Friday, June 21, 2019

Handbook of the History of Money and Currency

The Handbook (subscription required) has been edited by Stefano Battilossi, Youssef Cassis and Kazuhiko Yago. It has many interesting chapters. Barry Eichengreen writes on what determines that a currency is used as an international currency (or even as the predominant currency). While he follows conventional views in suggesting that role of money as a means of exchange and the importance of the country in international transactions, he does also explore the role of power (military power) behind the key currency. My take on that topic in this paper with David Fields here.

There is also a very readable paper on the history of central banks by Stefano Ugolini here. It follows the evolutionary approach of Roberds and Velde, and in my view also suffers from conventional views on monetary theory that emphasize the exchange role of currencies, rather than the unit of account function. As a result, it downplays the role of fiscal agent of the state, that in my view was key in the early experiences with public banks. I would emphasize the importance of the development of public debt for the subsequent evolution of public banks, and the relevance of early central banks in the management of the Fiscal-Military State. On this see this and this.

There are interesting papers on paper money experiences, by François Velde (here) or on deflation, by  Richard Burdekin (here), to cite a couple.  There is, also, our entry (with Esteban Pérez) on the history of Central Banking in Latin America (here).

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Catching up and falling behind in historical perspective

The figure below, from a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, shows the catching up of the South. Note that most occurs after the New Deal, and up to the 1980s. The piece emphasizes the reversal, with divergence since the last recession. This suggests that the New Deal and the period in which the segregationist policies were eliminated were a period of prosperity for the South.

The catching up story is one associated mostly to State action, since the New Deal in many ways was a sort of Marshall Plan for the South (think TVA), even though the WSJ piece emphasizes policies, like lower taxes, and the lack of unions. And there is a lot to discuss there.

But what surprised me by looking at the graph, and the story I think is more interesting, is the apparent relative decline of the West. The story, like that of Argentina, for example, is one of persistent decline over the whole 20th century. And that's obviously not what you would imagine about the West, that went from a backwater, essentially rich in natural resources (e.g. Gold Rush), to a  prosperous region with the most dynamic innovation hubs in the US (Silicon Valley).

So the continuous decline of income per capita in the West is NOT a story of persistent decline. In many ways it is exactly the opposite of that. You start with very low levels of population and income, and an accident, associated to the existence of high value natural resources leads to an economic boom. Gold, oil and other minerals in the case of the West, and in some parts high agricultural productivity. Income per capita shoots fast up, and by the time of the graph you have that it is way above the US average. Which explains the heavy inflow of immigrants, which in turn explains, as the population in the West as a share of total US population increases, the decline in income per capita.

But that process goes hand in hand with the development of sophisticated manufacturing in the West, from aeronautics and aviation to computer and information industries. In this case, the story of lower income per capita with respect to the country is not a history of decline, and the early history, in spite of the high income per capita suggests a relatively unsophisticated economy. That's an important analogy when you think of cases like Argentina.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Argentina, Financial Times and the next default

It's been a while since I wrote about Argentina. In all fairness, because it is difficult given all the mistakes of the last few years since Macri's victory. I discussed the prospects of what to expect back then. Since then I posted here and here on the supposed improvement in 2017, and the beginning of the still unfolding crisis in 2018. And this could simply be an "I told you so post," since I did warn about most things that would happen. But there are important and interesting news about Argentina, now that there is at least some clarity about who will run against Macri this year.

Cristina Kirchner finally announced she's running for the vice-presidency, and that her husband's chief of staff (when Néstor was president), Alberto Fernández, will be at the top of the ticket. Some have suggested that this is a great move that will allow to unify Peronism, which might lead to victory in the election later this year. As a response, the editorial board of the Financial Times (FT) published a piece in which it suggests that given the low popularity of Macri's austerity measures backed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies, that a return of Peronism, would be possible, but a huge mistake for Argentina.

There are many problems in FT's analysis. FT's piece suggests that "Mr. Macri's austerity programme is broadly on track to deliver long term gains for Argentina." There is a fundamental misconception in their argument. Argentina's problems are not fiscal, caused by excessive government spending, but external caused by excessive borrowing in foreign currency. Mr. Macri took over in 2015 with foreign debt at around 70 billion dollars, and proceeded to more than double it to approximately 160 billion dollars, as shown in the figure below (elaborated by Juan Matías De Lucchi, for a paper we co-authored in Spanish and that should be published soon). Foreign denominated debt is now higher than it was before the 2002 default, if smaller as a share of GDP (red line).
Note that while Macri inherited a situation of high inflation, significant fiscal deficits (those are in domestic currency), and an external constraint, mostly associated to an energetic external deficit (that one in foreign currency), the external debt situation was deemed sustainable by everybody back then. Note that inflation was ultimately the result of a sequence of small devaluations, and significant wage resistance during the years of Kirchnerism, and that the external constraint resulted from an inability to diversify exports, and particularly of reducing import necessities in the energy sector. The fiscal situation was not problematic, and there was no problem with financing domestic spending, and no serious inflationary pressures coming from the Central Bank financing the Treasury.

The Macri government established those propositions. His team, stacked with very 'serious' mainstream economists like Federico Sturzenegger, who argued that increase in the domestic energy price bills would have no inflationary impact, believed that inflation could be solved in a simple way by stopping the financing of the Treasury. Inflation was in Monetarist fashion a question of too much money. They also believed, to some extent, that a devaluation would solve external problems if it happened. But they expected a surge in foreign investment that would lead to growth and also put pressure for the appreciation of the peso. Of course, the outcome of their liberalization of the foreign exchange market, and their Monetarist experiment led to higher inflation and depreciation.* Fiscal adjustment and the firing of many government workers led to a recession, and higher unemployment. That was the macroeconomic package of the government, even before the IMF.**

Note that there was no need at that point to borrow in international markets in foreign currency. The current account deficit was manageable, foreign debt obligations were relatively low, and the capital flight caused by the liberalization of the foreign exchange market could had been stopped, to some extent, with a hike in the interest rate. Of course they should have been more careful about the liberalization of the external accounts, but that was probably too much to ask from this government of financial operators with deep ties to Wall Street and international financial markets (and a president with accounts in tax havens, documented in the Panama papers).

Macri's government renegotiated the debt with the vultures, the final step for Argentina to re-enter financial markets, under conditions that were excessively generous, one might add. And note that the external debt had already been significantly reduced by the successful renegotiation of the Kirchners with 93 percent of debt holders (and the Macristas talked about a heavy inheritance!). Minor increases in the rate of interest in the US, which in most places led to minor depreciations, coped with interest rates that at times were negative in real terms, led to massive flight. But the government continued to borrow in foreign currency, when almost every country in the periphery has been able to borrow in domestic currency.

That of course was no mistake. This government has promoted a massive increase in foreign debt to finance large amounts of capital flight. The IMF has essentially validated this model, by allowing the government to use the loan to contain the exchange rate. This government has created conditions for a huge amount of dollars to be purchased by essentially their friends in financial markets. It is a financial racket. This is obviously not sustainable, and a relative safe position has been turned into a possible default soon. Not surprisingly the specter of Peronism haunts Argentina.

* On some level the government wanted higher inflation, in order to reduce real wages, something I noted back in 2015. They also wanted a recession, to help reduce the bargaining power of workers.

