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Secular stagnation, monetary policy and John Law

March 16, 2019

Last week, the prestigious Brooking Institution held a conference on the efficacy of monetary policy in stimulating and sustaining economic growth.  At the conference, Larry Summers, former US Treasury secretary and professor at Harvard University and Lukasz Rachel of the Bank of England, presented a paper that aimed to revive, yet again, the idea that the major capitalist economies are locked into ‘secular stagnation’: Our findings support the idea that, absent offsetting policies, mature industrial economies are prone to secular stagnation.”

According this thesis, there is a long-term stagnation in the major capitalist economies.  Despite central banks pushing interest rates down to zero or even below (so that bankers and capitalists are paid to borrow!); and despite central banks printing huge amounts of money to buy bonds and other financial assets (quantitative easing), real GDP growth and investment remain weak.  Although unemployment rates are officially near cycle lows in many countries, inflation is equally low, confounding the traditional Keynesian view that there is a trade-off between employment and inflation (the so-called Phillips curve).

Central bank monetary stimulation has failed, except to promote ‘credit bubbles’ and speculation in financial assets and property. For example, here are the conclusions of a recent study on the impact of the monetary injections of the ECB in Europe: “the efforts of the ECB to hit its inflation target would be more credible if there was convincing empirical evidence that its balance sheet policies are effective at stimulating output and inflation. Our recent research shows that this macroeconomic evidence is still lacking.”

And there is every prospect of another economic slump approaching in which central banks will be powerless to do anything as interest rates are already near zero and the balance sheets of central banks are already at record highs. “Our findings support the idea that, absent offsetting policies, mature industrial economies are prone to secular stagnation. This raises profound questions about stabilization policy going forward.” (Summers and Rachel)

In the FT, Keynesian columnist Martin Wolf echoed the views of Summers and Rachel.  Interest rates are near all-time lows and if you follow the Fisher-Wicksell theory of a ‘natural’ rate of interest that enables full employment, then it now seems that the natural ‘private sector’ interest rate needed to achieve jobs for all who want them has be in negative territory.

Of course, this so-called natural rate is a dubious concept at best.  But even you accept the theory, as it seems many Keynesians want to do [“That is the root of our problem: the natural nominal rate of interest … today is less than zero, and so the Federal Reserve cannot push the market nominal rate of interest down low enough.” Brad DeLong], it just exposes the problem.  Monetary policy has not and will not work in restoring the capitalist economy to a pace of growth that delivers investment and thus sustains jobs at rising real wages.

Indeed, as I have pointed out before, Keynes also realised after the Great Depression continued deep into the 1930s, that his advocacy of low interest rates and even ‘unconventional’ monetary policy (buying government bonds and printing money) was not working: ““I am now somewhat sceptical of the success of a merely monetary policy directed towards influencing the rate of interest… since it seems likely that the fluctuations in the market estimation of the marginal efficiency of different types of capital, calculated on the principles I have described above, will be too great to be offset by any practicable changes in the rate of interest”.  In other words, there is no natural rate of interest low enough to persuade capitalists to borrow and invest if they think the return on that investment would be too low.  You can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.

This week the Bank of Japan monetary committee met and threw up its hands in despair.  After years of central bank ‘unconventional’ monetary easing (buying government bonds to the tune of 100% of GDP!) by printing money, the huge injection of credit into the banks has had no effect in lifting the economy.  As Darren Aw, Asia economist with Capital Economics, remarked: “There is a good chance that Japan’s economy will contract again in Q1 2019, for a third time in five quarters”… Given this, the key question for the Bank of Japan is no longer when it might retreat from its ultra-loose policy stance but whether it can do any more to support the economy.” Thus the first of the PM Abe’s three arrows of economic policy (monetary easing, fiscal stimulus and neoliberal de-regulation) has failed.

Now it’s true that per capita GDP growth in Japan since the end of the Great Recession ten years ago is actually faster than in most other major capitalist economies.  But that is simply because Japan has a sharply falling population.  Real and nominal (before inflation) GDP has been virtually static.  National output has remained more or less the same but there are less people that generate and consume it.  Japan has the lowest working population as ratio to total population in the top 12 economies of the world.

And yet monetary easing is still pushed by Keynesians, especially the more radical ones from the post-Keynesian school, including those following Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).  If the state and/or central bank prints money, it can use that money to stimulate the capitalist economy to get it going.  Money is not so much the root of all evil but the genesis of all that is good, it seems.  This sentiment reminds me of the earliest exponent of the magic of money – or the ‘money fetish’, namely John Law, who around 300 years ago had a unique opportunity to apply money printing to put an economy on its feet.

Ann Pettifor, the left Keynesian exponent of magic money, has called John Law a “much maligned genius whose 1705 account of the nature of money cannot be bettered”.  This proto-Keynesian was the son of a wealthy Scottish goldsmith and banker. Law was born in Edinburgh, proceeding to squander his father’s substantial inheritance on gambling and fast living. Convicted of killing a love rival in a duel in London in 1694, Law bribed his way out of prison and escaped to the Continent.  There Law concentrated on developing and publishing his monetary theory cum scheme, which he presented to the Scottish Parliament in 1705, publishing the memorandum the same year in a tract, Money and Trade Considered, with a Proposal for Supplying the Nation with Money (1705).

Law argued for a central bank to issue paper money backed by ‘the land of the nation’. Echoing the MMT (or is it the other way round?), Law proposed to “supply the nation” with a sufficiency of money. This would vivify trade and increase employment and production. Like MMT, Law stressed money is a mere government creation which had no intrinsic value. Its only function is to be a medium of exchange and not any store of value for the future.

Law was sure that any increased money supply and bank credit would not raise prices and expanding bank credit and bank money would push down the rate of interest (MMT again). To Law, as to Keynes after him, the main enemy of his scheme was the menace of “hoarding,” a practice that would defeat the purpose of greater spending.  So, like the late 19th-century German money fetisher Silvio Gesell, Law proposed a statute that would prohibit the hoarding of money.

Amazingly Law found a supporter for his theories in the regent of France. The regent, the Duke of Orléans, set up Law as head of the Banque Générale in 1716, a central bank with a grant of the monopoly of the issue of bank notes in France. He was made the head of the new Mississippi Company, as well as director-general of French finances. The Mississippi Company issued bonds that were allegedly “backed” by the vast, undeveloped land that the French government owned in the Louisiana territory in North America.

This scheme eventually led, not to a booming economy, but instead to a speculative financial bubble where bonds, bank credit, prices, and monetary values skyrocketed from 1717 to 1720.  Finally, in 1720, the bubble collapsed and Law ended up as a pauper heavily in debt, forced once again to flee the country.  Law was not so much a ‘much maligned genius’ but more “a pleasant character mixture of swindler and prophet” Karl Marx (1894: p.441).  What the Law debacle showed was that the state just issuing money cannot replace the ‘real economy’ of production and trade. Money alone does not create investment or production.

Of course, modern Keynesians (unless they are of the MMT variety) do not promote unending printing of money for governments and the private sector to spend.  That’s because they have been forced to recognise; as John Law found in 1719-20; and as Keynes found in 1933; and as Abe in Japan has found now; and the secular stagnationists also accept, printing money does not work if capitalists and bankers hoard that money or switch it into speculative investments in financial assets.

So what’s the answer?  Well, as Martin Wolf puts it: “The credibility of the “secular stagnation” thesis and our unhappy experience with the impact of monetary policy prove that we have come to rely far too heavily on central banks. But they cannot manage secular stagnation successfully. If anything, they make the problem worse, in the long run. We need other instruments. Fiscal policy is the place to start.”  Yes, it’s back to fiscal stimulus.  But will that work either?

Last year President Trump launched a fiscal stimulus of sorts by cutting taxes for the rich and the big corporations.  It boosted after-tax profits in 2017 sharply and real GDP growth ticked up a little towards 3% a year.  But that boost has been all too fleeting.  US real GDP growth is heading back down to below a 1% rate in this quarter and business investment is also turning down.

One of the policy arrows of Abenomics in Japan was fiscal stimulus.  Indeed, there is no major economy that can match Japan for its government running permanent budget deficits (MMT-style).

Japan: annual budget deficits to GDP (%)

This should be the policy dream of MMT and other post-Keynesians.  But it has not worked in Japan.  Japan has ‘full employment’, but at low wages and with temporary and part-time contracts for many (particularly women).  Real household consumption has risen at only 0.4% a year since 2007, less than half the rate before.  So fiscal stimulus has not worked in Japan which remains in ‘secular stagnation’.

And it did not work in the Great Depression of the 1930s.  After dropping monetary easing as the policy answer to the depression, in the Los Angeles Times on 31 December 1933, Keynes wrote: ‘Thus, as the prime mover in the first stage of the technique of recovery, I lay overwhelming emphasis on the increase of national purchasing power resulting from governmental expenditure which is financed by loans and is not merely a transfer through taxation from existing incomes. Nothing else counts in comparison with this.’   Deficit-financing was the answer.

The Roosevelt regime ran consistent budget deficits of around 5% of GDP from 1931 onwards, spending twice as much as tax revenue.  And the government took on lots more workers on jobs programmes (MMT-style) – but all to little effect.  The New Deal under Roosevelt did not end the Great Depression.  Keynes summed it up “It is, it seems, politically impossible for a capitalistic democracy to organize expenditure on the scale necessary to make the grand experiments which would prove my case — except in war conditions,” (from The New Republic (quoted from P. Renshaw, Journal of Contemporary History  1999 vol. 34 (3) p. 377 -364).

Wolf recognises that fiscal policy may also not work. “It is of course essential to ask how best to use those deficits productively. If the private sector does not wish to invest, the government should decide to do so.” So if the ‘private sector’ (ie the capitalist sector) won’t increase investment rates to boost growth despite negative interest rates and despite huge government money injections funded by money printing, the government will have to step in do the job itself, apparently.

Thus, the Keynesian/MMT answer is to act as a backstop to capitalist failure. But the capitalist sector dominates investment decisions and it makes those on the basis of potential profitability, not on the cost of borrowing. Keynes saw it as politically impossible to ensure sufficient investment through government spending – and he was right in a way. Only complete control of the capitalist sector could enable governments to ensure full employment at decent wages. At this point, I’m tempted to repeat the comment of left Keynesian Joan Robinson to MMT/Keynesians: “Any government which had both the power and will to remedy the major defects of the capitalist system would have the will and power to abolish it altogether”.

Neoliberalism: not so bad?

March 12, 2019

I don’t really like the term ‘neoliberal’ because it is used lazily as an alternative to pro-capitalist policies or even to the word ‘capitalism’ itself. In doing so, it causes confusion in explanations about trends and failures in capitalist development.  What flows is the argument that if ‘neoliberalism’ is ended, then we can return to ‘managed capitalism’ or social democracy’, neither of which, in my view, should be used to suggest something different from the capitalist mode of production itself.

And if leftists continue to use ‘neoliberalism’ as a term to replace capitalism (or as some nasty ‘free market version), they open the door to the sort of nonsense that economic journalist Noah Smith concocted last week, as expressed in his Bloomberg piece: “Neoliberalism should not be a dirty word on the left”.

In his piece, Smith argues that by attacking neoliberalism,“Too many people forget the contribution markets have made to human well-being.”  He justifies the success of neoliberalism (as defined by him as capitalist market forces and policies that support such) with three main stylised facts.

The first is that “Market liberalization in countries such as India and China seems to have precipitated a shift to faster growth, while trade and investment links with rich countries have helped these and other developing countries tremendously.”  So China’s growth miracle is a product of neoliberal policies of ‘market liberalisation’, presumably introduced by Deng in the late 1970s and supplemented by foreign investment and China joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

This story has been perpetuated by many mainstream economists.  But it does not hold water.  Yes, China opened up sectors of the economy to foreign investment and the market, particularly in agriculture.  But the bulk of investment and foreign trade was still controlled by the state and state corporations; and capital controls were in force.  The state was everywhere in the operation of the economy.  So was China’s success really a product of neoliberalism?  See my post on this misconception here.

