Should we subsidize college educations?

“According to a national report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (sheeo.org), high school graduates earn an average of almost $30,000 per year. Bachelor’s graduates earn an average of just over $50,000 a year. And those with a higher level degree (master’s, doctorate or professional) average nearly $70,000 per year. This translates to a significant earnings gap over the course of one’s life.” https://www.educationcorner.com/benefit-of-earning-a-college-degree.html “According to the SSA, the average wage in 2017 was $48,251.57.” https://wallethacks.com/average-median-income-in-america/  Moreover, college graduates generally have more interesting and secure jobs.

Who should pay for those advantages? The students themselves, or their families, have often borrowed the money to cover their educational expenses. Currently they owe $1.6 trillion  “Here’s-what-trillion-student-loan-debt-is-doing-US-economy”. Democratic party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proposes to cancel all of it. He would also make all public colleges and community colleges tuition free.

Is that a good idea? Is it fair and does it encourage or enable a better use of our human resources? A proper evaluation requires indicating who would pay for it if not the students themselves. From the above data we see that college graduates make a lot more than everyone else on average—almost double the income of high school graduates.

If the $1.6 trillion in education debt is cancelled, the burden of repaying it (most of it was lent by banks, often guaranteed by the government) will be shifted from the better off (students who will receive higher incomes in the future because of their college educations) to tax payers. Total tax collections by the federal government in 2018 were $3.3 trillion, half of which was income tax, 35% was payroll tax (social security) and only 6% was corporate income tax.  https://www.pgpf.org/budget-basics/who-pays-taxes

Senator Sanders says he will cancel all student debt within six months. Does he plan to cut spending on other programs by $1.6 trillion, a 36% cut, or to increase taxes by $1.6 trillion (the deficit for FY 2019 is already forecast to be $0.9 trillion), or some mix of these?  According to Charles Lane: “Sanders and other left-leaning Democrats promise to pay for tuition-free college and Medicare-for-all with higher taxes on the top 1 percent of earners. Most Nordic countries, by contrast, have zero estate tax. They fund generous programs with the help of value-added taxes that heavily affect middle-class consumers…. The Nordic countries tried direct wealth taxes such as the one that figures prominently in the plans of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); all but Norway abandoned them because of widespread implementation problems.”   “Democrats-use-Nordic-nations-as-models-of-socialism”

The Tax Policy Center “estimates that 69 percent of taxes collected for 2019 will come from those in the top quintile, or those earning an income above $157,900 annually. Within this group, the top one percent of income earners — those earning more than $783,300 in income per year — will contribute over a quarter of all federal revenues collected.”  Can we and should we try to squeeze even more out of them?

The effective federal tax rate for the top 1% income earners in 2018 was 29.6%, compared to 12.1% for the middle quartile of income earners and 2.9% for the bottom quartile (almost none of which was income tax). It is not obvious where the burden of this gift to the prospectively better off college grads will fall. But it seems to involve a lot of income transfers, which seem to sound nice to our new “socialists.”

 

Posted in Government, taxes, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Sources of Prosperity

I am an economist so I can’t help writing about the virtues of trade in the (futile?) hope that what is obvious to economists might be better understood and appreciated by the general public. https://wcoats.blog/2016/12/22/save-trade/https://wcoats.blog/2017/01/06/the-liberal-international-order/,   https://wcoats.blog/2018/03/03/econ-101-trade-in-very-simple-terms/, https://wcoats.blog/2017/01/06/the-liberal-international-order/, https://wcoats.blog/2019/02/09/tariff-abuse/

So please bear with me one more time. If you join with ten, or a hundred, or a thousand others to cooperatively produce things, you can jointly produce much more than ten times, or one hundred or one thousand times as much as you could all produce individually as one person factories. But that huge increase in productivity and output is not possible unless you can sell your joint output to others for the many other things you need and want to consume that they produce. In short, none of this is possible without trade. The wider the area over which we can trade the greater are the possible gains in productivity from the specialization of labor and capital that a larger market makes possible. The American constitution recognized this when it prohibited restraints on trade between the states (across state lines).  The ultimate limit in the size of the market is given by the world itself.