** As I often say, our elites don't need the IMF, they carry the orthodox gene in their economic DNA.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Exchange rates and income distribution in a surplus approach perspective

Old paper, presented two years ago in México, and to be published soon by the university press there. In Spanish. For those interested. The model is the same (with minor changes) one used to discuss inflation, in an old paper, eventually published here in a book on Post Keynesian economics edited by Forstater and Wray. Link here.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Forget the Natural Rate, says the Head of the Minneapolis Fed

Low rates are here to stay

The head of the Minneapolis Fed agrees with something that I discussed several times here (or here for the use of alternative unemployment measures like U6) in the blog, that the unemployment level (U3) is not a good measure of the slack in the labor market. Neel Kashkari says:
No one knows how many more Americans want to work. But if the job market continues to improve with only modest wage growth and below-target inflation, it can be safely assumed that maximum employment isn’t here yet and there is no present need to raise interest rates.
So we're NOT at full employment (neutral or natural rate in their parlance) even with 3.6%. Note that a few years back they thought it was closer to 6%. Reality has an heterodox bias.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

On Karl Polanyi and the labor theory of value

The other great transformation

I have discussed Polanyi on the blog before, but not in great detail (see this video posted a few years back from Fred Block for a more in depth discussion). However, writing about Bob Heilbroner's views of economics, and in particular the labor theory of value, reminded me why I have reservations about Polanyi, something that often surprises my friends, since I often cite some of his ideas, and I did put his book on the Top 10 list.

Polanyi has been, indeed, one of the most influential social scientists of the 20th century, even if economists never read him. His notion that markets are embedded in society has been used by political scientists and sociologists to understand the rise of neoliberalism, and the policies of austerity that have had incredible social costs (e.g. Mark Blyth's book Great Transformations). In part, the increasing formalization of economics made his work less popular among economists, proving that Boulding was right when he said that math brought rigor to economics, but it also brought rigor mortis.

The main thesis that free market capitalism leads to unstable political situations, and that this, in turn, would lead to coalitions that restraint and regulate markets, seems to have been vindicated, even if he did not get much recognition when the book was originally published. However, in spite of being a central an relevant author, many of his conclusions suffer from accepting an incorrect view of classical political economy, and ultimately his support for the mainstream (marginalist) theory of value.

He clearly believed, as did many, if not most, economists before the re-edition of Ricardo's works by Sraffa and his later rehabilitation of a version of the Labor Theory of Value (LTV), that classical authors were confused, and were essentially precursors of the neoclassical mainstream. He tells us:
"Apart from some special theories like that of rent, taxation, and foreign trade, where deep insights were gained, the theory consisted of the hopeless attempt to arrive at categorical conclusions about loosely defined terms purporting to explain the behavior of prices, the formation of incomes, the process of production, the influence of costs on prices, the level of profits, wages, and interest, most of which remained as obscure as before."
And there should be no doubt that to a great extent the mistakes of classical authors, in Polanyi's view, were associated with the LTV. He says just before the above passage that:
"Although Adam Smith had followed Locke’s false start on the labor origins of value, his sense of realism saved him from being consistent. Hence he had confused views on the elements of price, while justly insisting that no society can flourish, the members of which, in their great majority, are poor and miserable." [Italics added]
And it is also clear that he adhered to some vulgar version of the marginalist supply and demand story for value. Again in his words, from the his classic book, The Great Transformation:
"Economic value ensures the usefulness of the goods produced; it must exist prior to the decision to produce them; it is a seal set on the division of labor. Its source is human wants and scarcity." [Italics added]
In other words, relative value depends on demand (human wants) and their limited supply (scarcity). Given his background, and the mainstream authors he quotes, Polanyi basically believed in some version of marginalism, perhaps with Austrian undertones.

His bias in favor of neoclassical economics is also evident in his insistence that the beginning of capitalism* can be associated with the organization of the three markets that correspond to the factors of production, namely: labor, land and money (capital), and the implicit notion that the production is a linear process that goes from the factors to final output, in contrast with the classical view of a circular process, in which commodities where produced by means of commodities.

Polanyi was certainly sympathetic to Marx, but he clearly missed a lot, given the marginalist foundations of his analysis. He associated classical political economics with a naturalistic philosophy that tried to explain human behavior in terms of natural causes, and that imposed an extraneous logic to social relations. In view:
"naturalism haunted the science of man, and the reintegration of society into the human world became the persistently sought aim of the evolution of social thought. Marxian economics—in this line of argument—was an essentially unsuccessful attempt to achieve that aim, a failure due to Marx's too close adherence to Ricardo and the traditions of liberal economics."
So Marx wasn't a minor Ricardian, as Samuelson later famously put it (perhaps he was a major one for Polanyi), but his problem was the adherence to the Ricardian LTV.

I should note that Polanyi tends to think and judge classical and neoclassical economics from the point of view their economic policy prescriptions, and the idea of laissez faire, or what is referred to as liberalism in Europe. That is probably also the reason why Veblen coined the term neoclassical, which also gives the incorrect impression of continuity between both schools.

There is a lot that is valuable in Polanyi's analysis, but the problem is that he accepts the notion that prices are determined by supply and demand, and that implies that markets produce efficient outcomes in the marginalist sense of efficient allocation of resources (on the problems of the marginalist theory of value see this post on the capital debates). He does not seem to grasp that the classical notion of competition and long term equilibrium prices did not require optimality in the allocation of resources. Even if Polanyi is critical of the idea that in reality a pure market economy is stable, and even if he insists that free market policies led to a backlash from the losers that required a safety net to reduce the negative impact of market outcomes on society, it is still true that markets are about efficient allocation of resources in his view.

For classical political economists markets were an institutional framework for the reproduction of the material conditions of society, and for the process of accumulation. In the classical framework, equilibrium prices are not the ones that show the relative scarcity of goods and services on the basis of preferences, and limited resources. Normal (natural in Smith and Ricardo, production in Marx) prices are the ones needed to reproduce society. The overall state of preferences were taken as given, something determined by broad institutional and historical circumstances and not something to be formalized.

This matters exactly because the classical long term prices require that one distributive variable be determined beforehand. In other words, with real wages set at the subsistence level, something that was seen as historically and institutionally established in their time, the technical conditions of production (amounts of labor needed to produce, in the simplest version) were sufficient to determine normal prices. This view is actually perfectly compatible with Polanyi's notion of the embeddedness of markets, the idea that labor markets are social constructs and that rules, regulations and other institutional features are central for the creation of markets. In a sense, markets do not just appear out of thin air, in self-organizing fashion.

In other words, what Polanyi documents with this discussion of the expansion of the franchise in Britain in 1832, and the new Poor Laws established in 1834, is not the creation of the labor market as described by neoclassical theory (and that's exactly and incorrectly what he suggests). The institutional changes describe the full and final move from one set of regulations, still resulting from the more paternalistic system that came from pre-capitalist times, to a more punitive system for the working class. What was planned was not laissez faire in the labor market, but less protections to reduce the workers bargaining power. Workers resisted, but only much later, when their voice had a stronger political outlet (mostly with the rise of Labour), they could push back and regain some degree of bargaining power. Polanyi was partially correct, in saying that: "While laissez-faire economy was the product of deliberate State action, subsequent restrictions on laissez-faire started in a spontaneous way." However, it required taking over, to some degree, the State to bring about the Welfare State. Laissez-faire was planned, for sure, but planning was too.

