Regular readers will know that I have spent quite a lot of time reading the…
MMT – an accounting-consistent, operationally-sound theoretical approach
Many people have drawn to my attention in recent weeks the evolution of the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) Wikipedia entry and raised concern about the criticisms that are now on that site. I thought I better go and read the entry. I certainly have not added material to the site. Having said that I am happy that there is a page available. It seems that the criticisms cited are sourced to blogs by an Austrian Schooler, a graduate student blogger, and Brad DeLong. There does not appear to be an sound academic citation. The critics actually admit to basing their views on a cursory reading of the MMT literature and then only on the blogs that are out there now (including this one). The major claim is that MMT is just an accounting tautology. That just means they have read the first of hundreds of pages of MMT and then probably haven’t really grasped its significance. MMT is in fact an accounting-consistent, operationally-sound theoretical approach to understanding the way fiat monetary systems work and how policy changes are likely to play out.
The Austrian critique is based on this blog entry – The Upside-Down World of MMT – and no academic work is provided to back it up.
Mr Murphy began his critique with the follow “Krugmanesque myth”:
According to many proponents of MMT, “deficits don’t matter” when a sovereign government can issue its own fiat currency, and all the hand wringing over the government’s solvency is absurd.
Which proponents say “deficits don’t matter”? Answer: None that I know and I am close to all the major developers of the “school of thought”.
Please read my blog – To challenge something you have to represent it correctly – for more discussion on this point.
That inauspicious opening is a clue to what follows. I suspect Mr Murphy hasn’t read any of the definitive primary source material.
Which is evident in this admission by Mr. Murphy:
After my admittedly brief exploration, I have concluded that the MMT worldview doesn’t live up to its promises.
So no deep analysis. Let me say that I took two full courses in Austrian economics during my studies – 1 at undergraduate level and 1 at postgraduate level and have studied in depth the main academic texts. I have also read all the major contributions by Austrian economists since my student days.
But Mr Murphy, our Austrian School blogger, reads a few blogs – “briefly” – and then decides MMT is just tautology.
You will note that the example used by Mr Murphy to refute the ineluctable MMT accounting logic that government deficit (surplus) = non government surplus (deficit) is a non-monetary barter economy where Robinson Crusoe collects coconuts and eats less than he collects and so saves (in real terms). He then gets a stick to allow him to collect more coconuts.
He says that:
This is an admittedly simple story, but it gets across the basic concepts of income, consumption, saving, investment, and economic growth. Now in this tale, I never had to posit a government running a budget deficit to make the story “work.”
It is a very simple story.
It fails to get across any information about income, consumption, saving, investment and economic growth in a monetary economy.
It is not a monetary economy using a fiat currency issued under monopoly conditions by the national government. There is no unemployment in a barter economy. With no trade (another assumption of Murphy) and “own-production” then saving is always at the same time investment and there can never be a deficiency of aggregate demand.
Barter economics provides no insights into what happens in an monetary economy where consumers and producers are not the same entity, transactions cross borders, and, crucially, you cannot go on paying taxes unless the government spends first (in macro context).
Murphy also claims that the standard national income-expenditure statement which most macroeconomists (not just MMT proponents) would accept is flawed. He uses this to say that there is “something is very fishy with the MMT conclusions regarding private saving and government budget deficits”:
The error crept in at step one, with the equation GDP = C + I + G + (X – M). The only justification for measuring “output” (left-hand side) by the summation of spending (on the right-hand side) is that in a market exchange, the “value” of something is whatever the buyer spends on it. However, if the government can raise revenues through present taxation or by borrowing now and paying back with future taxes, then this justification falls away. It’s simply not true that $1,000 in private consumption or investment spending is an equivalent amount of “real output” to $1,000 spent by bureaucrats who raised the money without the consent of their “customers” and who may very operate under a “use it or lose it” appropriations process.
So cutting through the ideological hype (about consent and inefficient “use it or lose it” government spending etc), you realise that Mr Murphy does not understand basic macroeconomics.
If consumers or firms order $1000 worth of shirts from a clothing manufacturer and prices do not change then real output goes up by $1000. GDP rises by $1000 and National income rises by $1000.
If the same order is received from a government department – exactly the same result occurs. The National Accounting framework does not have in-built paranoia about “crowding out” effects or the primacy of private free market exchanges which are implicit in Mr. Murphy’s (false) claim.
Moreover, Mr. Murphy doesn’t appreciate how interest rates are set in a modern monetary economy. He claims that a “fundamental problem with relying on macro-accounting tautologies” (which he considers is the basic flaw of MMT) is that “people often bring in causal arguments from economic theories without realizing they are doing so”.
Then he provides this example whic his derived from the sectoral balances (in his case he ignores the external sector):
G – T = S – I
As a free-market economist, I don’t need to run from this tautology. I can use it to underscore the familiar “crowding out” critique of government deficit spending. Specifically, if government spending (G) goes up while tax revenue (T) remains the same, then the left-hand side of the equation gets bigger as the government budget deficit grows. So the accounting tells us that the right-hand side must get bigger too. It may happen partially because people cut down on consumption and save more (due to higher interest rates and their expectation of higher tax burdens in the future), but it may also happen because private-sector investment goes down. In other words, as the government borrows and spends more, the equation tells us we might see lower private consumption, rising interest rates, and real resources being siphoned out of private investment into pork-barrel spending projects. I can tell my “story” of the dangers of government deficit spending with that equation just fine.
