There are short and simple explainers around, but what these and MMT followers are typically not so good at is in explaining exactly why and how they differ from mainstream macroeconomics.
To understand this, we need to go back to the 1960s and 70s. Then there was a debate between two groups in macro over whether it was better to use monetary policy or fiscal policy as an instrument for stabilising the economy. I prefer to call these two groups Monetarists and Fiscalists, because both sides used the same theoretical framework, which was Keynesian.
To cut a long story short the monetarist won that argument, although not quite in the way they intended. Instead of central banks controlling the economy in a hands off way using the money supply, they instead actively used interest rate changes to control output and inflation.
Fiscal policy was increasingly seen as about controlling the level of government debt. I have called this the Consensus Assignment, because it became a consensus and because I don’t think there is another name for it.
The one or two decades before the financial crisis were the golden years for the Consensus Assignment, in the sense that monetary policy did seem to be relatively successful at controlling inflation and dampening the business cycle. However many governments were less successful at controlling government debt, and this failure was termed ‘deficit bias’.
MMT is essentially different because it rejects the Consensus Assignment. It regards monetary policy as an unreliable instrument for controlling the economy, and MMT prefers to use fiscal policy instead. They are, to use my previous terminology, fiscalists.
If you are always using government spending or taxes to control the economy, you are right not to worry about the budget deficit: it is whatever it needs to be to get inflation to target. Whether you finance those deficits by creating money or selling bonds is also a secondary concern – it just influences what the interest rate is, which has an uncertain impact on activity. For this reason you do not need to worry about who will buy your debt, because you can create money instead.
The GFC exposed the Achilles Heel in the Consensus Assignment, because interest rates hit their lower bound and could no longer be moved to stimulate demand. Alternative measures like QE really were as unreliable as MMT thinks all monetary policy is. What governments started to do was use fiscal policy instead of monetary policy to support the economy, but then austerity happened in 2010.
Now we can see why MMT is so popular. Austerity is about governments pretending the Consensus Assignment still works when it does not, because interest rates are at their lower bound. We are in an MMT world, where we should be using fiscal policy and not worrying about the deficit, but policymakers don’t understand that. I think most mainstream macroeconomists do understand this, but we are not often heard. The ground was therefore ripe for MMT.
Policymakers following austerity when they clearly should not annoys me a great deal, and I am very happy to join common cause with MMT on this. By comparison, the things that annoy me about MMT are trivial, like a failure to use equations and their wordplay. You will hear from MMTers that taxes do not finance government spending, or that spending comes first, but you will hardly ever see the government’s budget constraint which makes all such semantics seem silly.
MMT is particularly attractive because it does away with the perennial ‘where is the money going to come from’ question. Instead it replaces this question with another: ‘will this extra spending raise inflation above target’. As long as inflation is below target that does not appear to be a constraint. In the US right now interest rates are no longer at their lower bound, but inflation is below target, so it appears to MMTers that the government should not worry about how extra spending is paid for.
Of course having a fiscal authority following MMT and a central bank following the Consensus Assignment once rates are above their lower bound could be a recipe for confusion, unless you believe what happens to interest rates is unimportant. I personally think we have strong econometric evidence that changes in interest rates do matter, so once we are off the lower bound should we be fiscalists like MMT or should we return to the Consensus Assignment? That is a question for another day.
The Rock-Star Appeal of Modern Monetary Theory
The Sanders generation and a new economic idea.
by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian
In early 2013, Congress entered a death struggle, or a debt struggle, if you will, over the future of the US economy. A spate of old tax cuts and spending programs were due to expire almost simultaneously, and Congress couldn’t agree on a budget, nor on how much the government could borrow to keep its engines running. Cue the predictable partisan chaos: House Republicans were staunchly opposed to raising the debt ceiling without corresponding cuts to spending, and Democrats, while plenty weary of running up debt, too, wouldn’t sign on to the Republicans’ proposed austerity.
In the absence of political consensus, and with time running out, a curious solution bubbled up from the depths of the economic blogosphere. What if the Treasury minted a $1 trillion coin, deposited it in the government’s account at the Federal Reserve, and continued on with business as usual? The workaround was technically authorized by an obscure law that applies to commemorative platinum coins, and it didn’t require congressional approval, so the GOP couldn’t get in the way. What’s more, the cash would not be circulated, so it wouldn’t cause inflation.