The second argument is that neoliberal policies have “helped pull a billion people out of desperate poverty, and billions more are on the way to becoming middle class.”  This is yet another myth offered by the apologists for global capitalism by the likes of Microsoft billionaire, Bill Gates, among others. Smith follows in those footsteps to justify ‘neoliberalism’.

Anthropologist Jason Hickel has provided an excellent refutation of this claim that global poverty is being solved and falling fast, thanks to capitalism.  Much depends on how to define poverty.  Hickel:  “If we use $7.40 per day, we see a decline in the proportion of people living in poverty, but it’s not nearly as dramatic as your rosy narrative would have it. In 1981 a staggering 71% lived in poverty. Today it hovers at 58% (for 2013, the most recent data). Suddenly your grand story of progress seems tepid, mediocre, and – in a world that’s as fabulously rich as ours – completely obscene…. “And if we look at absolute numbers, the trend changes completely. The poverty rate has worsened dramatically since 1981, from 3.2 billion to 4.2 billion, according to World Bank data. Six times higher than you would have people believe. That’s not progress in my book – that’s a disgrace.

In his pursuit of praise for neoliberalism (in reality capitalism) Smith has elsewhere tried to trash Hickel’s arguments that global poverty has not really declined.  But, as usual, Smith and others who take his line, ignore the key fact that the fall in global poverty levels, whatever the threshold points chosen, is mostly down to the massive reduction in poverty levels in China – a country that can hardly be considered having an economy that operates on neoliberal free market forces (although Smith seems to claim it does!).

Of the billion that Smith cites, there are over 800m Chinese who have been taken above the poverty threshold in the last 30 years.  Sanjay Reddy looked at the poverty data excluding China. He found “modest decreases in total poverty headcount or even increases, sometimes sizable, especially at higher poverty lines & over longer periods, more marked in certain regions.”

Smith supplements his argument for neoliberalism by arguing that in the last 30 years “progress in the developing world has been impressive — something for which neoliberalism probably deserves a lot of credit — but it is far from complete; most of South Asia is still very poor, and much of Africa is just beginning to industrialize.” Indeed, far from complete.  The inhabitants of Nigeria, Africa’s most populated country or those of the Congo can tell Smith that progress in their countries has not been “impressive” at all. And not just there.  According to Ha-Joon Chang, a Cambridge economist, during the 1960s-and-70s per capita income in Sub-Saharan Africa was around 1.6% per annum; however, after they were imposed with a neoliberal economic model by the West, during the 1980s and 90s, per capita income fell to only 0.7% per year.

What industrialisation that has taken place in recent decades (beyond just basic resource and agro commodity production) in Africa is mainly due to the investment being offered and applied by China – the opposite of Smith’s model of neoliberalism, in my view.

Smith also argued that “neoliberal policies might have led to faster productivity growth in the 1990s and early 2000s” in the advanced capitalist economies.  You see “The spurt of growth is commonly attributed to the information-technology boom, but that boom might not have been possible if the US had more strictly regulated emerging industries in order to protect favored incumbents.”  This is just speculation without evidence.  Whatever “spurt” in productivity took place in the hi-tech boom of the 1990s, it was still way less than in the pre-neoliberal period of the 1950s and 1960s (see graph).

Moreover, it has been the state that has sparked much of that ‘innovation’ back in the 1960s and after, Mariana Mazzacuto, in her book, The Entrepreneurial State, explains thatthe real story behind Silicon Valley is not the story of the state getting out of the way so that risk-taking venture capitalists – and garage tinkerers – could do their thing. From the internet to nanotech, most of the fundamental advances – in both basic research but also downstream commercialisation – were funded by government, with businesses moving into the game only once the returns were in clear sight. All the radical technologies behind the iPhone were government-funded: the internet, GPS, touchscreen display, and even the voice-activated Siri personal assistant.”

Contrary to Smith’s neoliberal view, state-owned industry and economic growth often go together – “the seldom-discussed European success story is Austria, which achieved the second highest level of economic growth (after Japan) between 1945 and 1987 with the highest state-owned share of the economy in the OECD.” (Hu Chang).

Smith claims neoliberal reforms in the labour market helped to achieve lower unemployment rates in places like Germany. “Germany suffered high unemployment in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to its rigid labour market regulations; eventually, it eased those restrictions, which substantially lowered the unemployment rate.”  Here he refers to the infamous Haartz labour reforms that introduced a tiered employment system, putting millions into low wage programmes that boosted German industry’s profitability while keeping real wage incomes stagnant.

About one quarter of the German workforce now receive a “low income” wage, using a common definition of one that is less than two-thirds of the median, which is a higher proportion than all 17 European countries, except Lithuania.  A recent Institute for Employment Research (IAB) study found wage inequality in Germany has increased since the 1990s, particularly at the bottom end of the income spectrum. The number of temporary workers in Germany has almost trebled over the past 10 years to about 822,000, according to the Federal Employment Agency.  In my view, this is not the best example of the ‘success’ of neoliberal policies, at least not for labour.

It is ironic that Smith pushes the policies of the ‘free market’ at a time when all the trends in the current neoliberal world show slowing growth in real GDP, productivity and investment, along with stagnant real wages and rising inequality.

And yet, Smith presses on with the argument for neoliberal policies to “restrain social democrats’ more ambitious impulses” and “to protect the US economy’s entrepreneurial private sector, and to make sure that technological progress and international trade don’t get forgotten.”  In other words, he  reckons that we need to balance, against the urgent need for decent public services, proper labour rights and conditions, control of the corrupt and unproductive finance sector and the avoidance of disastrous economic slumps, the fundamental (neoliberal) aim to raise the profitability of the capitalist sector.  Because we must not ‘forget’ the “contribution of markets to human well-being.”

Demographic demise

March 8, 2019

There is one outstanding statistical feature of 21st century capitalism.  Capitalism is increasingly failing to develop what Marx called the “productive forces” (namely the technology and labour necessary to expand the output of things and services that human society needs or wants).  As measured by gross national product in all the economies of the world (or per person), world capitalism is finding it more and more difficult to expand.

When Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto 170 years ago, they proclaimed the productive power unleashed by the capitalist exploitation of labour power, based on using more and more means of production (machines, technology etc) to replace human labour, while extending its tentacles to all parts of the globe.  Indeed, the rapacious drive for profit has led to an uncontrolled destruction of nature and of the earth’s resources that has polluted the planet.  And now, fossil fuel production has caused an increasingly irreversible global warming that is changing the earth’s climate, bringing with it extreme weather and disasters.

Last year global GDP among the world’s 195 nations hit a record $85trn.  Remarkably, three-quarters of this was accounted for by just 14 economies – the lucky few with an individual GDP in excess of $1trn.

The global population also hit a record last year of 7.6bn.  That’s a doubling in less than half a century.  The working age population (WAP) has reached 5bn, but this is mainly outside the top 12 economies (ie G14 minus India and Brazil).

In the major capitalist economies, output is now expanding much more slowly than ever before.  As Alan Freeman has shown in a recent paper, “economic growth of the industrialised North has fallen continuously, with only brief and limited interruptions, since at least the early 1960s. The trend is extremely strong and includes all major Northern economies without exception.” The_sixty-year_downward_trend_of_economi (1)

As Freeman concludes, “we face, not merely a decline in the GDP growth rate of one country (for example, the United States, whose decline has been studied more exhaustively) but of an entire group – the advanced or industrialised countries – whose growth rates follow  the same trend and indeed, have converged. The trend observed is thus highly likely to be systemic – accounted for by the structure of the world economy as a whole – than being a result of the problems or vagaries of one particular country.”

Capitalism is not fulfilling its only claim to fame –expanding the productive forces.  It is exhausted.  Alongside that, inequality of wealth and income in the major economies is widening, poverty levels and the gap between rich and poor countries and people is widening.  And nature and the climate are severely damaged.

Economic growth depends on two factors: 1) the size of employed workforce and 2) the productivity of that workforce.  On the first factor, there is a demographic demise.  The advanced capitalist economies are running out of more human labour power.  As for the second factor, the productivity growth of the employed workforce is slowing.

For the first time since the emergence of capitalism as the dominant mode of production globally, the largest economies – the G12 — saw their collective working age populations (WAP) decline. And this decline will accelerate, according UN Population Division forecasts.

Of the 14 economies with $1trn or more GDP, there are only two – India and Brazil – where the working age population will grow over the next generation.  The other 12 will experience a decline in their workforce.  It’s possible that increased immigration from more populous regions could enable the US, the UK, Canada and Australia to expand their workforce for a while – although the governments in all these countries want to cut back immigration.  In Japan, Germany and Italy even immigration will not stop the fall.  In South Korea, Germany and Italy, excluding immigration, the workforce will fall by 1% a year over the next ten years.  So, other things being equal, that is 1% a year of potential GDP growth.

As a result, these leading capitalist economies will have ageing workforces and an increasingly dependent non-working population.  Currently, among the biggest economies, people of working age (15-64 year olds) typically account for 65% of the total population.

Japan’s rapidly ageing population, however, shows the way forward.  By 2030, the ratio of WAP/total population will decline everywhere.  For those countries unable to “import” skilled working-age people, it will decline precipitously.

Then there is the productivity of that declining workforce.  If productivity growth could be accelerated, then this could compensate for the contraction in the workforce and so sustain real GDP growth.  But global productivity growth is slowing.

Over the last 40 years and especially in the last 15, there’s been a broad-based slowdown in output per hour worked across the major economies.  For the G11 (excludes China), it’s currently running at a trend rate of just 0.7% p.a.

Russia’s productivity level is falling, while that of Italy and the UK is hardly moving.

If we add together the potential growth in the workforce and the growth in productivity of that workforce, we can get a forecast of potential real GDP growth over the next ten years.  And remember, this assumes no new slumps in investment, employment and production from a crisis in capitalist production.

Without net immigration, real GDP across the G11 bloc will expand by less than 1% a year, with Australia doing best at 0.9% a year, while Russia and Italy could suffer an annual shrinkage of a similar proportion.  With immigration, Australia’s potential annual growth could reach the heady heights of 1.7% a year, but everybody else would have a sub-1% growth rate. Even allowing for some skilled immigration from outside, it’s unlikely that real GDP growth for the G11 bloc as a whole would exceed 0.5% p.a!

But why is productivity growth in the major economies falling?  The productivity puzzle has been debated by mainstream economists for some time now.  The ‘demand pull’ Keynesian explanation that capitalism is in secular stagnation due to a lack of effective demand to encourage capitalists to invest in productivity enhancing technology.  Then there is the supply-side argument from others that there are not enough effective productivity-enhancing technologies to invest in – the day of the computer, the internet etc, is over and there is nothing new that will have the same impact.

But there is also another very simple explanation.  Evidence shows that productivity growth is mainly driven by capital investment, which replaces labour with machines – the machines boost the output of each worker using the technology and also reduce the number of workers needed.  There are three factors behind productivity growth, the amount of labour employed, the amount invested in machinery and technology and the X-factor of the quality and innovatory skill of the workforce.  Mainstream growth accounting calls this last factor, total factor productivity (TFP), measured as the unaccounted for contribution to productivity growth after capital invested and labour employed.

In the case of the US, all three factors were at their strongest in the ‘hi-tech’ decade of the 1990s, but in the 2000s, the contribution of capital investment and labour employed dropped and since the Great Recession and in the subsequent Long Depression, all three factors have declined.

Part of the decline in US capital and labour investment can be laid at the door of increased globalisation as American companies went overseas for their factories and activities.  But investment to GDP has declined in all the major economies and since 2007 (with the exception of China).

