Forty Years of Reaganomics

July 18, 2018

Previous | Next

When he was running for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan used to ask his audiences, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” If they were tired of high gas prices, double-digit inflation, and the Iranian hostage crisis, then voters should choose him over the incumbent, Jimmie Carter.

Reagan’s primary domestic policy aim was to shrink the size of government by cutting taxes, spending, and regulation. If only the government would get out of the way, so the theory went, the private sector could flourish. Although Democrats haven’t always gone along with this agenda, Republicans have had their way often enough to bring about a new era of low taxes and limited government. Even Bill Clinton agreed that the era of Big Government was over. Despite all the talk about how Donald Trump is somehow less Republican or less conservative than his predecessors, his tax, spending and regulatory proposals are right out of the Reagan playbook.

Now that almost forty years have passed since the “Reagan revolution,” we may well ask, “Are we better off than we were forty years ago?” I would like to make a modest contribution to an answer by looking at some of the macroeconomic indicators I have been discussing in recent posts. In order to make it easier to compare statistics across the years, I will express the various indicators as shares of gross national income (GNI) when discussing income, or as shares of gross domestic product (GDP) when discussing expenditures. The difference between GNI and GDP is relatively small and should not create any confusion in this discussion. (See my previous discussion of macroeconomic indicators, especially part 2 and part 3.)

Taxes

National income can go to pay taxes, to consume goods and services, or to save, as expressed in the equation GNI = T + C + S. Tax cuts increase the disposable income available for consumption and saving. Generally, more of that increase goes into consumption than into saving. Since consumption is the largest component of GDP, tax cuts raise what is spent on production. That effect includes a multiplier effect as the increased GDP creates additional income and consumption.

[One technical note: In the national accounting system, the T stands for taxes net of transfer payments, which are payments from the government to its citizens. Payroll deductions for Social Security are taxes and count toward T, but Social Security checks are transfer payments and count against T.  The “tax cuts” discussed here could include some increases in transfer payments, but those too would increase disposable income.]

Before the Reagan election in 1980, taxes had been taking about 17-20% of national income. That includes all kinds of taxes—income, sales, payroll, property—and all payers, personal or corporate. Congress passed substantial tax cuts during the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and most recently Donald Trump. The national tax rate dropped from about 18% to 16% by the end of the Reagan and Bush administrations (1992); then to 14% by the end of George W. Bush’s first term (2004). Then came the global financial crisis and the Obama stimulus package, which lowered taxes briefly to 10% of national income. Now the rate is 12%, which reflects the economic recovery and some initial effects of the Trump tax cuts.

The rate of consumption has risen accordingly, whether calculated as a percentage of GNI or of GDP. It was running about 60-61% of GDP before 1980, but it is up to 69% now. That is well above the rate of most wealthy countries. It reflects the fact that we have become a relatively low-tax nation, with a high priority on the purchase of private goods and services.

Some of that increased consumption has gone into imported goods. We were running small trade surpluses in the 1960s, but the higher price of oil helped produce trade deficits in the 1970s. In the era of lower taxes since 1980, imports have grown dramatically. The trade deficit as a percentage of GDP peaked before the global financial crisis of 2007, but has settled back to about 3% recently.

The federal tax cuts have also made the tax code less progressive, so that the wealthy have benefited more than the middle class. Lower taxes give business owners and managers more incentive to claim a higher share of profits for themselves, since the government lets them keep more of their gains. The distribution of both pre-tax and after-tax income has become more unequal during these years.

Government spending

Another goal of Reaganomics was to reduce government spending. That meant especially domestic spending, since military spending was to be kept high. That task proved to be more difficult and contentious.

Although cutting taxes and cutting spending may seem to go together in a program to shrink the size of government, they are quite different matters. Spending changes can actually have a bigger effect on GDP than tax changes, and the effect tends to be in the opposite direction. That’s because government spending has a direct positive effect on GDP. It counts as spending on productive economic activity. Then, by affecting income, it has multiplier effects on consumption as well. Spending cuts lower GDP, other things being equal. Tax cuts raise GDP, but only indirectly through the disposable income that goes into domestic spending rather than spending on imports or saving for the future.

Recall the equation: GDP = C + I + G + NX.
(Gross Domestic Product = Consumption + Investment + Government Spending + Net Exports)

Government spending is a component of GDP. But taxes only effect GDP through their indirect effects on consumption and net exports.

That means that if Americans are willing to incur an additional $100 billion in the annual deficit, increasing spending has a lot to be said for it instead of cutting taxes. The overall effect on GDP should be greater, and the mix of public and private benefits may add to the quality of life. Cutting taxes increases spending on private goods, but raising spending provides public goods (that’s what government spends on) and private goods too (through the effect on income and consumption).

In any case, Republicans wanted to shrink government, not expand it, and they had some success in cutting domestic spending. Before 1980, government spending was running at 21-24% of GDP, but now it is down to 17%. (Part of that drop, but only part, is a consequence of using percentages to measure the changes. If one component of GDP increases its percentage share, others must go down, other things being equal. Here C went up and G went down, but neither change was just a mathematical adjustment to the other.) We know from the increased deficit that taxes have been cut more than spending. And since consumption has risen substantially, it’s safe to say that the big tax cuts increased GDP more than the spending cuts lowered it.

