Is government debt real? Is anything real? Professor Stephanie Kelton gives Nick and Goldy a master class on the hottest idea in economics right now: Modern Monetary Theory.
Stephanie Kelton is a professor of public policy and economics at Stony Brook University and a senior economic adviser to Bernie Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. She was the chief economist on the U.S. Senate Budget Committee in 2015 and in 2016, POLITICO named her one of the 50 people most influencing the public debate in America. Her forthcoming book, ‘The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of a New Economy’ will be published by Public Affairs in 2020.
David G.: The stories we tell about the economy will change the economy itself.
Stephanie K.: We have the order of operations backwards.
Nick Hanauer: Orthodox economic thinking has predicted the collapse of the economy, as a consequence of taking on this debt, and it has never happened.
David G.: When the federal government writes a check, it literally spends that money into existence.
Stephanie K.: As long as the government owes US dollars, it can always [00:00:30] meet its obligation to pay US dollars.
Speaker 1: From the offices of Civic Ventures in downtown Seattle. This is Pitchfork Economics with Nick Hanauer, where we explore everything you wished you’d learn in Econ 101.
Nick Hanauer: I’m Nick Hanauer, founder of Civic Ventures.
David G.: I’m David Goldstein, [00:01:00] Senior Fellow at Civic Ventures.
Nick Hanauer: Goldy, in this episode of Pitchfork Economics, we’re going to talk about an idea that you grabbed onto way before me, MMT or Modern Monetary Theory. I’m reflecting on the fact that you’ve been needling me about this for three years now saying, “You should look at this, you should look at this.”
Nick Hanauer: I was like, “I don’t want to look at it. Sounds nuts to me,” but it [00:01:30] has emerged, I think as a very interesting and important way to think about the economy. You should reflect a little bit about what grabbed you.
David G.: Yeah. Well, first of all, the big lesson here is always listen to Goldie. I understand your reluctance to really get into it, because it’s a complicated thing that we’re not really expert about. To borrow one of your favorite words, it’s a little orthogonal to the theoretical work that we do.
David G.: What grabbed me, and this [00:02:00] does tie into our work in the office and this entire podcast series, is we focus a lot on the power of narrative. That humans are a storytelling animal, and stories are how we make sense of the world. We’ve talked about this before. The stories we tell about the economy, will change the economy itself.
David G.: It will change the options that we see available to us, and [00:02:30] will open or close doors. What struck me about MMT when I first heard about it, was what a brilliant and compelling paradigm flip that represented it. It was a narrative that really flipped my understanding of money and government spending, and debt and deficits completely on its head.
David G.: Essentially what a toll this is, is that our usual way of thinking about these things is that, “Oh, [00:03:00] the government raises taxes, or it borrows money so that it can spend it on services or infrastructure, et cetera, so that this is our big limit in terms of what we can do with government.” How much money can we raise in taxes without hurting the economy?
David G.: How much money can we borrow before the deficits are too big? Then we get to spend that. MMT says, “No, actually you’ve got that backwards.” That for the federal government at least, which [00:03:30] actually creates currency. When the federal government writes a cheque, it literally spends that money into existence.
David G.: That if you get a government check, you can always cash it. It is always good. You deposit in a hundred-dollar check in your bank account, there’s $100 in your bank account. The bank thing goes to the Federal Reserve, and the Fed gives it 100 bucks. Where did that money come from?
David G.: The Federal Reserve created it out of thin air. Suddenly [00:04:00] there’s $100 more in the economy. Then when you pay your taxes, the reverse happens. You write a check, it gets pulled out of your bank account. The bank then takes that back to the Federal Reserve. It gets $100 taken out-
Nick Hanauer: You’re giving the government the money back essentially.
David G.: Right, but it now doesn’t exist anymore. The Fed just… now there’s $100 less in the economy. What happens is, the government spends first and then [00:04:30] it taxes or it borrows money.
David G.: It does that according to MMT. The primary purpose of taxes is not to pay for the things we want and need, but rather to constrain the money supply to keep inflation under control.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, it’s a fascinating turn. You know what strikes me the more I think about, it is not so much [00:05:00] that I am persuaded that MMT is absolutely correct, but the orthodox way of thinking about this dynamic has to be wrong.
Nick Hanauer: Right? Because the nation has been running up deficits for 40 years since Reagan, who basically invented the budget deficit. Since that time, orthodox economic thinking has predicted [00:05:30] the collapse of the economy as a consequence of taking on this debt. It has never happened, right?
