I would say that in the area of economics I have only ever had three light-bulb moments: perceiving the source of surplus value (Marx); encountering the principle of effective demand (Kalecki, Keynes); and understanding the implications of monetary sovereignty (MMT). Each of these insights had a big impact on me and made sense of a lot of other things all at once.
In thinking about paths to a better society, the understanding of monetary sovereignty seems the most important of the insights. It makes clear that real resources are the only genuine constraint and that, regardless of what capitalists or ‘bond vigilantes’ might think of the matter, economic activity need not be for profit, growth is not compulsory, materialism is not the only alternative, and the wage-labor relation or income tied to labor time is not a law of nature. None of these things are necessary or inevitable for a monetarily sovereign society, if we so choose.
But what will we choose? Do we even know what we really want? As regular commentator jrbarch often points out most eloquently, to know what we really want, we have to know ourselves. Light-bulb moments in our inner lives require self-reflection.
At the moment, the economic system is geared toward us tuning out, both from ourselves and others, and to keep our gaze on external reward and punishment, or simply distractions, rather than personal fulfillment and meaningful engagement with those around us.
Economics can’t solve this problem, of course, but the economy could be organized in ways that better facilitate people’s quest for fulfillment. For starters, if everybody on the planet was guaranteed economic security – enough food, clothing, shelter, adequate amenities and access to an expanded commons – there would be more opportunity to opt out of materialist pursuits beyond the basic minimum and more time to look within and to each other.
I am especially interested in progressive policies that enhance the freedom of all individuals to follow their own paths. In this respect, the ‘job or income guarantee‘ (JIG) seems appealing because it would have something in it for everybody. Individuals who wanted to be free of the wage labor relation could be. If that thought frightened the bejesus out of some people who happened to be unemployed, they could opt for a guaranteed job instead, working under the direction of others. Those who were not interested in – or ready to – forgo material pursuits wouldn’t have to.
Some dislike the idea that individuals who opt out of the wage labor relation might receive an income without necessarily contributing to production, but I don’t share this concern.
First, everybody would have the same choice.
Second, the objection implies a narrow conception of production. Are we only concerned with the production of a particular range of widgets, or output that can be sold at positive prices in a market? I say we should be interested in the production of life itself, in its broadest sense. Contributions outside the wage labor relation can be just as socially beneficial – in many cases, more so – than contributions made from within it.
Third, I believe it would be a rare person who, after looking inward and learning more about themselves, decided that he or she wished to make no positive social contribution. I believe that, to the contrary, individuals who understand what most fulfills them will be more likely to take actions that are in harmony with their own well-being and that of those around them. They will also be inclined to share what they have learned with others.
But the JIG is just one possible means of providing basic economic security to all. Any form of guaranteed income, whether conditional or unconditional, would be a step forward from where we are at the moment. A job guarantee, for example, would not only ensure an income, but, by design, allow each individual to choose his or her hours, including half-time, quarter-time, etc., and so provide an opportunity, if desired, to devote more time to non-material pursuits.