Modern Monetary Theory: A Cargo Cult

Newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently said that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) absolutely needed to be “a larger part of our conversation.” Her comment shines a spotlight on MMT. So what is it? According to Wikipedia, it is:

“a macroeconomic theory that describes the currency as a public monopoly and unemployment as the evidence that a currency monopolist is restricting the supply of the financial assets needed to pay taxes and satisfy savings desires.”

It is uncontroversial to say that the Federal Reserve has a monopoly on the dollar. So let’s look at the second proposition. Unemployment, MMT holds, is evidence that the supply of dollars is restricted.

In other words, more money causes more employment!

This does not sound very different from what the New Keynesians say. Keith analyzed former Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s seminal paper on the economics of labor for Forbes:

“Here is their [Yellen and co-author Ackerloff] tenuous chain of logic:

  1. Disgruntled employees don’t work hard, and may even sabotage machinery.
  2. So companies must overpay to keep them from slacking.
  3. Higher pay per worker means fewer workers because companies have a finite budget.

Yellen concludes—you guessed it:

  1. inflation provides corporations with more money to hire more people.”

As a footnote, MMT is referred to as neo-Chartalism, and there is some evidence that Keynes was influenced by Chartalism (which goes back to at least 1905).

On Thursday, Marketplace published a piece on MMT. Things are heating up for this hot new (old) idea. Marketplace presented a “bathroom sink” model of the economy (yes, really!)

To wrap your brain around this concept, picture a bathroom sink. Think of the government and its ability to create more money whenever it needs to as the faucet and that bucket area of the sink where the water goes as the economy.

The government controls how much money, or water, is flowing into the economy. It spends money into the economy by building interstates or paying farm subsidies or funding programs.

“And so as those dollars reach the economy, they begin to fill up that bucket, and what you want to do is be very mindful about how full that bucket is getting or you’re going to get an inflation problem,” [Bernie Sanders economic advisor Stephanie] Kelton said.

Inflation is where the sink overflows. If that happens, Kelton said there are two ways to fix it: “You can slow the flow of dollars coming into that bucket. That means the government then has to start slowing it’s [sic] rate of spending, or you can open up the drain and let some of those dollars out of the economy. And that’s what we do when we collect taxes.”

This sounds a lot like the Quantity Theory of Money (QTM). This view often paints a picture of pouring water into a container. The higher the water level, the higher the general price level.

QTM by itself does not promote the idea that more money causes more employment. Only that more money causes more rising prices. But Keynes did. And the New Keynesians like Yellen do.

So what makes MMT unique?

According to Stephanie Kelton, in the Marketplace article:

“If you control your own currency and you have bills that are coming due, it means you can always afford to pay the bills on time,” Kelton said. “You can never go broke, you can never be forced into bankruptcy. You’re nothing like a household.”

Keynes taught us about government deficits to bolster employment and government deficits to respond to a crisis. MMT teaches us how to get to the next level. The voters want free goodies. Traditional economics says “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

MMT says “oh yes there is!”

At least until you get to too much inflation. The Monetarists would agree, don’t print too much money or you get too much inflation. Much of the gold community also agrees. If you print too much money, then you get skyrocketing inflation.

Never mind that this prediction was proven wrong in the post-2008 policy response. We want to highlight that the Keynesians, the Monetarists, the MMTers, and even many Austrians largely agree. The problem with too much money printing is too much inflation. They quibble about what is too much, but they agree on the “bathroom sink” model of the economy.

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