Saving and investment

Another goal of Reaganomics was to increase saving and private sector investment. Tax cuts would give people more money to save as well as consume, and strong consumer demand would encourage the investment of those savings in business expansion. Economic growth should remain strong, since the rising investment component of GDP would offset the falling government component.

Some of the consequences of fiscal policy flow from well-established economic principles, such as lower taxes—>higher disposable income—>higher consumption. But higher investment does not automatically follow from lower taxes. It depends on whether businesses find the economic demand sufficient to justify expansion. For example, airlines will meet the demand for more air travel by filling empty seats before they will invest in new planes. Businesses invest more when they anticipate a strong market for their expanded production.

I do not see in the macroeconomic indicators a surge of saving or investment since 1980. Before then, saving was running at about 19-22% of national income, while investment was in the range of 16-18% of GDP. Reaganomics got off to an auspicious start, with saving up to almost 23% and investment up to 20% by the end of Reagan’s first term. But since then, saving and investment have generally been no higher than they were before. Saving is now at 19% of GNI, and investment is at 17%.

I’m not sure why the desired surge of investment did not occur, but here are a few possibilities. Some of the increased consumer demand has gone to support foreign production, which made domestic expansion less necessary. The Federal Reserve has also been very quick to ward off inflation by raising interest rates whenever rising demand started to push up prices. Higher interest rates discourage borrowing for business expansion. And although new technologies have been emerging, how to utilize them productively and profitably in a largely service economy has remained a question.

Sector balances

The economy consists of three sectors, each with its own financial balance resulting from inflows and outflows. They are the government sector, the domestic private sector, and the external (foreign) sector.

Ever since the Roosevelt administration engaged in massive deficit spending to combat the Depression and fight World War II, government has experienced more budget deficits than surpluses. Before 1980, deficits were running about 2-4% of national income. Since 1980, deficits of 4% or more have been common, except during the Clinton presidency, which ended in a small surplus. The deficit rose again in the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies, first because of the Bush tax cuts, and then because of the global financial crisis and the Obama stimulus package. The deficit was 9% of national income in 2012, but is down to 5% now.

As I discussed in my post on sectoral accounting, one sector’s deficit is another sector’s surplus. When the government experiences an income shortfall by spending more than it receives, some other sector must experience an income surplus by receiving more than it spends. Before 1980, that other sector was the domestic private sector. Households and businesses were saving more than they spent either on consumption or investment in real assets, with the difference showing up as financial assets. But since the 1980s, we have had a balance of trade deficit (and a current account deficit, which is the balance of trade adjusted for other financial flows between countries). Now about two-fifths of our government deficit winds up as surplus dollars in the hands of foreigners. By running such a large deficit, government is enabling both Americans and foreigners to accumulate financial assets.

While our government has been enabling the accumulation of private financial assets for some time, it used to do it in a more egalitarian way, through public-sector job creation, wages and the expansion of public goods. Now we do relatively less of that, and more with tax cuts aimed at corporations and the wealthy. That’s another reason why the distribution of income has become more skewed.

Gross domestic product

To summarize the changes in component shares of GDP, the consumption share is up sharply, government spending is down, investment has remained about the same, and net exports have fallen as the trade deficit has worsened. In the era of Reaganomics, we have been relying primarily on tax cuts to grow the economy instead of on public spending, business investment, or global demand for our products.

How much growth has our fiscal policy helped to achieve? I used data on real (inflation-adjusted) GDP to compute the cumulative growth for two different periods, 1945-1980 and 1980-2016 (the last year in that data series). Then I calculated the annual growth rate that would yield, when compounded, the cumulative result.

For 1945-1980, GDP grew 191%, which implies an annual rate of 3.1% compounded.

For 1980-2016, GDP grew 159%, which implies an annual rate of 2.7% compounded.

This confirms what others have reported, that growth in the Reaganomics era has been on average slower than in the previous postwar era.

This slower growth has also come with other costs: some neglect of public goods and services such as infrastructure repairs, a larger national debt, a larger trade deficit, and greater inequality.

With regard to the inequality, Piketty has argued that slower growth itself contributes to it, since workers rely on economic growth for real wage increases. Big investors rely more on the rate of return on capital. As the rate of growth falls farther below the rate of return on capital, the share of income going to capital rather than labor goes up. This is in fact what has been happening, a trend Piketty describes as a “drift toward oligarchy.” I think the drift toward economic oligarchy is related to the current threat to democracy, of which Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies are only one manifestation.

Government fiscal policy is by no means entirely to blame for sluggish growth. Factors such as slower population growth, an aging population and the difficult transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy are also involved. But going forward, we do need to think about what combination of public and private initiatives can help.

We have probably gone about as far as we can go with tax cuts as the way to prop up a struggling economy. And government spending cuts without tax cuts would almost certainly be worse. The question for economists and policymakers today is how to make the best use of government spending to give the economy what it really needs. Among the things it needs are enhancements to human capital to keep up with changing job requirements, development of cleaner energy sources, and a twenty-first-century infrastructure. And as Modern Monetary Theory advocates, creating public jobs for anyone who wants them is one of the most direct ways of boosting national output and income.

The anti-government philosophy that has dominated the Reaganomics era has outlived its usefulness. I think that Republicans will either have to change their tune, or tone down the anti-government chorus so that new music can be heard. Democrats need to convince voters that their proposals serve the common good and not just the needs of particular constituencies. Warrenomics anyone?

