WaPo Covers MMT, But Does Its Usual Bad Job: Part Four, The Victory
This post concludes my critical evaluation of Dylan Matthews's, post published on Ezra Klein's blog called “You know the deficit hawks. Now meet the deficit owls.”
Dylan's post is in some ways typical of what one finds in WaPo these days. What was once a proud example of journalism has descended into a “he said/she said” format with only two sides to every question and a kind of parroting back of talking points the journalist or columnist constructs which she/he believes are associated with the two sides. Dylan's article addresses the question of what we ought to do about the deficit by viewing it from the perspective of the deficit hawks vs. the deficit owls. However, there aren't just deficit hawks and deficit owls in the economic aviary. There are also deficit doves as well.
Matthews ignores that position as a distinct one, even though he cites a deficit dove like Paul Krugman when it suits his purpose. So what is the deficit dove position? How does it differ from the other two? We don't know based on his post. But there are MMT posts on this subject that Dylan might have and I think should have, researched.
In addition, the ping-pong talking point format of the post leaves one with a very superficial analysis of what hawks and owls and different people believe. The excuse for this, of course, will be lack of space in a short blog form. But that doesn't change the fact that even though the journalist or writer involved makes an attempt to be neutral toward the contending parties, no real objectivity involving a deep understanding of the contending positions is presented. Only caricatures on the incomplete fair critical comparison set of positions survive the journalistic malpractice of faux objectivity.
Reading the post, you get the impression that MMT questions the mainstream with very distinct and opposed policy positions, and that the mainstream has counter-arguments to MMT. But you really can't get any sense of the underlying deficit hawk, deficit dove, deficit owl reasoning behind their policy positions.
You don't learn that the hawks are viewing the Government from the viewpoint that it is like a giant household, and that some of the doves share that perspective.
You don't learn that the hawks often claim that the Government can run out of money.
You don't learn that the hawks accept the Quantity Theory of Money, or that both hawks and doves, but not the owls believe in the existence of an inter-temporal Governmental budgetary constraint (IGBC) on spending.
And most important of all you don't learn about the Sectoral Financial Balances (SFB) Model, and how it works from the hawk, dove, and owl points of view.
In other words, from reading the Matthews piece you don't learn anything about the depth of the owl position, relative to the others, and you also don't get an impression that Dylan really understands the deficit owl position, and that he is capable of assessing with reasonable fairness how well it stands up to the criticism from the hawk or mainstream approaches.
So, in the end, even though people who like MMT were very happy to have the coverage from WaPo, and very happy that the post was relatively friendly as these things go, I think we have to conclude that Dylan's wasn't a good post, but another indication of WaPo's decline as a paper of record. Nor am I alone in having a negative view of this post. Michael Hudson has recorded a strong reaction to it, as well, in a note to Stephanie Kelton which was blogged at Mike Norman Economics by Tom Hickey.
So, I call for WaPo to try again. People need an MMT post from WaPo written by one of the MMT leaders, alongside parallel posts from leading deficit hawks like David Walker and deficit doves like Paul Krugman, Jared Bernstein, or Dean Baker, with a concluding post recording extensive debates among the representatives of the major approaches. If we had that then all of the readers of The Post would be better able to judge for themselves which approach has the most to offer in the way of policies for setting our economy on a course that doesn't waste people and that is culturally, socially, politically, economically, and environmentally sustainable in the foreseeable future. I'm sure that's what we all want, but I'm afraid that this opening bid on MMT by WaPo didn't get us very far down the road toward that result.
Having said all this about what was wrong with Dylan's post, however, I will now end on a positive note, which perhaps explains why so many MMT supporters have a positive view of the post. There's one very important and very beneficial thing that Dylan Matthews did that deserves a real shout-out!
For many years now, MMT economists and others who write in support of them have been trying to make a very important point to the mainstream. And that is that the claim:
is a myth, a fairy tale, or a deadly innocent fraud.
Dylan doesn't say that in so many words. But he and the economists he cites, even Greg Mankiw grant this very important MMT/deficit owl point in passing.
If this post is any indication, mainstream economics, and certainly deficit doves, and hawks like Mankiw, now acknowledge that a nation like the US which is sovereign in its own fiat currency can never run out of money, or be prevented by the pure fiscal aspects of any situation from paying its debts or buying whatever goods and/or services it needs that are available for sale in its own sovereign currency.
So, that part of the great debate is now over. It will be very hard from here on, for the deficit hawks to maintain their deficit/insolvency terrorism in the face of the general recognition in economics that the Federal Government is not like a household, because it can never run out of the currency that it has the sole legitimate power to issue.
If they try, they will now be the ones facing ridicule and marginalization. And, increasingly, those politicians who try to claim we are running out of money, will also face ridicule and be viewed as ignoramuses by others.
That may not bother many of the Republicans coming from districts resistant to the realities of modern life. But, increasingly, “serious people” in Washington will stop repeating the myth about coming insolvency and move on.
Dylan's post already does that by assuming that the real issue about MMT vs. the mainstream isn't about solvency, but about excessive deficit spending causing either inflation or hyperinflation. Every critic of MMT cited in the post raises the objection either implicitly or explicitly that MMT policy proposals will lead to worrisome inflation, or hyperinflation. Now, that's progress, because unlike the level of one's national debt, or the size of one's deficit in the abstract, or the nonsense debt-to-GDP ratio, which means nothing in itself, inflation is a real issue, not an artifact of some economist's fevered theories.
More generally, the real issue is the generalized consequences of Federal fiscal policies and the programs associated with them. They have employment consequences, inflation/deflation consequences, environmental consequences, safety net consequences, medical consequences, educational consequences, inequality consequences, climatological consequences and all the rest. The position of MMT is that alternative fiscal policies need to be evaluated in terms of our best estimation of their impacts on our societies, cultures, polities, environments, and futures, and not in terms of their narrow, purely fiscal impacts on present and future Federal budgets.
Changes in unemployment and in inflation are two such real impacts, but we need to go beyond them to other real impacts. We need to evaluate the whole thing. Let the hawks put forward their budgets, and the doves theirs, and we owls will put forward ours, and then let everyone evaluate what consequences are likely for all of the alternatives, and which alternative is best overall in terms of real consequences and in terms of public purpose and not in terms of arbitrary debt, deficit, and debt-to-GDP ratio targets, that, in themselves have no meaning for people.
In other words, let's get real. Let's talk about real problems of real people that can be alleviated through fiscal policy and Government programs. Let's stop taking about fairy tales, myths, and bogeymen. And let's get on with the job of rebuilding the United States for our children and grandchildren and using every tool we have, including our fiat currency system, to realize the blessings of liberty and equality of opportunity for everyone.