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Is Labour’s fiscal policy rule neoliberal?

Summary:
That is the charge some on the left, particularly followers a movement called MMT, have laid against Labour's Fiscal Credibility Rule (FCR). MMT stands for nothing very informative, but it is a non-mainstream left-wing macroeconomic school of thought. Bill Mitchell, one of the leading lights of MMT, has run a relentless campaignagainst the FCR through his blog. As my own workwith Jonathan Portes helped provide the intellectual foundation for the FCR, I will try and explain why I find the neoliberal charge nonsensical. Although MMT has had its biggest impact in the US, it is increasingly discussed by those on Labour’s left (e.g. proand con). Here I will give a lay person’s guide to only the aspects of MMT that lead to its dislike of Labour’s rule. MMT’s key idea is that fiscal policy

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That is the charge some on the left, particularly followers a movement called MMT, have laid against Labour's Fiscal Credibility Rule (FCR). MMT stands for nothing very informative, but it is a non-mainstream left-wing macroeconomic school of thought. Bill Mitchell, one of the leading lights of MMT, has run a relentless campaignagainst the FCR through his blog. As my own workwith Jonathan Portes helped provide the intellectual foundation for the FCR, I will try and explain why I find the neoliberal charge nonsensical.

Although MMT has had its biggest impact in the US, it is increasingly discussed by those on Labour’s left (e.g. proand con). Here I will give a lay person’s guide to only the aspects of MMT that lead to its dislike of Labour’s rule. MMT’s key idea is that fiscal policy (changing taxes and government spending) is better suited to stabilise the macroeconomy than a central bank setting interest rates.

Almost without exception, advanced economies use interest rates set by an independent central bank to control output and inflation. In the UK the Bank of England’s mandate (the inflation target and how quickly it has to be reached) is determined by the Chancellor. If the Chancellor wants to raise the inflation target or scrap it altogether they can do so. But the month to month task of actually choosing what interest rate is most likely to meet the Chancellors mandate is left to the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), who are either Bank insiders or outsiders appointed by the Treasury.

Why is the choice of setting interest rates delegated to the MPC? Getting this choice right is a highly technical task, requiring detailed discussions of different forecasts and macroeconomic models. If the MPC is working well, they bring strong expertise to the table to help make a decision.

These experts could just give their advice in secret to the Chancellor, leaving the Chancellor to accept or reject their advice. The danger in doing that is the Chancellor will allow party political motives to influence what they do, to the detriment of the economy. As one Treasury insider once told me in the years before the Bank of England (BoE) became independent, the Chancellor recognised that rates had to rise but there is no way it was happening before the party conference.

A fundamental problem with today’s way of doing things occurred during the Global Financial Crisis. Interest rates fell to a level that became their lower bound. Central banks thought that cutting rates any further was ineffective and risky. When that happens, something else needs to step in to stimulate the economy. The BoE tried various measures (like Quantitative Easing), but they were all rather hit and miss because they had not been used much before.

Under the Labour government in 2009 fiscal policy was used to provide the stimulus that monetary policy could no longer reliably give. But in 2010 the Coalition government was elected and decided fiscal stimulus had to become austerity, with disastrous results in the UK and other countries that adopted it. Most macroeconomists rejectedausterity in 2010, and their number increased steadily as the impact of austerity became clear.

It is now received wisdom among academic economists that when interest rates hit their lower bound, fiscal policy needs to provide a large stimulus to the economy. Labour’s fiscal credibility rule is the first in the world to formalise this. If interest rates hit their lower bound, the normal rule is suspended and a fiscal stimulus occurs that is sufficient to end the recession. Labour’s rule is therefore designed to prevent austerity happening again.

MMT wants to go one step further. It wants to use fiscal policy to stabilise the economy at all times, and not just when monetary policy is out of action. This is not a ridiculous proposal. The question is whether it would work as well as the current regime. Most macroeconomists prefer using interest rates when possible because rates can be moved quickly. It also allows this decision to be easily delegated to experts, which avoids party political influence getting in the way of macro stabilisation. However an obvious drawback of the current regime is that it cannot work when rates hit their lower bound, so in a bad recession you have to switch to fiscal policy. Labour’s fiscal rule hardwires that switch into policy.

