Category Archives: modern money theory

Let the Palmer House (not Fiscal House) be our Guide

By Mitch Green

Readers of this blog familiar with my previous posts know that I love trains. Sure, they’re slow. And after about twelve hours the coach cars start to get a little, well, worn. But, as a mode of conveyance they offer one time to reflect, and if you are lucky a little time to explore a new city.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Travelling from Kansas City to NYC via Chicago, I had the pleasure of visiting the Palmer House – a fine example of the workmanship of a bygone era. Upon entering the great hall I was immediately struck by the grandeur of its ceiling. I have had the privilege to experience similar wonder and amazement in travels elsewhere, and as far as ornate ceilings this was not my first time at the rodeo – I’ve been to the Sistine Chapel, after all. What struck me the most about that moment in the Palmer House was not driven by my taste for architecture or the fine arts (which is probably ‘vulgar’ by any convention), but that it serves as a lasting example of what society is capable of achieving. Continue reading

MMT for Austrians Part 4: Is Description Without Theory, Ideology or Policy Desirable? Is it Even Possible?

By L. Randall Wray

This will be the final part of this series. Next week we turn to the Job Guarantee/Employer of Last Resort.

The answer to both questions posed in the title is, I think, a big fat no.

I’m not going to go deeply into methodological debates. First, I’m no methodologist. Second I don’t think many readers here are that interested in such debates. And, third, it really isn’t necessary.

Continue reading

MMT FOR AUSTRIANS 3: How Do YOU Propose We Deal with the Elderly, Disabled and their Depts?

John Carney agrees with me that supporting our elderly is not an “affordability” problem,but he claims that I fail to see the “real” burden—the dependency ratios and all that. Actually I’ve been writing about that since the early 1990s. The“real” burden is the only thing that matters.
Here’s justa short list of easily accessible things I’ve written at www.levy.org:
Public Policy Brief No. 55 | August 1999 Does Social Security Need Saving?
This is just a small sample; the last one listed (PPB 55) and WP 468 are probably the best things to read first, then do PN 2006/5.

While the video is narrated in Italian, the message is clear in any language: When everyday people start to realize that austerity is the problem, not the cure, they will resolutely reject it, and begin to reclaim their democracy from those who would financially enslave them.

Responses to Blog 38: Austrians: Love ‘Em, Hate ‘Em, Wish You Could Eat ‘Em


Ok: 32 comments and counting. Must be a record. Way too many to respond to. I guess we need another full blog. You either love them or you hate them. Apparently there’s no in-between. Also I note that reporter John Carney has picked up my MMT for Austrians blog and written several of his own ideologically-infused interpretations that have almost no earthly grounding.

Addressing the Dominant Critique of MMT

By William K. Black

I’ll begin by addressing today the dominant concern critics have expressed here — the government might act badly with the funds. This is, of course, a real concern. But it is some ways a very odd concern and not a logical objection to MMT. The extreme variant of this critique argues that MMT is “fascist.”

The good news from the standpoint of MMT is that this critique agrees that MMT is accurate and makes available policy choices that are effective in increasing income and employment — and claims that MMT’s effectiveness is the problem because the government leaders might use the increased income and wealth for evil purposes.

If that is a valid criticism of an economic theory (it works — it increases income, wealth, and employment) then virtually any accurate economic theory that improves the economy is “fascist” because the government might be ruled by a fascist and the ruler might use the increased wealth and income to do evil. No one (economist or otherwise) can ever guarantee that a government ruler will not be evil and use the increased national wealth to do evil. Under this logic all effective economic theories are fascist and we should try to make the world as poor as possible so that fascistic governmental leaders have fewer resources with which to do evil.

It is also an odd criticism because it suggests that we should try to hide knowledge about MMT from governments because they might use the knowledge to improve their economies. Trying to hide knowledge about how a monetary system works is a fruitless task. There are tens of thousands of people who understand much of the mechanics of fiat currency systems. Even if we could wipe out the knowledge people would relearn it because their jobs required them to understand monetary operations.