First, whereas his Robinson Crusoe example was meant to “prove” that government deficits (G > T) are not required for the non-government sector surplus (in this case, the private domestic sector surplus because he assumes away the external sector), this example, clearly refutes that once a government sector is introduced (which issues the currency).
Consider the sources of spending in a closed economy, Household Consumption (C), Private Investment (I), and Government spending (G). Together they equal total aggregate demand and national income (GDP):
GDP = C + I + G
The uses of GDP (National Income) in a closed economy are, Consumption (C), Saving (S) and Taxes (T). So from that perspective:
GDP = C + S + T
In other words:
C + I + G = GDP = C + S + T
Re-arranging that a bit:
C + (G – T) = C + (S – I)
Which you can interpret to mean that in an accounting sense (theories come later), total private consumption (C) plus the budget deficit (G – T) equals total private consumption (C) plus the private sector surplus (S – I).
Assume C = 100 and G = T = 0 and so if I is equal to 100 then GDP must be equal to 200.
Then 100 + 0 = 100 + (S – I). So S = 100 and (S – I) = 0.
In other words the private domestic sector’s total spending is 200 and its total income is 200, which means they spend exactly what they earn and cannot accumulate financial assets via saving overall. In this case, the private sector overall cannot reduce debt levels.
Now imagine if G was 100 and Taxes 50 in the previous example.
Then C + (G – T) = C + (S – I) = 100 + (100 – 50) = 100 + (S – 100). In this case, GDP would be 300, and S would be 150 and the private domestic sector spends less than they earn by 50 (S – I = 50). The only way that the private domestic sector could spend less than they earn in these circumstances would be if the government provided the demand boost to permit higher saving.
A way of understanding this is that the leakages from the spending stream (in this case, S + T) must equal to the injections into the spending stream (in this case, G + I) for GDP to remain unchanged. Otherwise, GDP adjusts and so would S and T until the equality was reached. So S = 150, T = 50, and G and I are 100 satisfies that “equilibrium condition”.
Mr Murphy imposes his skewed theories and suggest that the rise in (S – I) is because consumption falls (Ricardian agents fearing tax rises or reacting against interest rate rises) and/or investment falls (due presumably to higher interest rates). That is, public spending crowds out private spending.
Then we enter the theoretical and empirical dimensions. Why do interest rates rise when governments net spend? In a modern monetary economy, the central bank sets the interest rates and governments spend without recourse to “funding”.
To understand the causality – start of at Day 1 of a new monetary system. How do the private sector pay their taxes or buy government bonds in the new currency which they do not issue? The answer is incredibly simple. The government has to spend first and put the currency into the hands of the non-government sector.
The government doesn’t need to draw on any non-government saving in order to spend. And when it spends it boosts income and private saving is always a function of national income.
Ask yourself which conceptual view (theory) accords with the data? MMT or crowding out? If you think crowding out then please explain Japan for the last 20 or more years – rising deficits, rising saving, zero interest rates, positive investment (with cyclical fluctuations).
Also explain why the US doesn’t have crippling interest rates right now and why rate pressure is downwards?
For those who do update the Wikipedia page perhaps you can now amend the text pointing to Murphy’s blog accordingly.
Then there was the blog by the postgraduate student mentioned in the Wikipedia article as constituting an authoritative reference. This person said:
Bob Murphy has a post up debunking Modern Monetary Theory … His reaction is essentially the right one: it’s bad economics to confuse accounting identities with behavioral laws.
This student also says “I haven’t put all that much time into learning about it” (it being MMT) but has the temerity to pronounce MMT “debunked”.
I don’t really think a two paragraph blog which says that “economics is not accounting” is an academic way to proceed.
Where for example, does any MMT proponent (the main proponents) say that “accounting is economics”? Answer: no where. So just as “economics is not accounting” this criticism has nothing to do with MMT.
The confusion lies in those who want to represent MMT by the sectoral balances framework – as if that is the extent of it. In this blog – Stock-flow consistent macro models – I explain why accounting is important for a macroeconomist.
Flows add to stocks and you have to track those relationships consistently over time. One still has to theorise about what determines the flows and their inter-relationships but if you try to make statements that do not add up then you are lost in ad hocery and nonsense.
What is a good example of that? Take the proposition that is prominent in the current debate and perpetuated as much by conservatives as progressives. That there is too much debt (public and private) at present and both sectors have to endure a period of deleveraging. Governments pursuing fiscal austerity programs have stated exactly that and also in the same breath claim it will be good for jobs and growth.
Simple accounting tells you that the proposition that both the private domestic and public sectors can reduce debt will only be possible under special conditions. I exclude the sensible option that governments stop issuing debt to match their deficits. The deficits are the Flow (of net spending) and the rise in public debt is the Stock response (given current institutional arrangements).