 

 


MMT 7: A Full Employment Proposal

July 11, 2018

Previous | Next

This is the seventh in a series of posts about Modern Monetary Theory, based on the text by Mitchell, Wray and Watts. If you have not seen the earlier posts, I recommend that you start at the beginning.

The goal of full employment

The authors argue for full employment on both economic and ethical grounds. Enabling everyone who wants a job to get one maximizes national economic output, providing more goods and services to distribute. Failing to do so not only hurts unemployed individuals and their families, but does lasting damage to economy and society in general:

Persistently high unemployment not only undermines the current welfare of those affected and slows down the growth rate in the economy below its potential, but also reduces the medium- to longer-term capacity of the economy. The erosion of skills and lack of investment in new capacity means that future productivity growth is likely to be lower than if the economy was maintained at higher rates of activity.

The authors are very critical of the dominant trend in recent economic policy, which is to tolerate unemployment while giving priority to fighting inflation. Policymakers came to accept unemployment rates far above the 2% or lower that was normal in the mid-twentieth century. High unemployment has also been accompanied by underemployment, as many workers have been unable to work as many hours as they would like, and also labor force withdrawals, especially by men. The official unemployment rate does not tell the whole story.

The inflation-fighting part has worked pretty well. Sluggish economic growth and high unemployment weaken the bargaining position of labor and help keep wages down. In turn, low labor costs and weak consumer demand keep firms from raising prices. In general, “the use of unemployment as a tool to suppress price pressures has, based on the OECD experience since the 1990s, been successful.”

The authors are troubled by the injustice of making a minority of the population bear the costs of a weak economy. “Joblessness is usually concentrated among groups that suffer other disadvantages: racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, younger and older individuals, women (especially female heads of households with children), people with disabilities, and those with lower educational attainment.” I would add that the injustice is compounded if those who do make income gains in this economy are mainly the wealthiest 1%. The benefits of price and currency stability are somewhat more widely shared, but “it is doubtful that a case can be made for their status as a human right on par with the right to work.”

The Job Guaranty

Not all countries experienced high unemployment after the end of the postwar economic boom. Some, such as Norway, did more to insure that everyone who wanted to work could find a job.

The idea of the Job Guaranty is fundamentally simple. Since full employment is such a social and economic good, the public sector should take up the slack by employing those who cannot find jobs in the private sector.

“Private firms only hire the quantity of labour needed to produce the level of output that is expected to be sold at a profitable price. Government can take a broader view to include promotion of the public interest, including the right to work.”

The Job Guaranty is also known as the “employment buffer stock approach.” A stock of public jobs provides a buffer to protect the economy from a weak private sector.  Government acts to stabilize employment, spending to hire more labor when the private sector is weak, and reducing spending and public employment when it is strong. That would also have a stabilizing effect on national income and consumption.

The authors suggest that the wages paid in the Job Guaranty program would function like a national minimum wage, since they should be low enough to “avoid disturbing the private sector wage structure when the JG is introduced.” It wouldn’t compete with the private sector enough to drive up wages in general. On the other hand, they also want the wages to express “the aspiration of the society in terms of the lowest acceptable standard of living.” They do not discuss how these goals might be in conflict, but advocates of a “living wage” generally regard today’s minimum wage as too low.

Price stability

Proponents of the Job Guaranty expect it to be less inflationary than traditional Keynesian policies, which recommend government spending in general to stimulate the economy. When government increases its general spending, that runs the risk of driving prices up by competing with private firms for labor and other resources. However:

There can be no inflationary pressures arising directly from a policy where the government offers a fixed wage to any labour that is unwanted by other employers. The JG involves the government buying labor off the bottom, in the sense that employment at the minimum wage does not impose pressure on the market-sector wage structure.

Government would not be involved in a bidding war with private companies for labor, since it would only be hiring labor for which there was no other demand.

The benefits would ramify throughout the economy because of the growth in public works, income, and consumer demand. That should stimulate some expansion in the private sector as well, to meet the increased demand. Private firms could get the additional workers they needed by hiring them away from the Job Guaranty program. That would be fine with the government, which would no longer need to employ them. The program simply absorbs unneeded labor until it is needed again, but does nothing to bid up the price of labor. It supplies a boost to aggregate demand only when there is enough unused capacity in the economy to respond to it. So there is no reason to expect either cost-push or demand-pull inflation as a result of the JG itself.

Effects on public deficit and private surplus

The expected economic effects of a Job Guaranty follow from the macroeconomic relationships described earlier.

GNP = C + I + G + CAB  [see MMT 3]

Gross National Product = Consumption + Investment + Government Spending + Current Account Balance

(T – G) + (S – I) + (-CAB) = 0  [see MMT 4]

These three sector financial balances add to zero:

T – G = Government balance of tax revenue minus spending

S – I = Private sector balance of saving minus investment

-CAB = External sector balance expressed as the current account surplus held by trading partners

Let’s start from the present U.S. situation, where financial surpluses in the private sector and the external sector are balanced by a large government deficit.

Let’s hold the external balance constant, so we can concentrate on the effects of a Job Guaranty on the domestic sectors, public and private.

When the Job Guaranty program starts:

  • G rises
  • GNP rises even more than G, because of the consumption multiplier
  • Government deficit rises
  • Private sector surplus rises

We are assuming that the increase in G is not offset by an increase in taxes. That would keep the increase from showing up in disposable income and block the multiplier effect on consumption. Since G rises but T doesn’t, the deficit (T – G) rises.

