By John Carney
Dec 21 (CNBC) — The past few years have taught us a lot about the effects and operations of monetary policy in the United States.
The Federal government responded to the economic downturn by spending enormous amounts and Federal Reserve responded to the financial crisis with an enormous expansion of its balance sheet — what the proles call “printing money” — and both occurred without any attendant inflation or giant soaring of interest rates.
The so-called “bond vigilantes” turned out to be mythological creatures, at least as far as U.S. federal debt is concerned. Even the crisis over the debt ceiling and the downgrade of the U.S.’s credit rating only lead to lower interest rates.
The school of economics that best explains this phenomenon is called “Modern Monetary Theory” or MMT. The MMT school is made up of scholars, businessmen and online advocates who have a deep understanding of the operations of the actual operational aspects of our monetary system.
They argue, quite persuasively, that our monetary system is built in such a way that our government is never revenue constrained, which is to say it can spend as much as it likes, because the government creates our money. The real constraint on government spending is price inflation, which occurs when government and private spending outpace economic output.
I was first attracted to MMT because of the focus on monetary operations. I really enjoy figuring out the nitty-gritty details of how things like swap lines, Treasury auctions, and payment of claims on the Treasury occur. I like reading detailed papers on the daily meetings of the Treasury and the Fed estimating what Federal spending will amount to. Many of the MMT people have studied this stuff in detail.
Monetary nerds of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but the interest of your cooler friends.
For those of you interested in learning more, I suggest you start with the website Pragmatic Capitalism, which is edited by Cullen Roche. Now, Cullen isn’t a fully orthodox MMTer but he is one of its clearest exponents. It was my first doorway into MMT.
Other sites that I regularly read include Warren Mosler’s MoslerEconomics; Mike Norman Economics, which tends toward the combative, and New Economic Perspectives, which tends toward the academic side of things. There are dozens of other sites, which you’ll no doubt encounter if you follow the links to the ones I just named. I’d also recommend reading Mosler’s book, “The Seven Deadly Innocent Fraud’s of Economic Policy.”
There’s a lot more to MMT than its view of monetary operations and government funding, however. They believe the government should guarantee jobs for everyone, that the financial system tends toward crisis and corruption, that capitalist economies are not self-regulating, and that fiscal policy should be measured by its effect on the economy not on whether budgets are balanced. Some of this is fine, other parts I regard as distractions (such as the jobs guarantee).
But my biggest point of departure with the MMTers is they display a political and economic naivete when it comes to the effects of government spending. When they talk about spending it is almost always in terms of abstract aggregates, which is weird for a school of economics so focused on the specifics of monetary operations. What this means is that they miss the distortions of crony capitalism the accompanies so much government spending.
Government spending occurs through specific channels, not in aggregate abstractions. This means that certain companies and sectors of the economy benefit, and others suffer, because of government spending.
The sectors and companies that benefit are not those that bring the most or the widest prosperity but, conversely, those in which prosperity is most concentrated in the hands of a few. The spending is accompanied by regulatory privileges and barriers that also benefit the very same groups. When government spending levels and regulatory operations are high, this has a widely distortive effect on the economy that effectively impoverishes most of the population. This is basic public choice Econ 101 but the MMTers seem blind to it.
If any MMTers want to learn more about this effect of government spending and regulation, a good place to start would be two books by my brother Tim Carney. Tim covers politics for the Washington Examiner, and his columns often address these very points. But for a fuller treatment of the subject I suggest you read “The Big Ripoff: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money” and”Obamanomics: How Barack Obama Is Bankrupting You and Enriching His Wall Street Friends, Corporate Lobbyists, and Union Bosses.”
Likewise, the MMTers seem not to understand the politics of inflation and why government often doesn’t prevent inflation from occurring, even though it is obviously within its power to do so. The problem with inflation was first and best described by Austrian economists, who explained that inflation does not spread evenly through the economy. It benefits some economic players and harms others because it moves through the economy sequentially.
The first recipients of inflated dollars are those closest to government, those on the receiving end of government payments. They get to pay non-inflated prices for the goods and services they consume because other economic actors have not yet realized that inflation is taking place. Those closest to the primary recipients are also advantaged against those further away. The real losers are private citizens whose economic activities are furthest removed from the crony capitalist and financiers who primarily benefit from inflation. This is, again, a case where those receiving concentrated benefits will almost always beat out those suffering dispersed costs. Public choice 101 again.
Because they do not at least publicly address the crony capitalist distortions of government spending and inflation, the MMTers are at a loss when dealing with Tea Party objections to government spending.
Much of the Tea Party’s objection to spending and deficits is not to counter-cyclical stimulus spending or broad-based entitlements. (I doubt very many of them want to reform Social Security, for instance.) It’s to the fact that the government picks winners and losers when it spends, especially when it engages in stimulus, that is, discretionary, spending.
This objection to cronyism is at the very heart of the Tea Party movement. It is controlling the Republican primaries right now. It is why the bailouts irked so many. It is, in fact, a deep part of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
It’s also why the public isn’t really that interested in the things that bother the policy wonks so much. Things like the cost of Social Security or medical care. People don’t mind these so much because they are less prone to cronyism and distort the economy less. This kind of spending is more neutral than discretionary spending. So it doesn’t bother the Tea Partiers or the Occupiers.
And guess what? This aligns the Tea Party with MMT. You guys also don’t think Social Security is in danger of going bankrupt. You know the government won’t run out of money, that Social Security checks will never bounce. The wonks have it wrong; the proles have it right.
Even your Jobs Guarantee might be sellable on the grounds that it is government spending without cronyism.
So my recommendation to the MMTers is that they stop talking about spending in the abstract. Start talking about spending that leads to crony capitalism and spending that does not. Get on the side of the anti-crony, Tea Party brigades. There’s a natural friendship to be made.
Let’s make it happen.