Finding the Max/Min: Modern Monetary Theory Part 1

Tonight, I finally decided to read an article explaining the details of Modern Monetary Theory. (It’s 4AM when I’m writing this and I’ve nothing better to do on a Friday morning.) The article’s summary purported MMT as a school of economic thought.

To be honest, it is not entirely a school of thought. It lacks the expansive nature of claiming that role. MMT is more of a classroom than a school; its proponents have taken a small slice of a very large pie and have tried to derive various insights from their perspectives. Let’s look at some of them:

  1. In a world of fiat money, there is no limit to the amount of money that can be printed.
  2. Because of the relative insignificance of inflation, fiat economies can print/borrow enough money to take on massive capital-intensive projects.
  3. In fiat economies, there exists a natural interest rate of zero (because money can be printed pay off any interest as it accumulates).
  4. Deficits don’t matter.
  5. Fiscal policy > greater than monetary policy; though, monetary policy can be used to great effect in ensuring the success of fiscal policies.
  6. The government should provide everyone with a job guarantee.
  7. The banks, the loaning of funds, and actions of a variety of other industries should be subject to central planning.

Though, it isn’t technically false, the error in the first proposition is obvious enough that it warrants very little consideration and it comes in the form of the equation of exchange: MV=Py. In other words, a change in the amount of nominal money M will also cause an equivalent change in the price level P. (This is an oversimplification, but Michael Darby’s text provides a great overview if you’re interested.)  In other words, the more money printed equals a proportionate rise in prices. A central bank with a fiat currency can print as many notes as there are resources to make them, but this comes at the not so insignificant cost of the decreasing value of those notes. This is called inflation, and unless you haven’t seen anything about Venezuela in the past year, you know it is very much a real phenomena. MMT doesn’t completely decry the validity of inflation, but they do some hand waving through a Keynesian full-employment argument and assume away any bad effects as long as this full-employment is maintained. 

The most egregious conflict of their ideology manifests itself in this statement: “MMTers believe that the natural rate of interest in a world of fiat money is zero and that pegging it higher is a giveaway to the investor class.” This poses a serious issue with their earlier premise that we should spend money now on programs we see fit without any regards to future generations.

Harking back to my first year of grad school macro, Bohm-Bawerk provided three reasons for the existence of a positive interest rate:

  1. Time preference — the perspective undervaluation of future wants
  2. Dated endowment mix — the anticipation of higher income in the future
  3. Intertemporal transformation opportunities — the technical superiority of present goods over future goods

MMT treats the creation of money as higher income; which is a workaround to Bohm-Bawerk’s second criterion. Is printing money the equivalent of income? Maybe for a short time, but eventually the creditors begin to notice the devaluation of the currency (relative to all other currencies) and will demand that the indebted country pay back in a given exchange rate. They may be somewhat correct in thinking deficits don’t matter in the moment, but they would definitely matter if all the creditors demand repayment at once (this would be worsened in the event of massive inflation.

By wanting to use the resources now without regards to any interest rate, MMTers effectively take from the future and remove significant transaction costs by doing so. I often worry about extraction economies, like those of the colonial era, in which countries extracted resources without regard to the livelihoods and needs of the contemporary generations. MMT allows for this, except the effected generations are those in the future. One might argue that they have good intentions by doing so, but good intentions aren’t enough. Furthermore, where would the wont of spending end? If you’re incentivized to spend future resources now with no recourse, why not spend all of it?

I’ll leave you with that to ponder until next time.

Author: Deric Tilson

I am a classically-trained economist and doctoral student at George Mason. I'm an ecopragmatist and interested in the cross-section where economics, ecology, and ethology meet. I hope to work for non-for-profits specializing in economic development and eventually moving to either the public sector or a think tank. My research interests include the political economy of war, resource economics, the applications of complexity theory, the mitigation of risk by impoverished individuals, and global water scarcity.

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