If we were to believe most politicians, we’d be under the mistaken impression that government not investing today does future generations a favor. Leaving communications systems underdeveloped, road and transport networks crumbling, education and public health systems deteriorating, our cultural institutions eroding, developments in science and technology stagnating, and so on, will supposedly free future generations of any burden that might otherwise be imposed upon them.
Viewed from a certain vantage point, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is a very general framework that offers insight into how we might go about making genuine social progress. It does not simply facilitate an understanding of capitalism, but points to a way of transcending the present system. It enables insight into the opportunities available to any society that forms for itself a government and operates a monetary economy.
When it comes to the means of production, society can be considered as falling into two basic groups – ‘owners’ and ‘non-owners’. Acceptance of a tax-driven currency can be achieved through the exertion of pressure on one or other of these groups, or both. In a low-tech, labor-intensive economy, the state essentially compels non-owners to supply labor services to owners. In a high-tech, capital-intensive economy, there is less need for such compulsion. It will become increasingly viable to place the initiative on owners to supply final output in exchange for the currency as technology continues to advance.
This is surely a time of year when we can take a step back to ponder any crazy thought that might enter our heads. Nothing – in the theoretical realm – should be considered unthinkable. Some may be tempted to disagree, a few paragraphs along, but that could only add to the fun. Hopefully I will not be permanently banished from the internet for expressing such idle curiosities. If this is the price that must be paid, it won’t be pleasant, but so be it.
In the chartalist view, taxes drive acceptance of state money. Through one channel, taxes induce labor services. The need to obtain state money to pay taxes ensures a willingness of some individuals to accept employment in the public sector in exchange for the state money. There is another channel that exists under a broader range of conditions. It is the power of government to induce supply of real output from private enterprise. Not only does government induce a private supply of real output to itself (a transfer of resources from the private to public sector), but it also induces a supply of real output to private consumers. Unlike the inducement of labor services, the inducement of private-sector output would apply equally to a pure labor economy or a purely mechanized economy, as well as to intermediate cases.
A while back, Brian Arthur of the Santa Fe Institute wrote a short piece on complexity economics (h/t Tom Hickey). I find much of the work Arthur and others have done on increasing returns, path dependence and related phenomena very interesting. My doctoral supervisor’s doctoral supervisor (there has to be a less cumbersome way of expressing that) was Paul David who also had an interest in path dependence and the significance of history in economic development. My supervisor’s influence motivated me to devote chapters in my thesis to, among other things, an application of the theory of path dependence to the distribution of earned income and a consideration of the implications of cognitive limitations within the context of path-dependent economic processes. My (orthodox) postgraduate supervisor’s commitment to cross-disciplinary research also motivated me to integrate insights from liberal moral philosophy, policy history and institutionalism (new and old) into the analysis.
A diverse culture is best served by an economy that can cater to diverse needs and interests. In our societies, perspectives differ widely when it comes to (among other things) the following five areas:
1. Competition and cooperation. Some people enjoy competition in pursuit of external rewards. Others prefer cooperation and feeling a part of something bigger than themselves. Most enjoy both competition and cooperation, just in varying degrees.
2. Personal motivation. Some people would largely lose interest in productive activity if it were not for the potential of private profit or a high salary. Others prefer to work in a not-for-profit environment and are more or less unmotivated by material gain.
3. Attitudes on inequality. Some people want to have more than others. Some would prefer not to. Some care if others have more than them. Some don’t as long as everyone has enough and the inequality is not so extreme as to undermine democracy.
There has been discussion in the economic blogosphere recently, from a left perspective, about the merits or otherwise of employing an understanding of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) in debates over policy and efforts to transform the economic system. There is an interesting post, for example, by Dan at Pruning Shears (h/t Tom Hickey) suggesting that MMT might be a “dicey bet for liberals”. In reading this and similar arguments presented elsewhere, I find myself agreeing on some (though certainly not all) points, but differing in the conclusion to be drawn from them.
Demands on time in the MMT community include (i) providing “simple as possible” explanations of “basic MMT” for public consumption and (ii) exploring theoretical and policy ideas informed by an understanding of those basics together with insights from related approaches to economics. Although the latter task is perhaps more enticing for those who have by now (mostly) absorbed the basics, and is certainly an area worthy of pursuit, the former task remains politically pressing and so equally deserving of time. It doesn’t matter what progressive policies, institutional reforms or plans can be devised if the public believes they are “unaffordable because the nation is bankrupt” or “impossible because capitalists won’t stand for them”. This indoctrination has occurred over decades and clearly many in the community are not freeing themselves of it easily.
In any society, there will be real output (real income) and real wealth that is not produced solely by humans. Some real income is due to the contribution of nature – land, natural resources, beneficial weather patterns, animals and so on. Some real income is produced by machines, robots and other means of production that were created by prior applications of labor in combination with nature. In any given accounting period, this real income is ‘unearned’ in the sense that it is not due to human effort exerted within the period. Much of it currently flows to industrial capitalists and rentiers on the basis of property ownership rather than productive contribution. Over time, the real productive contribution of means of production can be expected to rise, due to technical progress. In this post, a framework is tentatively suggested for thinking about the distribution of unearned income, both at a point in time and as it grows over time.