According to Modern Monetary Theory, the sovereign government can issue currency to spend beyond its revenue, and this public debt is sustainable. The government can also borrow money by issuing more treasury bonds without “crowding out” private borrowing, as is often alleged. That’s because the private surplus must increase in tandem with the public debt in order for the sector balances to offset. The mechanism by which this happens is the effect of Government spending on Saving due to the saving multiplier. Some of each additional dollar of income is saved, so S rises, and the surplus S – I must rise as much as the deficit T – G, other things being equal.

At the end of MMT 4, I expressed some concern that surplus savings not invested in real productive assets could lead to excess speculation and financial instability. This text does not address that possibility, but it makes me nervous about growing public deficits and private surpluses indefinitely.

Hopefully, the Job Guaranty program stimulates the general economy. As aggregate demand rises, the private sector needs to hire away more of the labor in the Job Guaranty program, so the program can be scaled back. But in order to sustain GNP at a high level, another variable in the GNP equation must increase to offset any reduction in government spending. Presumably that would be Investment, since the firms hiring more labor will also be providing more workplaces, equipment and expanded inventories. That leads to this optimistic scenario:

As private sector demand picks up:

  • G falls, but I rises
  • GNP is sustained at full-employment level
  • Government deficit falls
  • Private surplus falls

Private surplus (S – I) falls because of the rise in investment, which absorbs more of the uninvested saving. I also think that when the private sector is strong, it might be a good time to reduce the public deficit and private surplus by raising taxes on the wealthy, but the text does not get into that.

Necessary but not sufficient?

I like the text’s proposal for a Job Guaranty. I accept the authors’ argument that increasing public debt to fund it is not necessarily bad, since public debt is more sustainable than private debt. I would hope, though, that a period of expansionary fiscal policy might get the economy to a place where public deficits and other sector imbalances could actually be reduced.

One potential problem with the optimistic scenario is that investment in new technologies might displace too much labor, throwing millions of workers back into the Job Guaranty program. As private sector demand picks up and the private labor force moves toward full employment, that would strengthen the bargaining power of labor, according to the author’s conflict theory (see MMT 6). Ideally, investment in new technologies would raise worker productivity and justify wage increases. That would be a long overdue boost in productivity, which has been rather stagnant lately. On the other hand, automated and artificially intelligent systems could replace too many workers, especially those with limited education and technical skills. One can imagine a large underclass of otherwise unemployable workers stuck in minimum-wage jobs in the Job Guaranty program.

In order to develop human potential to the fullest, which is one of the text’s goals, government may need to spend on human capital development as well as the Job Guaranty, although the same program would have some effect on both. General spending to promote education, training, health care, and so forth are also needed.

Writers such as Martin Ford in The Rise of the Robots envision a massive welfare system to support people whose labor is no longer needed. I agree with the authors of Modern Monetary Theory and Practice that paying people not to work is a tremendous waste of human resources. “Providing welfare rather than work to those who want to work is not only an admission of defeat (the labour market fails to provide enough jobs), but also wastes resources and generates social costs.”

I accept the fundamental premise of this economics that “the most important resource in any economy is labour.” I want to enable people to do marketable work of some kind, although new technologies could raise productivity to the point where they wouldn’t need to devote many hours to it. I think that goal is best achieved through a balance of public and private investment. I hardly need to point out that little of this is likely until the present regime is history.


MMT 6: Unemployment and inflation

July 9, 2018

Previous | Next

This is the sixth in a series of posts about Modern Monetary Theory, based on the text by Mitchell, Wray and Watts. If you have not seen the earlier posts, I recommend that you start at the beginning.

The Classical dichotomy

Classical economists gave unemployment and inflation distinct explanations. They weren’t relating the two by focusing on questions like how the government can create more jobs without triggering inflation. Economists have called this compartmentalization the “Classical dichotomy.”

In Classical economics, how many workers were employed depended on the supply and demand of labor, reconciled by the price mechanism. The greater the demand for labor, the higher the price (the wage); but the greater the supply of labor, the lower the price. If wages were too high, the supply of workers willing to work would exceed the demand from employers willing to pay that wage; if wages were too low, the demand for workers would exceed the supply of people willing to work. So in any labor market, there was an equilibrium price point where labor supply equaled labor demand, and that’s how much labor would be employed. Any unemployed workers who remained were those who chose not to work at the going rate. The market had spoken, and everything was as it had to be.

How much was produced with the employed labor depended on the productivity of labor, which depended in turn on the technologies in use.

Inflation had its own dynamic. The general price level for goods and services depended on the amount of money in circulation (and how fast it circulated) relative to the actual output of goods and services. Money was just a medium of exchange. If more money was available to spend on a given level of output, then prices must be higher. “The later Classical economists believed that if the supply of money was, for example, doubled, that there would be no impact on the real performance of the economy. All that would happen is that the price level would double.”

The policy implication of the Classical dichotomy was that government, as the issuer of the currency, could control inflation by managing the money supply, but unemployment was a different matter. The level of employment was set by the invisible hand of the market, and government had little to say about it.

