Tag Archives: MMT

Nationalism, Governments and Currency.

The political left has always been suspicious of nationalism. Certainly it is easy to think of examples where nationalism has been taken to extremes with disastrous results. However we do, like it or not, all have to recognise we live in nation states. We might consider ourselves citizens of the world, or citizens of Europe or whatever, but that has to go along with being a citizen of a particular country too.

The traditional model is that we have a country, a government and a currency to go with it which is essentially an IOU of that government. So, for example, we have a country called Vietnam with its own government which issues a currency called the Dong. A neighbouring country, Cambodia, has its own separate government and uses the Riel. You might want to remember these names if you are into pub quizzes!

The people of Cambodia and Vietnam could, if they chose to, unite into a single country, have  a single government and a unified currency. That could make sense, but it would be entirely up to them to decide to do that. What would make much less sense is for them to try to share a currency without unifying their countries. The power of being able to control a currency is very considerable but not easily shareable. If we write our own IOUs as a settlement of a debt we want those IOUs to be unique. We don’t want anyone else writing them out on our behalf. So if Vietnam and Cambodia were to try sharing a currency it probably would not work at all well. There would soon be a dispute over how many IOUs each could create and the two countries would revert to separate currencies very quickly.

This is a similar pattern the world over. Canada has a different dollar from the USA. Australia has a different dollar from New Zealand and so on. There are seemingly some exceptions. Ecuador uses the US dollar. But it cannot create any US dollars of its own. Only the USA can do that, and as many as it likes to stimulate its own economy when needed. That puts Ecuador at a big disadvantage. I would recommend them to introduce their own currency! There is a similar situation in Puerto Rico which also uses the US dollar. But Puerto Rico is not considered part of the USA. If that were to change it would make much more sense for them to use the US dollar. Puerto Rico citizens would become American citizens and pay taxes to the US Federal Govt and receive the benefits of spending by the Federal Government. There would probably be more spending than taxation just as there is in other less affluent US States.  Then they would be truly sharing a currency and not just using someone else’s.

So one way we can define our own feelings of nationalism is by asking ourselves who we would like to share a currency, and a government, with. At present we, in the UK, share a currency, which we call the pound, between the countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Other parts of the world, like Gibraltar and the Channel Islands use the pound but do not share the pound and so are not part of the United Kingdom. If Scotland were to become independent it could not share the pound, it could only use the pound. I am not sure if those Scottish nationalists who argue for a shared currency really appreciate the difference or the potential difficulty.

The big exception in the eurozone. We’ll look at that, and the problems it has, next.

A High Pound, a Healthy Economy, Low Deficits: Pick Any Two from Three!

We all might like to have: 1) A high pound 2) Close to full employment with a healthy growing economy 3) Low government and trade deficits or even surpluses. But, are all three even possible simultaneously? If we have to choose just two which one should we leave out? For most people, there is no simple answer but if we better understand the way our economy works we will at least know what the options are from all political perspectives. Including the second option, of a healthy economy, should be a “no-brainer” for politicians right across the political spectrum. Businesses need a buoyant economy to make profits just as workers need a buoyant economy to find decent and well paid jobs. But is it? The quest for a balanced government budget seems as distant a goal as ever, but the connection to that other largely forgotten deficit, in trade, is rarely made.

Previous generations understood, what we seem to have forgotten, that if any particular country, as a whole, has a net deficit trading position with the rest of the world then either the government of that country, or the inhabitants of that country, has to fund it by borrowing. In other words, the internal deficits run by governments, and the extent of the private sector debts which can accumulate in the economy, are directly related to the external deficits caused by a trade imbalance. We can see that countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Holland and Denmark which run large trading surpluses do not have any of the public or private sector debt problems* which we see in the UK or USA which run large trading deficits. Unfortunately, though, the solution to world debt problems cannot be for everyone to run a trading surplus!

If we do wish to ensure the third option, of low deficits, is included in our choice we need to understand that both government and trade deficits have to be kept low. Transferring the burden of debt, as seems to be the wish of George Osborne, necessary to sustain the current UK trading imbalance, from government to the private sector is going to do less than nothing to solve the economic problems of the country. If he wants to reduce his government’s deficit, without crashing the economy by imposing an unrealistic debt burden on everyone else, he has to acknowledge that this can only be done by reducing the trade deficit too. He has to start to tackle the problem from both ends by nudging down the value of the pound. Including the low deficit option means we have to then choose between having a high pound and a healthy economy.

