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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Neo-Chartalism, Part II

I respond to the back-and-forth between Paul Krugman and MMT proponents (Wray, Galbraith).

I will put this caveat up front:  I may not 'get' MMT...despite reading numerous papers, blogs, etc. on the subject.  I don't see this as my failure.  I see this as the proponent's of MMT's failure.  They only ever respond with vague notions - never anything substantial.  This is a challenge.  Try convincing me.  Because if you can't convince me, you sure as hell won't convince mainstream economics, or this country. 

Krugman and Wrary back and forth: HERE

Garth Brazelton July 20 at 1:36pm - my general discussion with an MMT proponent
Still not convincing. No economist denies the obvious that technically the government faces no legal or operational constraint to money creation- or I should say bank reserves so as not to contradict circuitism. Krugman makes a valid argument that the government does however face choice of default or risk hyperinflation. Wray counters that by either putting his faith in politicians (which never makes for good policy) or then denying the problem outright by pointing to automatic stabilizers. I would say his latter argument is more assumption laden than anything I've ever read in any mainstream text. Who is to say the stabilizer would offset the spending over time? If taxes do need to be raised because spending occurs past so-called full employment (which is defined as what by MMTers), who is taxed and for how long? And politicians will do this for economic reasons only? I don't think so. MMT is the challenger - it has the burden of proof here.... So far I don't see remotely resembling a useful or reasonable argument to justify it's existence as a "theory.". It keeps saying that everyone else thinks the government is operationally constrained. No one is saying that. I at least am saying they are "effectively" constrained due to the reality that there are costs associated with deficits (including country credit ratings and foreign perception which seems to be often ignored by MMTers), which MMTers seem to just shrug off.
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...
Now, my thoughts...
So very clearly, Wray does not agree with me that defaults matter / are a policy concern. Wray is suggesting governments would 'rationally' fight against hyperinflation - that assumes a lot about the abilities and intellect of politicians, which I for one, am not going to go there. As Zimbabwe attests (and I know quite a bit about Zimbabwe), hyperinflation can develop faster than most politicians can draft 800 page pieces of legislation - let alone passing it.

Countries can go bankrupt. If we reach the point where our currency is worth less than the stuff we use to wipe our asses with, then we will become Zimbabwe. That may not be government bankruptcy, but that is private sector bankruptcy as corruption, cronism, milita activity along with the inevitable call for price controls, net capital outflow (flight) ensues. Worse case scenario but it's possible - and MMT (chartalism) is all about telling people that all this stuff is 'impossible.' Once the government is over-thrown (like Zimbabwe almost was) ...well...there's your governmental default... there's your restart button.

Even if it doesn't reach that extreme, the fluctuations in exchange rates, price levels, tax levels, the level of uncertainty that all that would create (something 'true' followers of Keynes and Minsky should appreciate) would surely become serious problems. I don't prefer deflationary risk to inflationary risk - I recognize the pitfalls of both - frankly, in this recession, I don't see risk of either to any huge degree right now. If prices started declining dramatically in the broad economy I'd be concerned, but they are not. I agree Ricardian equivalence (so called) is perhaps the most idiotic idea ever to come out of economics - but it doesn't follow that we should be creating inflation expectations by actually creating inflation risk via spending.

In the end, DUH, the government is monopolizer of our currency. That doesn't mean anything special - and no real economist is saying otherwise. It's pretty clear the Chartalists have this obsession with talking about how the government is not operationally constrained and about absolutes (very much counter to the post-Keynesian tradition which I find interesting). They seem to ignore that we, and the government are all politically, economically, and realistically constrained. In the end, I don't want to put all that power in the hands of politicians. I'm no monetarist, but they are correct in their critique of fiscal policy in this regard.

