Sunday, June 16, 2019

Heterodox economics is heterodox

Is the British Labour Party's Fiscal Credibility Rule [pdf] (FCR) neoliberal? I dunno: what's a "neoliberal"?

The FCR might or might not be politically advantageous, but I'm not a politician or political advisor — nor am I a member of the British Labour party — so I have nothing to say about the politics. I do, however, have something to say as an economist: the FCR isn't all bad — it's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick austerity — but it doesn't seem very good.

Simon Wren-Lewis put up an unconvincing defense of the FCR against MMT critics of the rule.

Wren-Lewis first undermines his credibility by not linking to the criticism he's rebutting. Presumably, he's referring to Bill Mitchell's extensive criticism of the FCR. Briefly, Mitchell asserts that the FCR "reinforces the narrative that deficits and public debt are in some way ‘bad’", and this narrative "will not turn out well."

The first part is undoubtedly true. The FCR states, "Labour will close the deficit on day-to-day spending over five years. Labour make sure government debt is falling at the end of five years. Labour will borrow only to invest. [emphasis added]" The substantive question, then is how this narrative will turn out.

Instead, Wren-Lewis's chief complaint is that MMT scholars have a gasp! horror! political agenda: "MMT is also a political movement of the left." The political agendas of many economists are irrelevant: they ask questions about politically-independent reality. But macroeconomics, at least the kind of macroeconomics that seeks to inform public policy, must have a political agenda. Value judgements are bound up in the very fabric of macro. We talk about employment and unemployment, for example, precisely because we value employment. According to Wren-Lewis, MMT scholars "are therefore naturally indignant that a Corbyn led government has adopted a rule that is derived from mainstream economics rather than adopting MMT." Yes, and? MMT scholars believe that the rule itself — a rule that derives from mainstream economics — is bad, and that a policy derived from MMT would be better. That's the whole point of disagreeing with mainstream economics.

Wren-Lewis offers only the most tepid defense of the FCR:
Why the need for a fiscal rule at all? . . . The answer is provided by something called deficit bias. . . . In the 30 years before this crisis, the ratio of OECD government debt to GDP almost doubled for no justifiable reason.

Deficit bias happens because politicians like cutting taxes or raising spending through borrowing, because it puts off any obvious economic pain. . . . But if deficit bias does substantially raise the debt to GDP ratio, as it did before the GFC, then more debt requires paying more interest which in turn requires higher taxes or lower spending. Deficit bias does not avoid the downside of cutting taxes or increasing spending, it just puts it off until a later date.

But Wren-Lewis simply begs the question here. MMT scholars do not argue that a fiscal rule is not the correct way to limit deficit spending. They argue that deficit spending is the generally correct way to implement government policy. (They do not argue that deficit spending is good by definition: any tool can be used poorly. But the problem is not in the tool itself but the application.)

I do not see "neoliberal" as an insult: Brad DeLong classifies himself as a (left-)neoliberal, I would classify Keynes as a left-neoliberal, and I would classify Wren-Lewis as a left-neoliberal. Neoliberalism is just an philosophy in political economy that holds that private market solutions are almost always preferable to government policy, i.e. provisioning public goods as well as using non-market activity to achieve efficient social allocation of resources. And government policy is inferior precisely because the government is not budget constrained: if the government is not actually budget constrained, it must pretend it has a budget constraint.

In contrast to right-neoliberals, left-neoliberals usually agree that government must rescue markets when they face the danger of collapse. (Most left-neoliberals also advocate greater prudential economic regulation, in agreement with MMT, but that's not the issue here.)

In this sense, the FCR is clearly neoliberal. The message is clear: When not at the zero lower bound, government should sharply restrict its economic impact, especially use of deficits. The FCR treats deficits like dynamiting houses during an out-of-control fire, a desperate measure justified only when used to avert total catastrophe.

MMT scholars and I myself hold almost the opposite opinion: Deficits by themselves are just no big deal. In just the same sense, a tyrant can make any number of horribly oppressive laws, but the idea of law itself is not the problem. The government must act economically, and it must act beyond just the necessity to fix the inevitable periodic catastrophic failures of the market system. And when it is expedient to print money to do so, then print the damn money without worrying about the effect on the capitalist class.

Additionally, the FCR calls for closing the deficit and lowering public debt over five years. MMT is clear on the implications of this policy: lowering net private wealth.* Again, if net private wealth decreases, I would be shocked! shocked, I say! to find that the decline came not from rentiers' but workers' wealth.

*Alternatively, increasing net private wealth with reduced public debt would require a huge current account surplus (increased net exports), which is probably worse.

So is the FCR neoliberal? I dunno. I don't really care. Is it bad macro? By orthodox macro, it's fine; MMT macro, it's dumb. It would be nice if Wren-Lewis and other economists, all of whom are way smarter than me, would actually address the issues instead of slinging around insults and butthurt, but I'm not holding my breath.