The origins of MMT

30 January, 2017 at 10:53 | Posted in Economics | 2 Comments

Many mainstream economists seem to think the idea behind Modern Monetary Theory is new and originates from economic cranks.

New? Cranks? How about reading one of the great founders of neoclassical economics – Knut Wicksell. This is what Wicksell wrote in 1898 on ‘pure credit systems’ in Interest and Prices (Geldzins und Güterpreise), 1936 (1898), p. 68f:

It is possible to go even further. There is no real need for any money at all if a payment between two customers can be accomplished by simply transferring the appropriate sum of money in the books of the bank 

A pure credit system has not yet … been completely developed in this form. But here and there it is to be found in the somewhat different guise of the banknote system

We intend therefor, as a basis for the following discussion, to imagine a state of affairs in which money does not actually circulate at all, neither in the form of coin … nor in the form of notes, but where all domestic payments are effected by means of the Giro system and bookkeeping transfers. A  thorough analysis of this purely imaginary case seems to me to be worth while, for it provides a precise antithesis to the equally imaginay case of a pure cash system, in which credit plays no part whatever [the exact equivalent of the often used neoclassical model assumption of “cash in advance” – LPS] …

For the sake of simplicity, let us then assume that the whole monetary system of a country is in the hands of a single credit institution, provided with an adequate number of branches, at which each independent economic individual keeps an account on which he can draw cheques.

What Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) basically does is exactly what Wicksell tried to do more than a hundred years ago. The difference is that today the ‘pure credit economy’  is a reality and not just a theoretical curiosity – MMT describes a fiat currency system that almost every country in the world is operating under.

And here’s another well-known economist with early ideas of the MMT variety:

[Bendixen says the] old ‘metallist’ view of money is superstitious, and Dr. Bendixen trounces it with the vigour of a convert. Money is the creation of the State; it is not true to say that gold is international currency, for international contracts are never made in terms of gold, but always in terms of some national monetary unit; there is no essential or important distinction between notes and metallic money; money is the measure of value, but to regard it as having value itself is a relic of the view that the value of money is regulated by the value of the substance of which it is made, and is like confusing a theatre ticket with the performance. With the exception of the last, the only true interpretation of which is purely dialectical, these ideas are undoubtedly of the right complexion. It is probably true that the old ‘metallist’ view and the theories of regulation of note issue based on it do greatly stand in the way of currency reform, whether we are thinking of economy and elasticity or of a change in the standard; and a gospel which can be made the basis of a crusade on these lines is likely to be very useful to the world, whatever its crudities or terminology.

J. M. Keynes, “Theorie des Geldes und der Umlaufsmittel. by Ludwig von Mises; Geld und Kapital. by Friedrich Bendixen” (review), Economic Journal, 1914

In modern times legal currencies are totally based on fiat. Currencies no longer have intrinsic value (as gold and silver). What gives them value is basically the legal status given to them by government and the simple fact that you have to pay your taxes with them. That also enables governments to run a kind of monopoly business where it never can run out of money. Hence spending becomes the prime mover and taxing and borrowing is degraded to following acts. If we have a depression, the solution, then, is not austerity. It is spending. Budget deficits are not the major problem, since fiat money means that governments can always make more of them.

Financing quantitative easing, fiscal expansion, and other similar operations, is made possible by simply crediting a bank account and thereby – by a single keystroke – actually creating money. One of the most important reasons why so many countries are still stuck in depression-like economic quagmires is that people in general – including most mainstream economists – simply don’t understand the workings of modern monetary systems. The result is totally and utterly wrong-headed austerity policies, emanating out of a groundless fear of creating inflation via central banks printing money, in a situation where we rather should fear deflation and inadequate effective demand.

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2 Comments

  1. This is quite wide off the mark. The most common approach to monetary economics these days is the so-called “cashless limit”, developed by Michael Woodford to capture Wicksell’s “pure credit system”. See here: http://www.columbia.edu/~mw2230/mexico-final.pdf
    .
    The cash in advance model was mainly used in the 70s and 80s, and not any longer.

  2. “Not any longer”? Maybe you should take a look at some textbooks used in economics these days …


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