But there is another reason I'm generally in agreement with MMT on many issues. This has to do with the fact that MMT builds on some pretty solid economic thinking, much of which was well understood and accepted by earlier generations of Keynesian economists. As someone who has a lot of respect for and who finds much insight from this earlier Keynesian tradition, I'm quite pleased to see MMT, a more recent school of thought, disseminate these views.
I was reminded of some of these - let's call them - "Old Keynesian" tenets in a recent blog post by Paul Krugman, in which he discusses a trifecta of issues relating to (1) the benefits of monetary sovereignty (i.e., where a nation issues and uses its own currency), (2) the debate on the supposedly inflationary nature of deficit spending financed via money creation or bond issuance and (3) the recent controversy regarding the potentially expansionary consequences of a "loss of confidence" in US government bonds by international investors .
The first of these views concerns monetary sovereignty, a central MMT theme. This was also a well understood concept by earlier Keynesian economists. For instance, monetary sovereignty was a key aspect highlighted in the work of economist Robert Eisner, who brilliantly described in his book The Misunderstood Economy (1994:74) why the US greatly benefits from being a currency issuing nation:
[One] point that is widely misunderstood or unrecognized is that this debt, relatively small as it is, is all owed in its own currency, US dollars. We pay interest and principal in US dollars. And our Treasury and Federal Reserve can always create all the dollars we need. One may object that such money creation or the monetization of the interest-bearing debt may have undesirable consequences, particularly greater inflationary pressure. But it may also have the desirable effect of stimulating the US economy if that is in order. In any event, the fact that US debt held by foreigners is virtually all denominated in US dollars rules out the possibility of unvoluntary default on US government obligations.Several other Keynesian economists also held similar views, including economist Lorie Tarshis who emphasized this point in Elements of Economics (1947), the first Keynesian textbook to be published in the US.
We are not in the position of many third world or other debtor nations that sadly had obligations in foreign currencies, frequently the US dollars. The only way they could service their debt was to obtain foreign currencies. [...]
The "world's greatest debtor nation" gave the American public visions of the US going bankrupt. Since the debt was essentially in our currency, however, this made no sense. We could "print" out own money to pay it off or, in more sophisticated fashion, have the Federal Reserve create the money. (1994:74)
Secondly, concerning the ever-lasting debate on the supposedly inflationary nature of deficit spending financed via money creation or bond issuance, MMT considers that the latter should be viewed as more inflationary than the former since the interest payments paid by government on its debt results in a greater expansion in the money supply (in the long run) than if the deficit is financed by money creation.
On this point, it may be instructive to recall that economists Alan Blinder and Robert Solow demonstrated long ago that the "potency" of deficit spending via money creation or bond issuance is not strictly related to the manner of financing. In fact, Blinder and Solow demonstrate in "Analytical Foundations of Public Finance" (1974) that deficit spending financed via issuance of bonds has under normal, steady-state equilibrium conditions a greater fiscal multiplier than deficit spending via monetary financing in the long run:
When we correct an oversight committed by almost all previous users of the government budget constraint, a still more odd result emerges. The error has been to ignore the fact that interest payments on outstanding government bonds are another expenditure item in the budgetary accounts. [...]Finally, as for Krugman's contention that a loss of confidence in US government bonds by investors may have potentially expansionary consequences for the US economy, economist Bill Vickrey presented a similar argument in his article entitled "Fifteen Fatal Fallacies of Financial Fundamentalism" (1996). On whether a sell-off of US government bonds by foreign investors would have a detrimental effect on the US economy, Vickrey suggested the following:
Under a policy of strict monetary financing, [in a stable system, the long-run government expenditure multiplier is simply the reciprocal of the marginal propensity to tax]. But the issuance of new bonds means a greater multiplier in the long run. (1974:50). (original emphasis)
It is not intended that the domestic government debt should be held in any large quantity by foreigners. But should foreigners wish to liquidate holdings of this debt or any other domestic assets, they can only do so as a whole by generating an export surplus, easing the domestic unemployment problem, releasing assets to supply the domestic demand, and making it possible to get along with smaller deficits and a less rapidly growing government debt. The same thing happens if domestic investors turn to investing in foreign assets, thereby reducing their drain on the domestic asset supply.All that to say that, in my opinion, both Paul Krugman and proponents of MMT stand on solid ground regarding these issues.
Blinder, Alan and Robert Solow, "Analytical Foundations of Fiscal Policy," in A. S. Blinder, et. al., The Economics of Public Finance, The Brookings Institution, 1974, pp. 3-115.
Eisner, Robert, The Misunderstood Economy: What counts and how to count it, Boston: HBSP, 1994.
Tarshis, Lorie, The Elements of Economics, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1947.
Vickrey, William. "Fifteen fallacies of financial fundamentalism: A disquisition on demand-side economies", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 95, No. 3, February 1998, pp. 1340-1347.