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Recent years have seen explosive growth in federal deficits along with growth rates in the money supply that would have made John Maynard Keynes blush. It’s no coincidence that a new school of thought has developed among certain “monetary economists”. But as someone trained in monetary economics, I wish I could make those quote marks larger. This new school of thought is known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), and it asserts that the money spigot is a perfectly legitimate means of financing government spending and, furthermore, that it is not necessarily inflationary. Here is how Scott Sumner and Patrick Horan describe MMT:

A central idea of MMT is that a government that issues its own fiat currency can pay its bills in that same currency. These governments need not worry about budget deficits when contemplating additional spending. Thus because the US government has a monopoly on money creation, our federal government does not need to raise all its revenue through tax or bond finance. A government with its own currency cannot go bankrupt because it can always issue more currency to cover any budget deficit. … MMT advocates argue that this why the US government can afford expensive programs such as a jobs guarantee and universal healthcare.

Spend and Print

Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion “social infrastructure” package would be just a start, but that’s likely to be more like $5.5T once the budget gimmicks are stripped out. We can be somewhat hopeful, because that initiative looks increasingly likely to fail in Congress, at least this time around. But the tax side of that bill was already $2.6T short of the latter spending figure, and the tax provisions keep shrinking. Now, it’s looking more like a shortfall of $3.5T would require financing. Moderate Democrats may not support this crazy bill in the end, but Dems from deep blue states want to reinstate state and local tax deductibility, which would cut the tax component still more. Well who cares? Print the money, say the brave MMT advocates.

Sumner gets to the heart of the problem in this piece. Progressives, with false assurance from MMT, want loose monetary policy to make their expansive programs “affordable”. As he explains, if this happens while the economy is near its production potential, inflation is a sure thing. These lessons were learned long ago, but have been conveniently forgotten by the political class (or they simply prefer to ignore them), instead jumping onto the MMT bandwagon.

Inflation Is Taxation

No conscientious observer of government finance should ever forget that inflation is a form of taxation. Assets whose values are either fixed or subject to some inertia are devalued by inflation in terms of purchasing power, or in real terms, as economists put it. Strictly speaking, this is true when inflation is unexpected… if it is expected, then lenders and borrowers can negotiate terms that will compensate for these changes in real value. But when inflation is unexpected, the losses to lenders are offset by gains to borrowers. Of course the federal government is a gigantic borrower, so inflation can represent a confiscation of wealth from the public.

It’s not small potatoes. Currently, about $22T of U.S. Treasury debt is held by the public, and its average maturity is more than 5 years. If the Federal Reserve engineers an unexpected 1% jump in the rate of inflation, it shaves over $1T off the real value of that debt before it’s repaid, and it reduces the real interest cost of that debt as well. Of course, the holders of that debt will suffer an immediate loss if they are forced to sell prior to maturity for any reason, since new buyers will be demanding higher yields to compensate for higher inflation if it is expected to persist.

The Poor Losers

Inflation causes redistributions to take place, especially when it is unexpected inflation. We’ve already discussed lenders and borrowers, but similar considerations apply to anyone entering into fixed price contracts for goods or labor. Here’s what Claudio Bario of the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) has to say about these shifts:

Inflation shifts income and wealth away from those who are least aware of it, or least able to protect against it. These segments of the population often coincide with lower-income groups, which explains why inflation has often been portrayed as a most regressive form of tax. The ‘inflation tax’ takes its toll through the erosion of the value of financial assets and contracts fixed in nominal terms.

Inflation is a regressive tax! In this respect, economist Noah Smith echos Bario in a recent op-ed in which he discusses “money illusion”, or the confusion of real and nominal income:

Workers … who are slow to perceive the rise in prices they pay for goods like cars and groceries, won’t realize this, and will be happy with their unusually large raises. But companies, whose accountants and managers certainly know the true inflation rate, will also be happy, because they know they’re not actually paying more for labor.

That information asymmetry between workers and employers may be exactly what keeps wages from rising faster than inflation. If workers take a year to realize how much prices have gone up, they may be satisfied with the raises they got during the time of high inflation — even if that inflation ultimately turns out to be transitory. By then, it might be too late to negotiate for a real, inflation-adjusted raise.”

Inflation taxes and redistributions become more acute at higher rates of inflation, but any unexpected escalation in the rate of inflation will take a toll on the poor. Bario elaborates on the mechanisms by which inflation inflicts budgetary pain on the those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

“As regards wealth distribution, the financial assets that are most vulnerable to inflation are cash and bank accounts – the typical savings vehicles held by the poorest segments of the population. This is mostly because the poorest have access only to limited investment options to protect their savings. …

… wages and pensions – the main sources of income for a large majority of households and even more so for the poorest half of the population – are typically fixed in nominal terms and hence vulnerable to inflation. Indexation mechanisms, such as those adopted in many [advanced economies] in the 1970s, are no panacea: they may fail to keep pace as inflation accelerates; …”

In addition to the inflationary gains reaped by government, it’s clear that inflation gives rise to redistributions between private parties: generally from those with lower incomes and wealth to their employers, producers, financial institutions, and pension payers (businesses, state and local governments). An exception is some low income debtors might benefit if they owe long term obligations at fixed interest rates, but low income individuals are often constrained from obtaining this form of credit.

Causing, Then Exploiting, Inequality

Another especially galling aspect of the Left’s focus on money finance is how its consequences fly in the face of their concerns about income and wealth inequality. Inflation is typically manifested in rising equity prices: nominal stock values tend to escalate in an inflationary environment, protecting their owners from losses to the real value of their investments. Stocks are generally a good inflation hedge. Yet we know that stocks are disproportionately owned by those in the highest strata of the income and wealth distributions. Later, of course, the Left will seek to level the burgeoning inequality wrought by their own policies by “taxing the rich”! Apparently, for the Left, consistency is never considered a virtue. This is not unlike another trick, which is to blame “greedy corporations” for the inflation wrought by Leftist policies.

It’s a great irony that the Left, which purports to support the poor and working people, would propose a form of government finance that is so regressive in its effects. To be generous, perhaps it’s just another case of “progressives” unknowingly hurting the ones they love. The expansive programs they advocate will confer government benefits to many individuals in higher income brackets, not just the poor, but those government alms will help to compensate for higher inflation. But this too takes advantage of money illusion, because those benefits might well buy progressives the loyalty of beneficiaries unable to recognize the ongoing erosion in their standard of living, and who are unwilling to come to grips with their increasing dependency.

But Tut, Tut, They Say

Advocates of MMT, in combination with expansive government, also have a tendency to deny that inflation has ever been a consequence of such policies. As Sumner points out, they have forgotten historical episodes that run contrary to the theory, and most “popular” advocates of MMT fail to recognize the important role played by limits on the economy’s production potential. When money growth outruns the economy’s ability to produce real goods and services, the prices of goods will rise.