Consider the statements by the UK leadership that the UK has “run out of money.” Does anyone think that the UK financial leaders believe that statement? If Germany declared war on the UK tomorrow would the UK surrender because it had “run out of money” and could not “afford” to increase expenditures to defend the nation? The point is that nations, when faced with the need to make enormous, emergency expenditures, rediscover through necessity the knowledge of how monetary operations actually work even if they previously were captured by economic dogmas that asserted the opposit. That means that a national leader who is determined to be a fascist, imperialist will discover in the course of creating a dramatic growth in its military that it can fund the growth if it has a sovereign, floating currency and if the nation’s debt is denominated in its own currency. (MMT explains that real resources can be scarce, and that can limit the military build up.) So, even if every academic conversant with MMT traveled on the same plane and died in a crash fascist government leaders engaged in an arms race in preparation of invading their neighbors would discover that resources, not funds, were the real restraint on the military growth if they had fully sovereign currencies.

The “fascism” critique expressed on this page does not address two other important points. There are staggering costs to refusing to use MMT to respond to a severe recession. Unemplotyment, poverty, and inequality all rise sharply. Very few democratic governments warrant the term “fascist.” We cannot stop fascist governments from increasing their national wealth by using MMT principles. We should encourage powerful, democratic governments to use MMT principles to recover from severe recessions, which will help them avoid the social disintegration most likely to lead to the rise of fascist leaders. It is theoclassical dogma that is producing the economic crises throughout the periphery that have led to the rise of anti-democratic leaders and policies in much of Europe. Fundamentally, the commenters who raise the “fascist” criticism of MMT do not trust democracy. We would urge against hopelessness. Governments typically use budget expenditures in severe recessions for generally desirable purposes. Instead of embracing over 20% unemployment (roughly 50% for young adults — this is what austerity is doing to the European periphery) as a means to starve potential fascist leaders of the funds to do evil we urge that people work to defeat fascist candidates.

The Italians who joined us for the MMT Summit in Rimini were strong opponents of the fascists. They were regular Italians and their response was overwhelming. Paolo Barnard, the Italian journalist who orgainized the Summit and we, the non-Italian panelists, are all strong opponents of fascism.

The same was true in Ireland, Iceland, and France when we discussed MMT in those nations. The response is so positive because we show that “TINA” is a lie — there are alternatives. We hope Naked Capitalism readers will work with us to implement programs that provide jobs and fund the investments in people, technology, government, and infrastructure that will make possible growth and reduced harm to the environment.

As citizens in a (yes, flawed) democracy, we are not helpless. Our job as citizens is to make our government more democratic and effective and a bulwark against fascism.

Thousands Turn Out to Learn MMT in Italy

MMP Blog 38: MMT for Austrians


In the past couple of weeks we turned to the question what should government do, and last week we discussed the concept of the public purpose.

Clearly, we want the economy to do a lot of things for us, and the non government sector(s)can accomplish much of that. Some of the non government provisioning is non-monetary—outside markets. For example, the unpaid work within the family.Much is provided from the “monetary production economy”—the part of the economy in which production begins with money in order to end up with more money. (Some readers will recognize the source of that—and we’ll have more to say in a few weeks.)

But while non monetary plus monetary production by the non government sector(s) can accomplish a lot, they cannot provide everything we want.

It can even be argued that as societies become richer and more developed (some even use the term “advanced” but that can be invidious) we develop “higher-order” needs and wants.

(I do not want to go into this here, but it could be argued that in moving from, say, a tribal society to a monetary capitalist society we will need much more provisioning from the center precisely because less will and can be done by kinship organizations. To put it simply, moving to a monetary economy inevitably puts more responsibility on the issuer of the money—the sovereign government.It is in a sense a two-pronged fork: monetary economies “advance”, creating more higher order wants and needs that can only be satisfied monetarily, and by the government that issues the money.)

If you look back at our discussion last week of recognized human rights it might be apparent that we need to look beyond the production within the household and the production by for-profit firms to ensure those rights. In other words, the“public purpose” may well expand.

In addition, if we take account of environmental sustainability considerations,the scope for the public purpose likely will expand. (Those familiar with the work of Karl Polanyi will recognize the relation to the argument about the“double movement”.  Capitalist development creates environmental problems that require a public response.)

Arguably the most contentious debate between left and right is over the best way to achieve the public purpose. As I admitted last week, there are some who would go so far as to deny the concept altogether and perhaps even a greater number who would deny most of the listed human rights. But let us proceed with our discussion here taking it for granted that there is some recognized public purpose. The point of contention is over the best way to provide for it.