Classical political economy actually allows one to understand that, since in the surplus approach there is no labor market that is regulated by supply and demand and determines both the real wage and the quantity of employment. Polanyi would have been under much stronger foundation if he understood the role of institutional and historical factors in classical political economy.** The reason that there was a backlash about laissez faire policies is that markets do not produce efficient allocation of resources, something Smith, Ricardo and Marx understood. Keynes' tried to explain why the neoclassical labor market theory was incorrect too. And here too Polanyi, writing just eight years after the publication of the General Theory, has nothing to say about it.

But as much as Polanyi neglected and misinterpreted the works of classical political economy, the same is true of heterodox groups that have brought back the ideas of the surplus approach. And heterodox economists should pay more attention to Polanyi's work and the idea of the embeddedness of markets on a broader social framework.

* To be precise he suggests approvingly that “the Reform Bill of 1832 and the Poor Law Amendment of 1834 were commonly regarded as the starting point of modern capitalism.” In other words, the labor market is at the center of his view of capitalism. Compare this with a Marxist discussion of modes of production that also puts labor relations at the center.

** Polanyi incorrectly suggests that Smith accepts the wage-fund doctrine, a precursor of supply and demand theories, which certainly was developed much later, with Stuart Mill, a transition author, that had already departed from Ricardian economics.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The New School for Social Research at 100: A view from the Econ. Dept.

From a late 1990s catalogue; Lance Taylor (center), and also in no particular order
and from what I can remember (Ellen Houston, Adalmir Marquetti, myself (with goaty
on the left side), Margaret Duncan, Josh Bivens and Carlos Bastos (Orozco Room)

The New School for Social Research was founded 100 years ago by a group of academics dissatisfied with the direction of American high education. Economics was central to the early history of the New School, and my brief, very incomplete, and certainly idiosyncratic historical account emphasizes the Economics Department of what used to be called the Graduate Faculty.

Thorstein Veblen, one of the founders, had written his famous Higher Learning in America, which in a sense is the original critique of the corporate university. The idea was to put learning at the center, and avoid the conventional trappings of universities, with no degrees provided to students. The foundations of the critical perspectives provided at the New School came from institutionalists (like Veblen), pragmatists, represented by another prominent founder, namely John Dewey, and revisionism in history, with Charles Beard as its main voice at the new institution. Many came from Columbia University and were dissatisfied with both institutions of higher education and the direction the country had taken, in particular with World War I. These were mostly anti-war, progressive social scientists.

Perhaps the key person at the inception of the New School was Alvin Johnson, a somewhat difficult to classify economist (Gonçalo Fonseca at the HET website suggests that he might be seen as Austrian), that has been almost completely forgotten. Johnson was the editor of the massive Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, later substituted by the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (last edition under Sandy Darity, and I have two entries on Export Promotion and James Mill), which put him in contact with several economists around the world, many in Germany.

A group of scholars that he met as the editor of the encyclopedia was the basis for the so-called University in Exile, which eventually was the basis for the Graduate Faculty, the division that now still is called the New School for Social Research (while the whole is just The New School, if I do understand the naming changes at my alma mater). The most important and cohesive group of economists that arrived at the New School in 1933, and the following years, escaping persecution in Nazi Germany, were the ones related to the Kiel School, including Gerhard Colm (on Colm I co-authored this paper with Luca Fiorito), Adolph Lowe, Jacob Marschak, and Hans Neisser. In that group, Lowe, the mentor to Robert Heilbroner, was to be the more consequential for the New School.

The New School was not orthodox in its economic teaching, but the 1930s were a period of flux in the profession at any rate. The Keynesian Revolution was in course, and Keynes was acquainted with Johnson and the New School, as it can be seen in the letter he gave to H. G. Bab (see below; click to amplify). In that sense, while it is true that the place was somewhat unorthodox, given its origins and the historical period in question, that should not be exaggerated. Note that Marschak went on to be the head of the Cowles Commission, and a leading mainstream economist. While at the New School he supervised Franco Modigliani's doctoral thesis, which was the basis for his famous neoclassical synthesis paper of an ISLM model with rigid wages and for his Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

The New School, more enjoyable and compatible people than at Columbia, for sure (click to enlarge)

I say this because there is a tendency to think of the New School as being always heterodox, and taking that term to have more or less a contemporary meaning (for what I mean about that go here; for a great and more in depth discussion see this post by Ingrid Kvangraven and Carolina Alves). Many others taught at the New School in this period, perhaps, worth mentioning is the case of Abba Lerner, the main author of the functional finance school (something that is at the core of Modern Money Theory, but is more restrictive and specific than MMT).

The Kiel School was what one could term eclectic. They certainly had roots on elements of the German Historical School, and readings of marginalist and non-marginalist authors, including Marxists. Gonçalo puts Tugan-Baranovsky as one of the influences on the Kiel School. Tugan, a "semi-critic of Marx" according to Schumpeter, argued that a disproportion between the investment and consumption goods sectors would lead to recurrent industrial crises, and that notion of structural imbalances was central for Kiel authors. Leontief was also connected to the Kiel School.

While many in the Kiel School were open to and used marginalist concepts, as in the case of institutionalists, not all were neoclassical, and Lowe's views arguably were the most clearly connected to the works of the old classical political economists. Ed Nell, in the appendix to Lowe's book The Path of Economic Growth compares it with Leontief, Von Neumann, and Sraffa, as being classically inspired. One can think of Ed's Transformational Growth research program as building on that tradition.

But it would be a stretch to suggest that Bob Heilbroner, Lowe's main disciple at the New School, and the next key person in the history of the Economics Department at the Graduate Faculty, was a follower of classical political economy. A cursory reading of his classic, The Worldly Philosophers, shows that his reading of Smith is perfectly compatible modern mainstream readings, which imply that Smith was a precursor of supply and demand theories. The chapter on Smith discusses the law of markets, but the labor theory of value only makes an appearance in the chapter on Marx, and to suggest that it was a deviation from Smith and Ricardo. The degree to which Heilbroner conflates classical and marginalist or neoclassical theory is clear in that he argues that the Walrasian circular-flow in Schumpeter's theory resembles Ricardo's stationary state. And in the discussion of Schumpeter's notion of profit he suggests, regarding the labor theory of value, that "everyone knew to be wrong and therefore did not have to be reckoned with."*

Further, his views on economic growth, as evidenced in his book on the economics history of the Unites States, were essentially that growth was supply-side constrained and dependent on technological innovation, in ways that seem to be closer to his Harvard undergraduate teacher, Joseph Schumpeter, than classical political economy authors (Smith had arguably a demand driven view of growth, while Ricardo most certainly didn't, and Marx is open to many different views; I'll keep that to another post). I emphasize this to show that even if he was unorthodox in many ways Bob was not necessarily what we would term heterodox in the modern sense of the word (even if taken loosely as not being neoclassical).** In my view, no clear heterodox bias existed up to the 1960s, in a department that had basically been under the shadow of three economists, Johnson, Lowe and Heilbroner. Note that this somewhat eclectic persistence of different approaches was more or less common in many departments at that time.