The thought experiment was catnip for wonks and bloggers, who described it as “ludicrous but perfectly legal” (Slate); “a monetary parlor trick” (Wired); “really thrilling” (Business Insider); “a large-scale trolling project” (The Guardian). The idea made its way onto late-night TV, political talk shows, White House press conferences, and lived on as a hashtag: #mintthecoin.
At the heart of the attention was an acknowledgement that money wasn’t the problem here, politics was.
For a small but committed group of economists, academics, and activists who adhere to a doctrine called Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), though, #mintthecoin was the tip of the economic iceberg. The possibility of a $1 trillion coin represented more than mere monetary sophistry: It drove home their foundational point that fiat currency is a social construct, and that there are therefore no fiscal limits on how much a sovereign currency-issuing nation can spend.
According to this small but increasingly vocal cohort of economists, including Bernie Sanders’s former chief economic adviser, once we change the way we think about money, we can provide for everyone: We don’t have to “find” the money to “pay” for universal health care by “cutting” the budget elsewhere. In fact, our government already works that way: Spending must precede taxation, or there would be no dollars in the economy to tax. It’s the political will to spend on certain things, not the money to afford it, that’s lacking.
“The idea that you can’t feed hungry kids and build a bridge is a huge problem,” says Stephanie Kelton, an economist at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. “It’s cruel to say we want more money for education and food but have to wait for legislation.”
Kelton, who spoke about the coin on MSNBC, is MMT’s most mediagenic expert. She’s 48 years old, whip-smart, impeccably coiffed, and brims with enthusiasm, important for someone who spends half her time telling Wall Street types to rethink their basic approach to economics. When Sanders ran for the Democratic nomination, Kelton became his chief economic adviser at the recommendation of several prominent left-wing economists, including Dean Baker and Jamie Galbraith. Before that, she served as chief economist on the Senate Budget Committee and moonlighted as the editor of a blog called New Economic Perspectives.
Kelton sees the fundamentals of her work as “a descriptive analysis that could be exploited by either side: Democrats and Republicans can use the insight to push tax cuts or increase spending.” Indeed, the idea of a big-spending economic stimulus to fix the country’s infrastructure served as a common ground for Trump and Sanders voters who liked the idea of jobs perhaps more than they disliked the idea of national indebtedness. If that’s what voters want, then MMT is a rare bird: an economic theory that not only validates their hunches, but contends that they’re the key to a healthy, stable, prosperous economy for all.
odern Monetary Theory emerged as a distinct school of economic thought in the 1990s, when Kelton and her colleagues, mainly professors with homes in heterodox economics departments like the University 6 Missouri, Kansas City, and Bard’s Levy Institute, published research and discussed their theories, albeit mainly among themselves on a now-defunct listserv called “Post-Keynesian Thought” and at an annual conference that started in 2003.
The various strains of thought that make up MMT have their roots in Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes, along with more contemporary thinkers like Hyman Minsky and Abba Lerner, but only recently have researchers connected the dots in quite this way. “We’ve rediscovered old ideas,” Kelton said, “and assembled them into a complete macroeconomic frame.”
To a layperson, MMT can seem dizzyingly complex, but at its core is the belief that most of us have the economy backward.
Conventional wisdom holds that the government taxes individuals and companies in order to fund its own spending. But the government, which is ultimately the source of all dollars, taxed or untaxed, pays or spends first and taxes later. When it funds programs, it literally spends money into existence, injecting cash into the economy. Taxes exist in order to control inflation by reducing the money supply, and to ensure that dollars, as the only currency accepted for tax payments, remain in demand.
It follows that currency-issuing governments could (and, depending on how you lean politically, should) spend as much as they need to in order to guarantee full employment and other social goods. MMT’s adherents like to point out that the federal government never “runs out” of money to fund the military, but routinely invokes budget constraints to justify defunding social programs. Money, in other words, isn’t a scarce commodity like silver or gold. “To people who’ve worked in financial markets, who work at the Fed, this isn’t controversial at all,” says Galbraith, who, while not an adherent, can certainly be described as “MMT-friendly.”