We can see for ourselves what happens when a country like Greece is stuck with a currency which is too high to suit its economic capabilities and yet it is forced to attempt to balance its books. The economy crashes! Or, we can choose a high pound, a healthy economy and have a more relaxed attitude to the twin deficits. There are many economists who present a good case for selling as much debt (government gilts) as is possible and recycling the proceeds back into the economy with increased deficit spending. Some debt can also be sold to the central bank in what has come to be known as People’s Quantitative Easing. Providing inflation is kept under reasonable control there should be little or no problem.

We can also have a more relaxed attitude to the build up of private debt (if we know what we are doing!), but we should appreciate the difference. Government debt, unless it is in some foreign currency, doesn’t have to be repaid in the same way. The accumulation of too much private debt, though, can lead to economic busts to follow the initial boom created by the increase in bank lending. Tory chancellors starting with Tony Barber and later Nigel Lawson were fond of shifting the debt ‘burden’ from government to everyone else this way. We had the Barber boom, then the Lawson boom. The recession of the early 90’s should have been termed the Lawson bust. Later the supposedly more socialist Gordon Brown boasted of his economic prowess by delivering a government surplus around the turn of the millennium. Simply created by allowing too much private sector borrowing, unfortunately!

Most of this posting, so far, is entirely apolitical in nature. The same economic constraints apply whatever the political complexion of the society or economy involved. It is natural we might have different ideas and opinions over the ideal size of government. It is fair enough to argue for a more socialist approach to the distribution of available wealth and income or a more conservative approach. What is not fair enough, though, is for the political right or neoliberals (who are unfortunately not confined to the Tory Party) to wreck public services like our NHS, and our economy, for some nefarious purpose, or in some misguided attempt to reduce the government’s deficit, by cutting government spending and raising taxation without taking into account everything else that changes when they do that. All they’ll do is crash the economy – again! Judging by the economic storm that is brewing, the powers-that-be haven’t learned from past mistakes and it looks very likely we are seeing the start of yet another very severe financial crisis.

* A country with a large trading surplus is unlikely to have its Private Domestic Sector in overall net deficit. Although this is theoretically possible if Government insists on running an even larger surplus. But the net position can still hide localised high debt problems within the PDS.

Footnote: Some MMT supporters might argue that the tone of this article is more Keynesian than MMT. I accept that criticism but I originally wrote this with the promise from the editor of LabourList, Peter Edwards, that ‘sensible’ articles on economics would be accepted. He’s not explained why but he’s still managed to reject it! So I do accept that I attempted to temper the tone slightly!

Nevertheless I’m posting this up here as the start in a series of articles which are aimed at those who might be immediately turned off by a more strident MMT view  (such as the Govt can never run out of pounds etc) , but at the same time ensuring that the arguments are technically correct.

 

Is the Chinese Economy a Giant Ponzi Scheme?

There has been quite of lot of justified concern among economics pundits about the Chinese economy with some, like Will Hutton,  likening the problems there to a Ponzi scheme. A Ponzi scheme operates rather like a chain letter where the  earlier entrants into a savings scheme are paid directly from the contributions of later entrants. It is a simple fraud.  It has to break down sooner or later. Whatever the shortcomings of Chinese economic regulation may be we don’t have the evidence to accuse the authorities there of allowing these schemes.

The China situation is better described as one of debt-deflation. Money is created  and then spent in the private sector when banks make loans. This spending stimulates the market: shares and asset prices prices rise, growth spurts, but the newly created money dwindles in the economy as it is spent and respent with the Govt taking its tax cut on every transaction. But the debts remain and accumulate – slowing down the economy. So more bank lending is needed to keep it going and the same thing happens again. Steve Keen has shown that everything looks OK providing the rate of bank lending is accelerating. But as it can’t do that forever, the effect of the bank lending starts to have a net negative effect and then we can have a slump if the level of private sector debt becomes too high.

The immediate fix is for government to  spend, large amounts of cash usually called liquidity, to keep the economy going. Mosler’s Law states that this should always be possible but any crash or   slump is still very disruptive.  A better solution in the longer term is to rely on monetary policy (ie the variation of interest rates and the ease of bank lending) only to a very limited extent in the regulation of the economy.

 

We need to balance the Budget over the Business cycle as Keynes suggested, right?

(This article first appeared in Liberal Democrat Voice)

Firstly, we do need to ask if Keynes did suggest that. There are arguments either way on this point.  Keynes’ view unfolded and developed starting in the bleak 1920’s in Britain. There was no “roaring twenties” for the UK economy as the government deflated the economy to try to fit the Pound back on to its pre war Gold  Standard. Keynes then did argue that governments should run deficits if private spending declined and reduce those deficits when future growth was strong enough. This has been interpreted by many that his intent was that the budget was to be more or less balanced over the business cycle. If anyone is keen to research into his thinking they might like to start with his 1924 publication “A Tract on Monetary Reform”.