But markets—the “places” or the arrangements through which trade deals (purchase and sales agreements) occur—require trust that deals will be honored.  The rule of law, which protects private property and the enforcement of contracts, provides the certainty needed for a manufacturer or other service provider to invest in the productive capacity and facilities needed to generate the promised supply of products that is the foundation of our relative affluence. When trade extends beyond national boundaries the rule of law takes the form of international agreements to rules of the game.  Bilateral, multilateral and global trade agreements establish the rule of law within their domains.  The World Trade Organization (WTO) was created to oversee this process. The astonishing skyrocketing of the standard of living of the average (even the poorest) earthling rest on, i.e. would not have been possible without, trade.

The uneven but persistent history of trade has seen the protection of less efficient and uncompetitive firms and industries reduced over time via trade agreements that reciprocally reduced the taxation of imports (i.e. tariffs).  Starting with President Trump’s misguided withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade liberalization has been thrown into reverse. Trump vs Adam Smith  TPP modernized and further liberalized existing trade agreements between the U.S. and a number of Pacific countries.  The agreement was to be between 12 Asian Pacific countries until the U.S. withdrew.  It would have provided a strong magnet to further draw China into the global system of rules for increasingly free trade. It was ultimately signed by 11 countries without the U.S. and renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The US withdrawal from the agreement was a serious mistake.

The United States as well as much of the rest of the world is beginning to pay the costs of Trump’s trade wars. In January of this year Deutsche Bank estimated that Trump’s trade wars have cost the U.S. stock market $5 trillion in forgone returns so far. Costs of trade war  “Bloomberg economists Dan Hanson and Tom Orlik have… concluded: If tariffs expand to cover all U.S.-China trade, and markets slump in response, global GDP will take a $600 billion hit in 2021, the year of peak impact.” US China trade war-economic fallout  “The import tariffs proposed by President Trump could wipe out the income gains provided by the Republican tax cuts for low- and middle-income earners, Jim Tankersley of The New York Times reported Monday.”  ”Trump-Tariffs-Could-Wipe-Out-Tax-Cuts-Most-Americans”

Are Trump’s import taxes old fashioned protectionism (protecting relatively inefficient domestic industries from foreign competition), a legitimate response to national security concerns, or a reflection of Trump’s “famed” negotiating style?

Protectionism

For starters Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs of 25% and 10% respectively (following his earlier imposition of tariffs on solar panels of 30% and washing machines of 50%) are clearly protectionist and reflect an alarming over reach of executive authority. Using the “authority” given the President under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, U.S. Department of Commerce found that imports of steel and aluminum “threaten to impair the national security” of the United States.  Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the claim that reliance on Canadian steel could be considered a national security risk “absurd”.  Trump removed these tariffs on Canada and Mexico last month, but they remain in effect on our other friends (e.g., EU) and enemies. On several occasions Trump has threatened to raise tariffs on car’s imported from Europe on the same phony national security grounds.

The patters of trade that minimize costs of production and maximize labor productivity can be complex. While protecting a few inefficient American steel producers and their related jobs might be good for those few firms, it is bad for American consumers and the economy at large. Workers in less productive protected industries are thus not available to work in more productive activities. Moreover, more jobs were lost than saved as the result of high prices and lost sales by steel importing manufactures.  One study estimated that these tariffs could result in the loss of 146,000 jobs.[1]

Peterson Institute for International Economics study estimated that American businesses and consumers paid more than $900,000 a year for each job that was created or saved as a result of the Trump administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum. The cost for each job saved as a result of the administration’s tariffs on washing machines was $815,000.[2]

National Security

The distinction between legitimate security concerns and protectionism is not always obvious. Trump’s approach is often more protectionist and bargaining chips than concerns for security.  An early indication of this was the U.S.’s treatment of ZTE Corp, China’s second largest telecoms gear maker.  In April 2018 the U.S. band U.S. companies from selling their products to ZTE in connection with its violation on U.S. restrictions on trade with Iran, Sudan, North Korea, Syria and Cuba.  “That means no Qualcomm chips or Android software for its phones, and no American chips or other components for its cellular gear.” NYT The company was effectively shut down and heading for bankruptcy when in early June of 2018 Trump ordered these restrictions lifted to save Chinese jobs!!  According to the NYT: “The Trump administration is pressuring China to make trade concessions. It may also need Beijing’s help to strike a deal with North Korea as Washington and Pyongyang plan a high-profile meeting on June 12 in Singapore.  Mr. Trump appears to be using ZTE’s punishment as a bargaining chip in negotiations with China, rather than a matter of law enforcement.” What is ZTE–A Chinese Geopolitical Pawn