In 1980, both advanced capitalist economies and ‘emerging’capitalist ones (ex-China) had investment rates around 25% of GDP.  Now the rate averages around 22%, or a more than 10% decline.  The rate fell below 20% for advanced economies during the Great Recession.

Indeed, productivity growth is also slowing in the so-called emerging economies like China, Brazil and India.

Why is investment in new technology so sluggish and thus failing to restore productivity growth?  The main reason for low investment in capitalist economies is that capitalists do not think it is profitable to invest in new technology to replace labour. Indeed, in the post Great Recession period, in many major economies like the US, the UK, Japan and in Europe, companies have preferred to keep their labour force and employ new workers on more ‘precarious’ contracts with fewer non-wage benefits and part-term or temporary contracts.  That is revealed in very low official unemployment rates alongside low investment rates.  Thus productivity growth is poor and overall real GDP growth is below-par.

The way to restore productivity growth and so get economies growing at a rate that can meet the demands of people for decent homes, education, health, and renewable energy is boost investment in new technology and the labour skills to go with it and distribute the gains to all.  But here lies the contradiction in capitalist production.  Production for profit not need.  And increased investment in technology that replaces value-creating labour leads to a tendency for profitability to fall.  So the need to expand and develop the productive forces comes into conflict capitalist accumulation.  And resolving that contradiction through slumps that raise profitability or by increased exploitation of the global workforce is getting much more difficult.

world rate of profit – average of 14 major economies (profits as % of fixed assets)

The global workforce available to exploit is not growing so fast and while there are still reserves of labour in Africa (eg Nigeria etc) and Asia, in the developed capitalist economies, the workforces are set to shrink; while productivity growth through more investment in technology cannot compensate if profitability continues to press downwards over time.

Macro modelling MMT

March 3, 2019

“The accounting identities equating aggregate expenditures to production and of both to incomes at market prices are inescapable, no matter which variety of Keynesian or classical economics you espouse. I tell students that respect for identities is the first piece of wisdom that distinguishes economists from others who expiate on economics. The second? … Identities say nothing about causation.” James Tobin, leftist Keynesian 1997

Money is ultimately a creation of government—but that doesn’t mean only government deficits determine the level of demand at any one time. The actions and beliefs of the private sector matter as well. And that in turn means you can have budget surpluses and excess demand at the same time, just as you can have budget deficits and deficient demand.”  Jonathan Portes (orthodox Keynesian).

The increasingly abstruse debate among economists (mainstream, heterodox and leftist) continues on the validity of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and its relevance for economic policy.  The debate among leftists went up another gear with the publication of leftist Doug Henwood’s fierce critique of MMT in Jacobin here. Leading MMTer Randall Wray angrily responded to Henwood’s attempted demolition here. And then from the heart of MMT land, Pavlina Tcherneva, program director and associate professor of economics at Bard College and a research associate at the Levy Economics Institute replied to Henwood in Jacobin.

In the mainstream, Paul Krugman had a go, with a response from Stephanie Kelton.  Kelton is a professor of public policy and economics at Stony Brook University, Long Island New York. She was the Democrats’ chief economist on the staff of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee and an economic adviser to the 2016 presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders.

Although this debate is getting very arcane and even nasty, it is not irrelevant because many leftists in the labour movement have been attracted by MMT as theoretical support for opposing ‘austerity’ and for justifying significant government spending to obtain full employment and incomes.  In particular, the radical wing of the Democrat party in the US has used MMT to support their call for a Green New Deal – arguing that more government spending on the environment, climate change and health can easily be financed by the issuance of dollars, rather than by more taxes or more government bonds that would raise public debt.

I won’t pitch into the MMT debate as above as I have already spent some ink in three posts trying to critique the theory and policy of MMT from a Marxist viewpoint, with the aim of working out whether MMT offers a way forward to meeting ‘the needs of the many’ (labour) over the few (capital).  And for me, that is the ultimate purpose of such a debate.

All I would add on the current debate among Keynesian, Post-Keynesians and MMTers is that MMTers argue with orthodox Keynesians over whether government spending can create the money to finance it; or taxation and borrowing is needed to create the money to fund government spending.  But as post-Keynesian Thomas Palley puts it: “government spending and taxation occur simultaneously so creation of money via money financed deficits and destruction of money via taxation also occur simultaneously. It is a pointless exercise to try and determine which comes first.”  Marxist analysis would agree.

Instead, in this post I want to look at MMT’s macro model.  In the twitter debate that is viral (at least among economists and activists!), critics of MMT have sometimes argued that MMT is just a series of vague assertions without any rigorous model.  This riled Kelton.  She immediately posted a paper written in 2011 by Scott Fullwiler of Warburg College, another MMT leader (who also recently commented on one of my blog posts).  In this paper, Scott outlined the MMT macro model in some detail.

Basically, he starts off with a Keynes/Kalecki post-Keynesian macro model of aggregate demand.  This model is simply an identity.  There are two ways of looking at an economy, by total income or by total spending and they must equal each other.

Thus National Income (NI) = National Expenditure (NE).

Following the ‘Keynesian Marxist’ Michal Kalecki, we can break this down into:

(NI) Profits + Wages = (NE) Investment + Consumption.  Now there are two sorts of income and two sorts of spending.

If we assume that all Wages are spent then and all Profits are saved, we can delete Wages and Consumption from the identity.  So

Profits = Investment

In the MMT version from Scott, he puts the same macro identity differently, with Investment on the left side of the equality.  Thus.

Investment = Profits

Why?  Because, as we shall see, all post-Keynesian theory argues that it is Investment that leads Profits, not vice versa.

But Scott re-expands the parts on the right-hand side to look at flows, so that wages that are saved are added back with profits to get Private Saving (so assuming some household saving); and he also adds in Government saving (taxation less spending) and Foreign Saving (net imports or current account deficit).

Thus Profits as a separate category disappears into Private Savings and we get:

Investment = Private Saving + (Taxation – Government Spending) + (Imports – Exports)

But then Scott also dispenses with the separate category Investment and converts it into Private Saving less Investment or the Private Sector Surplus.  So now we have Private Sector Savings (Wages saved plus Profits less Investment).  So Scott continues:

Private Sector Surplus = Government Deficit + Current Account Balance

Or

Private Sector Surplus – Current Account Balance = Government Deficit

This is the key MMT identity.  It argues that if the Government deficit rises, then assuming the Current Account balance does not change, the Private Sector Surplus (Wages saved +Profits less Investment) rises.  The MMT conclusion (assertion) is that increasing the Government deficit will increase the Private Sector Surplus . And if we exclude Wages saved (the MMT identity does not) and the Current Account balance, then we have:

Net Profits (ie Profits after Investment) = Government deficit

And we can conclude that Government deficits determine Net Profits ie Profits less Investment.

In the paper Scott then presents a time series graph comparing US Private Net Saving (remember this includes Household net saving) with Government deficits and concludes that “It shows how closely the private sector surplus and the government sector deficit have moved historically, which isn’t surprising given they are nearly the opposing sides of an accounting identity.”

But then Scott says: “What we notice (from these graphs) is that the current rise in the government’s deficit is creating net saving for the private sector.”  But is that how to view the causal direction of these macro identities?  The post-Keynesians reckon that the causal connection is that Investment creates Profits or in the MMT version Government deficits create net profits (private saving).  But in my view, the causal direction of this identity is in reality the opposite, namely that Marxian theory says that Profits create Investment, because Profits come from the exploitation of labour power.

Let us go back to the basic Kalecki identity, Profits = Investment, with Investment back on the right hand side.  Investment (which disappeared in Scott Fulwiller’s model) can be broken down to Capitalist investment and Government investment.

Profits = Capitalist investment + Government investment

Under the Kalecki causation, increasing government investment (by deficits, if you want) will raise Profits (and for that matter, wages too through more employment and wage rates – the post-Keynesian identities just refer to Private Saving and (importantly) do not break that out into Wages saved and Profits).

Thus Profits + Wages saved = Private investment + Government investment

But what if the Kalecki causation is back to front?  What if Profits lead Investment, not vice versa.  Then the identity is:

Profits (because Wages are spent) = Investment (comprising Capitalist investment and Government investment).  We can expand this to cover external flows so that:

Domestic Profits + Foreign Income = Capitalist investment + Government Investment + Foreign Inward Investment

Now assume both Domestic Profits and Foreign Income are fixed. What will happen if Government Investment rises?  Private Investment will fall unless foreign inward investment rockets.

How can government investment/spending be increased without Private (capitalist?) investment falling (being crowded out)?  By running budget deficits, say the post-Keynesians (and MMT).  Borrowing could be done by issuing government bonds (orthodox Keynesian) or by ‘printing money’ ie increasing cash reserves in banks (MMT).  Issuing bonds may reduce Private Investment to boost Government investment, but the credit created would stimulate overall Investment.  Printing Money (MMT) would raise Investment without reducing Private Investment (magic!). MMT/Keynesians will say if Government Investment is not funded by taxes on Domestic Profits but by borrowing with bonds or printing money, then it will not affect profits.  Marxists would say that this is ‘fictitious’ investment that must deliver higher profit at some point. 

All this is because identities do not reveal causation and it is causation that matters.  For the Keynesians, it is the right hand side of the equation (Investment) that causes the left hand side (Profits); namely, that it is capitalist investment and consumption that creates profit.  For MMTers, it is a variant of the same, but netted: Net government investment/spending (deficits after taxes) causes Net Private Savings (Profits and Saved wages after investment).

But in the real world of capitalist production, this is back to front.  Profits lead Investment, not vice versa; and Net Private Savings enable Government deficits not vice versa.  The graphs offered by Scott in his paper of the time series of deficits and net private surpluses can be interpreted with just that causality.  What I read from the first graph is not that the current rise in the government’s deficit is creating net saving for the private sector” (Fullwiler), but the opposite: higher net savings (profits after investment) will produce a higher government deficit or lower surplus.  In other words, when capitalists hoard/save and won’t invest, and that is particularly the case in recessions, then government deficits rise (through lower tax revenues and higher unemployment benefits).  And Scott’s graphs show that the US government deficits reach peaks in all the post-war US recessions and are at their lowest in boom times.

Indeed, if I do the correlations between the government balance and net private savings, there is indeed a very small inverse relation of 0.07; in other words, a larger government deficit is correlated (weakly) with a net private savings surplus.  But if I do the correlation between the government balance and GDP growth, there is a small positive correlation.  In other words, more government surplus/less deficit aligns with more GDP growth, the opposite of the Keynes/Kalecki causation, which suggests that it is growth that leads government balances, not vice versa (see the Portes quote above).

Any causation is also modified by the external account.  Scott’s second graph including the current account shows that a persistent current account deficit (net foreign inflows) from the 1980s helped to fund US government deficits, even though the private sector surplus disappeared in the 2000s.  So the main MMT causation argument is further muddied by foreign income.

We can only really better understand the causal connections if we have Investment isolated and Profits isolated. You see, contrary to the Keynesian/post-Keynesian/MMT view, the Marxist view is that “effective demand” (including government deficits) cannot precede production.  There is always demand in society for human needs.  But it can only be satisfied when human beings do work to produce things and services out of nature.  Production precedes demand in that sense and labour time determines the value of that production.  Profits are created by the exploitation of labour and then those profits are either invested or consumed by capitalists.  Thus, demand is only ‘effective’ because of the income that has been created, not vice versa.

Because the Keynesians/post-Keynesians have no theory of value, they do not recognise this and read their own identity the wrong way round. From a Marxist view, profits are the causal variable.  So if profits fall, then either investment, or capitalist hoarding or the government deficit must fall, or all three.

What is the evidence that profits lead investment and government deficits and not the other way round, as the Keynesians argue?  This blog has provided overwhelming empirical support to the Marxist causal direction. See my paper here which compiles all the compelling empirical research (including my own) that supports the Marxist view that, in a capitalist economy, profits lead investment, which in turn drives GDP growth and employment, while government deficits have little influence.

