MMT As An ECB Alternative – OpEd
I have just returned from Rimini, Italy, where I experienced one of the most amazing spectacles of my academic life. Four of us associated with the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC) were invited to lecture for three days on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and explain why Europe is in such monetary trouble today – and to show that there is an alternative, that the enforced austerity for the 99% and vast wealth grab by the 1% is not a force of nature.
Stephanie Kelton (incoming UMKC Economics Dept. chair and editor of its economic blog, New Economic Perspectives), criminologist and law professor Bill Black, investment banker Marshall Auerback and myself (along with a French economist, Alain Parquez) stepped into the basketball auditorium on Friday night. We walked down, and down, and further down the central aisle, past a packed audience reported as over 2,100. It was like entering the Oscars as People called out our first names. Some told us they had read all of our economics blogs. Stephanie joked that now she knew how The Beatles felt. There was prolonged applause – all for an intellectual rather than a physical sporting event.
With one difference, of course: Our adversaries were not there. There was much press, but the prevailing Euro-technocrats (the bank lobbyists who determine European economic policy) hoped that the less discussion of possible alternatives to austerity, the easier it would be to force their brutal financial grab through.
All the audience members had contributed to raise the funds to fly us over from the United States (and from France for Alain), and treat us to Federico Fellini’s Grand Hotel on the Rimini beach. The conference was organized by reporter Paolo Barnard, who had studied MMT with Randall Wray and realized that there was plenty of demand in Italian mass culture for a discussion of what actually was determining the living conditions of Europe – and the emerging financial elite that hopes to use this crisis as an opportunity to become the new financial lords carving out fiefdoms by privatizing the public domain being sold off by governments that have no central bank to finance their deficits, and are tragically beholden to bondholders and to Eurocrats drawn from the neoliberal camp.
Paolo and his enormous support staff of translators and interns provided an opportunity to hear an approach to monetary and tax theory and policy that until recently was almost unheard of in the United States. Just one week earlier the Washington Post published a review of MMT, followed by a long discussion in the Financial Times. But the theory remains grounded primarily at the UMKC’s economics department and the Levy Institute at Bard College, with which most of us are associated.
The basic thrust of our argument is that just as commercial banks create credit electronically on their computer keyboards (creating a bank account credit for borrowers in exchange for their signing an IOU at interest), governments can create money. There is no need to borrow from banks, as computer keyboards provide nearly free credit creation to finance spending.
The difference, of course, is that governments spend money (at least in principle) to promote long-term growth and employment, to invest in public infrastructure, research and development, provide health care and other basic economic functions. Banks have a more short-term time frame. They lend credit against collateral in place. Some 80% of bank loans are mortgages against real estate. Other loans are made to finance leveraged buyouts and corporate takeovers. But most new fixed capital investment by corporations is financed out of retained earnings.
Unfortunately, the flow of earnings is now being diverted increasingly to the financial sector – not only to pay interest and penalties to banks, but for stock buybacks intended to support stock prices and hence the value of stock options that managers of today’s financialized companies give themselves. As for the stock market – which textbook diagrams still depict as raising money for new capital investment – it has been turned into a vehicle to buy out companies on credit (e.g., with high interest junk bonds) and replace equity with debt. Inasmuch as interest payments are tax-deductible, as if they were a necessary cost of doing business, corporate income-tax payments lowered. And what the tax collector relinquishes is available to be paid out to the bankers and bondholders who get rich by loading the economy down with debt.
Welcome to the post-industrial economy, financialized style. Industrial capitalism has passed into a series of stages of finance capitalism, from the Bubble Economy to the Negative Equity stage, foreclosure time, debt deflation, austerity – and what looks like debt peonage in Europe, above all for the PIIGS: Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. (The Baltic countries of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania already have been plunged so deeply into debt that their populations are emigrating to find work and flee debt-burdened real estate. The same has plagued Iceland since its bank rip-offs collapsed in 2008.)
Why aren’t economists describing this phenomenon? The answer is a combination of political ideology and analytic blinders. As soon as the Rimini conference ended on Sunday evening, for instance, Paul Krugman’s Monday, February 27 New York Times column, What Ails Europe? blamed the euro’s problems simply on the inability of countries to devalue their currencies. He rightly criticized the Republican party line that blames European welfare spending for the Eurozone’s problems, and also criticizing putting the blame on budget deficits.
But he left out of account the straitjacket of the European Central Bank (ECB) unable to monetize the deficits, as a result of junk economics written into the EU constitution.
