John Quiggin’s Modern Money Evidence Based Framework Review

John Quiggin has very kindly reviewed Macroeconomics by William Mitchell, Randall Wray and Martin Watts, an undergraduate textbook based on Modern Money Theory (or Modern Monetary Theory).  It is a very good review.

Quiggin begins with the headline ‘Modern Monetary Theory: Neither modern, nor monetary, nor (mainly) theoretical?

Perhaps such a headline was designed to be clickbait, as the headline has a more negative tone than the review itself.

MMT uses the word ‘Modern’ in a polysemic way.  ‘Modern’ is intended as Keynes used the word in A Treatise on Money and since the closing of the gold standard window in 1971.

It is monetary as in it is about how money instruments (currency) shifts real resources (not to be confused with monetary policy) and it is a theory in the scientific use of the word – an evidence-based framework.

There are a few minor disputes I have with the review.  The review is very good up until this point:

“The second, which might be called ‘popular MMT’, or, more pejoratively, ‘vulgar MMT’, is a movement in which the statement ‘taxes don’t finance public expenditure’ is interpreted to mean that governments can increase spending as much as they like, with no need for an offsetting increase in tax revenue. This view was presented by pastor Delman Coates, speaking at the Third Modern Monetary Theory conference at Stony Brook University”

I think this is a misunderstanding. Governments can increase spending as much as they like with no need for an offsetting increase in tax revenue or non-fiscal offsets if there is little to no risk of politically unacceptable inflation. This is what these people mean and is perfectly compatible with ‘academic’ MMT.

Which brings us to “Anyone looking for a defence of the claim that we can have a Green New Deal, or some other large-scale expansion of public spending, without any increase in taxation, will be disappointed,” which is fairly reasonable but it depends on what we include in the GND, what we don’t spend on, the use and access to resources we already have. It is a little US-centric but you can see it demonstrated quite successfully by Stephanie Kelton here:

From about the 26th minute

Overall, John Quiggin has presented what I would consider a satisfactory review of the Macroeconomics textbook. As Quiggin suggests some of the positions presented by the text are perfectly aligned within various existing Keynesian paradigms.  However, an issue with mainstream Keynesianism is that it never provides the clarity that MMT has. Even from John Quiggin himself, on MMT and Russia he wrote:

“…so it’s usual to speak of public expenditure being paid for by taxes (or, better, tax revenues)…”

To say this is completely misleading to all except but perhaps well-heeled economists. Even as Quiggin wrote and intended to mean “…Taxes are the primary instrument by which resources are transferred from private to public expenditure…” or any other economist that uses a similar phrase.

Saying it is paid by tax revenues gives the wrong impression.

Reframing from money’s ‘how will you pay for it?’ to ‘how will you resource it?’ makes it much clearer and shows money itself is no object [also the title of a Stephanie Kelton presentation].

This itself exposes it is not about an increase in tax revenues but about access to resources and thus resource constraints (inflation) which is detailed informatively by Scott Fullwiler, Nathan Tankus and Rohan Grey at the Financial Times.

Anyone a little MMT literate will not deny the use of taxes in an MMT frame, its foundational point is taxes drive the currency. The point about not increasing taxes or tax rates from proponents is that it may not be required to raise them to use particular resources, especially if they are currently idle.

I hope this has reconciled the differences between pop-MMT and Academic MMT.  Those that follow Modern Monetary Theory share a view with Joan Robinson about mainstream Keynesianism which she called ‘bastard Keynesianism’.  Modern Money Theory is a coherent attempt at reconciling Keynes view and other ‘modern’ views in the operational macroeconomic paradigm we work in today.