The Question I Wanted to Ask


I recently attended a panel discussion called by Bernie Sanders—and moderated by Stephanie Kelton—to discuss the crisis in Greece. The panelists were Joseph Stiglitz, Jacob Kirkegaard (of the Peterson Institute) and James Galbraith (who, it had been disclosed just a few days earlier, was part of a secret committee in Greece which evaluated how, and at what cost, an actual Greek exit from the Euro could be managed.)

Jacob Kirkegaard was game in acknowledging that he’d been invited to lend “diversity” to the discussion—and then proceeded, without even wearing a uniform, to give a highly credible impersonation of a six foot nine inch SS storm-trooper. Joseph Stiglitz was a charming rambler who punctuated each point he made with a bright smile—the more painful the point, the brighter the smile. James Galbraith punctuated his points with the very first word of each sentence, which came out as a kind of uncontrolled squawk quickly followed by an incisive and original intelligence that I found truly mesmerizing. (I’d never before seen or heard any of these people.)

Watching Stephanie Kelton guide the conversation, sitting next to Bernie Sanders as she was, it was clear the delicate challenge she faces in poking at the edges of the precepts of the status quo without pushing things into the scary and marginalized territory of counter-intuitive reality. Her most pointed question to the panelists was whether they believed the U.S. potentially had a debt problem similar to Greece’s. There was, she commented, a lot of discussion to that effect there in the Hart Senate Office Building where the panel had convened. Jacob Kirkegaard assured the audience there was very little probability of that, basically because the U.S. had such a strong economy it could always pay off its debts. Joseph Stiglitz concurred, noting helpfully that the U.S. could currently borrow dollars at a negative interest rate. James Galbraith, in effect, only answered with his body language which said: “I’m not even going to treat that as a serious question”—a neat trick which allowed him to maintain his integrity without wading into the weeds of modern fiat money. The room managed to stay on an even keel—though no hints were sown that might assist Bernie and Stephanie, down the road, to explain how all of Bernie’s new federal programs can be paid for.

As time ran out, Stephanie took a question from the audience—a young man who, as it happened, was sitting next to me. I can’t remember the question he asked—nor did I really listen to the answers the panelists were giving—because I’d started thinking hard about the question I wanted to ask, assuming the opportunity presented itself, and I was having a difficult time formulating the exact words, the precise phrase, without which, I knew from experience, I’d just bungle out something incomprehensible. It’s been a special challenge all my life—asking the precisely articulate and hopefully intelligent question that I could feel was up there under my hat, but that I couldn’t quite find the handles to. Fortunately, I was saved because Stephanie only took the one question. And it wasn’t until the following morning that I realized what I wanted to ask was this:

“Does it strike anyone as odd that the discussion today has been only about money? Is it important at all what the real resources are that Greeks have within their own borders? Is it rational for Greece to borrow money in order to buy things the Greek people already own by right—their own labor, their own agriculture, for example? Or is it the case that Greece is so lacking in her own resources that she has to buy most everything her citizens consume from other countries? And, if that’s true, isn’t at least part of the solution for Greece to intentionally and systematically become more self-sufficient? Isn’t it possible, in fact, that if every nation strived intentionally to become more self-sufficient in food and energy—go “off-grid” so-to-speak—that a great chunk of the anthropogenic CO2 (which is threatening our very survival) would be eliminated? Or is the globalization of capital a more important goal than the well-being of seven billion people?”


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