If the Keynes/Kalecki causation direction is right, then all that we need to do to keep a capitalist economy going is to have more government budget deficits.  If the MMTers are right, all we need to achieve permanent full employment is permanent government deficits (subject to some possible inflation constraint).  What the orthodox Keynesians and the MMTers disagree about is whether these deficits (of government spending over taxes) can and should be financed by issuing government bonds for banks to buy or by the central bank printing money.

The more important question, however, is what drives a capitalist economy.  It is the profitability of capitalist investment that drives growth and employment, not the size of a government deficit. The Keynes/Kalecki/MMT macro models hide behind identities and turn them into causes.  But identities “say nothing about causation” (Tobin).  It’s profits, not government spending, that call the tune.

MMT, Minsky, Marx and the money fetish

February 26, 2019

Recently the former deputy governor at the Bank of Japan Kikuo Iwata argued that Japan must ramp up fiscal spending with any increased public sector debt bankrolled by the central bank.  This ex-governor seems to have adopted Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), or at least a version of Keynesian-style deficit spending as a ‘radical’ (or is it desperate?) answer to the continued failure of the Japanese economy to grow anywhere near its pre-global crash rate.

The very latest data on the Japanese economy make dismal reading.  The best measure of activity in manufacturing, the Nikkei manufacturing PMI, declined to 48.5 in February 2019, the lowest reading since June 2016, as both output and new orders declined at faster rates.  Meanwhile, business confidence weakened for the ninth straight month.  In Q4 2018, Japan’s national output stagnated.  There has been zero growth compared to the end of 2017. That compares with average annual growth of 2% since the 1980s.

Iwata was originally the architect of the BOJ’s massive bond-buying programme dubbed “quantitative and qualitative easing” (QQE).  This was supposed to boost the economy through a massive injection of money supply.  But although the Japanese government continually ran annual government budget deficits, it was to no avail in reviving nominal GDP growth or real household incomes.

Japan’s per capita GDP has been rising, but that’s only because the population is declining and the workforce too.  Personal disposable income has not risen as fast as the economy as a whole in many years—at 1 percentage point less than average GNP growth in the late 1980s.  Japan may have ‘full employment’ but the percentage of the workforce employed on a temporary or part-time basis is up from 19% in 1996 to 34.5% in 2009, together with an increase in the number of Japanese living in poverty.  According to the OECD, the percentage of people in Japan living in relative poverty (defined as an income that is less than 50% of the median) from 12% of the total population in the mid-1980s to 15.3% in the 2000s.

Iwata’s answer to Japan’s ‘secular stagnation’ is to continue with government deficits and spending, but this time financed by just printing money, not issuing bonds. “Fiscal and monetary policies need to work as one, so that more money is spent on fiscal measures and the total money going out to the economy increases as a result,” That’s the only remaining policy option because “the BOJ’s current policy does not have a mechanism to heighten inflation expectations. We need a mechanism where money flows out to the economy directly and permanently.” BoJ bond purchases are just not working, because the banks are hoarding the cash in deposits and reserves and not lending.  They must be by-passed, says Iwata.

This proposal resembles the idea of “helicopter money” – a policy where the central bank directly finances government spending by underwriting bonds. Iwata’s solution to low growth and weak real incomes is just one more variant of the idea that demand must be stimulated to get a capitalist economy going, in this case by just printing more money.

Another variant now in the offing is to create a cashless economy.  You see, people keep hoarding their cash (under the mattress) and not spending while small companies get paid in cash and then hide it from their declared profits by hoarding.  So central banks and governments, in the world of digital and crypto-currencies, have now come up with the idea of abolishing or devaluing cash in favour of digital transactions.

The latest version of this comes from the IMF.  Having tried quantitative easing, as in Japan and elsewhere, and then ‘negative interest rates’ (ie people get paid to borrow money) to boost economies, the idea now is devalue cash.  This is how it goes: “In a cashless world, there would be no lower bound on interest rates. A central bank could reduce the policy rate from, say, 2 percent to minus 4 percent to counter a severe recession. The interest rate cut would transmit to bank deposits, loans, and bonds. Without cash, depositors would have to pay the negative interest rate to keep their money with the bank, making consumption and investment more attractive. This would jolt lending, boost demand, and stimulate the economy.  One option to break through the zero lower bound would be to phase out cash”  How? Make cash as costly as bank deposits with negative interest rates, thereby making deeply negative interest rates feasible while preserving the role of cash.

The proposal is for a central bank to divide the monetary base into two separate local currencies—cash and electronic money (e-money). E-money would be issued only electronically and would pay the policy rate of interest, and cash would have an exchange rate—the conversion rate—against e-money. Shops would start advertising prices in e-money and cash separately, just as shops in some small open economies already advertise prices both in domestic and in bordering foreign currencies. Cash would thereby be losing value both in terms of goods and in terms of e-money, and there would be no benefit to holding cash relative to bank deposits. “This dual local currency system would allow the central bank to implement as negative an interest rate as necessary for countering a recession, without triggering any large-scale substitutions into cash.”

This IMF idea comes hard on an actual attempt by a government to ‘devalue’ cash.  Two years ago, the Indian government under Modi overnight abolished high-denomination banknotes. The government claimed the aim was to flush out ill-gotten gains by rich Indians hiding their earnings in cash to avoid tax.  But it was the Hindu poor, in the rural areas particularly, who were most hit by this ‘demonetisation’. Two-thirds of Indian workers are employed in small businesses with less than ten workers – most are paid on a casual basis and in cash rupees The demonetisation was supposed to attack corruption and tax evasion, but it seems to have had little effect on that.  Indeed, lots of rich Indians made ‘private arrangements’ to obtain new bank notes and avoid having to declare monies into bank accounts..

Getting out of a recession or depression by printing money or reducing the value of holding cash has long been a Keynesian-style idea.  Keynes himself was very keen on the ideas of Silvio Gesell, a German merchant, who was minister of finance in the revolutionary government of Bavaria in 1919.  Gesell was convinced that the problems of capitalist depressions like the one in the late 19th century were due to the high interest rate on borrowing.  This encouraged ‘hoarding’.  If that could be stopped, then money would flow into spending and depressions would be overcome.  Keynes reckoned that Gesell’s work contained “flashes of deep insight and who only just failed to reach down to the essence of the matter.”  Keynes was particularly enamored of Gesell’s attempt to establish “an anti-Marxian socialism, a reaction against laissez-faire built on theoretical foundations totally unlike those of Marx in being based on a repudiation instead of on an acceptance of the classical hypotheses, and on an unfettering of competition instead of its abolition. I believe that the future will learn more from the spirit of Gesell than from that of Marx.”  (General Theory).

Gesell’s main policy proposal to end slumps was stamped money. According to this proposal currency notes (though it would clearly need to apply as well to some forms at least of bank-money) would only retain their value by being stamped each month, like an insurance card, with stamps purchased at a post office.  Keynes commented: “The idea behind stamped money is sound. It is, indeed, possible that means might be found to apply it in practice on a modest scale.”  The idea was to devalue cash and force people to spend and thus raise ‘effective demand’ by breaking the ‘liquidity trap’ of money hoarding.

Gesell’s idea has been widely acclaimed by many post-Keynesians.  But unlike them, although Keynes was keen on this ‘trick of circulation’ (to use Marx’s phrase), he saw deficiencies.  One was that Gesell did not realise that capitalist investment was not just governed by the rate of interest on borrowing but also by the rate of profit on investing (what Keynes called the ‘marginal efficiency of capital’).  So he “constructed only half a theory of the rate of interest.”  The other worry was that if cash notes were stamped, then those who wished to hoard would just keep money in bank deposits, gold or foreign currency.  So we were back to square one.  For more on the fundamental differences between Gesell and Marx on money, see here: http://www.unotheory.org/files/2-15-4.pdf

All these money theories of crises – the wider exponent of which is so-called financialisation – have one thing in common.  They ignore or deny the law of value, namely that all the things that we need or use in society are the product of human labour power and under a capitalist economy where production is for profit (ie for money over the costs of production), not need, then money represents the socially necessary labour time expended. We see only money, not value, but money is only the representation of value in its universal form, namely abstract labour as measured in socially necessary labour time. It is a fetish to think that money is something that is outside and separate from value.

As Marx puts it: “a particular commodity only becomes money because all other commodities express their value in it” BUT “it seems on the contrary, that all other commodities universally express their values in a particular commodity because it is money. The movement which mediated this process vanishes in its own result, leaving no trace behind. Without having to do anything to achieve it, the commodities find the form of their own value, in its finished shape, in the body of a commodity existing outside and alongside them…. Hence the magic of money. …The riddle of the money fetish is therefore merely the riddle of the commodity fetish, which has become visible and blinding the eyes.”

This is important and not metaphysical gobbledy gook. If Marx is right in his characterisation of money, then we can argue that capitalist production is production for more money (value and surplus value) through the exploitation of the labour force. That means unless more value is created by the labour force, money cannot make more money. Marx was always quick to oppose the fanciful notions that the contradictions which arise from the nature of commodities, and therefore come to the surface in their circulation, can be removed by increasing the amount of the medium of circulation.” (referring to the work of Physiocrat Jean-Daniel Herrenschwand).

It is precisely in the category of interest that Marx reckons the money fetish is strongest.  In interest-bearing capital the “fetish character of capital and the [conception] of this capital fetish [become] now complete“19 (CAP III, Penguin, p.516).  Then it appears that money can make money through interest accrual with no ‘exploitation’ or ‘production’ involved. It is “form without content” (CAP III, p.255). “In M–M’ we have the meaningless form of capital, the [inversion] and [reification] of production relations in their highest degree, the interest-bearing form, the simple form of capital, in which it antecedes its own process of reproduction; […] capacity of money, or of a commodity, to expand its own value independently of reproduction – which is a mystification of capital in its most flagrant form“(CAP III, p.256).

it is this money fetish that dominates the theories of post-Keynesian gurus like the American economist of the 1980s, Hyman Minsky. Minsky’s obsession with money and finance as the cause of crises has been brilliantly exposed in a recent article by Mike Beggs, a lecturer in political economy at the University of Sydney.  Beggs shows that Minsky started off as a socialist, following the ideas of ‘market socialism’ by Oscar Lange.  But he eventually retreated from seeing the need to replace capitalism with a new social organisation, to trying to resolve the contradictions of finance capital within capitalism.

In the 1970s, Minsky contrasted his position from Keynes.  Keynes had called for the “somewhat comprehensive socialization of investment” but went onto to modify that with the statement that “it is not the ownership of the instruments of production which it is important for the State to assume” — it was enough to “determine the aggregate amount of resources devoted to augmenting the instruments and the basic rate of reward to those who own them.” In the 1970s, Minsky went further and called for the taking over of the “towering heights” of industry and in this way Keynesianism could be integrated with the ‘market socialism’ of Lange and Abba Lerner.

But by the 1980s, Minsky’s aim was not to expose the failings of capitalism but to explain how an unstable capitalism could be ‘stabilised’. Biggs: “His proposals are aimed, then, at the stability problem. ….The expansion of collective consumption is dropped entirely. Minsky supports what he calls “Big Government” mainly as a stabilizing macroeconomic force. The federal budget should be at least of the same order of magnitude as private investment, so that it can pick up the slack when the latter recedes — but it need be no bigger.”

This policy approach is not dissimilar from that of MMT supporters.  Minsky even proposed a sort of MMT job guarantee policy. The government would maintain an employment safety net, promising jobs to anyone who would otherwise be unemployed. But these must be sufficiently low-paid to restrain market wages at the bottom end. The low pay is regrettably necessary, said Minsky, because “constraints upon money wages and labor costs are corollaries of the commitment to maintain full employment.” The discipline of the labor market remains: working people may not fear unemployment, but would surely still fear a reduction to the minimum wage (Beggs).