But the Johnson-Lowe-Heilbroner nexus provided the basis for the changes that shaped the department with the arrival of Ed Nell in the late 1960s. Ed had worked with Hicks at Oxford, and he was from early on critical of methodological individualism, something that is clear from his critique of the concept of the rational economic man. More importantly he was concerned with growth, and that led to a discussion of the theories of value and distribution (perhaps influenced by Hicks' Capital and Growth, which remains an important book), and was influenced by Sraffa's revival of classical political economy. It was after Ed arrived that a series of new hires, among them Stephen Hymer, Anwar Shaikh, and David Gordon, changed the department. Note that the late 1960s and early 1970s too is the period in which the economics profession segregates the heterodox groups, makes it harder for radicals to get tenure in conventional and prestigious departments (e.g. Sam Bowles at Harvard), and publishing requires the foundation of new journals (e.g Journal of Post Keynesian Economics, and the Cambridge Journal of Economics).

In my view, it is no coincidence that this is also when the change in the notion of equilibrium, as discussed by Garegnani, takes place (some discussion of that here). The point is that the capital debates had shown the limits of marginalist (neoclassical) economics, and the profession embraced what I have referred to as vulgar economics after that. The hiring of heterodox economists, critical of the mainstream in this period, and the sociology of academia, locked in heterodox hegemony at the Econ. Dept. of the Graduate Faculty.

Many other heterodox economists taught at the New School's Econ. Dept. from that point onwards. I might note Paul Sweezy, which if I'm not wrong was instrumental in making Bob Pollin choose the New School for his PhD, was among the teachers in the 1970s. And also many Sraffians like Piero Garegnani, John Eatwell, taught on a recurring basis, while many were visitors for shorter periods. Again, somewhat idiosyncratically, in my view it is the arrival of Lance Taylor in 1993 and a few years later of Duncan Foley that consolidated the persistence of the heterodoxy, and the type of heterodox department (with a mix of structural Keynesianism and Marxism), that the New School has today.

Perhaps, it is important to emphasize how limited this story is. There is a missing story about the role of David Gordon, who was also a key player in the department for many decades, and of Anwar Shaikh, that I always saw as somewhat of an influential outsider (maybe I'm wrong), even by the New School standards. And also the many other wonderful and creative heterodox economists that passed through the New School over the years. There is a question about the gender imbalances at the New School, and within heterodoxy itself, that I do not address. I'll explicitly avoid saying any additional names, since in this way I cannot be accused of forgetting someone (I'm leaving out a ton, including the many alumni that went on to remarkable careers). Hopefully this provides a window on how the New School became heterodox and why it remains so.

* It should be noted that Bob's book was published in 1953, a few years before the labor theory of value was rehabilitated by Sraffa's Production of Commodities.

** On a personal note, I remember talking to Bob on an interval of a conference organized by Ed Nell on functional finance, in 1997, I think, in which he argued that the Maastricht limits (3 per cent for deficits, and 60 per cent for debt) were reasonable measures to constrain the size of government. He was a liberal in an older sense of the word, perhaps.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Top blogs

Naked Keynesianism has been featured in the Top 100 Economics Blogs of 2019. I haven't been very active, and appreciate to be included in the company of much more interesting blogs. See all here.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Bernie and AOC are Functional Finance (and Socialists) but not necessarily MMT

Might not be MMT, but it isn't Socialism

So there has been a lot written on Modern Money Theory lately. There is this piece by The Economist, Jerry Epstein's paper, and Lance Taylor's one, more on the Democratic Socialist ideas than MMT per se (here). There was also this op-ed by Robert Shiller in the NYTimes, and the two posts by Tom Palley, that I reposted here on the blog. Finally, Christine Lagarde also commented on MMT during the World Bank/IMF Spring Meetings.

I can and I will not comment again on my views on this. As I said before, I'm a fellow traveller in the sense that I do agree with MMTeers on functional finance (even though Randy Wray, at the Easterns, presenting Stephany Kelton's slides suggested that functional finance was a late addition to MMT,  coming from Matt Forstater and Stephany in the 1990s; my take on that here, where I say that Ed Nell is the likely source), endogenous money, and with minor disagreements on the origins of modern money (by which I mean early transitions to capitalism) on some version of Chartalism. I also, noticed that I depart on certain tendencies to believe that capital mobility and flexible exchange rates make MMT applicable to developing countries, and about taxation (on the latter, I was criticized, and received both emails and tweets suggesting I misrepresented MMTeers views on taxes).

Here is where I think the dual nature of MMT as a theoretical school derived from Minsky and some strands of Post Keynesian economics* and a political movement connected to progressive parts of the Democratic Party becomes relevant. The thing is that MMT has been now associated with Democratic Socialism, with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortéz (AOC). Stephany after all was and is Bernie's advisor, and he has embraced certain proposals beyond what I would call a pop-functional finance stance on fiscal policy. For example, his job guarantee proposal** (again I hope he wins, and I do hope Stephany plays an important role in a Bernie administration; one can hope).

However, it's worth noticing two things that are relevant in this more political context. First, Warren Mosler has posted his presentation at the New School (Mosler's slide pictured above) in which he defends the elimination of personal and corporate income taxes, and sales taxes (here). Mosler is in many ways the more public face of the non-academic face of MMT. Note that Warren plays a crucial role in the political movement associated with MMT. Also, Randy noted in this piece that he was "'a bit disappointed' that Ocasio-Cortez connected tax hikes to the Green New Deal." And no, please, I do not need to be lectured on how causality goes from spending to taxes (as much as from investment to savings; same effective demand logic). The point is that even if taxes are not necessarily to fund spending, taxes do allow for important changes in the economy.

And the way one taxes is as important for functional finance as the way one spends. Sure the limits what can be done are political. In that respect I should say that functional finance suggests that the limits to fiscal policy, beyond the productive capacity (which might be endogenous and demand driven, and hence difficult to reach unless the economy is growing really fast), are essentially political. But exactly for that reason how one taxes, and is a central political question.

Taxes on the wealthy are central for social democratic (Democratic Socialism) policies. At any rate, this establishes in my view were I depart from MMT, which would be on the willingness to tax the rich. I'm not for eliminating income taxes (I'm happy to reduce sales taxes on some things, but increasing on others), and I would be in favor of a wealth tax too. And I'm happy that a higher tax on the well to do is discussed and tied to a popular cause like the Green New Deal (I was for that back in 2012). It should not be a surprise then that MMT finds support in Wall Street, since they would certainly like no personal or corporate income tax.

* I assume that is correct; Randy said in that roundtable mentioned above that they were kicked out of post-Keynesianism, and they didn't leave. I assume that explains the renaming MMT, which I never quite understood. See this old post in which I was surprised about the new label, which I associated back then to endogenous money.

