to meet the private desire to save (accumulate net financial assets). From the previous paragraph it is also clear that if the Government doesn’t spend enough to cover taxes and desire to save the manifestation of this deficiency will be unemployment.
Keynesians have used the term demand-deficient unemployment. In our conception, the basis of this deficiency is at all times inadequate net government spending, given the private spending decisions in force at any particular time.
So the answer should now be obvious. If the economy is to remain at full employment the government has to command private resources. Taxation is the vehicle that a sovereign government uses to “free up resources” so that it can use them itself. But taxation has nothing to do with “funding” of the government spending.
To understand how taxes are used to attenuate demand please read this blog – Functional finance and modern monetary theory.
The following blogs may be of further interest to you:
- The budget deficits will increase taxation!
- Will we really pay higher taxes?
- A modern monetary theory lullaby
- Functional finance and modern monetary theory
- Deficit spending 101 – Part 1
- Deficit spending 101 – Part 2
- Deficit spending 101 – Part 3
A budget surplus indicates that the national government is seeking to slow down aggregate demand.
The answer is that False.
The actual budget deficit outcome that is reported in the press and by Treasury departments is not a pure measure of the fiscal policy stance adopted by the government at any point in time. As a result, a straightforward interpretation of
Economists conceptualise the actual budget outcome as being the sum of two components: (a) a discretionary component – that is, the actual fiscal stance intended by the government; and (b) a cyclical component reflecting the sensitivity of certain fiscal items (tax revenue based on activity and welfare payments to name the most sensitive) to changes in the level of activity.
The former component is now called the “structural deficit” and the latter component is sometimes referred to as the automatic stabilisers.
The structural deficit thus conceptually reflects the chosen (discretionary) fiscal stance of the government independent of cyclical factors.
The cyclical factors refer to the automatic stabilisers which operate in a counter-cyclical fashion. When economic growth is strong, tax revenue improves given it is typically tied to income generation in some way. Further, most governments provide transfer payment relief to workers (unemployment benefits) and this decreases during growth.
In times of economic decline, the automatic stabilisers work in the opposite direction and push the budget balance towards deficit, into deficit, or into a larger deficit. These automatic movements in aggregate demand play an important counter-cyclical attenuating role. So when GDP is declining due to falling aggregate demand, the automatic stabilisers work to add demand (falling taxes and rising welfare payments). When GDP growth is rising, the automatic stabilisers start to pull demand back as the economy adjusts (rising taxes and falling welfare payments).
The problem is then how to determine whether the chosen discretionary fiscal stance is adding to demand (expansionary) or reducing demand (contractionary). It is a problem because a government could be run a contractionary policy by choice but the automatic stabilisers are so strong that the budget goes into deficit which might lead people to think the “government” is expanding the economy.
So just because the budget goes into deficit doesn’t allow us to conclude that the Government has suddenly become of an expansionary mind. In other words, the presence of automatic stabilisers make it hard to discern whether the fiscal policy stance (chosen by the government) is contractionary or expansionary at any particular point in time.
To overcome this ambiguity, economists decided to measure the automatic stabiliser impact against some benchmark or “full capacity” or potential level of output, so that we can decompose the budget balance into that component which is due to specific discretionary fiscal policy choices made by the government and that which arises because the cycle takes the economy away from the potential level of output.
As a result, economists devised what used to be called the Full Employment or High Employment Budget. In more recent times, this concept is now called the Structural Balance. As I have noted in previous blogs, the change in nomenclature here is very telling because it occurred over the period that neo-liberal governments began to abandon their commitments to maintaining full employment and instead decided to use unemployment as a policy tool to discipline inflation.
The Full Employment Budget Balance was a hypothetical construction of the budget balance that would be realised if the economy was operating at potential or full employment. In other words, calibrating the budget position (and the underlying budget parameters) against some fixed point (full capacity) eliminated the cyclical component – the swings in activity around full employment.
This framework allowed economists to decompose the actual budget balance into (in modern terminology) the structural (discretionary) and cyclical budget balances with these unseen budget components being adjusted to what they would be at the potential or full capacity level of output.
The difference between the actual budget outcome and the structural component is then considered to be the cyclical budget outcome and it arises because the economy is deviating from its potential.
