MMT advocates contest that for a government that creates and borrows its own currency (such as the US, UK or Australia), its spending is not limited by how much tax it collects. It can always take on more debt to finance more spending without necessarily having to increase taxes. Even if the rest of the world stops lending to such a country (or starts charging prohibitive interest rates), the central bank can hold all the government’s debt.
Not only does this mean such a government can always ensure their economy runs at full employment, it also means such a government can never go broke – it can simply create more of its own currency. It’s their currency after all.
The only limit on government spending, according to MMT, is inflation. If government and private sector (businesses and households) spending combined exceeds the economy’s ability to meet that spending with goods and services, inflation rises.
This is where MMT places the role of taxes. Not as a means for the government to ‘afford’ what it spends, but to shrink the private sector sufficiently to ‘accommodate’ what the government spends.
Of course this means the size of the economy is also a limit on MMT. Venezuela has just demonstrated this with abundant clarity. Its government’s central bank-financed spending became bigger than the entire economy itself, resulting in hyperinflation. This is something that no increases in tax levels and shrinking of the private sector could fix.
So, as long as the government is effective enough at moving taxes up and down to manage inflation, and it doesn’t become bigger than the economy itself, there is no limit to how much debt it can take on in its pursuit of full employment and whatever pet policies it desires.
If MMT sounds to you like just a creative way of stating the blatantly obvious, you’d be right – like saying ‘you can eat all the chocolate cake you like and not put on weight...as long as you cut back on everything else.’
MMT is also rife with pitfalls.
Firstly, the public sector is not as efficient, productive or as innovative as the private sector. Trusting the government to contain its own size has always been a big ask. Trusting it to do so under the belief that it can keep spending more, as long as it keeps shrinking the private sector, is an even bigger ask. An ever-expanding government imposes costs on macroeconomic efficiency, productivity and innovation – costs that are then limited only by political ambition (that is, not limited at all).