Modern Monetary Inevitabilities

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA – In a recent Project Syndicate commentary, James K. Galbraith of the University of Texas at Austin Modern Monetary Theory and corrects some misunderstandings about the relationships among MMT, federal deficits, and central-bank independence. But Galbraith does not explore what is perhaps the most important issue of all: the political conditions needed to implement MMT effectively.

MMT owes its newfound relevance to the fact that deflation, rather than inflation, is becoming central banks’ main concern. For a high-debt, high-deficit economy like the United States, deflation is an especially serious threat, because it delays consumption and increases debtor anxiety. Consumers forego major purchases on the assumption that future prices will be lower. Homeowners with mortgages cut back their spending when they see home prices falling and the equity in their homes declining. These cutbacks worry the Federal Reserve, because they add to deflationary pressures and could trigger deeper spending cuts, stock-market declines, and widespread deleveraging.

The Fed’s inability so far to reach its 2% target for annual inflation suggests that it lacks the means to overcome persistent disinflationary forces in the economy. These forces include increased US , which diminishes aggregate demand by weakening employee bargaining power and increasing income inequality; population aging; inadequate investment in infrastructure and climate-change abatement; and technology-driven labor displacement. Making matters worse, US political gridlock assures continued commitment to economically exhausted strategies such as tax cuts for the rich, at the expense of investment in education and other sources of long-term growth. These conditions cry out for significant changes in US government spending and tax policies.

MMT is seen as a way to accomplish the needed changes. It holds that a government can spend as much as it wants if it borrows in its own currency and its central bank can buy as much of the government’s debt as necessary – as long as doing so doesn’t generate unacceptably high inflation. Both tax-cut advocates and supporters of public investment find little not to like.

MMT has been roundly criticized by economists across the political spectrum, from Kenneth Rogoff and Lawrence H. Summers of Harvard University to Paul Krugman of the City University of New York. All contend that it is a political argument masquerading as economic theory. But Galbraith and Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates see MMT differently. Dalio argues that MMT is real and, more to the point, it is an inevitable policy step in historically recurring debt-cycle downturns.

In his book Principles for Navigating Big Debt Crises, Dalio documents the steps that central banks have historically taken when faced with a booming economy that suddenly crumples under the weight of debt. The first step (Monetary Policy 1, or MP1) is

  1. to cut overnight official rates to stimulate credit and investment expansion. The second (MP2)
  2. is to buy government debt (quantitative easing) to support asset prices and prevent uncontrollable waves of deleveraging. If MP1 and MP2 are insufficient to halt a downturn, central banks take step three (MMT, which Dalio calls MP3) and
  3. proceed to finance the spending priorities that political leaders deem most essential. The priorities can range from financing major national projects to “helicopter money” transfers directly to consumers.

Achieving political agreement on what to finance and how is essential for implementing MP3 effectively. In a financial meltdown or other national emergency, political unity and prompt action are essential. Unity requires a strong consensus on what should be financed. Speed requires the existence of a trusted institution to direct the spending.

In the early 1940s, when the US entered World War II and winning the war became the government’s top priority, the Fed entered full MP3 mode. It not only set short- and long-term rates for Treasury bonds, but also bought as much government debt as necessary to finance the war effort. MP3 was possible because the war united the country politically and gave the Roosevelt administration near-authoritarian rule over the economy.

The core weakness of MP3/MMT advocacy is the absence of an explanation of how to achieve political unity on what to finance and how. This absence is inexcusable. Total US debt (as a share of GDP) is approaching levels associated with past financial meltdowns, and that doesn’t even account for the  associated with infrastructure maintenance, rising sea levels, and unfunded pensions. For the reasons Dalio lays out, a US debt crisis requiring some form of MP3 is all but inevitable.

The crucial question that any effort to achieve political unity must answer is what constitutes justifiable spending. Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, offered an answer in 1781: “A national debt,” he wrote, “if it is not excessive will be to us a national blessing.” A government’s debt is “excessive” if it cannot be repaid because its proceeds were spent in ways that did not increase national wealth enough to do so. Debt resulting from tax cuts that are spent on mega-yachts would almost certainly be excessive; debt incurred to improve educational outcomes, maintain essential infrastructure, or address climate change would probably not be. Accordingly, it will be easier to achieve political unity if MP3 proceeds are spent on priorities such as education, infrastructure, or climate.

The political test for justifying MP3-financed government spending, is clear: Will future generations judge that the borrowing was not “excessive”? Most Americans born well after WWII would say that the debt incurred to win that war was justified, as was the debt that financed the construction of the Interstate Highway System, which literally paved the way for stronger growth.

