Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Lesson on debt for economically illiterate economists.

This is hilarious.
On the subject of the UK’s government run savings bank, “National Savings and Investments”, a government spokesman said, according to this Guardian article, “The government's policy is to encourage saving in the medium and long term.”
Noticed the self-contradiction there? No? Well it’s as follows.
The NSI invests just in government debt (Gilts in the UK). But the debt is bad, bad, bad according to almost everyone, including economically illiterate economists (in particular Kenneth Rogoff). So if amounts saved at NSI rise, then all else equal, the national debt rises!!!!!!
Oooh gosh. So is it desirable for the national debt and amounts saved at NSI to rise or not? Well if you’ve got more brain than the average “professional” economist, the question you’ll be asking is: “What’s the OPTIMUM amount of national  debt?”
Yes, O-P-T-I-M-U-M: that’s a concept beyond the comprehension of Kenneth Rogoff and many professional economists.
Advocates of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) have of course worked out the answer to the latter question, and the answer is as follows.
National debt is an ASSET as viewed by debt holders (e.g. those who save at NSI). And the larger those holdings, the more those holders are likely to spend. So the OPTIMUM is what? (Scroll down if you haven’t go the answer).
It’s the amount that induces the private sector to spend at a rate that brings full employment, or gets the economy up to capacity.
And if you understood that, your grasp of debt and related matters is superior to that of half the economics commentators writing for newspapers and half the professional economists in the country.
There are of course various related matters, like what rate of interest should be paid on the debt. As more than one MMTer has pointed out, a country can pay any rate of interest it likes (a point which is way beyond the comprehension of most economists). And some advocate the rate should be zero or near zero. The yield on Japanese debt is near zero.
Warren Mosler (leading MMTer) argued that the rate should be zero, as did Milton Friedman. And in that scenario, debt becomes the same thing as money, or base money to be exact.


  1. "So the OPTIMUM (government debt) is what?...It’s the amount that induces the private sector to spend at a rate that brings full employment, or gets the economy up to capacity. "

    These sentences confuse government DEFICIT and DEBT, resulting in an unintended inconsistency with MMT and Lerner's 1st and 2nd laws of functional finance.

    Lerner's 1st law of functional finance assigns the task of achieving full employment to fiscal policy (government spending and taxation), i.e. the government DEFICIT (n.b. NOT debt).

    Lerner's 2nd law assigns monetary tasks, e.g. achieving target interest rates, to government operations in financial markets, e.g. the issuance or repurchase of government DEBT (ie. bonds).

    1. Fair point. There are actually two effects here. First running a deficit has an effect as almost everyone agrees: not just Lerner enthusiasts. But second there is the fact that as long as the deficit lasts, the debt piles up. I.e. “private sector net financial assets” (to use MMT parlance) pile up. And the more PSNFA expands, the higher will private sector spending be, all else equal.

      Eventually the “PSNFA” effect dominates the deficit effect.

      Of course I’m assuming “all else equal” there: i.e. exports remain constant, and irrational exuberance (or lack of) remains constant. I’m also assuming zero inflation, to keep it simple.

      In effect, I glossed over the deficit above for the sake of brevity. But you’re right: the deficit effect is there and it’s important.


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