Nick Hanauer: None of the predictions of the sort of neoclassical econs, that it would crowd out borrowing and it’d crowd out spending and that it would tip the economy over. None of these predictions have come true. The fact that the existing way of thinking is definitely wrong in some way, opens up the possibility that something else may be right.
Speaker 2: [00:06:00] We’ve gotten a lot of calls about MMT.
Nick Hanauer: Hey there, this is Nick Hanauer. You’ve reached the magic voicemail box where you can leave me a question. All you have to do is state your name, where you’re calling from and your question as clearly as possible, so thanks.
Coltons: Hey Nick, this is Coltons from Baltimore, Maryland.
Arthur Paz: My name is Arthur Paz. That’s Paz. [00:06:30] I live in Vans Street, California. I’m an economics high school teacher.
Daniel Blanco: Hi, my name is Daniel Blanco and I’m calling from San Antonio, Texas.
Scott: Hi Nick. This is Scott from Pittsburgh. I was just wanting to get your thoughts on MMT or Modern Monetary Theory.
Speaker 3: My understanding that the government doesn’t exactly work the same way as a normal person’s income and expenses work. Can you talk about that and explain how the government does pay for it? Thanks.
Speaker 4: My question [00:07:00] was, what are your thoughts on Modern Monetary Theory?
Speaker 5: I think if we change the narrative, maybe Modern Money Theory could be the answer to many of our economic issues. It’s not a question, but hopefully in the future you could research this theory of Modern Money Theory. Thank you very much. Have a nice night.
Speaker 6: Thanks for taking my question.
Speaker 7: Thank you very much. Bye.
Sarah Leibovitz: Hi, my name’s Sarah Leibovitz and I’m a producer [00:07:30] on Pitchfork Economics. Before we dig into the meat of MMT, what it is and how it could affect policy. Let’s talk about where it came from, because it’s not like a lot of the economic ideas we’ve talked about previously.
Sarah Leibovitz: For all things like paid family leave or taxing the richer, raising minimum wage might seem new. They’re ideas we’ve seen implemented in other parts of the world. We’ve had proof that those ideas work. MMT is a little different in that, [00:08:00] it’s kind of the new kid on the block. It started with a guy named Warren Mosler, a hedge-fund manager, turned economist.
Warren Mosler: Bank loans create bank deposits to the penny. If you borrow $200,000 to buy a house, you take out a loan for 200,000, the bank gives 200,000 to whoever sold the house. The back now has a $200,000 loan, and there’s been a $200,000 deposit that didn’t exist before. It’s a bank liability, and we tend [00:08:30] to call that money [inaudible 00:08:31]
Sarah Leibovitz: He described the theory in a book he wrote in 1993 called Soft Currency Economics, although he didn’t actually name the theory, MMT. An Australian economist named Bill Mitchell did, but Warren thought up the idea and he liked the new name, so he started spreading it the way any good economic geek did in the mid-90s, via online message boards.
Sarah Leibovitz: You know where all the post-Keynesian economists used hung. As you might imagine, MMT didn’t take [00:09:00] off immediately. It’s a hard theory for a neo-liberal economist, or even just people living in a neoliberal economy to grasp.
Sarah Leibovitz: Mosler couldn’t get his papers published or even just anyone to openly agree the MMT might be worth looking into, but thankfully for him, Warren was also a hedge-fund manager. He co-founded broker dealer AVM, L.P and investment from Illinois Income Investors, which oversaw around $3.5 billion by the time he left in the late 1990s.
Sarah Leibovitz: [00:09:30] Which meant that he had plenty of funds to promote MMT, and to use them to fund graduate studies and research institutes that could both flush MMT out, and hopefully make it a more repeatable seeming idea. Mosler had the time and resources to keep going, and we had some economic changes that might have helped give it a boost.
Sarah Leibovitz: The 2007 recession made people question a lot of our most basic economic assumptions. The massive spending President Trump has done combined with his [00:10:00] tax cuts, have further pushed people to consider why it is exactly that a deficit is bad.
Sarah Leibovitz: Or why the US can’t just print more money, like they did during Sept recession. Progressive politicians are starting to point that out too. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has mentioned MMT theories when talking about the Green New Deal.
Alexandria O.: I think it’s important that we get away and we also study your economic history. That government expenditure is not always just 100% offset, by a tangible increase in that tax that same year.