A better approach might be to try to understand why Keynes should made a break from tradition and start to advocate that budgets should at times be unbalanced. If we consider an economy which is neither a net exporter nor a net importer and in which everyone spends what they earn within the economy, Government spending and taxation must balance. This is true regardless of the level of taxation imposed (providing it is finite) and so regardless of the level of inflation within the economy. It has to, according to the principle of sectoral balances originally developed in the 60’s and 70’s by the late Prof Wynne Godley at Cambridge University.

If the participants of the economy don’t spend all they earn, ie when private spending declines,  we can have a tendency to recession. Keynesian economists would point out that prices and wages tend to be “sticky” and so don’t respond quickly to changing circumstances as more classically minded economists suggest they should. Therefore, Keynes was quite right to suggest that the Government should spend  more, or tax less,  to prevent recession from occurring. The government needs to borrow money from the savers and spend it on their behalf. Later, when the savers withdraw their money from the bank, or empty their piggy banks, and spend it, the Government needs to run a surplus in its budget to prevent the economy from overheating and inflation occurring. So the budget does indeed end up balanced over the cycle. It ends up being an approximately symmetrical pattern when expressed graphically.

This relatively simple model may have been adequate for the UK economy in the 1920s. However in recent times the extent of saving and desaving hasn’t been symmetrical over the business cycle. When times are good people may borrow and spend more but equally they may put more aside for their retirement. So if the spending/saving/borrowing pattern of the population isn’t symmetric over the business cycle, neither can we  expect the government to run a balanced budget over the business cycle. Instead of imports and exports balancing,  our economy has something like an annual  5% of GDP deficit in its current account. Our trading partners seem happy to supply more real things to us than we supply to them. They take our IOUs in the form of treasury bonds or gilts to make up the difference. In effect they are like a big net saver within the economy. As Keynes pointed out,  if people are saving more, and that includes our trading partners, the Government has to be spending more or taxing less.

The ‘balanced budget over the cycle’ is really just a special case which does not apply to our own 21st century economy. If we try to force the Government budget into balance, at the same time ignoring the trading position and the willingness or otherwise of the economy’s participants to net save then we are courting economic disaster. The budget will not balance, no matter how hard we try, and we will end up like a dog chasing its own tail as the economy spirals ever deeper into recession.

The UK Autumn Budget Statement – More Neoliberal Nonsense!

The Autumn statement would not be so bad if it was economically coherent, with the spending and taxing plans agreeable, or otherwise, according to one’s political opinion. However, it does not make any sense. Not only does it not “add up”, it is inconsistent with all the principles of arithmetic.

The right wing Tory MP John Redwood makes the point :

“In total the new estimates show us paying an extra £105 billion in tax over the five years”

George Osborne says:

” we will reach a surplus of £10.1 billion in 2019/20″

Note: it’s not just “about £10 billion” its  “£10.1 billion”. We’ve all got to admire just how precise George and his Treasury economists can be about these five year forecasts! As if !

There’s no chance of this happening with the UK running a ~ £90 billion deficit in its external deficit due to trade and other international payments.  It would mean that the UK economy would have to find ~ £100 billion every year to pay the import bill and also provide the government with its £10 billion surplus.

This, presumably, is close enough to John Redwood’s ” extra £105 billion in tax”?

George Osborne says that  “Britain will be out of the red and into the black” which is completely untrue. These figures mean the British economy will be in the red to the extent of ~£100 billion to pay for the Govt being ~£10 billion in the black,  and Britain’s overseas trading partners being ~£90 billion in the black.

It can’t possibly happen that way,  unless somehow the trade deficit can be turned into a trade surplus, and that aspect is totally ignored in George Osborne’s grand plan. The UK economy could not sustain a net loss of £100 billion even for one year – never mind on an annual basis. George Osborne will only send the economy into a downward spiral trying to achieve the impossible. An economy in a depressed state will also deliver depressed levels of taxation revenue.

In a couple of years time, the excuse for the plan failing , as it inevitably will , is likely to be that even though the Government has kept spending under control, taxation revenues will have not come in as expected. This will be attributed to: Problems in the eurozone, problems with world trade, problems with loss of revenue from North Sea oil, a new war in the Middle East maybe?

In other words, the same kind of ‘excuses’ as were put forward after the last similar plan failed, in the years following the Tory win in 2010, except the Govt could blame the Lib Dems then! If the Government cared to look for a reason, rather than an excuse, they would explain that their deficit has to be the sum of what everyone else saves. They don’t have direct control of that.

