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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Paying For Lunch – Modern Monetary Theory Style

A common criticism of Modern Monetary Theory is that it is a naïve doctrine of free lunches. The critics grant that a country like the United States, which issues its own freely floating fiat currency, can always make the policy choice to issue whatever quantity of that currency it deems appropriate. The US government can spend as many dollars into the private sector economy as it chooses, without obtaining those dollars from some other source first, and it can always pay any debts that have been incurred by borrowing dollars. But the critics will go on to charge that MMT mistakenly concludes from these few institutional and operational facts that there are no economic limits to the wealth-generating capacities of the government. They caricature MMT as a doctrine of manna from heaven, in which the power of issuing a generally accepted medium of exchange confers the power of conjuring real wealth into existence by prestidigitation. In short, they see MMT as a disordered syndrome characterizing people who are experiencing massive money illusion.

But this criticism misses the mark. MMT does focus a good deal of attention on the monetary system and the banking system, and on the operational mechanisms of public and private finance. But the whole point of analyzing and clarifying the monetary system is to help people see through the glare of the economy’s glittering monetary surface to the social and economic fundamentals that operate below that surface. The point is certainly not to deny real limits on our capacity for economic development and progress, but to correctly identify where those limits lie – and where they don’t. MMT’s criticism of some standard economic and public policy approaches is that the standard discourses sometimes incorrectly locate those limits, and as a result manufacture artificial barriers to progress where none exist.


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