Category Archives: Opinion

MODERN MONETARY THEORY ENHANCES DEMOCRATIC ACCOUNTABILITY

MODERN MONETARY THEORY (MMT) is a description or if you prefer, a systemic analysis of currency as it presently exists.

It reveals that taxation is important in driving demand for currency among other things, including the creation of unemployment. After all, there is no unemployment in a non-monetary economy.

Adam Triggs, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution and Crawford School of Public Policy at Australian National University (ANU) wrote back in 2019 that MMT ‘looks like a solution in search of a problem’. That is not the case. MMT shows that the new economic consensus on the monetary system is false and it also shows what tools are available in the modern money toolkit.

Triggs proceeds:

‘If its [MMT’s] stated objective is to achieve full employment, then it appears unnecessary.’ 

This simple sentence is misleading in the extreme. MMT is just what exists. It has a preference for sovereign currencies but can explain any monetary system.

The preference for sovereign currency is because it makes available more independent policy space, enhancing democracy. Triggs then defines full employment as an unemployment rate of five per cent. Oh, the horror! This relies on the mythical “non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment” (NAIRU), which is sometimes transposed with the phrase “natural rate of unemployment”.

MMT defines full employment (as do all good economists) as frictional unemployment which is somewhere between one and three per cent with zero or next to zero underemployment. These are the people that are switching jobs or are ill. After all, there is no natural rate of unemployment, just as there is no natural rate of homelessness, no natural rate of poverty and no natural rate of illiteracy.

MMT shows that all spending is new spending and is effectively financed by “printing” money. However, the term “printing money” is pretty misleading in economic circles.

What economists usually mean, in fancy terms, is quantitative easing (QE) — the swapping of government bonds for cash. A plain and simple financial asset swap. Bonds are first bought with cash and when QE is implemented the bonds are swapped back for cash. The cash comes first. What MMT means is that all spending is new spending whether done electronically with keystrokes or with physical cash. So, no, QE is not MMT and nor did QE produce inflation anywhere as predicted.

Quantitative Easing explained simply.

MMT argues for control of inflation through progressive tax rates, the job guarantee and other new automatic stabilisers. It also explains inflation is a resource distribution issue, not a monetary issue.

Triggs talks about the world lending us our own currency which is just nonsensical. For that to be even plausible, lenders would have to get it from us first — the word “sovereign” does the heavy lifting here. Even then, unless in physical cash, it stays on accounts at the central bank. So how on earth is foreign savings in Australian dollars going to finance anything?

Triggs also delves into some new economic consensus falsehoods about rising inflation, interest rates and depreciating exchange rates — as if we do not have the tools to manage these. We do.

The closest thing to a genuine critique or critical analysis of MMT Triggs offers is an appeal to the authority of some “eminent” new economic consensus economists, including Olivier Blanchard, who is moving closer and closer to MMT.

Triggs tries again in 2020 to say MMT is just a rebranding of orthodox economics — what I have previously called the new economic consensus. This is simple to disprove as orthodox economics believes taxes and/or bonds finance government spending.

Stephanie Kelton, author of the bestseller The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and How to Build a Better Economy, wrote a detailed operational paper that disproved that. The great irony is she was attempting to prove it.

In his 2020 article Triggs said:

For Kelton, the core propositions of MMT are that government budgets are fundamentally different from household budgets, that budget deficits are not necessarily bad, that governments should spend more when the economy is weak, and that governments should focus more on unemployment than budget deficits. She believes that the main constraint on government spending is inflation, that increasing the deficit need not make future generations poorer and that governments can’t run out of money if they have their own central bank, their own currency and no foreign debt.

If that all sounds right and logical to you, that’s because it is. Most mainstream economists have been making these points for close to one hundred years.

If Triggs accepts all this, he is approaching acceptance of MMT. However, to say most mainstream economists have been making these points for years is mistaken.

To quote the Australian developer of MMT, Bill Mitchell:

It is very strange – if all the major features of MMT were so widely shared and understood – how do we explain statements from politicians, central bankers, private executives, lobbyists, media commentators etcetera, etcetera that appear to not accept or understand the basic MMT claims?

Again, Triggs tries to counter with the inflation and/or hyperinflation argument against MMT — to which I repeat, MMT argues for control of inflation through progressive tax rates, the job guarantee and other new automatic stabilisers. It also explains inflation is a resource distribution issue, not a monetary issue.

