Archive for July, 2020

Why The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page is a Disgrace

In view of today’s absurdly self-righteous statement by the Wall Street Journal editorial board, I thought it would be a good idea to update one of my first posts (almost nine years ago) on this blog. Plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose; just gets worse and worse even with only occasional contributions by the estimable Mr. Stephen Moore.

Stephen Moore has the dubious honor of being a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.  He lives up (or down) to that honor by imparting his wisdom from time to time in signed columns appearing on the Journal’s editorial page. His contribution in today’s Journal (“Why Americans Hate Economics”) is noteworthy for typifying the sad decline of the Journal’s editorial page into a self-parody of obnoxious, philistine anti-intellectualism.

Mr. Moore begins by repeating a joke once told by Professor Christina Romer, formerly President Obama’s chief economist, now on the economics department at the University of California at Berkeley. The joke, not really that funny, is that there are two kinds of students:  those who hate economics and those who really hate economics.  Professor Romer apparently told the joke to explain that it’s not true. Mr. Moore repeats it to explain why he thinks it really is. Why does he? Let Mr. Moore speak for himself:  “Because too often economic theories defy common sense.” That’s it in a nutshell for Mr. Moore:  common sense — the ultimate standard of truth.

So what’s that you say, Galileo? The sun is stationary and the earth travels around it? You must be kidding! Why any child can tell you that the sun rises in the east and moves across the sky every day and then travels beneath the earth at night to reappear in the east the next morning. And you expect anyone in his right mind to believe otherwise. What? It’s the earth rotating on its axis? Are you possessed of demons? And you say that the earth is round? If the earth were round, how could anybody stand at the bottom of the earth and not fall off? Galileo, you are a raving lunatic. And you, Mr. Einstein, you say that there is something called a space-time continuum, so that time slows down as the speed one travels approaches the speed of light. My God, where could you have come up with such an idea?  By that reasoning, two people could not agree on which of two events happened first if one of them was stationary and the other traveling at half the speed of light.  Away with you, and don’t ever dare speak such nonsense again, or, by God, you shall be really, really sorry.

The point of course is not to disregard common sense–that would not be very intelligent–but to recognize that common sense isn’t enough. Sometimes things are not what they seem – the earth, Mr. Moore, is not flat – and our common sense has to be trained to correspond with a reality that can only be discerned by the intensive application of our reasoning powers, in other words, by thinking harder about what the world is really like than just accepting what common sense seems to be telling us. But once you recognize that common sense has its limitations, the snide populist sneers–the stock-in-trade of the Journal editorial page–mocking economists with degrees from elite universities in which Mr. Moore likes to indulge are exposed for what they are:  the puerile defensiveness of those unwilling to do the hard thinking required to push back the frontiers of their own ignorance.

In today’s column, Mr. Moore directs his ridicule at a number of Keynesian nostrums that I would not necessarily subscribe to, at least not without significant qualification. But Keynesian ideas are also rooted in certain common-sense notions, for example, the idea that income and expenditure are mutually interdependent, the income of one person being derived from the expenditure of another. So when Mr. Moore simply dismisses as “nonsensical” the idea that extending unemployment insurance to keep the unemployed from having to stop spending, he is in fact rejecting an idea that is no less grounded in common sense than the idea that paying people not to work discourages work. The problem is that our common sense cuts in both directions. Mr. Moore likes one and wants to ignore the other.

What we would like economists–even those unfortunate enough to have graduated from an elite university–to tell us is which effect is stronger or, perhaps, when is one effect stronger and when is the other stronger. But all that would be too complicated and messy for Mr. Moore’s–and the Journal‘s–cartoonish view of the world.

In that cartoonish view, the problem is that good old Adam Smith of “invisible hand” fame and his virtuous economic doctrines supporting free enterprise got tossed aside when the dastardly Keynes invented “macroeconomics” in the 1930s. And here is Mr. Moore’s understanding of macroeconomics.

Macroeconomics simply took basic laws of economics we know to be true for the firm or family –i.e., that demand curves are downward-sloping; that when you tax something, you get less of it; that debts have to be repaid—and turned them on their head as national policy.

Simple, isn’t it? The economics of Adam Smith (the microeconomics of firm and family) is good because it is based on common sense; the macroeconomics of Keynes is bad because it turns common sense on its head. Now I don’t know how much Mr. Moore knows about economics other than that demand curves are downward-sloping, but perhaps he has heard of, or even studied, the law of comparative advantage.

