What is Modern Monetary Theory?
The term “modern” in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is probably not the best choice of words, since it implies there is something new in MMT. As many MMT critics point out, looking for something new in MMT is a pointless excercise. There is nothing new to be found. Paul Krugman,1 Lawrence H. Summers,2 and Kenneth Rogoff3 are three renowned economists who did not pull their punches when evaluating MMT. Still, the lack of novelty and the strong adverse reactions have not stopped MMT’s rising popularity, especially among progressive-leaning policymakers. How so?
To understand this situation, it is important first to clarify what MMT is and is not. At least as I understand this theory, the term “modern” in MMT does not refer to something new or novel but to the modern-world way of doing monetary policy. Namely, the term modern refers to the epoch that starts with the abandonment of the remaining remnants of the gold standard 1971. “Modern” refers to the full adoption of fiat money; it is not a reference to a new model or theory. We can agree that the adoption of fiat money is a gamechanger in policymaking but disagree on the implications of such monetary regime change.
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Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which claims that a country issuing debt denominated in its own currency can finance a large amount of government spending by issuing debt or printing money without worrying much about a debt crisis or high inflation rates, has grown in popularity on the political left in recent years. But it has failed to gain much support in the economics profession. That is largely due, in my view, to problems with the theory. But the poor defense routinely offered by its more prominent advocates also contributes. James K. Galbraith’s recent article serves to illustrate.
“As anyone who has ever been responsible for legislative oversight of central bankers knows,” Galbraith begins, “they do not like to have their authority challenged. Most of all, they will defend their mystique – that magical aura that hovers over their words, shrouding a slushy mix of banality and baloney in a mist of power and jargon.” Their negative reactions to MMT can be dismissed, he implies, as self-serving efforts to maintain control. After all, MMT represents what central bankers fear: a “popular, accessible, and democratic” theory.
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The last few weeks have seen a spike in commentaries surrounding modern monetary theory (MMT). A column by Prof. Stephanie Kelton, Andres Bernal, and Greg Carlock at Huffington Post and an endorsement from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have triggered negative responses by a number of reputable economists. George Selgin, Larry Summers, Paul Krugman, and Ken Rogoff (just to name a few) have all expressed concerns (to put it mildly) about the implications of applying MMT.
A common thread in these (and other) responses is that it is not clear what MMT really stands for. Advocates of MMT seem to use conventional terms in unconventional ways, and that creates confusion. On top of this, what exactly MMT means changes as time goes by, thereby adding frustration to confusion.
At its core, MMT maintains that a government cannot go broke as long as it can issue its own currency. Large fiscal deficits can be paid for by “printing money” (or, more technically, monetizing deficits). Standard monetary theory maintains that such a policy causes inflation. MMT, in contrast, holds that such a policy is not inflationary, because there are idle resources.
Continue reading at AIER.