The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy by Stephanie Kelton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Deficits can be used for good or evil.

Robert Skidelsky, in his enormous biography of Keynes, remarks that economics today occupies the same situation as theology did in the Middle Ages—as a complex a priori logic that can be used to reach any number of contradictory conclusions. The more I read in the subject, the more I agree with him. To be taken seriously in politics means being able to use this logic. And yet, despite the seemingly scientific nature of this language, we seem hardly better able to pinpoint the nature of economic reality than the scholastics were able to count the angels.

I am exaggerating, of course. But I am a little distressed to find that, according to Stephanie Kelton, most economists and politicians—who already disagree with one another—are still fundamentally wrong about money, taxes, fiscal policy, and government debt. Here is another perspective to add to the mix: Modern Monetary Theory, or MMT.

Kelton begins the book by taking a page right out of David Graeber’s history of debt. Money was not invented, as so often supposed, to solve the problems of a barter economy. Instead, money and taxes go hand in hand. The argument goes like this: If you introduce a currency into a fully functioning credit economy (where people just keep track of what is owed to one another), then there is little reason why people would adopt it. But if you institute a tax payable only in this currency, and threaten punishment for non-payment, then suddenly everyone must find a way to acquire the new currency, and this means doing some work for the state.

In other words, governments introduced taxes, not to collect money (which it was producing anyway) but to compel work. And Kelton argues that this is still true today: that governments do not depend on taxes. She uses the example of a scorekeeper in a board game. The scorekeeper adds and subtracts points for other players, but they are never in need of points for themselves. Points are simply willed into existence whenever needed. Kelton argues that the US government (and other governments with what she calls “monetary sovereignty”) is in essentially the same position with regard to the US dollar. Since we use a fiat currency, any number of dollars can be willed into existence. Thus, the government does not depend on tax revenue, any more than a scorekeeper must subtract points from other players in order to stay afloat. In short, we do not have to worry about the deficit, since government debt is nothing like the debt you or I may have.

Does that mean that the government can just spend infinite money? No, Kelton says: though the deficit is not a problem, inflation may be. Too much government spending may lead to too many dollars chasing too few resources, which can cause prices to rise. Does that mean that taxes are unnecessary? Also no, according to Kelton, since, apart from compelling work, taxes perform at least two important functions. First, they remove money from circulating, thus decreasing inflationary pressure; and second, they reduce inequality, which leads to a healthier society. Yet if the government cannot spend infinitely, and if we still do need to tax, then what are we doing wrong?

To answer that, Kelton next turns her attention to unemployment. Kelton notes that unemployment is built into our economy, largely via the policies of the Federal Reserve. The Fed aims for an arbitrary level of unemployment (say, 3%) which it considers the “natural” rate. Going below this natural rate would, it is feared, cause inflation to kick in, since demand would outpace supply. But this “natural” rate is little more than a guess, Kelton argues. Even when unemployment has been very low in recent years, inflation has remained low. Indeed, in this argument Kelton seems to have been prescient, since just in August the Fed decided to change its policy of lifting interest rates once employment hits a certain level, thus paving the way for more sustained employment growth.

But Kelton has a fairly dim view of the prospects of using monetary policy to govern the economy. Instead, she thinks that unemployment should be directly eliminated using a Federal Jobs Guarantee. This is the main policy proposal of the book, and Kelton spends a good deal of time selling it. The advantages are compelling. Most obviously, unemployment is bad for people and communities, so it would be highly desirable to get rid of it. And a jobs guarantee would give workers more bargaining power, since the wage floor would rise (the jobs would pay a living wage) and the threat of losing work and health insurance would be eliminated.

Still, I admit that I was not convinced. For one, even according to MMT’s own premises, the huge increase in aggregate demand—caused by increased federal spending, eliminating unemployment, and increasing wages across the board—could cause inflation. Kelton does not really address this potential pitfall.

On a more practical level, I also have trouble imagining the logistics. Kelton describes a program that can employ anyone, anywhere, in socially meaningful jobs. But there is not necessarily the right amount of meaningful work in any given location, nor do the unemployed necessarily have the skills necessary to do this work (and re-training has its limits). I think that a substantial amount of make-work is inevitable in such a scheme. Furthermore, I can hardly contemplate the enormous bureaucracy that would be needed to administer such a program. It seems there would be just as many people making jobs as people needing jobs made for them.

The job guarantee’s major policy rival, universal basic income (UBI), has none of these practical challenges (though of course it could cause inflation, too), since it is merely paid via the IRS. Admittedly, jobs do provide social and psychological benefits that an income does not. But Kelton does not discuss UBI at all, which I thought disappointing.

At this point, the reader may be forgiven for wondering what is so new about MMT. After all, Paul Krugman—an orthodox Keynesian economist critical of MMT—has been writing for years about the mistake of thinking of the federal budget like a household budget, and the desirability of federal deficits in times of recession. The difference, so far as I understand it, brings us into dangerously wonky territory. Krugman avers that when we near full employment, a large deficit may require higher interest rates in order to avoid inflation. Kelton counters that our assumptions that low interest rates boost spending, and higher interest rates constrict spending, are actually incorrect. In other words, Krugman thinks that monetary policy can partly compensate for fiscal policy, while Kelton thinks that monetary policy is not particularly useful.

I have little to add to this, other than to remark that I can never understand why these disputes—like theology—always take the form of high theoretical debates from first principles. It strikes me that the impact of monetary policy is an empirical question that could be answered with a careful look at the historical record. But what do I know?

Well, I have done my best to elucidate this sacred mystery, but I ought to evaluate the book. Like many readers, I found the writing in this book extremely grating. The tone was somewhere between a salesperson and a televangelist—promising instant enlightenment and easy solutions—which immediately put me on edge. In fairness, when Kelton is not selling MMT but explaining it, the book can be quite fascinating. But Kelton’s insistence on treating MMT as blindingly true, and its enemies as either blinkered traditionalists or deceptive politicians, was not charming or effective. And the amount of repetition could even be condescending. By the time I reached the end, I really could not stand to hear another iteration of the central tenets of MMT. I got it the first couple times.

Whatever the flaws of the book, and whether or not MMT is an accurate picture of how the economy works, it at least makes you think about how the deficit is treated in public discourse. Anyone who reads the news cannot help but notice that the swelling deficit is only invoked when we have to pay for, say, healthcare or infrastructure; but, somehow, when tax cuts to the wealthy or defense spending are on the table, nobody seems to worry. Even if the deficit presents more of a problem than Kelton believes, it is obvious that, if anything is worth going into debt for, it is programs that benefit the public, rather than bombs or yachts. I hope that followers of Keynes, MMT, Thomas Aquinas, and William of Ockham can at least agree with that.

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