Trump’s more recent banishment of Huawei, a Chinese tech company leading the world in 5G development, from the American market and efforts to convinces our once British and EU friends to do the same provides another example. In some applications security concerns when dealing with a Chinese company may be justified, but these areas are limited and Huawei has gone to great lengths to allay those concerns. “Google has been arguing that by stopping it from dealing with Huawei, the US risks creating two kinds of Android operating system: the genuine version and a hybrid one. The hybrid one is likely to have more bugs in it than the Google one, and so could put Huawei phones more at risk of being hacked, not least by China.”  “Google warns of US national security risk of Huawei ban” FT June 6, 2019

The Trump administration has expressed its anger with the refusal of many other countries to follow its lead thus incurring a diplomatic cost as well as the economic one of restricting access to the best and/or most cost-effective products. The dangers and potential damage of using trade threats for other objections are clearly express by seven former US Ambassadors to Mexico in a joint letter published June 5: Ex US Mexico Ambassadors-Tariffs would destroy partnership we built

Moreover, the US’s exploitation of the importance of the dollar as a reserve and payment currency in forcing its political agenda on the rest of the world has incentivized the EU, Russian, China and others to look for alternatives. As another example of the growing risks of relying on American markets, Alibaba, China’s national champion internet giant whose share are currently only listed on the New York Stock Exchange, will raise its next round of capital on the Hong Kong exchange.

Bargaining

But some of Trump’s threats of tariffs no doubt reflect his approach to a trade negotiation. While it is not the usual approach to a trade negotiation, in which the parties should be looking for win-win reductions in tariffs and other impediments to freer trade, it could occasionally work to achieve greater concessions from the other side than otherwise. There is really little evidence that it has, however. The renegotiated NAFTA, given the new name United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement or USMCA, is no better than a normal review and updating of the existing NAFTA would have been expected to produce. It incorporates most of the updated provisions of the TPP, as was expected. But Trump started the NAFT review and update, by tearing up the old agreement and threatening to revert to the bad old days. Trump’s threated 5% tariff on imports from Mexico if it doesn’t do more to reduce or deal with the flow of refugees across the US Mexican border seems to be a counter example of a threat that worked.

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Donald J. Trump‏Verified account @realDonaldTrump

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On June 10th, the United States will impose a 5% Tariff on all goods coming into our Country from Mexico, until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP. The Tariff will gradually increase until the Illegal Immigration problem is remedied,..

4:30 PM – 30 May 2019

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What if Trump doesn’t back down as China matches each of Trump’s escalations with new tariff increases of their own? Such a true trade war was not a necessary approach to the negotiations and could be terribly detrimental to both economies as well as those of our trading partners. Some of China’s behavior should be challenged. Its theft of intellectual property, state aid to some of its companies, and restrictions on foreign companies operating in China violate the spirit of the competitive deployment of resources to their most productive uses. But these criticisms are shared by most other countries (UK, EU, Japan, Korea, India, etc.). The US should negotiate with China together with these allies. It should use and strengthen the mechanisms of the World Trade Organization rather than ignoring and weakening it.

Even if Trump does backdown, as he generally has in the past, considerable damage has already been done that could take years to undo. The development of the cost saving, productivity enhancing global supply chains took time and were built with confidence in the rules that would apply—the rule of law. These very much included the maximum taxes (tariffs) and other regulations that would apply. The trust in that framework of rules has now been badly damaged.

Supply chains are already being restructured to reduce the risks of US policy shifts. While new arrangements may avoid or reduce these risks, they do so at the cost of efficiency.  Refusing to buy Russian booster rockets or Chinese semiconductors because of concerns that the Chinese or Russian government might exploit their companies’ products militarily or to steal our trade secrets, forces us into more expensive and/or inferior products and thus keeps us and the world poorer than otherwise. We had better be sure that the costs are necessary.

