Over the years it’s been clear to me that we live in a fictional world when it comes to economic matters. The mainstream has created this world that bears little relationship to reality and which serves the interests of a few at the expense of the majority. But the way in which this fiction is inculcated in the framing and language of our public debates leads the majority to think that the conduct of economic policy is somehow in their best interests, even if, at times, governments claim we have to swallow a bitter pill in order to get well again. The bitter pill always punishes the lower to middle-income groups, rarely the top-end-of-town. The fiction is so deeply ingrained that even progressive political campaigns are framed within it. I have railed against that all my career because I cannot align a belief that democratic choice requires accurate information with the reality that we make these choices in a fog of fiction. I have always considered the role of the progressive forces in politics, as a matter of priority, should be to be the agents of education, so that these democratic choices reflect our realities. I have never supported so-called ‘progressive’ parties that choose, for ‘political’ purposes, to lie to the electorates by adopting neoliberal framing and language as a way of minimising any difficulties that might arise, initially, from the dissonance that accompanies exposure to the truth, after years of believing in lies. It seems that the British Labour Party continues to promote a false narrative to support and otherwise stellar plan for national renewal. But, as history tells us, a plan built on false financial foundations, falters when circumstances change and the false foundations become the issue rather than the plan.
One of the stark facts about the academic economics discipline is its insularity and capacity to deliver influential prognoses on issues that affect the well-being of millions with scant regard to the actual consequences of their opinions and with little attention to what other social scientists have to say. The mainstream economists continually get things wrong but take no responsibility for the damage they cause to the well-being of the people. A 2015 paper – The Superiority of Economists – published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (Vol 29, No. 1) by Marion Fourcade, Etienne Ollion and Yann Algan is scathing in its assessment of the economics discipline. They say that mainstream economists largely ignore contributions by other social scientists and consider them inferior in technological sophistication, have a “predilection for methodological and theoretical precision over real-world accuracy”, largely ignore”the basic premise of much of the human sciences, namely that social processes shape individual preferences”, and parade an arrogance and superiority that masks the sterility of their analysis. In this context, I thought the 2015 Report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – Sociological perspectives poverty – was a breath of fresh air in its approach to understanding poverty. The empirical base it presents refutes most of the major assumptions and conclusions of economists who work in the field of poverty. A mainstream professor who was supervising my economics graduate program once said to me: “Bill you are a bright boy but you should be doing sociology”, which was an example of the negative control mechanism designed to weed out dissidents (like me). It didn’t work. But I always considered the disciplines of sociology and anthropology (not to mention psychology, political science, social welfare etc) to be important in my journey to become ‘well read’. Most economists, however, do not think that. Perhaps that is why I was able to be part of the development of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).
This is Part 2 (and final part) of my series on printing money, debt and power. The two-part series is designed to draw a line through all the misconceptions and errors that abound on the Internet about the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) treats deficit spending and bond issuance. The social media debate about MMT is at time nonsensical, thriving on falsehoods and fantasy. I get many E-mails after some robust Twitter exchange between some self-proclaimed expert who has found the latest fatal flaw in our work. Often these characters have just stumbled across MMT for the first time and, full of dissonance, wade into the discussion without thinking for a moment that we have been working on this Project for 25 or more years and, just may have, come across these points before. In other cases, the critics just make stuff up to make themselves sound erudite. In the process, well motivated readers get confused. In the first part I dealt with the ‘money printing’ story about MMT. Today I want to discuss the issue of bond issuance and whether MMT economists are Wall Street stooges who want to perpetuate the interests of the financial sector over all else. Seriously!
There are continual Twitter type debates and Op Ed/Blog-type articles going on about whether MMT says this, or that, or something else. The critics are refining their attacks by hammering on about “printing money” and hyperinflation, and, more recently that MMT ignores ‘power’ (whatever that is). The latter leads them to conclude that MMT is thus a naive approach and is inapplicable to a political agenda aiming at changing things for the better. These debates (if you can call them that) are also a very American-centric sort of to and fro, which exemplifies the tendency of the US to think the world and all ideas stop at its borders. In this two-part series, I seek to clarify some of the points that are raised (not for the first time) (-:, which, in turn, demonstrates how poorly constructed these attacks. I know it is often said that attackers haven’t read the literature. But in these situations it is a fact. In part 2 tomorrow, I will also touch on why I think some MMTers are becoming defensive in the wake of these attacks. So, in Part 1 I consider the ‘money printing’ story. Specifically, is MMT just about ‘printing money’? The answer is obvious – profoundly no, but we need to understand where these types of allegations come from (which swamp!).
In Monte Python’s Life of Brian we were introduced to the “People’s Front of Judea”, which was “one of many fractious and bickering independence movements, who spend more time fighting each other than the Romans”. The segments featuring the Front were very amusing. It was humour but redolent of the sort of historical struggles that have divided the Left over the centuries. In Australia, the history of the Communist Party, for example, is one of many factions, splintering into new parties and leaderships after disputes about Bolshevism, then the Communist International and Stalinism, then the so-called “imperialist” war by the Allies against Nazism, then Krushchev’s revelations about the crimes of Stalin, then the Soviet invasion of Hungary, then the split between the Soviet Union and China and the rise of Mao, then the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and so on. This sort of division is mirrored around the world on the Left side of politics and struggle. I have been reminded of this history in recent weeks as the ‘war’ against Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has been ramped up from so-called progressives. However, this ‘war’ seems different to the sort of internicine struggles that have historically bedevilled the Left. We now have all manner of strategies emerging, ranging from classic Association fallacies to ridiculous claims that MMTers perpetuate ‘anti semitic tropes’, and on to plain invention, a.k.a. straight out fabrications or lying. There is no real attempt to embrace the body of work we have created over the last 25 years. Quite the opposite – the ‘critics’ haven’t an original thing to say about the substance of MMT. They have instead decided to smear us with increasingly hysterical assertions. Which raises the interesting question for me – what is driving this aberrant behaviour? Fear, a sense of irrelevance, jealousy, Brexit, spite, … what? I have conjectures but no real answers.