There’s a saying , usually incorrectly attributed to Einstein, about doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results, being a sign of madness.  Are the Tories mad, though, or just plain bad?

The Job Guarantee, MMT and the Redistribution of Wealth

One important component of MMT is known as the Job Guarantee (JG) or sometimes the Employer of Last Resort (ELR) . The idea is an unemployed worker would be offered a job by the Government instead of unemployment welfare benefit. The job would be for public purpose and pay a basic wage. This would effectively define a minimum wage for other workers too.  There’d be no point working for less than the JG wage somewhere else for example. The government would possibly pay out slightly more than it would in welfare benefits to support these jobs, but it would not be paying out money for nothing. It would be receiving something in return, for the benefit of society as a whole,  and would prevent useful resources, the labour power of millions of workers, from going to waste.

Instead of there being a pool of unemployed there would be a pool of JG workers. Instead of an unemployment rate there would be a JG rate. Whereas government now uses unemployment as a means of inflation control,  a future government would use the JG and the JG pay rate as a means of inflation control. Bill Mitchell likens the JG scheme to one previously used by the Australian government to stabilise the price of wool. It used to buy up wool, which might otherwise have been unsold,  at sales auctions to guarantee a floor price. Then, later as the price of wool might have risen, stocks were sold from the buffer supply to reduce wool prices.

One potential problem is with the rights of JG workers. If they feel they are being asked to work for a lower level of pay than they might consider to be socially acceptable, and also under conditions which might be less than acceptable, do they have a right to join a union and demand higher pay and better conditions? The scheme cannot work too well if that is the case because the minimum wage will then potentially be a source of inflation.

So, the question arises: can we really compare human workers with bales of wool?  Should workers be ‘sold’ from a buffer stock to lower the wages of other workers?  This does not sound, to my admittedly socialist ears,  like an appealing idea!  Trade unions have to have an input into the level of the minimum wage whether or not it is defined by the wage of a JG. Governments may be fair and just in defining a reasonable living wage or they may not be!

It is potentially only a problem if  unemployment is brought down to something like 4% and efforts to reduce it below this figure create inflationary tendencies in the economy. Some of those 4% will be people between jobs but some will be, for as variety of reasons, hard-to-place workers. They shouldn’t just be abandoned but neither should we be too hasty to introduce compulsory work. The meaning of ‘compulsory’ being that there would be no social benefits otherwise.

MMT doesn’t, IMO,  make this point at all clear in its theorising. Bill Mitchell has expressed his view as:

“The existing unemployment benefits scheme could be maintained alongside the JG program, depending on the government’s preference and conception of mutual responsibility.
My personal preference is to abandon the unemployment benefits scheme and free the associated administrative infrastructure for JG operations.
The concept of mutual obligation from the workers’ side would become straightforward because the receipt of income by the unemployed worker would be conditional on taking a JG job…..
I would also allow a person a short-period – perhaps two weeks – in between losing their job and starting a JG job – to sort out their affairs. This period would be covered by full JG pay.”

We can all have our ‘personal preferences’ . Mine would certainly NOT be to “abandon the unemployment benefits scheme ” until such time as we have a genuine socialist society and not just a so-called socialist government in charge of an essentially capitalist society or economy. No economic theory, including MMT, has much if anything to say about the desirability of wealth redistribution. The argument to concentrate on economic growth rather than redistribution, is I would argue, a neoliberal argument in itself. GDP per capita now in the UK is twice what it was in 1979 when Mrs Thatcher first won a general election. It is a similar ratio in most advanced countries too, so Mrs Thatcher cannot have been at all responsible for the UK growth!

Her accusation then,  and from her supporters too,  was  the left was being reactionary in its demands for redistribution and that all economic problems would be solved by having a more productive economy. This might be described as the ‘rising tide raises all boats’ theory. Experience should have taught us that the rising tide may well have raised luxury yachts but not necessarily “all boats”. We have more unemployment now than we had in 1979, more underemployment, more homeless, more people relying on food banks, and the NHS is in very poor shape. Clearly all problems have not been solved and will not be solved, regardless of the level of past and future economic growth, until the question of wealth redistribution is back on the political agenda.

By all means let us establish a  Job Guarantee but let us make it very clear we mean a Voluntary Job Guarantee. We should make sure the benefits of that extra production, that extra economic growth,  are used to equalise wealth distribution rather than those benefits ending up in the possession of the already ultra wealthy as has happened with previous economic growth.  Let’s see how that works out before even thinking about any compulsion.