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Demystifying Modern Monetary Theory (Sample)

In a challenge to conventional views on modern monetary and fiscal policy, Professor Bill Mitchell of Newcastle University in Australia has emerged as one of the foremost exponents of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), a heterodox challenge to the prevailing paradigms which dominate how mainstream economics is taught and economic policy implemented. In his works, and the interview below, Mitchell presents a coherent analysis of how money is created, how it functions in global exchange rate regimes, and how the mystification of the nature of money has constrained governments, and prevented states from acting in the public interest.

MMT reaches conclusions that are shocking to many who’ve been indoctrinated in the conventional wisdom. Most importantly, Mitchell challenges the orthodox views about government finance, monetary policy, the so-called Phillips Curve (inflation-unemployment) trade-off, the wisdom of fixed exchange rates, and the folly of striving for government budget surpluses via austerity.

For most people, the greatest challenge to near-and-dear convictions is MMT’s claim that a sovereign government’s finances are nothing like those of households and firms. While we hear all the time the statement that “if I ran my household budget the way that the Federal Government runs its budget, I’d go broke”, followed by the claim “therefore, we need to get the government deficit under control”, MMT argues this is a false analogy. A sovereign, currency-issuing government is NOTHING like a currency-using household or firm. The sovereign government cannot become insolvent in its own currency; it can always make all payments as they come due in its own currency because it is the ISSUER of the currency, not simply the USER (as a household or private business is). This issuing capacity means that the government does not face the same kinds of constraints as a private sector user of money, which in turn exposes the fallacy of the household analogy, so beloved in popular economics discourse.

Indeed, if government spends currency into existence, it clearly does not need tax revenue before it can spend. Further, if taxpayers pay their taxes using currency, then government must first spend before taxes can be paid. Again, all of this was obvious two hundred years ago when kings literally stamped coins in order to spend, and then received their own coins in tax payment.

Another shocking truth is that a sovereign government does not need to “borrow” its own currency in order to spend. Indeed, it cannot borrow currency that it has not already spent! This is why economists such as Mitchell see the sale of government bonds as something quite different from borrowing.

When government sells bonds, banks buy them by offering reserves they hold at the central bank. The central bank debits the buying bank’s reserve deposits and credits the bank’s account with treasury securities. Rather than seeing this as borrowing by treasury, it is more akin to shifting deposits out of a checking account and into a saving account in order to earn more interest. And, indeed, treasury securities really are nothing more than a saving account at the Fed that pay more interest than do reserve deposits (bank “checking accounts”) at the Fed.

MMT recognizes that bond sales by sovereign government are really part of monetary policy operations. While this gets a bit technical, the operational purpose of such bond sales is to help the central bank hit its overnight interest rate target (called the fed funds rate in the US). Sales of treasury bonds reduce bank reserves and are used to remove excess reserves that would place downward pressure on overnight rates. Purchases of bonds (called an open market purchase) by the Fed add reserves to the banking system, prevent overnight rates from rising. Hence, the Fed and Treasury cooperate using bond sales/bond purchases to enable the Fed to keep the fed funds rate on target.

You don’t need to understand all of that to get the main point: sovereign governments don’t need to borrow their own currency in order to spend! They offer interest-paying treasury securities as an instrument on which banks, firms, households, and foreigners can earn interest. This is a policy choice, not a necessity. Government never needs to sell bonds before spending, and indeed cannot sell bonds unless it has first provided the currency and reserves that banks need to buy the bonds.

All sorts of policy implications flow from these insights. Of particular importance to Mitchell, a leading labor economist, is that governments face no FINANCIAL constraint in regard to supporting policies that generate full employment (MMT also cuts the fictionalized Gordian knot that alleges there is a trade-off between unemployment and inflation via the “Phillips Curve”). True, we might well face REAL RESOURCE constraints, but Mitchell argues that this is the constraint that should govern policy-making decisions, as opposed to some fictionalized financial constraint. Mitchell exposes many of the flaws in the foundations of mainstream macroeconomics and suggests a better way to formulate policy that will benefit everyone living in capitalistic societies. In other words, it turns “the dismal science” into a positive science.

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