Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday, 14 June 2019

Bill Mitchell's fantasy about Labour's fiscal rule

My last post about outlandish attacks from some MMTers on Labour’s Fiscal Credibility Rule (FCR) was designed to be read by non-economists, and I didn’t want to bore them or waste space with all the fantasies Bill Mitchell has spread about the rule. But as I’ve had one of those fantasies tweeted back to me many times in response, I want to lay it to rest here.

That fantasy is that the Bank of England somehow has control of when the knockout happens. The knockout is when the rule is suspended and instead you have as much fiscal stimulus as is necessary to get the economy out of recession. It is triggered when interest rates hit their lower bound. At that point all monetary policy has left are unconventional policies, which are less reliable than fiscal policy, so it makes sense to go for a full fiscal stimulus. 

The way this simple rule has been spun by some is that it gives the Bank of England control over when the knockout is triggered. In reality the rule does no such thing. The Bank will have announced beforehand where the lower bound for rates is, and when a recession happens such that the Bank cuts rates to this lower bound the knockout is triggered. This is simple, unless of course you hate the rule because it is not MMT.

To see how MMters spin this as the Bank being in control of the knockout, you have to construct a fairy tale where the Bank is evil. Although they are supposed to do everything to end a recession, in this fantasy they have a higher calling, which is to impose austerity. So what the evil Bank does is announce that the lower bound is X, but when a severe recession hits they cut rates to X+0.25% and no further. They undertake all kinds of unconventional monetary stimulus but insist that rates are not at their lower bound, just because they do not want any fiscal stimulus.

What the fairy tale requires is that all 9 members of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), who actually set interest rates, collude to deceive the Chancellor and the public. In reality the M in MPC does not stand for Masonic - 4 of their members are external members. They would have to swear in public that the real lower bound is X and have to explain to parliamentary committees why rates have not been cut to X despite being in a major recession with rapidly rising unemployment and falling output.

I know many more past and current MPC members - both from the Bank and from outside - than I suspect Bill Mitchell does. What always impresses me is how seriously they respect the mandate they are given. They might have their individual views on fiscal policy, as Mervyn King did, but there is just no way they would collude to harm the economy because of those views. Most of those I have met are quite positive about the contribution fiscal policy can make in a severe recession, so they wouldn’t even want to deceive the public on this score even if they felt able to.

But let’s put all that to one side. After all I am sure MMTers would just say this shows I’m too much part of the elite, or I am incredibly naive, or whatever. Let’s just suppose this conspiracy happened. Each member of the MPC swore blind that rates were still not at their lower bound, and had concocted some kind of story about why rates should be kept above their lower bound despite rapidly rising unemployment and falling output etc etc.If all that happened, what would a Labour Chancellor do?

The Chancellor, together with much of the non-partisan press, would see what was going on. They would observe that in the middle of a recession the MPC were deliberately not cutting rates to the stated lower bound for no good reason other than a nefarious motive. The Chancellor would first embark on a temporary (less than 5 years) fiscal stimulus, which he is free to do under the FCR rule even without the backstop. If rates stayed at the same level for months as the recession continued, and the Bank embarked on all kinds of unconventional stimulus measures, the Chancellor would conclude, as any reasonable observer would, that the lower bound had been reached. The Chancellor would then invoke the FCR backstop, allowing him to expand on their original fiscal stimulus. Once the recession was over, I doubt very much that the current monetary framework would survive, which is yet another reason why no MPC would never embark on this fairytale.

MMters sometimes retort that the Chancellor would get political flack for triggering the backstop in this situation. In the middle of a recession with unemployment rising I doubt there would be much flack at all, besides the usual nonsense from the Tory press. But I find it supremely ironic that MMTers are prepared to use media reaction as an argument, as if the media reaction to any Chancellor adopting MMT would be all sweetness and light. Just imagine how abolishing the MPC, and saying taxes do not help finance spending, would go down with most journalists. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

Mike Norman Economics, commenting on my earlier post, says compared to Bill Mitchell I’m out of my league. That would be the league for telling fairy tales I assume. While one part of the left indulges in polemic and spinning fantasies against Labour policy, thankfully we have another part that is getting on with the serious business of preparing for a transforming government that will finally reverse what neoliberalism really is.

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