This stream is a train wreck. Academic Agent and his Austrian-school libertarians struggle to even accurately grasp Modern Monetary Theory (MMT).
I will not correct all the errors and misrepresentations here, or bother to correct every strawman argument.
But, first of all, let us just provide a knockout blow to Academic Agent and his minions. Throughout the earlier part of this stream, Academic Agent cannot understand how in a fiat money world, taxes and bonds do not, technically speaking, finance government spending. It appears that Academic Agent cannot imagine a state of affairs where a central bank directly monetised part of a government budget deficit, without concomitant bond issues, even though this has happened on numerous occasions since the abolition of the gold standard, as in Japan, Germany and New Zealand in the 1930s, America in World War II, and in post-1945 “tap systems” at central banks.
Under the historical “tap system” of issuing government bonds after the abolition of the Gold Standard after WWII, a number of Western countries (like Australia) for many years actually had their central banks purchase government bonds directly when such bonds were not all bought by private bondholders.
The system is explained by MMT economist Bill Mitchell at his blog:
“[around 1981] the Australian Office of Financial Management was set up as a special part of the Federal Treasury to manage federal debt. Previously, bond issues were made using the “tap system”, whereby the government would announce some volume of debt it wanted to issue at a particular rate and then sell whatever was demanded at that yield. Occasionally, given other rates of return in the financial markets the issue would not be fully subscribed – meaning some of the Government’s net spending would be covered in an accounting sense by central bank buying treasury bills (government lending to itself!). The neo-liberals hated this system and regarded it providing no fiscal discipline on government. They knew that by linking deficits $-for-$ with private debt they could more easily mount the debt hysteria and maximize their pressure on government to cut deficits and withdraw from the market.”That is to say, Australia once had a “tap system” of direct purchases of Treasury bonds by the national central bank when the private sector did not wish to buy all bonds at some issue of government debt, which means, in layman’s terms, on various occasions the Australian central bank was just “printing money” to fund part of the government’s budget deficit. Did Australia collapse into hyperinflation when this happened? Did the Australian dollar totally collapse? No.
Bill Mitchell, “D for Debt Bomb; D for Drivel,” Bill Mitchell - Modern Monetary Theory, July 13, 2009.
Even the US Federal Reserve originally had the power to directly buy US government debt, and this was done in 1942 (during WWII) and some other years after WWII as well.
Most recently, in Britain as hit by the coronavirus pandemic, the Bank of England has increased the “Ways and Means facility” (a kind of government overdraft with the central bank) that can allow the British Treasury to finance spending without direct and immediate bond issuing. This would effectively be short-term “printing money” to finance UK government spending and allow the British Treasury to temporarily bypass the bond market:
Yves Smith and Richard Murphy, “At long last the Government can Borrow straight from the Bank of England – As Modern Monetary Theory has always suggested it should,” Nakedcapitalism.com, March 24, 2020.While at the moment, the British government says it will later this year borrow any money spent now unbacked by private bond issues, this is effectively a type of short-term MMT in action right now! How does Academic Agent explain all this if MMT is impossible?
Chris Giles and Philip Georgiadis, “Bank of England to directly Finance UK Government’s Extra Spending, Financial Times, April 9 2020.”
Larry Elliott, “Bank of England to Finance UK Government Covid-19 Crisis Spending,” The Guardian, 9 April 2020.
Now let us go on to address the following major points:
(1) Quantitative Easing (QE)
Post Keynesians and MMT advocates do not advocate QE as a major policy tool.
The primary tool is fiscal policy. In a serious recession/depression, Keynesian deficit stimulus in the form of new, or improved, public infrastructure, public utilities, R&D and social spending is the primary method to get people back to work, and stimulate private investment and employment growth.
Money would be paid directly to any unemployed people hired by the state or to any business from which the state buys resources, and hence money would be spent into the economy as newly-hired workers and businesses spend money.
(2) The Purpose of Taxes in MMT
According to MMT, taxes function to:
(1) regulate aggregate demand;MMT does not advocate the abolition of taxes because they still have an important role to play.