The decisions about how to issue, lend, and spend money come down to politics, values, and convention, whether the goal is reducing inequality or boosting entrepreneurship. Inflation, MMT’s proponents contend, can be controlled through taxation, and only becomes a problem at full employment, and we’re a long way off from that, particularly if we include people who have given up looking for jobs or aren’t working as much as they’d like to among the officially “unemployed.”
The point is that, once you shake off notions of artificial scarcity, MMT’s possibilities are endless. The state can guarantee a job to anyone who wants one, lowering unemployment and competing with the private sector for workers, raising standards and wages across the board.
MMT didn’t get much traction outside of academia at first. In fact, it was (and remains) on the fringes of the economics profession itself. “We all had offices in the same alley at the Levy Institute,” Kelton recalls.
Then along came Warren Mosler, a wealthy financier who, as a result of his banking work, had come to some unorthodox and complementary ideas about money. Eager to share his views, Mosler finale a meeting with Donald Rumsfeld in the steam room of the Chicago Racquet Club. Rumsfeld led him to Arthur Laffer, the right-wing economist who came up with the “Laffer curve” theory promoting low taxes, and Laffer, in turn, connected Mosler with his future collaborator, the economist Mark McNary. In an independently published paper titled “Soft-Currency Economics,” Mosler, drawing on McNary’s research, argued that taxes are what create a demand for federal spending and that deficits don’t cause countries to default on their debt.
Mosler sought comments on his work from academic departments, too. He didn’t have any luck with Ivy League institutions, but the man made it on Wall Street for at least one reason: He won’t take no for an answer. So Mosler sent his paper to the “Post-Keynesian Thought” listserv and found a group of kindred spirits willing to engage.
Stephanie Kelton recalls initially disagreeing with some of Mosler’s theories about taxes; then her colleague L. Randall Wray told her to do her own work and show how he was mistaken. “I wrote it up in the Cambridge Journal of Economics and set out to prove he was wrong,” Kelton recalls, “but I arrived at the same place he did.”
From then on, Mosler became something like the movement’s sugar daddy, funding graduate research, making donations to the Center for Full Employment and Price Stability at the University of Missouri, even opening a research centre in Switzerland. He was an unlikely addition to the gang: He lives in St. Croix for the taxes, has a thing for fancy cars, made a nice chunk of money investing, and has run for office in St. Croix and in his home state of Connecticut. Mosler isn’t particularly ideological, but after some hesitation, he describes himself over the phone as “basically progressive.” Still, he insists that he is simply opening the public’s eyes to basic math. “It’s a theory insofar as arithmetic is a theory,” Mosler tells me.
“If you eliminate the tax on people working for a living and [let them] keep more money, the average family would have $625 of payroll pay. Why won’t politicians do that? Because they believe the tax money is used to make Social Security payments. But that’s a mistake.” Even so, Mosler notes, “if anyone would propose that, it’s not a big-spending liberal—it’s something the Tea Party might propose.”
Early in his foray into MMT, Mosler hired Bard economist Pavlina Tcherneva to help him with the research. Tcherneva had her 15 minutes of fame in 2015, when Bernie Sanders held up a graph she’d made showing how few gains in income American workers have seen since the Reagan years. (It went viral online under the Vox headline “The most important chart about the American economy you’ll see this year”) Today, Tcherneva’s research is focused on how MMT can provide jobs.
“There is no reason why society should tolerate unemployment,” she tells me in her office at Bard on an unseasonably warm day in February. “It’s a basic human right. By pegging a dollar amount to one hour of labor by having full employment, money will mean something in socially useful terms, and we can design a system to support and tighten the labor market and let people opt out of shitty jobs. Trump has his finger on the pulse of joblessness,” she adds. “It’s a direct recognition, a precise recognition, of their plight. But we need something concrete to offer.”