** Here I should note that while I'm not against a job guarantee (JG), I have nothing against regular fiscal spending, like, for example, infrastructure spending to get the economy going. Again, on the panel, when I asked Randy, suggesting that Wynne (Godley) had asked the same in the past (according to my recollections), he said that conventional fiscal policy (what he calls pump priming) was inflationary, and the JG would be better. I'm even less afraid than MMTeers on demand inflation, it seems.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Interview on Central Bank's exchange rate policy in Argentina

My interview with Nicolás Fiorentino and Cecilia Camarano from yesterday (in Spanish) on the Argentinian situation and the new central bank policy.
I basically suggest that the new policy to control exchange rates using the IMF loans (with IMF authorization) might control the exchange rate, but will finance essentially capital flight, and tries to interfere with the elections later this year.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Structural Change in China and India: External Sustainability and the Middle-Income Trap

Shouldn't listen to the IMF anyway

New working paper co-authored with Suranjana Nabar-Bhaduri, and published by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) from UMass-Amherst. From the abstract:

This paper focuses on the different development strategies of China and India, particularly regarding the role of manufacturing and services for long-run productivity growth, external competitiveness and financial fragility. The findings appear to support the argument that productivity improvements in manufacturing drive productivity improvements in other sectors. They also substantiate previous findings that the Indian services-led growth trajectory has had limited success in transferring surplus labor from agriculture to other sectors. Furthermore, the trajectories have affected the export performances of the two countries with the Indian trade balance and current account revealing persistent deficits, compared to China's surpluses. The paper also argues that the way in which India has sought to sustain these deficits entails elements of financial fragility, and that the Chinese struggles with the internationalization of the renminbi also imply a possibility of financial instability.

Download paper here.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Review of Keynesian Economics on the economics of negative interest rates

We are delighted to announce the publication of Volume 7, Issue 2 of the Review of Keynesian Economics. We invite you to visit the website where you can read all the article abstracts and download two free articles.

Over the last several years economic recovery has led to some monetary tightening in the United States, but it is likely that a future recession will restore the issue of negative interest rates to the fore of policy debate. That is also true for Europe where there has been a weaker recovery in the euro zone and the European Central Bank still has a zero interest rate. In many ways, as participants in this symposium suggest, negative interest rate policy (NIRP) is a throwback to pre-Keynesian ideas according to which interest rates can adjust private spending to a level compatible with full employment.

This issue of ROKE presents a symposium on negative interest rates. The papers provide the elements for a critical analysis of the theory and practice of NIRP, with the aim of enriching the Keynesian literature on alternative monetary policy. We hope you enjoy them.

Thomas Palley, Esteban Pérez Caldentey & Matías Vernengo

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Some unpleasant Keynesian arithmetic

By Thomas I. Palley (Guest Blogger)

The last decade has witnessed a significant revival of belief in the efficacy of fiscal policy and mainstream economics is now reverting to the standard positions of mid-1970s Keynesianism. On the coattails of that revival, increased attention is being given to the doctrine of Modern Money Theory (MMT) which makes exaggerated claims about the economic costs and capability of money-financed fiscal policy. MMT proponents are now asserting society can enjoy a range of large government spending programs for free via money financed deficits, which has made it very popular with progressive policy advocates. This paper examines MMT’s assertion and rejects the claim that the US can enjoy a massive permanent free program spree that does not cause inflation. As has long been known by Keynesians, in a static economy money financed deficits can be used to finance programs when the economy is away from the full employment – inflation boundary. However, that window will be temporary to the extent that those deficits drive the economy to full employment. Since the programs are permanent they have to be paid for with taxes or they will generate inflation. That is the economic logic behind the unpleasant Keynesian arithmetic.

Read rest here.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

What’s Wrong With Modern Money Theory (MMT): A Critical Primer

By Thomas I. Palley (guest blogger)

Recently, there has been a burst of interest in modern money theory (MMT). The essential claim of MMT is sovereign currency issuing governments do not need taxes or bonds to finance government spending and are financially unconstrained. MMT rests on a triad of arguments concerning: (i) the macroeconomics of money financed budget deficits, (ii) the employer of last resort or job guarantee program, and (iii) the history of money. This primer analyzes that triad and shows each element involves suspect economic arguments. That leads MMT to underestimate the economic costs and exaggerate the capabilities of money financed fiscal policy. MMT’s analytic shortcomings render it poor economics. However, its simplistic printing press economics is proving a popular political polemic, countering the equally simplistic and wrong-headed household economics of neoliberal austerity polemic.

Read rest here.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Mueller Report

Perhaps worth reposting what I said about Russiagate, now that the Mueller Report led to no additional indictments and validated the No Collusion slogan we're going to hear for the next year and a half.
Just a brief note on the whole firing of Comey scandal that is still unfolding, and the incredible degree of anxiety on the left, which somehow thinks this means that there is a 'pee' tape and that Trump will be eventually impeached (here, for example; too many of these). This is at least the second event compared to Nixon's firing of the Attorney General, the infamous Saturday night massacre. The other being the firing the Acting Attorney General Sally Yates.

All of these is very unproductive and dangerous for progressives in my view. It emphasizes an interpretation of the election that is deeply flawed. That Hilary was a strong candidate, that she was progressive, that she would have won (yeah, I know she did win the popular vote; but that's not the way it works) if Comey didn't discuss the emails days before the election, or the Russians didn't hack her campaign, or if Wikileaks didn't expose them.

It exempts the Dems from being just the other pro-business, slightly less crazy, but pro-business nonetheless, pro-free-trade, pro-Wall-Street party. It reinforces the already strong Neoliberal wing of the Party, that with the help of Obama and the Clintons (all making huge amounts of money in the speaking circuit) elected Perez for the DNC, and might end up with another candidate that will loose the election in the Rust Belt (here and here for my views on the election).

The real danger is eight years of this madness (and my guess, that's much more probable than an impeachment right now), unless progressives within the Democratic Party take over. So sure, investigate, resist, but please, pretty please, let's stop with this notion that all was the result of Russia, and that the Neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party is blameless.
Original post here, from 2 years ago.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Bretton Woods and corporate defaults

In the Eatwell and Taylor book, Global Finance at Risk, they had, I think, a graph with the percentage of corporate bonds in default in the US (I don't have the book here, it's my office). I think this is a close one, with data that is more recent (from this Moody's report).
The graph shows corporate bond default rates (and also the speculative-grade bond defaults). Note that defaults fall significantly during the Bretton Woods era of capital controls and low interest rates.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Galbraith on MMT and the Hyperinflation Boogeyman

From his recent piece: "Does this mean that 'deficits don’t matter'? I know of no MMT adherent who has made such a claim. MMT acknowledges that policy can be too expansionary and push past resource constraints, causing inflation and exchange-rate depreciation – which may or may not be desirable. (Hyperinflation, on the other hand, is a bogeyman, which some MMT critics deploy as a scare tactic.)"

Also, this: "And MMT is not about Congress ordering the Fed to use its “balance sheet as a cash cow.” Rather, it is about understanding how monetary operations actually work, how interest rates are set, and what economic powers the US government has. This, in turn, requires recognizing that the dual mandate is not a collection of empty words, but something that can – and should – be pursued on a regular and sustained basis.

There are practical, straightforward, and realistic ways for policymakers to meet this mandate. Implementing them would strengthen the country, not bankrupt it. And, contrary to opponents’ fears, global investors would not flee in terror from US government bonds and the US dollar."

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Lara-Resende and MMT in the Tropics

So André Lara-Resende, who I discussed here before, is again writing on the crisis of macroeconomics (in Portuguese and you might need to have a subscription), and now instead of embracing the Fiscal Theory of the Price Level (FTPL), has supposedly embraced Modern Money Theory (MMT). Many US MMTers cheered this as a demonstration of the reach of MMT in other countries. I would be less cheerful.

