There are two broad ways to control inflation and buffer stocks are involved in each:
- Unemployment buffer stocks: Under a mainstream NAIRU regime (the current orthodoxy), inflation is controlled using tight monetary and fiscal policy, which leads to a buffer stock of unemployment. This is a very costly and unreliable target for policy makers to pursue as a means for inflation proofing.
- Employment buffer stocks: The government exploits the fiscal power embodied in a fiat-currency issuing national government to introduce full employment based on an employment buffer stock approach. The Job Guarantee (JG) model which is central to MMT is an example of an employment buffer stock policy approach.
Under a Job Guarantee, the inflation anchor is provided in the form of a fixed wage (price) employment guarantee.
Full employment requires that there are enough jobs created in the economy to absorb the available labour supply. Focusing on some politically acceptable (though perhaps high) unemployment rate is incompatible with sustained full employment.
Under the neo-liberal policy regime, central banks have, increasingly, been given the responsibility by government for managing the price level. In conducting monetary policy to fulfill their major economic objectives, central banks manipulate the interest rate and attempt to manage the state of inflation expectations.
These policy tools are employed to achieve an “optimal” level of price stability and capacity utilisation (typically assumed to be invariant in the long-run to nominal aggregates). Where negative real effects from the operation of inflation-first monetary policy are acknowledged they are theorised to be necessary for optimal long term growth and employment and small in magnitude.
These considerations suggest that the central bank, as part of the consolidated currency-issuing government sector, has another, somewhat similar yet far more effective buffer stock option which is in fact an alternative way of managing the unemployment program.
In MMT, a superior use of the labour slack necessary to generate price stability is to implement an employment program for the otherwise unemployed as an activity floor in the real sector, which both anchors the general price level to the price of employed labour of this (currently unemployed) buffer and can produce useful output with positive supply side effects.
The employment buffer stock approach (the JG) exploits the imperfect competition introduced by fiat (flexible exchange rate) currency which provides the issuing government with pricing power and frees it of nominal financial constraints.
The JG approach represents a break in paradigm from both traditional Keynesian policies and the NAIRU-buffer stock approach. The difference is a shift from what can be categorised as spending on a quantity rule to spending on a price rule.
For example, under current policy, the government generally budgets a quantity of dollars to be spent at prevailing market prices. In contrast, with the JG option, the government additionally offers a fixed wage to anyone willing and able to work, and thereby lets market forces determine the total quantity of government spending. This is what I call spending based on a price rule.
Under the JG scheme, the government continuously absorbs workers displaced from private sector employment. The JG workers thus constitute a buffer employment stock and would be paid the minimum wage.
Many economists who are sympathetic to the goals of full employment are sceptical of the JG approach because they fear it will make inflation impossible to control. To answer these claims, I once again outline the inflation control mechanisms inherent in the JG model. If the private sector is inflating, a tightening of fiscal and/or monetary policy shifts workers into the fixed-wage JG-sector to achieve inflation stability without unemployment.
Unemployment buffer stocks and price stability
There have been two striking developments in economics over the last thirty years. First, a major theoretical revolution has occurred in macroeconomics (from Keynesianism to Monetarism and beyond) since the mid 1970s. Second, unemployment rates have persisted at the highest levels known in the Post World War II period and in the current crisis have sky-rocketed upwards.
The concept of full employment as a genuine policy goal was abandoned with introduction of the natural rate of unemployment hypothesis (Friedman and Phelps) which has became a central plank of current mainstream thinking.
It asserts that there is only one unemployment rate consistent with stable inflation. In the natural rate hypothesis, there is no discretionary role for aggregate demand management and only microeconomic changes can reduce the natural rate of unemployment. Accordingly, the policy debate became increasingly concentrated on deregulation, privatisation, and reductions in the provisions of the Welfare State with tight monetary and fiscal regimes instituted.
The almost exclusive central bank focus on maintaining price stability on the back of an overwhelming faith in the NAIRU ideology has marked the final stages in the evolution of an abandonment of earlier full employment policies.
The modern policy framework is in contradistinction to the practice of governments in the Post World War II period to 1975 which sought to maintain levels of demand using a range of fiscal and monetary measures that were sufficient to ensure that full employment was achieved. Unemployment rates were usually below 2 per cent throughout this period.