Alexandria O.: [00:10:30] We certainly see the Republican embrace of that, with the Tax Cut Bill, which does not generate economic growth. That I’m looking forward to really communicating that this is an investment. For every-
Sarah Leibovitz: We’re about to hear from Stephanie Kelton, a major advocate for MMT, and Bernie Sanders’ Economic Advisor during the 2016 election. We’re hearing from you about it. It’s an idea that’s obviously picking up steam, just like so many other good economic theories are. [00:11:00] Make sure to keep those phone calls coming.
Sarah Leibovitz: Who knows, maybe we can beat out the message boards of MO’s Louis’ Day and spread MMT a little farther. If you have any questions or comments about the economy, or just want to hear your voice on a podcast episode with Nick Hanauer, give us a call. The phone number is (731) 388-9334
David G.: Well hopefully to convince [00:11:30] you Nick, we’re going to talk with Professor Stephanie Kelton. She’s a Professor of Public Policy and Economics at Stony Brook University. Previously chaired the Economics Department at the University of Missouri, and served as the Chief Economist to Bernie Sanders during his 2016 presidential campaign.
David G.: By far she is the biggest champion of MMT, and a focus of controversy among some of the more orthodox [00:12:00] economists out there. How are you Dr. Kelton?
Stephanie K.: I’m fine. How are you?
David G.: Good. We’re really excited to get to talk to you about Modern Monetary Theory.
Stephanie K.: Let’s do it.
David G.: Just so you know that neither Nick or I are economists. Nick is a successful businessman. I am a shameless propagandist. What we do know is good narrative. The first time I read about MMT, I [00:12:30] was just taken with the power of the narrative flip.
David G.: That paradigm flip just, it’s a beautiful story. To start, if you could just explain to us what modern monetary theory is, in as simplest story as you can tell us.
Stephanie K.: Okay. Well, I think probably the simplest way is to say that almost everything that we’ve been taught to believe about money and deficits, [00:13:00] and debt is probably wrong. I say that because I think that most people, to the extent that people think about government finance at all, when they hear things like the government is running budget deficits.
Stephanie K.: They kind of recoil and they go, “Oh my God, that’s terrible. Right, a deficit is evidence that you’re doing something wrong. You’re not matching your spending, and what you’re taking in. I couldn’t do that. Why are you doing that? This is clearly evidence of irresponsible [00:13:30] behavior, right?”
Stephanie K.: It’s that tendency that I think we have to conflate the government’s finances with our own, both because the finances that we’re most familiar with are of course our own, and because our friendly politicians and pundits and others continue to repeat that the government is drowning in red ink, and could face bankruptcy and needs to get its fiscal house in order.
Stephanie K.: Even [00:14:00] the use of the term fiscal house, hearkens back to that individual household. The problems start there. What MMT does, is really just come in and remind people that governments are not like households that households are merely, we call them users of the currency.
Stephanie K.: Individual states, municipalities are also using the currency, and the federal government is the issuer of the US dollar, [00:14:30] and because it’s the issuer, it’s the source of the dollar. It can’t run out of money.
Stephanie K.: It can’t face bills coming due that it can’t afford to pay. It can’t be pushed into bankruptcy like a private business. I would just say that’s as simple as I can give you, as a sort of jumping off point.
David G.: You had a piece, I think it was last year on the Los Angeles Times in which you said that, “Yes, the government could give everybody a pony if we could make enough ponies.” [00:15:00] Explain this difference between the common perception of the order in which money is spent and taxed, versus the way it actually is.
Stephanie K.: Right, so the way that we tend to think that things work is that the government needs our money, right? We always hear people talk about taxpayer money, and to ask the question, if we want… our government is talking about doing some new investment in the economy, let’s [00:15:30] say for infrastructure.
Stephanie K.: The question is how are they going to pay for it? Where are they going to get the money? We start with the assumption that the government has to go find the money somewhere. It has to raise the revenue. We think that that can happen in one of two ways. Either they collect more dollars by taxing us, or they borrow dollars from people who have them.
Stephanie K.: Taxing and borrowing are two ways that the government can come up with dollars that it then spends [00:16:00] into the economy. The spending is the last thing that happens. What I did in that piece, was to say that we have the order of operations backwards.
Stephanie K.: That nobody in the economy could pay taxes with dollars or buy government bonds with dollars, unless the government had first put the dollars out there. They had to come from somewhere. The way that it actually works is that, Congress decides it wants to do infrastructure [00:16:30] spending.
Stephanie K.: There’s an appropriations process, and authorization is given for the government to go out and spend dollars into the economy. The spending comes first, and after the government spends the dollars into the economy, then people get paid and they have an income and they pay back some of that in the form of taxes.