Aggregate demand and the unemployment-inflation trade-off

The massive unemployment of the 1930s forced economists to rethink the Classical position. Unemployment had to involve more than a voluntary decision not to work at the prevailing wage. And as for policy, there had to be something we could do about it. All was not as it had to be. The new Keynesian economics saw the problem as a failure of aggregate demand, and government could take action to alleviate it.

Suppose that businesses decide to cut back on investment because they lose confidence that the market can absorb further increases in production. As I covered in MMT 2, investment is one of the independent variables that determine aggregate demand, national output and income. A drop in investment produces an even greater drop in output and income because of multiplier effects. Each $100 billion drop in investment can easily produce a $200 billion drop in GDP and GNI. Firms lay off workers, unemployment soars, and consumers have less money to spend, encouraging still more cutbacks in investment.

In that situation, lower incomes also mean that the government is collecting less in taxes. That softens the blow for households, but it may encourage governments to cut spending to keep their budgets balanced. That government austerity makes matters worse, since government spending has its own multiplier effect on national income and output. Keynesian theory recommends the opposite policy. Government should increase spending in hard times in order to increase aggregate demand and get the country back to work.

Stimulating the economy with government spending makes the most sense when an economy is suffering from underutilized capacity, as it was during the Great Depression. Once the economy has moved closer to full employment, continued stimulus runs the risk of pushing aggregate demand so high that it presses against a limited supply. That would push prices up, creating “demand-pull inflation.” (In the MMT interpretation, supply can respond to demand and keep prices stable until the economy nears full productive capacity. In graphic terms, the supply curve is seen as pretty flat until prices turn sharply up when that point is reached.)

The policy implication here is that unemployment and inflation are inversely related. Too little aggregate demand creates unemployment, but too much aggregate demand creates inflation. This trade-off was quantified by the introduction of the “Phillips curve” in the 1950s. Policymakers hoped to find a happy medium with neither too much inflation nor too much unemployment.

Stagflation and the monetarist response

In the 1970s, the inverse relationship between unemployment and inflation seemed to break down. The economy experienced both high unemployment and inflation at the same time, a condition that came to be called “stagflation.”

University of Chicago economists under the leadership of Milton Friedman proposed an explanation. He argued that if the government, in its efforts to promote full employment, overstimulated demand, the resulting inflation could end up increasing unemployment as well.

First, he claimed that there is a natural rate of unemployment, which is determined by the underlying structure of the labour market and the rate of capital formation and productivity growth. He believed that the economy always tends back to that level of unemployment even if the government attempts to use fiscal and monetary policy expansion to reduce unemployment.

What would bring unemployment back to its “natural level” was the inflation expectations of workers. Once they came to expect that inflation would keep eroding their purchasing power, they would become less willing to work at the prevailing wage level. This is reminiscent of the Classical idea that unemployment is a personal choice.

Friedman was influential in getting economists to give up fighting unemployment and focus their attention solely on fighting inflation through tight monetary policy.  A certain level of unemployment is natural and government shouldn’t try to change it.

[The] post World War II [Keynesian] consensus was steadily eroded away over the next 40 odd years….Mainstream macroeconomics reverted back to the pre-Keynesian notions of voluntary unemployment and effectively abandoned the concept of true full employment.

A conflict theory of inflation

Modern Monetary Theorists are more in tune with Keynes than with Friedman. As they see it, when government makes fighting inflation the centerpiece of its economic policy, it overlooks policy options that really could reduce unemployment. In effect, it also sides against labor in the class struggle and impedes the efforts of labor to achieve high employment and good wages.

MMT proposes a conflict theory of inflation. Keynes recognized that inflation could be triggered by rising costs as well as rising aggregate demand. MMT acknowledges this “cost-push” inflation and incorporates it into its conflict theory. Increased costs could come from the wage demands of workers, or from the cost of other resources used in production.

Inflation is “the product of distributional struggle over real income shares, reflecting the relative bargaining strength of workers and employers.” Workers want a big enough share of income to maintain or increase their purchasing power. Firms want a big enough share of revenue to cover their costs, including labor costs, and to make enough profit to satisfy their owners or shareholders.

If both sides feel they are benefiting from the shares they have, inflation is avoidable:

If the desired real output shares of the workers and firms is [sic] consistent with the available real output desired, then there is no incompatibility and there will be no inflationary pressures. The available real output would be distributed each period in the form of wages and profits, which satisfy the respective claimants.

If, on the other hand, either side wants to increase its income faster than general economic growth justifies, that cuts into the other’s share of the income. If workers demand wage increases not justified by higher productivity, employers will resist those demands, or else try to pass the costs onto their customers through price increases. General price increases can offset wage increases, leaving workers no better off than before. Price increases that are not matched by wage gains reduce the worker’s share of national income. Inflationary spirals of wages and prices can be initiated from either side. Remember that we are thinking in the aggregate. What matters is what firms and workers are fighting for and getting in the economy as a whole, not just in any one company.

Changes in the relative bargaining power of business and labor may trigger these struggles as well as determine the outcomes. In the early twentieth century, workers responded to the concentration of power in large firms by forming unions to bargain with those firms collectively. “When employers are dealing with workers individually, they have more power than when they are dealing with one bargaining unit (trade unit), which represents all workers in their workplace.” Organized labor made wage gains, but not without a struggle.