I remember when post-Keynesianism used to stand for realism and challenging assumptions. It was about promoting certain regulations and private market behaviors to fix the inherent problems in the private sector of a capitalist society - not about liberal spending. Government can do good work, and some spending is important which I've talked about here before (infrastructure, promoting a new direction in terms of energy) but to base a whole monetary (really, a fiscal) movement around amorphous 'spending' is contrary to common sense. Chartalism is not seemingly based in reality and is riddled with assumptions - They have created this Bolshovikian "reality" in their own minds - that our politicians can save the day and smooth out the business cycles - that deficits don't matter because we are going to create this automatic employment mechanism - a philosophy not wholly different from the 1960's Keynesians. If this is the new post-Keynesianism, count me out.

35 comments:

JKH said...

Whoa -

Chartalism/MMT is largely about deep breathing.

You’ve got to take it one step at a time.

The first thing to understand is that most of the economics profession has never learned the primal force of the fallacy of composition.

The General Theory is more about the FC than it is government policy.

Post Keynesian economics is similar to that.

The first lesson is about basic banking and the nature of bank reserves.

There is a theory called the “multiplier”.

It is completely wrong.

Almost all economists do not understand that, and therefore have no hope of understanding how banks work.

You may be able to understand this if you want to.

And it builds from there.

Central bank operations and government treasury operations and deficit financing and sector financial balances follow from there.

Breathe slowly, and enjoy.

And be vigilant.

You are about to be rescued.

Garth said...

JKH...I agree with everything you just said. ---except for the creepy, almost religious, way you said it. My issue isn't with the fallacy of composition (which I'm fully aware of) or the money multiplier issue. My issue is with MMT, and MMT alone. I'm open to answers, but every time I ask, I get nothing but vagueries.

Nathan Tankus said...

@garth, since this post is riddled with so many problems i don't know where to begin, i'll just start with automatic stabilizers: do you really think that it's a crazy assumption that tax revenues will increase and welfare payments will decrease as the economy strengthens? really? besides the fact that all empirical evidence (some of which wray sites specifically in his response; and you conveniently ignored) it doesn't seem so much an assumption as common sense or basic accounting. hmmm people pay taxes on their income. as people's income increase they owe more taxes on that income and thus revenues increase. seems like logic 101 to me.in part of your post you say "It keeps saying that everyone else thinks the government is operationally constrained. No one is saying that. I at least am saying they are "effectively" constrained due to the reality that there are costs associated with deficits (including country credit ratings and foreign perception which seems to be often ignored by MMTers), which MMTers seem to just shrug off." this is contradictory either you think a government is not operationally constrained like we do or you think they aren't. why is rating agencies assessment of government debt "constraining" ? you're much vaguer than you claim we are. chartalism has nothing to do with putting power into the hands of politicians. governments already spend the way we describe it; just because we describe it doesn't grant them magical powers. chartalists don't espouse how a government isn't operationally constrained so that they can go on a spending binge, they do it to point out reality. chartalists aren't "vague" about what full employment of resources are, they state very concretely that to keep track of how much resources are being employed you look at the unemployment rate, the capacity utilization rate , the underemployment rate, the inflation rate and others. you have not disproved anything in chartalism, you have simply state a bunch of misconceptions half truths about what modern monetary theory is about and then disagree with the caricature you have created of us.we don't believe politicians will save the day, i at least (and i think others) believe that it's up to people to keep their governments accountable. the whole point of creating automatic stabilizers like a job guarantee is to take economic decision making out of the hands of national politicians and into the hands of local communities.

Garth said...

Nathan,
I think you mis-read some of the things I said.

First, I never said automatic stabilizers don't increase tax revenue. I question the assumption that the magnitude would exceed government spending over time.

Second, there is nothing contradictory in my statement regarding operational constraints. My point is that there is a difference between operational constraints and real life constraints.

