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US Congress hypocrites lose the plot

Summary:
The way in which Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has become politicised and misrepresented is quite something. The critics have all fallen into the same pattern. They rehearse a few statements that they claim represents what MMT is about, and, which they know will shock people who read and/or listen to them to conclude that the proponents of MMT understandings are crazy. A whole host of wannabees are now jumping on the bandwagon. And last week, 5 Republican Senators in the US Congress tabled a bill which claims it is “the duty of the Senate to condemn Modern Monetary Theory and recognizing that the implementation of Modern Monetary Theory would lead to higher deficits and higher inflation”. For a start, these goons haven’t even cottoned on to the fact that one cannot implement Modern Monetary

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The way in which Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has become politicised and misrepresented is quite something. The critics have all fallen into the same pattern. They rehearse a few statements that they claim represents what MMT is about, and, which they know will shock people who read and/or listen to them to conclude that the proponents of MMT understandings are crazy. A whole host of wannabees are now jumping on the bandwagon. And last week, 5 Republican Senators in the US Congress tabled a bill which claims it is “the duty of the Senate to condemn Modern Monetary Theory and recognizing that the implementation of Modern Monetary Theory would lead to higher deficits and higher inflation”. For a start, these goons haven’t even cottoned on to the fact that one cannot implement Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – they are surrounded by it, every day of their lives. But then if they had got that far, they would have also realised that the rest of their argument in the draft legislation is equally ridiculous. We are making progress though – and the more they come out of the woodwork the better. So far not a blow has stuck.

The US Congress condemnation bill

You can read the Republican Senators’ – MMT Resolution – if you want a good laugh.

They have pronounced our work:

… a clear danger to the economy of the United States

They quote as an authority, one Lawrence Summers – yes him.

I wrote about him and his gang in this blog post – Being shamed and disgraced is not enough (December 18, 2009).

He who with Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan in the late 1990s who, among other things, intimidated Brooksley Born (then, Head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission) because she wanted to regulate the out-of-control financial sector and bring the fraudsters to account.

And this is the quality guy who published the now famous – Summers Memo – when he was the chief economist at the World Bank, advocating that rich nations should dump their toxic waste in poor countries because the value of life in those countries was lower.

They quote head of the Federal Reserve who admitted he had not even read any of the MMT literature.

They get in a tangle by quoting some other characters. All along they claim fiscal policy expansion is dangerous but then quote some economists who claim that MMT proponents overestimate “the potency of fiscal policy”.

We have “very high debts” competing against “hyperinflation” occurring “when a government attempts to pay for mas- sive spending by printing money”. Even in their confused world, if the latter was happening then the former wouldn’t be.

They quote another character from the far-Right Cato Institute who basically claims MMT is wrong because the US Treasury is “more constrained than an ordinary house- hold or business” and “cannot write checks in amounts exceeding the balances in the general account of the Treasury”.

So how will the government go wild?

Anyway, the resolution says that the Congress:

(1) realizes that deficits are unsustainable, irresponsible, and dangerous; and

(2) recognizes—

(A) that the implementation of Modern Monetary Theory would lead to higher deficits and higher inflation; and

(B) the duty of the Senate to condemn Modern Monetary Theory.

I thought on the Säuberung in 1933 where the Nazi student movement decided to take “Action against the Un-German Spirit” and started the – Nazi book burnings.

I thought of the hypocrisy of these so-called libertarians, who advocate free speech and all the rest of it.

And I recalled how the so-called leader of the ‘free world’ hasn’t a good track record in individual liberty.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, thinkers, academics, people were subjected to repression as a result of the – McCarthyism -purges, which tried to accuse people of treason for having ideas that were contrary to the conservative, anti-Communist orthodoxy.

It was a thoroughly indecent period in US history among many indecent periods.

The State machinery turned from being responsible for advancing the well-being of all citizens to oppressing the rights and freedoms of individuals they considered to be desirous of altering “the form of Government of the United States by unconstitutional means”, although scant evidence was brought to bear to establish such subversion.

But I was cheered by the memory that on December 2, 1954, the United States Senate voted 65 to 22 to condemn McCarthy for “conduct that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute”.