[1]  Timmons, Heather (March 5, 2018). “Five US jobs will be lost for every new one created by Trump’s steel tariffs”Quartz (publication).

[2] Long, Heather (2019). “Trump’s steel tariffs cost U.S. consumers $900,000 for every job created, experts say”The Washington Post.

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Oslo: the Play

IMG_2150Yessar Arafat and Warren Coats in the PLO office in Gaza in February 1996.

Last night I saw the Round House Theater’s magnificent production of Oslo, the story of the secret meetings in Norway that led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority.  It was a moving (heart wrenching) and balanced recounting of how these meetings achieved agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization on “land for peace” as it was called at the time after many years of failed official negotiations. I urge you to see it.

We heard the PLO negotiators lay out the Israeli theft of their homes and killings of their people and we heard the Israeli negotiators lay out the Palestinian attacks on Israelis and on the efforts of Jews to establish and secure an Israeli homeland.  For perspective, since the second intifada (between September 29, 2000 and January 31, 2018) at least 9,560 Palestinians have been killed by Israelis and 1,248 Israelis have been killed by Palestinians.  “The View from the West Bank”

The play focused on the unusual approach of these negotiations, which built on the development of trust and respect between the opposing negotiators and the agreement on achievable steps one step at a time. Between their long negotiating sessions in an isolated room near Oslo, they dinned, drank and bonded together. Unfortunately, the play fails to provide us with an overview of the resulting agreement, which applied the same step by step confidence building approach to the incremental establishment of a Palestinian government (the Palestinian Authority) and withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank and Gaza. The PA was given governance authority for a limited number of functions in order—step by step—to build both institutional capacity and trust.

One of those functions was the establishment of the monetary authority (central bank). I led the IMF team that helped establish the Palestinian Monetary Authority and have many stories to tell of my many visits to Israel and the West Bank and Gaza in 1995-6 plus a number of visits in later years (most recently in December, 2011).

The PMA has developed into a well-run organization of which Palestinians (and those Israelis who see a successful Palestine government as important and necessary for their own security) can be proud.  It helped a great deal that the Bank of Israel and PMA developed good relations. Stanley Fischer was the governor of the BoI from 2005-13 and George Abed was governor of the PMA from 2005-7. They had both previously been colleagues at the IMF. “Jerusalem in August 2006”

It is with a broken heart that I watch Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with help from American President Donald Trump, increasingly abandon the two state solution of the Oslo Agreement for an apartheid single state regime in which “democratic” Jewish control is preserved by denying what would become the majority Palestinian residents their right to vote. “The Future of Israel and Palestine”

 

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Attorney General Barr’s News Conference

I, and everyone I know, want to know the facts of any collusion between Trump and his associates and Russia. I am confident that the Mueller investigation provides them as well as we could expect. Attorney General Barr’s news conference this morning summarizing that report was clear and transparent. He did an exemplary and impressive job. The complaints from some Democrats on the Hill that Barr should not have held this press conference until after they had read Mueller’s report were unfounded and frankly embarrassing. Please let’s move on.

My assessment of Trump’s administration today, which is what we should be debating, is very mixed. Adjusting and lightening the regulatory burdens that have been holding our economy back is largely good in my view (though each must be judged individually) as are the tax reforms making the system simpler and fairer. While the tax reforms did not go far enough, they were a big improvement over the existing tax law.

Trump’s attitude toward trade and the protection of inefficient American firms is ill informed and damaging to American’s economy as a whole (as opposed to coal and steel producers). His bullying and unilateral approach is clumsy, amateurish, and counterproductive. The EU, Canada, Japan and others would be happy to join us in confronting China’s bad trade behavior, if Trump were willing to work together and not busy attacking them as well.

I supported Trump’s campaign promises of restraint in deploying American troops around the world, but he has not delivered. His message to the Senate accompanying his veto of the bill passed by both houses of Congress (54-46 in the Senate and 247-175 in the House) a few weeks ago invoking the War Powers Resolution to end U.S. support of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen reflects a truly shocking affront to our Constitution: “This resolution is an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future.”  The truth is just the opposite. The constitution gives the power to declare war to Congress and the almost blank check congress gave Presidents following 9/11 cannot meaningfully be stretched to include what we are doing in Yemen.

