Author Archives: Peter Martin

What is monetarism and what happened to it?

In the late 70s and early 80s economic monetarism was espoused by Margaret Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph  who wanted a radical alternative to the prevailing Keynesianism of previous governments. The theory seemed to be simple enough. The idea was that the money supply was a key parameter of our economy. Therefore, if we wanted to control inflation, and it did need to be controlled at the time, all Government needed to do was control the supply of money. Inflation would then fall and all would be well. Very quickly the Government and Treasury economists learned that they could not actually do that. It was difficult enough to define what money actually was let alone control the amount of it. Is it base money M0, which is just the amount of notes and coins in circulation? Or is it M1 which includes travellers’ cheques and demand deposits? Or, maybe M2 which includes savings deposits? Or M3 or M4?  For anyone who cares to look it up they can find out what MZM means. There are lots of ways we can create money and lots of ways to try to define it. If I write out an IOU that is a form of money. As Minsky famously said, anyone can create money. It is getting it accepted which may be the problem.

But if we think about it, we can see that the money supply, no matter how we define it, does not tell us anything much at all. If the Bank of England were to, say,  create £10 trillion of banknotes and keep them securely in their vaults they would have absolutely no effect at on the economy. But if they were stolen and scattered around the country by dropping them from a proverbial helicopter then they certainly would have an effect. They would be spent. So it is not so much the amount of money that exists that matters. It is the amount of money that is spent.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged , and | 36 Comments

Austerity economics, Brexit and the Government’s deficit from a Keynesian perspective. What are the choices?

 

Brexit or no Brexit, we have to improve and stimulate our flagging economy. We cannot blame Brexit for everything. We haven’t even started to leave the EU yet. Nothing has really changed. If there are problems we need to look at the effects of past years of austerity economics first.

The usual charge made against those of us who are of a more Keynesian inclination and who argue against austerity economics is that we are far too ready to let the Government’s deficit increase. In other words, that our policies will involve too much public borrowing, which will only add to high levels of public debt.

This is not necessarily true. But, we do need to understand what the government’s deficit is, how it originates, and why it was so difficult for George Osborne to make good his election pledges of reducing it, let alone turning it into a surplus. We can perhaps expect Philip Hammond to have the same problem. Tories seem very slow learners at times.

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Reducing the Government’s Deficit is not the same as reducing the UK’s Deficit.


Now that the immediate fuss over the recent Budget has died down a little it is perhaps time for some more considered reflection on the nature of any criticism on the failure of the government, and George Osborne in particular, to make anywhere near the progress promised on the question of cutting the budget deficit. Maybe we can get it right for the next time it hits the headlines. The deficit problem is not going to be solved any time soon.

Naturally, the duty of an opposition is to constructively oppose, and so if the government’s deficit does not fall and total debt does rise, when the Government has a clear policy for just the opposite, then the Lib Dems, together with the other left of centre opposition parties, need to point out the failure of that policy. However, we need to be careful. That argument can be easily turned around. So we are in favour of even higher taxes and even more drastic cuts in public spending, are we? And when we say we are not, how does that chime with the public? Will they accept we are really being constructive? Aren’t they just going to think we want it both ways?

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Should the UK have a policy on the Pound’s exchange rate?

 

One point of agreement between the more radical of Post Keynesian economic thought and the mainstream is that there should be little or no intervention in the exchange rate and that the pound should be allowed to float freely. However, whilst many Post Keynesian economists would argue this way, they would also not be in favour of being quite so concerned about the budget deficit which is behind the austerity drive favoured by the mainstream.

An exchange rate policy need not be in the form of an old fashioned peg between the pound and the dollar, or even a basket of currencies, at any one particular rate, but it could be that government tries to ensure that imports and exports are always close to being in balance and always is prepared to nudge the exchange rate either way to try to achieve that. At present the imbalance is approximately 4% of GDP which puts the UK as a whole into debt. Either the government or the private sector has to cover that. There’s no point there being a squabble over just who that has to be. But that is where we are now in our economic thinking.

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Fixing the Budget. Are we looking at the problem the right way?


Whenever we read articles on reducing the government’s budget deficit the underlying assumption is invariably that it needs to spend less and obtain more taxation revenue. This approach is known as economic austerity. We all know from our personal experience that if we have a debt problem we have to spend less and/or earn more to get out of trouble. So that must work. Or must it? All politicians in all parties need to get this one right if nothing else. Any government’s spending and taxation policy impacts just about everything else in its ‘to do’ list.