The law of comparative advantage says, in one of its formulations, that even if a country is less productive (because of, say, backward technology or a poor endowment of natural resources) than other countries in producing every single product that it produces, it would still have a lower cost of production in at least one of those products, and could profitably export that product (or those products) in international markets in sufficient amounts to pay for its imports of other products. If there is a less common-sensical notion than that in all of macroeconomics, indeed in any scientific discipline, I would like to hear about it. And trust me as a former university teacher of economics, there is no proposition in economics that students hate more or find harder to reconcile with their notions of common sense than the law of comparative advantage. Indeed, even most students who can correctly answer an exam question about comparative advantage don’t believe a word of what they wrote. The only students who actually do believe it are the ones who become economists.

But the law of comparative advantage is logically unassailable; you might as well try to disprove “two plus two equals four.” So, no, Mr. Moore, you don’t know why Americans hate economics, not unless, by Americans you mean that (one hopes small) group of individuals who happen to think exactly the same way as does the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.

What’s Right and not so Right with Modern Monetary Theory

I am finishing up a first draft of a paper on fiat money, bitcoins and cryptocurrencies that will be included in a forthcoming volume on bitcoins and cryptocurrencies. The paper is loosely based on a number of posts that have appeared on this blog since I started blogging almost nine years ago. My first post appeared on July 5, 2011. Here are some of my posts on and fiat money, bitcoins and cryptocurrencies (this, this, this, and this). In writing the paper, it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to include a comment on Modern Monetary Theory inasmuch as the proposition that the value of fiat money is derived from the acceptability of fiat money for discharging the tax liabilities imposed by the governments issuing those fiat moneys, which is a proposition that Modern Monetary Theorists have adopted from the chartalist school of thought associated with the work of G. F. Knapp. But there were clearly other economists before and since Knapp that have offered roughly the same explanation for the positive value of fiat money that offers no real non-monetary services to those holding such moneys. Here is the section from my draft about Modern Monetary Theory.

Although there’s a long line of prominent economic theorists who have recognized that acceptability of a fiat money for discharging tax liabilities, the proposition is now generally associated with the chartalist views of G. F. Knapp, whose views have been explicitly cited in recent works by economists associated with what is known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). While the capacity of fiat money to discharge tax liabilities is surely an important aspect of MMT, not all propositions associated with MMT automatically follow from that premise. Recognizing the role of the capacity of fiat money to discharge tax liabilities, Knapp juxtaposed his “state theory of money” from the metallist theory. The latter holds that the institution of money evolved from barter trade, because certain valuable commodities, especially precious metals became widely used as media of exchange, because, for whatever reason, they were readily accepted in exchange, thereby triggering the self-reinforcing network effects discussed above.[1]

However, the often bitter debates between chartalists and metallists notwithstanding, there is no necessary, or logical, inconsistency between the theories. Both theories about the origin of money could be simultaneously true, each under different historical conditions. Each theory posits an explanation for why a monetary instrument providing no direct service is readily accepted in exchange. That one explanation could be true does not entail the falsity of the other.

Taking chartalism as its theoretical foundation, MMT focuses on a set of accounting identities that are presumed to embody deep structural relationships. Because money is regarded as the creature of the state, the quantity of money is said to reflect the cumulative difference between government tax revenues and expenditures which are financed by issuing fiat money. The role of government bonds is to provide a buffer with which short-term fluctuations in the inflow of taxes (recurrently peaking at particular times of the year when tax payments become due) and government expenditures.

But the problem with MMT, shared with many other sorts of monetary theory, is that it focuses on a particular causal relationship, working through the implications of that relationship conditioned on a ceteris-paribus assumption that all other relationships are held constant and are unaffected by the changes on which the theory is focusing, regardless of whether the assumption can be maintained.

For example, MMT posits that increases in taxes are deflationary and reductions in taxes are inflationary, because an increase in taxes implies a net drain of purchasing power from the private sector to the government sector and a reduction in taxes implies an injection of purchasing power.[2] According to the MMT, the price level reflects the relationship between total spending and total available productive resources, At given current prices, some level of total spending would just suffice to ensure that all available resources are fully employed. If total spending exceeds that amount, the excess spending must cause prices to rise to absorb the extra spending.

This naïve theory of inflation captures a basic intuition about the effect of increasing the rate of spending, but it is not a complete theory of inflation, because the level of spending depends not only on how much the government spends and how much tax revenue it collects; it also depends on, among other things, whether the public is trying to add to, or to reduce, the quantity of cash balances being held. Now it’s true that an efficiently operating banking system tends to adjust the quantity of cash to the demands of the public, but the banking system also has demands for the reserves that the government, via the central bank, makes available to be held, and its demands to hold reserves may match, or fall short of, the amount that banks at any moment wish to hold.

