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Voodoo economic revisionism abounds – and it is not MMT doing the voodoo

The epithets being used as put-downs for Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) are growing. But some of the good old terms – that one might actually apply to mainstream macroeconomics – are also in currency. An article in Project Syndicate (May 27, 2019) – Japan Then, China Now – declared MMT to be “the latest strain of voodoo economics” that is “alluring for the Trump administration”. The article by a Yale University lecturing staff member (and former investment banker) really just reminds us why students should avoid studying economics at that university. The voodoo, I am afraid is actually on the other foot! There are some fundamental errors in the logic in the article that highlight why MMT is a superior paradigm for understanding how the monetary system actually operates in comparison to the mainstream logic that the author uses against it.

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    There are no financial risks involved in increased British government spending

    On July 26, 2018, UK Guardian columnist Phillip Inman published an article – Household debt in UK ‘worse than at any time on record’ – which reported on the latest figures at the time from the Office of National Statistics (ONS). He noted that the data showed that “British households spent around £900 more on average than they received in income during 2017, pushing their finances into deficit for the first time since the credit boom of the 1980s … The figures pose a challenge to the government … Britain’s consumer credit bubble of more than £200bn was unsustainable. A dramatic rise in debt-fuelled spending since 2016” and more. While keen to tell the readers that British households were “living beyond their means”, there was not a single mention of the fiscal austerity drive being pursued by the British government over the same period. Nor was there mention of the fact that the entire British fiscal strategy since the Tories took office was predicated, as I pointed out years ago in this blog post – I don’t wanna know one thing about evil (April 29, 2011), on this debt binge continuing. A year later (July 20, 2019), the same columnist published this article – Labour and Tories both plan to borrow and spend. Is that wise? – which like its predecessor fails to present a comprehensive, linked-up, analysis for his readers and makes basis macroeconomic errors along the way.

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      The Weekend Quiz – July 20-21, 2019 – answers and discussion

      Here are the answers with discussion for this Weekend’s Quiz. The information provided should help you work out why you missed a question or three! If you haven’t already done the Quiz from yesterday then have a go at it before you read the answers. I hope this helps you develop an understanding of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and its application to macroeconomic thinking. Comments as usual welcome, especially if I have made an error.

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        Australian labour market remains in a weak state

        The Australian Bureau of Statistics released the latest data today – Labour Force, Australia, June 2019 – which reveals a stagnating labour market with only 500 net jobs created in the month. The only bright spot was that there were 21,100 full-time jobs created (net). But total employment lagged behind the growth in the working age population, which meant that unemployment rose by 6,600 to 711,500 persons with participation unchanged. Working hours fell for the third consecutive month. Underemployment fell slightly (0.4 points) to 8.2 per cent further, largely reflecting the shift away from part-time work in a weak overall situation. The total labour underutilisation rate (unemployment plus underemployment) fell as a consequence to 13.4 per cent but its persistence around these elevated levels of wastage makes a mockery of claims by commentators that Australia is close to full employment. My overall assessment is the current situation can best be characterised as remaining in a fairly weak state. Most of the dynamics over the last few months have been due to swings up and down in part-time employment.

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          Trade unions have a blueprint from Treasury to increase their industrial disputation

          It is Wednesday and I have only a short blog post today as I have had a lot of commitments that stop me from writing. But I did read a recent Australian Treasury paper – Wage Growth in Australia: Lessons from Longitudinal Microdata (July 2019) – which purports to model the reasons why there is wage stagnation in Australia. The results were presented at the Australian Economists Conference earlier this week and set off a storm because it appeared, at first blush, to blame workers lassitude and excessive risk averse attitudes for the lack of wages growth. I read it slightly differently. It tells me that, first, the Treasury is reluctant to acknowledge the legislative attacks on unions’ capacities to gain wage increases that have been characteristic of the neoliberal era; and, second, that the unions might take the message as a call to arms – take the employers on more often through costly industrial action within the tight legal environment that is left to them.

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            Paying interest on excess reserves is not constrained by scarcity

            This morning, a former deputy governor of Australia’s central bank (RBA) published a short Op Ed in the Australian Financial Review (July 16, 2019) – Why there are no free lunches from the RBA – which served as a veiled critique of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). The problem is that the substantive analysis supported the core of the MMT literature that we have developed over 25 years, refuted the standard macroeconomics textbook treatment of the link between the government and non-government sectors, and, incorrectly depicted what MMT is about – all in one short article. Not a bad effort I thought. But disappointing that a person with such experience and knowledge resorts to perpetuating such crude representations of ‘cost’ and myths about government finances.

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              Central bank research refutes core mainstream macroeconomic propositions

              Australia’s economic performance is not exactly flash at present. GDP growth has slumped and is well below (less than half) the longer-term trend rate. Unemployment and underemployment remain at elevated levels. The federal government has been pursuing an austerity phase in the mistaken belief that achieving a fiscal surplus, no matter, what is a sound and responsible strategy. While the household sector maintained consumption expenditure growth the government’s folly did not manifest. However, that strategy was built on a plunge in the household saving ratio and an ever increasing household debt to income ratio. For years, the central bank (RBA) and the Treasury denied there was a problem – claiming that the rising debt levels were covered by rising wealth. There was never any recognition that the trends in household debt were intrinsically related to the fiscal position of the government. With the external deficit fairly stable at around 3.5 per cent of GDP, the fiscal drag imposed by the government surpluses was only possible because the household sector accumulated debt. Under current institutional arrangements (federal government unnecessarily matching its deficits with debt issuance) the declining public debt ratio was really just an approximate mirror of the rising private debt ratio. But times are changing. The RBA has now released research that refutes core aspects of mainstream macroeconomic theory and finally acknowledges what Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) economists have been pointing out for more than two decades – that the accumulation of household debt ultimately becomes a brake on spending growth.

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                The Weekend Quiz – July 13-14, 2019 – answers and discussion

                Here are the answers with discussion for this Weekend’s Quiz. The information provided should help you work out why you missed a question or three! If you haven’t already done the Quiz from yesterday then have a go at it before you read the answers. I hope this helps you develop an understanding of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and its application to macroeconomic thinking. Comments as usual welcome, especially if I have made an error.

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