We saw in the last Parliament that the Coalition ‘reluctantly’ raised VAT to 20% to increase taxation revenues. All spending plans were subject to extreme scrutiny. Various bodies in the Treasury, or the Office of Budget Responsibility had previously been at work and had produced figures to show the extent to which the deficit would shrink over the course of several years. Usually just before the next election, hey presto! We’d have that surplus we were always promised.



It never does work. After a couple of years we see articles and more articles in the press saying that the Chancellor has been ‘blown off course’ by this or that event, and the story is usually that whereas government spending has been kept to plan the taxation receipts have been disappointing and consequently the promised date of a budget surplus is further away than was first predicted. There are lots of articles along these lines for anyone who cares to search them out online. There are never any at all, as far as I know, saying that the situation has turned around better than expected.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 26 Comments

A Basic Income Guarantee or Job Guarantee? Can we have both?



There has been some recent discussion on Lib Dem Voice and elsewhere on the idea of a Basic Income for all. The social benefits we already receive when we are unable to find work, or are incapable of working due to being too sick, or too old, are examples of a basic income guarantee, albeit an inadequate basic income, in operation.



It has been a while since any progressive political party has seriously promoted the idea of a guaranteed income from working but the idea is nothing new and doesn’t have to be workfare in disguise. Both types of schemes will meet the same objections from the political right with questions like “Who is going to pay”? If we play their game and agree that everything will be “fully funded” we’ll simply be shifting existing money from one group to another. Aggregate demand will remain unchanged and so the underlying macroeconomic problems of our economy will remain unresolved. On the other hand, if we don’t play along we’ll be dismissed as potentially fiscally profligate by wanting to pay out money for nothing.



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Are we targeting the wrong deficit?

 

Keynes and his contemporaries did not share our present day casual attitude to the imbalances we see in international trade. The monthly, or quarterly, trade figures were a regular and prominent feature of our business news, at one time, but we have to look much harder to find those same figures now.

Keynes’s proposal that international trade be separated from domestic trade by the use of a separate international currency, the Bancor, formed part of the official British proposals at the 1944 Bretton Woods  conference  which set the international financial and monetary arrangements for the post war period. Unfortunately this was a step too far for the Americans at the time. The proposal, had it been adopted, would have penalised the surplus nations, making it less attractive for countries to run large export surpluses and would have encouraged the deficit nations to re-align their currencies to reduce their deficits.

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“How to Pay for the War,” or, Just about Anything! – Keynes 1940

Whenever a progressive party proposes a better education system, a better NHS,  better public transport or whatever,  the killer question is always “How are you going to pay for it?” The implication is that someone will have to pay by way of an increased tax bill or the money will have to be withheld from some other worthy project to compensate.

Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation had a similar, but much harder, problem to solve when it came to the question of how to pay for the war against Nazi Germany in 1939. If the principles of ‘sound finance’ which held that government budgets must at all times be balanced had been rigidly applied then surrender would have been the only option. Fortunately, the Liberal Party, and the country, had at their disposal the best economic mind of the 20th century in John Maynard Keynes who explained, in his 1940 book “How to Pay for the War” how an inadequately armed country of 40 million people, with an economy which had been performing poorly in the inter war years, could at least start to function well enough to take on a much better performing country, at least economically, of twice its population.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged , and | 19 Comments

“Look after the unemployment, and the budget will look after itself ” (Keynes 1933). Is he still right?


Keynes was undeniably a genius of his time, but he wasn’t infallible. We should not just assume that he was always correct. As with all prolific writers we can cherry-pick quotations to suit our own political purposes. If we want to argue for more government spending, we can use this:

For the proposition that supply creates its own demand, I shall substitute the proposition that expenditure creates its own income.

(Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, Volume XXIX, pp 80-81)

Keynes meant that the mere supply of a commodity is not enough to ensure the sale of that commodity, but money from all government spending inevitably ends up in someone’s pocket. This is a statement of the obvious, maybe, but he evidently felt it needed making anyway. On the other hand, if we are suspicious of what sounds like “magic money tree” economics, as many scathingly describe any deviation from their understanding of ‘sound money’, we can find this quotation:

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged , and | 12 Comments

We need to balance the Budget over the business cycle as Keynes suggested, right?

Firstly, we do need to ask if Keynes did suggest that. There are arguments either way on this point.  Keynes’ view unfolded and developed starting in the bleak 1920’s in Britain. There was no ‘roaring twenties’ for the UK economy as the government deflated the economy to try to fit the Pound back on to its pre-war Gold  Standard. Keynes then did argue that governments should run deficits if private spending declined and reduce those deficits when future growth was strong enough. This has been interpreted by many that his intent was that the budget was to be more or less balanced over the business cycle. If anyone is …

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 17 Comments
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