Another thing that strengthens labor’s bargaining power is an economy operating at high capacity and employing a lot of labor. Workers can then press their demands for higher wages with less fear of being laid off or replaced. During the postwar economic boom, highly unionized workers were able to obtain a larger share of the national income than they had gotten before, or they have gotten since.

Raw material price shocks such as the 1970s jump in oil prices can both slow the economy and intensify workplace conflict. Workers paying higher gas prices push harder for higher wages. Businesses facing higher costs of production raise prices. If the price shock both slows the economy and generates wage-price spirals, the result is stagflation.

When the Federal Reserve raised interest rates to fight inflation in the 1980s, that raised the cost of borrowing for businesses seeking to expand. That kept the economy operating in low gear, and also increased the resistance of employers to wage increases. The slow economy made workers more vulnerable to layoffs and weakened their bargaining power.

Inflation has been more-or-less under control since then, but workers have faced a perfect storm of sluggish economic growth, competition from cheap foreign labor, declining manufacturing industries, plunging union membership, chronically high unemployment, stagnating real wages, and a declining share of the national wealth and income.

MMT hopes to do better, by identifying a policy that can boost economic growth and achieve full employment, but still keep inflation in check.

Continued


MMT 5: Monetary Operations

July 7, 2018

Previous | Next

This is the fifth in a series of posts about Modern Monetary Theory, based on the text by Mitchell, Wray and Watts. If you have not seen the earlier posts, I recommend that you start at the beginning.

What is money?

In modern economies, money is not a thing, but “a unit of account in which we keep track of debits and credits.” The sovereign state specifies the accounting unit, in our case the dollar, when it issues a currency. It has value not because it is backed by anything tangible, but mainly because the state accepts it as payment for people’s tax liabilities. That forces people to keep records in dollars for any transactions with tax implications. Once people are using the currency to track their transactions, it transcends anything physical. Money includes the paper dollars in your wallet, but it also includes all the accounting entries that record exchanges and show that someone has a dollar-denominated claim on someone else.

The dollar no longer has any fixed value. Since 1971, when the U.S. went off the gold standard, the value of the dollar has fluctuated according to its supply and demand in global financial markets.

According to Modern Monetary Theory, the creation of money is driven primarily by the demand for loans. When Meili extended credit to Thelma to buy stuff at her yard sale (see the previous post), the loan became a financial asset for Meili and a liability for Thelma, whether recorded in an I.O.U., a ledger, or in their respective memories. That kind of personal loan is at the bottom layer of the “pyramid of liabilities” that constitutes the monetary system. At a higher level, when a bank makes a business loan, it creates the money by crediting the business’s checking account. It also records the account balance as a liability for the bank, since it represents the bank’s obligation to accept checks drawn on the account. The loan itself is an asset for the bank, but a liability for the business, since the business is obligated to repay it.

Bank reserves

But doesn’t the bank have to have the money sitting in its vault before it can loan it out? No it doesn’t. It only has to have a small fraction of it in cash reserves, and most of those are held not in its vault but in an account with the central bank, in our case the Federal Reserve. The local bank doesn’t need much cash on hand on any given day, since it has deposits and loan payments coming in as well as withdrawals going out.

Modern Monetary Theory does not accept the notion that the reserves put a limit on the bank’s ability to lend, so that loan activity is limited by the existing supply of money. Banks respond to an increased demand for loans by finding the additional money they need to keep in reserve, whether by selling assets or borrowing from other banks or from the Federal Reserve. They make a profit by borrowing money at an “interbank” rate of interest and then charging their customers a somewhat higher rate.

The Federal Reserve stands at the top of the “pyramid of liabilities.” It is the “monopoly supplier of reserves.” Its operations accommodate the demand for money to lend, but only within limits because of the Fed’s responsibility to control inflation.

Inflation and interest rates

The Federal Reserve tries to control inflation by setting a target for the interest rate on interbank loans. Since the banks mark up this rate to make a profit when they lend to customers, this rate also affects interest rates for mortgages, business loans, and so forth. The Fed’s aim is to set rates high enough to discourage borrowing and spending when prices are rising too fast, and low enough to encourage borrowing and spending when inflation is low and the economy is growing too slowly. The Fed keeps a constant watch on actual interbank borrowing to see if the rates on interbank loans are deviating from the target. That happens because of fluctuations in the reserves held by the banks.

When banks are short of reserves, the shortage may drive the interbank rate up. (Banks are willing to pay more to borrow, or they can charge more to lend.) The Federal Reserve can alleviate the shortage by injecting cash into the system with purchases of bonds or other assets from banks. When an excess of reserves drives the interbank rate below the Fed’s target, it can drain reserves from the system by selling bonds or other assets to banks.

Treasury spending and lending

When the U.S. Treasury spends money authorized by the federal budget, it also creates money for the economy, for example by crediting the account of a building contractor. When it taxes, it removes money from the economy. When it spends more than it taxes, the excess money increases disposable income and boosts aggregate demand.

Deficit spending can be a source of inflation, however, by pushing up the market demand for goods and services without adding to the supply, especially if the economy is already running near capacity. The government spending went to produce a public good, such as a new highway, but it didn’t add to the supply of consumer goods that people can buy. By issuing Treasury bonds, the Treasury drains excess cash from the system and replaces it with I.O.U.s. People who buy the bonds are saving rather than spending.