Conservatives tend to argue that the government’s scope should be very narrow, even given agreement on the public purpose. They believe that households and firms can provide for most economic needs and wants. Government is needed in narrowly confined areas—such as police and military. There is often reference to the benefits of “free markets” and to Adam Smith’s notion of the invisible hand. Tobe very brief, this is the idea that individuals pursuing their own self-interest are guided “as if” by an invisible hand to do what is actually in the interest of society as a whole. The guiding is done by the market, and more specifically by prices that act as signals. If more lawyers are needed, their salaries are bid up in the market and students react by switching to the study of law. You all get the picture. It is a very nice metaphor.

There are two problems with the story. First, it is not really Adam Smith’s view. Second,economic theory has pretty much destroyed any hope that real world markets could possibly work that way. And I am not talking about Keynesian or other critical economic theory—I’m talking about economists who desperately wanted to“prove” that the invisible hand works in the proffered manner.

Again, I’ll be brief but let’s look at these two problems before moving on to the topic of MMT for Austrians.

Adam Smith and the Invisible Hand

One of the greatest scholars of Adam Smith, Warren J. Samuels, recently published a book on the invisible hand metaphor.  (Erasing the Invisible Hand: Essays on an Elusive and Misused Concept in Economics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xxviii + 329 pp. $95 (hardcover) ISBN: 978-0-521-51725-6.) It was reviewed by Gavin Kennedy (here: EH.Net (February 2012). All EH.Net reviews ar earchived at http://www.eh.net/BookReview). Since hand waves about the invisible hand and references to Adam Smith as the father of the notion are so commonplace, I want to quote extensively from Kennedy’s review.
Quote: “Smith did not”coin” the phrase. It was prevalent in classical times from Aeschylus through to St Augustine, and later, in numerous seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theological texts, sermons, plays (Shakespeare), poems, and novels (Defoe, Walpole), and in political rhetoric (George Washington). … Adam Smith used it only twice as a metaphor in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)and Wealth of Nations (1776), and once in his History of Astronomy (1795,posthumous). After Smith, there was an absence of mentions of the invisible hand metaphor among economists to 1875 and near silence thereafter until it was rediscovered and re-invented into the “founding concept” of modern economics from the 1940s… Samuels discusses Adam Smith’s supposed use of the invisible hand in his political economy. …  Samuels’ conclusions in Essay 10 are best summarized by his question: “what is left of the invisible hand” (p.293) and by his answer: “There is no invisible hand as that term is used in economics.  Its continued use must at its base constitute an embarrassment.  Almost all uses of the term add nothing to substantive knowledge”.”

Quote: “Smith used the metaphor of “an invisible hand” to”describe in a more striking and interesting manner” their particular objects: it was the absolute mutual dependence of the “unfeeling landlord” on his serfs, servants, and tenants (‘no food, no labour’), and their mutual dependence on him (‘no labour, no food’), which mutual dependence led him to share his crops with them, unintentionally benefiting humanity through the “propagation of the species” (Theory Moral Sentiments,1759, p. 185); and it was the insecurity felt by some, but not all, merchant traders, that led them to prefer to invest in “domestick industry” (mentioned four times), rather than risk the “foreign trade of consumption”(Wealth Of Nations, 1776, p. 456), also unintentionally benefiting society by adding to domestic revenue and employment.  Smith’s use (History of Astronomy, 1795, p. 49) of the “invisible hand of Jupiter” simply states the pagan beliefs of Romans about their god, Jupiter, whom they believed (but never witnessed) cast his lightning bolts at humans.   In all three cases, it is evident that for Smith the “invisible hand” does not exist; it is an imaginary figure of speech and an imagined pagan belief.  We cannot see, but we can imagine; we may choose to believe or not to believe. The “invisible hand” “corresponds to nothing in reality,” it “contributes nothing to knowledge,” and is a “distraction and a diversion, (Samuels, p. 146).”

So what we actually see in Smith is use of the invisible hand to discuss the relation of the feudal lord to his peasants (obviously, this is pre-capitalism and hence pre-“market economy” as it is a relation based on visible force rather than the invisible hand of prices), in relation to his belief that there is a somewhat natural inclination to produce for domestic consumption, and finally to movement of heavenly bodies. None of these has anything to do with price signals and invisible hands leading to efficient allocations of scarce resources.

No wonder economists paid almost no attention to Smith’s notion of the invisible hand until after WWII!

