Friday, April 30, 2010

Modern Monetary Theory: shiny, new and good? Part II

I’ve been digging deeper into MMT at Bill Mitchell’s blog, and finding the effort both stimulating and rewarding. My studies thus far have yet to answer all questions I have, and neither have my concerns been completely allayed, but I become friendlier with the idea the better I get to know it (with caveats of course). This post represents Stage 2 of my Modern Monetary Theory Journey.

One point I raised in my first post on MMT was about private-sector credit transactions netting to zero. The claim struck me as fallacious, as interest accrues to lenders, representing, from their point of view, a net positive. If this were not so, they would not lend money in the first place. Further study has updated my position. “Netting to zero” actually means “no new net wealth is created,” which is true. Only the loan is created, which is expunged either upon the last repayment or upon default. The interest must be fished out of the existing pool of money and handed over to the lender. Credit extension is therefore not a net wealth creating process, it is a shuffling-money-to-the-banks process. In a pure debt-money system, in which no money at all is created by government spending, we have a ponzi-like situation that can only fail. In such a system existing wealth in the economy is slowly transformed into debt obligations as private banks extend the credit economic activity requires. At some point over-indebtedness crashes the system, and all that apparent wealth disappears. (This short analysis equates wealth with money — an equation I don’t usually make.) Money spent into existence by the sovereign on the other hand, assuming it finds goods and services to buy, is, in contradistinction to credit, wealth creation.

So strictly speaking, and when seeing wealth as money — which is a legitimate assumption in this exercise of understanding how money works in a fiat economy — extending credit creates no new wealth, or “nets to zero.” My bad. However, that it nets to zero may be largely unimportant, because the public can be too heavily indebted regardless, but I’ll get to that in a moment. For know I want to go over how MMT views a monetary system.

Below is a graphic I’m borrowing from Bill Mitchell (please refer to his site for details):

A short time pondering this chart gives the viewer the impression of a system of flow, with injections, transactions, and removals taking place both vertically and horizontally. Rather wonderfully, tax is seen as taking out the trash. If there’s too much money in the system, tax it out and trash it. There’s no need for government to save if it can simply spend what the economy needs, in particular circumstances, into existence. (This is of course quite a trick to get right, but the idea is sweet.) We don’t need to think of money like we used to think of gold, as having magical intrinsic value, or as representing deserved reward for hard work and so on. It’s merely the lubricant the system needs in the correct quantities (which change over time) to hum along. Let’s not get all romantic and religious about it. This newer perception empowers us to get rid of the rather presbyterian idea of saving up for a rainy day (at the level of the sovereign — thrift and saving are still handy values for the private sector), and treat deficits and surpluses as necessary positions of balance that arise dynamically as the economy moves through time.

Two quotes from Bill Mitchell capture the essence of this nicely:

“Accordingly, the concept of fiscal sustainability should never make any financing link between debt issuance and net government spending. There is no inevitability for debt to rise as deficits rise. Voluntary decisions by the government to make such a link have no basis in the fundamentals of the fiat monetary system.”

“The real cost of any program is the extra real resources that the program requires for implementation. So the real cost of a Job Guarantee is the extra consunmption [sic] that the formerly unemployed workers can entertain and the extra capital etc that is required to provide equipment for the workers to use in their productive pursuits.”

However, as one of the stated aims of MMT is full employment, we must be careful not to set up a system characterized by moral hazard. If we deploy MMT within a GDP-growth obsessed paradigm, with conspicuous consumption the economy’s locomoting force, a citizenry confident there will always be work might be easier than ever to goad into buying more than it can afford. That innocuous looking rectangle in the middle of the graphic is therefore a weak spot as far as I can tell, unless we wean ourselves off our addiction to consumption and shopping. Until we have a more mature attitude to material acquisition at the cultural level, I fear MMT would be like letting children into the candy store, a candy store with finite resources.

In terms of the money, how would this play out? A population up to their eyeballs in debt after a multi-year shopping binge suddenly stops consuming at the rate they have been. Demand falls, business suffers, unemployment rises, and people have to pay off their debts. In steps the government and employs the cast-offs, but the money thereby injected into the economy is used to pay off debts. Government therefore has to employ/spend until those debts are down again, and the party can start over. This would be a smoothed out boom-bust cycle with less suffering, but may stoke consumption even further beyond current unsustainable levels. Keeping our eyes on the ecosystem and how wasteful our production/consumption processes are is of course essential.

I can envisage too that private industry, aware that displaced workers will find work in the government sector, might more aggressively pursue automation, not having to fear a consequent collapse in purchasing power. A weird world in which say 80% are perpetually employed (doing what?) by a State spending money into existence, effectively to fund a private sector which hardly need employ anyone, all to keep the system ticking over. Without intending the worst aspects of communism, MMT might deliver them. It would all depend on other elements of how we change the way we do business, e.g. how we educate our young, other money-types we introduce (see Bernard Lietaer), lowering the working week while changing the nature of waged-labour, and whether MMT can be effective alongside a drive to consume more sensibly and sustainably.

