Won't work you know, just won't work

I righteously and justly make fun of Richard Murphy and his, ahem, considerations of matters economic. But just for the one time I’ll do him the honour of taking him seriously – and still show why his ideas don’t work.

This is about modern monetary theory. Much of which is actually right in its basic ideas, it’s the application to the real world that doesn’t work. So, here’s Murphy:

The first is that as a matter of fact all government spending is paid for out of money newly created for the purpose and that this is then cancelled by taxation. I would argue that this is simple fact.

And the second is that this money creation process can be undertaken until such time as real physical constraints are met in the economy, after which if it continues then inflation will follow.

Far from being a prescription for inflation creation then, MMT does in fact provide both a very precise description of when demand-pull inflation might be created in the economy by suggesting that money creation should be curtailed when there is no excess capacity in the economy (this constraint being applicable to both government and private bank created money) and it provides two mechanisms for addressing that inflation. One is to stop the money creation, either by limiting government spending in that situation, or by limiting bank lending. The other is to tax that inflation out of the system.

MMT is then the friend of those who would like to control inflation. Professor Stephanie Kelton explains this very succinctly here, making clear in the process that it is not the availability of money that constrains a government from fulfilling its plan: its whether or not they can actually be delivered on the ground that does that. But what is never true is that MMT is a prescription for inflation: indeed, it could be entirely reasonably argued that it provides the best mechanism for controlling inflation that we now know of given that monetary policy is now almost wholly ineffective given that real rates are at or close to zero.

I’d not particularly argue with any of that. All is possible, certainly, the details of money creation and so on are correct. Sure, I always insist upon the distinction between money creation and credit creation, something MMTers tend not to. But still. Let’s take that as both a reasonable description of MMT and also something that’s at least potentially possible in the real world.

So, why won’t it work in the real world?

Strip it back a little. Government can and should boost demand until the economy is up at the production boundary. Do more than that and we’ll get inflation. Do less than that and we get the equal horror of unemployment and thus poverty. Certainly, an economy working at less than capacity is leaving everyone poorer than they need be.

OK, fine with that. So, what other economic policy prescription has made the same claims? Keynesian demand management made exactly those claims in fact. And the mechanisms to be used were fine tuning of spending to boost or restrain demand, plus fine tuning of taxation to boost or restrain demand.

Keynesian demand management used spending and taxes to manage demand. MMT would use spending and taxation to manage demand. Keynesian demand management didn’t work. MMT won’t either then, right?

There are two reasons why not of course. The first being the standard Hayekian point that the centre simply cannot know enough about an economy to gain the ability to do this successfully. There’s data in abundance of course, but not information.

The second is that the incentives faced by the politicians doing this management don’t lead to that potentially optimal outcome. The influence of those incentives is always – as the 1970s showed – to continue the spending and not worry about the inflation.

That we now call this idea MMT rather than Keynesian demand management doesn’t change those two basic problems. Nor does the manner in which we’re concentrating upon monetary creation and cancellation change those two problems which will inevitably lead to failure.

And that’s the real problem with MMT. Far from it being something new it’s only a new method of doing something we know won’t work. Which is why MMT won’t work in the real world either. You know, nice try, no cigar economics.

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  1. Tim makes an elegant statement of why Keynesianism only works until you try it out. But there are other flaws in Murphy’s essay:

    1. All government spending is paid for by killing kittens, until we grant individual kittens absolution and spare their lives? Just as sensible as what Murphy wrote. There is no damaging intermediate stage if we raise taxes to cover government spending, though this process itself makes the economy less efficient.

    2. Money creation is not invisible-unless-we-do-too-much, a fallacy also followed by the Fed, whose stated policy is to cause inflation but not too much. Money creation always leads to general price increases, and nothing else does. The minimum threshold only seems to exist because it is so hard to devise a control to test against.

    3. Having created money, raising taxes does sink those new banknotes and cancels the net creation. Unfortunately, it also impoverishes the citizenry. But that doesn’t show up on a Murphy balance sheet; only the benefits of good government, such as Sustainability and subsidy for opera.

  2. Is the critique of Spud worth the rise in people who will now become aware of his ramblings? Like pushing someone to The Graundian to educate them how daft it is, then discovering instead you’ve got another ranting indoctrinated SJW on your hands.

  3. The idea that a policy must take a country – in foolproof fashion – to peak, 100% efficiency to be “effective” is absurd. To be a success, one must only improve the situation. There should be no serious argument that Keynesian policies were an improvement on doing nothing, and MMT policies would be an improvement on our present policy of whatever the hell our present policy is. (I can discern no sensible actions taken by this administration.)

    It’s also silly to be so terrified of a little (hypothetical) inflation, when we are presently plagued by high un- and underemployment, high income disparity, and low aggregate demand. Those are real problems that are affecting most Americans right now, but for some reason we treat the mere thought of inflation as a bigger problem than any of those.

    Politicians are always going to be flawed. I would still prefer that they operate under correct assumptions, though, instead of worrying about the federal government somehow running out of their own money. Your arguments treat knowledge like a bad thing; you seem to prefer that politicians (and most economists) remain ignorant, because (so far) their mistakes haven’t been fatal. But they aren’t helping, either.