In a way, I really should not spend time debating the Modern Monetary Theory guys. They’re on my side in current policy debates, and it’s unlikely that they’ll ever have the kind of real — and really bad — influence that the Austrians have lately acquired. But I really don’t feel like getting right back to textbook revision, so here’s another shot.
First of all, yes, I have read various MMT manifestos — this one is fairly clear as they go. I do dislike the style — the claims that fundamental principles of logic lead to a worldview that only fools would fail to understand has a sort of eerie resemblance to John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged — but that shouldn’t matter.
But I do get the premise that modern governments able to issue fiat money can’t go bankrupt, never mind whether investors are willing to buy their bonds. And it sounds right if you look at it from a certain angle. But it isn’t.
Let’s have a more or less concrete example. Suppose that at some future date — a date at which private demand for funds has revived, so that there are lending opportunities — the US government has committed itself to spending equal to 27 percent of GDP, while the tax laws only lead to 17 percent of GDP in revenues. And consider what happens in that case under two scenarios. In the first, investors believe that the government will eventually raise revenue and/or cut spending, and are willing to lend enough to cover the deficit. In the second, for whatever reason, investors refuse to buy US bonds.
The second case poses no problem, say the MMTers, or at least no worse problem than the first: the US government can simply issue money, crediting it to banks, to pay its bills.
But what happens next?
We’re assuming that there are lending opportunities out there, so the banks won’t leave their newly acquired reserves sitting idle; they’ll convert them into currency, which they lend to individuals. So the government indeed ends up financing itself by printing money, getting the private sector to accept pieces of green paper in return for goods and services. And I think the MMTers agree that this would lead to inflation; I’m not clear on whether they realize that a deficit financed by money issue is more inflationary than a deficit financed by bond issue.
For it is. And in my hypothetical example, it would be quite likely that the money-financed deficit would lead to hyperinflation....
We can just spend to our hearts content, right? Absolutely not. The bogey here is inflation which is constantly moving up and down with the amount of money in the system based on my tax rate, spending, borrowing, etc. Thus, government cannot just spend and spend and spend or the extra dollars in the system will chase too few goods and drive up prices. It’s important to understand that government cannot just spend recklessly. This is important so I’ll say it again. This does not give the government the ability to spend and spend and spend. If they spend too much and tax too little they can create mal-investment and inflation. Likewise, if the government taxes too much and spends too little they create a government surplus and private sector deficit (by accounting identity). This can result in deflation and/or excess private sector debt levels as the private sector literally suffers a dollar shortage.
Some people claim that Modern Monetary Theorists say deficits don’t matter. That is a vast misrepresentation of MMT. No Modern Monetary Theorist would ever say such a thing. Deficits most certainly do matter. Maintaining the correct level of deficit spending is, in many ways, a balancing act performed by the government. It is best to think of the government’s maintenance of the deficit like a thermostat for the economy. When the economy is running cold the deficit can afford to be higher. When it is hot the deficit should be lower. Because there is no solvency concern in the USA (as there is in the revenue constrained European nations) the only concern is inflation or possible hyperinflation.
It’s also important to note that spending by the government must be focused on its efficiency. If spending is misdirected or misguided there is a very real possibility that this spending will simply result in higher inflation that is not offset by increased productivity. If you pay people to sit on their couches all day long there is no reason to believe why this sort of government policy will not result in long-term economic decline in the citizenry’s standard of living. Therefore, government has an incentive to promote productive output and maintain sound stewardship of its currency.
In fact, inflation has been low. (Too low, actually, but I'll leave that alone for now.)
I had never thought of it that way, but Bill’s analogy to commodities price stabilization schemes added an important component that was missing from Minsky: use full employment to stabilize prices. With that we turned the Phillips Curve on its head: unemployment and inflation do not represent a trade-off, rather, full employment and price stability go hand in hand.link
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