This is Part 2 (and final) in my discussion about what the financial markets might learn from gaining a Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) understanding. I noted in Part 1 – that the motivation in writing this series was the increased interest being shown by some of the large financial sector entities (investment banks, sovereign funds, etc) in MMT, which is manifesting in the growing speaking invitations I am receiving. This development tells me that our work is gaining traction despite the visceral, knee-jerk attacks from the populist academic type economists (Krugman, Summers, Rogoff, and all the rest that have jumped on their bandwagon) who are trying to save their reputations as their message becomes increasingly vapid. While accepting these invitations raises issues about motivation – they want to make money, I want to educate – these groups are influential in a number of ways. They help to set the pattern of investment (both in real and financial terms), they hire graduates and can thus influence the type of standards deemed acceptable, and they influence government policy. Through education one hopes that these influences help turn the tide away from narrow ‘Gordon Gekko’ type behaviour towards advancing a dialogue and policy structure that improves general well-being. I also hope that it will further create dissonance in the academic sphere to highlight the poverty (fake knowledge) of the mainstream macroeconomic orthodoxy.
At the event in Edinburgh recently, I was asked a question about polling. The question was along the lines of: if the Scottish people had overwhelmingly voted in the June 2016 referendum to Remain in the EU (62 per cent of the 67.2 per cent of eligible voters who voted) then why should the activists seeking independence not endorse joining the EU. Apart from the obvious reasons relating to the concept ‘independence’ and wanting to avoid membership of a neoliberal cabal, I replied by noting that if we conducted a poll about whether people thought taxes funded government spending, then we would find a much larger percentage agreeing with that proposition that the proportion that voted to remain in the 2016 Referendum. I then asked the audience: Would you consider that outcome legitimate or a symptom of a lack of education? The point is obvious. Polls play on ignorance as much as anything. The question of campaigning and polls also came up during the recent Australian federal election, where despite millions being spent on targetted advertising and activism, the results turned out very different to those expected and in most cases the dollars spent were largely ineffective (although note below). Further, there is a growing number of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) groups forming around the world aiming to self-educate and push the public debate away from the mainstream economic narrative. The question that arises in each of these instances is how to actually push a new paradigm, a new way of thinking about concepts that permeate the very basis of our daily existence and have been ingrained in our perception in a particular way that this new way contests. That is no easy task. I have been doing some research and will report on the results in a series of blog posts starting today.
The European Parliament elections start today and finish at the weekend (May 23-26). The Europe Elects site provides updated information about the opinion polls and seat projections, although given the disastrous showing of the polls in last Saturday’s Australian federal election, one should not take the polling results too seriously. But it is clear that there is an upsurge in the so-called populist parties of the Right at the expense of the traditional core political movements (centre-right and centre-left). It is also easy to dismiss this as a revival of ‘nationalism’ based around concepts of ethnicity and exclusivity and dismiss the legitimacy of these movements along those lines. However, that strategy is failing because the ‘populist’ parties have become more sophisticated and extended their remit to appeal more broadly and make it difficult to relate them to fascist ideologies. The fact that the progressive (particularly Europhile variety) continue to invoke the pejorative ‘nationalist’ whenever anyone begs to differ on Europe and question why they would support a cabal which has embedded neoliberalism and corporatism in its very legal existence (the Treaties) is testament to why the traditional Left parties are showing up so badly in the polls these days. The British Labour Party, for example, should be light years ahead of the Tories, given how appalling the latter have become. But they are not a certainty if a general election was called and the reason is they have not understood the anxieties of the British people and too many of their politicians are happy to dismiss dissent as being motivated by racism. The Brexit outcome so far is a good case study in that folly.
I appeared on the ABC radio program – The Economists – today (April 25, 2019). The topic of today’s shows is – Debt, deficits and good housekeeping: what’s the fuss about?. The presenters talked among themselves for about 10 minutes and then brought me on for an additional 20 minutes to provide more commentary and detail. Australian listeners can listen to the repeat program on Radio National at 13:30 on Friday. Overleaf I provide details of how anyone can access the program audio. Given the topic, it starts off with a great 8-second snippet from AC-DC (a great band).
In a few weeks I am off to Britain again to participate in a series of events. Two of these events will be in Scotland where we (Warren and I) will discuss, as outsiders, issues pertaining to the monetary arrangements that might accompany a move to Scottish independence. It is a controversial issue in itself, but, unfortunately, is also intertwined with the vexed issue of EU membership. And the complication then becomes that progressives, who might otherwise be attracted to the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) way of understanding the monetary system, also exhibit the standard misconstrued Europhile view that the EU, neoliberal though it is, can be reformed and that an independent Scotland should be part of that mess. And, in doing so, they then take problematic positions on the currency question. So a sort of ‘nest of vipers’ sort of situation, from the Aesop’s fable – The Farmer and the Viper. As in the Fable, the Europhiles embrace of the EU will always pay them back in grief. Anyway, while I am always cautious discussing the pro and con of situations where I have no direct material stake and a less than full understanding of specific cultural and historical influences that are at work, the Scottish question is interesting and demonstrates many of points that nations should be cogniscant of when discussing monetary sovereignty. And besides I have to get up in Edinburgh and Glasgow in a few weeks so as a researcher I am trained to be prepared and seek the best understanding that I can of the complexity of the situation. I will be writing a few posts on the Scottish issue as I prepare for that speaking tour.