Bill Mitchell is the Research Professor in Economics and the Director of the Centre of Full Employment and Equity at the University of Newcastle, Australia. The following is an edited transcript of the interview, conducted August 15, 2011.
Thanks for joining us, Professor Mitchell. I wanted to talk with you today about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)—the theoretical approach you’ve been integral in developing—and its relevance to current debates over public finances. I know you’ve been quite scathing of mainstream economic discourse. For example, you wrote in your blog recently that “the economics media is dominated with financial issues – too much public debt; debt ceilings; fiscal sustainability; sovereign risk; and all the rest of the non-issues that have taken center-stage.” Could you take a moment to explain why MMT renders these things non-issues?
The most important misperception is that MMT is in some way outlining an ideal or a new regime that could be introduced. The reality is that MMT just describes the system that most countries in the world live under and have lived under since 1971, when the US president at the time, Richard Nixon, suspended the convertibility of the US dollar into gold. At that point, the system of fixed exchange rates—in which all countries agreed to fix their currencies against the US dollar, which was in turn benchmarked in price against gold—was abandoned. So since that day, most of us have been living in what we call a fiat currency system.
In a fiat currency system, the currency has legitimacy because of legislative fiat: the government tells us that’s the currency and then legislates it as such. The currency has no intrinsic value. What gives it value, what motivates us to use the currency that the government suggests, is the fact that all tax obligations are denominated in and have to be extinguished with that currency. We have no choice. If you live in America, for example, you have to pay American taxes to the IRS with American dollars. So demand for the currency, otherwise worthless bits of paper, is driven by the fact that all tax obligations have to be extinguished with that currency. Once you consider that, then you immediately realize that the national government is the monopoly issuer of that currency. That means that the national government in such a system can never be short of that currency; it can never run out of money. It doesn’t need you or I to lend it money or you and I to pay taxes to get more money. It can never run out of money. That’s the first basic insight of MMT: governments are not constrained in their spending by a need to raise revenue.
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