Trump continues to undercut and weaken American leadership in the international organizations and agreements that have contributed so much to post WWII peace and prosperity. This will be increasingly harmful to our and the world’s legitimate interests.

In his spare time, the President thoughtfully advised the French on fighting the fire in Notre Dame. What an embarrassment and fire experts say that his advice was wrong.

Please, let’s fight the real battles and stop wasting time on the phony ones.

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Returning to Currencies with Hard Anchors

Why did the gold standard ultimately fail? What system would overcome those weaknesses? See my: Adam Smith Institute Blog 

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Modern Monetary Theory—A Critique

So called Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has become popular with Green New Dealers because it claims to remove or at least loosen traditional constraints on government spending.  MMT offers unconventional ideas about the origins of money, how money is created today, and the role of fiscal policy in the creation of money. It argues that government can spend more freely by borrowing or printing money than is claimed by conventional monetary theory. “The most provocative claim of the theory is that government deficits don’t matter in themselves for countries—such as the U.S.—that borrow in their own currencies….  The core tenets of MMT, and the closest it gets to a theory, are that the economy and inflation should be managed through fiscal policy, not monetary policy, and that government should put the unemployed to work.” James Mackintosh,  “What  Modern Monetary Theory Gets Right and Wrong’  WSJ April 2, 2019.

In fact, despite its efforts to change how we conceive and view monetary and fiscal policies, MMT abandons market based countercyclical monetary and fiscal policies for targeted central control over the allocation of resources. It would rely on specific interventions to address “road blocks” upon the foundation of a government guaranteed employment program.

MMT is an unsuccessful attempt to convince us that we can finance the Green New Deal and a federal job guarantee painlessly by printing money. But it remains true that shifting our limited resources from the private to the public sector should be judged by whether society is made better off by such shifts.  Printing money does not produce free lunches.

Where does money come from?

It has been almost 50 years since the U.S. dollar (or any other currency for that matter) has been redeemable for gold or any other commodity whose market value thus determined the value of money. It remains true, however, that money’s value depends on its supply given its demand. The supply of money these days reflects the decisions of the Federal Reserve and other central banks.

The traditional story for the fractional reserve banking world we live in is that a central bank issues base or high-powered money (its currency and reserve deposits of banks with the central bank) that is generally given the status of “legal tender.”  You must pay your taxes with this money.  We deposit some of that currency in a bank, which provides the bank with money it can lend. When the bank lends it, it deposits the loan in the borrower’s deposit account with her bank, thus creating more money for the bank to lend.  This famous money multiplier has resulted in a money supply much larger than the base money issued by the central bank. In July 2008, base money (M0) in the United States was $847 billion dollars while the currency component of that plus the public’s demand deposits in banks (M1) was almost twice that — $1,442 billion dollars. Including the public’s time and savings deposits and checkable money market mutual funds (M2) the amount was $7,730 billion.  [I am reporting data from just before the financial crisis in 2008 because after that the Federal Reserve began to pay interest on bank reserve deposits at the Fed in order to encourage them to keep the funds at the Fed rather than lending them and thus multiplying deposits. This greatly increased and distorted the ratio of base money to total money, i.e. reduced the multiplier. In October 2015 at the peak of base money M0 = $4,060 billion, of which only $1,322 billion was currency in circulation.]

The neo Chartalists, now known as MMTists, want us to look at this process differently.  In their view banks create deposits by lending rather than having to receive deposits before they can lend.  While a bank loan (an asset of the bank) is extended by crediting the borrower’s deposit account with the bank (a liability of the bank), the newly created deposit will almost immediately be withdrawn to pay for whatever it was borrowed for.  Thus, the willingness of banks to lend must depend on their expectations of being able to finance their loans from existing or new deposits, by borrowing in the interbank or money markets, or by the repayment of previous loans at an interest rate less than the rate on its loans.

