My last essay, “A Perfect Example,” elicited six thoughtful and compelling questions from a reader with the moniker “MadcapMongoose.” They deserve an equally thoughtful response, which I’ve been trying to formulate, off and on, these past many weeks. Each formulation I come up with, however, seems to be missing a larger and deeper issue that I keep getting glimpses of. So, with apologizes to Mongoose, instead of answering him (or her) directly, I’m going to try to mine the topic obliquely to see if I can get at that deeper vein.
A Perfect Example
Recent news reports lament the on-going collapse of America’s coal industry―specifically the spectacular loss of jobs which is devastating not only families but entire local economies and communities. On a PBS news report, a woman who’d worked for a local mining company for thirty years teared up and asked the reporter, “What in the world am I going to do?” At a recent event sponsored by Wyoming Public Radio, attendees were asked to fill out 5X7 cards with suggestions about how to answer that question—how to replace the lost coal industry jobs.
I’m attracted to “big picture” vistas that put the day’s momentary developments into what at least feels like a meaningful perspective. It helps me to imagine things are more manageable than they otherwise seem to be. In reading my daily news (currently The Washington Post), I’m always on the lookout for at least two articles that fit together somehow to create a glimpse of this over-arching view. Today (Friday, 6 May) I got what feels like a pretty good peek.
False Choice or Real Possibilites
The essential ploy in politics is to give people a false choice. For dinner tonight, you can have fried potatoes—which are what I am serving—or you can have watered-down potato gruel, which is what my opponent is serving. Never mind that, if we take time to look, the larder is actually stocked with tomatoes, corn, zucchini, string-beans, hams and pork bellies.
The political false choice is usually quite subtle, and invariably involves whether you want to be taxed or not. The example I continuously stumble upon is Barack Obama’s 2015 State-of-the-Union proposal for universal child-care in America.
The Ogre & the Cog
Classically, we imagine money being aggregated by an entrepreneur who uses it to build a factory, purchase raw materials, hire labor, and begin manufacturing widgets which are then sold in the marketplace. This same result could be had by the process of an ogre appropriating a factory by intimidation, acquiring raw materials by force, and using slave labor to produce the widgets. The difference is that, in the first case, the process produces customers (the laborers) who can purchase the widgets with their wages, whereas—in the second case—the ogre’s widgets have no paying customers. One model produces an economy, the other model doesn’t.
Tax Credits and Dollars—Playing Charades with Low-Income Housing
Here is what the HUD.GOV website says about the status of low-income housing in America: “Families who pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care. An estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing. A family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States.”
Sovereign Spending in a Market Economy
Even if we assume the principles of modern fiat money will be generally accepted at some point in the future, we must yet confront the problem that sovereign spending is a difficult issue for market economies. It could easily unfold that even with the new “modern” money perspective in place, a serious recession could still find federal stimulus spending unnecessarily constrained. This difficulty was on full display in the last recession when Obama’s stimulus package was finally passed by Congress—appropriating $800 billion for the federal government to spend—only to then confront the almost burlesque-show entertainment of watching Congress and the Obama administration trying to figure out how to actually do the spending.
The Question I Wanted to Ask
I recently attended a panel discussion called by Bernie Sanders—and moderated by Stephanie Kelton—to discuss the crisis in Greece. The panelists were Joseph Stiglitz, Jacob Kirkegaard (of the Peterson Institute) and James Galbraith (who, it had been disclosed just a few days earlier, was part of a secret committee in Greece which evaluated how, and at what cost, an actual Greek exit from the Euro could be managed.)
A Push-Pull Model for Cooperative Markets Financed by Sovereign Spending
I recently outlined a sovereign spending structure for making “free” pre-school care and instruction available to every American child. After further consideration, I realize the proposal glosses over a fundamental issue posed by sovereign spending itself: Should it “push” or should it “pull” at resources to achieve a given goal?
Money causes labor to do useful things, and goods and services to be exchanged between people, thereby enabling people in general—both individually and collectively—to obtain what they need. In order for this process to occur in an optimal way—that is, in order for the maximum number of people to obtain what they need, individually and collectively, it seems clear that two basic conditions must be met: (1) there needs to be enough money to pay people to create all the goods and services they need, and (2) this adequate supply of money needs to be in the hands of people who are actually able and motivated to spend it for that purpose.
The Problem with Code Words
Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was recently quoted in the Washing Post as having said something quite remarkable given the IMF’s historical position on monetary policy: “…we have to repeat over and over that monetary policy cannot be the only game in town, and that there has to be a combination of sound fiscal policies, use of fiscal space for those countries that have fiscal space in order to support growth and rejuvenate that growth.” The problem is, what do these words and phrases mean to most people who read them—including most U.S. politicians and economic pundits?
The squiggle illustrated here may look like the Ebola virus, but it isn’t. The resemblance is just an eerie coincidence. It’s actually a graphical snapshot of the classic “Predator-Prey Model.” This mathematical exercise, first developed in the 1920s, serves as the introductory basis for a more recent NASA funded effort which produced—amidst a brief flurry of news and commentary last spring—the startling conclusion that a complete collapse of modern civilization may now be “irreversible.”