Kelton herself reflects on this on Twitter in response to U.S. Senator Mike Braun:

‘If you get hyperinflation, then you didn’t follow the recipe. The recipe clearly defines the limits on spending.’

Kelton’s comment is a great counterpoint to relying on politicians to use the monetary system for anything beyond the public purpose. That is the reason we have democratic accountability and vote every electoral cycle.

This article was originally posted on Independent Australia on the 18th July 2021.
I improved the final paragraph.

Can We Trust Politicians?

We are currently hearing the storyline – MMT is correct (although they don’t express it that way) but god save us if anyone finds out.

An MMT understanding allows us to appreciate that most choices that are couched in terms of ‘budgets’ and ‘financial constraints’ are, in fact, just political choices.

Given there are no intrinsic financial constraints on a currency-issuing government, we understand that mass unemployment is a political choice.

Imagine if citizens understood that!!

An MMT understanding lifts the ideological veil imposed by mainstream economics that relies on the false analogy between an income-constrained household and the currency-issuing government.

Households always have to finance their spending choices, through earned income, savings, asset sales or through borrowing. A currency-issuing government spends by instructing its central bank to type numbers electronically into relevant bank accounts.

All the elaborate accounting structures and institutional processes that are put in place to make it look as though tax revenue and/or debt sales fund spending are voluntary smokescreens, which serve the purpose of imposing political discipline on government spending.

Insiders know this, but actively decline to share that knowledge with the public.

There is also a growing claim that there is nothing new about MMT – that everything we write about is “well-understood” or “widely understood and acknowledged”. Further, apparently “everybody knows” and New Keynesians are “fully aware” that the government is not financially constrained.

It is very strange – if all the major features of MMT were so widely shared and understood – how do we explain statements from politicians, central bankers, private executives, lobbyists, media commentators etc, etc that appear to not accept or understand the basic MMT claims?

    • Where in the vast body of macroeconomic literature – mainstream or otherwise – do we see regular acknowledgement that there is no financial constraint, for example?

    • Why is there mass unemployment if government officials understood all our claims?
  •  
    • It would be the ultimate example of venal dysfunctional politics to hold that that everybody knows all this stuff but are deliberately disregarding it – for what?
  •  
    • Why do economists still claim that banks lend out their reserves?
  •  
    • Why do they think that an asset swap (liquid for near liquid) engineered by the central bank will provide banks with more funds to lend as if banks wait around for deposits before they make loans?
  •  
    • Why don’t papers on banking indicate that loans create deposits rather than engage in the fiction that it is the other way around?
  •  
    • Why do economists still claim there is a monetary multiplier operating when bank reserves respond to broad monetary movements?

I could pose hundreds of like questions. I am not naive. I couldn’t answer any of these questions if the claim that everything MMT has proposed is passe in the extreme.

These sorts of claims then lead to statements that there is “nothing new” about MMT – is designed to discredit us and to suggest we are just a bunch of misguided, politically naive intellectual minions.

Please note that MMT does not include the word “new” in its descriptor. Also, if some person out there can find any literature written by one of the major MMT academics or authors where there is a claim that the theoretical structure proposed and integrated by the writers is “new” please let me know. (I wouldn’t waste my time by the way.)

The descriptor of import is “Modern” which like all descriptors can be interpreted in a number of ways. The way the MMT literature discusses the economy and integrates components from banking, the national account accounts, a deep understanding of the way bond, currency and labour markets work – is certainly modern.

It is clear that MMT writers borrow, absorb, integrate strands of theory dating back to Marx and before. There has never been a denial of that. But there are truly novel aspects of our approach that the vast majority of economists progressive or otherwise – who are slaves of the textbook framework – still do not understand despite the claims that everything is understood.

As we said at the beginning there is now a line of critics who acknowledge the validity of core MMT principles but think they are too dangerous for people to broadly share in that knowledge.

Why?

Because we apparently have reached a point in history where we hate dictators and eulogise the benefits of democracy (à la Churchill in the Commons on November 11, 1947 – “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”), but don’t want the politicians we elect to have the flexibility to advance our well-being.

Or in simpler language – “because we don’t trust politicians”.

This has been a long-standing view.