Third, I don't see how you or any MMT'er can espouse an ideology based on government spending, government guaranteed full employment, and control of inflation via tax policy without involving politicians. To say something contrarily is ridiculous. MMT is not a 'monetary' theory at all...it is a new-fiscal policy tool in disguise, and that is all.
Again, I could be wrong, but I don't see MMT as providing anything so much as a useful solution to our existing problems. Again, I say, try to convince me. If not me, you'll never succeed.

Anonymous said...

"If not me, you'll never succeed."

You give yourself WAY TOO MUCH credit, Garth. You're just one of thousands with an emotional attachment to finding some flaw in MMT. You don't matter at all.

Nathan Tankus said...

"First, I never said automatic stabilizers don't increase tax revenue. I question the assumption that the magnitude would exceed government spending over time."
so do i and so does randall wray. the point randy was making was simply that krugman's assumption in his flawed quantity theory of money model of ever increasing budget deficits until infinite inflation occurs is unrealistic because of countercylical automatic stabilizers.

"Second, there is nothing contradictory in my statement regarding operational constraints. My point is that there is a difference between operational constraints and real life constraints." again mmt makes the same point except that we don't think their are bogus financial constraints on government spending but rather real resource constraints and inflation constraints.

"Third, I don't see how you or any MMT'er can espouse an ideology based on government spending, government guaranteed full employment, and control of inflation via tax policy without involving politicians. To say something contrarily is ridiculous."
of course it "involves politicians", but you make a big jump from involving politicians to completely reliant on politicans. we seek to point out the operational reality of how the government spends, taxes and performs both monetary and fiscal policy so people better understand how the system works and to push it to work for them rather then for bankers or other special interests. acknowledging how governments spends does not make us "reliant" on politicians anymore then acknowledging how bankers create money makes you "reliant" on bankers.
" MMT is not a 'monetary' theory at all...it is a new-fiscal policy tool in disguise, and that is all."
if you read any mmt literature you would know that we think monetary policy is really interest rate policy and fiscal policy has a lot more to do with the money supply then usually acknowledged.
"Again, I could be wrong, but I don't see MMT as providing anything so much as a useful solution to our existing problems. Again, I say, try to convince me. If not me, you'll never succeed." what's your alternative to making people more politically active and to hold politicans more accountable so that government policy starts helping not harming people? tell everyone to default on their loans? i don't see how any solution to our economic problems won't at some level involve government. mmt talks a lot about inflation and as scott told you in your last post. we are (for the most part) minskyans (minsky also supported a job guarantee and talked about it's efficacy) if you want a few of minsky's papers on the subject i'll send them to you if you wish. Minsky focuses on inflation and its causes a lot and i think you will find mmters generally agree with his assessment of inflation.

Nathan Tankus said...

honestly i'm having a hard time pinning down what your actual problem with mmt is. if you stated that a little more concretely i guess i would be able to respond a little more concretely

Garth said...

I don't mean to give myself that much credit.... What I'm suggesting is if you can't convince someone who is open to non mainstream thinking, how do you hope to convince the mainstream?

Garth said...

That said... Send me these papers. I'd love to read more.

JKH said...

I am not a Chartalist/MMT-er per se, but I’m attracted to the analytical insights of their writings, particularly as they pertain to the operation of the banking system. Their analysis of the monetary system is the basis for their development of policy options. Some of the policy options such as the job guarantee are a bit of a black box to me, but that’s mostly because I haven’t taken the time to explore the considerable writing on them in detail.

I’ve always been fascinated by how this group gets the issue of the money multiplier and bank reserves right while most of the rest of the economics profession gets it backwards. It may appear to be a small building block, but it’s a critical base for a consistently correct understanding of monetary operations.

It’s my view that a very small subset of economists who get this piece right is probably worth listening to for what they do with that understanding. Conversely, there are some (monetarist) economists who seem to thrive on misinterpreting the role of reserves in the banking system, and some of those happen to be very active on their own internet blogs.

