Newcastle economist Bill Mitchell criticises Greens economic policy from the left, which is welcome and quite apt on some points. It’s great to see this kind of discussion and it helps the left within the Greens.
He is right on about the wobbliness and incoherence of the commitment to full employment. But Mitchell’s views on money and government financing are problematic. Though he presents it as a case of “progressives who understand how the modern money system operates” versus “neo-liberal economics”, his ideas on money are a little eccentric even within the post-Keynesian or ‘heterodox’ community, hardly the obvious consensus he portrays with such confidence.
He says the federal government is a ‘monopolist’ in the issue of currency. This is not true, because the national currency is one among many. Everyone has the option of converting their money into a foreign currency. Most of us don’t do it unless we’re going on holiday or buying something on the internet, but of course managers of financial wealth are always comparing currencies, and if one national currency is expected to lose its value, it will be sold for another. Even if Mitchell were right, and the federal government could expand its expenditure as much as needed for full employment by printing money without sparking inflation, the fact that financial managers would expect it to be inflationary would be enough for the dollar to dive.
And anyway, I don’t think Mitchell is right that it would not be inflationary, even if speculators happened to agree with him. When government expands spending with new currency, most of that currency will end up in bank reserves. This allows the banks to expand their lending and the money supply to a significantly higher degree, since they can carry deposits to a multiple of reserves. Mitchell would probably respond that if inflation developed, government could beat it by cutting back its spending again, or soak up the currency with open market operations. But this relies on some pretty heroic assumptions about the government having fine, well-timed control over its expenditure and ability to predict bank behaviour and its ultimate impact on demand.
Finally, Mitchell’s claim about the public sector deficit being the mirror-image of private sector saving (the balance of payments deficit/surplus aside): This is true by definition, but means very little. Perhaps he expects people to confuse ‘private sector saving’ with ‘household saving’. You can see why households as a group would want to have net savings over a period. But if their financial assets are to represent net claims over future real goods and services, they need to be claims on firms – shares and bonds, either directly or through banks, pension funds and other intermediaries. In other words, household savings are ultimately claims on firms, i.e. business debt.
But both firms and households combine to form Mitchell’s ‘private sector’. Why would firms and households collectively want to save over the long term in claims on the government? Except to the extent that governments are producing goods and services for sale, their income comes ultimately from taxation (or, if Mitchell ran the government, perhaps inflation) – which is a claim on the private sector! (It’s true, though, that the private sector is always going to want to hold currency and certain government securities, and to that extent the government does not need to worry about getting the deficit to zero – and in fact even when government debt was entirely paid off it still issued securities to fill certain asset needs of banks etc.)
I actually agree with Mitchell that much agonising over government deficits is bogus, and comes from the false idea that government finances work like household or firm finances. Government finance is always and everywhere a macroeconomic issue, as opposed to an accounting issue. But Mitchell’s proposals fall down on the macroeconomics.
The Greens should take full employment seriously. But they also need to realise the extent to which full employment requires a radical reorganisation of how wealth and investment is controlled. It would mean a full-on fight with wealth-owners. The fundamental problem with Mitchell’s analysis is that he makes it sound all too easy, just a technical problem that could be easily solved if only governments weren’t blinded by ideology.