(2) free up real resources for the government to purchase when there is a high level of economic activity, or for people to whom government pays money (that is, state employees, or welfare recipients)
(3) dampen inflation at times of inflationary pressures
(4) address moral issues like gross inequality of wealth, and prevent a plutocratic system where highly wealthy people have so much money they can control democracy and governments.
(3) Relative Price Rigidity
First of all, Academic Agent persistently commits a comical strawman argument when he is confronted with the reality of relative price rigidity: Academic Agent pretends this means that no prices ever change, or that all prices are rigid for long periods of time.
This is a pathetic and pathologically dishonest tactic. Academic Agent, at this point, is simply forced to use this tactic, probably because he cannot think of a plausible response to the widespread reality of relative price rigidity.
This strawman leads Academic Agent to his risible attempt to refute me by citing price data from 1972 (which, in point of fact, was a period of strong supply-side inflation!). Merely showing that prices change does not refute anything I said about relative price rigidity, because “relative price rigidity” doesn’t mean that no prices ever change. Of course, cost-based mark-up prices do change, but often because unit costs rise or businesses demand higher profits.
Moreover, what does widespread “relative price rigidity” actually mean?
It means this:
In the real world, there is a high degree of relative price rigidity, but relative to the models of Austrian or Neoclassical theory, where prices are assumed to be highly flexible, rapidly responsive to demand changes, and are flexible enough to cause a rapid and effective tendency towards market clearing in product markets.Note well: this does not mean there is no flex-price sector (where prices are highly flexible) or no auction or auction-like markets.
This does not mean there are no goods whose production is inelastic and hence supply and demand have a greater role in determining prices.
For example, on world markets for many years oil prices were set by the cartel OPEC. But in recent decades, OPEC’s power has weakened and prices are much more influenced by production decisions by “swing producers”. Thus oil prices are much more flexible than cost-based mark-up prices used in industrial manufacturing and the service sector.
Some goods like fresh produce, petrol, and seafood clearly have much more flexible prices than other goods, especially when goods are perishable.
In the retail sector, there is a higher degree of flexible prices, given retail sales. However, in the service sector and manufacturing sector, many prices are highly inflexible with respect to demand changes. Since both the service and manufacturing sectors together dominate most market economies, the use of widespread cost-based mark-up prices in these sectors are the fundamental cause of relative price inflexibility.
So the fundamental point here is that the size and prevalence of flex-price markets are grossly exaggerated.
Academic Agent’s fellow Austrian called “Radical Liberation” in this stream also commits gross strawman arguments. “Radical Liberation” claims that I asserted or showed that there is only “a little bit of [price] stickiness.” This is utterly false.
“Radical Liberation” also claims I assert that I think prices need to change instantly to changes in demand. This is also false. In Austrian theory or more dogmatic Neoclassical models, prices must change relatively quickly and rapidly to achieve an effective tendency to supply and demand equilibrium in product markets, not instantly.
In the real world, there is a very high degree of relative price rigidity, and this has been admitted for decades even in mainstream Neoclassical research literature. For example, here is some literature on the empirical evidence for relative price rigidity:
Means, G. 1935. “Industrial Prices and their Relative Inflexibility,” Senate Document 13, 74th Congress, lst Session, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.The reality of relative price rigidity is why even Monetarists and other more realistic Neoclassicals are forced to take account of short-run price and money wage stickiness in their models, and why many advocate activist monetary policies in a recession or depression.
Means, G. C. 1936. “Notes on Inflexible Prices,” American Economic Review 26 (Supplement): 23–35.
Means, G. C. 1939–1940. “Big Business, Administered Prices, and the Problem of Full Employment,” Journal of Marketing 4: 370–381.
Hall, R. L. and C. J. Hitch. 1939. “Price Theory and Business Behaviour,” Oxford Economic Papers 2: 12–45.
Stigler, G. J. and J. K. Kindahl. 1970. The Behavior of Industrial Prices. New York.
Means, G. C. 1972. “The Administered Price Thesis Reconfirmed,” American Economic Review 62: 292–306.
Beals, R. 1975. “Concentrated Industries, Administered Prices and Inflation: A Survey of Empirical Research,” Council on Wage and Price Stability, Washington.
Carlton, Dennis W. 1986. “The Rigidity of Prices,” The American Economic Review 76.4: 637–658.