There is an interbank system of reserves, but if the amount of reserves that the government central bank creates is systematically above the amount of reserves that banks wish to hold, the deficiency will have repercussions on total spending. MMT theorists insist that the government central bank is obligated to provide whatever quantity of reserves is demanded, but that’s because the demand of banks to hold reserves is a function of the foregone interest incurred by banks holding reserves. Given the cost of holding reserves implied by the interest-rate target established by the government central bank, the banking system will demand a corresponding quantity of reserves, and, at that interest rate, government central banks will supply all the reserves demanded. But that doesn’t mean that, in setting its target rate, the government central bank isn’t implicitly determining the quantity of reserves for the entire system, thereby exercising an independent influence on the price level or the rate of inflation that must be reconciled with the fiscal stance of the government.

A tendency toward oversimplification is hardly unique to MMT. It’s also characteristic of older schools of thought, like the metallist theory of money, the polar opposite from the MMT and the chartalist theory. The metallist theory asserts that the value of a metallic money must equal the value of the amount of the metal represented by any particular monetary unit defined in terms of that metal. Under a gold standard, for example, all monetary units represent some particular quantity of gold, and the relative values of those units correspond to the ratios of the gold represented by those units. The value of gold standard currency therefore doesn’t deviate more than trivially from the value of the amount of gold represented by the currency.

But, here again, we confront a simplification; the value of gold, or of any commodity serving as a monetary standard, isn’t independent of its monetary-standard function. The value of any commodity depends on the total demand for any and all purposes for which it is, or may be, used. If gold serves as money, either as coins actually exchanged or a reserves sitting in bank vaults, that amount of gold is withdrawn from potential non-monetary uses, so that the value of gold relative to other commodities must rise to reflect the diversion of that portion of the total stock from non-monetary uses. If the demand to hold money rises, and the additional money that must be created to meet that demand requires additional gold to be converted into monetary form, either as coins or as reserves held by banks, the additional derived demand for gold tends to increase the value of gold, and, as a result, the value of money.

Moreover, insofar as governments accumulate reserves of gold that are otherwise held idle, the decision about how much gold reserves to continue holding in relation to the monetary claims on those reserves also affects the value of gold. It’s therefore not necessarily correct to say that, under a gold standard, the value of gold determines the value of money. The strictly correct proposition is that, under a gold standard, the value of gold and the value of money must be equal. But the value of money causally affects the value of gold no less than the value of gold causally affects the value of money.

In the context of a fiat money, whose value necessarily reflects expectations of its future purchasing power, it is not only the current policies of the government and the monetary authority, but expectations about future economic conditions and about the future responses of policy-makers to those conditions that determine the value of a fiat money. A useful theory of the value of money and of the effect of monetary policy on the value of money cannot be formulated without taking the expectations of individuals into account. Rational-expectations may be a useful first step to in formulating models that explicitly take expectations into account, but their underlying suppositions of most rational-expectations models are too far-fetched – especially the assumption that all expectations converge on the “correct” probability distributions of all future prices – to provide practical insight, much less useful policy guidance (Glasner 2020).

So, in the end, all simple theories of causation, like MMT, that suggest one particular variable determines the value of another are untenable in any complex system of mutually interrelated phenomena (Hayek 1967). There are few systems in nature as complex as a modern economy; only if it were possible to write out a complete system of equations describing all those interrelationships, could we trace out the effects of increasing the income tax rate or the level of government spending on the overall price level, as MMT claims to do. But for a complex interrelated system, no direct causal relationship between any two variables to the exclusion of all the others is likely to serve as a reliable guide to policy except in special situations when it can plausibly be assumed that a ceteris-paribus assumption is likely to be even approximately true.

[1] The classic exposition of this theory of money was provided by Carl Menger (1892).

 

[2] In an alternate version of the tax theory of inflation, an increase in taxes increases the value of money by increasing the demand of money at the moment when tax liabilities come due. The value of money is determined by its value at those peak periods, and it is the expected value of money at those peak periods that maintains its value during non-peak periods. The problem with this version is that it presumes that the value of money is solely a function of its value in discharging tax liabilities, but money is also demanded to serve as a medium of exchange which implies an increase in value above the value it would have solely from the demand occasioned by its acceptability to discharge tax liabilities.


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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