As the 1930s and 1940s show, MP3 is a natural component of government responses to major debt downturns and the political crises they trigger. We know much more about what contributes to economic growth and sustainability than we did in the first half of the twentieth century. To speed recovery from the next downturn, we need to identify now the types of spending that will contribute most to sustainable recovery and that in hindsight will be viewed as most justified by future Americans. We need also to design the institutions that will direct the spending. These are the keys to building the political unity that MMT requires. To know what to finance and how, future Americans can show us the way; we need only put ourselves in their shoes.

Two Capitalists Worry About Capitalism’s Future

James Dimon and Ray Dalio are among the most successful capitalists in the U.S. today. So when they worry aloud about the future of capitalism, it’s worth listening.

I believe that all good things taken to an extreme become self-destructive and that everything must evolve or die. This is now true for capitalism,” Mr. Dalio, founder of hedge-fund manager Bridgewater Associates, writes on LinkedIn.

Mr. Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co., writes in his annual letter to shareholders: “In many ways and without ill intent, many companies were able to avoid—almost literally drive by—many of society’s problems.

Captains of industry have always opined on the issues of the day. Still, these latest missives are noteworthy for three reasons.

  1. First, the authors: Mr. Dalio anticipated the financial crisis; his systematic management and investment style has made Bridgewater the world’s largest hedge-fund manager. Mr. Dimon is arguably the country’s most successful banker, having steered J.P. Morgan clear of the subprime mortgage disaster to become the country’s most valuable financial institution.
  2. Second, the timing: They are speaking out at a time when the free-market capitalism that has served them so well is questioned by many Americans, including prominent Democrats.
  3. Third, the content. Mr. Dalio and Mr. Dimon love capitalism and aren’t apologizing for it. But they recognize the system isn’t working for everyone, and they have ideas for fixing it, some of which might require rich people like themselves to pay more tax. Yet they fear the federal government is hamstrung by intensifying partisanship. So they are putting their money and reputations where their mouths are by speaking out, backing local initiatives and hoping like-minded business leaders join them. In effect, they are breathing life into the shrinking nonpartisan center.

In an interview, Mr. Dalio says many business leaders “don’t want to get into the argument. I can understand that. I say to myself, Should I get in? I do think if everyone keeps quiet, we’re going to continue to behave as we’re behaving, and it’s going to tear us apart.”

Mr. Dalio’s essay was inspired by a longstanding interest in the parallels between the 1930s and the present:

  1. the growth of debt and
  2. the relative impotence of central banks, the
  3. widening of inequality and the
  4. rise of populism.

Capitalism, he says, is now in a “self-reinforcing feedback loop”:

  • companies develop labor-saving technologies that enrich their owners while displacing workers.
  • The haves spend more on child care and education, widening their lead over the have-nots,
  • whose predicament is compounded by underperforming schools,
  • the decline of two-parent families, and
  • rising incarceration.

Mr. Dalio thinks inequality has fueled populism and ideological extremism, which he fears means capitalism will be either abandoned or left unreformed.

His solutions start with taking partisanship out of the mix. He would like government to join with business and philanthropic leaders with proven track records to find, fund and evaluate projects with high potential social returns, such as early childhood education and dropout prevention. The rich might have to pay more taxes, provided the money is used to raise the productivity and incomes of the bottom 60%, or establish a minimum safety net.

Mr. Dimon is less introspective about the flaws of capitalism than Mr. Dalio and more impatient with the recent fascination so many Americans are showing with socialism. His letter, written in the blunt, combative style in which he speaks (it should be read aloud in a Queens accent for full effect), reiterates familiar complaints about excessive postcrisis regulation.

But, like Mr. Dalio, he worries partisanship has crippled the country’s ability to enact basic reforms that elevate economic growth and strengthen the safety net, such as

  • improving high schools and community colleges’ provision of useful skills,
  • more cost-effective health care,
  • faster infrastructure approval,
  • more skilled immigrants coupled with legalizing illegal immigrants, and
  • requiring fewer licenses to start a small businesses.

“Can you imagine me saying, I can do a better job for the Chase customer if I don’t get involved in details, the products, the services, the prices, how we treat people, how call centers work?” Mr. Dimon asks in an interview. “Policy has too often become disconnected from the analytics; we got slogans instead. It’s driving people apart.”

There’s a chicken-and-egg problem with these well-intentioned calls for nonpartisan problem solving: It requires a level of nonpartisanship that doesn’t exist; otherwise the problems would, presumably, have been solved.