Thus, by the 1980s, Minsky saw government policy as aiming to establish financial stability, in order to  support profitability and sustain private expenditure. “Once we achieve an institutional structure in which upward explosions from full employment are constrained even as profits are stabilised, then the details of the economy can be left to market processes.” (Minsky).

Minsky’s journey from socialism to stability for capitalist profitability comes about because he and the post-Keynesians deny and/or ignore Marx’s law of value, just as the ‘market socialists’, Lange and Lerner, did.  The post-Keynesians and MMTers deny that profit comes from surplus value extracted by exploitation from the capitalist production process and it is this that is the driving force for investment and employment.  Instead they all have a money fetish. With the money fetish, money replaces value, rather than representing it. They all see money as both causing crises and also as solving them by creating value!  That leads them to ignore the origin and role of profit, except as a residual of investment and consumer spending.

So much for theory.  What about reality?  The reality is that the late 19th century depression did not end because money was pumped into the economy.  But it did end, so why?  In my book, The Long Depression, I explain how Marx’s law of profitability operated and after several slumps, profitability in the major economies was restored to enable a recovery in investment in the 1890s (Chapter 2) followed by increased international rivalry in a period of globalisation (imperialism) that eventually exploded into a world war as profitability began to slip again in the 1910s

The Keynesians (including the MMTers) like to say that the Great Depression was resolved by Keynesian-style monetary easing and fiscal spending.  But the evidence is against this.  In the 1930s, monetary easing (QE etc) failed, something Keynes recognised at the time.  New Deal budget deficits were never applied much but, even so, the New Deal work programmes did not really reduce unemployment or get real incomes up until the war ‘boom’.  Again, see my book, The Long Depression, Chapter 3, where I show that the US economy only recovered once a war economy was imposed with government now dominating investment.

What is different about the Long Depression since 2009 is that, unlike the Great Depression of the 1930s, there are now very low (official) unemployment rates in the major economies. Instead, real incomes are stagnant, while productivity and investment growth is abysmal.  Financial markets are booming but the productive sectors of the economy are crawling along.  And yet the period since 2009 has been accompanied by all sorts of monetary tricks: zero or even negative interest rates, unconventional monetary policy (QE) and now proposals for ‘helicopter money’, unending MMT-style government deficits and a cashless economy (Gesell-style).

As Maria Ivanova has shown, there remains a blind belief that the crisis-prone nature of the latter can be managed by means of ‘money artistry’, that is, by the manipulation of money, credit and (government) debt.  Ivanova argues that the merits of a Marxian interpretation of the crisis surpass those of the Minskyan for at least two reasons. First, the structural causes of the Great Recession lie not in the financial sector but in the system of globalized production. Second, the belief that social problems have monetary or financial origins, and could be resolved by tinkering with money and financial institutions, is fundamentally flawed, for the very recurrence of crises attests to the limits of fiscal and monetary policies as means to ensure “balanced” accumulation.

None of the ‘money fetish’ schemes have worked or will work to get the capitalist economy going.  Instead such measures have just created financial bubbles to the benefit of the richest.  That’s because these “tricks of circulation” are not based on the reality of the law of value.

Nigeria’s nightmare

February 24, 2019

Nigeria has just had a general election to elect a new president and Congress. Nigeria is often ignored in the global scheme of things.  But it is the largest country in Africa with around 200m in population and a larger national output than South Africa. It is rich in natural resources (especially fossil fuel energy) and its people.  But it is appallingly poor.  Nigeria is the prime example of a country, fashioned by imperialism from various original large tribes originally for the slave trade and later into a state for the extreme exploitation by multi-national companies.  The Nigerian elite (based on the military and oil businesses) has taken its cut from this exploitation and rules through patronage, corruption, and in the recent past by outright military dictatorship.

For the last 20 years, however, there has been a semblance of democracy, with ele ctions for governments.  But this democracy is relative.  In the mainly muslim inland north-east, there is a bitter battle going with Islamic terrorist groups (Boko Haram) who seek to impose strict Islamic rule over swathes of part of Nigeria.

But at least, in 2015, the last president of Nigeria, Goodluck Johnson, conceded defeat to the current President without trying to stay in power using the military and chicanery- for the first time in Nigeria’s chequered history..  The general election this time pits the incumbent Muhammadu Buhari (76 years), of the governing All Progressives Congress (APC) against the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) led by  Atiku Abubakar (72 years).  The APC purports to be a centre-left party opposed to austerity and in favour of better conditions for Nigerians, while the PDP advocates neo-liberal pro-market, pro-oil company policies.

Buhari’s platform is “to be tough on insecurity and corruption” (which ironically was little changed under his presidency), and he wants to complete much-needed infrastructure projects. Abubakar is a pro-business free marketeer whose main pledges have been to privatise giant state-run companies and float the embattled naira currency.  In practice, as in the US, there is little to choose between the two main candidates. Both men are from the mainly muslim north of the country which is where Buhari gets his support; Abubakar gets his from the south and south-east.  The mega-city Lagos with its urbanised 20m swings between the two parties and will decide the result.

Both leading candidates are muslims by religion and both intend to do nothing to change the nightmarish poverty and inequality in Nigeria, or even to establish equality before the law and protect human rights.  As one middle-class urban voter put it: “They [Abubakar and Buhari] are both terrible people and not fit to be president … I don’t think Atiku will bring any real change if he wins. And all the ‘experience and leadership’ they’ve sold us at all levels, what has it brought us really?”

While they are in their 70s, more than half of Nigeria’s registered voters are under 35.  Nigeria is a youthful country with a very fast growing population.  Indeed, on current trends, Nigeria will double its population to 400m by 2050 and by any stretch become the most important state in Africa.

Young people (0 to 19 years of age) account for more than 54% of the population and their conditions are dire.  Currently nearly a quarter of the working age population is unemployed, while the youth unemployment rate reached an all-time high of 38% in the second quarter of 2018.

The Nigerian economy is a one-trick pony, as are many in Africa controlled by imperialism.  Oil and gas production dominates; so all depends on the price of oil globally.

The Nigerian capitalist economy operates mostly for the foreign multi-national oil companies.  There is little investment outside of energy.  Overall investment to GDP moves with the vagaries of the crude oil price and since the sharp fall after 2010, it has fallen to a 20 year low.

Investment in any capitalist economy, including Nigeria, depends primarily on its profitability.  It is difficult to get decent data to measure the overall profitability of Nigerian capital.  But using the Penn World Tables, I reckon it looks something like this.

The profitability of capital seems to follow closely the price of crude oil, demonstrating again that the Nigerian economy is imbalanced and structured to benefit only international oil, and not even domestic capital.  In the boom period for the oil price in the 2000s, GDP growth took off and the rate of profit on capital (on my measure) rose 60%.  But since 2010, the oil price has halved and Nigeria’s real GDP growth has disappeared.

And the falling oil price and Nigeria’s slide down has meant a rising budget and external trade deficit.  That means the next government will be applying yet more austerity for the people while trying to restore profitability for the energy industries.

With the sharp drop in the oil price in 2016, the economy quickly slipped into recession and the slow recovery since 2017 has had little effect on providing jobs for young people and others. No wonder the biggest national group of immigrants trying to get into Europe from North Africa are Nigerian.

While Nigeria may have the largest GDP in Africa, with 200 million people, its income per person is shockingly low at just 19% of the world’s average.  “Inequality in terms of income and opportunities has been growing rapidly,and has adversely affected poverty reduction. The North-South divide has widened in recent years due to the Boko Haram insurgency and a lack of economic development in the northern part of the country. Large pockets of Nigeria’s population still live in poverty, without adequate access to basic services, and could benefit from more inclusive development policies. The lack of job opportunities is at the core of the high poverty levels, of regional inequality, and of social and political unrest in the country.” (IMF report).

Inequality is huge, with the gini coefficient of inequality of income over 40.  Nigeria has the highest proportion of people earning below the World Bank’s definition of poverty in the world!  Out of 180 countries, Transparency International places it the 144th least corrupt – in other words, it is near the top for corruption. Nigeria’s annual inflation rate is permanently in double digits, with interest rates for borrowing near 20%.

The choice for the people in this election is between the incumbent president, an ex-general who participated vigorously in previous military coups and dictatorships but is now a ‘converted democrat’; and an oil tycoon.  No wonder the voter turnout is likely to be only around 45% of 73m eligible to vote; the unemployed youth and poor do not vote (except with their feet).  So Nigeria’s nightmare is likely to continue.

It’s all down to the FAANGS

February 18, 2019

The world economy continues to show significant signs of a slowdown.  Back in April 2018, I reckoned that the mini-boom of 2016-17 had peaked and the world economy would now descend into another Kitchin cycle downswing.  Moreover, this showed that nearly ten years from the end of the Great Recession in mid-2009, the world economy was still stuck in a Long Depression, or ‘secular stagnation’ (in Keynesian language).

Last month, data showed that the German economy, the powerhouse of Europe, had only narrowly avoided a ‘technical recession’ in the second half of 2018.   This was partly caused by the global slowdown in the auto sector due a sharp drop in demand along with restrictions on diesel car emissions.   Now in February, the EU Commission slashed its real GDP growth forecasts. The Commission cut its Eurozone growth forecast for this year to 1.3% from 1.9% in its earlier forecast last autumn, citing “large uncertainty” from Brexit negotiations, slowing growth in China and weakening global trade.  At the same time, the Bank of England cut its forecast for the country’s economic outlook in the wake of greater uncertainty over Brexit and a slowdown in global growth. The downgrade for 2019 growth expectations to 1.2% is the weakest level in a decade.  The Eurozone growth rate for the last quarter of 2018 is already there.

The last week, we got the figures for UK real GDP growth at the end of 2018.  Real GDP growth was just 0.2% in Q4 2018 over the previous quarter. Indeed, the industry and construction sectors actually contracted. Manufacturing output has been shrinking for six months.  Real GDP growth year over year (ie from Q42017 to Q4 2018) has slowed to just 1.2% (meeting the BoE forecast for 2019 already).  This was the slowest annual rate since 2012.  UK business investment in new technology, plant and equipment has also slumped badly – down for four consecutive quarters and down nearly 4% yoy. As a percentage of GDP, business investment has been falling for over three years. British business is on an investment strike.  The risk of an outright recession in the UK this year has risen sharply.

What’s happening in the UK economy is not all due to uncertainty over what happens with Brexit. It is also due to the global slowdown, particularly in Europe and China.  Japan is teetering on a recession, with growth in the last quarter of 2018 at zero.

China’s growth rate continues to slow – if still far higher than anything in the advanced capitalist economies.

And, as I pointed out in a previous post, among the so-called ‘emerging economies’, emergence is being replaced by submergence.  Real GDP in Latin America as a whole is contracting on annualised basis, according to investment bank JP Morgan.

But the key to whether this slowdown becomes an outright recession (mainstream economics defines that as two consecutive quarterly declines in real GDP) is what happens in the largest and most important capitalist economy, the US.  Up to now, the US has been the leader of the pack, at least among the top G7 economies, with a real GDP growth rate of 3% at the end of 2018.

But as many have argued, this growth rate is ‘fake news’ as President Trump might put it.  It has been driven by huge tax cuts for US corporations that have boosted profits by up to 30% in the last year.  The impact of these will soon wear off in 2019.  And it is already happening.  According to the forecast of the Atlanta Federal Reserve, real GDP growth in the US will slow to just 1.5% in this current first quarter of 2019.

This latest forecast was a huge drop from the already slower 2% than Atlanta previously forecast.  That was because of really bad retail sales figures announced last week.  These may have been distorted by the US government shutdown in January and seasonal factors, but even so it is clear that the US economy is beginning to join Europe, Asia and Latin America in a significant downturn.

