Imagine you find yourself in one of those underground malls, where they design it such that you never have to go above ground. Now, instead of just the mall, your living and working space is also underground. It is an underground community that is like a small town, except everyone is stuck there, unable to leave the mole utopia. You know, however, that there is a world outside and that people live above ground. It’s a not prison, just a system that is complete, so you have no reason to leave the mole utopia.
In your world, everything works like it does in the world of today. People have jobs, socialize, conduct commerce, and have families, all the stuff we associate with normal human society. The one difference between the mole utopia and this world is their economy is based on jelly beans, the little candies given to kids at Easter. Each color has a different value and people treat them in the same way you would treat coins or bills. When you get paid, it is in jelly beans. When you buy stuff, it is in jelly beans.
No one knows where the beans come from or who is responsible for making sure the supply of beans is correct. There’s some vague notion of a jelly bean consortium and people who spend their days keeping track of all beans in circulation. There are people, who police the bakers to make sure they are not making fake jelly beans. Otherwise, the beans are just the thing that is there, taken for granted by everyone. The jelly beans used in commerce are as much a part of reality as the air people breathe.
Now, there are people in charge and they do control the supply of beans. At first, when they set the system up, they figured the goal was to keep the supply of beans constant, as beans are fragile and people will tend to eat them. The best bean counters in mole utopia were recruited to keep track of the flow of beans in order to determine the overall supply and rate of bean decay. They would order up new beans to be introduced into the supply to keep the supply of beans steady, so there could never be a shortage.
At first they would just have people hand out beans under the guise of charity, but before long the people doing that started cheating. They would keep the beans or only give them to friends and family. The next scheme was to have the government of mole utopia disperse the new beans, by hiring people and buying stuff. This worked pretty well until government started cheating and ordered up beans whenever it needed to buy votes or reward friends of the government. This caused people to lose faith in the jelly beans.
Finally, the bean counters landed on a scheme where they would lend the new beans to banks at extremely low interest. The bean banks, flush with new beans, would then lend beans to people at very low rates. This got the beans into the economy, without anyone stealing them or using the supply to corrupt the system. The one flaw is the bankers got rich from the scheme, but bankers are always rich, so no one really noticed much of a change. It also made the bankers dependent on the bean counters.
The bankers could lend to anyone, including the government. Since rates were so low, the government could borrow vastly more than under the prior arrangements. That meant they could spend vastly more than in the past. The bankers were never worried about the government repaying, because ultimately they controlled the supply of beans, so they could always order more beans. That meant it was the safest type of loan, because the government would always make its payments and make them in full.
The only constraint on the government spending was how fast they could increase spending. Too fast an increase and too many beans would enter the economy of mole utopia, lowering the value of each bean. This could distort markets in unpredictable ways, by increasing demand unexpectedly in some areas, but not in others. This would also raise prices and force lending rates to increase. Therefore, inflation became the only check on spending. As long as inflation remained low, spending was unlimited.
This description of mole utopia may sound simple and ridiculous, but it is how the modern American economy is run by the Federal Reserve. Modern Monetary Theory is the economic argument that government spending is only constrained by inflation, as long as the government has control of the money supply. Here is a short video lecture on the topic from Professor Stephanie Kelton of Stony Brook University. Here is a much shorter version in the form of a post that appeared on Zero Hedge last week.
The basic argument of the MMT people is that as long as there are resources not being utilized by the private sector, the state has a duty to step in and put those resources to use through government spending. That’s a moral argument, not an economic argument or a factual observation. The economic argument is that spending and debt is meaningless, as long as the state is not crowding out the private sector and the spending is not driving up retail inflation. Otherwise, the government can spend as much as necessary.
To many people, this sounds like a version of the old joke about the stranger who comes to a small town looking for a room. He plops down a few hundred dollars and the inn keeper tells him to wait while his room is prepared. In the meantime, the innkeeper rushes out to pay his vendors, who then rush out to pay their vendors. Eventually, that new money reaches the town’s prostitutes, who use the inn for their clients, renting rooms on credit. They rush in with the new money and pay the innkeeper what they owe.
In that old gag, the stranger changes his mind about a room, takes his money back and leaves town, but everyone that was owed money is now paid. That’s the joke. The lesson, of course, is that as long as everyone is getting paid, especially the prostitutes, the system keeps spinning and everyone is happy. That’s the moral theory of MMT in a nutshell. As long as productive resources are being utilized and everyone is getting paid, the system keeps spinning. Just as important, the society remains stable.
The critics will instinctively shoot back that this sort of economics is inherently unstable and the apparent stability is short lived. In the long run, the accumulation of debt becomes untenable and the system collapses. The response to that is no one, especially government, lives in the long run. More important, MMT answers the question as to how government should respond to automation. As robots eliminate jobs, more people become idle. How does the state address the problem of fewer jobs for a growing population?
There’s another way to look at this. The custodial state runs on the same premise as a prison. The first job of the warden is to maintain control of the prison. He does that by making sure the prisoners are always kept busy in ways that work toward his goal of maintaining control of the prison. One mechanism for doing that is controlling the supply of goods and services in circulation in the prison. Prisons have an economy based on items from the commissary and that commissary is controlled by the warden.
What MMT seeks to do is make the sovereign state, by which is meant the issuer of currency, the commissary of the American economy. By controlling the supply of goods and services, via currency manipulation, spending and debt, the state can keep an increasingly useless population busy. It can always reward activities that enhance control of the system and punish activity that creates disorder. Inevitably, the communications companies, banks and technology firms become the prison guards of the system.