In general terms, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) defines the value of the currency as “what must be done to obtain it”. As MMT authors have noted, this general definition can be interpreted in terms of labor time. A Marxist interpretation, consistent with MMT’s general definition, is to define currency value in terms of socially necessary labor time. Two interpretations seem particularly suitable. A first approach is to define currency value as the reciprocal of the average money wage. This measure indicates the amount of labor-power that must be supplied in exchange for a unit of the currency and, on average, the amount of socially necessary labor that is performed in exchange for the currency unit. A second approach is to define currency value as the reciprocal of the monetary expression of labor time (MELT). This measure indicates the amount of socially necessary labor represented in a currency unit and therefore the amount of abstract labor represented in a currency-unit’s worth of any commodity, including labor-power, which under capitalism is treated as a commodity. The two definitions are closely and simply connected. They are also closely connected to other macro measures such as the price level and average productivity.
The marxian labor-time values of individual commodities fall as productivity improves. This means that if a currency unit is to command a stable quantity of use-values (i.e. physical goods and services) over time, the value of the currency must likewise fall as productivity improves. For a given distribution between wage and profit income, and a given share of value added in total value, a currency unit’s command over use-values will remain stable when money wages rise in line with average productivity. This also promotes price stability.
Inflationary pressures can originate from the demand side or the supply side of the economy. Demand-side inflation, known as demand-pull inflation, becomes increasingly likely as the economy nears full capacity. Inflation driven from the supply side, referred to as cost-push inflation, is possible in the absence of any excess demand for goods and services.
In an earlier post it is suggested that when value is conceived as socially necessary labor time, it makes sense to define currency value in one of two ways, either as the reciprocal of the average money wage paid for an hour of simple labor or, alternatively, as the reciprocal of the ‘monetary expression of labor time’ (MELT). Under the first definition, currency value is the amount of simple labor-power commanded by a unit of the currency and, on average, the amount of simple labor that will be performed in exchange for a unit of the currency when advanced as wages. Under the second definition, currency value is the amount of simple labor represented in a unit of the currency; that is, the labor-time equivalent of a currency unit.
A government with the authority to tax can ensure acceptance of a particular currency. By nominating a currency in which income and wealth are to be assessed, and imposing taxes that can only be paid in the nominated currency, the government establishes a demand for the currency.
This is true whether the government issues its own currency or instead adopts a currency issued by some other entity.
But a government that adopts somebody else’s currency is reduced to the status of mere currency user and, as a consequence, faces financial constraints similar to those that bind private households and firms.
Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) makes clear that the spending of a currency-issuing government necessarily precedes tax payments and bond sales to non-government. This has important implications. It means that a currency-issuing government does not – and cannot – require revenue prior to spending. It means that it is government spending that makes possible the payment of taxes and non-government purchase of bonds, not the other way round. And it means that when a government requires itself to match deficits with bond sales to non-government, it does so voluntarily, and on terms that are entirely at its discretion. In short, the constraints on a currency-issuing government are not financial in nature. The constraints on the spending of a currency-issuing government are properly understood in terms of real resources and the capacity of the economy to meet demand for higher output at stable prices. A currency-issuing government always has the capacity to purchase whatever is for sale in the currency of issue (which, of course, is not the same thing as saying that government should always do this). Yet, the manner in which fiscal and monetary operations are usually conducted can create an appearance that things are somehow otherwise. So, why is it that government spending necessarily comes first? In view of its implications, this is an important matter to grasp.
Policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, much like policy responses to the global financial crisis and Great Recession of a decade ago, carry a couple of clear macroeconomic lessons for anyone who cares to learn them:
1. A currency-issuing government faces no revenue constraint.
2. A currency-issuing government dictates the terms on which it issues debt.
It is not only electorates that, understandably, have been slow to appreciate these aspects of reality. Plenty of economists, perhaps with less excuse, also exhibit little understanding. The lessons had better be learned fast, or austerity will be applied once the situation attenuates on the spurious grounds of “paying for” the fiscal deficits of the present period. While fiscal restraint, in some measure, may turn out to be appropriate, depending on the presence or absence of inflationary pressures, “paying for” past deficits can never be a legitimate justification for a tightening of fiscal policy.
A national government with the authority to tax gets to nominate a money of account along with the ‘money things’ that will be accepted in fulfillment of the tax obligations it imposes. In doing so, the government creates a demand for a particular money – a ‘state money’. This motivates the formation of markets for goods and services whose prices are denominated specifically in the money of account. This is true whether the national government with the authority to tax is a monetary sovereign (a currency issuer) or a monetary non-sovereign (a currency user), though a monetary sovereign will have greater autonomy in shaping the economy according to democratically expressed preferences as well as the wherewithal to underwrite the economy.
In some earlier posts, a job guarantee is added to an otherwise condensed income-expenditure model. This enables comparisons of steady states under different scenarios akin to the typical exercises conducted in introductory macroeconomics courses. What follows is a summary of the model, bringing together aspects that are dealt with in greater depth – but disparately – elsewhere on the blog, along with brief indications of how the model can be extended to include simple dynamics and short-run price behavior. Links to fuller explanations of various concepts are provided along the way.
Politicians often tell us that we should live within our means. True enough. Unfortunately, many of them do not appear to understand what this actually entails when it comes to fiscal policy. So far as most economists are concerned, the events of the last decade have thoroughly discredited advocates of austerity. Yet, it remains quite common to hear politicians from across the political spectrum calling for reductions in fiscal deficits or even fiscal surpluses. There appears to be little awareness that, in most countries, a call for a fiscal surplus is, literally, a call for the society to live beyond its means.