Remember the famous quote from American economist Paul Samuelson in the interview he did for the film – John Maynard Keynes: Life, Ideas, Legacy – where at the 52:50 mark into the film, he said:

I think there is an element of truth in the view that the … the superstition that the budget must be balanced at all times … aah … Once it is debunked … takes away one of the bulwarks that every society must have against expenditure out of control. There must be discipline in the allocation of resources or you will have … aah … anarchistic chaos and inefficiency. And one of the functions of old fashioned religion was to scare people by … aah … sometimes what might be regarded as myths into behaving in a way that long-run civilised life requires. We have taken away a belief in the intrinsic necessity of balancing the budget if not in every year … in every short period of time. If Prime Minister Gladstone came back to life he would say ‘oh, oh what you have done’ and James Buchanan argues in those terms. I have to say that I see merit in that view.

This amounts to a world where the elites can manipulate the fiscal capacity of the state to advance their own interests (procurement contracts at will, bailouts when they mess up, etc) but if we want to do something about unemployment or poverty then the rest of us has to be held in this fictional world that appeals to our instincts of fear and uncertainty.

And, of course, we then are encouraged to distrust politicians and so it goes.

My view is that once we expose these myths, more sensible political discourse can take place.

And if we do not like our government – that is they go crazy with their spending capacity – then we throw them out of office (in Australia, every three years or so).

I also think that if the standard of political dialogue was improved, higher-quality candidates would seek election and push out the time-serving careerists who dominate all political parties.

It is an extraordinary world where we accept a deception because knowing the truth might require us to act differently.

I don’t accept that proposition. I believe that the truth will set us free and we will become more politically engaged and demand quality political behaviour.

So, can we trust politicians?  We can trust ourselves!!


This has been a remix of three of Bill Mitchell’s blogs for the State of Modern Monetary Theory today.

Former RBA Governor says MMT is correct!!

Sometime back Joseph Noel Walker, host of the Jolly Swagman Podcast did an interview with the former RBA Governor Ian MacFarlane.  I asked Joseph if I could host just the MMT section here but he preferred a link to the full the podcast on his site.

I take it that he has a fear that the podcast will be taken out of context and I understand that fear.  This is definitely not the intent, much of the podcast does not revolve around MMT and do not wish to inflict things that are outside the foundational scope of this site on its audience.

The piece on MMT goes for a little over 29 minutes and begins around the 42 minute mark of the approximately 102 minute podcast.

You can click on the link below to go there.

One of the things Macfarlane says is that it is only peripherally about monetary policy but that is part of the point of modern monetary theory, that is not about monetary or fiscal policy but the monetary system.

Macfarlane walks us through the process of the monetary system in an identical way to MMT, from the Treasury to the Central Bank to the Bank to the Bank Customer, maybe with slightly different nomenclature.

The primary difference Ian Macfarlane has with MMT is a normative preference (and remains consistent with MMT) is that he prefers the current method of setting the interest rate by selling securities to the primary dealers (banks) first.

Current RBA Governor Phil Lowe (PDF) has said a very similar thing:

“I am confident that the Australian government will be able to raise money in the capital markets, at very low interest rates, to finance whatever level of spending is required. It’s true that, when they have to repay those bonds to us, they’ll have to raise money in the market. They’ll be able to do that. There’s very strong demand for these securities. The best way of doing this is the government entering the market, paying these low interest rates and deciding how much money it wants to spend.”

From an accounting perspective as  Marc Lavoie’s Friendly Critical Look at MMT (PDF) points out this exchange comes out as identical whether the central bank buys securities directly or through the markets.  So nothing of substance actually happens in this exchange.

MMT shows the Interest Rate is a policy variable and in other discussions there is more than one way to set the interest rate.

There has been a lot of fightback over MMT from various members of the current economic hegemony but as is increasingly clear, the MMT framework – which is primarily a description of macroeconomic operations – is correct.

When Banks and Business do Central Planning

When Michael Hudson & Steve Keen talk about Banks and Businesses doing the Central Planning, we should listen.


Michael Hudson is President of The Institute for the Study of Long-Term Economic Trends (ISLET), a Wall Street Financial Analyst, Distinguished Research Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri, Kansas City and author of J is for Junk Economics (2017), Killing the Host (2015), The Bubble and Beyond (2012), Super-Imperialism: The Economic Strategy of American Empire (1968 & 2003), Trade, Development and Foreign Debt (1992 & 2009) and of The Myth of Aid (1971), amongst many others. ISLET engages in research regarding domestic and international finance, national income and balance-sheet accounting with regard to real estate, and the economic history of the ancient Near East.