BANK of the COMMONS
We usually think of a Commons as a “territory” of resources which we, as individuals, share with other members of our local, regional, or national society. The tragedy of the Commons, famously, is a failure of that sharing in which, even though the resources are visibly being depleted at an unsustainable rate, individuals are not motivated to preserve the resources but, instead, are motivated to continue to deplete them. This perverse motivation occurs because each individual makes two rational assumptions: (1) most other individuals will continue to deplete and (2) if he or she personally refrains from depleting, the beneficial impact on the Commons itself will be negligible, negating the personal effort or sacrifice. These rational decisions effectively neutralize the actions of the cooperative gene within the society, leaving the selfish gene in a position of active dominance….
Bank Dollars & Sovereign Spending
Why do so many people—including the authors of most economics textbooks—believe the U.S. banking system creates the U.S. dollars we earn and spend and pay our taxes with? It’s because the U.S. banking system does, in fact, “issue” the great majority of the dollars we use—by making loans to businesses and citizens which are not backed by “real” dollars the banks have on deposit. What everyone overlooks, however (for reasons not entirely clear) is the fact that these new loan dollars are “made real” by the U.S. government’s solemn promise to convert them at any time, on demand, into actual, “real”, sovereign U.S. dollars….
WORLD without BANKS
Sometimes it helps, if you want to see and understand something more clearly, to imagine the world without it. I just finished a book (“Rethinking Money” by Benard Lietaer and Jacqui Dunne) that was so thoroughly confused—and confusing—about how the U.S. private banking system “creates our money” (but perversely refuses to create enough of it) that I felt an overwhelming need to try to clarify, in my own mind, what the private banking system actually is. That’s when I got the idea of imagining a world without private banks at all—and trying to see at what point, and for what purpose, they become useful or, perhaps, even necessary.
The Sinking of Norfolk
How would Thomas Piketty propose to save the city of Norfolk, Virginia? He teaches us, ad-nauseum, that what the U.S. collective state has to spend on such things as sea walls, flood gates, elevating infrastructure and roadways, buying-out property owners so they can relocate to higher ground, etc., etc., is limited to the number of tax dollars that can be collected from U.S. citizens—as if the collective state itself were like a club, and if the clubhouse needs repairing, the club members must first pay a special assessment of dues—or, alternatively, the club can borrow dollars from the supply of Capital owned by the wealthiest 1% of its membership, or (as a creative alternative) the rebuilding effort could be structured in such a way that the newly elevated Norfolk would pay rent to the one percent in perpetuity for the privilege of living above sea-level.
Essay Contest for Congress
I’d like to propose an Essay Contest that might inform us better than any news talk show or presidential debate what we’re up against with our National Budget—and what might be the best course of action we should consider. Everyone in Congress should be required to participate, governors and state legislators who might become future congressional leaders should be encouraged to join in, and op-ed economic analysts invited to submit. The essays would be posted on a Congressional website established specifically to enable the public to vote on the best explanation of the topic. The topic I propose is this:
“COST” & CONFUSION
Even the most progressive proponents of climate change mitigation frame their argument with the proposition that the “cost” of mitigation today is far less than what the “cost” of climate change will be down the road if we fail to act now. While it sounds compelling, this argument perpetrates a deep confusion about what “cost” means when applied to the idea of inventing, designing and building the carbon-neutral infrastructure and energy systems that climate mitigation will require. This confusion, in turn, makes it more difficult for the political process to make rational decisions.
GROAF & CONTRAKSHUN
Recently I came across a passage from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath: One of the Joad-clan migrant farmer characters, upon learning that “there’s a newspaper fella near the coast, got a million acres,” replies—“If he needs a million acres to make him feel rich, seems to me he needs it ‘cause he feels awful poor inside hisself.”
Rescuing the 1%
In an earlier essay I suggested we just forget the 1%. This was an idea not entirely supported by the commentary that followed. On reflection, I’ve decided it isn’t the right approach after all. What we really need to do is rescue the 1%.
FORGET THE 1%
All this talk about the 99% versus the 1%? I say the easiest—and likely the most useful—thing to do is just forget the 1%. Write them off. Let them have their gated communities, their mega-yachts, their island retreats and off-shore bank accounts. What do we need them for?
MMT and the Struggles of Political Democracy
A principal dilemma of the theory of modern fiat currency (MMT) is the question of how the state spends the money it issues: who decides, and by what process? It may be frustrating to watch U.S. Congressmen and Senators bicker and behave as if their national government has run out of dollars, but it is sobering to consider what would happen should these legislative prodigies suddenly realize that, in fact, there are no currency constraints on their spending at all…..
The Dilemma of the Cooperative Gene
In the simplest terms, at some level the efforts of human society are being directed by the interaction of two genetic predispositions. The first predisposition views society as a loose-knit group of individuals or family units who are competing with each other for scarce resources….