The money controlled by MMT, namely the fiat currency of the sovereign, would still be a scarcity-based tool, so having more would be better than having less. Consequently, it would pool to the rich over time, and the rich, via lobbyists and other techniques, would of course attempt to bring their influence to bear on government to favour their chances of staying rich. But, in a situation where the government is skilled at spending money into existence, the rich have no real leverage. Money creation is owned by the sovereign, which no longer has to borrow from the rich and powerful. Therefore, redistributive taxes aimed at inhibiting the process of social stratification that so bedevils countries like the US and UK, would be far easier to deploy. This is a Good Thing. This element of MMT alone (freeing the sovereign from the money lenders) may be enough to reshape our attitudes to monetary wealth culturally, and this change may be sufficient to make government a better shepherd of the economy, and more resistant to money-based corruption.

However, could we lurch from a Market run world to a State run world? I fear this is a possibility, though of course I cannot prove it one way or the other. The current paradigm asserts that Markets, via the Invisible Hand and arbitrary, almost blind money-processes, do what’s best for us in the end. This paradigm is under severe attack on many fronts. Books are available aplenty which pick apart this idea and expose it for the empty, though manipulated platitude it is. Those who call for less regulation/intervention need to address the underlying assumptions of how markets work (perfect knowledge and rational market participants) in order to appreciate what it means to rely entirely on the blind wisdom of The Market. However, government is also incapable of perfection, though it is foolish to demand perfection of any system.

In the final analysis we need to guard against over-dependence on any one component of society, and develop instead a far less centralized, networked and redundantly laid out set of interdependent, competing (though complementary) components. I recommend Bernard Lietaer’s talk for more on this. Right now my initial basket of components looks like this:

1: One global currency which must be used for international trade and has a demurrage of maybe 5%.

2: National fiat currencies deployed by sovereigns along MMT lines, for taxation and general economic activity; money as economic lubricant.

3: Many local currencies, or alternative currencies to compete with the sovereign’s currency, but supported by the sovereign.

4: Technological unemployment must be embraced as part of the 100% employment push (unintuitive as that sounds at first hearing), while things like education, societal health, beating crime, and living within the limits of the ecosystem must be prioritized.

MMT is but one component of many, but a very important first step out of our current self-imposed dilemma. A path away from material acquisition as society’s primary locomotion must, I feel, be pursued in conjunction with MMT’s deployment, alongside that of the competing/complementary monies touched upon above.

All in all I would characterize MMT as a very welcome breath of fresh air to economics, one which has the potential to pull us out of our self-imposed, debt-based dilemma and off in a far different, far healthier direction. Spread the word!


Rupe0705rtJ_Brobst said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Greg said...

Hey Toby,

Welcome to the MMT community. I found it in September and havent gone a day without checking out Bills, Warrens or the UMKC blog site. Fascinating stuff.
Good to se ol Tom Hickey commenting over here. He is someone who will add a lot. He frequents Warrens and Bills sites as well.

I just want to comment on something you said in your first post on MMT. It was fairly innocuous and probably seemed unassailable you said......."Money is not wealth"
Money is wealth if not in the form of a credit. With cash money I can acquire that amounts worth of stuff. I have a certain percentage of the claims to goods.
I have heard this a lot though and until recently have never questioned it. You talked about going back and dropping a trillion dollars on the cavemen and how useless that would be. So would dropping four tons of gold on them. They might be enamored by the color/shine but it would not be wealth to them. So would dropping a completed highway system on them. Maybe a more accurate phrase would be "high price is not wealth" I thought of this when talking to a buddy at work about the stock market. Trying to convince him he's not wealthy because the Dow is up. I simply told him that the price was high. I could put a price of 1,000,000 on my house but it would not make me wealthy. We too often get price and value mixed up and they are driven by different things.

Great site here Ill be coming back

Toby said...

Thanks for stopping by Greg,

my take is that money is a representation of wealth, not wealth itself, regardless of what form that money takes. It only has utility value when there are all sorts of other things in place to make it useful, like an agreement that it is a medium of exchange, the infrastructure necessary for economic activity, and a healthy ecosystem capable of supporting economic activity, plus — and this might seem weird — the need, because of the presumption of scarcity, to have a medium of exchange in the first place (there have been exceptions to this in human history). I further believe that nothing has intrinsic value, and that applies to gold too. So yes, bridges and highways dumped on cavemen would likewise have no value. All such things require other conditions to be in place for them to have value. All in all I don't believe there is such a thing as intrinsic value, ever, and believing there is, as economics seems to do, leads to erroneous positions deeper in one's theory.

Nice to have you here.


Debra said...