The money multiplier version of this story assumes a reserve constraint, i.e., it assumes that the central bank fixes the supply of base money and bank lending and deposit creation adjust to that.  The MMT version reflects the fact that monetary policy these days targets interest rates leaving base money to be determined by the market.  Traditionally the Fed set a target for the over-night interbank lending rate—the so-called Fed Funds rate.  In order to maintain its target interest rate, the central bank lends or otherwise supplies to the market whatever amount of base money is needed to cover private bank funding needs at that rate.  The market determination of the money supply at a given central bank interest rate is, in fact, similar to the way in which the market determines the money supply under currency board rules under which the central bank passively supplies whatever amount of money the market wants at the fixed official price (exchange rate) of the currency.  With the Federal Reserve’s introduction of interest on bank reserve deposits at Federal Reserve Banks, including excess reserves (the so-called Interest On Excess Reserves – IOER), banks’ management of their funding needs for a given policy rate now involve drawing down or increasing their excess reserves.

According to MMT proponents, loans create deposits and repayment of loans destroys deposits.  This is a different description of the same process described by the money multiplier story, which focuses on the central bank’s control of reserves and base money rather than interest rates. It is wrong to insist that deposits are only created by bank lending and equally wrong to insist that banks can only lend after they receive deposits.

How is Base Money Produced?

MMT applies the same approach to the creation of base or high-powered money (HPM) by the government as it does to the creation of bank deposits by the private sector:

“It also has to be true that the State must spend or lend its HPM into existence before banks, firms, or households can get hold of coins, paper notes, or bank reserves…. The issuer of the currency must supply it first before the users of the currency (banks for clearing, households and firms for purchases and tax payments) have it. That makes it clear that government cannot sit and wait for tax receipts before it can spend—no more than the issuers of bank deposits (banks) can sit and wait for deposits before they lend.”[1]

This unnecessarily provocative way of presenting the fact that government spending injects its money into the economy and tax payments and t-bond sales withdraws it does not offer the free lunch for government spending that MMT wants us to believe is there. Central banks can finance government spending by purchasing government debt, but this does not give the Treasury carte blanche to spend without concern about taxes and deficit finance.  This is the core of MMT that we must examine carefully.

MMT claims that:

“(i) the government is not constrained in its spending by its ability to acquire HPM since the spending creates HPM….  Spending does not require previous tax revenues and indeed it is previous spending or loans to the private sector that provide the funds to pay taxes or purchase bonds….

“(iii) the government deficit did not crowd out the private sector’s financial resources but instead raised its net financial wealth.

“Regarding (iii), the private sector’s net financial wealth has been increased by the amount of the deficit. That is, the different sequencing of the Treasury’s debt operations does not change the fact that deficits add net financial assets rather than “crowding out” private sector financial resources.”[2]

MMT is correct that federal government spending does creates money. But what if the resulting increase in money exceeds the public’s demand (thus reducing interest rates), or the destruction of money resulting from tax payments or public purchases of government debt reduces money below the public’s demand (thus increasing interest rates)?  MMT claims to be aware of the risk of inflation and committed to stable prices (an inflation target) but ignore it most of the time.

If the central bank sets its policy interest rate below the market equilibrium rate, it will supply base money at a rate that stimulates aggregate demand. If it persists in holding short term interest rates below the equilibrium rate it will eventually fuel inflation, which will put upward pressure on nominal interest rates requiring ever increasing injections of base money until the value of money collapses (hyperinflation). If instead the central bank money’s price is fixed to a quantity of something (as it was under the gold standard, or better still a basket of commodities) and is issued according to currency board rules (the central bank will issue or redeem any amount demanded by the market at the fix price), arbitrage will adjust the supply so as to keep the market price and the official price approximately the same (for a detailed explanation see my: “Real SDR Currency Board”).  Unlike an interest rate target, a quantity price target is stable.

Does the Story Matter?

But does the MMT story of how money is created open the door for government to spend more freely and without taxation, either by borrowing in the market or directly from the central bank?  According to MMT, “One of the main contributions of Modern Money Theory (MMT) has been to explain why monetarily sovereign governments have a very flexible policy space that is unencumbered by hard financial constraints.  Not only can they issue their own currency to meet commitments denominated in their own unit of account, but also any self-imposed constraint on their budgetary operations can be by-passed by changing rules.”[3]