Rana Antonopoulos, who runs Bard’s “Gender Equality and the Economy” program, serves as the alternate minister of labor in the Syriza government; she’s proposed pushing the government to be the employer of last resort.n Europe, where a generation of young people remain under- or unemployed, more spending, better social welfare, and a guaranteed job are a particularly attractive combination. But eurozone countries share a common currency, so the European Union would have to allow all of its members to borrow more, not less, to stimulate the economies of its more beleaguered states. There is some, if limited, buy-in from governments, though probably nowhere near enough to change the policy. In Greece, for example,
Despite the lack of official interest, austerity has given these MMT economists rock-star status. Kelton recalls a conference a few years back in Rimini, Italy, where her group sold out their initial venue and had to move the event to a basketball stadium. “When we were driving there, the parking lot was packed,” she says. “We asked the driver what was happening, and he said it was for us.” She thought he was kidding—until she saw the MMT signs in the background.
On this side of the Atlantic, the financial crisis, the tepid recovery, and the Occupy movement have paved the way for alternative ways of thinking about the economy, and the events of 2008-12 have made it clear that the US government had the money, it just chose to bail out the banking sector, not spend it on social welfare. This all served to validate many of the points that Kelton and her colleagues have been making for decades.
“We built credibility,” Kelton says, “and that helped us get established as a school of thought. The New Economic Perspectives blog helped us get a voice. It also gave us a historical record about being right about things like how the US downgrade wouldn’t make interest rates go up; that quantitative easing wasn’t inflationary; and that the eurozone would run into trouble. We were saying that in 1998!”
Kelton’s work with Sanders further boosted the gang’s legitimacy. She didn’t transform him into a “deficit owl,” but observers note that during his run, Sanders did make moves to refocus the conversation around social goods, speaking of education, health care, and infrastructure deficits instead of obsessing over abstract negatives on a balance sheet. “He didn’t ‘go there,’” Tcherneva says, “but it was a teachable moment. The frame was useful because it concerns concrete things. People don’t lose sleep over government deficits.”
MMT has something else that most obscure economic doctrines don’t have: a band of devoted bloggers and commenters, and a “street team” of young, politically engaged people who learned about these theories online and have taken it upon themselves to spread the gospel wherever they go with an almost religious fervor.
During the recession, the popular economics blog Naked Capitalism began publishing articles about the movement; economists Tyler Cowen and Paul Krugman, though not particularly sympathetic to MMT (in part because of their concerns about inflation), at least responded to them. In 2012, a Columbia Law School student, Rohan Grey, started a group called the Modern Money Network, which has hosted a series of symposiums with big-name speakers like the former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. On YouTube, videos of MMT lectures, seminars, and tutorials abound. “I’ve been amazed by the activism,” Tcherneva says. “We’ve always wanted to democratize our ideas, and we now can thanks to the magic of social media.”
It’s hard to imagine radical changes being made to the way politicians talk about money. It could take decades, even centuries, to make a dent in entrenched ideas about debt, scarcity, and supply. Even so, the time seems ripe for MMT: There is, particularly among young people, an enormous appetite for new solutions to the problems that modern economies face, from automation to offshoring. And the financial crisis has shaken the public’s trust in established ways of thinking. Take the universal basic income: A few years ago, it seemed unrealistic and utopian, but today, versions of the UBI have been embraced by Silicon Valley moguls, economists on the left and the right, and politicians around the world.
MMT is less prescriptive: It describes the way that money works in a way that an 8-year-old can grasp more readily than a PhD, which in itself is unnerving. “The contribution of MMT is not the discovery of new facts,” Galbraith says. “It’s a teaching core of things which are factually uncontroversial.” But its implications can be radically humane. What’s threatening to the establishment, Galbraith adds, “is that the narrative is very compelling.”
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a journalist and the author of The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen
Modern Monetary Theory is an unconventional take on economic strategy
by Dylan Matthews
About 11 years ago, James K. “Jamie” Galbraith recalls, hundreds of his fellow economists laughed at him. To his face. In the White House.
It was April 2000, and Galbraith had been invited by President Bill Clinton to speak on a panel about the budget surplus. Galbraith was a logical choice. A public policy professor at the University of Texas and former head economist for the Joint Economic Committee, he wrote frequently for the press and testified before Congress.