Stephanie K.: To the extent that the government spends more than it collects back in taxes, it’s leaving behind some dollars in the economy. We call that deficit [00:17:00] spending. When the government runs a budget deficit, of course it does sell bonds and we call that government borrowing. Now think about what’s happening.
Stephanie K.: The government has spent let’s say $100 into the economy, and it taxes let’s say 90 of those dollars back out. That means the $10 are left somewhere in the economy for someone to hold. Now, because the government runs a deficit, it comes back and it says, “Okay, I’m now borrowing, [00:17:30] who wants 10 in US treasury securities, government bonds?”
Stephanie K.: Sure enough someone in the economy would prefer to hold the interest bearing US treasuries, as opposed to just holding the cash. The borrowing is just a swapping out of some of the dollars, that the government deposited into the economy by deficit spending for this different kind of government money, if you like, that has a little bit of interest attached to it.
David G.: Exactly, so Dr. Kelton, one [00:18:00] of the things that I think makes this complicated, and that I’m struggling with and I think challenges lots of other people, is the metaphor that we should use to kind of picture all of this in our heads, is not the usual one, right? Like the household metaphor is very simple. It’s intuitive, it’s pervasive.
David G.: Can you suggest another metaphor that people can use to get their heads around how this [00:18:30] works? I think it’s not right, but let me suggest that in one of my last books, The Guards of Democracy, we suggested the circulation-system metaphor.
David G.: Do you think that that captures it? Because our argument in that book was that, people talk about government spending as if government spending actually extinguishes the value of the money, right?.
David G.: When in fact they’re just moving money through the economy, and the government no more spins money than the [00:19:00] body spins blood when it circulates it. Have you thought about the metaphors that may work?
Stephanie K.: Yeah, I have. I think that the one that you’re using, the idea of a circular flow kind of works if we’re talking about just within the economy, the private sector of the economy. I think that the problem is for me, if we start talking about a circular flow and government spending and taxes.
Stephanie K.: Then I get worried that what happens [00:19:30] is people believe that that money the government collects in taxes, comes back around to government and then funds new spending. That’s not what we want people to think.
Stephanie K.: What I would suggest instead I guess is, to picture a bathroom sink or a bathtub, and to think of the government spending… think of a vertical line rather than a circle. From the very top, the government is spending money into the economy, so maybe that’s the water coming [00:20:00] from the faucet into the sink.
Stephanie K.: Now, the economy is being flooded with some dollars that were spent into it. At the same time, the government is taxing some of that out, and so that’s the drain. That’s just shooting straight down and it’s just gone. It doesn’t go back to government and fund the next round of spending.
Stephanie K.: It’s more like, I don’t like the metaphor of printing money, but if I’m going to use it, I’ll say that spending is like hitting in the print key on the keyboard, and taxing is like hitting [00:20:30] the delete key. It’s just removing some of the money that the government spent into the economy. I think, yeah, a vertical line works better.
Nick Hanauer: Interesting.
David G.: You would say that the government spends money into existence and taxes it out of existence?
Stephanie K.: Very nice, perfect.
Nick Hanauer: Interesting.
Stephanie K.: Better than I said it.
Nick Hanauer: Okay, and when it borrows money, what is it doing?
Stephanie K.: Swapping one form of government money for another.
Nick Hanauer: Interesting, so all [00:21:00] of this to our listeners, who don’t track this as carefully as knuckleheads like Goldie and myself. I think what’s really important about your ideas are the impact that they have on our policy discussions.
Nick Hanauer: In particular around the debt and the deficit and austerity and whether we can afford to continue to support the things like social security and so on and so forth. Can you speak to that?
Stephanie K.: Yeah, sure. Let me start with the last [00:21:30] one because I think it’s so important. Social Security, so there is this belief. It’s not just Republicans who will say, “Social security and Medicare face all of these long-term fiscal challenges. We’re going to have to “reform these programs.”
Stephanie K.: They want to cut them, but it’s also Democrats who will say these sorts of things. Sometimes when I’m talking with audiences, I’ll just play a little clip of [00:22:00] Alan Greenspan. I think this is just really important. I think Democrats should just play it on a loop. Buy TV time and just play this on a loop, because Greenspan makes such an important point.
Stephanie K.: He’s under oath. He’s at the time, he’s the chairman of the Federal Reserve. You think this is a guy who understands something about our monetary system, and he’s in there and he’s testifying and Paul Ryan, Congressman Paul Ryan is asking questions of Alan Greenspan.