Actual nominal GDP has continued to weaken in the US, and even more so in Europe and Japan.  The Long Depression continues.

In my view, there are two key factors that drive a capitalist economy: 1) investment in the capitalist sector and 2) the profitability of that investment.  The latter decides the former, after a lag (according to empirical studies, usually a lag of about one year).

It seems that global investment is now stalling.  JPMorgan investment bank economists are signalling a significant slowdown in global investment spending in the first quarter of 2019.  “In sum, we have worried for some time that the sustained slide in global business confidence would translate into a meaningful deceleration in capex. This appears to be happening now, especially following the tightening in financial conditions in 4Q18. Indeed, the data we have in hand might not reveal the full extent of this pullback.”

The JPM economists cite “business confidence” and “tightening financial conditions”, by which they mean that companies are worried about future profitability and sales alongside rising interest costs on debt.  Will the budding trade war between the US and China explode?  Will the Fed and other central banks continue to raise their policy interest rates and thus ‘tighten’ financial conditions?

But rather than consider the psychology of capitalists, it is more rewarding to consider the objective conditions, because the latter informs the former.  Globally, business investment has been in decline (as a share of GDP) since the end of the Great Recession.  This relative decline has been led by the US and Europe.

It is often argued that investment to GDP is now lower because modern corporations don’t need to invest so much in tangible assets like equipment, offices and factories, because investment is now increasingly in ‘intangibles’, like patents, ‘intellectual property rights’ and software (even ‘goodwill’).  But the evidence for this conclusion remains highly dubious.  See Olivier Blanchard’s note on this here.

Then there is the argument that companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon etc have merely hoarded their profits as cash or switched it into buying back their own shares to improve the financial value of their companies and boost the top executives bonuses.  But this latter explanation, in my view, merely confirms that the real reason for lower business investment to GDP is that profitability of productive capital globally remains near post-war lows and for most economies is still below the level reached in 2006 or the late 1990s.

Here is the level of profitability of capital globally as calculated by Esteban Maito in our recent book, World in Crisis, Chapter 4.

And here is the secular decline in real GDP growth in the advanced capitalist economies that accompanies the secular fall in profitability (as calculated by Alan Freeman in a new paper.
The_sixty-year_downward_trend_of_economi)

And here is what has happened to the profitability of capital from the beginning of the credit crunch in 2007 and the ensuing global financial crash and Great Recession, followed by the weak recovery and the Long Depression.

Over the whole period, Eurozone and US profitability is still below the 2007 level, while UK profitability is virtually flat.  Only Japan shows a rise.  In the ‘recovery’ period of 2010-18, profitability in the US and the Eurozone failed to recover.  But in the recent mini-boom, there was some positive rise.

Actually, the big American tech companies (FAANGS) are the exception that proves the rule.  There are whole swathes of smaller capitalist enterprises that are struggling to deliver enough revenues and profits to service their debts even though interest rates have remained way lower than before the global financial crash.  I have covered this issue of zombie companies in previous posts, but the subject takes on an increasing relevance if ‘financial conditions’, as JPM calls it, continue to tighten globally. Indeed, according to another investment bank, Goldman Sachs, corporate sales growth is now at its lowest rate (on a 10-year rolling basis) since 1945!

If sales growth is weak and interest costs rise, then profits will be squeezed.  Goldman’s economists note that since 2010, profit growth outside the US has stalled.  The only place where corporate earnings have expanded is in the US.  And this, according to Goldman’s is entirely down to those super-tech companies.  Global profits ex technology are only moderately higher than they were prior to the financial crisis, while technology profits have moved sharply upwards (mainly reflecting the impact of large US technology companies), driven by a combination of strong sales growth and sharply rising margins.

Global growth is set to slow sharply in 2019.  This is because business investment growth, already weak in the Long Depression, is going to drop off further.  In turn, that investment slowdown is driven by low profitability in most economies and in most sectors.  Only the huge tech companies in the US have bucked this trend, helped by a recent profits bonanza from the Trump tax ‘reforms’.  But as the effect of those handouts wear off this year, tech profits may also head downwards – even if the US and China reach a trade deal.

The Green New Deal and changing America

February 8, 2019

It seems now very opportune that I recently posted three times on my blog my views on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), an increasingly attractive theory for the left to justify government spending to meet the ‘needs of the many’.  For just this week, left Democrats in the US Congress, led by the rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), a member of Democratic Socialists of America, launched what they call the Green New Deal (GND), an alternative programme for a future US government to adopt to provide proper public services in education and health and to deal with global warming and environmental pollution.  And the GND and AOC make clear that funding for these badly needed government programmes can be achieved if we follow the policy conclusions of MMT.

The GND is a welcome attempt to reset the agenda for economic and social policy in favour of labour in America, for the first time since the New Deal of the 1930s.  The GND wants to establish a national health service free to all at the point of use, as exists in most of Western Europe and other advanced capitalist economies.  It wants to introduce free college education and end the heavy burden of student loans placed on working-class people; and it wants to create jobs at decent wages for environmentally sound projects through government investment. Such a programme may be modest and it will bet bitterly opposed by American capital.

The GND preamble notes that “the Federal Government-led mobilizations during World War II and the New Deal era created the greatest middle class that the US has ever seen” and frames the GND as “a historic opportunity to create millions of good, high-wage jobs in the United States.”  Of the GND projects, investment in “community-defined projects and strategies” to increase resilience is the first; repairing and upgrading infrastructure is the second, along with “appropriate ownership stakes and returns on investment, adequate capital (including through community grants, public banks, and other public financing), technical expertise, supporting policies, and other forms of assistance to communities, organizations, Federal, State, and local government agencies, and businesses working on the Green New Deal mobilization.”  So this is a New Deal like the 1930s, but designed for the 21st century to revive public investment, with the returns going back to the public.  GND calls for the US to “meet 100 percent of our power demand through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.”

Also GND has what are called “aspirations” like “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and disability leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States.”   In other words, the Job Guarantee as promoted by MMT enthusiasts (see my post).  And more rights for trade unions to organise, “strengthening and protecting the right of all workers to organize, unionize, and collectively bargain free of coercion, intimidation, and harassment.”  Another key aspiration is in “providing all members of society with high-quality health care, affordable, safe and adequate housing, economic security, and access to clean water, air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.”

So the GND involves a federal job guarantee, the right to unionize, action against free trade and monopolies, and universal housing and health care.  In Europe and other advanced capitalist economies, these aspirations are not so radical(although in the neoliberal world, they are increasingly so), but in Trump’s America, where corporate interests are paramount and the main enemy is now ‘socialism’, the GND programme is an anathema.

But it is not just Trump and Wall Street who have thrown up their hands in horror at the GND proposals.  Some orthodox Keynesians have wrung their hands.  Noah Smith, the Keynesian economics blogger and Bloomberg columnist, let out a howl of anguish because he reckoned that GND, as promoted by AOC,”definitely seems to include: 1) universal health care paid for by MMT; 2) trillions of dollars in infrastructure spending paid for by MMT; 3) economic security for those “unwilling to work”, paid for by MMT and makes clear that it will ultimately rely on deficits to pay for the Green New Deal. As justification, it points to the basic ideas of MMT.”  Smith is horrified by this because he considers the ‘nonsense’ of MMT will completely undermine the objectives of the GND.  He wants the Democrat lefts to decide between work-based policies and redistributive policies.

It does seem that AOC and other promoters of the GND programme think that MMT can justify and explain where the money is going to come from to pay for all the aspirations and necessary public investment.  For example, leading MMTer, Stephanie Kelton was asked: “ Can we afford a #GreenNewDealShe replied: Yes. The federal government can afford to buy whatever is for sale in its own currency.”  So there it is. The financing of the GND will apparently be achieved by government spending the necessary money, which it gets by running deficits and ‘printing’ whatever amount of currency required.  Other means of revenue, like taxes, come later (if at all), and issuing government bonds for households or financial institutions to buy is not needed.

What is wrong with this?  Well, I have argued in previous posts that MMT is a novel ‘trick of circulation’ (Marx) that ignores the whole circuit of money that goes from money through capital investment into production for profit and more money.  The MMT argues that we can just start with the state printing money and then all will flow from that – more investment, more production, more incomes, more employment – as though the social relations of capitalism were irrelevant.  MMT will deliver full employment at decent wages, healthcare, education and other public services without interfering with the big banks, the multi-nationals, big pharma and Wall Street.  You see, because the state controls the money (the dollar), then it is all powerful over the likes of Goldman Sachs, Bank America, Boeing, Caterpillar, Amazon, WalMart etc.

Therein lies the danger of MMT as the theoretical and policy support for government spending and running deficits.  Actually, it is not necessary to adopt MMT to deliver the GND programme.  There are many ways to meet the bill.  First, there is the redistribution of existing federal and state spending in the US.  Military and defense spending in the US is nearly $700bn a year, or around 3.5% of current US GDP.  If this was diverted into civil investment projects for climate change and the environment, and those working in the armaments sector used their skills for such projects, then it would go a long way to meeting GND aspirations.  Of course, such a switch would incur the wrath of the military, financial and indsustrial complex and could not be implemented without curbing their political power.

Then there is the redistribution of income and wealth through progressive taxation to raise revenues for extra public spending on the needs of the many.  The Trump administration has made huge cuts in the tax burden for the very rich and the big corporations; and it has encouraged and allowed the salting away of profits into tax havens around the world equivalent to 1-3% of US GDP.  So the proposal by AOC and others to raise the top income tax rate to 70%, along with the idea of Elizabeth Warren to apply a wealth tax on the assets of the very rich, is another direction to go.  The latter could raise up to $275bn a year. Of course, these measures would only scratch at the surface of the grotesque income and wealth inequality in America.  Tax inequality expert Gabriel Zucman reckons that the Warren wealth tax would raise the total effective burden at the very top of the distribution from 3.2% of net worth to only 4.3%. This tax obligation would still be lower than the average burden of 7.2% of net worth paid by most other Americans.

The problem is that is the already high level of inequality in wealth and income before taxation:  the US and the UK have highest degree of inequality in the advanced economies.  The graph below shows inequality before and after tax and transfers.  The US and the UK have the highest inequality before and, although their tax and transfers reduce that inequality considerably, they still remain at the top.  The Scandinavian economies have high inequalities, but redistribute most, to end up with the lowest inequality ratios.

But again, to change things fundamentally on inequality would require a change in very structure of the economy ie capitalism.  Warren, a supporter of capitalism, does not want to do that.  Instead she wants, like other leftists (Joe Stiglitz), just seek to end of the ‘rigging’ of the economy in favour of the rich and the big monopolies.

The real way to find the finance needed to carry out the GND programme would be to deliver more revenues through faster economic growth.  President Trump boasted that his administration would deliver 4% real GDP growth a year from his tax cuts and incentives to the stock market.  Of course, this was an idle boast.  At the end of 2018, US real GDP growth peaked at 3% in the last quarter and is now expected to slow fast (even if the economy avoids an outright recession).  The long-term forecast for US economic growth made by the US Congressional Board Office is just 1.7% a year.  That’s why Trump tax cuts for the rich have already created rising annual federal budget deficits – but something we need not worry about, according to him and to the MMTers.

I am indebted to Scott Fullwiler, a leading MMTer at the Levy Institute, for pointing out in a comment on my blog that MMT experts have simulated their own projections for the cost of delivering full employment at wages above $15 an hour and reckon that it would increase the federal deficit by 1.0-1.5% of GDP annually over the next ten years without incurring any significant rise in inflation. rpr_4_18

Let me be clear, Left Democrats and the supporters of MMT are rightly pushing for measures that really would help ‘the many’ in America.  But, in my view, it will be an illusion to think the GND can be implemented, even in just economic terms, simply by following MMT and printing the dollars required.  Yes, the state can print as much as it wants, but the value of each dollar in delivering productive assets is not in the control of the state where the capitalist mode of production dominates.  What happens when profits drop and a capitalist sector investment slump ensues? Growth and inflation still depends on the decisions of capital, not the state. If the former don’t invest (and they will require that it be profitable), then state spending will be insufficient.