Lara-Resende, let me explain to non-Brazilian readers, was a student of Lance Taylor at MIT, and then a professor at the Catholic University in Rio, being a key author of inertial inflation, an heterodox view of inflation, that was central for the failed Cruzado Stabilization Plan back in 1986. He then participated in the successful stabilization of the economy with the Real Plan, when Fernando Henrique Cardoso was the finance minister in 1994, and during the latter's presidency a short lived president of the development bank (BNDES, in the Portuguese acronym) -- and not the central bank as many in the US have suggested (that was Persio Arida, his frequent co-author on inflationary inertia). Btw, he fell as the head of the bank because he was recorded in conversations with the president (Cardoso) on issues related to the privatization process of the telecommunications sector, in which they seemed to favor a particular group. The development bank during this period was essentially used to promote privatization as a part of the so-called Washington Consensus policies. Also, by the 1990s all the economists from the Catholic University had adhered to the Washington Consensus, and moved away from heterodoxy in the same way Cardoso distanced himself from Dependency theory, and still remain essentially aligned with neoliberal policies to these days. Lara-Resende included, as we will see.

Note that he does say that the four pillars of the new macro are that money and taxes are connected, that the government has no financial constraint, but only a real (capacity) constraint, that money is endogenous (the central bank sets the interest rate), and that the Domar rule holds and stability of debt-to-GDP ratios require the interest rate to be lower than the rate of growth. He also says inflation is all about expectations, and the Quantity Theory of Money (QTM) does not hold, something he had already said in his previous op-ed. Many (too many) interpreted this as being Chartalist Money, Functional Finance and Endogenous Money and as such as a version of MMT. Including some analysts in Brazil, with whom I fully agree on their critiques of Lara-Resende's policy conclusions, like the sharp critique by Guilherme Haluska here (also in Portuguese). Note, however, in my previous post on him, that he thought that the FTPL was an heterodox view of the macroeconomy, and he is explicit in his new op-ed that his ideas follow from his last book, in which he defends the FTPL.

In his book what he refers to "heterodox" is the experience with alternative monetary policies after the 2008 crisis, meaning Quantitative Easing, simply because it does not follow the QTM. In his words, from the 2017 book: “The result of the heterodox policies of the central banks in advanced economies, after the financial crisis of 2008, raised serious doubts about some fundamental points of the foundations of macroeconomic theory" or in the original if you don't trust me as a translator (I don't): "O resultado da experiência heterodoxa dos Bancos Centrais dos países avançados, depois da crise financeira de 2008, levantou sérias dúvidas sobre alguns pontos fundamentais da teoria macroeconômica." He does say that one of the pillars of the new macro paradigm is in his 2017 book, but my guess is the ideas are essentially the same. He used the language of MMT, and cited Knapp and Lerner to promote the same neoliberal policies of the 1990s, and the same ideas he defended a couple of years ago using FTPL.

So it is clear that the pillars are essentially of some weird New Classical story of the FTPL, in which fiscal dominance is central to the argument, and there is endogenous money, because of the neo-Wicksellian twist in modern macro. Yes, the QTM does not hold, but it is the expectations about future inflation that matter, and those are tied, in Lara-Resende's views, to fiscal policy (or at least were two years ago). The argument is the fiscal dominance one, that monetary policy has to deal with the unsustainable debt, so inflation is a fiscal phenomenon, and fiscal adjustment is needed. He was and is for austerity! He does use an MMT rhetoric and cites Abba Lerner for sure (more on that below), and that's a testament of the current relevance of MMT and its role in shaping the Bernie and Ocasio-Cortez's progressive views (something positive as I noted in my last post).

His argument is that Brazil is on the wrong side of the Domar stability condition, and, hence, the debt-to-GDP ratio is increasing (in domestic currency), and that something has to be done about it. Not sure why. Note that I always say that in domestic currency there is no default, and one of my complaints about MMT is that they do not pay attention to debt in foreign currency (at some point Warren Mosler was against capital controls and for flexible exchange rates, since the former were not necessary and the latter would solve external problems). But Brazil is not borrowing in foreign currency, and is sitting on top of a mountain of foreign reserves (something like US$ 380 billion, last time I checked, someone correct me if I'm wrong). Then he argues that inflation is all caused by excess demand in the developmentalist period, the period from the 50s to the 80s. However it is unclear why that is still a problem, or why there was excess demand, if it wasn't as a result of fiscal policy.

Fiscal reform, and, in particular, the pension reform are needed not to raise revenue (here is an MMT theme), in his view. He suggests that the reasons are that the pension system is unfair, and that in Lerner's fashion [sic] tax cuts are needed to promote the reduction of bureaucracy and allow for the expansion of more effective private investment.* These should be complemented with trade liberalization, a lower interest rate with a digital currency (bitcoin?) and fiscal adjustment, because the State is "bloated, inefficient and patrimonialist" (in the original: "Estado inchado, ineficiente e patrimonialista").

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

* It's true that Brazil has relatively high levels of taxes, in comparison to developing countries, but the problem is not that they are high, per se, but instead that they are regressive.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

MMT and its Discontents: Again (Wonkish and Longish)

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has been in the news again, and for good reasons. I actually had a post with the same title back in February of 2012, hence the again in the title. But now, with the irruption of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the political scene ,and with the discussion of a Green New Deal (discussed here 7 years ago) and the feasibility of higher taxes (here, also long ago, among the many on the topic) taking the center of the political debate, MMT has become trendy. The rise of democratic socialist ideas, since Bernie's 2016 campaign, has brought the fiscal feasibility or responsibility, in the more conservative terminology, of such progressive  plans into the center of economic policy debates. Also, the fact that Stephanie Kelton a prominent MMTer is an advisor to Bernie, has brought significantly more attention on their views.

I have discussed Modern Monetary Theory in this blog for years (going back to April 2011, when I first found use of the term, to the most recent earlier this year after Olivier Blanchard American Economic Association presidential address last January), and have known the main MMTers going back to at least the mid-1990s, when I was at the New School and working as research assistant to Wynne Godley at the Levy Institute. I guess, I can be seen, to use the term employed by Doug Henwood in his recent Jacobin piece, as a fellow traveller (like Jamie Galbraith), even though I've been critical of some aspects, in particular when applied to developing countries (more on both Henwood and MMT issues in developing countries below).

There are many critiques, which deal with both theoretical issues, mostly concerned with the Functional Finance aspects of MMT, and with the policy and political effects of MMT advising to the left of center Democratic presidential candidates. Note that I will not try to define MMT precisely, since it is a hybrid of economic theories and policy proposals. I would assume that at core it is composed by the ideas of Chartalist and Endogenous Monetary views, Functional Finance, and an Employer of Last Resort (ELR) program as suggested by Greg Hannsgen in his recent presentation at the Eastern Economic Association (EEA), in sessions we co-organized (with the presence of Randy Wray presenting Stephanie Kelton's slides and Josh Mason; Stephanie was with Bernie at the rally in Brooklyn).

My comments will be, for the most part, directed at issues that fall within the Functional Finance part of MMT, and mostly about developed economies like the US (although, I'll have something to say about developing countries like Argentina or Brazil). I might add that Randy suggested that Functional Finance was a late addition to MMT, since this ideas were not known by MMTers in the mid-1990s or so. I think that the original source for the Functional Finance story was Ed Nell, who organized a conference at the New School back in 1997, I think, with Bob Eisner, and many other Old Keynesians. I had read Abba Lerner and Evsey Domar foundational papers in Ed's classes, and I think his influence on MMTers in this area is reasonable to assume.