If business leaders can’t persuade with words, they may by example. Mr. Dalio and his wife, Barbara, have donated $100 million to the state of Connecticut, to be matched by the state and other philanthropists, to create a $300 million partnership devoted to reducing dropout rates and promoting entrepreneurship in underserved schools and communities.

For its part, J.P. Morgan has under Mr. Dimon combined commercial and philanthropic resources to finance affordable housing, small business and infrastructure and job training in Detroit, announced $600 million in workforce development grants since 2013, and boosted salaries for lower-end employees. Mr. Dimon, in his shareholder letter, called on fellow CEOs to “take positions on public policy that they think are good for the country.”

It doesn’t always work. The Business Roundtable, which Mr. Dimon chairs, successfully pressed Congress and President Trump for lower business taxes, but unsuccessfully for more infrastructure and legalizing illegal immigrants. Says Mr. Dimon: “We should give it the best shot we’ve got.”

Eric Schmidt Has Lessons to Pass Along

In a new book, the former Google chairman pays tribute to his late Silicon Valley mentor

Pinned in the doorway of Eric Schmidt’s snug corner office in Mountain View, Calif., is a comic strip that neatly sums up what the longtime Google chief executive wants you to know about himself and the company.

The cartoon, custom-created for Mr. Schmidt, shows Google’s technology rivals making supposed apologies. There’s Facebook ’s Mark Zuckerberg saying, “Sorry…but we’re still right.” Then there’s Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook saying, “You’re holding it wrong.” Finally, there’s Mr. Schmidt, who says, “We screwed up. Sorry.”

This is the Google way, perfected under Mr. Schmidt: high-minded, self-assured and a little smug.

Mr. Schmidt says that his approach is derived from the many lessons he learned from his late mentor, the Silicon Valley management guru Bill Campbell: “If you make a mistake, admit it, and do it right now. And if you didn’t make a mistake, don’t admit it.”

.. While it is now de rigueur for startup founders to take on formal mentors, Mr. Campbell was the beta version of the trend, personally counseling Mr. Schmidt, Steve Jobs, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and many other Silicon Valley stars. A former Columbia University football coach who became a wealthy tech executive and adviser, Mr. Campbell was known for getting through to type-A people who might otherwise struggle to think of themselves as part of a team.

Mr. Schmidt credits Mr. Campbell for talking him off the cliff when he threatened to quit Google early on after being asked to relinquish his title of chairman. “Your pride is getting in the way,” Mr. Campbell told him, Mr. Schmidt recalls.

Later, Mr. Campbell helped to soften Mr. Schmidt’s edges as a boss. “Like, for you, I’d say: ‘You’re the best writer I’ve met in your generation,’ ” Mr. Schmidt says, with considerable overstatement. “Then I’d read something and say, ‘Well, you missed something, you could do better.’ Notice how because I’ve praised you, now you want to be a better person.”

.. When asked about Apple founder Steve Jobs, with whom Mr. Schmidt had a public falling-out over Google’s development of rival mobile software, Mr. Schmidt diplomatically observes, “When Steve was upset, he was loud.” He hastens to add: “Steve was a good friend, and I miss him terribly.”

Mr. Schmidt’s arrival on the self-help circuit comes amid a tide of leadership missives from wealthy entrepreneurs. The hedge-fund billionaire Ray Dalio has spent more than a year evangelizing his book of “Principles,” which tells employees to argue with one another and rank each others’ performance in real time. Mr. Schmidt, who says he knows Mr. Dalio well, calls that approach “sort of the extreme.” He prefers to deliver hard feedback behind closed doors. He says that he steered clear of Wall Street early in his career because “it wasn’t forgiving…it wasn’t tolerant.”

Google under Mr. Schmidt was tolerant—maybe too much so, according to some of its own employees. Staffers world-wide staged a walkout last year after it was reported that the company paid millions in exit packages to top executives who left after being accused of sexual harassment. Google covered up the reasons for their departures, according to documents filed in a recent civil lawsuit. The company says it has since made changes to the workplace.

Mr. Schmidt’s late mentor was touchy-feely in a more innocent manner, Mr. Schmidt says. His description of Mr. Campbell carries a whiff of the “Saturday Night Live” sketches lampooning a family that constantly kisses one another.

Mr. Campbell “would walk into a room and everyone would stand up, and he would hug every person in the perimeter, including the assistants—two women and a man,” Mr. Schmidt says. “If you went to visit him, you had to hug his secretary, and then you had to hug him, and then you had to watch him hug her.”

Mr. Schmidt says he hugs subordinates less frequently.