By John Carney
Dec 27 (CNBC) — When I began blogging about Modern Monetary Theory, I knew I risked alienating or at least annoying some of my Austrian Economics friends. The Austrians are a combative lot, used to fighting on the fringes of economic thought for what they see as their overlooked and important insights into the workings of the economy.
Which is one of the things that makes them a lot like the MMT crowd.
There are many other things that Austrian Econ and MMT share. A recent post by Bob Wenzel at Economic Policy Journal, which is presented as a critique of my praise of some aspects of MMT, actually makes this point very well.
The MMTers believe that the modern monetary system—sovereign fiat money, unlinked to any commodity and unpegged to any other currency—that exists in the United States, Canada, Japan, the UK and Australia allows governments to operate without revenue constraints. They can never run out of money because they create the money they spend.
This is not to say that MMTers believe that governments can spend without limit. Governments can overspend in the MMT paradigm and this overspending leads to inflation. Government financial assets may be unlimited but real assets available for purchase—that is, goods and services the economy is capable of producing—are limited. The government can overspend by (a) taking too many goods and services out of the private sector, depriving the private sector of what it needs to satisfy the people, grow the economy and increase productivity or (b) increasing the supply of money in the economy so large that it drives up the prices of goods and services.
As Wenzel points out, Murray Rothbard—one of the most important Austrian Economists the United States has produced—takes exactly the same position. He says that governments take “control of the money supply” when they find that taxation doesn’t produce enough revenue to cover expenditures. In other words, fiat money is how governments escape revenue constraint.
Rothbard considers this counterfeiting, which is a moral judgment that depends on the prior conclusion that fiat money isn’t the moral equivalent of real money. Rothbard is entitled to this view—I probably even share it—but that doesn’t change the fact that in our economy today, this “counterfeiting” is the operational truth of our monetary system. We can decry it—but we might as well also try to understand what it means for us.
Rothbard worries that government control of the money supply will lead to “runaway inflation.” The MMTers tend to be more sanguine about the danger of inflation than Rothbard—although I do not believe they are entitled to this attitude. As I explained in my piece “Monetary Theory, Crony Capitalism and the Tea Party,” the MMTers tend to underestimate the influence of special interests—including government actors and central bankers themselves—on monetary policy. They have monetary policy prescriptions that would avoid runaway inflation but, it seems to me, there is little reason to expect these would ever be followed in the countries that are sovereign currency issuers. I think that on this point, many MMTers confuse analysis of the world as it is with the world as they would like it to be.
In short, the MMTers agree with Rothbard on the purpose and effect of government control of money: it means the government is no longer revenue constrained. They differ about the likelihood of runaway inflation , which is not a difference of principle but a divergence of political prediction.
This point of agreement sets both Austrians and MMTers outside of mainstream economics in precisely the same way. They appreciate that the modern monetary system is very, very different from older, commodity based monetary systems—in a way that many mainstream economists do not.
In MM, CC & TP, I briefly mentioned a few other positions on the economy MMTers tend to share. Wenzel writes that “there is nothing right about these views.”
I don’t think Wenzel actually agrees with himself here. Let’s run through these one by one.
1. The MMTers think the financial system tends toward crisis. Wenzel writes that the financial system doesn’t tend toward crisis. But a moment later he admits that the actual financial system we have does tend toward crisis. All Austrians believe this, as far as I can tell.
What has happened here is that Wenzel is now the one confusing the world as it is with the world as he wishes it would be. Perhaps under some version of the Austrian-optimum financial system—no central bank, gold coin as money, free banking or no fractional reserve banking—we wouldn’t tend toward crisis. But that is not the system we have.
The MMTers aren’t engaged with arguing about the Austrian-optimum financial system. They are engaged in describing the actual financial system we have—which tends toward crisis.
They even agree that the tendency toward crisis is largely caused by the same thing, credit expansions leading to irresponsible lending.