Let me start with Paul Krugman's critiques of MMT, which have been clear and perhaps the most widely read (but there are many, including critiques by Tom Palley and Sergio Cesaratto here in the blog). So Krugman, in one of his most recent posts, starts by showing that there are many levels of the fiscal deficits that are compatible with full employment (not sure who thinks that this is wrong; I would add the same is true about the rate of interest, and that there is no natural or neutral rate of interest, a point that Keynes made back in the 1930s, and that is coherent with the capital debates, and, hopefully, it will be clear why this is relevant below). Then he argues more problematically, in my view, that crowding out is a serious concern, in his words: "The question then becomes one of tradeoffs: would the things the government could buy with a higher deficit be worth the lost private investment due to a higher interest rate?" But he knows well that the crowding out effect is empirically (if not theoretically) irrelevant, since investment is not particularly responsive to interest rates (he knows it's all about the accelerator); then he moves to the issue of the natural rate itself.

He seems to think two things (he can certainly correct me if I'm wrong). One, that MMT requires that you use monetary policy in order to achieve full employment. Two, that if you are in a situation of like the zero-lower bound, then the central bank cannot bring you back to full employment. That is, her assume that, using his own graph, the economy would be in position A.
Note that by his own argument you can go back to a point like B, with full employment by pursuing expansionary fiscal policy (be that an ELR or something else like traditional fiscal policy to expand infrastructure spending, for example; on this I should say that Randy suggested that he thinks traditional fiscal policy might be inflationary, and that's something perhaps would be compatible with Krugman; he noted how Minsky suggested that an ELR can be used as a buffer to control inflation). That is the IS would move up.

So it's unclear what the fuss is all about. If it is because the Fed could, in the MMT story (not sure Functional Finance authors would say that), print money to finance the deficits and bring the economy back to full employment, then the concern might be that it would be inflationary, in a Monetarist sense that printing money might be the cause of inflation. But that does not seem to be his preoccupation (I dealt with the issue of monetization of debt back in May 2011 in a reply to Krugman, who was back then, not surprisingly, criticizing MMT). His concern seems to be that the rate of interest would not go up. But of course, there could be a flat interest rate close to zero, a horizontal monetary policy (MP) line, and the expansion of the IS could be achieved bringing the economy to full employment (right below the C and B points with a zero interest rate).

But that doesn't seem to be the issue either. My guess is that he thinks that the problems is more like the one below, from an older post by him, in which the natural rate of interest is negative (my discussion of that here), and the Fed cannot lead the economy to full employment.

So his point is that the Fed cannot make it because it cannot bring the economy to the natural rate of interest, the one that is compatible with full employment and stable prices. He then goes on to criticize Stephanie on her critique of the natural rate, and tells us that: "So what purpose does claiming that the natural rate is a meaningless concept serve? It looks to me like sophistry – word games intended to confuse what should be a simple issue."

I'm not sure what Stephanie said about the natural rate, but I think it is well-established that the natural rate concept is problematic (note that on this some MMTers have said things I would disagree;  e.g. Forstater and Mosler suggest here that the natural rate of interest is zero; my discussion of that here). So I think the position that Krugman attributes to her is correct. Paul Samuelson would agree, as he did when he admitted that the capital debates had shown that neoclassical parables cannot hold (on the capital debates read this old post). So let me explain it briefly. There is no sophistry, just pure logic.

The capital debates show that with factor price reversals, when one good can be said to be capital-intensive at one level of the wage-profit ratio, and labor intensive at another level of the same ratio, there is no monotonic inverse relation between investment and the rate of interest. The investment schedule could look like the one below (my graph), with portions that have a negative slope and some in reverse, and if savings (determined by the level of income as in Keynes' principle of effective demand, rather than a Ramsey inter-temporal model) is given as in the graph below, then there might be no natural rate of interest. Keynes was explicit about that in the General Theory. That means that the monetary authority can set the rate of interest, what Keynes referred to as the normal rate, that was conventional, and that fiscal policy can be used to bring the economy to full employment. Btw, I think that overall Krugman and Kelton agree on that. Krugman says he's defending the theory, not the policy proposals, since he thinks they agree on that.
The point is NOT that the state can do whatever it wants, even though it has a lot of space, but that at the end of the day monetary policy is central for the ability to pursue fiscal policy, and the monetary authority can keep (unless it's forced by law not to do it; and that would bring up the discussion about the rise of the neoliberal idea of independent central banks) interest rates low enough to allow for fiscal expansion without debt growing at a very fast pace. Think of Marriner Eccles during the New Deal (chairman of the Fed at that time; search the blog for more on that). This is the argument that Josh Mason did, in a different way in our session with Randy at the Easterns. Note, also, that even though politically it was acceptable for the Fed to keep interest rates low, at 2.5 percent during the Depression and World War II, by the 1950s political pressures by financial markets and rentiers forced the Fed-Treasury Accord, and things changed (even though rates remained relatively low).

I'll comment briefly on two additional critiques of MMT, the one by Larry Summers, the ex-Treasury Secretary and advisor to the Clintons and Obama, and the one by Doug Henwood, an influential Marxist (see my discussion of his comments, and others, on Marx for the New York Times here), and writer of a very good book on Wall Street. I am sorry to say that both have too many arguments of authority and ad hominem attacks on some MMT authors, which I'm not interested in discussing. But there are a few substantive issues. One is the danger of inflation (that I'm glad Krugman seemed less keen on) and the others are on MMT and developing countries, and the political relevance and practicality of MMT proposals (here most critics have in mind the Bernie/Ocasio agenda of Medicare for all, cheap or free college tuition in public institutions, a jobs guarantee, and a Green New Deal).

I'll start with Henwood. His major issue is inflation, I would say. He says: "That brings us to the next problem: inflation. When the printing presses run freely, it’s not only reactionaries who think that runs the risk of spiraling prices. As I was researching this piece, many people to whom I described MMT, from Democrats to Marxists, brought it up as a worry. MMTers are coy about the topic — they never say how much is too much, and they profess great confidence in their ability to control it." Let me start by saying that inflation has not been a problem in 40 years, while wage stagnation is a central one. But if one is concerned about it, at least one should get the correct analytical tools to discuss it.

He tells us that: "The standard view of the Weimer inflation is that the German economy, severely damaged by World War I and forced to make huge reparations payments to the victors, wasn’t up to the task — it just didn’t have the productive capacity, and its citizens were both unwilling and unable to pay the necessary taxes. So instead the government just printed money and spent it, not only to pay its own bills, but to support bank lending to the private sector." First, that's NOT the standard view of the hyperinflation in Germany. You can read here the standard story, and I cite even a conservative historian like Niall Ferguson admitting that the monetarist story embraced by Henwood is NOT the dominant view among historians. The notion that the economy was at full capacity (didn't have productive capacity) and that printing money caused inflation is what Cagan thought about it. A more refined and somewhat structural story is the dominant view actually. In my view, it is clear that debt in foreign currency (not domestic), and, hence, the external problems of the current account, that forced depreciation, together with wage resistance are at the core of the hyper., German and many others.