If you are still reading you have probably decided by now that the debate between MMT and mainstream macro about whether to use fiscal policy all the time or just when interest rates hit their lower bound is pretty technical and best left to macroeconomists. I think that conclusion is correct. But why do many MMTers, as they are known, call Labour’s rule neoliberal? To understand this, you have to understand that MMT is far from just another school of macroeconomics.

MMT is also a political movement of the left. Mitchell himself supports Lexit. They are therefore naturally indignant that a Corbyn led government has adopted a rule that is derived from mainstream economics rather than adopting MMT. Their aim is to win a political as well as an economic battle. Pretty much anything is fair game in this political battle, including describing those like myself who defend Labour’s fiscal rule as neoliberal. (To see how ludicrous this charge is, see here.)

These attacks do however raise a legitimate issue. Why the need for a fiscal rule at all? Why not let the Chancellor choose the deficit depending on the economic circumstances? The answer is provided by something called deficit bias, which preoccupied economic policy before the global financial crisis (GFC). In the 30 years before this crisis, the ratio of OECD government debt to GDP almost doubled for no justifiable reason.

Deficit bias happens because politicians like cutting taxes or raising spending through borrowing, because it puts off any obvious economic pain. But if deficit bias does substantially raise the debt to GDP ratio, as it did before the GFC, then more debt requires paying more interest which in turn requires higher taxes or lower spending. Deficit bias does not avoid the downside of cutting taxes or increasing spending, it just puts it off until a later date. Deficit bias has not gone away. Donald Trump cut taxes for the rich, but he avoided a lot of political flack by doing this through borrowing.

Contrary to many alarmists in the City, the world does not come to an end if you have deficit bias. Deficit bias just makes life harder for future governments. So it is good practice, and a sign of fiscal responsibility, for governments to follow a fiscal rule. Nothing about this good practice need be neoliberal.

You can certainly make a fiscal rule neoliberal through asymmetry (deficits matter, but surpluses do not) and saying the only spending should be cut and not taxes raised to reduce an excessive deficit. Labour’s fiscal credibility rule does neither of these things. It targets the current deficit, leaving public investment free to meet public needs and benefit from low borrowing costs. The target only needs to be met in 5 years time and this period rolls forward. As a result the rule is compatible with the Chancellor enacting a modest stimulus during a mild recession. In a severe recession a fiscal stimulus is mandatory, making austerity impossible.

MMTers like to suggest that government spending could be higher under MMT than under the FCR. This is simply false if the MPC is doing its job. Indeed if higher interest rates reduce demand, as most empirical evidence suggests, for given taxes government spending will be higher under the FCR than under an MMT policy.

MMTers might argue that leaving interest rates decisions to a central bank is neoliberal. That charge has less force for the UK, where the Chancellor has complete control of the Bank’s mandate, than in the Eurozone for example. Delegation of decisions to experts is hardly neoliberal. Is the UK organisation that decides whether drugs are cost effective, NICE, a neoliberal organisation? There is a legitimate issue of what happens when experts fail to do their job, but that is an issue for UK monetary policy that has nothing to do with Labour’s fiscal rule.

MMTers over the top criticisms of Labour’s fiscal rule do however raise some serious questions about MMT. MMT has been important in the US in helping to counteract excessive concern among many Democrats about budget deficits, and in fighting nonsense that says we cannot afford to tackle climate change. However both points can be made using entirely conventional macroeconomics, as my articleon the Green New Deal showed. Yet MMT also wants to be a revolutionary movement that overthrows mainstream macroeconomics.

There have been two revolutions in macroeconomics in the last 100 years, but both have brought major and radical new ideas to the table. As yet, MMT only offers ideas that can easily be expressed as part of the mainstream. For example using fiscal rather than monetary policy was a big debate when I was studying as an undergraduate more than 40 years ago. That does not make MMT’s ideas wrong, but they are certainly not revolutionary and they will certainly not replace the mainstream, even if MMTers call all their opponents neoliberal.









Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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