So if the economy is operating below capacity then tax revenue would be below its potential level and welfare spending would be above. In other words, the budget balance would be smaller at potential output relative to its current value if the economy was operating below full capacity. The adjustments would work in reverse should the economy be operating above full capacity.
If the budget is in deficit when computed at the “full employment” or potential output level, then we call this a structural deficit and it means that the overall impact of discretionary fiscal policy is expansionary irrespective of what the actual budget outcome is presently. If it is in surplus, then we have a structural surplus and it means that the overall impact of discretionary fiscal policy is contractionary irrespective of what the actual budget outcome is presently.
So you could have a downturn which drives the budget into a deficit but the underlying structural position could be contractionary (that is, a surplus). And vice versa.
The question then relates to how the “potential” or benchmark level of output is to be measured. The calculation of the structural deficit spawned a bit of an industry among the profession raising lots of complex issues relating to adjustments for inflation, terms of trade effects, changes in interest rates and more.
Much of the debate centred on how to compute the unobserved full employment point in the economy. There were a plethora of methods used in the period of true full employment in the 1960s.
As the neo-liberal resurgence gained traction in the 1970s and beyond and governments abandoned their commitment to full employment , the concept of the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment (the NAIRU) entered the debate – see my blogs – The dreaded NAIRU is still about and Redefing full employment … again!.
The NAIRU became a central plank in the front-line attack on the use of discretionary fiscal policy by governments. It was argued, erroneously, that full employment did not mean the state where there were enough jobs to satisfy the preferences of the available workforce. Instead full employment occurred when the unemployment rate was at the level where inflation was stable.
The estimated NAIRU (it is not observed) became the standard measure of full capacity utilisation. If the economy is running an unemployment equal to the estimated NAIRU then mainstream economists concluded that the economy is at full capacity. Of-course, they kept changing their estimates of the NAIRU which were in turn accompanied by huge standard errors. These error bands in the estimates meant their calculated NAIRUs might vary between 3 and 13 per cent in some studies which made the concept useless for policy purposes.
Typically, the NAIRU estimates are much higher than any acceptable level of full employment and therefore full capacity. The change of the the name from Full Employment Budget Balance to Structural Balance was to avoid the connotations of the past where full capacity arose when there were enough jobs for all those who wanted to work at the current wage levels.
Now you will only read about structural balances which are benchmarked using the NAIRU or some derivation of it – which is, in turn, estimated using very spurious models. This allows them to compute the tax and spending that would occur at this so-called full employment point. But it severely underestimates the tax revenue and overestimates the spending because typically the estimated NAIRU always exceeds a reasonable (non-neo-liberal) definition of full employment.
So the estimates of structural deficits provided by all the international agencies and treasuries etc all conclude that the structural balance is more in deficit (less in surplus) than it actually is – that is, bias the representation of fiscal expansion upwards.
As a result, they systematically understate the degree of discretionary contraction coming from fiscal policy.
The only qualification is if the NAIRU measurement actually represented full employment. Then this source of bias would disappear.
So a government could still be adopting an expansionary discretionary stance yet record a budget surplus because the automatic stabilisers are so strong.
The following blogs may be of further interest to you:
- A modern monetary theory lullaby
- Saturday Quiz – April 24, 2010 – answers and discussion
- The dreaded NAIRU is still about!
- Structural deficits – the great con job!
- Structural deficits and automatic stabilisers
- Another economics department to close
When the external sector is contributing to growth, the government can safely pursue a surplus even if private domestic sector desires to spend less than they earn.
The answer is False.
First, you need to understand the basic relationship between the sectoral flows and the balances that are derived from them. The flows are derived from the National Accounting relationship between aggregate spending and income. So:
(1) Y = C + I + G + (X – M)
where Y is GDP (income), C is consumption spending, I is investment spending, G is government spending, X is exports and M is imports (so X – M = net exports).
Another perspective on the national income accounting is to note that households can use total income (Y) for the following uses:
(2) Y = C + S + T
where S is total saving and T is total taxation (the other variables are as previously defined).
You than then bring the two perspectives together (because they are both just “views” of Y) to write:
(3) C + S + T = Y = C + I + G + (X – M)
You can then drop the C (common on both sides) and you get:
(4) S + T = I + G + (X – M)
Then you can convert this into the familiar sectoral balances accounting relations which allow us to understand the influence of fiscal policy over private sector indebtedness.