In the past I’ve commented quite a bit on the fundamental distinction between bank reserves and bank capital. Many economists adopt a view of the multiplier that is much closer to being applicable to bank capital than it is to reserves. This is troubling, because it reflects quite a substantial gap in knowledge that is relevant to macroeconomics more generally. It’s a variation on the “Dark Age” problem that Krugman noted in my view. And it’s still overlooked in the self-flagellation rituals of the economics profession regarding its own role in (response to) the crisis. Few of them if any have realized or admitted during this period that they haven’t understood central bank operations, and that this is a problem for the profession. As Scott Fullwiler has said on occasion - all they have to do is look.

I think there was maybe less than perfect clarity in the Krugman/Galbraith debate on both sides. I’m not sure that the difference between involuntary insolvency and voluntary default was satisfactorily delineated. As far as fiscal policy is concerned, those two economists aren’t fundamentally different in the directions they argue for.

So a lot of Chartalism/MMT is about how to think about the monetary system. I suppose that explains my Buddha like first comment. If there’s a better way of thinking about it, then that should be a better platform for considering policy options. As far as the policy options are concerned, it may be the case that the Chartalist/MMT group is underemphasizing its approach to long term inflation control at this stage, and that critics are jumping on this. And if they are, it may be because the group is underemphasizing its view on the operational process of inflation generation and transmission. I have no doubt they’ve written lots about it, but it isn’t so visible front and center now. That could be due to the policy urgency of dealing with a dire, near secular deflation risk that confronts us now – a risk with a fat tail that is not wise betting too much against. And it’s no small peril that many of those who want to bet against it don’t understand our monetary system.

Jim Baird said...

JKH -

Abba Lerner (who pretty much invented the MMT framework back in the 40's) spent most of the rest of his life grappling with ways to deal with cost push inflation in a full employment economy. So give us MMTers a little credit: were still trying to get the rest of the world up to where Lerner was, circa 1946.

Don't criticize us for not grappling with Newton's problems when we're still trying to get other people to read Aristotle...

JKH said...

Jim Baird,

Here I thought I was trying to be helpful in identifying a communication challenge, rather than criticizing.

Oh, well.

I don’t think Abba Lerner himself is positioned very well to deal with the issue of communicating MMT’s message today.

Perhaps a modern update on how MMT deals with inflation risk longer term is what I’m suggesting. If that’s has been done/ is being done sufficiently and regularly, it should be pointed out on balance and in force to MMT inflation front doubters. I think that’s where the hard core of the opposition comes from, piled on top of any misunderstanding of monetary operations.

Jim Baird said...

JKH -

Sometimes I think the corpse of Abba Lerner has a better understanding of economics than most current practictioners...

Garth -

I think one reason for the "Zen" tone of JKH's first comment was about the difficulty of truly freeing yourself from fallacies of composition. Virtually every economist can give a nice little capsule description of the fallacy, but they then proceed to commit it 10 times a day. As JKH says, it has a "primal force", and freeing yourself from it takes a lot more work than most people realize.

JOL said...

Garth,
Your major concern seems to be anxiety that politicians cannot be trusted with fighting inflation if it happens. But, pause and consider yours and the mainstream's response to this concern: a blind faith in the ability, wisdom, and willingness of "independent" central banks to fight inflation (and deflation) and achieve stable currency. Is this not naive? The mainstream seems to say "politicians can never be trusted, they act in self-interested, corrupt manner", but then the mainstream turns around and magically believes that Platonic philosopher-kings will exist in some magically "independent" (independent of what? accountability?) central bank. Yet look at the evidence: so-called central banks everywhere are captured by the banks and banking system they purport to control. They goals of so-called "independent" central banks are no more aligned with national aggregate economic goals than they would if they were accountable to voters. They are simply different goals and different segments to be accountable for.