2. The MMTers say that “capitalist economies are not self-regulating.” Again, Wenzel dissents. But if we read “capitalist economies” as “modern economies with central banking and interventionist governments” then the point of disagreement vanishes.
Are we entitled to read “capitalist economies” in this way? I think we are. The MMTers are not, for the most part, attempting to argue with non-existent theoretical economies or describe the epic-era Icelandic political economy. They are dealing with the economy we have, which is usually called “capitalist.” Austrians can argue that this isn’t really capitalism—but this is a terminological quibble. When it comes down to the problem of self-regulation of our so-called capitalist system, the Austrians and MMTers are in agreement.
3. Next up is the MMT view (borrowed from an earlier economic school called “Functional Finance”) that fiscal policy should be judged by its economic effects. Wenzel asks if this means that this “supercedes private property that as long as something is good for the economy, it can be taxed away from the individual?”
Here is a genuine difference between the Austrians—especially those of the Rothbardian stripe—and the MMTers. The MMTers do indeed envision the government using taxes to accomplish what is good for the economy—which, for the most part, means combating inflation. They think that the government may need to use taxation to snuff out inflation at times. Alternatively, the government can also reduce its own spending to extinguish inflation.
Note that we’ve come across a gap between MMTers and Rothbardians that is far smaller than the chasm between either of them and mainstream economics, where taxation of private property and income is regularly seen as justified by the need to fund government operations. MMTers and Austrians both agree that under the current circumstances people in most developed countries are overtaxed.
4. Wenzel actually overlooks the larger gap between Austrians and MMTers, which has to do with the efficacy of government spending. Many MMTers believe that most governments in so-called capitalist economies are not spending enough. Most—if not all—Austrians think that these same government are spending too much.
The Austrian view is based on the idea that government spending tends to distort the economy, in part because—as the MMTers would agree—government spending in our age typically involves monetary expansion. The MMTers, I would argue, have a lot to learn from the Austrians on this point. I think that an MMT effort to more fully engage the Austrians on the topic of the structure of production would be well worth the effort.
5. Wenzel’s challenge to the idea of functional finance is untenable—and not particularly Austrian. He argues that the subjectivity of value means it is impossible for us to tell whether something is “good for the economy.” Humbug. We know that an economy that more fully reflects the aspirations and choices of the individuals it encompasses is better than one that does not. We know that high unemployment is worse than low unemployment. All other things being equal, a more productive economy is superior to a less productive economy, a wealthier economy is better than a more impoverished one.
Wenzel’s position amounts to nihilism. I think he is confusing the theory of subjective value with a deeper relativism. Subjectivism is merely the notion that the value of an economic good—that is, an object or a service—is not inherent to the thing but arises from within the individual’s needs and wants. This does not mean that we cannot say that some economic outcome is better or worse or that certain policy prescription are good for the economy and certain are worse.
It would be odd for any Austrian to adopt the nihilism of Wenzel. It’s pretty rare to ever encounter an Austrian who lacks normative views of the economy. These normative views depend on the view that some things are good for economy and some things are bad. I doubt that Wenzel himself really subscribes to the kind of nihilism he seems to advocate in his post.
Wenzel’s final critique of me is that I over-emphasize cronyism and underplay the deeper problems of centralized power. My reply is three-fold. First, cronyism is a more concrete political problem than centralization; tactically, it makes sense to fight cronyism. Second, cronyism is endemic to centralized government decisions, as the public choice economists have shown. They call it special interest rent-seeking, but that’s egg-head talk from cronyism. Third, I totally agree: centralization is a real problem because the “rationalization” involved necessarily downplays the kinds of unarticulated knowledge that are important to everyday life, prosperity and happiness.
At the level of theory, Austrians and MMTers have a lot in common. Tactically, an alliance makes sense. Intellectually, bringing together the descriptive view of modern monetary systems with Austrian views about the structure of production and limitations of economic planning (as well Rothbardian respect for individual property rights) should be a fruitful project.
So, as I said last time, let’s make it happen.