What’s more, his father, John Kenneth Galbraith, was the most famous economist of his generation: a Harvard professor, best-selling author and confidante of the Kennedy family. Jamie has embraced a role as protector and promoter of the elder’s legacy.
But if Galbraith stood out on the panel, it was because of his offbeat message. Most viewed the budget surplus as opportune: a chance to pay down the national debt, cut taxes, shore up entitlements or pursue new spending programs.
He viewed it as a danger: If the government is running a surplus, money is accruing in government coffers rather than in the hands of ordinary people and companies, where it might be spent and help the economy.
“I said economists used to understand that the running of a surplus was fiscal (economic) drag,” he said, “and with 250 economists, they giggled.”
Galbraith says the 2001 recession — which followed a few years of surpluses — proves he was right.
A decade later, as the soaring federal budget deficit has sharpened political and economic differences in Washington, Galbraith is mostly concerned about the dangers of keeping it too small. He’s a key figure in a core debate among economists about whether deficits are important and in what way. The issue has divided the nation’s best-known economists and inspired pockets of passion in academic circles. Any embrace by policymakers of one view or the other could affect everything from employment to the price of goods to the tax code.
In contrast to “deficit hawks” who want spending cuts and revenue increases now in order to temper the deficit, and “deficit doves” who want to hold off on austerity measures until the economy has recovered, Galbraith is a deficit owl. Deficit Owls certainly don’t think we need to balance the budget soon. Indeed, they don’t concede we need to balance it at all. Owls see government spending that leads to deficits as integral to economic growth, even in good times.
The term isn’t Galbraith’s. It WAS COINED by Stephanie Kelton, a professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, who with Galbraith is part of a small group of economists who have concluded that everyone — members of Congress, think tank denizens, the entire mainstream of the economics profession — has misunderstood how the government interacts with the economy. If their theory — dubbed “Modern Monetary Theory” or MMT — is right, then everything we thought we knew about the budget, taxes and the Federal Reserve is wrong.
Modern Monetary Theory” was coined by Bill Mitchell, an Australian economist and prominent proponent, but its roots are much older. The term is a reference to John Maynard Keynes, the founder of modern macroeconomics. In “A Treatise on Money,” Keynes asserted that “all modern States” have had the ability to decide what is money and what is not for at least 4,000 years.
This claim, that money is a “creature of the state,” is central to the theory. In a “fiat money” system like the one in place in the United States, all money is ultimately created by the government, which prints it and puts it into circulation. Consequently, the thinking goes, the government can never run out of money. It can always make more.
This doesn’t mean that taxes are unnecessary. Taxes, in fact, are key to making the whole system work. The need to pay taxes compels people to use the currency printed by the government. Taxes are also sometimes necessary to prevent the economy from overheating. If consumer demand outpaces the supply of available goods, prices will jump, resulting in inflation (where prices rise even as buying power falls). In this case, taxes can tamp down spending and keep prices low.
But if the theory is correct, there is no reason the amount of money the government takes in needs to match up with the amount it spends. Indeed, its followers call for massive tax cuts and deficit spending during recessions.
Warren Mosler, a hedge fund manager who lives in Saint Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands — in part because of the tax benefits — is one proponent. He’s perhaps better know for his sports car company and his frequent gadfly political campaigns (he earned a little less than one percent of the vote as an independent in Connecticut’s 2010 Senate race). He supports suspending the payroll tax that finances the Social Security trust fund and providing an $8 an hour government job to anyone who wants one to combat the current downturn.
The theory’s followers come mainly from a couple of institutions: the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s economics department and the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, both of which have received money from Mosler. But the movement is gaining followers quickly, largely through an explosion of economics blogs. Naked Capitalism, an irreverent and passionately written blog on finance and economics with nearly a million monthly readers, features proponents such as Kelton, fellow Missouri professor L. Randall Wray and Wartberg College professor Scott Fullwiler. So does New Deal 2.0, a wonky economics blog based at the liberal Roosevelt Institute think tank.
Their followers have taken to the theory with great enthusiasm and pile into the comment sections of mainstream economics bloggers when they take on the theory. Wray’s work has been picked up by Firedoglake, a major liberal blog, and the New York Times op-ed page. “The crisis helped, but the thing that did it was the blogosphere,” Wray says. “Because, for one thing, we could get it published. It’s very hard to publish anything that sounds outside the mainstream in the journals.”
