The Brave New World Of MMT
MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) revolves around the idea that governments with the ability to create money are not limited in the way that individuals and corporations are limited. Whereas private entities can only spend the money they have or the money that another private entity is willing to lend to them, a government with the ability to create money is only limited in its spending by the availability of real resources. As long as there is ‘slack’ (what the Keynesians refer to as “idle resources”) in the economy, the government can spend whatever amount of money is necessary to bring to fruition whatever projects/programs the majority of voters desire. MMT’s appeal to the political class is therefore obvious. The only problem is that MMT is based on misunderstandings about money, debt, and how the economy actually works.
If you read the explanations put forward by MMT advocates you could come away with the impression that the ‘theory’ is a discovery or original insight, but nothing could be further from the truth. What MMT actually does is employ accounting tautologies and a very superficial view of how monetary inflation affects the economy to justify theft on a grand scale.
Expanding on the above, when the government creates money out of nothing and then exchanges that money for real resources, it is exchanging nothing for something. In effect, it is diverting resources to itself without paying for them. This is a form of theft, but it is surreptitious because the seller of the resources does not incur the cost of the theft. Instead, the cost is spread across all users of money via an eventual reduction in the purchasing power of money.
According to the MMT advocates, the surreptitious theft that involves diverting resources from the private sector to the government is not a problem until/unless the CPI or some other price index calculated by the government rises above an arbitrary level. In other words, surreptitious government theft on a grand scale is deemed to be perfectly fine as long as it doesn’t result in problematic “price inflation”.
Further to the above, there is a major ethical problem with MMT. However, there are also economic problems and practical issues.
The main economic problem is that the damage that can be caused by monetary inflation isn’t limited to “price inflation”. In fact, “price inflation” is the least harmful effect of monetary inflation. The most harmful is mal-investment, which stems from the reality that newly-created money is not spread evenly through the economy and therefore has a non-uniform effect on prices. That is, monetary inflation doesn’t only increase the “general price level”, it also distorts relative prices. This distortion of the price signals upon which decisions are based hampers the economy.
Another economic problem is that the programs/projects that are financed by the creation of money out of nothing will not consume only the “idle resources”. Instead, the government will bid away resources that otherwise would have been used in private ventures. The private ventures that are prevented from happening will be part of the unseen cost of the increased government spending.
A practical issue is that the government’s ability to spend would be limited only by numbers that are calculated and set by the government. There is no good reason to expect that this limitation would be any more effective than the limitation imposed by the “debt ceiling”. The “debt ceiling” was raised more than 70 times over the past 60 years and now has been suspended.
A second practical issue is that it often takes years for the effects of monetary inflation to become evident in the CPI. Therefore, even if there were an honest attempt by the government to determine a general price index and strictly limit money creation to prevent this index from increasing by more than a modest amount, the long delays between monetary inflation and price inflation would render the whole exercise impossible. By the time it became clear that too much money had been created, a major inflation problem would be baked into the cake.
It’s often the case that what should be is very different to what is, so MMT being bad from both ethical and economics perspectives probably won’t get in the way of its implementation. After all and as mentioned above, it has great appeal to the political class. Also, it could be made to seem reasonable to the average person.
In fact, even though it hasn’t been officially introduced, for all intents and purposes MMT is already being put into practice in the US. We say this because the US federal government recently ramped up its spending by trillions of dollars, safe in the knowledge that “inflation” is not an immediate problem and that the Fed is prepared to monetize debt ‘until the cows come home’. Furthermore, another trillion dollar ‘stimulus’ program is in the works and there is a high probability that a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure-spending program will be approved early next year. Clearly, there is no longer any concern within the government about budget deficits or debt levels. They aren’t even pretending to be concerned anymore.
The good news is that the implementation of MMT should accelerate the demise of the current monetary system. It means that there is now a high probability of systemic collapse during this decade. The bad news is that I believe that what comes next could be worse.
[This blog post is an excerpt from a TSI commentary published about two weeks ago]