Stephanie K.: Ryan’s teeing up a question that he just wants [00:22:30] Alan Greenspan to agree with, and then move on. He says to Alan Greenspan, “Look, we both know social security is going broke, and don’t you agree with me that-?”
Paul Ryan: Having personal retirement accounts is another way of making a future retiree benefits, more secure for their retirement? Also, do you believe that personal retirement accounts as a component to a system to solvency, does help improve solvency?
Paul Ryan: When you have a personal retirement account policy, and it’s accompanied with a benefit offset, [00:23:00] with that feature in place, do you believe that personal retirement accounts can help us achieve solvency for the system?
Stephanie K.: Personal retirement accounts, personal retirement accounts. He repeats it again and again, right? Prioritization, so all he wants is a simple yes, and then we can get out of here. Instead of agreeing with him, Alan Greenspan drops a big fat truth bomb and it’s really incredible.
Stephanie K.: Greenspan leans into the microphone and he challenges Paul Ryan’s fundamental premise, which is that social security [00:23:30] is running out of money and that the government can’t afford to keep its promises.
Stephanie K.: To future retirees, their dependents, and the disabled, because we don’t have the money to keep our promise. Greenspan says, “I wouldn’t say there’s anything.”
Alan Greenspan: I wouldn’t say that the Pay-You-Go benefits are insecure in the sense that, there’s nothing to prevent the federal government from creating as much money as it wants and paying it to somebody. The question is, how do you set up a system [00:24:00] which assures that the real assets are created, which those benefits are employed to purchase?
Alan Greenspan: It’s not a question of security, it’s a question of the structure of a financial system, which ensures that the real resources are created for retirement as distinct from the cash. The cash itself, is nice to have.
Alan Greenspan: [00:24:30] It’s got to be in the context of the real resources being created at the time those benefits are paid, so that you can purchase real resources with the benefits, which of course are cash.
Stephanie K.: Okay, it’s Greenspan speak, so let’s untangle. Greenspan is saying to Paul Ryan that we have demographic changes taking place in this country and we have for a long time. Boomers are moving into retirement in larger and larger [00:25:00] waves.
Stephanie K.: As they leave the workforce, they leave behind a smaller and smaller pool of people to actually make the goods and services for our economy. When they stop working and producing, they don’t stop consuming.
Stephanie K.: The question is, as all of these folks move into retirement, are we going to be a productive enough economy in 10, 20, 30 years so that we can keep our promises in full, to all of these future retirees? Send the checks out, [00:25:30] and these people can spend their money into an economy that is productive enough to avoid inflation.
Stephanie K.: That’s the challenge. Greenspan understands it. It’s not about we can’t afford it. We can’t write the checks, the financial system can’t handle social security going forward. It’s the real economy. It’s our real productive capacity he’s trying to draw attention to.
Stephanie K.: It can never be for the federal government again, because [00:26:00] it is the issuer of the currency. It can never be about running out of money. It can never be about having payments that come due, that you can’t make on time.
Stephanie K.: It can’t happen in the United States of America, it can’t happen as long as the government owes US dollars. It can always meet its obligation to pay US dollars.
Nick Hanauer: If you were profligate enough, you could spark inflation, which would be [00:26:30] highly counterproductive. Is that correct?
Stephanie K.: Absolutely, so every economy has essentially its own internal speed limit, right? You can only grow so fast with the resources that you have, at your disposal at any point in time. Meaning you have the number of workers that you have. You bring people into the labor force, but there are only so many people available.
Stephanie K.: Once you get everybody who’s willing and able to work working, and you’re running your [00:27:00] factories at full capacity and the capital equipment is being fully utilized, and raw materials are in short supply. Once you get a tight economy operating at full capacity, then any additional spending carries inflation risk.
Stephanie K.: Not just government spending, any additional spending runs the risk of accelerating prices. Every economy has its own internal limits, but there are also things that you can spend on today that actually build [00:27:30] in more space in the economy, like infrastructure investment, education, R&D.
Nick Hanauer: Sure, not probably tax cuts for rich people.
Stephanie K.: Not so much so. No, but you know what else though? It also doesn’t use up a lot of your fiscal space. Just because we added, I think the estimate now is with the Republican tax cut’s 1.9 trillion.
Stephanie K.: Just because they did that, because of the way they did it, which is to say, [00:28:00] the windfall goes to the people who are least likely to turn around and spend much of that money into the economy, they actually didn’t use up a lot of the fiscal space that we have. It wasn’t a good use of fiscal space, but it didn’t need up very much either.