You assert that the burden is totally on MMT's to convince and overthrow existing mainstream theory. Yet, you (and Krugman and mainstreamers) refuse to reflect on the factual errors of the existing mainstream theory such as the money multiplier concept based on existing reserves limiting the creation of new loans is factually wrong. It simply doesn't happen that way. If econ is supposed to have scientific content, then we DO need to be concerned with whether our theories are at least factually consistent with reality. Otherwise we're just arguing science fiction fantasies - and frankly that's what most textbook descriptions of money and banking are: fantasies of a world that doesn't exist.

Finally, you (and Krugman also) seem to have thoroughly absorbed without question Friedman's famous assertion that "inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon". The focus is always on quantities of money. As a result there's nothing in mainstream theory that tells us when or how ordinary mild inflation becomes galloping inflation or when it becomes hyperinflation. The implied idea in mainstream econ is that inflation always happens because some "bad guy (usually a politician) prints too much money". The only evidence offered is that hyperinflations have happened in the past (ghosts of Weimar Germany). No explanation of mechanism.

What MMT's recognize is that the monetary aspects of inflation (worthless paper, etc) are the endogenous result of a REAL phenomenon. In other words, inflation and hyperinflation is always and everywhere the result of drastic and not easily corrected excess of AD over AS. This story fits the empirical record. For example in Weimar Germany, it was not the "bad guy politicians" (at least not the German pols) that triggered the hyperinflation. Germany in 1922 had 1.2% unemployment with significant post-war inflation (low double-digits %). In Jan 1923 the French govt occupies the Ruhr and seizes the tax collections, refusing to forward them to Germany, forcing the deficit to go sky high. At the same time, France, UK, and the other Allies continue to demand payment of the reparations IN-KIND. Until 1922, much of the reparations were paid by giving the physical assets of Germany over to the allies, while Germany attempts to rebuild. In late 1922-early 1923 the German government has to go on a huge buying spree of real goods in order to ship them to the Allies at a time when there's NO excess capacity. It's a REAL phenomenon.

JOL said...

Garth,
Your major concern seems to be anxiety that politicians cannot be trusted with fighting inflation if it happens. But, pause and consider yours and the mainstream's response to this concern: a blind faith in the ability, wisdom, and willingness of "independent" central banks to fight inflation (and deflation) and achieve stable currency. Is this not naive? The mainstream seems to say "politicians can never be trusted, they act in self-interested, corrupt manner", but then the mainstream turns around and magically believes that Platonic philosopher-kings will exist in some magically "independent" (independent of what? accountability?) central bank. Yet look at the evidence: so-called central banks everywhere are captured by the banks and banking system they purport to control. They goals of so-called "independent" central banks are no more aligned with national aggregate economic goals than they would if they were accountable to voters. They are simply different goals and different segments to be accountable for.

You assert that the burden is totally on MMT's to convince and overthrow existing mainstream theory. Yet, you (and Krugman and mainstreamers) refuse to reflect on the factual errors of the existing mainstream theory such as the money multiplier concept based on existing reserves limiting the creation of new loans is factually wrong. It simply doesn't happen that way. If econ is supposed to have scientific content, then we DO need to be concerned with whether our theories are at least factually consistent with reality. Otherwise we're just arguing science fiction fantasies - and frankly that's what most textbook descriptions of money and banking are: fantasies of a world that doesn't exist.

JOL said...

Sorry for double post. I mis-understood error message from Blogger.

JKH said...

Jim Baird,

"Sometimes I think the corpse of Abba Lerner has a better understanding of economics than most current practictioners... "

Excellent

Garth said...

JOL...i don't understand why you are lumping me in with other mainstream economists and saying I don't understand the fallacy of composition (which frankly is a non-starter, I can and do understand it, but it doesn't automatically make MMT correct) or multipliers...have you ever read my blog? I'm no new Keynesian, I'm no monetarist - I have post-Keynesian sympathies. At my core though I'm a pluralist.

You put a lot of words in my mouth (Friedman's - yuck, thanks a lot) which I would never believe or say. Just because I'm not convinced by MMT, that does not make me a Chicago school economist.