The Senators in question:

Mr. David Perdue (Georgia) – management consultant, business.

Outsourced thousands of jobs offshore.
Cut labour conditions.
Closure of Pillowtex – took $US2 million payout just before it went under.
Wants to eliminate the EPA.
Advocates strict enforcement of border control.
Opposes gun control.
Supports Israel against Palestinians.
Opposes same-sex marriage.
Opposes Common Core
Opposes Abortion.
Wants to repeal Affordable Care Act.
Mate of Trump.
National debt was “greatest threat to the security of the United States” but in 2017 voted tax cuts for top-end-of-town and corporations which increased national debt by one trillion dollars.
Voted for 2017 federal fiscal position which added $US1.5 trillion of deficits over ten years.
Supports balanced budget amendment.

Mr. Mike Braun Indiana – was a Democrat switched to Republican. Business background.

Wants to repeal Affordable Care Act.
Wants free market health care.
Wants to ‘build the wall’
Supported Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 but wants fiscal deficit cut – US has a “spending problem”.
Opposes same-sex marriage.
Opposes Abortion.
Opposed legislation to prevent “discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity”.

Ms. Joni Ernst Iowa. Ex military.

Said Barack Obama was a “dictator”.
Opposes federal minimum wage.
Wants to eliminate the IRS.
Supports balanced budget amendment.
Wants major cuts to entitlement programs and discretionary public spending.
Wants Social Security to be partially privatised.
Wants to eliminate the Department of Education.
Wants minimal environment regulations.
Thinks Clean Water Act damages business.
Supports US withdrawal from Paris Climate Accord.
Still thinks there were WMD in Iraq and supported invasion.
Supports NRA and opposes any gun control. Receives large funding support from NRA.
Wants to repeal Affordable Care Act.
Opposes same-sex marriage.
Opposes Abortion.
Opposed legalisation of medical marijuana.

Mr Gerald Moran Kansas. Lawyer.

Wants to repeal Affordable Care Act.
Supports NRA and opposes any gun control. Receives large funding support from NRA.
Climate change denier.
Opposed legislation to control carbon emissions.
Opposes Abortion.
Opposes same-sex marriage.

Mr. Thom Tillis North Carolina – Business.

Wants to ‘build the wall’
Climate change denier and received massive funding from “oil, gas and coal interests”.
Supports NRA and opposes any gun control. Receives large funding support from NRA.

Why this is completely off the planet

The critics typically start with some statement like – “By way of summary, MMT tells us that a government can fund any project it desires because it can print as much money as is required”.

They then move on to talk about MMT representing “money-financed deficits” rather than “debt-financed deficits”, and then go onto to pull the main lever – that that choice would be a sure-fire recipe for inflation.

Critics ranging from Nobel-prize winning economists writing for the leading newspapers to crazy gold bugs in the blogosphere get to this point, more or less, in the same way.

The more detailed critiques get on to case studies – and of course, the litany includes a selection of hyperinflations – 1920s Germany, more recently, Zimbabwe and a stack of Latin American examples.

All are represented as examples of what happens when governments take up MMT.

And in that very conceptualisation of our work, it is clear that the critic has either not understood what MMT is about or chooses to avoid the subtlety and nuance to maintain their own position in the public debate.

They consistently reinforce the claim that MMT is a regime among others. That we can choose to ‘go to’ or ‘adopt’ the MMT regime, which then will have catastrophic consequences.

Of course, those who have read and understood our work will know that by promoting MMT understandings we are not describing a ‘regime’ or a ‘state’ that we can move into or out of.

MMT is a lens (a perspective or framework) for achieving a better understanding of the way the fiat monetary systems operate and the capacities and options that a currency-issuing government has within that type of monetary system.

It exposes myths that are used to suppress those capacities and options.

I consider it renders the ‘veil of ideology’ transparent. Once we all understand the principles of MMT, a politician will no longer be able to hide behind claims that “there is not enough money”, or that “we have run out of money” to preclude policy action that might improve the well-being of the majority or protect our natural world.

