Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is not a trap but it is radical.
It shows us how to construct democracy in favour of the people and foster a better political discourse and shows that the policy space available is wider than usually assumed. This piece is a direct response to John Quiggin’s
and in its place Leia Organa’s distress message to Obi-Wan Kenobi that MMT is a new hope, writes Darren Quinn
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.