Tuesday, July 24, 2018

How are you going to pay for it? Why Understanding Monetary Theory and Policy Is Critical For the Left

We now have the technology in hand to solve all our problems. The only real obstacle moving forward is the thinking of all those people who ask: How are you going to pay for it? 

Fortunately, Jon and I are not alone in trying to answer that question. Even more fortunately, there are many people who have much more patience than Jon and I in trying to explain our answer repeatedly. Or, perhaps, more accurately, we have the technology in hand to record and replay at our convenience people doing a splendid job answering that question, How are you going to pay for it? Early in June 2018, it was at a symposium held by the Next System Project, an initiative of The Democracy Collaborative. The panel was moderated by Gar Alperovitz and included Stephanie Kelton, the key economist on Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, now professor of public policy and economics at Stony Brook University; Michael Hudson, professor of economics at University of Missouri, Kansas City; Pavlina Tcherneva, an associate professor and chair of the department of economics at Bard College and a research associate at the Levy Economics Institute; and Raúl Carrillo, staff attorney at the New Economy Project and a director of the Modern Money Network.

There is a YouTube video plus a full transcript at the NSP's website at Money Matters! Why Monetary Theory and Policy Is a Critical Terrain For the Left. The video is also on Michael Hudson's website.

Below the embedded YouTube are extended excerpts from the transcript.