This paper presents an analysis of price rigidity in America, and finds that for “many transactions, prices remain rigid for periods exceeding one year” (Carlton 1986: 637) and it “is not unusual in some industries for prices to individual buyers to remain unchanged for several years” (Carlton 1986: 638).
Cecchetti, Stephen G. 1986. “The Frequency of Price Adjustment: A Study of the Newsstand Prices of Magazines,” Journal of Econometrics 31: 255–274.
This is a study of price rigidity in the prices of magazines.
Bils, M. 1987. “The Cyclical Behaviour of Marginal Cost and Price,” American Economic Review 77: 838–855.
Bhaskar, V., Machin, Stephen and Gavin C. Reid. 1993. “Price and Quantity Adjustment over the Business Cycle: Evidence from Survey Data,” Oxford Economic Papers n.s. 45.2: 257–268.
This paper reports data from a questionnaire posed to managers of 73 small UK firms in 1985. It shows quantity adjustments “are overwhelmingly more important than price adjustments over the business cycle” (Bhaskar 1993: 257) and “[m]ost firms do not increase prices in booms or reduce them in recessions, and when they do, managers suggest that these are relatively unimportant” (Bhaskar 1993: 266).
Kashyap, Anil K. 1995. “Sticky Prices: New Evidence from Retail Catalogs,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 110: 245–274.
Blinder, A. S. et al. (eds.). 1998. Asking about Prices: A New Approach to Understanding Price Stickiness. Russell Sage Foundation, New York.
This book reports a well-sampled survey of 200 US businesses. It was found that a typical good in the US is repriced roughly once a year, and prices are most sticky in the service sector, but the least sticky in wholesale and retail trade (Blinder et al. 1998: 105). Over 50% of firms said that they would not increase their prices when demand increased (Downward and Lee 2001: 476).
Downward, Paul. 1999. Pricing Theory in Post-Keynesian Economics: A Realist Approach. Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA.
This book reports a survey conducted by P. Downward involving 283 UK manufacturing enterprises (Downward 1999: 150–151). When asked whether the firm set its prices for its products by means of a mark-up on average costs, 63.7% of firms said either “very often” (29.9%) or “often” (33.8%). When asked whether the firm sets prices to create price stability on the market, 65.5% of firms said “very often” (17.3%) or “often” (48.2%) (Downward 1999: 160).
Hall, S., Walsh, M. and A. Yates. 2000. “Are UK Companies’ Prices Sticky?,” Oxford Economic Papers 52.3: 425–446.
This paper reports the results of a survey of 654 UK companies in 1995. When asked what happens when there is strong demand and this cannot be met from inventories or stocks, only 12% of firms said they would increase the price of their goods (Hall, Walsh, and Yates 2000: 442).
Bils, Mark and Peter J. Klenow. 2004. “Some Evidence on the Importance of Sticky Prices,” Journal of Political Economy 112.5: 947–985.
This paper shows a higher degree of price flexibility but only by including mere temporary price cuts (as in retail sales). Their method is disputed by Nakamura and Steinsson (2008) who point out temporary sales not affecting long-run prices of a good are abnormal and make prices appear more flexible than they really are.
Amirault, D., Kwan, C. and G. Wilkinson. 2004. “A Survey of the Price-Setting Behaviour of Canadian Companies,” Bank of Canada Review 2004/2005: 29–40.
This paper examines price setting in a survey of 170 private, unregulated, non-primary sector Canadian firms. An impressive 67.1% of firms surveyed attributed price inflexibility to “cost-based pricing,” that is, to mark-up pricing (Amirault, Kwan, and Wilkinson 2004: 21).
Fabiani, Silvia, Gattulli, Angela, and Roberto Sabbatini. 2004. “The Pricing Behaviour of Italian Firms: New Survey Evidence on Price Stickiness,” ECB Working Paper Series No. 333
This paper reports a survey in 2003 of 333 industrial and service firms in Italy (Fabiani et al. 2004: 8). It was found that about 60% of firms review prices once a year, and around 50% only actually change prices once a year too (Fabiani et al. 2004: 21).
