Keynesian Deficit Doves versus MMT Deficit Owls

Daily Kos

So, here are some contrasts between the two approaches on seven important issues. Out of these contrasts, there should be much material for short explanations about why MMT is superior to Keynesian approaches.

1. Government deficit spending for recovery — Keynesian deficit dove position: provide high fiscal multiplier Government deficit spending or tax cuts to stimulate aggregate demand.

MMT position: provide high multiplier Government deficit spending: targeted on payroll tax cuts that will get more money into the hands of working people quickly; providing revenue sharing grants to States for maintaining existing State-level jobs; and direct job creation (job guarantee for anyone who want to work)

Significance: MMT says it’s not just about increasing aggregate demand and GDP. It’s about targeting and getting rid of unemployment!

2. Government fiscal policy over the business cycle — Keynesian deficit dove position: deficit spend in bad (less than full employment) times; have government surpluses in good (full employment) times.

MMT position: Government surpluses withdraw net financial assets from the private sector. Therefore, they should only be run when the private sector is over-heated and demand-pull inflation exists. Since the size of the Government deficit, without explicit Government attempts to raise taxes, is determined by 1) the level of savings of the private sector; and 2) the level of the trade deficit (surplus), it is perfectly possible that the Government may have to run deficits continuously to maintain full employment, if there is demand leakage from a trade deficit and/or private savings that the Government must make up for by deficit spending.

Significance: MMT says: ”Don’t worry about this simple fiscal rule.” Whether deficits are needed depends on the situation and specifically on our trade balance and our desires to save in the private sector.

3. Long Term Deficit Reduction Planning — Keynesian deficit dove position: We can and should engage in long-term deficit reduction planning since the fiscal policy can control the deficit, and since there is a long-term inter-temporal budgetary constraint on Government spending due to the potential of the bond markets to impose an insupportable interest burden on the budget when continuous deficits, increasing national debts, and increasing debt-to-GDP ratios accelerate too fast and/or get too high.

MMT position: We cannot and should not formulate or implement plans for long-term deficit reduction. First, because such plans assume that Government fiscal policy can accurately predict the effect on deficits of its attempts to close deficits by austerity measures. In fact, however, raising taxes or cutting programs always reduces net financial assets in the private sector, which in turn reduces aggregate demand and the level of economic activity, which, in its turn, drives up Government expenditures and, inadvertently increases its deficits. We already see this in the UK. the austerity measures of the Conservative/Liberal coalition government aren’t decreasing its deficits, but are increasing them, and driving the UK closer to a double-dip recession.

Second, because we should not be distorting fiscal policy by targeting it at deficits and surpluses, national debts, or debt-to-GDP ratios at all. Fiscal policy should, instead, be targeted on fulfilling public purposes including full employment, price stability, the elimination of poverty, providing universal health care as a right, maintaining public safety, creating an excellent educational system for all of our children, strengthening the social safety net, re-inventing the energy foundations of the economy, and so on. These, and not deficit reduction or debt-to-GDP ratio stabilization should be our real goals, because for fiat currency systems with floating exchange rates, non-convertibility of currency, and no external debts in any other currency or pegs to any external currency or basket of such currencies, there is no inter-temporal or any other kind of budgetary constraint on Government deficit spending imposed by previous deficit spending.

That is, it doesn’t matter what such a Government’s national debt is, or what it’s debt-to-GDP ratio is. It still has the same capacity it has always had to buy anything it wants to buy for sale in its own currency, since it can always spend/create what its legislature appropriates.

Third, unlike Keynesian deficit doves, who evidently think that without long-term deficit planning and control of deficits, interest rates will rise catastrophically, and eventually consume the Federal budget; MMT deficit owls, point to the capability of the Government to spend without issuing further debt, use coin seigniorage, or issue only short-term (3 months or less) debt as measures the Government can take to either eliminate Treasury bond interest costs altogether, or to lower them to a level arbitrarily close to zero. MMT deficit owls say:  Governments sovereign in their own currency are “in charge” in the bond markets, not bond market vigilantes, whose very existence depends on the sufferance of the Government.

Significance: MMT says: long-term deficit reduction plans are a no-no and should be opposed! They’re based on false theories and put constraints on Federal deficit spending that are sure to damage the economy. Most importantly, they hinder progressives in solving real problems

4. Long Term Deficit Reduction Projections — Keynesian deficit dove position: Organizations like the CBO can produce useful long-term projections of deficits and debts that can be used as the basis for long-term deficit reduction plans

MMT position: Organizations like the CBO can produce long-term projections based on certain assumptions; but they aren’t and can’t be useful because the assumptions are always unrealistic, often self-contradictory, and always fail to take into account the emergent character of political and economic reality.

This is apparent when we look back at CBO, OMB, and other fiscal projections in the past. In 2002 and after, where were the surpluses as far as the eye can see being projected by CBO at the end of the Clinton Administration? Where were the projections of the housing bust of 2007 and thereafter and its effects back in 2006? Where were the projections in 2007 of the great crash of 2008? Where are the projections right now of what happens if the United States suddenly decides to  stop issuing debt instruments while doubling its deficit spending? The answer is that projections like these could not be made by CBO because their projections are always based on assumptions that cease to hold because of their sensitivity to unanticipated political occurrences.