To create a policy layer on top of that understanding we obviously exercise our value judgements and aspirations. So someone like me, who maintains collective, progressive Left values, will propose quite different policy interventions than a person who has a extols a world view based on neoliberal individualism.

Those value differences are out there. But by lifting the ‘veil of ideology’, MMT understandings make them more obvious.

A neoliberal politician in a world full of MMT understanding would have to explain why, for example, unemployment was necessary whereas people with my persuasion would know it was highly damaging, wasteful and unnecessary.

The typical MMT critic that has come out of the word work in recent months fails to make the distinction between the ‘lens’ and the ‘values’.

Even if they understand that distinction, it is not in their interests to explicate it to the wider public because then their own values will come into focus. It is better to keep people in the dark.

Some critics have been explicit about that in fact. There have been papers that have argued that there is utility in keeping the wider population uninformed and functioning under the false construction that their taxes pay for government spending and all that sort of lying, because it places a discipline on politicians, who because they are untrustworthy, would otherwise go wild in their spending.

These critics acknowledge the validity of core MMT principles but think they are to dangerous for people to broadly share in that knowledge.

Some conceptualisation of democracy!

Remember the famous quote from Paul Samuelson in the interview he did for the film – John Maynard Keynes: Life, Ideas, Legacy – where at the 52:50 mark into the film, he said:

I think there is an element of truth in the view that the … the superstition that the budget must be balanced at all times … aah … Once it is debunked … takes away one of the bulwarks that every society must have against expenditure out of control. There must be discipline in the allocation of resources or you will have … aah … anarchistic chaos and inefficiency. And one of the functions of old fashioned religion was to scare people by … aah … sometimes what might be regarded as myths into behaving in a way that long-run civilised life requires. We have taken away a belief in the intrinsic necessity of balancing the budget if not in every year … in every short period of time. If Prime Minister Gladstone came back to life he would say ‘oh, oh what you have done’ and James Buchanan argues in those terms. I have to say that I see merit in that view.

Thus, most of the critics are really expressing a dispute about values.

It just turns out that the core MMT developers are in one way or another progressive in outlook. There are some differences in outlook and emphasis but they are largely nuanced and immaterial.

I recall giving a talk with Warren Mosler to a group of very wealth financial market players in Boston some years ago. It was sort of billed as the academic and the practitioner.

Someone in the audience asked (and my memory is a little vague as to the exact wording of the question) something along the lines that it was interesting that someone from business (Warren) could have the same shared ideas as someone from the academy (me) – with the implication that Warren represented the neoliberal view and I was the socialist. Along those lines.

It was very interesting. We went through a series of contentious views which would clearly divide Right from Left. And at the end of that exercise and interaction between Warren and me it became obvious that on the main issues there was no difference in our outlooks.

Different wording. Different phrases. Different accents!

The point is that that progressive bent comes out in all our writings and presentations. So for those with the most superficial embrace of MMT who have not grasped the ‘lens’ versus ‘values’ complexity, they jump to the conclusion that MMT is a progressive Left program, and, of course, many of them hate that sort of program.

It would have been interesting if the MMT developers had have come out of the far Right. Conjecture abounds.

So there are two levels of critical motivation for the MMT critics:

1. They perceive MMT to promote values different to their own – which as above reflects the failure of the critics to distinguish ‘lens’ from ‘values’.

2. The MMT lens and related conceptual development has exposed the poverty of the mainstream macroeconomics approach. It has rendered it fake knowledge. That exposition is nothing really about the ‘value’ divide. It is about facts and realities.

MMT is ground in the real world.

Mainstream macroeconomics is constructed from a stylised set of assumptions about a fictional world and a priori statements about human behaviour that no psychologist or sociologist would recognise or ascribe to.

No-one in the professional world wants to be exposed as a charlatan. So the resistance to MMT understandings also reflects the fact that there are a lot of careers at stake here in fact. That reality, alone, will generate massive opposition using any tactics that are available.

There is nothing intellectual in this debate now.

MMT has finally been perceived as a threat to the cosy and fake macroeconomics that the mainstream of my profession has been hiding behind and profiting from – materially and by repute – for years.

That threat has become obvious as more and more people seek to understand our work and embrace it as viable knowledge.