Kwapil, Claudia, Baumgartner, Josef and Johann Scharler. 2005. “Price-Setting Behavior of Austrian Firms,” ECB Working Paper Series no. 464
This paper reports a 2004 survey of 873 Austrian firms mainly in the manufacturing sectors. The firms were asked how often they changed prices on average in a given year: No change: 22.1%; Once a year: 54.2%; 2 to 3 times a year: 13.9% (Kwapil, Baumgartner and Scharler 2005: 18). Moreover, 63% of firms said they would leave their prices unchanged in response to a large positive demand shock, and 52% would leave prices unchanged in response to a large negative demand shock (Kwapil, Baumgartner and Scharler 2005: 33). In the face of small demand shocks (either positive or negative), 82% of firms simply leave prices unchanged (Kwapil, Baumgartner and Scharler 2005: 33).
Parker, Miles. 2017. “Price-Setting Behaviour in New Zealand,” New Zealand Economic Papers 51.3: 217–236.
An earlier version is online here:
Parker, Miles. 2014. “Price-Setting Behaviour in New Zealand”
This paper reports a survey of 5,300 firms selected as a representative sample of all sectors of the New Zealand economy (Parker 2017: 217). It was found that the average firm reviews prices twice a year but changes its prices only once a year (Parker 2017: 229). When asked whether temporary price reductions were important, 44% of firms said “not at all,” and 17% said “a little important” (Parker 2014: 17).
Apel, Mikael, Friberg, Richard and Kerstin Hallsten. 2005. “Microfoundations of Macroeconomic Price Adjustment: Survey Evidence from Swedish Firms,” Journal of Money, Credit and Banking 37.2: 313–338.
This paper reports results from a survey of about 600 private-sector firms in Sweden. When asked to report how often prices were changed, the weighted results were that 40.3% of firms change prices once per year, and 27.1% adjust their prices less than once a year (Apel et al. 2005: 318).
Aucremanne, Luc and Martine Druant. 2005. “Price-Setting Behaviour in Belgium. What can be learned from an ad hoc Survey?,” ECB Working Paper Series No. 448.
This paper report the results of a survey of 1,979 firms in the industrial, construction, trade and services sectors, in a sample that should represent about 60% of Belgian GDP. It was found that 55% of firms changed prices once a year, 18% less often, and 27% more than once a year (Aucremanne and Druant 2005: 31).
Martins, Fernando. 2007. “How Portuguese Firms set their Prices,” in S. Fabiani, C. Suzanne Loupias, F. M. Monteiro Martins and Roberto Sabbatini (eds.), Pricing Decisions in the Euro Area: How Firms set Prices and Why. Oxford University Press, New York. 152–164.
This chapter reports a 2004 survey by the Banco de Portugal of 1,370 Portuguese firms, mainly from manufacturing. The survey found that 75% of firms generally changed their prices but once a year (Martins 2005: 24).
Nakamura, Emi and Jón Steinsson. 2008. “Five Facts about Prices: A Reevaluation of Menu Cost Models,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 123.4: 1415–1464.
This paper shows that without mere temporary price cuts (as in retail sales where prices revert to the normal, higher level after a sale) average prices change infrequently: only about every 7–11 months.
Langbraaten, Nina, Nordbø, Einar W. and Fredrik Wulfsberg. 2008. “Price-setting Behaviour of Norwegian Firms – Results of a Survey,” Norges Bank Economic Bulletin 79.2: 13–34.
This reports a well-sampled survey of 725 firms throughout many sectors of the Norwegian economy: nearly 50% of firms said that they only changed their product price once a year, and about 23% of firms said that they changed the price twice a year (Langbraaten et al. 2008: 18).
Levy, Daniel. 2007. “Price Rigidity and Flexibility: New Empirical Evidence,” Managerial and Decision Economics 28.7: 639–647.
This review article summarises 14 empirical studies of price rigidity in a special issue of Managerial and Decision Economics.
Keeney, Mary, Lawless, Martina, and Alan Murphy. 2010. “How Do Firms Set Prices? Survey Evidence from Ireland,” Central Bank of Ireland, Research Technical Papers, no 7/RT/10.