Some comments on your piece, Toby.
I remember reading the somewhat cynical hype in our junior high textbooks about the fact that the Indians VALUED glass beads more than the gold that the Europeans were ready to kill for during colonization.
What was neglected was that... the glass beads were from Murano, where glass blowing has been an art for centuries now, and persists..
Wealth=money in a fiat economy ?
Wealth is OBJECTIVELY MEASURED through money in OUR industrial economy. Fiat or not is incidental. The issue of fiat is elsewhere.
But... the question is... can ALL wealth be objectively measured through money, or is there wealth that cannot be reduced to quantification, and thus measured ?
And money ? Do we.. BELIEVE in it ? The idea behind fiat money IS that we believe... WHAT do we believe in ? Do we believe in THE MONEY, or do we TRUST the person/entity who is issuing it, and WHAT ARE WE BASING OUR TRUST ON ?
A big question, Toby...
Look at the MATERIALIZED fiat money that we exchange when we don't resort to a credit card.
ON IT YOU WILL SEE (in the U.S....) "In God we trust"....
That little saying is there for a reason.
Because, when we resort to FIAT, we need a symbolic GARANT. Somebody (?) who will guarantee our trust. That is the symbolic PURPOSE of "In God we trust" on our currency.
The PHYSICAL currency materializes money in a way that the current debt debacle DOES NOT, and this is a problem. We NEED our money materialized in order for it to... BE WORTH something to us, and for it to HAVE VALUE, and MEAN something for us.
I see at work in some of these assumptions the idea that economic activity, and creation of wealth can ONLY be finite, and not infinite. Think assumptions of abundance, not penury.
Again, this depends on our definition of wealth.
There is no need to diabolize credit, I think, and certainly no need to assert that ONLY the government should be creating money. That is giving too much power to the government, and I think that government's OTHER mandates in our minds (security...) INEVITABLY make it a repressive instance.

Debra said...

For the Bill Mitchell quotes...
I'm not sure I'm understanding Bill correctly, but.. IF I AM..
Bill seems to be implying that government debt is NOT THE SAME THING, or does not have the same nature as individual debt. Logical. The government is NOT an individual, is it ?
But Bill is indulging in the wishful thinking of lots of people of a scientific bent who look at the world and distractedly brush away that thorny problem of HUMAN NATURE, AND PSYCHOLOGY as a variable that irritates them, and that they wish would just go away. Bill seems to me to be VERY DISCONNECTED from what makes us tick here...
No, the government is NOT an individual, and government debt should not be treated like individual debt, BUT...
WHY then, are we ASSUMING that the economic "laws" (?!!!) that apply to private sector debt must also apply to public sector ?
We are assuming it because... we have bankrupted the government's legitimacy IN OUR OWN EYES in the ultimate, logical, conclusion of (neo)liberal ideology : the be-all and end-all is the INDIVIDUAL.
The logical end of the (neo)liberal ideology is an ungovernable atomization of individuals outside of ANY collective that federates them.
We have shifted our allegiance, and OUR perception of where power and legitimacy are, from our (public) national governments to multinational PRIVATE companies. By bottoming out taxation in our minds, we have delegitamized and discredited our national governments. And made THEM our taskmaskers instead of US, their citizenry...
So... we are THERE, right now, my friends, and it is NO coincidence whatsoever that fiat money is in a bad way. Because... trust LINKS us to other individuals, in the collective, IN SOCIETY.
On our consumerist society... we are not consuming as much as we are TOLD we are consuming.
But... we sure as hell are WASTING a lot.
One last point that we need to take out, and look at :
The role of gratuity in our society.
It is VERY important.
What REMAINS OUTSIDE monetary exchange, but nevertheless keeps the system (society) afloat.
Let's try to avoid the folly of measuring it...

Toby said...

I don't believe that money=wealth, only that it was useful in the discussion to hold that equation for a few moments. All money is fiat, in my opinion, whether paper or gold or beads or tally sticks etc. Nothing has intrinsic value, as I have argued elsewhere. It's all about consensus in the end, which tends to come at a high price, probably proportional to the number of people who have to sign up to it. To bring the population of the world to a new consensus will mostly likely take an almighty amount of bloodshed. Hence MMT. It's just a whisker away from where we are now, though at quite a distance when viewed culturally.

Bill Mitchell's observations about gov as distinct from persons are functional within the system. As the creator of the currency, gov does not have to "go into debt" to create lubrication for the economy when it sees fit. Money is a lubricant, not a store of value. Debt becomes a tool for controlling interest rates, not a cast iron necessity. That gov is populated with humans is a very important point, one I repeatedly make when discussing corruption, but the advantage of MMT is the freeing of gov from the lobbying power of credit institutions and other money interests. This gives gov a better chance to operate in a less corrupt and hopefully wiser manner. It certainly can't get much worse than now!

MMT does not seek to demonize credit, only to set it on a different level of the economic system (see diagram). I am only against a credit-only or debt-only money, because such can only be a ponzi-like system doomed to catastrophic failure. Again, all money is fiat. There is no intrinsic value. It's all in the way we bring money into existence, and then how we run the economy.

As to wealth, in my view we need a global debate about that, and about value, as important underpinnings of human life. And yes, we cannot measure everything, far from it. I hope for a situation/system though, in which we can talk about and inspire a desire for the growth of profits in trust, literacy, societal and ecological health etc., and not just monetary profits. The value of monetary profits rest entirely on the health of those less material things. Otherwise it's just so many numbers swirling around so much suffering.