MMT maintains that: “Politicians need to reject the urge to ask ‘How are we going to pay for it?’…   We must give up our obsession with trying to ‘pay for’ everything with new revenue or spending cuts….  Once we understand that money is a legal and social tool, no longer beholden to the false scarcity of the gold standard, we can focus on what matters most: the best use of natural and human resources to meet current social needs and to sustainably increase our productive capacity to improve living standards for future generations.”[4]

MMT proclaims that a government that can borrow in its own currency “has an unlimited capacity to pay for the things it wishes to purchase and to fulfill promised future payments, and has an unlimited ability to provide funds to the other sectors. Thus, insolvency and bankruptcy of this government is not possible. It can always pay….  All these institutional and theoretical elements are summarized by saying that monetarily sovereign governments are always solvent, and can afford to buy anything for sale in their domestic unit of account even though they may face inflationary and political constraints.”[5] But inflating away the real value of obligations (government debt) is economically a default.  Moreover, debt cannot grow without limit without debt service costs absorbing the government’s entire budget and even the inflation tax has its hyperinflation limit (abandonment of a worthless currency).

MMT advocates do acknowledge that at some point idle resources will be used up and that this process would then become inflationary, but this caveat is generally ignored.  But if MMT is serious about an inflation constraint, we must wonder about their criticism of asking how government spending will be paid for.  In this regard MMT is a throwback to the old Keynesianism, which implicitly assumed a world of perpetual unemployment.

Is There a Free Lunch?

MMT states that when the government spends more than its income (and thus must borrow or print money) private sector wealth is increased “because spending to the private sector is greater than taxes drawn from the private sector, the private sector’s net financial wealth has increased.”  As explained below this deficit spending increases the private sector’s holdings of government securities, but not necessarily its net financial wealth.

Whether we take account of the future tax liabilities created by this debt in the public’s assessment of its net wealth (Ricardian equivalence) or not, we must ask where the public found the resources with which it bought the debt. Did it substitute T-bonds for corporate bonds, i.e. did the government’s debt (or monetary) financing of government spending crowd out private investment thus leaving private sector wealth unchanged, or did it come from reduced private consumption, i.e. increased private saving. Any impact on private consumption will depend on what government spent its money on.  MMT claims that “the government deficit did not crowd out the private sector’s financial resources but instead raised its net financial wealth,” is simply asserted and is unsupported.  Whether the shift in resources from the private sector to the public sector is beneficial depends on whether the value of the government’s resulting output is greater than is the reduced private sector output that financed it.

One way or another, government spending means that the government is commanding resources that were previously commanded by or could be commanded by the private sector.  If the government takes resources by spending newly created money that the central bank does not take back, prices will rise to lower its real value back to what the public wants to hold. This is the economic equivalent of the government defaulting on its debt, contrary to MMT’s claim that default is impossible.  This inflation tax is generally considered the worst of all taxes because it falls disproportionately on the poor.  In fact, MMT proponents rarely mention or acknowledge the distinction between real and nominal values that are, or should be, central to discussions of monetary policy. The exception to the inflationary impact of monetary finance is if the resources taken by the government were idle, i.e. unemployed, which, obviously, is the world MMT thinks it is in.

MMT claims to have exposed greater fiscal space than is suggested by conventional analysis. They claim that government can more freely spend to fight global warming or to fund guaranteed jobs or other such projects by printing (electronic) money. However, the market mechanism they offer for preventing such money from being inflationary (market response to an interest rate target that replaces unwanted money with government debt), implies that such spending must be paid for with tax revenue or borrowing from the public.  Both, in fact all three financing options (taxation, borrowing, and printing money), shift real resources from the private sector to the public sector and only make society better off if the value of the resulting output is greater than that of the reduced private sector output. There is nothing new here.

Fiscal Policy as Monetary Policy

Government spending increases M and the payment of taxes reduces it.  MMT wants to use taxation to manage the money supply rather than for government financing purposes.  MMT wants to shift the management of monetary policy from the central bank to the finance ministry (Treasury).  The relevant question is whether this way of thinking about and characterizing monetary and fiscal policy produces a more insightful and useful approach to formulating fiscal policy.  Does it justify shifting the responsibly for monetary policy from the central bank to the Finance Ministry?  Should taxes be levied so as to regulate the money supply rather than finance the government (though it would do that as well)?