Mobilization and Money
I’m nearly finished with a very long book that may well be the best illustration of the basic principles of Modern Money Theory available. The book is “A Call To Arms,” by Maury Klein. It is an historical account of the U.S. mobilization as it prepared for, and engaged in, war with Germany and Japan. The scale of the task was unprecedented in human history—and the accomplishment of it changed not just the structure of the American economy, but American society as well….
Doctrine of Mathematical Impossibilities
There’s a joke about a farmer and his pig. The pig is covered with a patchwork of large and small Band-Aids. A puzzled visitor asks the farmer: “Why is your pig covered all over with Band-Aids?” “Well,” says the farmer, “obviously, I can’t butcher him all at once: if I cut out too much he might die—and then I’d soon have nothing to eat.”
“Let it be Done” An Alternative Narrative for Building what America Needs
Somehow a great confusion has arisen. It has divided our nation into feuding, bickering camps, caused many to view their own government as a ruthless competitor, and is now seriously threatening us with, among other things, a frightening deluge of collapsing bridges. The confusion is about money—what it is, where it comes from and, most important, whether there is enough of it to pay for all the things we need as a nation.
The I.O.U. in the U.S. Dollar
One of the strangest things to understand about Modern Money Theory is why, if government doesn’t need your tax dollars in order to spend, does government tax at all? Here is an attempt at a new and “better” explanation. It is based on the insight that the government DOES, in fact, need to collect taxes, but the “taxes” it collects are not your “tax dollars.” This may sound like gibberish, but stick with me a moment and see if the following doesn’t make sense—and cast a new light on OTHER things as well (like, for example, the “national debt”).
Our Fiscal Anorexia
Many years ago, I had occasion to spend a long weekend at Ramuda Ranch in Arizona—a rehab facility where young women are helped to learn how to want to eat food again. Anyone who has had a personal encounter with Anorexia Nervosa knows what a mystifying and frightening experience it is….
Real Dollars and Funny Money
I keep trying to unravel the confusion knotted beneath the surface of our public discourse about money. For example, it seems evident that most people believe that U.S. Dollars are “created” by business entrepreneurs making profits. Until this happens, the understanding seems to be, the number of dollars available for everyone to try to get some share of is like a big lake of money we’re all drinking from, with the biggest drinker of all being the U.S. government….
MMT and Social Norms
Chris Hayes’ recent MSNBC show on the Trillion Dollar Coin brought four aspects of the Modern Money debate, for me at least, into a clearer focus. I list them here not in their order of appearance on the show, but in their order of importance and logical connection….
The Strange Reality of Fiat Money
It is time to come to terms with the fact that U.S. dollars are what economists call “fiat money”. Having acknowledged this—and it’s difficult not to accept it as true since the U.S. abandoned the gold-standard over forty years ago—it might be worthwhile to give some consideration to what “fiat money” actually is and the peculiarities of how it works.
It was in the year 2020 that a majority of people first began to “see” what money is. For a few months—after the “realization” started hitting the pages, airwaves, blogs, tweets and twits of mainstream media—it became a silly joke: “2020 perfect vision, at last! How could things have been so blurry for so long?” For thousands of years, in fact.
Missing Link in Tax Overhaul
In Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal (Capital Journal, Looking Past Fiscal Cliff to a Genuine Tax Overhaul) Gerald Seib lays out a very sensible argument about why the U.S. tax code needs to be rewritten “for the 21st century.” He points out that the tax code we are using was created in 1913 (before the Great Depression and the New Deal, I might add) and was last revised in any meaningful way in 1986….
Modern Money and the Altruistic Gene
In his recent book The Social Conquest of Earth, Edward O. Wilson lifts a corner of human history and reveals what appears to be a hidden mechanism of its intricately complex guidance system. It shouldn’t be a surprise this inner clock-work is genetics. What is surprising is to see the relationship between this genetic mechanism and the monetary debate that is unfolding as we speak.
New Sense—Common Sense
The principal dilemma of the progressive cause is that it has allowed a bedrock conservative premise to go so long unchallenged; indeed the progressives themselves have either overtly or implicitly agreed with the premise, making it virtually impossible for them to effectively advocate their goals….
Men on a Wall
I recently saw a newspaper photo of ten or twelve men sitting on a crumbling stone wall beside a dirt road. It was somewhere in Africa, but the location doesn’t matter. What matters is that the men, as the caption made clear, were sitting on the wall because they had nothing else to do: they had no land to farm, there was no local job or employment available to them, they had no savings or credit with which to start some venture. So they sat….
Playing Monopolis Monopoly: An inquiry into why we are making ourselves so miserable
Why does it seem like there isn’t enough money to pay for the things we really need? The headlines are filled with stories about our nation’s “debt problem” and dire warnings about our impending “bankruptcy.” As an architect who fills his waking hours thinking up all kinds of wonderful things we could be building, I’m alarmed by the idea there isn’t enough money to pay for any of them….