In addition, it's worth emphasizing that the US is not Weimar Germany, in the sense that even with much larger fiscal deficits, debt would still be in domestic currency, and no significant pressure for depreciation would arise. The role of the dollar as reserve currency is not really under significant jeopardy. Certainly, there might be questions of inflation if we reach full employment, and that's a different issue (I'll come back to the topic below when I discuss Summers and the political feasibility of MMT sponsored plans). But the kind of alarmism of even suggesting that the US would be on the verge of hyperinflation is not serious. I won't comment on other primary mistakes like the notion that the rise of Nazism is associated to the hyper, when it is clearly connected to the Depression and deflation a decade later.

Henwood is on firmer ground, actually, when he discusses the external limits. Yes, indeed, for most developing countries like Argentina or Brazil, the ability to pursue expansionary fiscal policy is severely limited by the balance of payments constraint. Considerably before full employment, the patterns of consumption and investment may require too many imports, particularly of intermediary and capital goods, and even with capital controls, interest rates might be hiked to avoid capital flight and depreciation. Depreciation does solve the external problem, often by throwing the economy in a recession, and not because it stimulates exports. There is extensive discussion of that in the blog about it. Sometimes MMTers sounded like New Developmentalists in Latin American suggesting that depreciation would solve the external constraint and that capital controls were not even necessary. I don't think Randy believes that (or Stephanie), but it was certainly something that Warren Mosler believed in the past (whether he changed his mind I can't tell). But again the debate seems to be about the feasibility of MMT in the US (that's why I didn't emphasize in my comments on the roundtable the differences of debt in domestic and foreign currency, something I always do, as noted by Josh).

So that leads me to the last critique, the one by Larry Summers in his recent piece in WAPO. Summers says that: "Modern monetary theory... is the supply-side economics of our time" and that "these new ideas [about the importance of fiscal deficits] are being oversimplified and exaggerated by fringe economists who hold them out as offering the proverbial free lunch: the ability of the government to spend more without imposing any burden on anyone." He also says in Monetarist fashion that printing money would lead to hyperinflation. In his words: "As the experience of any number of emerging markets demonstrates, past a certain point, this approach leads to hyperinflation. Indeed, in emerging markets that have practiced modern monetary theory, situations could arise where people could buy two drinks at bars at once to avoid the hourly price increases. As with any tax, there is a limit to the amount of revenue that can be raised via such an inflation tax. If this limit is exceeded, hyperinflation will result." Again, emerging markets, like Germany, borrowed in foreign currency, that they cannot print. It was often the depreciation of the currency, the increase in the prices of imported goods, and the wage resistance of workers that led to hypers, and the central bank printed money afterwards, with money being endogenous. A foreign debt or external problem, not a fiscal one.

But there might be a danger of inflation (not hyper) if Bernie wins the election and manages to pass Medicare for all, free college, a Job Guarantee and actually spend some money on infrastructure, and to do something about global warming, without significant reshuffling of spending. Here is where I think the question of the supposed naïveté  of MMTers comes to play, with Henwood suggesting that they shirk the question of fiscal choices, and with Summers saying they resemble voodoo economics, the supply-side of the left (mind you supply-siders are many things, but certainly not naïve). I think, first of all, that the dangers of inflation are exaggerated, for several reasons. First, the labor market is not as tight as normally suggested. The number of people discouraged and out of the labor force is relatively large. Second, there are positive effects of growth on productivity (the Kaldor-Verdoorn effect, search on the blog too), so the supply constraint is not fixed, rigid at one given level (people said the natural rate of unemployment was 5 percent or higher just a few years back; again check past blog posts). Third, the bargaining power of unions, and workers in general, is not particularly strong, and it would take sometime to pick up.

More importantly, there is no chance that a Bernie presidency (and that's in and of itself a big if) would have both houses and could implement even a little bit of the program presented. Mind you if it happened we would probably get to full employment in a couple of years, and get increases in wages, and perhaps some inflation. But some inflation might be good, in particular if it allows for higher real wages, something sorely needed. How much inflation? Difficult to say, but the structure of the Fed is not going to vanish, and higher rates would be used to discipline the labor class, with the support of many neoliberal Dems. The limit will come probably before full employment and the capacity limit of the economy is reached (yes inflation happens before the capacity limit, because it's often cost push, and the sort of demand pull stuff Summers and Henwood are afraid about is not that common). In other words, the limits to fiscal expansion would be political, not economic, and there is no reason for the left to be up in arms against an imaginary enemy. Hyperinflation is like the the windmills for the Quijote. The giants to attack are actually the ones pointed out in the progressive agenda, like lack of spending on health, education and the environment, and MMTers have been instrumental in getting these ideas in the political discourse, and moving the Dems to the left.

But taxes matter too. Here is where the MMTers refusal to acknowledge that taxes on the wealthy are necessary is a political mistake (not all I've been told, but some for sure, as I've heard that criticism). Note that from the logical point of view they are not incorrect in suggesting that causality goes from spending to taxes, like it goes from investment to savings. It's implicit in the Keynesian/Kaleckian model in which autonomous spending (government spending is in there) determines income through a multiplier process. And taxes, like savings, grow with income. But it is important to note that politically (again this is not analytically, but politically) countries that went for a more ample Welfare State opted to tax their citizens, particularly their more wealthy citizens, at a higher rate. Tax increases on the wealthy should be (and are) part of the progressive agenda. It has an important distributive effect, and it makes the spending politically acceptable. At this juncture, however, even Blanchard says that we should just borrow, since interest rates are low, and will remain low.

The crucial point is that overall MMTers have been helpful in moving the Dems in the right direction (the right direction is to the left), and that is a good thing. The problem with Dems is not the existence of a few social democrats or socialists in their midst. In fact, even being generous there will probably be just three democratic socialists in the presidential primaries (Bernie, and, perhaps, Warren and Tulsi). The problem is the vast majority of neoliberals that still dominate the party. The same could be said about MMT. The problem is not the exaggerated propositions of MMTers, but the excessive fear of inflation when there are too many relevant problems to be concerned with.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Keynesian Economics: Back from the Dead

The Godley-Tobin Lecture by Bob Rowthorn, to be published by the Review of Keynesian Economics.

Rowthorn suggests that many Keynesian features are part of the mainstream now, in particular showing a stable Phillips Curve without a natural rate. I remain more skeptical about the return of Keynesianism within the mainstream, but worth listening to his thoughts.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Inequality and Stagnation by Policy Design

By Thomas Palley (guest blogger)

This paper argues the mainstream economics profession is threatened by theories of the financial crisis and ensuing stagnation that attribute those events to the policies recommended and justified by the profession. Such theories are existentially threatening to the dominant point of view. Consequently, mainstream economists resist engaging them as doing so would legitimize those theories. That resistance has contributed to blocking the politics and policies needed to address stagnation, thereby contributing to a political vacuum which is being filled by odious forces. Those ugly political consequences are unintended, but they are still there and show the dangerous consequences of the death of pluralism in economics. The critique of mainstream economists is not about “values” or lack of “change”: it is about academic practice that suppresses ideas which are existentially threatening.

Read rest here.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Godley-Tobin Lecture - Friday 1st March11:30am - 12:45pm

Please note the change in date and venue. Bob Rowthorn's Godley-Tobin Lecture. titled “Keynesian Economics: Back from the Dead?” It will be Friday 1st March, in the Central Park West Room, at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel 11:30am - 12:45pm

Handbook of the History of Money and Currency

The Handbook  (subscription required) has been edited by Stefano Battilossi, Youssef Cassis and Kazuhiko Yago. It has many interesting c...