This paper reports a survey of 1000 Irish firms. When firms were asked how likely it was that they would adjust prices downwards in response to a negative demand shock, 66.5% of firms said that negative demand shocks were of little or no relevance to pricing decisions.
Klenow, Peter J. and Benjamin A. Malin. 2011. “Microeconomic Evidence on Price-Setting,” in Benjamin M. Friedman and Michael Woodford (eds.), Handbook of Monetary Economics Volume 3A. North Holland, Amsterdam and London. 231–284.
This chapter provides a table on p. 239 (Table 4) that lists surveys and studies from 19 nations on price rigidity. The data mostly comes from service and industrial sectors (and sometimes in addition also other sectors). For most nations, prices change “on average” at least once a year (Klenow and Malin 2011: 242). If merely short-lived prices (such as mere temporary price discounts) are excluded, prices change closer to once a year (Klenow and Malin 2011: 232).
Nakamura, Emi and Jón Steinsson. 2013. “Price Rigidity: Microeconomic Evidence and Macroeconomic Implications,” Annual Review of Economics 5: 133–163.
Kehoe, Patrick and Virgiliu Midrigan. 2015. “Prices are Sticky after All,” Journal of Monetary Economics 75: 35–53.
Yet another crucial piece of evidence of relative price rigidity is that during most recessions since 1945 general price inflation continues even in the contraction of demand and we hardly ever see price deflation in a recession. The general price level in recessions still rises, and generally recessions are just disinflationary (lower rates of infation). In the United States since 1945, for example, virtually every recession has been inflationary: the only exceptions are 1949–1950, 1954–1955, and 2009.
Secondly, Academic Agent’s claim that Austrian theory is only looking at the prices of a good across a whole economy is a bizarre and blatant falsehood.
While Austrian price theory and the Austrian Theory of the Firm are of course not predicting what all firms do, they nevertheless must predict what the majority of firms do, or the average firm does, because otherwise they would be empirically false.
Murray Rothbard says the following about price determination:
“Private business prices its goods and services to ‘clear the market,’ so that supply equals demand, and there are neither shortages nor goods going unsold.” (Rothbard 2006a: 259).If Rothbard isn’t talking about the average real-world firm here, or the majority of real-world individual firms, then what the hell is he even talking about?
During this pandemic crisis, some good prices have risen where production is inelastic (such as in fresh fruit and vegetables) or where supply-side issues have happened, but, as I stated, in many cases large supermarkets and retailers have maintained the prices of goods like toilet paper, tissues and hand sanitiser, even when shelves are empty.
More flexible prices on eBay or marginal small shops are obviously not representative of all prices, since only small quantities of the products in question are sold at the margins at these places.
The large supermarkets and retailers are where the vast majority of sales happen, and it was not “evil” government that is forcing them to maintain prices: the producers and retailers are largely choosing themselves to maintain prices, since this is their normal behaviour anyway with respect to many goods and services when demand changes: if demand increases, often production is simply ramped up and prices remain unchanged.
(4) Cantillon Effects
Academic Agent fails to understand my critique of the Cantillon Effect. My position is not Cantillon effects never happen at all.
My original position is that in the face of widespread relative price rigidity, Cantillon effects are likely to be minor and marginal, and, on their own, cannot possibly be a serious objection to government spending based on increasing the money supply, because all private sector activity that also increases spending by increasing the money supply would also cause the same type of minor or marginal Cantillon effects.
At this point in the discussion, “Radical Liberation” falsely claims I asserted that prices need to change instantly to changes in demand. Again, this is wrong. For major Cantillon effects to happen, most prices must be highly flexible in response to demand, and change relatively quickly and rapidly.
Also, Academic Agent totally misses my point about the gross contradiction in his reasoning in relation to the orthodox Quantity Theory of Money and the existence of Cantillon effects at the same time, since Austrian economics requires the rejection of short and long-run money neutrality, but money neutrality is a fundamental assumption of the Quantity Theory of Money.
(5) The Quantity Theory of Money
Here it appears that Academic Agent refuses to defend the orthodox Quantity Theory of Money.
At least this is in line with the most important Austrian economists, who did not defend the orthodox Quantity Theory of Money either, but had serious criticisms.
