MMT and the impossible trinity

There’s generally not a lot of common ground between fans of Robert Mundell (the intellectually respectable face of supply side economics) and those of Modern Monetary Theory. Yet in one very important respect, their ideas are two sides of the same coin.

Mundell got his Nobel Memorial Prize, in large measure, for what’s been called the ‘impossible trinity’, namely that a country can’t have all three of a fixed exchange rate, an independent monetary policy and free capital movement.

Turn that round and it says that, if you are willing to give up one of the three, you can have the other two. If we ignore the idea of controlling capital movements completely (limited controls don’t do the job) the trinity becomes a simple two-way choice: fixed exchange rate or independent monetary policy.

If you are on the gold standard, or part of a monetary union, then you are stuck with a fixed exchange rate, and Mundell’s point is that you can’t have an independent monetary policy. Conversely, if you are a sovereign nation, issuing your own fiat money, and you choose not to defend a fixed exchange rate, you can choose your own monetary policy.

That observation is what gives Modern Monetary Theory its name. Under modern (post-gold standard) conditions, any country with its own currency can choose its own monetary policy.

Old men behaving badly (2nd repost)

I first posted this in 2011, and reposted it in 2014. Sadly, nothing changes, except that the old men keep getting stupider and behaving worse.

John Howard’s endorsement of Ian Plimer’s children’s version of his absurd anti-science tract Heaven and Earth has at least one good feature. I can now cut the number of prominent Australian conservatives for whom I have any intellectual respect down from two to one.[1] Howard’s acceptance of anti-science nonsense shows that, for all his ability as a politician, he is, in the end, just another tribalist incapable of thinking for himself. [2]

Although not all the tribal leaders are old men, an old, high-status man like Howard is certainly emblematic of Australian delusionism . Like a lot of old, high status men, he stopped thinking decades ago, but is even more confident of being right now than when he had to confront his prejudices with reality from time time. Like other delusionists, Howard has no scientific training, shows no sign of understanding statistics and almost certainly hasn’t read any real scientific literature, but nonetheless believes he can rank clowns like Plimer and Monckton ahead of the real scientists.

The situation in the US is similar but even more grimly amusing, with the sole truthteller in the entire Republican party, Jon Huntsman, recently reduced to waffling (in both US and UK/Oz senses of this term) because he briefly looked like having a chance to be the next non-Romney. This tribal mindlessness is reflected in the inability of the Republican Party, at a time when they ought to be unbackable favorites in 2012, to come up with a candidate who can convince the base s/he is one of them, but who doesn’t rapidly reveal themselves as a fool, a knave or both.

And, as evidence of the utter intellectual shamelessness of delusionism, you can’t beat the campaign against wind power, driven by the kinds of absurd claims of risk that would be mocked, mercilessly and deservedly, if they came from the mainstream environmental movement.

The global left is in pretty bad shape in lots of ways. Still, I would really hate to be a conservative right now.

fn1. Now (2014) down to zero. Turnbull has proved he lacks any real substance.

fn2. I’m not saying that all Australian conservatives are mindless tribalists. There’s a large group, epitomized by Greg Hunt and now Malcolm Turnbull, who understand the issues quite well, but are unwilling to speak up. Then there is a group of postmodern conservatives of whom Andrew Bolt is probably the best example, who have passed the point where concepts of truth or falsehood have any meaning – truth is whatever suits the cause on any given day.


Looking for a different story in the business pages of The Guardian, I happened across a headline stating The men who plundered Europe’: bankers on trial for defrauding €447m. That attracted my attention, but the standfirst, in smaller print, was even more startling

Martin Shields and Nick Diable are accused of tax fraud in ‘cum-ex’ scandal worth €60bn that exposes City’s pursuit of profit

For those without a calculator handy, that’s about $A100 billion.

I think of myself as someone who pays attention to the news, but I had missed this entirely. Google reveals essentially no coverage in the main English language media. There’s a short but helpful Wikipedia article and that’s about it. The scandal has been described as the ‘crime of the century’, but it’s just one of many multi-billion dollar heists, with the GFC towering abover them all.

It remains to be seen how the trial will turn out, but it’s already clear that, as usual, the banks have got away with it. The bank most closely involved in the scam, HypoVereinsBank in German has set aside €200 million euros to cover its potential liability. That’s less than 1 per cent of the tax avoided or evaded (the lawyers will be fighting out which, for some time, but the effect on ordinary citizens is the same).

The crucial point here isn’t the failure of the law to punish wrongdoing.

What matters is that crooked deals of this scale suffice for a complete explanation of the growth of the global financial sector since the 1970s. The point of the financial sector is not to allocate capital more efficiently, but to undermine the regulatory and tax systems that are supposed to make the economy work properly. Unsurprisingly the huge financial boom has been accompanied by miserable productivity growth, repeated business collapses and massive growth in inequality.

The only way to fix the problem is to shrink the financial sector to a tiny fraction of its current size, and tightly regulate what remains. The rational route to achieve this would start with the kinds of reforms being proposed by Elizabeth Warren. But we may be stuck with a messier path, in which courts tire of giving slaps on the wrist to recidivist banks and start shutting them down.

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Labor and class, again

Paul Norton has alerted me to a new book by Michael Thompson, published by rightwng outlet Labor’s Forgotten People: The Triumph of Identity Politics  It appears to be a rehash of Thompson’s Labor Without Class which I reviewed back in 2000 (reprinted over the fold).

One point mentioned in the review was a positive blurb from Martin Ferguson, who was clearly well on the path to his current position as a rightwing mining company hack, but still managed to pass himself off as a Labor stalwart for another decade or more.

The blurb of Forgotten People states that “this title is sure to cause a stir within the Labor Party membership”, and I’ll confine my remarks to the title. The idea that the left had an excessive focus on identity politics was popular, and not entirely baseless, back around 2000. But it’s been obvious for years that it’s the right that is dominated by identity politics.

More precisely, it’s what might be called “default identity politics”, the idea that “real Australians/Americans/Englishment” are white (more specifically Anglo-Celt) heterosexual Christians, working in private sector jobs, and living in rural and regional areas. The policies of the right don’t actually help people like this (their benefits are directed to high-income earners and wealthy retirees), but attracts their vote by reassuring of them of their superiority over urban “elites”

Labor without Class was wrong in all important respects, but at least it was up with the times. Thompson’s latest is an absurdity in the era of Trump, Johnson and Morrison.

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Gujarat breaking with coal

The announcement that the Indian state of Gujarat will allow no new thermal coal plants seems like a really big deal.

First up, it’s striking that a state with electricity demand growing at 8-10 per cent a year has concluded that it can meet this demand entirely with renewables. That’s totally contrary to the line pushed by the government and coal lobby here in Australia, suggesting that rapid growth in electricity demand can only be met by coal.

Second, Gujarat is the home ground of both Indian PM Modi and his most notable crony, Gautam Adani. And, it appears, the decision has been motivated in large measure by the disaster that is Adani Power’s Mundra plant. As AECOM, Worley Parsons and many others in Australia can confirm, anyone who deals with Adani has a high risk of getting burned.

This is just one announcement, and perhaps it will be reversed. But, on the face of things, it seems like a huge step towards the end of coal-fired electricity, and a huge blow to the ambitions of the Adani Group in Australia.