Postwar Developments in General Equilibrium Theory

o be sure there had been an attempt from the 1870s to demonstrate the idea that markets would tend to generate a “general equilibrium”—even if it did not refer to Smith or the invisible hand.

Discussion of this topic can get quite difficult, but what conservative economists wanted to show it that “demand and supply” for all produced goods and services could be brought into equilibrium by flexible prices and wages. If every market is in equilibrium, where demand equals supply, we call that a general equilibrium.

I am simplifying but this is good enough for now. In any case, it turns out to be a very difficult thing to show and believe it or not requires higher mathematics. Indeed, it is so complex that proof of the existence of general equilibrium was not accomplished until the 1950s—some 80 years after the project began. And even then the results were extremely disappointing.

First, the conditions required to demonstrate existence of equilibrium (technically a vector of relative prices that eliminate excess demand in every market) require a very simple and unrealistic world. For our purposes it is relevant to note that the hypothesized world would never use money! (Students of economics also know it requires no time, no uncertainty, a Walrasian auctioneer, and so on. Essentially, you contract at birth for all transactions you will ever make over your entire life, with perfect certainty and no regrets.)

Second, it turned out that the equilibrium is neither unique nor stable. Indeed, it turns out that there are many equilibria, perhaps an infinite number, and we cannot say that any one is better than any other. And if we do not happen to be in equilibrium, market forces will not move us to one of the equilibria.

Pretty darned disappointing since the whole claim was that “free markets” would move us to equilibrium with prices signaling how best to allocate resources.

They won’t. At least we cannot demonstrate that they will.The “invisible hand” is completely impotent. Might as well have a dictator. Or a dictatorship of the proletariat. Or a coin toss. Or winner-take-all. Or any other method of trying to allocate resources. We cannot show that markets would do a better job.

Anyone who tells you that economics shows that the invisible hand “works” is a fool or a liar or confused. Plain and simple, rigorous economic theory shows no such thing.

(In 1926 Keynes wrote a great essay on “The End of Laissez Faire”; I won’t go through it in detail but what he argued is that no economist had ever accepted the notion that the free market “works”. He said that only political ideologues pushed that idea, an idea he thoroughly destroyed in his essay. However, in the last third of the essay he tried, and failed, to produce an alternative view. It took him ten years—until 1936—to create the alternative, what became The General Theory. It wasn’t until he formulated his theory of effective demand and addressed the “special properties of money” that he could counter the free market ideology.)

Now, why did I devote so much space to a discussion of the invisible hand? Because so many “free market marketeers” rely on the notion,and on the supposed authority of Adam Smith, to push their ideological agenda.

To be clear, the inability to demonstrate that an invisible hand “works” does not settle the issue. It does not in any way “prove” that “big government” is better than “small government”. It does not “prove” that the best way to ensure the public purpose is to rely on government rather than markets. And it does not demonstrate that we should adopt an expansive, progressive view of the public purpose. But it does make one highly skeptical of “invisible” hand waves about “free markets”.

Yet, it must be admitted that in truth, economics, alone,cannot answer those questions.

Let us now return to the topic at hand: can an Austrian adopt MMT?

MMT for Austrians

I am using Austrians as an example of those who prefer a narrow view of the public purpose and who believe that “free” markets can accomplish most of the public purpose. Hence, the role for the government should be quite limited. Obviously, Austrians are not the only conservatives who adopt these views. However, they provide a reasonably consistent and coherent alternative to both orthodox and heterodox approaches to economics.

(Some include Austrians within heterodoxy, and there are some affinities—on topics like time, expectations and uncertainty. While I recognize similarities on those dimensions, most of the rest of heterodoxy accepts elements of Keynesian, institutionalist and/or Marxist thought that are anathema to Austrians. Hence I put Austrians in their own camp. For the purposes of the discussion that follows, this is not really important.)

Austrian views on government are well-known. Further, Austrians are frequent commentators on MMT blogs, and many have asked whether Austrians can accept MMT.

I would assure Austrians that MMT is not just for advocates of big government. Indeed,I have always been surprised that some of the most vehement critics of MMT are some of the libertarians and Austrians.

Relatedly, often when there is an MMT blog, the comments are dominated by conspiracy theorists, haters of government, and goldbugs who are certain that MMT-ers ar eunited in their effort to ramp up government until it consumes the entire economy. Some Austrians agree on these critiques. This section will attempt to put those fears to rest.