However, changes in the general price level are a highly complex result of many factors, and not some simple function of money supply. Real factors also are an important factor in driving inflation.
If we dig deeper into the Austrian view of inflation, we can find some surprisingly sensible analysis.
Curiously, the Austrian economist Frank Shostak has a surprisingly sensible view on inflation:
“the essence of inflation is not a general rise in prices but an increase in the supply of money, which in turns sets in motion a general increase in the prices of goods and services .... While increases in money supply (i.e., inflation) are likely to be revealed in general price increases, this need not always be the case. Prices are determined by real and monetary factors. Consequently, it can occur that if the real factors are pulling things in an opposite direction to monetary factors, no visible change in prices might take place. In other words, while money growth is buoyant – i.e., inflation is high – prices might display low increases.”The statement that prices “are determined by real and monetary factors” is, essentially, empirically correct (although, from the Post Keynesian perspective, still needs qualification), but requires we reject the Monetarist superstition that “inflation is always everywhere a monetary phenomenon,” which Academic Agent appears to defend.
Frank Shostak, “Defining Inflation,” Mises Daily, March 6, 2002.
As I said, while a long-run, sustained price inflation does need a growing money supply to sustain it, the money supply is often not the causal factor in such price inflations, but the intermediary factor. Monetarists mistake the intermediary medium (money supply) for the only and fundamental driver of price inflation, when real factors underlie movements in prices.
To put this another way, in serious depressions, the falling money supply (when so much of the money supply is understood to be credit money) was not so much the cause of the collapse of economic activity, but the consequence of the collapse in economic activity as credit demand collapsed (though, of course, when banks failed and depositors lost their money savings, this affected economic activity too).
In fact, this is the whole point of the Post Keynesian insight into capitalism: the ability to increase production in an historically unprecedented way is achieved in modern capitalism not simply by superior technology and production methods, but also by an endogenous money supply: a banking and monetary system where capital investment can be financed by new credit money, not backed by prior “saved” money.
As Nicholas Kaldor said in “The Irrelevance of Equilibrium Economics” (Economic Journal 82 : 1237–1252):
“This is the real significance of the invention of paper money and of credit creation through the banking system. It provided the pre-condition of self-sustained growth. With a purely metallic currency, where the supply of money is given irrespective of the demand for credit, the ability of the system to expand in response to profit opportunities is far more narrowly confined.” (Kaldor 1972: 1250).Money supply growth, then, is a necessary condition of not only long-run, sustained price inflation, but also a dynamic, highly-productive capitalist economy, because most money is credit money created by banks and, in earlier pre-1930s capitalist eras, by private sector agents who created bills of exchange, promissory notes, negotiable cheques, fractional reserve credit money (book money) and private bank notes.
In this sense, at a fundamental level, in a modern advanced capitalist economy, economic activity and demand for credit drives money supply growth, although in commodity money systems, exogenous growth in the money supply did happen via new gold discoveries, which could then cause demand-side inflation.
The more a modern capitalist economy has an endogenous money system, the more that the Quantity Theory fails to apply.
(6) Full Employment and William H. Hutt
Here Academic Agent appears to largely concede my critique is valid.
However, when Academic Agent (at 2.14.11) states that “the economy does not have the goal of full employment,” he appears to have forgotten the whole point of flexible money wages in Neoclassical and Austrian theory: a flexible money wage (and absence of other alleged harmful interventions) is supposed to cause a strong tendency towards the clearing of the labour market, which is just another way of saying that free markets are supposed to have a strong tendency towards elimination of involuntary unemployment and high levels of employment.
Moreover, Academic Agent makes the insane charge (from 2.17.29) that Post Keynesians wish to create something like Mises’ “Evenly Rotating Economy” (a fictitious general equilibrium state) when nothing is further from the truth: Post Keynesians totally reject general equilibrium analysis or the idea that a dynamic capitalist economy that faces uncertainty and constant change could ever have a tendency to general equilibrium, or could ever reach that state.
Kaldor, N. 1972. “The Irrelevance of Equilibrium Economics,” Economic Journal 82: 1237–1252.
Rothbard, Murray N. 2006a. For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (2nd edn.). Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, Ala.