As more people learn how to construct the correct questions that get to the heart of the flaws in the mainstream macroeconomics and realise that, for decades, viable policy options have been politically suppressed by appeal to the ‘authority’ of that mainstream body of work.

Those options were clearly inconvenient to the elites who have profited from such a suppression.

What has probably brought this to a head now is the challenge of climate change, which is a sort of existential threat that unites us all in one way or another.

You might have thought that mass unemployment would be such a threat.

But the mainstream economists were able to deflect that threat by reconstructing it, in various ways, as an optimising choice taken by individuals – not to seek work effectively, demanding excessive real wages, having their decisions distorted by government legislation spanning from job protections to minimum wages and income support payments, and all the rest of it.

As mass unemployment emerged in the 1970s as a consequence of the growing dominance of neoliberalism, the conservatives, aided and abetted by my profession, instigated an effective ‘divide-and-conquer’ strategy to segment the unemployed into a group that the rest of us would blame as agents of their own demise.

A nomenclature emerged to support this strategy – in various nations the terms were different – but they all were designed to vilify the unemployed and other income support recipients – ‘bludgers’, ‘drifters’, ‘lazy’, ‘scheming’, ‘living off the rest of us’, and more.

Them and us.

That sort of strategy meant that nations could endure significant recessions without the majority (who kept their jobs) questioning the basis of the recessions (a lack of overall spending) and the role that governments could play in eliminating them.

Some literature actually eulogised the recession experience as a sort of ‘cleansing’ episode where capitalism maintained efficiency – by shedding high cost technologies and less profitable entrepreneurial ventures.

But the climate change threat is different. We are all affected by it in one way or another and if we don’t identify that threat in a sort of spiritual way (like what are we doing to the Earth) we are starting to feel the impacts via our ‘back pockets’ – energy bills are rising, extreme weather events are on the rise causing massive damage to our infrastructure (even our homes) and creating inconveniences (flooding, fire, etc).

Sure enough there are climate change deniers – who tend to be heavily represented among those most vocal against MMT.

But they are looking increasingly ridiculous.

The other aspect of the climate change debate is that it is bringing together different demographic cohorts that have previously not seen a common cause.

So at public rallies and meetings around the world we are seeing older people demanding climate change action because they fear for their children and grandchildren and are realising that they are somehow responsible for the toxic legacy they are leaving them.

But those children and grandchildren are also at the forefront of the climate action movements because they see their futures being compromised by big industry that only has a short-term profit focus driving them.

The surge in what we now call the Green New Deal movement is universal and powerful.

And naturally, people who seek action under the GND aegis, turn to the economics – how will we pay for it?

Most people construct that question in terms of ‘dollars’ (or whatever currency they use) because they have been conditioned to believe, erroneously, that governments are like them – financially constrained.

So if we want a bright new car or something we have to answer the question “how will we pay for it?”.

And this false conceptualisation is promoted by conservatives and elites who want to steer the GND in their favour. This is particularly the case for those who want to ‘financialise’ the GND by creating market products and all sorts of derivative market products (for example, carbon trading systems) and who tell us that these innovations are necessary for climate action.

This strategy gives them the best chance of controlling the flood of people action, which is now unstoppable and to make the most profit from it that they can.

They don’t want governments to use their clear legislative authority over capital to regulate pollutive industries out of existence. That would wipe out profits quickly. So we get all sorts of plans that, for example, involve global capital invading poorer communities in poorer nations with investments in ‘energy’ projects that then allow them to build up carbon credits. All that sort of chicanery.

But the main point here, is that when an MMT economist asks the question “how are we going to pay for it?”, the currency or financial aspects are not in our focus.

Rather, for a currency-issuing government the challenge is to muster the real productive resources necessary to successfully implement a GND, whatever that actually means in scope.

I have written before that the GND challenge is immense and will not easily be achieved.

Powerful vested interests in the carbon industries will have to be rendered powerless.

Habits will have to change quite dramatically.

And, importantly, our neoliberal constructions of the dangers of collective action and how we view each other will have to change diametrically – and that is a massive part of the challenge.