Most notably, Galbraith has spread the message everywhere from the Daily to Congress. He advised lawmakers including then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) when the financial crisis hit in 2008. Last summer he consulted with a group of House members on the debt ceiling negotiations. He was one of the handful of economists consulted by the Obama administration as it was designing the stimulus package. “I think Jamie has the most to lose by taking this position,” Kelton says. “It was, I think, a really brave thing to do, because he has such a big name, and he’s so well-respected.”
Wray and others say they, too, have consulted with policymakers, and there is a definite sense among the group that the theory’s time is now. “Our Web presence, every few months or so it goes up another notch,” Fullwiler says.
A Divisive History
The idea that deficit spending can help to bring an economy out of recession is an old one. It was a key point in Keynes’s “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.” It was the chief rationale for the 2009 stimulus package, and many self-identified Keynesians, such as former White House adviser Christina Romero and economist Paul Krugman, have argued that more is in order. There are, of course, detractors.
A key split among Keynesians dates to the 1930s. One set of economists, including the Nobel laureates John Hicks and Paul Samuelson, sought to incorporate Keynes’s insights into classical economics. Hicks built a mathematical model summarizing Keynes’s theory, and Samuelson sought to wed Keynesian macroeconomics (which studies the behavior of the economy as a whole) to conventional microeconomics (which looks at how people and businesses allocate resources). This set the stage for most macroeconomic theory since. Even today, “New Keynesians,” such as Greg Mankiw, a Harvard economist who served as chief economic adviser to George W. Bush, and Romer’s husband, David, are seeking ways to ground Keynesian macroeconomic theory in the micro-level behavior of businesses and consumers.
Modern Monetary theorists hold fast to the tradition established by “post-Keynesians” such as Joan Robinson, Nicholas Kaldor and Hyman Minsky, who insisted Samuelson’s theory failed because its models acted as if, in Galbraith’s words, “the banking sector doesn’t exist.”
The connections are personal as well. Wray’s doctoral dissertation was advised by Minsky, and Galbraith studied with Robinson and Kaldor at the University of Cambridge. He argues that the theory is part of an “alternative tradition, which runs through Keynes and my father and Minsky.
And while Modern Monetary Theory’s proponents take Keynes as their starting point and advocate aggressive deficit spending during recessions, they’re not that type of Keynesians. Even mainstream economists who argue for more deficit spending are reluctant to accept the central tenets of Modern Monetary Theory. Take Krugman, who regularly engages economists across the spectrum in spirited debate. He has argued that pursuing large budget deficits during boom times can lead to hyperinflation. Mankiw concedes the theory’s point that the government can never run out of money but doesn’t think this means what its proponents think it does.
Technically it’s true, he says, that the government could print streams of money and never default. The risk is that it could trigger a very high rate of inflation. This would “bankrupt much of the banking system,” he says. “Default, painful as it would be, might be a better option.”
Mankiw’s critique goes to the heart of the debate about Modern Monetary Theory — and about how, when and even whether to eliminate our current deficits.
When the government deficit spends, it issues bonds to be bought on the open market. If its debt load grows too large, mainstream economists say, bond purchasers will demand higher interest rates, and the government will have to pay more in interest payments, which in turn adds to the debt load.
To get out of this cycle, the Fed — which manages the nation’s money supply and credit and sits at the center of its financial system — could buy the bonds at lower rates, bypassing the private market. The Fed is prohibited from buying bonds directly from the Treasury — a legal rather than economic constraint. But the Fed would buy the bonds with money it prints, which means the money supply would increase. With it, inflation would rise, and so would the prospects of hyperinflation.
“You can’t just fund any level of government that you want from spending money, because you’ll get runaway inflation and eventually the rate of inflation will increase faster than the rate that you’re extracting resources from the economy,” says Karl Smith, an economist at the University of North Carolina. “This is the classic hyperinflation problem that happened in Zimbabwe and the Weimar Republic.”
