Labor Power as the ‘Money Commodity’

For Marx and many Marxists, money is based in a commodity; in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), it is not, being based instead in a social relationship that holds more generally than just to commodity production and exchange. Even so, to the extent that commodity production and exchange are given sway within ‘modern money’ economies, operation of the Marxian ‘law of value’ appears to be compatible with MMT. It is just that, from an MMT perspective, private for-profit market-based activity will be embedded within, and delimited by, a broader social and legal framework that is – or at least can be – decisively shaped by currency-issuing government. Therefore, even though in MMT money is not regarded as a commodity, it seems that a commodity theory of money can be reconciled with MMT provided, first of all, that the connection between a money commodity and currency is understood to apply only to the sphere of commodities and, secondly, that it is legitimate to regard labor power as the ‘money commodity’. An earlier post gave some consideration to the social embeddedness of commodity production and exchange. The present focus is on the notion of labor power as money commodity. On this point, MMT can be understood as directly linking currency to labor power, which, in Marx’s theory, is reduced to the status of a commodity when subjected to the laws of commodity production and exchange. This raises the question of whether labor power can serve the role of money commodity in Marx’s theory.

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Labor Complexity in Relation to Aggregate Marxian Value

Value, in Marxist theory, is an amount of abstract labor that is measured in hours of simple labor or a monetary equivalent. Marx argued that complex labor is reducible, for the purposes of commodity production and exchange, to amounts of simple labor. Qualitatively, complex and simple labor are the same. Both count as abstract labor, and so create value. But, quantitatively, complex labor creates value at a faster rate than simple labor.

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Currency Acceptance, Currency Value, and Transcending Capitalism

While revisiting earlier discussions on Marx and Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), I came across an interesting comments thread. In it, a commenter raised an argument that seems worth addressing (the full comment can be found here). The commenter writes:

MMT treats money as a public utility, while Marxism treats it as an expression of value. And I think that no matter the engagement between these two schools of thought, one has to choose either one or another. Either money is an abstract public utility (grounded only in people’s accepting it, through the force of taxation or whatever), which can then be used quite unproblematically for public goods within any context whatsoever … or one realises that money is not an abstract public utility, but is concretely rooted in material processes, i.e. is a concrete expression of value. In which case the one can’t really treat it unproblematically as a public utility to be used by fiscal policy to achieve any ends under any circumstances.

Disregard the references to policy being viable “within any context whatsoever” and “under any circumstances”. MMT emphasizes that policy is constrained by the availability of real resources, as well as political factors. The focus, instead, can be on the substance of the comment, which concerns what I consider to be an insightful distinction between currency as public utility and currency as expression of value.

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Currency Value in Terms of Socially Necessary Labor

An economy’s minimum wage equates a unit of the currency to an amount of labor time. For instance, in Marxist terms, a minimum wage of $15/hour sets a dollar equal to 4 minutes of simple labor power. At a macro level, this enables currency value to be defined in terms of simple labor. There are, however, at least two ways in which this connection between currency value and labor could be drawn. One way would be to adopt a labor command theory of currency value. In effect, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) takes this approach. A second way would be to link the value of the currency to the commodity labor power. Adopting the second approach leads to a definition of currency value that is distinct from the MMT definition but closely (and simply) related to it. So far as policy implications go, especially in relation to MMT’s proposed job guarantee and prescriptions for price stability, there appear to be no important differences between the two approaches.

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Banks are Capital Constrained, Not Reserve Constrained

Generations of economics students have been misled into believing that banks are reserve constrained. Even today, though most specialist monetary economists would likely cringe at the idea, there are widely used textbooks that teach this mistaken view to a new generation of students. Usually the story is framed in terms of a ‘money multiplier’ model in which an addition of reserves into the monetary system by the central bank will supposedly cause a multiplied increase in bank lending and in doing so expand the ‘money supply’ (in this context meaning currency plus deposits). In reality, banks create deposits (add to the money supply) in the act of lending. If they subsequently find themselves short of reserves, they can obtain them from other banks or, in the event of a system-wide shortage, they can borrow them from the central bank which is committed to acting as lender of last resort, a function that it must perform under present institutional arrangements to ensure smooth functioning of the system. The constraint on bank lending is profitability and bank capital, not reserves.

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Fiscal Policy and the Inflation Constraint

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) makes clear that, for currency-issuing governments, the macroeconomic constraint on fiscal policy is resource availability, not revenue. This is sometimes summarized as “the constraint on fiscal policy is inflation” in recognition of the link between resource availability and the macro impacts of spending. So long as there are available workers, materials, plant and equipment, it is possible to produce more. Under these circumstances, extra spending on goods and services can initiate or encourage production without necessarily affecting prices. Although this point is elementary, recent public debate suggests that it is not obvious to everyone. Some appear to believe that inflation will result whenever there is: (i) money creation; (ii) spending; or (iii) fiscal deficits. These concerns are addressed in turn.

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Developments in Value Theory

Previously I have discussed how Marx’s well known aggregate equalities have been shown to hold under single-system interpretations of his theory of value. In the July 2018 edition of the Cambridge Journal of Economics, there is a noteworthy paper by Ian Wright that reconciles the classical labor theory of value with Marx’s prices of production within a dual-system framework. As with single-system interpretations, Marx’s equalities also hold under Wright’s approach. However, they do so in a different way. Here, I want to offer some thoughts on the difference.

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MMT is Politically Open and Applicable to Both Capitalism and Socialism

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) offers an understanding of sovereign (and non-sovereign) currencies that is applicable to a wide range of economic systems, including capitalist and socialist ones. Irrespective of the personal political preferences of its proponents, the theoretical framework in itself is neutral on the appropriate balance between public sector and private sector activity, or the relative merits of capitalism and socialism. In contrast to neoclassical theory, which starts from a general presumption in favor of private market-based activity except where the existence of market failure in excess of government failure can be explicitly established, MMT as a theory characterizes the appropriate mix of public and private activity as a social (or political) choice.

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One of the Fundamental Differences Between Modern Monetary Theory and New Keynesian Economics

With Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) making inroads in the public policy debate, some New Keynesians have transitioned from ignoring or dismissing the approach to engaging with it. This is healthy for both sides. There has been a tendency, though, to make “we’ve known it all along” type statements. A comprehensive response to the “nothing new” claims is provided by Bill Mitchell in a recent three-part series of posts (part 1, part 2 and part 3). My focus here is narrower and concerns a view (for example, expressed in a considered response here) along the lines that MMT has nothing new to say when the economy is at full employment.

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Productive and Unproductive Labor in a Macro Context

As is well known, Marx and the classical political economists before him made a distinction between productive and unproductive labor. Marx’s distinction somewhat differed from Smith’s. For Marx, labor is productive when it is: (i) directly productive of surplus value; and (ii) exchanged directly against capital. I remain unsure how applicable the distinction is to a state money system. Some of my misgivings are explained in an earlier post. The uncertainty has held back an attempt to explore connections between Marx and Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). To get around this, here I proceed on an as if basis by assuming for the sake of argument that the distinction is meaningful.

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