Notice that I did not say that the government had to issue bonds in order to borrow the money before it could spend it, like a consumer using a credit card. In principle, the sovereign state has the power to create money when it spends without draining that money back out again through taxation or bond sales. Selling bonds is mainly a prudent measure to ward off inflation. For that reason, Modern Monetary Theory considers it a part of monetary policy more than fiscal policy, which is concerned more with taxing and spending.

The Federal Reserve does not buy Treasury bonds directly from the Treasury, but it can buy and sell them on the secondary market. Those buys and sells are an important way of adjusting bank reserves, as described above. Although the Federal Reserve has a degree of independence from the Treasury, in practice they work together to control inflation.

A tight monetary policy keeps interest rates high enough to discourage too much borrowing and spending. Experience has shown that it can be effective in controlling inflation. The downside is that it can slow economic growth and keep the economy running below capacity. The holy grail for economists would be a set of government policies that would promote both full employment and low inflation. Modern Monetary Theory tries to develop such a policy.

Continued

 


MMT 4: Sectoral Accounting

July 6, 2018

Previous | Next

This is the fourth in a series of posts about Modern Monetary Theory, based on the text by Mitchell, Wray and Watts. If you have not seen the earlier posts, I recommend that you start at the beginning.

“The family that pays together…”

During my college years, I used to look forward to seeing my hometown girlfriend when I came home at Christmastime. I’ll call her “Thelma” to protect her privacy in case she’s still trying to live down her association with me. One time when I was in her family’s kitchen, I noticed a posted sheet of paper that recorded all the borrowing and lending that had been going on among the children, probably related to Christmas shopping. So Thelma might have lent her brother Sam $5 when he was short of cash, and on other occasions Sam might have lent money to Dave, and  later he might have lent money to Thelma, and so it went. After Christmas, I imagine they totaled up all the debits and credits to see where everybody stood. My contribution was to write at the bottom of the sheet, “The family that pays together stays together,” much to the parents’ delight.

Let’s suppose that when we balance it all out, Thrifty Thelma has lent $100 more than she borrowed, Sam has come out even, and Deadbeat Dave has borrowed $100 more than he lent. So the financial balances are:

Thelma +100, Sam 0, Dave -100

Every debt creates an asset for someone and a liability for someone else, so the balances have to add to zero.

Oh, I left something out. Thelma’s Chinese friend Meili had a yard sale, at which Thelma bought $140 worth of stuff. She was short of cash because of all the Christmas shopping, so she gave Meili an I.O.U. for the debt. That changed Thelma’s balance from +100 to -40. If we include Meili in the accounting, we now get:

Thelma -40, Sam 0, Dave -100, Meili 140

Notice that not only do the balances add to zero, but the sum of the balances inside the family (-140) must offset Meili’s external balance (140).

Debt can easily be moved around. Thelma could offset her $40 debt by lending $40 to Sam, which would give us:

Thelma 0, Sam -40, Dave -100, Meili 140

Taking it a step further, Sam could now assume the remaining family debt by lending $100 to Dave:

Thelma 0, Sam -140, Dave 0, Meili 140

Oh, Oh, “Uncle” Sam has wound up in debt to the Chinese! And Sam could even create surpluses for everyone except himself by borrowing from Thelma and Dave:

Thelma 100, Sam -340, Dave 100, Meili 140

You can probably see where I’m going.

Sectoral surpluses and deficits

Sectoral accounting in Modern Monetary Theory distinguishes three economic sectors: government, private domestic, and external (relating to foreign countries). Each sector can be in surplus or deficit, and the three financial balances have to add up to zero. For every surplus, there must be a deficit, and vice versa.

The government’s financial balance is given by T – G, where T is taxes net of transfer payments and G is government spending. The balance is a surplus when T > G and a deficit when T < G .

The private domestic financial balance is given by S – I, where S is saving and I is investment. If all saving is spent on investment, there is no financial surplus, just an addition to real assets like factories. If S > I, the surplus accumulates as financial assets. If S < I, the deficit results in some liquidation of financial assets. S – I is also called Net Acquisition of Financial Assets (NAFA). S – I was also discussed as a leakage from spending in the last post, when I was analyzing how much of the national income goes into spending.

The external financial balance is given by -CAB, where CAB is the Current Account Balance. I defined that earlier as the difference between money flowing into the country and money flowing out of the country, taking into account both trade and investment income. We are accustomed to looking at this from the U.S. point of view, where a positive value would indicate a surplus in our favor. Now we have to reverse the sign, because we want a positive value to indicate a surplus in favor of foreign countries. This is just what I did when I expressed Thelma’s debt to Meili as Meili’s surplus. For the United States, CAB is negative because of the trade deficit, so the external financial balance is positive, representing a surplus held by foreigners.

This surplus is different in one respect from Meili’s surplus. She held Thelma’s I.O.U. for goods Thelma hadn’t yet paid for. The Chinese hold a surplus in dollars for goods Americans have paid for. Those dollars are a financial asset for them, but a liability for us, because they are claims against our economy that we “owe” them. The dollar itself is a kind of I.O.U., and that makes the Chinese our creditors and Americans their debtors.

With the sector balances defined that way, the three balances must add to zero:

(T – G) + (S + I) + (-CAB) = 0

This formula follows logically from the formulas for GNP and GNI given in the last post, but I’ll spare you the proof.

Here are recent estimates derived from the National Income and Product Accounts tables published by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. (The numbers are published quarterly and revised frequently.  They are annualized to estimate one year’s financial flows in billions of dollars.)