Nick Hanauer: What do you mean by fiscal space? That is a term of art I’ve not heard before.
Stephanie K.: Oh yeah, so it just means how much room there is in the economy, that the government could either cut taxes or increase spending [00:28:30] without creating inflation pressures. The fiscal space is, how much more could you add to deficits before they become a problem?
David G.: Here in our office, I mean a lot of what we do is try to tear down economic orthodoxy, and we get a lot of eye rolling in response. You’re doing the same on other parts of economics. Do you feel like you’re getting a fair and considerate evaluation of the theory [00:29:00] or people are just rejecting it because they’re threatened by it?
Stephanie K.: Well, if I could open up my calendar and show you what it looks like for the next almost year solid. My answer is that, I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response. I’m almost… got solid. Yeah, a lot of it is people who work in markets for a living. These are the people who most deeply understand [00:29:30] bond markets, and finance and that sort of thing.
Stephanie K.: They’re extremely excited to have me come and talk about all this kind of stuff. I did a long interview with a journalist from the Wall Street Journal. She’s working on a big story.
Stephanie K.: The New York Times will have a story out any day now. She’s writing a very big feature piece on MMT. I mean, I feel like the wind is at our backs. I know that sometimes it’s hard to look past some of the tweets and things that people say online-
David G.: [00:30:00] Yeah, the nastygrams, yeah.
Stephanie K.: Yeah, in the real world, life feels pretty good.
Nick Hanauer: Let’s talk a little bit about the policy implications of MMT, because I think it’s really powerful in the current political conversation to first of all, knock away the, how are you going to pay for it attack? And actually focus on what we need to be spending, instead of how we’re going to raise the taxes just to pay for it.
Nick Hanauer: I saw [00:30:30] for example, you got into a Twitter thread a couple of weeks ago on student loan forgiveness. You made an important point that I hadn’t really thought about before, where you said that actually that money has already been spent.
Nick Hanauer: Is that outside of MMT related to it, this notion that essentially since much of the student debt is owed to the federal government, [00:31:00] that’s just an accounting maneuver. We could forgive that debt, and you’re not actually spending anything into the economy. It’s not using any fiscal space at all.
Stephanie K.: Yeah, so that’s more or less correct. In the paper that we did, my colleagues and I produced a pretty hefty report on the macroeconomic effects of canceling student loan debt. There’s about a trillion of the total 1.5 trillion that’s already counted [00:31:30] in part of the national debt.
Stephanie K.: Eliminating 1.5 trillion, doesn’t add 1.5 trillion to the national debt. It adds significantly less than that. Plus you get growth effects from actually canceling student debt, so the economy grows, taxes increase, and so forth. It’s a great bang for the buck, kind of a policy for fiscal stimulus, that type of fiscal stimulus.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, I suspect it would be quite popular.
Stephanie K.: Yeah, I mean, you have 44 [00:32:00] million Americans who had student loan debt, but it’s not just the people who actually carry the student loan debt. It’s their partners and their loved ones. It’s their friends. It affects so many people when-
Nick Hanauer: It’s the car dealers they’re not visiting, right.
Stephanie K.: Yeah, home builders, cars dealers.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, all of that.
David G.: On a related note, free public college tuition. I know you’ve written that as long as we have enough [00:32:30] professors in classrooms to educate all those people, not inflationary and not actually that expensive when you… I think you said it was under $80 billion.
Stephanie K.: Well, I think the estimates that I recall from my time on the Hill working with Senator Sanders, who of course introduced that College for All Act, I recall the estimate being something close to 70 billion a year. Yeah, you’re right there in that ballpark.
David G.: I think we got a similar number out of a cap a few years [00:33:00] ago, so that sounds on the right ballpark. What about applying MMT to a climate policy? Where’s the role there.
Stephanie K.: Well, look I’ve seen a lot of people online and in various places suggesting that because of MMT, we can have a Green New Deal, and nobody has to pay higher taxes and we don’t have to cut any other part of the budget. [00:33:30] The government will just spend the money and that cannot be correct.
Stephanie K.: At least not the kind of Green New Deal that people are talking about today. Kelton: I mean really ambitious trillions and trillions of dollars, and doing it in a timeframe that’s really short, right? We’re talking about basically fixing climate change, limiting emissions to no more than one, one and a half degrees Celsius, right? Within the 12 years that we’ve been given.