Take the sectoral balances:
(S – I) = (G – T) + (X – M)
Please read my blog – Saturday Quiz – August 27, 2011 – answers and discussion – for a full derivation (see answer to Question 3).
Private domestic deleveraging requires (S > I). A government surplus (G < T) is required to reduce public debt (in levels not as a percentage of GDP). To be possible, this would require the external surplus to be greater than the sum of the private domestic and government surpluses. For most nations that is a very unlikely occurence. But if the external account is in deficit, then it is impossible for both sectors to reduce their debt levels simultaneously.
You can make that sort of “reality check” conclusion by understanding the stock-flow relations embedded in the National Accounts. In that sense, MMT is stock-flow consistent and is based firmly on the constraints imposed by our national accounting structures. But if that is all there is to it then we would not have gone very far.
Brad DeLong wrote a blog (April 15, 2011) – Is “Modern Monetary Theory” Modern or Monetary or a Theory? which is also cited as a critique of MMT in the Wikipedia article.
I wrote a blog about Brad DeLong’s analytical position – There is no credit risk for a sovereign government – about this time last year (August 17, 2010). While DeLong likes to think of himself alongside Paul Krugman as part of the “Keynesian” army against all the neo-liberals they are both New Keynesians. In that sense, they are not very dissimilar to the current dominant orthodoxy (Greg Mankiw and co).
In that blog I noted that DeLong teaches his students that:
As the late Milton Friedman put it, for the government to spend is for the government to tax. Whenever the government spends, it is also promising explicitly or implicitly to tax somebody, either in the present or the future, either directly or indirectly, to pay for that purchase.
I wondered how he then explains the decades of consistent budget deficits that the US government (and most other governments ran in the Post Second World War period? Implicit in this citation of Friedman is the Barro Ricardian Equivalence nonsense. Accordingly, students are told that governments can net spend now if they issue debt but because the debt has to be paid back there is an implied tax rise which is known by households and firms and they accommodate that into their present spending decisions.
The reality is that governments do not usually retire their outstanding debt obligations (other than the trivial situation of paying back maturing obligations as new obligations are issued). There is also no empirical evidence to support Ricardian Equivalence. Why aren’t UK consumers rushing out to spend? Why are they saying their major concern is job insecurity exacerbated by the Government’s attack on the deficit?
Anyway, DeLong stated in his April 15, 2011 blog that:
I think I am beginning to understand what had confused me: MMT is not M, or M, or T … unless the proponents of a point of view admit that it is a set of guesses about the world that is potentially falsifiable, you don’t have a theory–rather you have a tautology … Issuing money in exchange for goods or services is called “spending”. Issuing bonds in exchange for goods or services is called “borrowing.” Destroying private-sector assets via taxation is called “taxing.” The government’s spending, borrowing, and taxing together make up not its monetary policy but its fiscal policy.
There is no reference to the primary MMT academic literature in DeLong’s attack. Instead he quotes from a blog that is itself an attempted critique of MMT. Sound academic practice, not!
But once again we meet this claim that MMT is just a tautology. And I can only assume that the critique comes from not understanding the depth of the MMT framework. I suggest that is implied when Brad DeLong thinks that issuing debt is a fiscal policy act – which is the mainstream textbook position.
First, MMT is about monetary economies (that is the _M_) part. It is not about barter economies which a major part of mainstream theory is built upon (such as the Corn Models). If you read New Keynesian theory you will find that they introduce “money” into their models in a way that fails to remotely correspond to the dynamics and operational realities of a modern monetary economy based around a fiat currency with a central bank setting interest rates.
Further, without attempting to understand how central banks actually operate, New Keynesians derive their monetary rule (which is just an interest rate setting reaction function) by assuming that the central bank minimises a loss function in which both deviations of inflation from its target value and deviations of output from its natural level play a role, subject to the Phillips curve they impose (with natural rate properties enforced despite empirical rejection).
They also assume that the central bank can control aggregate demand using the interest rate. So they have a sort of Taylor rule such as the real interest rate set equals the natural interest rate plus some function of the inflation gap plus some function of the output gap (output out of sync with the potential).
The models are thus always represented in real terms, whereas the central bank can only set the nominal interest rate. To get around that problem they presume that the central bank can observe both the natural output level and the natural rate of interest correctly. That is, of-course impossible in reality and defies the operational realities in which central banks operate.
Please read my blog – Mainstream macroeconomic fads – just a waste of time – for more discussion on this point.
Monetary economies are quite special – for example, it is only the introduction of state money that generates the possibility of unemployment.
Second, MMT is about fiat monetary systems which are “modern” given the collapse of Bretton Woods was in 1971. The flexible exchange rate period is the most recent organisational framework for exchange rates. So that is the M__ part. It is true that the concepts used in MMT derive back to an older literature – Marx, Kalecki, Keynes, Knapp, Lerner etc. But in understanding the operational realities that confront governments now MMT is explicating choices and implications in a non-convertible monetary system.