Under inflation targeting (or inflation-first) monetary regimes, central banks shifted their policy emphasis. They now conduct monetary policy to meet an inflation target and, arguably, have abandoned any obligations they have to support a policy environment which achieves and maintains full employment. Unemployment since the mid-1970s has mostly persisted at high levels although in some economies low quality, casualised work has emerged in the face of persistently deficient demand for labour hours.
However, central bankers do not characterise their approach in this way and they avoid recognition of the empirical fact that contractionary monetary policy continues to generate output and employment losses which are permanent. Instead the dominant paradigm suggests that full employment is a natural derivative of the maintenance of price stability even though this approach to price stability requires the maintenance of an unemployed buffer stock.
The use of unemployment as a tool to suppress price pressures has, based on the OECD experience in the 1990s, been successful in that inflation is now no longer driven by its own expectations. One explanation is that unemployment temporarily balances the conflicting demands of labour and capital by disciplining the aspirations of labour so that they are compatible with the profitability requirements of capital.
Similarly, low product market demand, the analogue of high unemployment, suppresses the ability of firms to pass on prices to protect real margins. Other explanations for the effectiveness of unemployment in controlling inflation are possible.
The empirical evidence is clear that most OECD economies have not provided enough jobs since the mid-1970s and the conduct of monetary policy has contributed to the malaise. Central banks around the world have forced the unemployed to engage in an involuntary fight against inflation and the fiscal authorities in many cases have further worsened the situation with complementary austerity.
How useful is the NAIRU as a guide to policy? There is a growing literature that shows that the NAIRU is useless as a guide to policy.
Please read my blog – NAIRU is a myth! – for more discussion on this point.
While there may be some stability between inflation and unemployment for a period, experience from many OECD countries suggests that a sudden shock, especially from the supply side (as in 1974) can worsen the unemployment resulting from a deflationary strategy, which is attempting to exploit a given Phillips curve.
Evidence from the OECD experience since 1975 suggests that deflationary policies are effective in bringing inflation down but impose huge costs on the economy and certain demographic groups, which are rarely computed or addressed.
The overwhelming quandary that the NAIRU approach to inflation control faces is whether the economy, once deflated by restrictive aggregate demand management, can be restarted without inflation.
If the underlying causes of the inflation are not addressed a demand expansion will merely reignite the tensions and a wage-price outbreak is likely. As a basis for policy the NAIRU approach is thus severely restrictive and provides no firm basis for full employment and price stability.
Further, despite its centrality to policy, the NAIRU evades accurate estimation and the case for its uniqueness and cyclical invariance is weak. Given these vagaries, its use as a policy tool is highly contentious.
Employment buffer stocks and price stability
It is clear that central bankers are now using buffer stocks of unemployed to achieve a desirable price level outcome. While the real effects of such a policy have been contested, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that the cumulative costs of this strategy in real terms have been substantial.
Several researchers have found that sacrifice ratios remain significant and persistent, meaning that GDP losses during disinflation episodes are substantial. Additionally, a major component of this monetary policy stance is the persistent pool of unemployed (and other forms of labour underutilisation, for example, underemployment) as a buffer stock for wage and thereby price stability.
In addition to lost output, other real costs are suffered by the nation, including the depreciation of human capital, family breakdowns, increasing crime, and increasing medical costs.
So the unemployment pool is thus widely recognised and monitored as a price anchor, a primary concern for price stability in general, and a prime object of monetary policy. However, the effectiveness of an unemployed buffer stock has been shown to deteriorate over time, with ever larger numbers of fresh unemployed or underemployed required to function as a price anchor that stabilises wages.
So in recognising that the effectiveness of unemployment per se as a price anchor is a further function of the terms, conditions, and administration of the unemployment program, MMT recommends management of the unemployment policy and programs be made a function of the agency responsible for said price stability – the central bank.
The question that arises is whether using a persistent pool of unemployed (or casualised underemployed) is the most cost effective way to achieve price stability?
An understanding of MMT principles suggest that a better alternative would be to utilise an employed buffer stock approach which is in fact an alternative way of managing the unemployment program.
MMT argues that a superior use of the labour slack necessary to generate price stability is to implement an employment program for the otherwise unemployed as an activity floor in the real sector, which both anchors the general price level to the price of employed labour of this (currently unemployed) buffer and can produce useful output with positive supply side effects.