First, on one level, MMT is a description of the way a sovereign currency works. Love it or hate it, our sovereign government spends by crediting bank accounts. Over the past 20 years, MMT has investigated, analyzed, and documented the sordid operational details. We can lecture for hours on the balance sheet manipulations involving the Treasury, the Fed, the primary security dealers, the special depositories, and the regular private banks every time the Treasury buys a notepad from OfficeMax. We did the work, so you our Austrian colleagues do not have to do it. And believe me, you do not want to do it. You can skip directly to the conclusion: “Yes, government spends by crediting bank accounts, taxes by debiting them, and sells bonds to provide an interest-earning substitute to low-earning reserves.”

A few libertarians and Austrians now get this, although instead of thanking us for a job well done, some of them immediately attack MMT for explaining how things work. Now, why would they do that? Because they fear that if we tell policymakers and the general public how things work, democratic processes will inevitably blow up the government’s budget as everyone demands more from government—that is for precisely the reason that Samuelson advocated that “old time religion, without which off we go to Zimbabwe land, with hyperinflation that destroys the currency.

Ok, understood.

But MMT-ers fear inflation, too. Indeed, “price stability” has always been one of the two key missions of UMKC’s Center for Full Employment and Price Stability (http://www.cfeps.org/).

(I note that my friend Edward Harrison has long pushed MMT at his own blog, http://www.creditwritedowns.com/ even as he vocally disagrees with many of us on the role of government. So there are exceptions who recognize that MMT is useful for economists of all persuasions.)
To be sure, many libertarians and Austrians believe that the only foolproof method for avoiding inflation is to go back to gold. Again, fine. But don’t criticize our labor “buffer stock” scheme for its political infeasibility! Going back to the gold standard is even less likely. (I’d place my bet on socialist sharing of undergarments as more likely than a return to gold.)

Anyway, we (also) do not want black helicopters flying around dropping bags of cash; and we (also) oppose government “pump-priming” demand stimulus—the libertarians and Austrians and even Milton Friedman are correct in their argument that this would generate inflation.

Come to think of it, MMTers have more in common with Austerians than with “military Keynesianism” that supposes that high enough spending on the defence sector will cause full employment to“trickle down”. Most MMTers believe we’d get intolerable inflation before the jobs trickle down to Harlem.

In any case it is true that there is a second level to MMT: we use our understanding of the way money works to bring rational analysis to government policy-making. Since involuntary default is, literally, impossible for a sovereign government, we quickly move beyond fears about government deficits and debt ratios and all the other nonsense that currently grips Washington.

Can we “afford” full employment? Yes. Can we “afford” Social Security? Yes. Can we “afford” to put wine in all the drinking fountains? Yes.

The problem IS NOT, CANNOT BE about affordability. It is about resources.

Unemployment is easy: by definition, someone who is unemployed is available to hire. So government can put them to work. (See the next blog series for a plan.)

Social Security is a little more difficult: can we move enough resources to the aged (plus their dependents, and people with disabilities) so that they can enjoy a comfortable, American-style, life? On all reasonable projections of demographics and US ability to produce, the answer is yes. The projectionscould turn out to be wrong. But if they do, affordability still will not be the problem—it will be a resource problem.

Finally, wine in drinking fountains? There probably is not enough fine wine, but we could probably fill all the drinking fountains with cheap French wine. If we run out, Missouri can fill the gap (for those who do not happen to live in the US Midwest, the big MO before prohibition was second only to NY in wine production.)

Again, it is a resource problem and if we convert the American and Canadian prairies to wine production we could even resolve that one.

Perhaps the most important policy pushed by most MMT-ers is the Job Guarantee/Employer of Last Resort proposal. This provides a federal-government funded job to anyone who wants to work, at a uniform, basic compensation (wages plus benefits).

Many of our libertarian/Austrian fellow travelers seem to hate this program, again for unfathomable reasons. I suspect that they have misinterpreted this to be some kind of Big Government/Big Brother program based on a weird combination of force plus welfare.

The claim is simultaneously that it “forces” everyone to work, and that it also pays everyone for not working.
Actually, it is a purely voluntary program, only for those who want to work. Those who will not work cannot participate.