Gar Alperovitz: As our demands grow bolder—true full employment, the rebuilding of the social safety net starting with Medicare for All, an overdue green and just transition—so will the naysayers’ inevitable refrain: “How will you pay for it?” 
Stephanie Kelton: Bernie Sanders runs for president on the most ambitious agenda I have seen in my lifetime. Hillary Clinton publishes in her book a bit of an exchange she had with someone who said, “Man, it’s awful. Every time we propose something, he goes bigger. We say we want debt-free college. We want to help make college more affordable. He says, ‘Let’s make it free.’ If we say we want to make health care more affordable and increase access, he says, ‘Let’s just make it free.’ Every time we propose something, he goes bigger.” In this exchange that is included in her book somebody said, “This is like Bernie saying, ‘I think America should get a pony.’” Hillary, the fiscally responsible voice in the room says, “How will you pay for the pony?” 
It’s the idea that all of this stuff is so grandiose that it’s beyond reality. This is what we’re up against as progressives, putting forward a bold agenda... 
Okay, so Senator Sanders gets accused of putting forward a big proposal and not paying for any of it, right? Everybody “knows” that. That was the accusation, but that wasn’t the reality. He actually attempted to play by Washington rules, which are you’ve got to pay for the stuff you want to do. If you go down his agenda, every item on the agenda, you could really draw a line from what it was he was proposing to the source of revenue that was supposed to pay for it all, whether it was Medicare, infrastructure, making public colleges and universities tuition-free. If you actually looked at what he proposed, it was paid for in the conventional sense of the word. 
Now, obviously if you have to find the money, as Hillary Clinton says, then where do you look when you need money? Who’s going to pay for stuff? Who’s got the money? Obviously the rich people have the money. It’s a natural place to look when you’re trying to find the money to pay for a big ambitious agenda. You go for the billionaire class or you go for Wall Street, and you say Wall Street will pay. 
....How do you pay for a progressive agenda if these are the constraints because this is the current narrative? This means that you have to fight two battles. You have to fight for the agenda that you’re fighting for, and you have to sell policies on their own merits, and you simultaneously have to wage war on another front, which is you have to fight to raise the revenue. You have to get people to vote for the tax increase, for the closing of the loopholes of whatever it is that’s giving you the additional revenue. You’re waging two battles when you do this... It actually means that you are in a very real sense dependent upon the rich because you can’t feed a hungry kid, you can’t fix crumbling infrastructure, you can’t provide health care for all, unless and until you can claw some cash away from the people who have it. You need their money. It makes you dependent upon the wealthy. 
....I think progressives should ask themselves, “What is the purpose of tax?” If your instinct, if your impulse is to say to pay for the stuff we want, my suggestion is you’re doing it wrong. 
In the 1940s, the New York Federal Reserve Bank was headed by a guy named Beardsley Ruml. He wrote this really important piece in 1946 called “Taxation for Revenue is Obsolete’” What’s he saying? I don’t know that I need to read the whole thing, but he says basically the need for the government to raise taxes in order to remain solvent and run its affairs is completely yesterday. We don’t do that anymore. Why? Because we have a central bank and because we went off the gold standard. The fact that we changed the monetary system in this fundamental way opens up space for us to do stuff we couldn’t do before when we had to find the money. 
You’re trapped in a gold standard framework when you’re operating in this frame of mind that money is this finite thing that exists somewhere, it’s physical and you’ve got to find it, and you’ve got to go get it in order to spend it. Ruml says, no, no, no, that’s not how it works in the modern era – by the way, modern in the 1940s, and we still haven’t caught up with this reality. 
Ruml goes on to say the purpose of the tax is not to fund the federal government. The purpose of the tax is multifold. One important thing it does is it allows the government to remove some money from the economy so that you don’t overheat the economy through government spending. In other words, taxes help you keep a lid on inflation. If you just spent money into the economy but you didn’t tax anything back, you’d run the risk of overheating the economy, causing an inflation problem. 
Another thing taxes do is affect the distribution of income. You lower taxes on some folks, they end up with more take-home pay. You raise taxes on others, it takes the money away. You impact the distribution of income. You use taxes to incentivize or disincentivize behavior. A carbon tax is a good example. You don’t want as much pollution. You don’t want certain activities taking place, put a tax on it. You want to encourage certain other things like people driving electric cars, give a tax incentive or some form of a subsidy to encourage that. 
....You don’t tax the rich because you need their money in order to feed a hungry kid or fix a crumbling bridge. You tax the rich because they are too damn rich and extreme concentrations of wealth especially, but also income, are bad for the functioning of the economy, are bad for democracy. That’s the rationale for taxing the rich. Not because we can’t do other things unless we get money from them to pay for it. 
You tax Wall Street speculation because you want to discourage certain behaviors, not because you need their money that you raise from a financial transaction task in order to pay for free college. Think it through. Suppose you said, “We’re going to make public colleges and universities tuition-free in the US. It’s going to cost about $70 billion a year to do that.” Now, to pay for it, we’re going to put a tax on Wall Street. Every time somebody buys stocks or engages in derivatives trading or bond trading, they’re going to pay a small transactions tax. That’s our tax. 
Now, you simultaneously have said you want to break up the banks, you want to make banking boring, you want to shrink the size of the financial sector, and you have made yourself completely dependent upon what in order to fund your education proposal? Wall Street speculation. Not only do you need Wall Street to continue to speculate, but you’re going to need them to do more of it over time and grow because of the amount of money need to pay for college and university. You don’t want to hitch your wagon to the very thing that you loathe and are trying to shrink as part of your overall economy. There is a rationale for doing it, right? That would be to discourage certain behaviors, not to fund programs. 
....How should progressives answer the question, “How will you pay for it?” It’s a trap. Don’t fall into this. What they’re really asking is not how will you pay for it but who will pay for it. The question is designed to name the enemy. Who’s going to be footing the bill? In other words, who’s paying the T.A.B.? Don’t answer that question. 
The bottom line is all this pay-for stuff is built around the idea that deficits are bad. They aren’t. Dr. Evil told us a long time ago that deficits don’t matter. Well, it turns out they do, but not the way we usually think about it. Deficits matter, but not because they add to the national debt, burden future generations and all that kind of stuff, create instability in the economy. Deficits matter because the government’s deficits become surpluses somewhere else in the economy. Guess what? Dick Cheney knows it and the Republicans know it. How do I know that? Because they just passed tax cuts that will add $1.5 trillion to deficits over the next 10 years. Why did they do that? Because they know that when a government is increasing its deficit somebody else’s surplus is going up, and they know exactly whose surplus it is. They’re using the budget deficit to channel financial resources to the people they are trying to help. Democrats or Greens or whoever could be using budget deficits to channel financial resources, infrastructure, real things, to the people they’re trying to help. 
How should progressives talk about money, debt and taxes? Don’t repeat this stuff about taxes paying for federal government programs. It’s not taxpayer money. This is the wrong frame. Don’t talk about the debt as if it’s something that we owe. It’s something that some of us own. You may have treasuries. Mostly they are concentrated in the hands of wealthier individuals. Don’t talk about government money as if it’s something that the government needs to get from us. They’re the source of the money. We get it from them. They don’t need it from us. 
Michael Hudson: ....What happens when a government doesn’t pump money into the economy? That means there are only two sources. One source is international. You borrow the money abroad in a foreign currency that you’ll have to repay at a currency risk. The other source is domestic; you borrow from the banks or you let the banks pump the money into the economy. The problem is the banks don’t pump the money into the economy. The banks only lend essentially for the real estate, corporate raids, corporate loans. They even make loans to corporations to pay dividends. The beneficiaries are the 1 percent or the 5 percent. 
The real question of the budget deficits or modern monetary theory is who’s to get the benefit of the money? Will it be the 1 percent or will it be the 99 percent?