Third, MMT is also ground in operational realities that pertain to the modern fiat monetary system. MMT provides unique insights by detailing the way the system actually functions rather than an ideological wash of how we might like it be (which is essentially the mainstream textbook approach).
For example, a national government in a fiat monetary system has specific capacities relating to the conduct of the sovereign currency. It is the only body that can issue this currency. It is a monopoly issuer, which means that the government can never be revenue-constrained in a technical sense (voluntary constraints ignored).
Once we realise that government spending is not revenue-constrained then we have to analyse the functions of taxation in a different light. 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.
The orthodox conception is that taxation provides revenue to the government which it requires in order to spend. In fact, the reverse is the truth. Government spending provides revenue to the non-government sector which then allows them to extinguish their taxation liabilities. So the funds necessary to pay the tax liabilities are provided to the non-government sector by government spending. It follows that the imposition of the taxation liability creates a demand for the government currency in the non-government sector which allows the government to pursue its economic and social policy program.
This insight allows us to see another dimension of taxation which is lost in mainstream analysis. Given that the non-government sector requires fiat currency to pay its taxation liabilities, in the first instance, the imposition of taxes (without a concomitant injection of spending) by design creates unemployment (people seeking paid work) in the non-government sector. The unemployed or idle non-government resources can then be utilised through demand injections via government spending which amounts to a transfer of real goods and services from the non-government to the government sector. In turn, this transfer facilitates the government’s socio-economics program. While real resources are transferred from the non-government sector in the form of goods and services that are purchased by government, the motivation to supply these resources is sourced back to the need to acquire fiat currency to extinguish the tax liabilities.
Further, while real resources are transferred, the taxation provides no additional financial capacity to the government of issue. Conceptualising the relationship between the government and non-government sectors in this way makes it clear that it is government spending that 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 (which we define as government taxing and spending) into a non-monetary economics that raises the spectre of involuntary unemployment. 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 through the offer of labour 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.
So the purpose of State Money is to facilitate the movement of real goods and services from the non-government (largely private) sector to the government (public) domain. Government achieves this transfer 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.
You will not understand these aspects of the modern fiat monetary system by reading a macroeconomics textbook (written by Brad DeLong or Paul Krugman or any other mainstream economist).
To understand how taxes are used to attenuate demand please read this blog – Functional finance and modern monetary theory.
So here we have some essential insights from MMT which combine a detailed scrutiny of how monetary systems operate with theoretical notions linking spending to income generation. It is true that these “theories” are not new and Marx, Kalecki, Keynes and others clearly understood the fact that aggregate demand drives income and output.
After all they were variously fighting the mainstream claims that aggregate demand could never be deficient and that all unemployment was a voluntary preference for leisure – which is the underlying theme of mainstream macroeconomics.
But then MMT proponents have never claimed to have invented a new theory. What we have done is to take theories of spending and income determination that have stood the test of time and embedded them in a very concise stock-flow consistent framework which is grounded in the operational realities of the fiat monetary system.
In doing that MMT can also see why a non-fiat monetary system (such as the Eurozone) fails.
Fourth, is public borrowing a part of monetary or fiscal policy? Brad DeLong claims it to be exclusively a fiscal act. To some extent the distinction between the two arms of aggregate policy is indistinct although mainstream economists consider the boundaries to be clear – which is a reflection of the shortcoming of their approach.
The fundamental principles that arise in a fiat monetary system (to repeat) are as follows.
- The central bank sets the short-term interest rate based on its policy aspirations.
- Government spending is independent of borrowing which the latter best thought of as coming after spending.
- Government spending provides the net financial assets (bank reserves) which ultimately represent the funds used by the non-government agents to purchase the debt.
- Budget deficits put downward pressure on interest rates contrary to the myths that appear in macroeconomic textbooks about ‘crowding out’.
- The “penalty for not borrowing” is that the interest rate will fall to the bottom of the “corridor” prevailing in the country which may be zero if the central bank does not offer a return on reserves.
- Government debt-issuance is a “monetary policy” operation rather than being intrinsic to fiscal policy, although in a modern monetary paradigm the distinctions between monetary and fiscal policy as traditionally defined are moot.
If governments spend by crediting bank accounts and operationally do not need revenue to spend (given they issue the currency) then borrowing is not undertaken to facilitate spending.
Accordingly, debt is issued as an interest-maintenance strategy by the central bank. It has no correspondence with any need to fund government spending. Debt might also be issued if the government wants the private sector to have less purchasing power.
So borrowing is a monetary policy action and part of the central bank’s liquidity management strategies. It is not part of fiscal policy because in a fiat monetary system there is no imperative to borrow.
The central bank may agree to pay the short-term interest rate to banks who hold excess overnight reserves. This would eliminate the need by the commercial banks to access the interbank market to get rid of any excess reserves and would allow the central bank to maintain its target interest rate without issuing debt.
DeLong fails to explore the deeper operational realities that are characteristic of a fiat monetary system. MMT provides that depth of reasoning which goes well beyond the realm of tautology and definitional truths.