Shifting from the neoliberal construction that the economy is somehow beyond us and the environment is a servant of that economy and that we have to sacrifice if the economy ‘gets sick’ to a progressive construction where we control the economy through our governments and that it and us are embedded in the natural environment will take time.

After all, there has been decades of indoctrination from mainstream economists, carbon lobby groups etc promoting the neoliberal vision.

But it is clear the GND is the battleground and the attacks on MMT understandings are, in part, being motivated by this issue.

Of course, the correct MMT statement is that a currency-issuing government can, intrinsically, purchase anything that is for sale in that currency, including all idle labour.

There is no financial constraint facing such a government in this regard.

I keep reading that MMT is about “money-financed deficits” and that, “as any macroeconomics student knows is inflationary”.

Money-financed deficits is code for “printing money”.

And this focus by the critics is deliberate because they know that constructing government net spending as “printing money” is loaded and invokes extrapolations of crazed government and central bank officials in basements of government buildings jacking up the printing presses with money flying everywhere as the official’s eyes pop with demonic pleasure.

See, just what we warned – MMT will empower these crazy and untrustworthy politicians to run wild! That is the exercise being conducted. It is not an intellectual debate conducted. It is a propaganda campaign being mounted.

Where in the core body of MMT literature is there a reference to “money-financed deficits”?

Answer: nowhere!

The use of this construction as a critical tool reflects two things:

1. The critics keep using their own frames to construct MMT, which is outside those frames and cannot be so constructed.

2. The critics haven’t read the core literature, and, if they have default to interpreting it using (1).

What I mean by that is that mainstream economists are so tied to their own construction of government spending and deficits that they cannot see outside that frame.

So, for them, the framework they invoke immediately in these matters is the ‘government budget constraint’ (GBC) literature, which emerged in the 1960s, when the mainstream was pushing the flawed analogy between the household and the sovereign government such that any excess in government spending over taxation receipts has to be “financed” in two ways: (a) by borrowing from the public; and/or (b) by “printing money”.

See this blog post – The Weekend Quiz – January 19-20, 2019 – answers and discussion (January 19, 2019) – for more discussion on the GBC.

The problem is that MMT understandings take us outside of the framework. The only ‘truth’ that the GBC provides is an an ex post (after the fact) accounting statement which links the monetary variables – government spending, taxation receipts, bond issues, bond interest payments, and changes in central bank reserves.

That is a trivial ‘truth’ that is a concern for the accountants (noting I don’t think the work of accountants is necessarily trivial).

For the mainstream macroeconomist the GBC is an a priori (before the fact) financial constraint on government.

So they think in those terms. Acknowledging that the GBC is just an accounting statement allows us to think quite differently.

And grinding the analysis in reality takes us out of the stylised world of GBC architecture.

All government spending is accomplished in the same way – a number is adjusted in various accounts of the central and commercial banking systems.

There is no printing press.

A net financial asset is created in the non-government sector.

That is it.

What monetary operations might accompany that action do not alter the essence of the way governments spend the currency into existence.

Conclusion

I will return to this theme in a later blog post.

The next issue I want to traverse in this regard is to clearly distinguish between core MMT and opinions that MMT proponents might have about various policy options.

One issue I want to clarify in that context is the claim that MMT advocate bond issuance. The core body of work certainly doesn’t. What that body of work does is note that bond issuance is unnecessary and teases out the implications of not issuing debt.

Those implications are quite different to what the mainstream claim in the GBC framework.

And, to put a finer point on it, the core body of work suggests that a central bank running a zero interest rate policy is desirable, which means that any bond issuance that would allow central banks to conduct liquidity management operations (OMOs) to hit a positive interest rate would be unnecessary.

Of course, we also know that a central bank can still hit a positive rate with excess reserves by simply offering a competitive support rate.

Anyway, all that for another day.

Now I have to deal with very wet and bleak Edinburgh.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2019 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Bill Mitchell
Bill Mitchell is a Professor in Economics and Director of the Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE), at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. He is also a professional musician and plays guitar with the Melbourne Reggae-Dub band – Pressure Drop. The band was popular around the live music scene in Melbourne in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The band reformed in late 2010.

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