Libertarians and Austrians ought to love it. It is not Big Brother. It is not even Big Government. The jobs do not have to be provided by government at all. No one has to take a job. It is consistent with, I think, the most cherished norms of freedom-loving libertarians and Austrians.

So to sum up:

1. MMT is consistent with any size of government. It can be a small libertarian government if desired. But it issues a sovereign floating currency. It supports the currency by imposing a tax payable in that currency.

2. Job Guarantee/Employer of Last Resort is also consistent with any size of government. If you want a big private sector and small government sector, keep taxes and government spending low. That frees up resources to be used by the big private sector. But you will need the JG/ELR to take up the labor resources the private sector cannot fully employ.

3. JG/ELR can be as decentralized as desired. I think there are massive incentive problems if you have federal government pay wages of for-profit firms. So I would have federal government pay the wages in the program but have the jobs actually created and managed by: not-for-profits, local government, maybe state government, maybe only as a final last resort the federal government. Argentina experimented with cooperatives and they looked to me to be highly successful.

4. The problem with a monetary economy (you can call it capitalism if you like) is that from inception imposition of taxes creates unemployment (those looking for money to pay taxes). We scale this up to our modern almost fully monetized economy (you need money just to eat, watch TV, play on cell phones, etc) and we get everyone looking for money (and not just to pay taxes). It is sheer folly to then force the private sector to solve the unemployment problem created by the government’s tax. The private sector alone will never (never has) provide full employment. ELR/JG is a logical and empirical necessity to support the private sector. It is a complement not a substitute for private sector employment.


5. How can the belief that all ought to work, and contribute to society, rather than lay about and collect welfare be called socialism? How can the offer of paid work be called slavery or fascism? It merely offers paid work for those who want to work, to contribute to society.It enhances choice and freedom.

Trouble in Euro Zone Paradise?

By Marshall Auerback

The Europeans evidently thrive on instability and the ongoing threat of systemic risk. There is nothing else to explain the renewed hardline stance adopted by both Mario Draghi of the ECB and the German government on fiscal policy, just as the markets appeared to be calming down again.

In response to the question as to whether Greece was a “one-off”, or a deal which would presage similar claims on the part of the other Mediterranean debtor nations, there has been a growing prevailing belief that either the terms demanded of Greece would be so punitive (“pour decourager les autres”) or that, if Greece were to default, a sufficiently large firewall would be constructed by the Troika to ensure that the contagion wouldn’t extend to other countries. This is what Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis has called “cauterize and print”:
Germany’s belated epiphany is that, without a major redesign of the euro architecture, a number (>1) of eurozone member states are irretrievably insolvent. As for the two strategic choices, the first is Berlin’s conclusion that German politics have no stomach for, or interest in, a structural redesign of the euro system.[2] The second choice involves a massive bet in attempting to save the eurozone by shrinking it forcefully while, at the same time, authorising the ECB to print trillions of euros to cauterise the stumps left when the states earmarked for the chop are severed.

Well, the 2nd leg of that strategy seems to be falling apart, even as Greece is slowly being severed from the euro zone (because let’s be honest: Greece has insincerely accepted yet more impossible conditions for implementing another unworkable fiscal adjustment plan, which suggests that both sides are simply playing for yet more time). 


In the meantime, the UK’s Daily Telegraph has reported that Germany’s ruling parties are to introduce a resolution in parliament blocking any further boost to the EU’s bail-out machinery, vastly complicating Greece’s rescue package and risking a major clash with the International Monetary Fund. According to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
“European solidarity is not an end in itself and should not be a one-way street. Germany’s engagement has reached it limits,”said the text, drafted by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and Free Democrat (FDP) allies.

“Germany itself faces strict austerity to comply with the national debt brake,” said the declaration, which will go to the Bundestag next week. Lawmakers said there is no scope to boost the EU’s “firewall” to €750bn, either by increasing the new European Stability Mechanism (ESM) or by running it together with the old bail-out fund (EFSF).