So we can re-arrange Equation (4) to get the accounting identity for the three sectoral balances – private domestic, government budget and external:
(S – I) = (G – T) + (X – M)
The sectoral balances equation says that total private savings (S) minus private investment (I) has to equal the public deficit (spending, G minus taxes, T) plus net exports (exports (X) minus imports (M)), where net exports represent the net savings of non-residents.
Another way of saying this is that total private savings (S) is equal to private investment (I) plus the public deficit (spending, G minus taxes, T) plus net exports (exports (X) minus imports (M)), where net exports represent the net savings of non-residents.
All these relationships (equations) hold as a matter of accounting and not matters of opinion.
Thus, when an external deficit (X – M < 0) and public surplus (G – T < 0) coincide, there must be a private deficit. While private spending can persist for a time under these conditions using the net savings of the external sector, the private sector becomes increasingly indebted in the process.
Second, you then have to appreciate the relative sizes of these balances to answer the question correctly.
Consider the following Table which depicts three cases – two that define a state of macroeconomic equilibrium (where aggregate demand equals income and firms have no incentive to change output) and one (Case 2) where the economy is in a disequilibrium state and income changes would occur.
Note that in the equilibrium cases, the (S – I) = (G – T) + (X – M) whereas in the disequilibrium case (S – I) > (G – T) + (X – M) meaning that aggregate demand is falling and a spending gap is opening up. Firms respond to that gap by decreasing output and income and this brings about an adjustment in the balances until they are back in equality.
So in Case 1, assume that the private domestic sector desires to save 2 per cent of GDP overall (spend less than they earn) and the external sector is running a surplus equal to 4 per cent of GDP.
In that case, aggregate demand will be unchanged if the government runs a surplus of 2 per cent of GDP (noting a negative sign on the government balance means T > G).
In this situation, the surplus does not undermine economic growth because the injections into the spending stream (NX) are exactly offset by the leakages in the form of the private saving and the budget surplus. This is the Norwegian situation.
In Case 2, we hypothesise that the private domestic sector now wants to save 6 per cent of GDP and they translate this intention into action by cutting back consumption (and perhaps investment) spending.
Clearly, aggregate demand now falls by 4 per cent of GDP and if the government tried to maintain that surplus of 2 per cent of GDP, the spending gap would start driving GDP downwards.
The falling income would not only reduce the capacity of the private sector to save but would also push the budget balance towards deficit via the automatic stabilisers. It would also push the external surplus up as imports fell. Eventually the income adjustments would restore the balances but with lower GDP overall.
So Case 2 is a not a position of rest – or steady growth. It is one where the government sector (for a given net exports position) is undermining the changing intentions of the private sector to increase their overall saving.
In Case 3, you see the result of the government sector accommodating that rising desire to save by the private sector by running a deficit of 2 per cent of GDP.
So the injections into the spending stream are 4 per cent from NX and 2 per cent from the deficit which exactly offset the desire of the private sector to save 6 per cent of GDP. At that point, the system would be in rest.
This is a highly stylised example and you could tell a myriad of stories that would be different in description but none that could alter the basic point.
If the drain on spending outweighs the injections into the spending stream then GDP falls (or growth is reduced).
So even though an external surplus is being run, the desired budget balance still depends on the saving desires of the private domestic sector. Under some situations, these desires could require a deficit even with an external surplus.
You may wish to read the following blogs for more information:
- Back to basics – aggregate demand drives output
- Stock-flow consistent macro models
- Norway and sectoral balances
- The OECD is at it again!
- Barnaby, better to walk before we run
- Saturday Quiz – June 19, 2010 – answers and discussion
To redistribute national income back to workers, nominal wages have to grow faster than inflation.
The answer is False.
The wage share in nominal GDP is expressed as the total wage bill as a percentage of nominal GDP. Economists differentiate between nominal GDP ($GDP), which is total output produced at market prices and real GDP (GDP), which is the actual physical equivalent of the nominal GDP. We will come back to that distinction soon.
To compute the wage share we need to consider total labour costs in production and the flow of production ($GDP) each period.
Employment (L) is a stock and is measured in persons (averaged over some period like a month or a quarter or a year.