I clearly have a theoretical model that I use to make sense of the operational realities of the system. I often make predictions based on that theoretical framework and then trace through the stock-flow implications in a consistent way. If I start to chalk up consistent forecast errors based on my application of theory to reality then I will wonder about the approach I take.
Anyway this brings me to the final point – having an academic debate without any academics being involved – which seems to be a common theme running through the “critiques” of MMT on Wikipedia.
Just this week I noticed Paul Krugman continued to act as the MMT marketing manager in his blog (August 26, 2011) – Academic Debate, Real Consequences (Wonkish). The topic is irrelevant really for the point I am making here.
Notice the title – Academic debate – and in the body of the text he cites a number of articles from his New Keynesian academic mates. Then he says:
Meanwhile, Cullen Roche makes much the same argument, although he insists that you need MMT to make it, which would be news to Woodford (and me).
The “much the same argument” is linked to a blog site that Cullen Roche runs which is sympathetic to MMT and was founded in 2008. As his bio tells you Cullen Roche is involved in the financial markets as an investment adviser.
In Paul Krugman’s recent attack on MMT he also cited Cullen Roche’s blog as the authority. Please read my blog – To challenge something you have to represent it correctly – for more discussion on this point.
And with all due respect to Cullen, he is not an academic and is a relative newcomer to MMT.
The point: how can you have an “academic debate” if you do not cite the primary sources of the literature? Answer: You cannot.
It is like having a conference about Keynes with no scholars of Keynes in attendance. But then Paul Krugman participates in those events too. Please read my blog – A celebration of 75 years since Keynes turns into a farce – for more discussion on this point.
This is not an exhaustive treatment of the topic. But it does expose the fact that those who have sought to “debunk” MMT have barely even read the main academic literature and have clearly misunderstood or misrepresented what limited amount they have read.
This quote comes from the 1989 book (page 79) – The Tao of Health, Sex & Longevity written by American Daniel P. Reid (who now lives in Australia).
The pain of a new idea is one of the greatest pains in human nature … Your favorite notion may be wrong, your firmest beliefs ill founded. And your favorite foods may be the root cause of your greatest pains! It’s a fact of life that people find it much easier to believe a lie they’ve heard a thousand times than a fact they’ve never heard before.
There was a line I read the other day from Nicholas Klein who was addressing the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1914. He said:
And, my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you. And that, is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.
I don’t think MMT proponents want any monuments. Just some sensible policy aimed at reducing unemployment and restoring dignity in the lives of those who have borne the brunt of the neo-liberal onslaught.
The quote resonates with a quote Warren Mosler used to use in his slides (which is attributed – with some dispute – to German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer):
All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.
The fact that the MMT critics are starting to come out is a good thing. We are past the stage of being ignored and moving into the ridicule stage.
Next step we get our flame suits out (although I must say I have worn one most of my career such has been the attacks).
That is enough for today!
This Post Has 41 Comments
“I can tell my “story” of the dangers of government deficit spending with that equation just fine.”
Yes, except that ‘story’ is based on false assumptions that don’t actually add up. Households do not, for example, increase saving when they expect taxes to rise in the future. When anyone makes such a fuzzy-headed statement based on some ‘psychology’ they’ve cooked-up in their own minds (‘behavioral laws’ as the presumably psychic grad student writes) they should be forced to provide empirical evidence. But from reading a few Austrian blogs and papers I’ve come to the conclusion that their general aversion to reality manifests itself in their methodology as an aversion to empirical evidence and studies. A priestly caste, they are.
By the way, has anyone else noticed that people who engage in strongly relativistic arguments — as the author clearly does here as he tries to bend an accounting identity into a narrative — usually have very little to say about, well, anything.
Thanks for the post.
You correctly state that it’s important to read the academic literature to get a proper understanding of MMT. So far, I’ve mostly read papers by Scott Fullwiler, and Wray (reading his book, Understanding Modern Money right now). Could you point me to academic articles which should be mandatory readings for anyone who wants to understand (or critique) MMT?
Thanks a lot, and really appreciate this blog.
Another great blog Bill.
It’s funny – if you go to the MMT wikipedia entry and click on the ‘Discussion’ tab on the top left, you will see someway down that the contributors are complaining about the lack of quality in the criticisms of MMT:
\”■The “penalty for not borrowing” is that the interest rate will fall to the bottom of the “corridor” prevailing in the country which may be zero if the central bank does not offer a return on reserves.\”
Thus placing downward pressure on our damagingly (to us) high exchange rate by making the carry trade far less attractive. Do I have the terms correct? If the exchange rate is doing us more harm than good as is currently being argued, then government can spend ahead of tax revenue without bond issuance, pushing down interest rates and the value of the $AUSD with them, while at the same time being free to add appropriate stimulus to our weakening national economy. Sounds like a win-win – off the top of my head anyhow.
“Private domestic deleveraging requires (S > I).”
If A is levered and B is non-levered, and A saves and B dis-saves, then leverage is reduced – with no net savings required.
Aha. It is Robinson Crusoe again. I’m wondering what Carl Menger would say that his modern-day disciples still fall back on his Robinson Crusoe economics (which is only part of his story) 140 years after he published his Principles of Economics? This obsession by 21st century Austrian “economists” to use the Robinson Crusoe example completely out of its original context is somehow a little bit disturbing.
I don’t get point that fiat money exists to allow citizens to pay taxes. Money has been used since time immemorial because it is so much more efficient than barter. Gradually people realize that they don’t need to realize on nature to get money and that the government can create it at little or no cost. As to taxation, its primary function is to transfer resources from the private to the public sector or to transfer money from one set of citizens to another set. Even in a libertarian country it would be advantageous to have a fiat currency.
One big difference between Robinson Crusoe and a modern economy is anonymity. Crusoe can decide to harvest more coconuts than he eats in order to consume them when he makes a stick to allow him to become more productive. In an anonymos market things work differently. Heiner Flassbeck in his book Das Ende der Massenarbeitslosigkeit illustrates this with an example.
He supposes that Crusoe catches fish and Friday gathers firewood. They exchange without communication. Each day Crusoe deposits fish in a certain place and Friday deposits firewood there. Now Crusoe decides to catch less fish for two weeks so that he can have the time to build fishing equipmet. As a result, he deposits less fish in the barter spot. Friday notices that, so he will deposit less firewood there. The economy of the island has entered in a recession because Friday’s output has gone done.
A similar problem exists with saving in a modern economy. If consumers decide to save more, businesses will sell less. If they sell less, why would they invest more in order to absorb the additional savings? Savings can’t precede investment.
Regarding the definition of “deleveraging”:
“Private domestic deleveraging requires (S > I).”
Gross private sector deleveraging (i.e. “horizontal deleveraging”) doesn’t require (S>I).
(S>I) helps mitigate the aggregate demand effects of gross private sector deleveraging.
It is potentially/likely helpful as a deficit policy response by government, for aggregate demand management.
But strictly speaking, gross deleveraging doesn’t require sector financial balance change.
The latter, including the effect of deficits, is associated with “net deleveraging”, where net is itself defined according to SFB.
Max: “If A is levered and B is non-levered, and A saves and B dis-saves, then leverage is reduced – with no net savings required.”
What you assume in your example is falling income (Y). However, what is really assumed is constant income.
“A saves” and “B dis-saves” are balance sheet operations. However S and I in the S > I are flow operations. Balance sheet operations do not change flows however flows do change balance sheets. Previous increase of leverage (new loan) led to increased income. Respectively current reduction of leverage (e.g. loan is not rolled over) has to lead to decreased income. And budget deficits do dampen the reduction of income which is exactly what S > I tell you.
When I first started reading MMT it didn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. It was a footnote under Chartalism.
I may have forgotten all the algebra I ever learned, but I think there is a mistake in your equations.
In your second set of algebraic equations where G = 100 and T = 50, shouldn’t S = 150 instead of 200. If C + (G – T) = C + (S – I) and 100 + (100 – 50) = 100 + (S – 100) then S must equal 150 or they don’t balance. Then C + I + G = 300 and C + S + T = 300 (100 + 100 + 100) = (100 + 150 + 50). Then net savings is equal to the deficit, which I believe is the correct relationship. (I’m still learning MMT).
Or, am I missing something here?
Great post, Bill.
You say: ” This is not an exhaustive treatment of the topic.”
Yet, another span in the bridge is completed.
“Assume C = 100 and G = T = 0 and so I must be equal to 100 and GDP = 200.”
You went a little quickly there. Why must I = 100?
You can find MMT academic research online in these places:
Bill’s Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE) http://e1.newcastle.edu.au/coffee/publications.cfm
UMKC’s Center for Full Employment and Price Stability (CFEPS) http://www.cfeps.org
Jerome Levy Economics Institute (see research by Wray, Kregel, Bell-Kelton, Tcherneva, Tymoigne, Nersisyan, Forstater, and others that I’m surely leaving out) http://www.levy.org
Warren’s Mandatory Readings at http://www.moslereconomics.com and earlier papers at http://www.epicoalition.org
Also, many of us have SSRN pages that collect a lot of our previous publications–just Google our names followed by SSRN.
Dear James Schipper,
Your suggestion that you “don’t get point that fiat money exists to allow citizens to pay taxes” because “Money has been used since time immemorial because it is so much more efficient than barter” is actually a myth perpetrated “since time immemorial” by economics textbooks. Interestingly and coincidentally, a well known anthropologist just completed a book on this subjected independent of MMT and published an interview at Naked Capitalism that is completely in line with MMT’s research on the history of money–http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/08/what-is-debt-%E2%80%93-an-interview-with-economic-anthropologist-david-graeber.html
Obama has just nominated Alan Krueger as his new Chief Economist. Apparently he is an expert on unemployment. Does anyone have any background on him? Is he a supply-sider or not?
“A government surplus (G > T) is required to reduce public debt…”
shouldn’t that be: (G < T)?
Here’s Edward Harrison’s take on Upside Down article :
Mr James Schipper;
I struggled with the theory of taxation-based money at first too. And I don’t think anyone should lose sight of how counter-intuitive it is. But it is the only theory I am aware of that convincingly explains why anyone accepts the government’s intrinsically worthless paper and electronic money in the first place. There is a very good discussion of money going on over at the New Economic Perspectives site (MMT Primer tab). Perhaps you would like to follow it.
mmt will win once it knocks off “makes me think” from the google search
A govt surplus implies taxes greater than expenditure (T>G), or written alternatively, expenditure less than taxes (G<T).
Dear Hipparchia (and Tom)
Thanks for picking up the typo. I appreciate the scrutiny. It is fixed now.
… a national government in a fiat monetary system has specific capacities relating to the conduct of the sovereign currency. It is the only body that can issue this currency.
It is the only body that can literally issue currency (as in paper bills), but not the only body that can issue money, since we allow banks to create money. In fact it is because banks do this without regard to their existing reserve position that the government has no real control over the money supply.
It is true that when banks issue money they do not create net NFA, but that’s saying something different, right?
I find it confusing both here and on Warren Mosler’s blog when government is referred to as “monopoly issuer”.
Ken, final settlement of all monetary transactions (other than intrabank) occurs only through cash or bank reserves, and the government is the monopoly issuer of both. Banks have to acquire cash (notes and coin) from the Fed in exchange for reserves to meet window demand, and checks clear through exchange of bank reserves in the FRS, so banks have to obtain reserves for settlement of accounts. As creditary economist Chris Cook likes to say, banks can issue deposits by marking up accounts in extending credit, but it is the object of the deposit entry that counts for exchange, and that is a money thing only created by government.
I agree with what you say Tom, but isn’t it true that only a portion of the “money things” circulating in the economy at any given time are issued directly by government? There is a “money multiplier” from the monetary base, even though MMT has demonstrated that it is not “forward causal” and can only be calculated in hindsight.
Bill Mitchell has been good enough to reply directly to me (a new contributor) once already and I ask him to extend this favour once more. I think his reply or replies would be of great to interest to many following this blog. My reasons are as follows.
A lot of Bill’s current posts and ensuing discussions continually revolve around the technical macroeconomic accounting issues. (I understand of course that this is a big part of MMT.) In particular, they seem directed at people who are having trouble accepting the counter-intuitive (or more properly, the counter-current-indoctrination) aspects of MMT like government spending preceding taxation. This is fine for the purpose of convincing newcomers and sceptics and spreading the message in general.
For those (like myself and many more I suspect) who were already somewhat predisposed to MMT-like theory and only needed some residual concerns laid to rest, the continual revolving around the technical macroeconomic accounting issues is adding nothing new unless perhaps for serious students of MMT who want to go far deeper into the technical understanding of macroeconomic accounting and national accounts.
Can Bill post (or point by links to existing posts) items that deal more with the full spectrum of political economy from an MMT perspective? By this I mean posts that take pure MMT macroeconomic accounting as read and go on to talk more about the real economy, real production, real constraints, unemployment and other social issues etc and how they will likely behave under MMT prescriptions. Discussion of real historical (empirical) evidence would be good especially with respect to how MMT or MMT-like prescriptions (as whole programs or as piecemeal approximations of MMT prescriptions) have worked in practice. External constraints on the real economy could be canvassed too as in negative externalities, limits to growth, cultural constraints, historical legacy and any other factors that fit under this head. Also, good would be discussion of where Bill sees resistence to MMT coming from in class, ideological, instutional, educational, societal and any other relevant terms.
Thank you in advance. 🙂
I skimmed, looking for references to an MMT textbook. Where is it?
Various people in the USA are quoted as realizing long ago that fiat currency means gov spending is not dependent upon revenue.
Beardsley Ruml, comes to mind, in American Affairs, “Taxes for Revenue Are Obsolete” http://tinyurl.com/y3dkda3
Surely there are similar statements from post-1930’s bankers from other countries too? In the minds of some, a few precedents never hurt acknowledgment rates. It’s a know fact that trains-of-thought board faster at the station if they know a predecessor already did the same thing.
Is John Zelnicker correct about the algebra? I came to the same conclusion.
Dear John Zelnicker (at 2011/08/29 at 23:15) and Don Catron
You are both correct. I was hurrying and didn’t add up correctly.
It doesn’t alter the point that the only way (in this monetary economy) that the private domestic sector can spend and accumulate financial assets in the currency of issue is if the government sector is in deficit.
Thanks very much for the scrutiny. I have corrected the text thanks to your vigilance.
Min said: “”Assume C = 100 and G = T = 0 and so I must be equal to 100 and GDP = 200.”
You went a little quickly there. Why must I = 100?”
I’d like to see the answer to that too.
Dear Fed Up and Min
I think it was in the word I used “must”. I should have said and with I equal to 100, GDP must be 200 and S = 100.
Sorry for the confusion.
Thanks a lot!
I\’ve read a lot of MMT this and last year (blogs and research papers) and what I think is missing is a comprehensive overview of the whole theory. I\’ve just started in Wray\’s book, so I don\’t have an opinion yet if that book would satisfy the requirements, but it might explain why people like Krugman resort to getting their information from blogs (like Pragcap), instead of academic research (like a textbook MMT on a >grad level). It just takes too much time for them to read all the individual academic research papers.
It’s pretty simple really. There is a Modern Money Primer that Randy is writing which hopefully will provide an overview. Unfortunately the first thing he has to do is unravel a load of assumptions from the dogma of standard macroeconomics.
But basically it boils down to a really simple concept. The government sector running its own free-floating currency can counter-cyclically dampen a private sector debt deflation or bubble credit expansion by using its monopoly fiscal power. The free float gives the degree of freedom necessary to allow policy to target the Holy Grail of low unemployment and stable prices in an economy and make it stick – in direct contradiction to the diktats of classical economic dogma.
Everything else is just showing how that is done – and it looks like its going to take Randy a year building it up piece by piece.
The reason there is a lot of words here at Bill’s blog is that there is a lot of nonsense that has to be dispatched to present something that is, to me at least, blistering obvious, simple and straightforward.
bill: “I should have said and with I equal to 100, GDP must be 200 and S = 100.”
Thanks for clearing that up. 🙂
bill: “I should have said and with I equal to 100, GDP must be 200 and S = 100.”
Thanks for the follow up.
I hope the MMT macroeconomics textbook will be ready soon.
And when ready it must have one great worldwide promotion.
Previously major shifts in societal norms have only come as a result of Revolution and or Major Wars both of which at least in the Western World are highly unlikely. A major reset in economics of this magnitude will create a whole new set of winners and losers and as Turkeys do not vote for X mas as they say hell will freeze over first before the current set of power brokers will embark on any sort of transition where they stand to lose their status or power.
I’m afarid my freinds it is down to the people like you and I, we have to educate our families and our freinds, have discussions with our work colleagues and our neighbours, seek out the Connectors, the Mavens and the Salesman among us and in the words of Malcolm Gladwell create the Tipping Point that finally expose the Thousand lies and reveals the Single Truth!
So I get most of it but there is one thing that keeps holding me up. One of anything is very valuable but when you add trillions of new somethings to that it greatly reduces the value of that one. Does this principle not also apply to the money supply? Thus one could argue that adding trillions of new dollars to the money supply is already causing inflation – no?
to Bg Bill: How can money supply cause inflation?
Is It not demand versus capacity? Money sitting in bank accounts cannot possibly cause inflation.
The issue is deficit spending increasing debt.
Treasury is required by a law passed in 1917 to borrow money to back its deficit spending. It does this by creating and issuing Treasury securities. These are sold at public auction to mostly large banks. For deficit spending, I think there has to be a way that Fed can know which securities are deficit spending securities, in order to buy them, because only the Fed can make deficit spending be equivalent to new money injected into the economy.
So, most people stop following the securities when the banks acquire them,and they are counted as part of the national debt. But I think at some point the banks will go back to the public auction and the Fed in its open market operations will buy them with new money it creates (out of thin air) by crediting the reserves of the banks with the value of the securities which it gets in return from the banks.
The Fed now has securities from the banks. These are usually mature, past redemption date. Banks get the full face value of the securities, and the interest they earn is based on the difference between the face value and the discounted price the banks paid for them at the auction. I see this as the main way in which the Fed has acquired the several trillions in dollars of securities at the Fed. And I argue that they do not represent an active debt that taxpayers or the Treasury has to pay the Fed. The Fed’s buying the securities from the banks redeems the debt of the government to the banks. (Remember, the Fed is an ‘independent entity within government’ here. Cf. Fed FAQ’s). The banks no longer have the securities; the government does, at the Fed.
But repaying the banks for the debt does not extinguish the securities now at the Fed. The government’s promise to repay the holder remains. The Fed wants those securities to be used in its efforts to control inflations. It will buy them during recessions and sell them during inflations. Selling them to banks drains the banks of some of their reserves.. Buying them injects new money into the economy.
But once Fed has bought those securities and injected its new money into the banks’ reserves, it redeems the government’s debt to the banks. That is equal to the deficit spending money spent by the Treasury. In effect the purchase of the securities by the Fed has restored the banks’ reserves to what they were before it lent Treasury its deficit spending money. So, because money is fungible, we can equate the deficit spending money with the equal amount of new money created by the Fed and restored in the reserves of the banks. So deficit spending under these operations becomes new debt-free money.
And there is no debt for taxpayers to pay the Fed at the Fed.
Alternative ways of dealing with the debt using just the Treasury, don’t really eliminate the debt to the banks. Basically the Treasury and the banks collude never to pay off the debt by Treasury’s replacing mature securities held by the banks with new securities at new interest rates. This is a form of rolling-over of the debt. It can go on indefinitely.
But it commits the government to paying (unnecessarily) the banks over and over interest on each new security. A sacred cow?
But one thing I have realized: the Treasury does not create new money and spend it into the economy, if it does things by itself. All the Treasury does is move dollars in existence from one party to another (banks to Treasury; Treasury to the public in its spending). The Fed is the agency that creates new money as such.