Pavlina Tcherneva: I want to add one other purpose of taxes to the list that Stephanie provided: taxes create demand for money; for the dollar, in a sense. Just think of it this way: If the government tomorrow decided to tax you in Canadian dollars and April 15 you have to deliver Canadian dollars or euros, what will you ask your employer to pay you? Will you ask them for dollars or will you ask them for euros? The tax in this coercive way, if you will, creates demand for the very thing that the government issues: the dollar. The reason is the government needs to be able to spend something that we value to be able to fulfill its various public service objectives. 
Here’s one way of thinking about it. The government is the monopoly issuer of the dollar. It is the ultimate source of dollars. Unemployment in a way is people seeking dollars but not able to find them. Whatever the other arguments for addressing the problem of unemployment, and we can discuss that, there is one key aspect to this problem. It is that there is only one sector that can actually choke up the demand for dollars. There’s only one sector that can actually provide it to those who need it, and that is the public sector.

Raúl Carrillo: How does this system keep going? It acts like the money comes from the users, from the resources that are being used rather than by the system itself. We talked about the taxpayer money frame, how that’s particularly harmful. When we think that the money to keep a machine running has to be extracted from people, we get some really terrible political dynamics. 
The other lie is that banks are just either making money wildly or they’re using our deposits and turning back around and the banks rely on us. I would say that the banks are rogue public utilities. They have been chartered by the government, licensed by the government, regulated by the government, and they’re out here not doing their job. When we talk about pushing them to do particular things, we have to recognize that it’s even worse than we thought. They’re powerful. They have the money power. They can create and generate credit at the point of lending. They can do a wide variety of other things that are very, very terrible. 
Austerity makes room for financial extraction. If the government is not putting money into the economy, the banks are controlling the borrowing process, and we’re all going to die if we don’t stop it. 
Money doesn’t grow on rich people, not on wealthy taxpayers, not on banks. What we want to do is get the money power away from the banks, away from rich people by making claims on the state. You’ve got that giant piggy bank, call it what you will, money can come out of the state. Monetary sovereignty means that you can spend on people, on planet, on communities. 
Gar Alperovitz: Let me just say one thing. I’m from Racine, Wisconsin. I had an aunt who ran a little tiny Jewish bakery. She used to say, “You know, during the Depression there wasn’t any money around. Then they decided to run a war, and there was all kinds of money around. Why can’t we do that when we want to do that?”
Read the full transcript.

2 comments:

  1. I don't think MMT is the monetary theory we want. Maybe as bad as the gold bugs. I recently tried to get my thoughts on this written down and posted them on my blog, mostly as a series of short counterpoints to common statements of MMT proponents. Please note that I am not at all an authority on this, just picking up a few breadcrumbs left by others and trying to think a bit more.

    https://robotpliers.wordpress.com/2018/07/12/poking-at-mmt/

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