Significance: MMT says: Since long-term deficit projections are invalid, and since they don’t affect the Government’s fiscal capacity. Stop doing them! And stop worrying about them! Worry about jobs, poverty, education, energy foundations, health care, global warming, the environment, the rise of global plutocracy, etc. These are the real problems!

5. Funding Government spending — Keynesian deficit dove position:  Government spending must, over the long-term, be funded by some combination of taxing and borrowing.

MMT position: Government spending isn’t “funded.” It occurs under the authority of the Government to issue currency, which authority is unlimited by any constitutional requirement for “funding.” There is therefore no intrinsic Government Budgetary Constraint, (GBC) either static or inter-temporal. This means that we never need to ask the question, “how will we pay for it?” when considering Government deficit spending. There are many things we do need to consider: the likely results of such spending, how it’s targeted, its implications for full employment; its impact on inflation. However, we never have to ask “how will we pay for it?” or worry that “the Government is broke and can’t afford it,” because the Government of the United States is the currency issuer, not the currency user and it always spends and simultaneously issues “currency” when it does so.

Significance: MMT says: We never have to worry about the Government finding financial resources or “how are we gonna pay for it!” So, we can just do what’s right when it comes to balancing off the real resources being used to create real wealth!

6. Social Security Solvency — Keynesian deficit dove position: The Keynesians accept the  Government’s projections that Social Security will become insolvent and unable to pay full benefits by 2037. So they advocate doing something about that by raising the current salary cap on FICA taxes, and sometimes even raising the retirement age, though not by as much as deficit hawks want to see it raised. Even if a Keynesian deficit dove opposes all changes except for raising the FICA salary cap, they still acknowledge that there is a long-term SS FICA revenue shortfall that must be met either with increased taxes, or by cutting Social Security benefits, and which ought not to be handled through deficit spending.

MMT position: In contrast, MMT says that since Government spending isn’t and need not be “funded,” there is no Social Security revenue shortfall problem. The only problem is Congress and whether it is willing to guarantee Social Security at present or increased levels for retirees. Stephanie Kelton has put this very well:

”Funding Social Security is always and everywhere a political choice. The strongest evidence of this comes directly from the 2009 Annual Report of the Trustees. In that report, they predict gloom and doom for Social Security because “there is no provision in current lawthat would enable full payment of benefits, once the Trust Funds are exhausted”.In contrast, the Supplementary Medical Insurance (SMI) Trust Funds are “both projected to remain adequately financed into the indefinite future because current law automatically provides financing each year to meet next year’s expected costs.”

It is that simple. The former is in ‘trouble’ because the government isn’t committed to making the payments, and the latter gets a clean bill of health because the government will always make the payments.”

Significance: MMT says: There is no revenue shortfall problem for Social Security because SS payments need not be funded, only appropriated, by Congress. The real problem is a Congressional and presidential guts problem; not a Social Security revenue problem!

7. Proposed progressive reform programs — Keynesian deficit dove position: Whatever programs are proposed must fit within “progressive” deficit reduction plans and their projected glide path toward a declining public debt-to-GDP ratio. However, important the programs, the problems they address, and the expected benefits from them, the overall deficit reduction plan with its various targets must have priority and provides spending constraints for  the various progressive reform programs.

MMT position: Progressive reform programs must always be evaluated in the specific economic and social context of the proposed legislation and the key issue is always the assessment of their likely impact and the real benefits and costs (including side effects) of this legislation. Considerations of the size of deficits, debt-to-GDP ratios, or trends in such statistics are not among the impacts that are relevant. Impacts on employment, inflation, and a whole host of social, economic, and political factors are all relevant. And whether or not there is deficit spending, is certainly important because Government deficit spending adds to private sector net financial assets. However, prioritizing a long-term deficit reduction plan over progressive measures that will result in greater benefits for Americans is fiscally irresponsible because it sacrifices real increases in well-being to an erroneous theory about non-existent Governmental Budgetary Constraints.

Since Keynesian deficit doves as well as deficit hawks are doing just that with their long-term deficit reduction plans, they too are committed to fiscal irresponsibility over the long term. And in their willingness to compromise with deficit hawks out of a shared belief that their really is a long-term deficit problem, they also are willing to allow a certain amount of deficit reduction activity in the short and medium term, even though they know this is likely to be damaging to our already suffering economy.

Significance: MMT says: Escape from real fiscal irresponsibility (trying to target abstract fiscal indicators of budget performance rather than real outcomes of spending) and fiscal unsustainability (pursuing fiscal policy that reduces real economic capacity by destroying industry, manufacturing, and people skills) to true fiscal responsibility (targeting government spending at full employment, price stability, and other real public purposes) and true fiscal sustainability (Government spending that at least maintains and generally increases the real, rather than nominal capacity of the economy to produce the goods, services, and conditions that people value and fulfill public purposes).


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