Stephanie K.: Can we accomplish that without [00:34:00] doing some sort of a tax increase, or making cuts to other parts of the budget? I don’t believe that for a second. MMT is not a get out of jail free card. It’s not a free lunch. It just is a way of helping people understand how the federal budgeting process actually works, how our monetary system actually works.
Stephanie K.: Then reminding people that the limits are not on the financial side, they are in the real economy. When you do embark on [00:34:30] a program like this, you have to do it really carefully and understand where the limits are, and build the offsets in so that you don’t create an inflation problem.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah.
David G.: This doesn’t sound like crazy talk at all Nick.
Nick Hanauer: I’m so disappointed. You told me it was going to be crazy talk.
David G.: Are you convinced? Did she convince you?
Nick Hanauer: No, I mean it’s a very persuasive way of looking at how the economy functions, and I think it puts into perspective how many [00:35:00] decades of deficit panic have we been living through, right?
Nick Hanauer: I mean in every cycle, there’s this panic over the size of the deficit and how we’re all going to be, and the country is going to collapse and the cats and dogs are going to live together and so on.
David G.: Pretty much in my lifetime, since Ronald Reagan first blew up the budget.
Nick Hanauer: Right, exactly.
Stephanie K.: You remember that when Reagan left office, the national debt was $1.5 trillion. We just crossed [00:35:30] the $22 trillion threshold. You would think that if something bad was going to happen, it would have happened by now. You’re right, the narrative never changes. The sky is always falling the arm again and is always right around the corner.
Stephanie K.: Yes, and nothing happens. Then people said with the Obama deficits, “Oh my God, the Obama deficits.” We panicked and we shifted away from doing what we should have done. There was a pivot to austerity then, with the fiscal cliff and the spending [00:36:00] caps requests and all that stuff.
Stephanie K.: Then it was like, “We’re never going to be able to spend again. We have these enormous deficits, and the national debt increased so much.” And the Republican’s walk in the door and just blow 1.9 trillion right out of the gate
David G.: As they always do. I’ve got one final question I’ve been curious about. Is MMT… with the dollar as the global reserve currency, is MMT kind of unique to the US or does it work [00:36:30] for any country with a sovereign fiat currency?
Stephanie K.: Well, there are advantages I’ll say that, to having the global reserve currency. There are also some burdens that it places on a country that is the world’s global reserve currency. In other words, the only way that you can sustain the status as the global reserve currency, is by allowing the rest of the world to accumulate your currency.
Stephanie K.: I mean that’s what it means to be the world reserve currency. People [00:37:00] have to be able to get it. They want to hold it. The way that we deliver those dollars to the rest of the world, is by government budget deficits and trade deficits.
Stephanie K.: The very two things that people get really worked up about, are the two things that place us in the position as the global reserve currency leader. I would just like to say that. The answer to the question, is it unique? Can only the US behave [00:37:30] this way with respect to its own budget and so forth? The answer is no.
Stephanie K.: Look at Japan. I mean Japan is not the only other example, but it’s a good one because Japan’s got a debt to GDP ratio today of about 240%. Easily three times what the US is currently sitting on.
Stephanie K.: Interest rates, long-term interest rates are just above zero. There’s no inflation problems. It’s all quite manageable. The US, Japan, yes. [00:38:00] Greece no, because they’re stuck to the RO, but yeah.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, interesting. Well anyway, I mean it’s been a fascinating conversation and a really useful one. I can just tell you that tons of people who listen to our podcasts have been tweeting at us. Please, please, please introduce-
David G.: MMT, we have to talk about MMT.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, so we’re super glad to get to do it.
Stephanie K.: Well, thanks guys for having me. It was lots of fun.
Nick Hanauer: Okay, we’ll talk soon.
David G.: Thank you.
Nick Hanauer: Talk soon. Bye bye.
Stephanie K.: Okay, bye bye.
David G.: [00:38:30] Nick, were you convinced?
Nick Hanauer: Well, Dr. Kelton was super persuasive. I’m not sure I’m convinced, but I am absolutely persuaded that we need to open up our thinking to include at least this different way of conceptualizing the economy, and what its limits are and what kind of policies can make sense within that broader picture.
David G.: I’ve tried to look at the [00:39:00] math of this when I see the critiques of it, and it’s just beyond me. I’m not sure that it really matters that it’s actually possible that the orthodox monetary theory and modern monetary theory, maybe they’re both right in a sense. In the same way that light, is it a particle or a wave?