The wage bill is a flow and is the product of total employment (L) and the average wage (w) prevailing at any point in time. Stocks (L) become flows if it is multiplied by a flow variable (W). So the wage bill is the total labour costs in production per period.
So the wage bill = W.L
The wage share is just the total labour costs expressed as a proportion of $GDP – (W.L)/$GDP in nominal terms, usually expressed as a percentage. We can actually break this down further.
Labour productivity (LP) is the units of real GDP per person employed per period. Using the symbols already defined this can be written as:
LP = GDP/L
so it tells us what real output (GDP) each labour unit that is added to production produces on average.
We can also define another term that is regularly used in the media – the real wage – which is the purchasing power equivalent on the nominal wage that workers get paid each period. To compute the real wage we need to consider two variables: (a) the nominal wage (W) and the aggregate price level (P).
We might consider the aggregate price level to be measured by the consumer price index (CPI) although there are huge debates about that. But in a sense, this macroeconomic price level doesn’t exist but represents some abstract measure of the general movement in all prices in the economy.
Macroeconomics is hard to learn because it involves these abstract variables that are never observed – like the price level, like “the interest rate” etc. They are just stylisations of the general tendency of all the different prices and interest rates.
Now the nominal wage (W) – that is paid by employers to workers is determined in the labour market – by the contract of employment between the worker and the employer. The price level (P) is determined in the goods market – by the interaction of total supply of output and aggregate demand for that output although there are complex models of firm price setting that use cost-plus mark-up formulas with demand just determining volume sold. We shouldn’t get into those debates here.
The inflation rate is just the continuous growth in the price level (P). A once-off adjustment in the price level is not considered by economists to constitute inflation.
So the real wage (w) tells us what volume of real goods and services the nominal wage (W) will be able to command and is obviously influenced by the level of W and the price level. For a given W, the lower is P the greater the purchasing power of the nominal wage and so the higher is the real wage (w).
We write the real wage (w) as W/P. So if W = 10 and P = 1, then the real wage (w) = 10 meaning that the current wage will buy 10 units of real output. If P rose to 2 then w = 5, meaning the real wage was now cut by one-half.
So the proposition in the question – that nominal wages grow faster than inflation – tells us that the real wage is rising.
Nominal GDP ($GDP) can be written as P.GDP, where the P values the real physical output.
Now if you put of these concepts together you get an interesting framework. To help you follow the logic here are the terms developed and be careful not to confuse $GDP (nominal) with GDP (real):
- Wage share = (W.L)/$GDP
- Nominal GDP: $GDP = P.GDP
- Labour productivity: LP = GDP/L
- Real wage: w = W/P
By substituting the expression for Nominal GDP into the wage share measure we get:
Wage share = (W.L)/P.GDP
In this area of economics, we often look for alternative way to write this expression – it maintains the equivalence (that is, obeys all the rules of algebra) but presents the expression (in this case the wage share) in a different “view”.
So we can write as an equivalent:
Wage share – (W/P).(L/GDP)
Now if you note that (L/GDP) is the inverse (reciprocal) of the labour productivity term (GDP/L). We can use another rule of algebra (reversing the invert and multiply rule) to rewrite this expression again in a more interpretable fashion.
So an equivalent but more convenient measure of the wage share is:
Wage share = (W/P)/(GDP/L) – that is, the real wage (W/P) divided by labour productivity (GDP/L).
I won’t show this but I could also express this in growth terms such that if the growth in the real wage equals labour productivity growth the wage share is constant. The algebra is simple but we have done enough of that already.
That journey might have seemed difficult to non-economists (or those not well-versed in algebra) but it produces a very easy to understand formula for the wage share.
Two other points to note. The wage share is also equivalent to the real unit labour cost (RULC) measures that Treasuries and central banks use to describe trends in costs within the economy. Please read my blog – Saturday Quiz – May 15, 2010 – answers and discussion – for more discussion on this point.
Now it becomes obvious that if the nominal wage (W) grows faster than the price level (P) then the real wage is growing. But that doesn’t automatically lead to a growing wage share. So the blanket proposition stated in the question is false.
If the real wage is growing at the same rate as labour productivity, then both terms in the wage share ratio are equal and so the wage share is constant.
If the real wage is growing but labour productivity is growing faster, then the wage share will fall.
Only if the real wage is growing faster than labour productivity , will the wage share rise.