The risk of inflation keeps most mainstream economists and policymakers on the same page about deficits: In the medium term — all else being equal — it’s critical to keep them small.
Economists in the Modern Monetary camp concede that deficits can sometimes lead to inflation. But they argue that this can only happen when the economy is at full employment — when all who are able and willing to work are employed and no resources (labor, capital, etc.) are idle. No modern example of this problem comes to mind, Galbraith says.
“The last time we had what could be plausibly called a demand-driven, serious inflation problem was probably World War I,” Galbraith says. “It’s been a long time since this hypothetical possibility has actually been observed, and it was observed only under conditions that will never be repeated.”
According to Galbraith and the others, monetary policy as currently conducted by the Fed does not work. The Fed generally uses one of two levers to increase growth and employment. It can lower short-term interest rates by buying up short-term government bonds on the open market. If short-term rates are near-zero, as they are now, the Fed can try “quantitative easing,” or large-scale purchases of assets (such as bonds) from the private sector including longer-term Treasuries using money the Fed creates. This is what the Fed did in 2008 and 2010, in an emergency effort to boost the economy.
According to Modern Monetary Theory, the Fed buying up Treasuries is just, in Galbraith’s words, a “bookkeeping operation” that does not add income to American households and thus cannot be inflationary.
“It seemed clear to me thatflooding the economy with money by buying up government bonds is not going to change anybody’s behavior,” Galbraith says. “They would just end up with cash reserves which would sit idle in the banking system, and that is exactly what in fact happened.”
The theorists just “have no idea how quantitative easing works,” says Joe Gagnon, an economist at the Peterson Institute who managed the Fed’s first round of quantitative easing in 2008. Even if the money the Fed uses to buy bonds stays in bank reserves — or money that’s held in reserve — increasing those reserves should still lead to increased borrowing and ripple throughout the system.
Mainstreamers are equally baffled by another claim of the theory: that budget surpluses in and of themselves are bad for the economy. According to Modern Monetary Theory, when the government runs a surplus, it is a net saver, which means that the private sector is a net debtor. The government is, in effect, “taking money from private pockets and forcing them to make that up by going deeper into debt,” Galbraith says, reiterating his White House comments.
The mainstream crowd finds this argument as funny now as they did when Galbraith presented it to Clinton. “I have two words to answer that: Australia and Canada,” Gagnon says. “If Jamie Galbraith would look them up, he would see immediate proof he’s wrong. Australia has had a long-running budget surplus now, they actually have no national debt whatsoever, they’re the fastest-growing, healthiest economy in the world.” Canada, similarly, has run consistent surpluses while achieving high growth.
To even care about such questions, Galbraith says, marked him as “a considerable eccentric” when he arrived from Cambridge to get a PhD at Yale, which had a more conventionally Keynesian economics department. Galbraith credits Samuelson and his allies’ success to a “mass-marketing of economic doctrine, of which Samuelson was the great master which is something the Cambridge school could never have done.”
The mainstream economists are loath to give up any ground, even in cases such as the so-called “Cambridge capital controversy” of the 1960s. Samuelson debated post-Keynesians and, by his own admission, lost. Such matters have been, in Galbraith’s words, “airbrushed, like Trotsky” from the history of economics.
But MMT’s own relationship to real-world cases can be a little hit-or-miss. Mosler, the hedge fund manager, credits his role in the movement to an epiphany in the early 1990s, when markets grew concerned that Italy was about to default. Mosler figured that Italy, which at that time still issued its own currency, the lira, could not default as long as it had the ability to print more liras. He bet accordingly, and when Italy did not default, he made a tidy sum. “There was an enormous amount of money to be made if you could bring yourself around to the idea that they couldn’t default,” he says.
Later that decade, he learned there was also a lot of money to be lost. When similar fears surfaced about Russia, he again bet against default. Despite having its own currency, Russia defaulted, forcing Mosler to liquidate one of his funds and wiping out much of his $850 million in investments in the country. Mosler credits this to Russia’s fixed exchange rate policy of the time and insists that if it had only acted like a country with its own currency, default could have been avoided.
But the case could also prove what critics insist: Default, while technically always avoidable, is sometimes the best available option.