David G.: It’s both. It depends on how you measure it, how you look at it. What’s important to me again, is not whether it’s exactly right, but the way it changes how [00:39:30] we think about the economy, how we think about money and debts, and deficits and glass half full, glass, half empty.
David G.: If you think that the main constraint on government is the size of the deficits, well that’s going to constraint your policies. If as professor Kelton argues, the main constraint is really inflation, not deficits. Then you’re [00:40:00] a little more open to things that expand the fiscal space, instead of just worrying about how high that deficits.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, absolutely. Again, as I’ve said before, I’m not sure if she’s right, but I definitely know the old way of thinking is wrong. That creates space for policy and intellectual innovation in that sense.
Nick Hanauer: I do have one concern, which is, that if you grant that MMT is correct and [00:40:30] that the rate limiting factor is inflation, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Both expand beyond neoclassical economic thinking with MMT, and rely on the surety of neoclassical economics in terms of the likelihood that inflation gets away from you.
Nick Hanauer: In other words, one of the foundations is that people are rational, deductive, probabilistic, maximizing, and the economy is in stable equilibrium. Well, if [00:41:00] that’s true, then inflation is a thing that isn’t going to be an increasing returns phenomena that can get away from you, and tear the economy apart.
Nick Hanauer: If as we’ve asserted, and I think it’s absolutely true, people are emotional approximating and non-deductive, that we’re not rational. We’re super emotional, that if you get an inflationary cycle started with MMT by appropriately investing more.
Nick Hanauer: It may be far harder [00:41:30] to get inflation back under control than the MMTiers would have you believe. I think that that is one of the potential vulnerabilities, of that thinking.
David G.: Well, I think what scares critics of it, and one of the main critiques they accuse the MMTiers of constantly moving the goalpost, because if you think about it, I think MMT comes at it much more from our perspective of the non-equilibrium system, that it’s not clear-cut when [00:42:00] inflation is a threat.
David G.: Under orthodox economics, there are certain rules and ratios that suggest when you get beyond this in the economy, inflation will rear its ugly head. We keep hearing that and it never does.
Nick Hanauer: Or hasn’t recently.
David G.: Or has recently, right. I think what Professor Kelton points out is that, the economy has its own internal speed limit. We need to be looking at the internal speed limit of the economy, [00:42:30] not budget deficits and debt.
David G.: The question is determining what that speed limit is, and that’s a lot cloudier in MMT, than in the old orthodox model. We run into that ourselves all the time, when we’re talking about our economic theory as opposed to the orthodox models, that it’s a lot harder to model.
Nick Hanauer: It is a lot harder than model that right.
David G.: A non-equilibrium system.
Nick Hanauer: You don’t have presented vengeance [00:43:00] and equilibrium, models get very, very hard to build. Yeah, again, I would argue that just because you can’t currently model it, doesn’t mean it’s worse than models that can be done but are just completely wrong and misleading, but yeah.
David G.: Yeah, but I think we have a fellow traveler here at least in the sense of being willing to challenge orthodoxy.
Nick Hanauer: Absolutely.
David G.: Where at one point she said that almost everything we’ve been taught about money and debt and deficits, is probably wrong. That sounds a lot like [00:43:30] one of our earlier episodes, where we said almost everything you’re taught in Econ 101 is wrong.
Nick Hanauer: Yeah, and the community of people who care about modern monetary policy are definitely… they’re onto something for sure.
David G.: My other takeaway from this, which I also find encouraging is that MMT is getting a lot of traction now, but she started working on this 20 years ago. How long have you been at this Nick?
Nick Hanauer: Going on 20 years, I guess, so yeah.
David G.: [00:44:00] Our day is coming, Nick.
Nick Hanauer: I guess so, yeah.
David G.: On the next episode of Pitchfork Economics, we’ll talk about the economics of climate change with Washington State Governor and Presidential Candidate, Jay Inslee and economist Fuddle Kabob.
Annie: [00:44:30] Pitchfork Economics is produced by Civic Ventures. The magic happens in Seattle in partnership with Larj Media, that’s Larj Media and the Young Turks Network. Find us on Twitter and Facebook @CivicAction, and follow our writing on medium at Civic Skunk Works. You should also follow Nick Hanauer on Twitter @NickHanauer.
Annie: As always, a big thank you to our guests ,and thank you to our team at Civic Ventures. Nick Hanauer, Zack Silk, Jasmin Weaver, Jessyn Farrell, Stephanie Ervin, David Goldstein, Paul Constant, Nick Cassella, and Annie Fadely. [00:45:00] Thanks for listening.