In one sense, the sentiment behind the draft is right. European solidarity should not be a one-way street. But that’s exactly the nub of the issue: As with all of the “rescue plans” introduced thus far, the latest does not allow the Greek government to help its people cushion the blow from 5 years of depression, but simply provides a mechanism to bail out banks and bondholders. Invoking Aesop’s famous fable about the ants and the grasshoppers, Yanis Varoufakis describes the crux of the problem:
“The problem (for those seeking to understand a Crisis) with attractive allegories is that the latter can be as much of a help as a hindrance. In this post I wish to argue that Aesop’s timeless tale, however appropriate it may seem at first glance, contributes more to Europe’s current problems than to their solution. My reason is simple: The ants and the grasshoppers are to be found in both Greece and in Germany, in the Netherlands and in Portugal, in Austria as well as in neighbouring Italy. But when we assume that all the ants are in the north and all the grasshoppers in the south, the remedies we introduce are toxic. 

Yes, it is true, the Crisis has placed a disproportionate share of the burden on the back of Europe’s ants. Only Europe’s ants are not exclusively German or Dutch or Austrian; and nor are the grasshoppers exclusively Greek, Iberian or Sicilian. Some ants are German and some are Greek. What unites Europe’s ants, north and south, east and west, is that they struggled to make ends meet during the good times and they are struggling even more now during the bad times. Meanwhile, the grasshoppers, both in the north and in the south of Europe, lived the good life before the Crisis and are doing fairly well now, keen as always to privatise the gains and distribute the pain (to the ants).”

That message evidently has not got through to either the Merkel government or the Bundesbank. The proposed draft of Merkel’s government is a political response to mounting German frustration at the current direction of European Union economic policy. There is, however, no corresponding appreciation that her coalition is fomenting this very anger through the ongoing perpetuation of a failed fiscal policy response which, as Varoufakis notes, continues to rewards lazy grasshoppers in both Germany and the south, whilst making all of Europe’s ants work harder and harder for less and less. It is perfectly understandable as to why ordinary German citizens, as well as those in other parts of the EU, should question why all of their hard work is not translating into a better life, when “their money” is actually going down a sinkhole to fund insolvent countries given no means of growing themselves out of debt trap dynamics.

By the same token, left without the lever of a countercyclical fiscal growth policy, the ECB has responded somewhat grudgingly with an escalating and rapidly expanding balance sheet, which has the Weimar hyperinflationistas up in arms, but at least has prevented the whole system from blowing up. Even Germany’s erstwhile allies, the Finns and the Dutch, are prepared to countenance an increase in the EU firewall to €750bn as they are beginning to appreciate the dangers of heading non-stop toward the iceberg.

But while Germany’s erstwhile allies are backing off their hardline fiscal austerity somewhat, the IMF has hinted that it may cut its share of Greece’s €130bn (£110bn) package and warned that its members will not commit more in funds to ring fence Italy and Spain unless Europe itself beefs up its rescue scheme. The Fund has argued (rightly) that the Europeans have more than adequate resources to create a sufficiently large firewall, and that further recourse to the IMF is, in fact, totally unnecessary.

The US Treasury seems to agree with the IMF’s assessment, already indicating that it is unprepared to contribute more to the Fund’s resources. The Treasury is also right, given that the ECB has the capacity to create infinite euros to deal with any looming solvency issues. 

We therefore have the makings of a giant game of chicken: The IMF is nervous about its share of Greek bailout and its broader EU exposure And the Germans won’t expand the firewall without a bigger IMF contribution because they want the IMF as their prime counterparty risk, NOT the ECB. This looming impasse probably also explains why ECB President Mario Draghi is starting tosound so Prussian again by pushing the line that the Mediterranean periphery has to cut living standards because it has been living beyond its means. While acknowledging that “there has been greater stability in financial markets” over the past several weeks, Draghi completely ignores the constructive role played by the ECB in creating this stability and instead ascribes it all to renewed commitments of fiscal discipline on the part of all of the euro zone’s members:
“Many governments have taken decisions on both fiscal consolidation and structural reforms. We have a fiscal compact where the European governments are starting to release national sovereignty for the common intent of being together. The banking system seems less fragile than it was a year ago. Some bond markets have reopened.”

The new head of the ECB is, we presume, an intelligent man, so one can only assume that he is being disingenuous in the extreme here. The renewed stability in the financial markets has NOTHING to do with fiscal consolidation and everything to do with the expansion of the ECB’s balance sheet. The consolidated assets of the European system of Central Banks are now 4.4 billion euros or $5.7 billion. In effect, the consolidated ESCB balance sheet has grown exponentially, and its increase over the last 6 months is almost equal to the entire increase in the Fed’s balance sheet over the last several years.