-1,022 + 609 + 413
(govt./private domestic/external)

The annual government deficit balances the private sector and foreign surpluses. The government takes on debt, while the private sector and foreign countries accumulate financial assets. Foreign investors now own about a third of the stock in U.S. companies, for example, and they got a nice financial windfall from the cut in corporate taxes.

Since the external sector has a surplus, the two internal balances must add up to a deficit just as large. And since both the external and private domestic sectors are in surplus, the government must have a deficit large enough to offset both of them.

Who should carry the debt burden?

Reducing the government’s debt burden requires either reducing the external trade imbalance or reducing the private sector’s surplus.

The United States would like to be more competitive in world markets, but there are several strong reasons why we aren’t:

  • As a country with a relatively high median income, we can afford to buy a lot from other countries.
  • The dollar is a strong currency on world markets. Other countries are willing to hold dollars and financial assets denominated in dollars, especially bonds issued by the U.S. Treasury.
  • Countries with low wages are able to produce more cheaply many products formerly made in America.
  • Some countries engage in unfair trading practices, although that is beyond the scope of the authors’ analysis.

Most of these will be very hard to change, even if we can agree they should be changed. Given that the external sector is in deficit from our point of view, and so has a surplus from the foreign perspective, which of our internal sectors should balance it with a deficit?

The text argues against allowing the private domestic sector to be in deficit:

We know that the private sector cannot sustain deficits permanently. This is because the flows of spending which deliver deficits have to be funded…. Private deficits ultimately manifest in an increasing stock of debt being held on the private sector’s balance sheet.

This process of debt accumulation is limited because at some point the susceptibility of the balance sheet to cyclical movements (for example, rising unemployment) increases and the risk of default rises….

In the long-term, the only sustainable position is for the private sector to be in surplus. An economy can absorb deviations around that position but only for short periods.

That leaves the government as the sector to take on deficits and debt accumulation. Unlike the private sector, government can sustain deficits because it has the power to create money when it spends beyond its tax revenue. I’ll describe the monetary operations by which it does that in the next post. Like Sam in my family example, government assumes the burden of debt so that the other sectors can maintain and grow their financial assets.

Under these conditions, regularly balanced budgets are hard to imagine. Not only would they reduce GNP, national income, consumption and saving, as discussed earlier; but they would force the private sector to incur annual deficits about as large as our trade imbalance, constantly shrinking our financial assets.

American society has done a useful—and maybe at least temporarily unavoidable—thing by piling its debts onto the entity most able to sustain them. That has enabled private wealth to keep flowing—to the rich anyway—even as our manufacturing declined and our global competitive position worsened. That’s one way to keep an economy growing, albeit at a sluggish rate with little gain for most workers.

Mutual dependency

Sectoral accounting reveals just how much creditors and debtors are mutually interdependent. If debtors want to spend more than their current income, they need creditors. If creditors want to acquire financial assets, they need debtors to accept the corresponding liabilities. In foreign relations, the U.S. is the debtor and our trading partners are, on average, the creditors. In domestic sector relations, the public sector is the debtor and the private sector is the creditor.

If we are to blame one side or the other, which side should it be? If debt is the fault of the deadbeat debtor, then we should be beating up on the United States for being a debtor nation, instead of attacking our trading partners for selling us more than we sell them. If debt is the fault of the predatory lender, then we should be angry at the private sector for accumulating assets, not at the public sector for accepting the liabilities. Who is doing whom a favor here?

Government is not some kind of alien invader or colonial power that preys on the “free market.” By giving in to the demands of assertive constituencies, government runs up the debts that become financial assets for someone in the private sphere. These include demands for high transfer payments from the elderly and the poor, demands for low taxes from corporations and the wealthy, and demands for the world’s highest military spending from the military industrial complex.

Too much of a good thing?

I think the text makes a pretty strong case that public debt is more sustainable than private debt, and that public deficits can stimulate the private sector. The authors would actually like to see more such stimulus, through government spending aimed at putting more people to work.

But this analysis also got me thinking about something the text does not discuss. If public deficits are not as bad as we’ve been led to believe, is it also possible that private surpluses are not as good as we’ve been led to believe? The private sector is better off running surpluses than deficits, yes, but is there any limit to how big the surpluses should be, especially when the financial assets are going primarily to make the rich richer?

I’m not worried about the government running out of money, because technically a government that controls its own currency never has to. I am more worried that a large pile of surplus capital not invested in productive assets supports a booming, high-flying financial sector that engages in too much speculation. In a worst-case scenario, business investment is flat, and the economy is growing only because of government’s deficit spending. Income, consumption and saving are rising, but the growing gap between S and I indicates a growth of surplus capital. Capital always seeks a good return, and if businesses aren’t investing enough to provide it, capitalists are tempted to resort to financial speculation. Financial firms can raise money selling “junk bonds” promising high interest rates, then use the money to buy up existing companies not to expand them, but to loot them of their assets or flip them for a quick profit. Banks can make risky mortgage loans to unqualified buyers, but then package them and pass them off as AAA-safe investments. Speculation can take many forms. But when it becomes rampant and people lose confidence in the value of financial assets, bubbles burst and financial crises occur.

We know what a financial crisis looks like because we have recently lived through one. Have the underlying dynamics of our economy changed very much since then?

Continued