And even accepting that the MMT/Levy projections could be achieved, they would not deliver nearly as much as a doubling of the sustainable US growth rate would generate, which would be over $750bn a year.  That would mean a tripling of investment growth. Over a decade, even a proportion of that would amply meet the financing requirements of the GND. But such a growth rate is impossible to achieve without a substantial change in the economic structure of the US economy. It is not going to happen when the 80% of all investment is done by the capitalist sector and depends on the profitability of capital.  That tells me that the GND is only possible to achieve if 80% of the productive sectors of the economy are socialised and incorporated into federal, state and local plans for investment and production.  That thorny question cannot and should not be ignored by MMTers.

MMT 3 – a backstop to capitalism

February 5, 2019

After two long and possibly turgid posts analysing Modern Monetary Theory, in this third post, I’m going to look at the practicalities – in other words, what are the policy proposals that MMTers put forward for the government to do in order to get more jobs at better wages and without provoking inflation?

Since the Great Recession, leftist economists have tried to refute the theories of neoliberal mainstream economics that call for balanced government budgets and a reduction in the high levels of public debt.  The policies of austerity that flow from the neoliberal view have meant the slashing of welfare benefits, reductions in public services, real wage stagnation and a rise in unemployment.  Naturally, the labour movement wants to reverse these policies that make working people pay for the failure of the banks and capitalism.

The usual alternative comes from traditional Keynesianism, namely that more government spending (by running deficits on annual budgets) can boost effective demand in the capitalist economy and create jobs and increase wages.  And here is where MMT comes in.  As leading MMTer Randall Wray puts it, what MMT adds to Keynesian fiscal stimulus policy is a theoretical argument that “a sovereign government cannot run out of its own currency.”  Because the state has a monopoly over fixing the unit of account (dollars or euros or pesos), it can create as much money as it needs, distribute that money to ‘non-state’ entities, and so boost demand and deliver jobs and incomes.  As Stephanie Kelton, a leading MMT exponent and adviser to Bernie Sanders, says “The issuer of currency can never run out of money because it can always print or mint more dollars, pesos, rubles, yen, etc.”

So running state budget deficits (and hiking up public sector debt) is not a problem.  And because there is nearly always ‘slack’ in capitalist economies, ie unemployment and underused resources, there is always room to boost demand, not just temporarily until the capitalist sector takes over again (as in Keynesian policies), but permanently. This sounds very attractive to the left in the labour movement.  Here is a theoretical justification for unlimited government spending and budget deficits to achieve full employment without touching the sticky sides of the capitalist sector of the economy.  All that is necessary is for politicians and governments to recognise the simple fact that the state cannot run out of money.

The key policy that MMTers put forward from that theoretical premise is what they call a government job guarantee.  Everybody will be guaranteed a job if they want or need it; the government will employ them on projects; or pay for them to get a job.  Most people work for capitalist companies or the government, but unemployment remains and can engulf a sizeable section of the workforce.  So the government should act as an “employer of last resort”.  It won’t replace capitalist companies, but instead sweep up those of working age that capital has failed to employ.  As Randall Wray puts it: “I’d just operate a bufferstock program for labor”.  You could call it a government backstop for capitalism (to use the current word dominating Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU).

Bill Mitchell is a leading MMT economist from Australia and has campaigned tirelessly for the government job guarantee.  He describes it as an open-ended public employment program that offers a job at a living (minimum) wage to anyone who wants to work but cannot find employment”….  The Job Guarantee jobs would ‘hire off the bottom’, in the sense that minimum wages are not in competition with the market-sector wage structure.  By not competing with the private market, the Job Guarantee would avoid the inflationary tendencies of old-fashioned Keynesianism, which attempted to maintain full capacity utilisation by ‘hiring off the top’.”

Guaranteeing a job for all sounds great.  But apparently, it will not be a job paying a ‘living wage’ (a wage that people can live on).  No, it will only be a ‘minimum wage’ to make sure that it is not “in competition with the market-sector wage structure.”  In other words, the likes of Amazon or WalMart, or small retail and leisure businesses, will still be able to go paying their workers very low wages (at or near the minimum) without interference by any Job Guarantee, because such jobs will be paying less.

Thus the Job Guarantee acts a backstop for the private sector; it does not replace it.  Here is Bill Mitchell again: “The Government operates a buffer stock of jobs to absorb workers who are unable to find employment in the private sector. The pool expands (declines) when private sector activity declines (expands). The JG fulfils this absorption function to minimise the costs associated with the flux of the economy. So the government continuously absorbs into employment workers displaced from the private sector. The “buffer stock” employees would be paid the minimum wage, which defines a wage floor for the economy.”

In a way, this reminds me of the Universal Basic Income idea.  UBI is also like a backstop to capitalism, providing a basic income to people even if they don’t work.  The JG offers a minimum wage if you want to work.  But both do not threaten or replace capitalist sector wage structure or the decisions of capital over who to employ and under what conditions.  As Mitchell says: “To avoid disturbing the private sector wage structure and to ensure the JG is consistent with stable inflation, the JG wage rate is best set at the minimum wage level”.

And what sort of jobs will there be?  By definition they won’t be skilled jobs as the government will be “hiring off the bottom”.  But they will be in useful non-profit projects like building roads, bridges, etc: many socially useful activities including urban renewal projects and other environmental and construction schemes (reforestation, sand dune stabilisation, river valley erosion control, and the like), personal assistance to pensioners, and other community schemes. For example, creative artists could contribute to public education as peripatetic performers”.

When I read that list, I am reminded of the Roosevelt New Deal of the 1930s. Under Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) many unemployed were put to work on a wide range of government financed public works projects, building bridges, airports, dams, post offices, hospitals and hundreds of thousands of miles of road. This was all on very basic incomes.  Did it solve the problem of sky-high unemployment in the Great Depression?  Well, in 1933 the unemployment rate reached 25%; in 1938 it was 19%; so not a great success.  MMTers will say that this was because it was not done properly as Roosevelt kept trying to balance the government budget, not run deficits permanently.

The JG program is to provide jobs only at the minimum wage. That also reminds me of the notorious Hartz labour ‘reforms’ in Germany in the early 2000s that created programs for the unemployed at the barest minimum wage.  The unemployment rate fell but real wages stagnated.  While unemployment is at its lowest since German reunification in 1990, some 9.7% of Germans in work still live below the poverty line – defined as income of around €940 per month or less. Indeed, that working poor figure has grown from 7.5% in 2006 and even surpasses the EU average of 9.5%, according to Eurostat data.

German real wages and per capita GDP

If you want to know how minimum wage employment feels in the German context, read this.

The other issue with MMT-inspired non-stop government spending is inflation.  The state may control and issue the currency and governments may never run out of it, but the capitalist sector controls technology, labour conditions and the level of skills and intensity of the workforce.  In other words, the productivity of labour (real value) is not in the control of the state with all its dollar printing. So an economy is limited by productivity and the size of the labour force when fully employed.  If the government then goes on pumping money in when output cannot be raised  further, inflation of commodity prices will follow and/or inflation in speculative financial assets.

MMTers are aware of this problem.  Bill Mitchell says: “when the level of private sector activity is such that wage-price pressures form as the precursor to an inflationary episode, the government can manipulate fiscal and monetary policy settings (preferably fiscal policy) to reduce the level of private sector demand.”  In other words, the government will cut spending or raise taxes and/or interest rates in traditional mainstream style.  As Randall Wray puts it: The solution is to avoid spending more once full employment is reached; and to carefully target spending even before full employment to avoid bottlenecks.” 

So we are back with traditional Keynesian macro management, something that abysmally failed in the 1970s when capitalist economies experienced stagflation, ie rising inflation and unemployment at the same time.  The reason for that was that inflation and employment are not under the control of the state in a capitalist economy, but depend on the profitability of capital and the investment decisions of capitalists.  MMT only offers a backstop to capitalist investment and employment, not an alternative.

If there is inflation domestically that curbs exports for a country, the MMTers propose to float the currency.  So no capital controls and interference in currency markets. Randall Wray: I’d let the dollar float.”  That might be ok for the US, where the currency, the dollar, is the international reserve currency and has to be held by foreign states and companies to do business.  But that is not the situation for smaller capitalist economies, particularly so-called emerging economies.  If inflation takes hold because the government is printing pesos, lira or bolivaros without stopping to try and maintain full employment while capitalist production is collapsing, the result will be hyper-inflation.  And if those currencies are floating without any controls, then the value of the currencies will plummet – as in Turkey, Argentina, Venezuela etc.

What this shows is that MMT is very much an US/Australia-oriented theory and with policy prescriptions that have no viable application to most economies globally – just like Keynesian theory and policy.  The state may control the issuance of its currency but it cannot control its value relative to other currencies or to gold, the world money.  If trust in a currency’s value is lost by the holders or potential buyers of that currency, then its value will collapse, heightening inflation.

Labour leaders oppose austerity – the policy of the mainstream.  But they do not want a policy that means the overthrow of capitalist economic relations – that is too frightening, risky and not ‘realistic’, so they favour policies that they think can reverse austerity without threatening capitalism – like Keynesian deficit financing.  MMT offers a novel theoretical justification for permanent deficit financing – the state controls money as the unit of account and so there is no limit on government spending and rising public debt is nothing to worry about.  The only constraint is when resources run out and then inflation may ensue.  Then it’s time to tax.

In this way, MMT acts as a backstop to capitalism – the state is the employer of last resort but not the main employer.  It aims to compensate (patch up) the failures of capitalist production, not replace it.

MMT 2 – the tricks of circulation

February 3, 2019

In my first post on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), I offered a general analysis of the theory, its similarities and differences with Marx’s theory of money; and some of the policy implications of the MMT and its usefulness for the labour movement.

In this post, I want to delve deeper into the analytics of MMT.  As I said in the first post, MMT is the child of what is called Chartalism, namely that money is historically the creation of the state and not, as mainstream neoclassical theory claims, an extension from barter trading; or in the Marxist view that money appears with the emergence of markets and commodity production (“Money necessarily crystallises out of the process of exchange, in which different products of labour are in fact equate with each other, and thus converted into commodities…. as the transformation of the products of labour into commodities is accomplished, one particular commodity is transformed into money.” – Marx Capital Vol 1).

I won’t tackle whether Chartalism is an accurate historical account of the emergence of money.  Instead, let me refer you to an excellent short account of the history of money by Argentine Marxist economist, Rolando Astarita, here.  Astarita has also analysed MMT in several posts on his blog, and I shall draw on some of his arguments.  Suffice it to say that to argue that money only arose because the role of the state in pre-capitalist economies is not borne out by the facts.

Nevertheless, MMT starts with the conviction that it is the state (not capitalist commodity relations) that establishes the value of money.  Leading MMTer Randall Wray argues the money takes its value not from merchandise “but rather from the will of the State to accept it for payment”.  Chartalist founder Knapp says: “money is a creature of the law”; “The denomination of means of payment according to the new units of value is a free act of the authority of the State”; and “in modern monetary systems the proclamation [by the State] is always supreme”. Thus the modern monetary system “is an administrative phenomenon” and nothing more.

Keynes also backed this Chartalist view. In his Treatise on Money, Keynes says: “the Chartalist or state money was reached when the State assumed the right to declare which account money is to be considered money at a given moment”.   So “the money of account, especially that in which debts, prices and general purchasing power are expressed, is the basic concept of the theory of money”I don’t think it is correct to say that MMT bastardises Keynes (as one comment on my first post argues) – on the contrary, MMT and Keynes are in agreement that money is a product of state creation as the state decides the unit of account for all transactions.

