mfioretti: modern monetary theory*

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  1. The last 40 years has seen a steady rise of deficit-hawking, in which the world's postwar social safety nets are shredded because the state "can't afford" them -- think of all the times you've heard of national debt being money that "the taxpayers" will have to pay back, and misleading comparisons between sovereign governments (who print their own money) to households and businesses (who don't), as though sovereign state finance was just a scaled-up version of balancing the family check-book.

    But a pushback has been quietly building against this trend, based in economic theories that treat money "not as a finite abstraction, but a limitless public utility that can be used to meet human needs." These ideas started to move outside of wonkish economic circles with David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years, which became required reading during the Occupy Wall Street years. Graeber sets out the theoretical underpinnings of Chartalism, which holds that "money does not emerge from barter-based economic activities, but rather from the sovereign's desire to organize economic activity. The state issues currency and then imposes taxes. Because citizens are forced to use the state's currency to pay their taxes, they can trust that the currency will carry value in day-to-day economic activities."

    Chartalism became "Neo Chartalism," AKA "Modern Monetary Theory," whose core premise is that "The state can spend unlimited amounts of money. It is only constrained by biophysical resources, and if the state spends beyond the availability of resources, the result is inflation, which can be mitigated by taxation."

    MMT is the key to understanding how governments can pay for pensions, public education and universal healthcare, creating universal prosperity instead of brutal, wildly unequal, unstable states. It's gained so much currency that even archconservative economists are pushing its policies, even when they dare not speak its name.

    These ideas have been around since the early 1900s, growing up as a dissenting counterpoint to Keynesianism, pointing out that Keynes and the neoclassical economists assume that markets will be dominated by "active owners" -- companies run by the people who owned them. But the reality of corporatism is that the majority of companies are owned "passively," by investors whose interests are generally short-term and narrow, and who are willing to destroy the companies they invest in, provided they get a payday in the process.
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  2.  For a small but committed group of economists, academics, and activists who adhere to a doctrine called Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), though, #mintthecoin was the tip of the economic iceberg. The possibility of a $1 trillion coin represented more than mere monetary sophistry: It drove home their foundational point that fiat currency is a social construct, and that there are therefore no fiscal limits on how much a sovereign currency-issuing nation can spend.

     To a layperson, MMT can seem dizzyingly complex, but at its core is the belief that most of us have the economy backward. Conventional wisdom holds that the government taxes individuals and companies in order to fund its own spending. But the government—which is ultimately the source of all dollars, taxed or untaxed—pays or spends first and taxes later. When it funds programs, it literally spends money into existence, injecting cash into the economy. Taxes exist in order to control inflation by reducing the money supply, and to ensure that dollars, as the only currency accepted for tax payments, remain in demand.

    It follows that currency-issuing governments could (and, depending on how you lean politically, should) spend as much as they need to in order to guarantee full employment and other social goods. MMT’s adherents like to point out that the federal government never “runs out” of money to fund the military, but routinely invokes budget constraints to justify defunding social programs. Money, in other words, isn’t a scarce commodity like silver or gold. “To people who’ve worked in financial markets, who work at the Fed, this isn’t controversial at all,” says Galbraith, who, while not an adherent, can certainly be described as “MMT-friendly.”

    According to this small but increasingly vocal cohort of economists, including Bernie Sanders’s former chief economic adviser, once we change the way we think about money, we can provide for everyone: We don’t have to “find” the money to “pay” for universal health care by “cutting” the budget elsewhere. In fact, our government already works that way: Spending must precede taxation, or there would be no dollars in the economy to tax. It’s the political will to spend on certain things, not the money to afford it, that’s lacking.
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