Garth said...

By the way, I largely agree with your last paragraph (though not fully with the preceding on). We need to be concerned with our prevailing theories - and a large chunk of mainstream econ is misleading to be kind (I wouldn't go so far as some of you as describing it as useless). But nevertheless, and whether you like it or not, and whether I like it or not, you DO have the burden of proof, because you are the minority opinion. I am the minority opinion - I just so happen to have a different, perhaps more conservative opinion, that many of you do.

And yes, I do think politicians are 10 times worse than our monetary authorities. I work in government. I see the political bureaucracy... our Central Bank is problematic as well - but it's not even on the same level of concern as our political branches.

Warren Mosler said...

so you think we need to keep demand low and unemployment near 10% for inflation control?

If so, that's a political choice, not an argument against MMT per se.

And if private sector demand goes up due to credit expansion and unemployment goes down a % or so we should maybe hike taxes and target higher unemployment to fight inflation?

I don't think that's where you are going?

So you would agree that a tax cut now, like my payroll tax holiday, would tend to increase private sector demand and sales and thereby bring down unemployment.

And as we near what we consider full employment we must be mindful of the shrinking output gap and, if necessary, take measures to cool down a highly prosperous 'overheating economy.'

First, sounds like the better problem than what we are facing now

Second, you are afraid that when that day comes nothing is done to cool down that 'over heating' economy that will morph into hyper inflation?

Well, MMT 'agrees' with all that, as it simply describes the underlying monetary operations.

So you have nothing against MMT, it's that you don't have sufficient faith in 'democracy' to feel good about what might happen if the electorate knew how things actually worked?

So it comes down to either you believe in informed representative govt. or you don't?





Warren Mosler
www.moslerforsenate.com

WillORNG said...

As I see it the Job Guarantee (JG) extends automatic stabilisers and minimises political interference.

MMT is a demand and supply approach unlike the monomania of demand/supply siders.

In principle MMT and the JG can be a lower or higher government approach, what matters is that deficits are allowed to balance savings and trade balance so the private sector saving doesn't destabilise aggregate demand.

In Norway JG for youth up to 24 and those unemployed over 26 weeks has abolished the Not in Education Employment of Training category expandiing in the UK, Germany, the US etc.

Read this http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/
throughly and you'll see that your concerns are quite concretely dealt with.

Are you really happy with the underclass created by the last 35 odd years of unemployment buffer stock price control's waste of national resources?

Vincent Cate said...

When a government that can print money goes bankrupt it is called “hyperinflation”. Yes, they can always print more, but it does not always do them any good. I have tried to explain hyperinflation, MMT, and hyperinflation in MMT terms below. Any feedback appreciated.

http://pair.offshore.ai/38yearcycle/#hyperinflation
http://pair.offshore.ai/38yearcycle/#chartalism
http://pair.offshore.ai/38yearcycle/#mmthyperinflation

Anonymous said...

Lovely sharp post. Never thought that it was this easy. Extolment to you!

Anonymous said...

Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone

WillORNG said...

The only restriction on Sovereign Money Governments spending is the real resources in their economy.

They can't go broke in their own currency as they issue it and tax it.

Debts as war reparations are an entirely different situation.

WillORNG said...

What do you make of Michael Hudson's take on Russian neo-liberal hyperinflation? Note how the Rouble was pegged and a sitting duck for speculator's financial terrorism! ;)

withead said...

It never seems to have penetrated the minds of young advocates that fiat money and MMT neglect one of the most important functions of true money, i.e. a store of value.

Sneer if you like, but have you spoken to your grandparents lately?

withead

WillORNG said...

My grandparents are all dead.

What matters is real incomes, and savings are a tiny part of most people's portfolios, viz half the population of the UK have savings less than £5k.

My great grandfather lived off his safe government savings having retired at 40.

It's extremely irresponsible and destructive of people's livelihoods to run a pro-cyclical fiscal policy.

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