But deciding the unit of account (eg whether dollars or euros) is not the same as deciding its value for transactions ie as a measure or store of value.  MMT supposedly supports the ‘endogenous’ money approach, namely that money is created by the decisions of entrepreneurs to invest or households to spend, and from the loans that the banks grant them for that purpose. So banks make loans and so create money (as issued by the state).  Money is deposited by the receivers of loans and then they pay taxes back to the state.  According MMT, loans are created by banks and then deposits are destroyed by taxation, in that order.  At a simple level, MMT merely describes the way things work with banking and money – and this is what many MMTers argue: ‘all we are doing is saying like it is’.

But MMT goes further.  It argues that the state creates money in order to receive it for the payment of taxes. The state can force taxes out of citizens and can decide the nature of the legal tender that serves for money.  So money is a product of the state.  Thus MMT has a circuit of money that goes: state money – others (non-state entities) – taxes – state money. The state injects money into the private sector, and that money is then reabsorbed with the collection of taxes. According to MMT, contrary to what most of us simpletons think, issuing money and collecting taxes are not alternatives, but actions that merely occur at different times of the same circuit.  So if a government runs a fiscal deficit and spends more than it receives in taxes, the non-state sector has a surplus which it can use to invest, spend and employ more. The state deficit can thus be financed by creating more money. Taxes are not needed to finance state spending, but to generate demand for money (to pay taxes!).

But the MMT circuit fails to show what happens with the money that capitalists and households have.  In MMT, M (in value) can be increased to M’ purely by state dictat.  For Marx, M can only be increased to M’ if capitalist production takes place to increase value in commodities that are sold for more money.  This stage is ignored by MMT.  The MTT circuit starts from the state to the non-state sectors and back to the state.  But this is the wrong way round, causally.  The capitalist circuit starts with the money capitalist and through accumulation and exploitation of labour back to the money capitalist, who then pays the state in taxes etc.  MMT ignores this. But it shows that money is not exogenous to capitalist economic activity.  Its value is not controlled by the state.

MMT creates the illusion that this whole process starts and ends with the government when it really starts within the capitalist sector including the banking system. Taxes cannot destroy money because taxes logically occur after some level of spending on private output occurs. Taxes are incurred when the private sector spends and governments decide to use those taxes to mobilize some resources for the state. Private incomes and spending on resources precede taxes.

Another Chartalist, Tcherneva writes: “Chartalists argue that, since money is a public monopoly, the government has at its disposal a direct way to determine its value. Remember that for Knapp the payments with currency measure a certain number of units of value. For example, if the State required that in order to obtain a high-powered money unit a person must provide one hour of work, then the money would be worth exactly one hour of work. As a monopoly issuer of the currency, the State can determine what the currency will be worth by establishing the terms in which the high-powered money is obtained“(page 18).  Tcherneva’s policy of State ‘exogenous pricing’ is pretty similar to the views of 19th century utopian socialist John Gray who reckoned that by issuing bonds that were exogenously priced to represent working time, so economies could deliver growth and full employment – a view that Marx criticised.

Where MMT differs from Keynesian-type fiscal deficit spending is that its proponents see government deficits as permanent in order to drive the economy up and achieve full employment of resources.  In this way, the state becomes the “employer of last resort”.  Indeed, the MMT exponents claim that unemployment can indeed be solved within capitalism. So there is no need to change the social formations based on private capital.  All that is needed is for politicians and economists to recognise that state spending ‘financed’ by money creation can sustain full employment.

MMT proponent Tcherneva writes: “Chartalists propose a policy of full employment in which the state exogenously establishes an important price for the economy, which in turn serves as an anchor for all other prices …. This proposal is based on the recognition that the State does not face operational financial constraints, that unemployment is a result of restricting the issuance of currency, and that the State can exercise an exogenous pricing (exogenous pricing)”  This policy conclusion is rather ironic. It leads to a view that full employment can be achieved by the “exogenous” issuance of currency at a fixed price.  And yet MMT is prominent in its rejection of the monetarist argument that an exogenous increase in the quantity of money will lead to a boost in economic activity. It seems that MMT also has an exogenous theory of money!

As Cullen Roche, an orthodox Keynesian, put it: MMT tries to reinvent the wheel and argue that it is the government’s fault (and implicitly, the rest of society’s fault) that you can’t find a job… MMT gets the causality backwards here by starting with the state and working out.” Roche goes on: “The proper causality is that private resources necessarily precede taxes. Without a highly productive revenue generating private sector there is nothing special about the assets created by a government and it is literally impossible for these assets to remain valuable. We create equity when we produce real goods and services or increase the market value of our assets relative to their liabilities via productive output. It is completely illogical and beyond silly to argue that one can just “print” equity from thin air. Government debt is, logically, a liability of the society that creates it. In the aggregate government debt is a liability that must be financed by the productive output of that society.”

One comment on my first post queried my claim that MMT exponents reckon that money can be created out of thin air – this was a distortion of MMT, I was told.  The real argument of MMT is that government spending can finance itself by raising economic activity and thus more taxes.  I did cite some economists who talked about ‘thin air’ but apparently these were not true MMTers.  Well, British tax expert/economist, Richard Murphy, is definitely a supporter of MMT.  He expounded that MMT first says “governments can make money out of thin air, at will… MMT then says all government spending is in fact funded by money created in this way, created by central banks on the government’s behalf… MMT logically argues as a consequence that there is no such thing as tax and spend when considering the activity of the government in the economy; there can only be spend and tax.”  Similarly, Stephanie Kelton is currently the most followed MMT economist.  She argues that governments can expand spending to whatever level necessary to achieve full use of productive resources in an economy by state money because such spending is ‘self-financing’.

Money only has value because if there is value in production to back it.  Government spending cannot create that value – indeed some government spending can destroy value (armaments etc).  Productive value is what gives money credibility. A productive private sector generates the domestic product and income that gives government liabilities credibility in the first place.  When that credibility is not there, then trust in the state’s currency can disappear fast, as we see in Venezuela or Zimbabwe, and even Turkey right now (I’ll come back to this in a future post).

To quote Cullen Roche again: “productive output MUST, by necessity, precede taxes.  In this sense it is proper to say that productive output drives money.  And if productive output collapses then there is no quantity of men with guns that can force people to pay taxes… So the important point here is that a government is indeed constrained in its spending. It is constrained by the quantity and quality of its private sector’s productive output. And the quantity and quality of income that the private sector can create is the amount of income that constrains the government’s ability to spend.”  This is Keynesian terminology: but if we alter the word ‘income’ or ‘output’ to ‘value’, we can get the point in Marxist terms.

Marx’s theory of money concurs with the endogenous approach in so far that it is the capitalist sector that creates the demand for money; to act a means of exchange and a store of value.  Banks make loans and create deposits, not vice versa.  Indeed, Marx’s theory of money is more consistently endogenous than MMT because it recognises the primacy of the capitalist accumulation process (with banks and markets) in deciding the value of money, not any ‘exogenous’ role of the state.  As Astarita puts it: “the fundamental difference between the Marxist approach to money and the Chartalist approach revolves around this single point. In Marx’s conception, money can only be understood as a social relation. In the Chartalist approach, it is an artifice in which essential social determinations are missing…..it “sweeps under the carpet” the centrality of productive work, and the exploitation of work, the true basis on which capitalist society is based.”

The state cannot establish at will the value of the money that is issued for the very simple reason is that, in a capitalist economy, it is not dominant and all-powerful.  Capitalist companies, banks and institutions rule and they make decisions on the basis of profit and profitability.  As a result, they endogenously drive the value of commodities and money. Marx’s law of value says value is anchored around the socially necessary labour time involved in the overall production of commodities (goods and services), ie by the average productivity of labour, the technologies and intensity of work.  The state cannot overcome or ignore this reality.

And it is reality.  Let me offer some simple empirical evidence (something MMTers do not do).  Government spending in modern economies, particularly the ones that dominate MMT thinking (they don’t have much to say on so-called emerging economies – but I’ll come back to that in the next post), like the US or the UK or the G7, is around 30-50% of GDP.  Government investment is only about 3-5% of GDP.  This compares with capitalist sector investment of 15-25%, while household spending varies between 55-70% of GDP.  The quantity of domestically held government bonds in the US is just 4% of private sector net worth.

I did a small empirical analysis of the relation between government expenditure and unemployment.  According to MMT, you would expect that the higher the ratio of government spending in an economy, the lower the unemployment.  Well, the evidence shows the opposite!  Government spending in France is over 55% of GDP, while it is 39% in Japan and 38% in the US.  But which of these three countries has the higher unemployment rate?  France 9%; Japan 2.4% and the US 4%. Most advanced capitalist economies with higher government spending ratios had higher unemployment rates.  This shows is that there are other reasons than the lack of state spending for the level of unemployment in capitalist economies.

So state issuance is hardly a key driving force of the economy and employment. Of course, MMT exponents sometimes argue that this is the problem – just expand government spending, particularly investment, fund it by ‘issuing money’ and then the state will exogenously overcome or bypass failing capitalist accumulation.  But this response immediately begs the question, studiously ignored by MMT, that it is the capitalist sector that runs modern economies, for better or worse, not state money.

Is it realistic for MMT to claim that the only reason modern economies have unemployment is because politicians do not adopt MMT and so let governments spend as much as necessary, backed by issuance of state-controlled money?  That is certainly not the view of Keynes or Marx.  Keynes reckoned unemployment emerged because of the lack of investment by capitalists; Marx said the same (although the reserve army of labour was the result of capital-bias in capitalist accumulation). The difference between Marx and Keynes was what causes changes in investment. Marx said profitability; Keynes said ‘animal spirits’ or ‘business confidence’.  Both saw the faultlines within capitalism: Keynes in the finance sector; Marx in capitalism as a whole.  In contrast, MMT reckons it is only the failure to allow the state to expand the issuance of money!

But perhaps the most telling critique of MMT is that, because it has no recognition of the capitalist sector in its circuit of money and only the state and ‘the non-state’, it can tell us nothing about why and how there are regular slumps in production and investment in modern economies.  On this issue, MMTers have the same position as orthodox Keynesians: that it may be due to a lack of ‘effective demand’ or ‘animal spirits’ and it is nothing to do with any contradictions in the capitalist mode of production itself.  But for MMTers this issue is irrelevant.  MMTers take the same view as orthodox Keynesian Paul Krugman, namely that it does not really matter what the cause of a depression is; the main thing is to get out of it with government spending – in the case of Krugman through judicious government spending through bond issuance; in the case of MMT by government spending financed by the issuance of money.

Call me old fashioned, but I think science works best by finding out what causes things to happen to better understand what actions can be usefully applied to prevent them (vaccination for diseases, for example).  Blindly hoping that government spending will do the trick is hardly scientific.  Indeed, much work has been done by Marxist economics to show that it is the faultlines in the profitability of capital that is the most compelling explanation of recurring crises, not lack of demand or even austerity in public spending.  And that implies action to replace completely the profit-making monetary economy.

The answer to unemployment or the end of crises does not lie in the simple recourse of issuing money, as MMT claims.  MMT relies on what Marx called “the tricks of circulation” – “the doctrine that proposes tricks of circulation as a way of, on the one hand, avoiding the violent character of these social changes and on the other, of making these changes appear not to be a presupposition but gradual result of these transformations in circulation”.

MMT claims that it has an endogenous theory of money, but in reality it has an exogenous one, based on state issuance of money.  It claims that government spending can be expanded to any level necessary to achieve full employment through money issuance, without any reference to the productive activity of the non-state economy, in particular the profitability of the capitalist sector.  Indeed, according to MMT, capitalism can be saved and achieve harmonious growth and full employment by ‘tricks of circulation’.  MMT ignores or hides the social relations of exploitation of labour for profit.  And by selling ‘snake oil’ (MMT) instead, it misleads the labour movement away from fundamental change.