“If the peripheral nations still had their own currencies, they could and would use devaluation to quickly restore competitiveness. But they don’t, which means that they are in for a long period of mass unemployment and slow, grinding deflation. Their debt crises are mainly a byproduct of this sad prospect, because depressed economies lead to budget deficits and deflation magnifies the burden of debt.”
Depreciation would lower the price of labor while raising the price of imports. The burden of debts denominated in foreign currencies would increase in keeping with the devaluation, thereby creating problems unless the government passed a law re-denominating all debts in domestic currency. This would satisfy the Prime Directive of international financing: always denominated debts in your own currency, as the United States does.
In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt nullified the Gold Clause in U.S. loan contracts, enabling banks and other creditors to be paid in the equivalent gold value. But in his usual neoclassical fashion, Mr. Krugman ignores the debt issue:
“The afflicted nations, in particular, have nothing but bad choices: either they suffer the pains of deflation or they take the drastic step of leaving the euro, which won’t be politically feasible until or unless all else fails (a point Greece seems to be approaching). Germany could help by reversing its own austerity policies and accepting higher inflation, but it won’t.”
But leaving the euro is not sufficient to avert austerity, foreclosure and debt deflation if the nation that withdraws retains the neoliberal policy that plagues the euro. Suppose the post-euro economy has a central bank that still refuses to finance public budget deficits, forcing the government to borrow from commercial banks and bondholders? Suppose the government believes that it should balance the budget rather than provide the economy with spending power to increase its growth?’
Suppose the government slashes public welfare spending, or bails out banks for their losses, or takes losing bank gambles onto the public balance sheet, as Ireland has done? Or for that matter, what if the governments do not write down real estate mortgages and other debts to the debtors’ ability to pay, as Iceland has failed to do? The result will still be debt deflation, forfeiture of property, unemployment – and a rising tide of emigration as the domestic economy and employment opportunities shrink.
So what then is the key? It is to have a central bank that does what central banks were founded to do: monetize government budget deficits so as to spend money into the economy, in a way best intended to promote economic growth and full employment.
This was the MMT message that the five of us were invited to explain to the audience in Rimini. Some attendees came up and explained that they had come all the way from Spain, others from France and cities across Italy. And although we did many press, radio and TV interviews, we were told that the major media were directed to ignore us as not politically correct.
Such is the censorial spirit of neoliberal monetary austerity. Its motto is TINA: There Is No Alternative, and it wants to keep matters this way. As long as it can suppress discussion of how many better alternatives there are, the hope is that the public will remain acquiescent as their living standards shrink and wealth is sucked up to the top of the economic pyramid to the 1%.
The audience requested above all more theory from Stephanie Kelton, who gave the clearest lecture on economics I had ever heard – a Euclidean presentation of MMT logic. For a visual of the magnitude, see Stephanie here.
The attempt to force TINA logic on the population is not working any better than it did in Harvard’s Economics 101 class, from which students recently walked out in protest against the unrealistic parallel universe thinking. Its appeal is mainly to intelligent but ungrounded individuals (not yet post-autistic). They are selected as useful idiots and trained to draw pictures of the economy that exclude analysis of the debt overhead, rentier free lunches and financial parasitism. One needs to be very clever, after all, to imagine a system that “saves the appearances” of an unrealistic Ptolemaic system. Any positive role for government and a real central bank not oppressed under the thumb of private-sector bankers and financial engineers seeking to suck the economic surplus out of nations much as military conquerors did in past centuries.
There is a growing sense that Western civilization itself is at a critical juncture. It must choose between needless austerity or progress – but progress is blocked by the reluctance to write down the debt overhead. So as Prof. Kelton noted, economies face two different types of growth policy. Neoliberal policy promises to help the body politick grow by draining the blood from the body, ostensibly to help it grow more healthy and restore its balance (with all power to the wealthy 1%). The MMT policy is feed the body to help it grow healthy. This requires liberating the brain – the government and policy makers that implement an economic philosophy – from the financial sector’s control.
Now that summary videos have begun to be placed on the web, a Norwegian economist wrote to me:
I do not understand what is new about this:
governments can create money … to promote long-term growth …
What IS new is that somebody finally listens.
There seems to a hunger out there for somebody (with the “right background”) to tell people plain simple common sense.
What MMT teaches today is indeed long-established knowledge and practice. The degree to which its logic has been excluded from the academic curriculum is testament to the neoliberal version of free markets: their policy only works if they can excluded discussion of any alternatives – and indeed, exclude economic history itself.