In contrast to his public statements suggesting institutional and legal limits in terms of what the ECB cannot do, Draghi has been using the bank’s balance sheet far more aggressively in order to prevent a banking meltdown and combat the EMU’s ongoing solvency crisis (a product, as we have indicated many times before, of the euro zone’s flawed financial architecture). And he has done so whilst (until this point) keeping Germany onside. Of course, one could argue that in reality all the ECB is doing is providing lending to the likes of Italian (or Greek, or Spanish) banks so they can pay German exporters and transfer deposits fleeing to Germany (or Switzerland)!

That perverse effect aside, Draghi has hitherto been able to carry out his operations with the quiescence of the Germans, who have presumably remained relatively quiet, whilst the Greek negotiations were being conducted (although that didn’t stop Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble from lobbing a few rhetorical grenades via the press, hinting that it might be better if Greece were to default outright rather than take the deal on offer). But nobody else has said anything for fear of jeopardizing the deal on the table (which will almost certainly become a source of fresh contention for the other Mediterranean periphery countries, as they will almost certainly begin to ask for comparable haircuts on their own debts).

What is the source of this German angst? They worry, particularly the Bundesbank, that they have a credit with the ECB, not with the PIIGS countries. But they are concerned that the ECB now has low-quality collateral so this is risky if the ECB ceases operations (although why this should happen is unclear as the ECB can never run out of euros).

Hence the BUBA desire for the IMF, as a counterparty, even though the IMF itself is a political fig-leaf, given that the Fund’s “special drawing rights” are drawn directly from each of the central banks. In other words, the IMF gets its euros from the ECB, although by standing in the middle of the transaction, Germans can happily pretend that their counterparty risk lies with the IMF, and that they will therefore get repaid (and if this means involving the Fed, the Bank of Japan, Bank of China and Bank of England, so much the better).

The IMF, under Christine Lagarde, is evidently getting tired of playing this game, so it has refused to ask for more funding to deal with the euro zone’s ongoing crisis, in effect putting the ball back into Mr. Draghi’s court, who in turn has to deal with the Bundesbank. Hence, the renewed public relations campaign on behalf of “responsible” fiscal policy and the “new and improved” Stability and Growth Pact:

[I]t is encouraging to see that important steps have recently been taken … strengthens both the preventive and the corrective arm of the Stability and Growth Pact and establishes minimum requirements for national budgetary frameworks … a new ‘fiscal compact’ with a view to achieving a more effective disciplining of fiscal policies. Major elements of the fiscal compact are the strengthening of the role of the balanced budget rule and a further tightening of the excessive deficit procedure. It is of utmost importance, that the rules are now fully implemented in the spirit of this agreement. All these measures aim to ensure that individual countries live up to their responsibilities to bring their public finances in order.

As Bill Mitchell wryly observed: “The EMU is in the worst downturn for 80 years and its only ‘response’ is to make it worse because it has introduced voluntary rules that require nations in deep aggregate demand shocks to inflict further spending cuts.” Austerity in the euro zone has consisted of public spending cuts and tax hikes, which have both directly slowed the economies and increased net savings desires, as the austerity measures have also reduced private sector desires to borrow to spend. This combination has resulted in a decline in sales, which translates into fewer jobs and reduced private sector income, which further translates into reduced tax collections and increased public sector transfer payments, as the austerity measures designed to reduce public sector debt instead serve to increase it.

My bet is the IMF ultimately folds and commits more, because even the Fund recognizes the stupidity of imposing pro-cyclical fiscal policy in the midst of a recession, but not until the European markets begin to fail again and systemic pressures become more acute. Either way you have to congratulate the Germans for an exceptional game…with a weak hand they have everyone running around while they” mercant” their way to growth and others support the casualties they throw on the fire….

Responses to Comments MMP Blog 37: The Public Purpose

This week we’re looking at the public purpose. Clearly, liberals and conservatives (used in the American sense of those terms) disagree on what government ought to do. Still, most people do see a substantial role for government to play. And most democratic nations have signed on to the UN Charter on Human Rights. At least one commentator rejected most of the rights I listed on Monday. And one presumes that many of the supporters of the most conservative Republican candidates campaigning in the US would join in bashing the UN Charter. Heck, one of the candidates seems to suggest that just knowing a foreign language makes one unfit to run for US President! Many Americans think that anything that comes from the UN is suspect.