Debate on “Modern Monetary Theory” Misses the Mark

Artificial wealth comprises the things which of themselves satisfy no natural need, for example money, which is a human contrivance.

~  St. Thomas Aquinas

Buzzwords seem to rule public discussion of just about everything. Money is no exception. Now it’s “Modern Monetary Theory.” What’s that? Well, it depends on who you ask. In modern times, debates usually center on public debt and the government’s fiscal and monetary policies.

An article in Boomberg News argued that the supporters of The Green New Deal favor Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Critics argue that the costs of universal health care, publicly funded higher education, infrastructure buildout, and conversion to 100% renewable energy production would require unsustainable public debt. MMT supposedly sets no limits on public debt. That is apparently not quite true, but within the U.S. monetary system and corporate political squeeze on public spending, the costs of the Green New Deal, if financed by public debt, would be quite high.

Of course, if we calculate the infrastructure damage of climate chaos even if we met the limits of the Paris Accords – never mind the costs in terms of human lives – the comparative costs of implementing the Green New Deal would be trivial. In that sense, costs are relative. The underlying question is: What does society want to achieve and is it willing to pay for achieving it?

The Debt Illusion

Money is a social construction. It exists by social convention, by consensual definition. Throughout history, money has taken diverse forms, as long as the forms taken could provide the security needed for money to be money. That is why gold worked so well as currency until the global economy grew so large that the supply of gold could not keep up with the need for more currency.

Scholars have written some very large books on the nature of money and debt. How money evolved is quite fascinating. David Graeber’s book, Debt: the First 5000 Years, is quite enlightening, particularly regarding the diverse forms money has taken in history.

Public debt is not necessary; instead, it is a convention devised by bankers to control the economy of nation states. In that, the banks have succeeded.

If a sovereign nation controlled its central bank, it would not need to borrow the currency it issues since it is the sole source of authority to create money. The creation of the U.S. Federal Reserve as a banking cartel in 1913 made that impossible.

The expanding Roman Empire paid its soldiers using gold and silver coins it minted from metals mined mostly in Spain and Portugal. It did not borrow its money from anyone. Among the many causes of the fall of the Empire, was the fact that when the mines played out, the Empire could no longer satisfy its need for more coins to pay an expanding army. The operations of the Empire were stifled because it could not pay its soldiers.

Money need not be based on public debt, but in the industrial economies of the modern era, it is. That political choice enriches the banks and the corporations they fund, and it impoverishes nations. Neither supporters nor critics of Modern Monetary Theory seem to get this.

Implementing a national project or sustaining an institution is not a matter of how much debt we can tolerate. Rather, it is a matter of political will. The lavish support for the military that sustains the global modern industrial-consumer economy demonstrates that.

Fearful Fantasies and Fiat Money

To work effectively, money has to be made of a material and in a form that has some unique irreplaceable quality that makes it impossible to replicate by just anybody. That is why rare metals worked so well until economies grew so large in the modern era that the money supply could not expand enough using gold and silver.

When paper money replaced gold, the idea of “fiat money” implied that paper money was not really “real money” like gold. Nevertheless, it worked because it is hard to counterfeit, making it unreproducible by anyone other than the sovereign (for the most part).

Unnecessary debt combined with the failure to tax corporate profits creates annual deficits, which add to the national debt. The central bank creates fiat money through the sleight of hand of issuing government debt in the form of bonds as the basis of “loaning” money created out of nothing, to the government. If the sovereign issued money without the mechanism of “borrowing” from the central bank (in the U.S., the Federal Reserve) it would not create debt by issuing money.

It’s crazy. But the banks that in practical terms own the Federal Reserve love it.

If a sovereign issued money solely on the basis of needing to fund worthy projects, to hire the workers and buy the materials to complete the projects, the money would, as a result, circulate among the population of the nation, providing the ‘buying power’ needed to generate the goods and services people need.

National debt is unnecessary. In stark contrast, something very much like the Green New Deal is as necessary as anything can be. It is a matter of survival.