The wage share was constant for a long time during the Post Second World period and this constancy was so marked that Kaldor (the Cambridge economist) termed it one of the great “stylised” facts. So real wages grew in line with productivity growth which was the source of increasing living standards for workers.
The productivity growth provided the “room” in the distribution system for workers to enjoy a greater command over real production and thus higher living standards without threatening inflation.
Since the mid-1980s, the neo-liberal assault on workers’ rights (trade union attacks; deregulation; privatisation; persistently high unemployment) has seen this nexus between real wages and labour productivity growth broken. So while real wages have been stagnant or growing modestly, this growth has been dwarfed by labour productivity growth.
Premium Question 5:
Assume that a nation’s real GDP growth rate over the next year is 3 per cent and labour productivity grows at 1.5 per cent over the same period. If the the labour force maintains a growth rate of 1.5 per cent per annum and the average working week is constant in hours, then:
(a) The unemployment rate will rise in the coming year by 1.5 per cent.
(b) The unemployment rate will fall in the coming year by 1.5 per cent.
(c) The unemployment rate will be unchanged.
The answer is Option (c) – the unemployment rate will be unchanged.
The facts were:
- Real GDP growth growth rate of 3 per cent annum.
- Labour productivity growth (that is, growth in real output per person employed) growing at 1.5 per cent per annum. So as this grows less employment in required per unit of output.
- The labour force is growing by 1.5 per cent per annum. Growth in the labour force adds to the employment that has to be generated for unemployment to stay constant (or fall).
- The average working week is constant in hours. So firms are not making hours adjustments up or down with their existing workforce. Hours adjustments alter the relationship between real GDP growth and persons employed.
The real GDP growth rate doesn’t relate to the labour market in any direct way. The late Arthur Okun is famous (among other things) for estimating the relationship that links the percentage deviation in real GDP growth from potential to the percentage change in the unemployment rate – the so-called Okun’s Law.
The algebra underlying this law can be manipulated to estimate the evolution of the unemployment rate based on real output forecasts.
From Okun, we can relate the major output and labour-force aggregates to form expectations about changes in the aggregate unemployment rate based on output growth rates. A series of accounting identities underpins Okun’s Law and helps us, in part, to understand why unemployment rates have risen.
Take the following output accounting statement:
(1) Y = LP*(1-UR)LH
where Y is real GDP, LP is labour productivity in persons (that is, real output per unit of labour), H is the average number of hours worked per period, UR is the aggregate unemployment rate, and L is the labour-force. So (1-UR) is the employment rate, by definition.
Equation (1) just tells us the obvious – that total output produced in a period is equal to total labour input [(1-UR)LH] times the amount of output each unit of labour input produces (LP).
Using some simple calculus you can convert Equation (1) into an approximate dynamic equation expressing percentage growth rates, which in turn, provides a simple benchmark to estimate, for given labour-force and labour productivity growth rates, the increase in output required to achieve a desired unemployment rate.
Accordingly, with small letters indicating percentage growth rates and assuming that the average number of hours worked per period is more or less constant, we get:
(2) y = lp + (1 – ur) + lf
Re-arranging Equation (2) to express it in a way that allows us to achieve our aim (re-arranging just means taking and adding things to both sides of the equation):
(3) ur = 1 + lp + lf – y
Equation (3) provides the approximate rule of thumb – if the unemployment rate is to remain constant, the rate of real output growth must equal the rate of growth in the labour-force plus the growth rate in labour productivity.
It is an approximate relationship because cyclical movements in labour productivity (changes in hoarding) and the labour-force participation rates can modify the relationships in the short-run. But it provides reasonable estimates of what happens when real output changes.
The sum of labour force and productivity growth rates is referred to as the required real GDP growth rate – required to keep the unemployment rate constant.
Remember that labour productivity growth (real GDP per person employed) reduces the need for labour for a given real GDP growth rate while labour force growth adds workers that have to be accommodated for by the real GDP growth (for a given productivity growth rate).
So in the example, the required real GDP growth rate is 3 per cent per annum and so the actual real GDP growth is also equal to this required real GDP growth rate. In other words, the unemployment rate will remain unchanged.
Unemployment would still be rising but the rate of unemployment will be constant.
The following blog may be of further interest to you: