The headline news for today was that the actor Kevin McCarthy died at the age of 96. He was the star of the legendary 1956 science fiction movie the Invasion of the Body Snatchers which was about a doctor who tried to tell the world that it was being invaded by the emotionless alien Pod People. The movie was in the “so bad that it was good” category. Given the ending was open, perhaps we can persuade some of the Pods to return and subsume a few neo-liberals and also some progressives who have neo-liberal tendencies. There has been a lot of noise lately about why Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is essentially misguided because it ignores the dangers of the external sector. The claim goes that while there is no financial constraint on government spending, expansionary policy leads to an expanding current account deficit and rising foreign debt levels which are unsustainable over any period longer than a few years. Okay, we have heard this all before. Here are some thoughts.
On July 20, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) published the Minutes of its last board meeting (July 6, 2010). This caused headlines for the day – the journalists must have been bored that day – because it raised the possibility that the RBA would increase interest rates in August – right in the middle of an election campaign (the federal election is late August). The bank economists as usual predicted rising rates and significant spikes in the inflation rate. Well today the the Australian Bureau of Statistics released the Consumer Price Index, Australia data for the June quarter and it showed that inflation is moderate and falling. The market economists were “surprised”. I wonder if their organisations have any money dependent on the judgement of their economists? I wouldn’t bet a cent on the basis of their opinions. They continually make false predictions on the outcomes of all the major data releases – always claiming that the economy is overheating and that fiscal support has to be withdrawn. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The euphoria over a 0.4 quarterly growth figure which translate into annualised GDP growth being at least 2.5 per cent less than would be required to keep the unemployment rate from rising should be attenuated by the fact that National Accounts data is very slow to come out. The picture it paints which conditions our current expectations and debates is old – at least 3 months old by definition. And it is sobering when amidst all the self-congratulation and applause for our strong export performance that newer data has come out today which suggests that GDP growth is probably now negative although we won’t find that out for three more months. Meanwhile the debt and deficits argument continues in the public debate. Here is an update.
It was interesting to spend a few weeks in London recently and catch up with friends and research colleagues. It always focuses the mind on issues when one is in situ rather than gazing at data and reports from afar. My view of British Labour as being incapable of providing the British people with a progressive solution to the poly crisis the nation confronts has strengthened in the last few weeks and was emphasised once again by the decision of the leadership to backtrack on its £28 billion green investment strategy – its second U-turn on this key policy in the last few years. Touted as making Britain “A fairer, greener future” for Britain, “Labour’s Green Prosperity Plan” certainly differentiated it somewhat from the ruling Tories. Now that differentiation has been abandoned and the Labour politicians are claiming that “Labour’s fiscal rules … [are] … more important than any policy”, which is about as moronic as it gets. More of the same from the so-called political voice of the working class. I told an audience in London a few weeks ago that I considered the ‘institutions’ that had been created in the late C19 and into the C20 to give political voice to the working class had past their use-by date and were no longer fit for purpose. The British Labour Party is one such institution and it has been so captured by ‘conservatism’ of the worst type (sound finance etc) that it no longer is capable of delivering sustainable prosperity.
This is an election year in the UK and unless something dramatically changes, the Labour Party will be in power for the next term of Parliament and will have to manage a poly crisis that they will inherit from 40 or more years of neoliberalism. Note, I don’t confine the antecedents to the Tory period of office since 2010 because the decline started with James Callaghan’s Labour government in the 1970s and then just got worse during successive periods of Labour and Tory rule. During that long period, there has been no shortage of economists and public officials predicting that the financial markets would soon reap chaos as a result of the public debt levels being ‘too high’ (whatever that means). The most significant chaos came in 1992 when Britain was forced out of the European exchange rate system, which it should never have joined in the first place. While all these economists are now pressuring the likely next British government to pull back on their promises to ‘assuage’ the financial markets, there is not even a scintilla of evidence to support their predictions of doom. And the Labour party leaders are too stupid to realise that.
Scottish-born economist – Angus Deaton – recently published his new book – An Immigrant Economist Explores the Land of Inequality – in which he provides a swathing critique of the state of the economics profession, particularly in the way that it impacts on policy making and societal well-being. He is a microeconomist who made a name for himself studying consumer demand, which means he has not contributed anything significant to the field of macroeconomics, where I hang out. The title refers to his migration to the US from Britain in the 1980s and his reflections on what he found and how the economics academy has changed over this 45 years in the profession. His point is that the economics profession has lost its purpose and should return to a focus on advancing well-being. He is particularly critical of Chicago-style economics – or ‘free market’ thinking. The problem though is that the neoliberal era has not been about applying Chicago-style economic theory. The elites just say they are doing that when in fact all they are doing is utilising the immense government capacity to shift the intervention dial in their favour. The government has not given way to the free market – it has just been reconfigured to become an agent of capital.
A close friend send me some pages from a book she is reading – Ministry for the Future – by author Kim Stanley Robinson, which was published in 2020. It is about an organisation that is chartered with defending the rights of future generations and they pursue various projects accordingly. Its major challenge is climate change, after a “deadly heat wave in India” and the narrative allows the author to entertain very interesting discussions about economics, ecology and society. It is classified as “hard science fiction” because while the work reflects the imagination of the author, he bases the narrative on “scientific accuracy and non-fiction descriptions of history and social science” to bring home the challenges we face with climate etc. The pages I received came from Chapter 73 (pages 365-366), which has a two-page discussion about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). The author writes in his future scenario that “Enough governments were convinced by MMT to try it. That it influenced so much policy through the late thirties was regarded as a sign either of progress or of desperate fantasy solutions.” While the discussion is interesting, I want to focus on one of the ideas the author presents because they illustrate an important distinction between ‘Keynesian’ and ‘Post Keynesian’ thought on fiscal policy and MMT analysis.
As the public scrutiny of the body of work we now refer to as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) widens there is a lot of misinformation abroad that distorts or otherwise undermines what has been done to date. Most, but not all the misinformation or emphasis comes from those who attack our work. Their criticisms usually disclose an incomplete understanding of where MMT came from and what the core propositions and logic are. They stylise, usually using terms and constructs that are present in mainstream thinking, but inapplicable to an MMT way of thinking, and end up spitting out things like ‘printing money’ etc, which they think represents a devastating rejection of our work. As part of my own work, and I do this in liaison with Warren Mosler, I am interested in documenting the train of events that led to what we now call MMT. I love history and think it is very important in helping us understand things. So today I am continuing to examine archives to trace the provenance of key MMT concepts. And I am continuing to document the idea of a Job Guarantee, which is central to the MMT framework, despite many who claim to be MMTers thinking otherwise. I have noted in the recent press, claims that the origins of the buffer stock employment approach that became the Job Guarantee was the work of Hyman Minsky. Nothing could be further from the truth as you will see. It is important, in my view, to make the provenance very clear and that is what this blog post is about.
How things are changing. After the British election in December, the policy terrain in the UK has shifted such that the Tories are now being lectured to about the dangers of a stimulus package, while British Labour seems to be promoting leadership candidates that mostly were part of the problem that led to their failure. In the latter context, we are seeing King or, should I say Queen makers, who I would have thought were unelectable trying to influence the leadership choice. And former Labour advisors tweeting and what have you about what Labour should be doing when it was their advice that got the Party into the mess it is currently in. Meanwhile, the Tories have an almost open field to finish the first stage of the Brexit process off, and, secure the ongoing support of the voters that abandoned Labour in the election. The Tories will have restored sovereignty to Britain and freed themselves from the restrictive, neoliberal environment of the European Union. Now don’t get me wrong, I have no truck for the Tories. And all along, I considered that Brexit would deliver great outcomes for Britain in the hands of the Labour party as long as they simultaneously abandoned their neoliberal obsession with fiscal rectitude, as expressed by their ridiculous Fiscal Credibility Rule. Labour will now have to rue their ill-conceived abandonment of the Leave voters in favour of the cosmo Remainers. For now, the Tories have open slather – the worst of the outcomes possible. However, the only attenuating factor is that Boris Johnson is a smart operator and will be keen to ensure that the voters in the Midlands and the North remain Tory on an ongoing basis. That means he will have to do abandon the Tory austerity bias and invest billions into the regions that have been torn apart by his parties obsession with fiscal surpluses. That might, for a while, provide some good news for Britain.
I am surprised at the hostility that Part 1 in this series created. I have received a lot of E-mails about it, many of which contained just a few words, the most recurring being Turkey! One character obviously needed to improve his/her spelling given that they thought it was appropriate to write along the lines that I should just ‘F*ck off to Terkey’. Apparently Turkey has become the new poster child to ‘prove’ Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) wrong. Good try! I also note the Twitterverse has been alight with attention seekers berating me for daring to comment on the sort of advice British Labour is receiving. Well here is Part 2. And because you all liked it so much, the series has been extended into a three-part series because there is a lot of detail to work through. Today, I revisit the fiscal rule issue, which is a necessary step in refuting the claim that MMT policy prescriptions (whatever they might be) will drive the British pound into worthless oblivion. And, you know what? If you don’t like what I write and make available publicly without charge, then you have an easy option – don’t read it. How easy is that? Today, I confirm that despite attempts by some to reconstruct Labour’s Fiscal Rule as being the exemplar of progressive policy making, its roots are core neoclassical economics (which in popular parlance makes it neoliberal) and it creates a dependence on an ever increasing accumulation of private debt to sustain growth. Far from solving a non-existent ‘deficit-bias’ it creates a private debt bias. Not something a Labour government or any progressive government should aspire to.
I am travelling most of today with heavy commitments at the other end so only a short blog today with some great music to calm the soul. Yesterday, a group of high-profile, so-called progressives in Australia placed a paid-for advertisement in the leading daily newspapers as part of a new campaign for the government to increase taxes to get back into surplus so that (as their narrative goes) it can afford to maintain services for the needy. Yes, it was not the Right voices in our debate articulating this. The campaign is being led by a group that is often referred to as ‘left-leaning’ and calls itself the “most influential progressive think tank” in Australia. Modesty doesn’t exist it seems. But these sorts of descriptors are when the English language loses all meaning. The advertisement and subsequent follow-up interviews in the media yesterday by signatories and supporters of the “Letter” articulate a pure neoliberal line of deception about fiscal positions, the role of taxes and the virtuousness of fiscal surpluses. From my assessment, this headline-grabbing display of stupidity will set back the progressive debate in Australia even further. A total disgrace.
This is Part 3 (and final) in the series which examines the robustness of claims made by two British academics about the desirability of the British government (particularly Labour) adopting further fiscal constraints on their flexibility to advance well-being in that nation. Part 3 further develops the critique and focuses on the validity of tightening voluntary constraints on government and outsourcing key parts of the fiscal policy development process to so-called ‘independent’ fiscal councils or boards. We conclude that these suggestions would further entrench the neoliberal dominance of government policy and reduce its capacity to serve the wider interest. In effect, taking this sort of advice would be counterproductive for British Labour, which really needs to to further break out of its recent Blairite neoliberal past and present a truly progressive manifesto to the British people that will force the Tories to move closer to the centre and squeeze the extreme right-wing elements. This will require more than articulating progressive-sounding social and environmental policies. It will require more than proposals to renationalise the railways. Effectively, British Labour has to reframe the macroeconomic debate and eschew the sort of reasoning that the mainstream of my profession offers. It must, in my view, embrace Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) principles to free itself from the shackles of all the neoliberal mumbo jumbo that the New Keynesians continually offer as economic verities. The reality is the the New Keynesian approach has one output – an elaborate litany of lies.
This is Part 2 of my Three Part exposition of how the standard New Keynesian approach to the specification of fiscal rules will generate poor advice for politicians desiring to achieve progressive socio-economic goals. The paper I am using to represent the New Keynesian approach has, by all indications, been somewhat influential in the formation of the macroeconomic approach currently being espoused by the British Labour Party. In that sense, the critique aims to disabuse the Labour politicians and their apparatchiks of building policy options based on fake economic knowledge, and, instead, embrace the principles of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which provides an accurate depiction of how the monetary system actually operates and the policy options for a currency-issuing government such as in Britain, and the likely consequences of deploying these options. The one major lesson that comes out is that the New Keynesian approach is an elaborate fraud. It plays around with so-called ‘optimising’ models asserting human behaviour that no other social scientist believes remotely captures the essence of human decision-making, and then derives conclusions from these models that are claimed to apply to the world we live in. Prior to the GFC, these ‘models’ didn’t even consider the financial sector. The fact is that nothing of value in terms of specifying what a government should do can be gleaned from a New Keynesian approach. It is barren.
This is the third and final part of my response to an article posted by American political analyst Jared Berstein (January 7, 2018) – Questions for the MMTers. In this blog I deal with the last question that he poses to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists, which relates to whether currency issuing governments have to raise revenue in order to “pay for public goods” and whether prudent policy requires the cyclically-adjusted fiscal balance to be zero at full employment to ensure “social insurance programs” are protected. The answer to both queries is a firm No! But there are nuances that need to be explained in some detail. While Jared Bernstein represents a typical ‘progressive’ view of macroeconomics and is sympathetic to some of the core propositions of MMT, this three-part series has shown that the gap between that (neoliberal oriented) view and Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is wide. I hope this three-part series might help the (neoliberal) progressives to abandon some of these erroneous macroeconomic notions and move towards the MMT position, which will give them much more latitude to actually implement their progressive policy agenda. For space reasons, I have decided to make this a three-part response. I also hope the three-part series have helped those who already embrace the core body of MMT to deepen their knowledge and render them more powerful advocates in the struggle against the destructive dominant macroeconomics of neoliberalism.
I am currently working on a book commissioned by Edward Elgar which will form an anthology of influential Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) literature – how it evolved – with a long introduction by me tying all this literature together. It has been a simmering project for the last 18 months and I haven’t mentioned it here until now. The first task was to assemble the literature and then the next task was that the publisher (EE) has to get copyright clearance from the original holders. The second process has taken some time and I have had to alter the proposed table of contents because we cannot get copyright clearance. The reason I mention this is that the work of Hyman Minsky is not among the literature I have selected as being influential in the intellectual development of MMT. That is not to say that some of his earlier work was of no interest. Quite the contrary. But when he makes statements that appear to be consistent with MMT propositions, he is, in my view, just channelling the likes of Abba Lerner and his functional finance. But later in his career, Minsky started to articulate ideas that were consistent with ‘sound finance’, which Lerner had opposed, and, which is anathema to MMT.
I noted in Monday’s blog – Modern Monetary Theory – what is new about it? – that I am working on a paper (with my colleague Martin Watts) that will form the basis of a a keynote talk I will give at the – International Post Keynesian Conference – which will be held at the University of Missouri – Kansas City between September 15-18, 2016. That talk will now be held at 15:30 on Saturday, September. 17, 2016. I also listed four areas where we would discuss the novel contribution that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has made to macroeconomics, despite the claims of both mainstream economists and some Post Keynesians that there is nothing new in MMT. The first two blogs on this topic covered the juxtaposition of employment versus unemployment buffer stocks and the implications of that for how we view the Phillips curve, a central framework in macroeconomics linking inflation to developments in the real sector (unemployment etc). Today’s blog considers another section of the paper – the dynamics of fiscal deficits and public debt. We consider the difference between deficit doves, who consider fiscal deficits are appropriate under some conditions but should be balanced over some definable economic cycle, which we argue has been the standard Post Keynesian position, and the MMT approach to deficits, which considers the desirable deficit outcome at any point in time to be a function of the state of non-government spending and the utilisation of the productive capacity of the economy. We argue that fiscal rules expressed in terms of some rigid balance to GDP target are not only meaningless but dangerous. Fiscal rules in MMT are only meaningful if related to the state of non-government spending and the utilisation of the productive capacity of the economy. This body of MMT work is clearly novel and improves on the extant Post Keynesian literature in the subject which was either silent or lame on these topics.
In yesterday’s Part 1 of this two-part blog – Modern Monetary Theory – what is new about it? – I introduced the idea that a major new contribution of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) to economic theory was in its treatment of inflation and the Phillips curve. This is part of a keynote presentation I will be giving at the International Post Keynesian Conference – which will be held at the University of Missouri – Kansas City between September 15-18, 2016. The keynote presentation is scheduled for Friday, September 16 at 17:00. The topic of my keynote presentation will ‘What is new about MMT?’ and will challenge several critics from both the neo-liberal mainstream and from within the Post Keynesian family that, indeed, there is nothing new about MMT – they knew it all along! I contest that when they say this they are lying and doing so to cover up the inadequacies of their own failed analytical frameworks whether they be mainstream or Post Keynesian.
In a few weeks I am off to the US to present a keynote talk at the – International Post Keynesian Conference – which will be held at the University of Missouri – Kansas City between September 15-18, 2016. I will also be giving some additional talks in Kansas City during that week if you are around and interested. The keynote presentation is scheduled for Friday, September 16 at 17:00. The topic of my keynote presentation will ‘What is new about MMT?’ and will challenge several critics from both the neo-liberal mainstream and from within the Post Keynesian family that, indeed, there is nothing new about MMT – they knew it all along! Well the truth of it is that these characters clearly didn’t previously know or understand a lot of key insights that MMT now offers. No matter how hard they try to reinvent what they knew, the facts are obvious. MMT makes some novel contributions to our knowledge base and shows why a lot of so-called mainstream macroeconomic theory that parades as ‘knowledge’ is, in fact, non-knowledge. This blog and the second-part will provide some notes on the paper I am writing (with my colleague Martin Watts) on this topic.
There was a time, in better days, that the evening news had news, sport and weather. Then, at some point, around the 1980s the national news started to host a Finance segment. Sometimes these segments are meagre reporting of what happened in the share markets. Even that benign news is symptomatic of the way neo-liberalism has infested our daily thinking and made the common folk feel part of the game that they are really can never be part of – wealth creation. At other times, the finance segments introduce economic theory and analysis as if it is news. Then the insidious nature of the neo-liberal propaganda machine becomes stark. But the starkness is lost on most because they think it is news and we have been led to believe that what gets pumped out at 19:00 on the national broadcaster (and other times by other broadcasters) are facts. Facts don’t lie do they? Well, when it comes to finance segments they are mostly lies.
I was sent a copy of a survey report – Grand Old Party for A Brand New Generation – which was produced by the so-called College Republican National Committee, which is a conservative university-based organisation in the US aiming to recruit people into the GOP. What emerges is that a lot of opinions are expressed but once you consider them in detail the only possible conclusion is that American college students (inasmuch as this is a representative sample) are hopelessly mis-educated on these matters – like the rest of the population. The level of internal inconsistency with respect to positions taken on macroeconomic policies that is demonstrated in the survey results is quite stunning. But don’t blame the students, their teachers and political leaders let them down too. The economic debate around the world is so infested with neo-liberal myths that it is hard for any alternative viewpoints to get oxygen. Yet the data keeps rejecting the mainstream views, which, it seems, only serves to solidify them further. We are all caught in a morass of mis-education – and our societies are drowning as a consequence. Nero fiddled. We do something else. Civilisations do not last forever.