In advocating this change, MMT ignores the traditional arguments that have favored the use of central bank monetary policy over fiscal policy (beyond automatic stabilizers) for stabilization purposes.  None of the challenges of the use of fiscal policy as a countercyclical tool (timing, what the money is spent for, etc.) established with traditional analysis have been neutralized by the MMT vision and claim of extra fiscal space.  In fact, as we will see below, despite their advocacy of fiscal over monetary policy for maintaining price stability, MMT supporters have little interest in and no clear approach to doing so as they prefer to centrally manage wages and prices in conjunction with a guaranteed employment program.

But the arguments against MMT are stronger than that. The existing arrangements around the globe (central banks that independently execute price stability mandates and governments that determine the nature and level of government spending and its financing) are designed to protect monetary stability from the inflation bias of politicians with shorter policy horizons (the time inconsistence problem). The universal separation of responsibilities for monetary policy and for fiscal policy to a central bank and a finance ministry are meant to align decision making with the authority responsible for the results of its decisions (price stability for monetary policy and welfare enhancing levels and distribution of government spending and its financing).  It is the sad historical experience of excessive reliance on monetary finance and the costly undermining of the value of currencies that resulted that have led to the world-wide movement to central bank independence.  MMT is silent on this history and its lessons.  As pointed out by Larry Summers in an oped highly critical of MMT, the world’s experience with monetary finance has not been good. Modern Monetary Theory-a-foolish-pursuit-for-democrats

The establishment of central bank operational independence in recent decades is rightly considered a major accomplishment.  MMT advocates bring great enthusiasm for more government spending—especially on their guaranteed employment and green projects, which will need to be justified on their own merits.  MMT’s way of viewing money and monetary policy adds nothing to the arguments for or against these policies.

The Bottom Line

To a large extent, most of the above arguments by MMT are a waste of our time as MMT advocates actually reject the macro fine tuning of traditional Keynesian analysis. “This approach of government intervention aims at avoiding direct intervention to achieve the goal (e.g. hiring to achieve full employment, or price controls to achieve low inflation), but rather using indirect “tools” while letting market participants push the economy toward desired goals by tweaking their incentives.  MMT does not agree with this approach. The government should be directly involved continuously over the cycle, by putting in place structural macroeconomic programs that directly manage the labor force, pricing mechanisms, and investment projects, and constantly monitoring financial developments….  But MMT goes beyond full employment policy as it also promotes capital controls for open economies, credit controls, and socialization of investment. Wage rates and interest rate management are also important.”[6]  No wonder Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is excited by MMT.

MMT attempts, unsuccessfully in my opinion, to repackage and resurrect the empirically and theoretically discredited Keynesian policies of the 1960s and 70s.  A 2019 survey of leading economists showed a unanimous rejection of modern monetary theory’s assertions that “Countries that borrow in their own currency should not worry about government deficits because they can always create money to finance their debt” and “Countries that borrow in their own currency can finance as much real government spending as they want by creating money.” http://www.igmchicago.org/surveys/modern-monetary-theory  Both the excitement and motivation for MMT seem to reflect the desire to promote a political agenda, without the hard analysis of its pros and cons—its costs and benefits.

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[1] Fullwiler, Scott, Stephanie Kelton & L. Randall Wray (2012), ‘Modern Money Theory: A Response to Critics’, in Modern Monetary Theory: A Debate,  Modern Monetary Theory: A Debate, http://www.peri.umass.edu/fileadmin/pdf/working_papers/working_papers_251-300/WP279.pdf,  2012, page 19

[2] Ibid. page 22-23.

[3] Tymoigne and Wray, 2013 http://www.levyinstitute.org/publications/modern-money-theory-101

[4] Stephanie Kelton, Andres Bernal, and Greg Carlock, “We Can Pay For A Green New Deal” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/opinion-green-new-deal cost_n_5c0042b2e4b027f1097bda5b  11/30/2018

[5] Tymoigne and Wray, op cit. p. 2 and 5

[6] Ibid. pp. 44-45.

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Central Banking award

The Central Banking Journal annually awards central bankers (best governor, best central bank, and providers of services to central banks) for their performance.  This year’s ceremony was held in London on March 13 and I was awarded Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building. Here is a video of my acceptance speech.

 

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