By J.D. ALT
There was recently a breakthrough of sorts in media coverage for MMT. The Huffington Post published a piece covering the “People’s Convergence Conference” in Washington, D.C. on September 8-9. The conference brought together leaders and activists from all corners of the progressive political spectrum—including the “Draft Bernie for a People’s Party” movement. The conference apparently succeeded in creating the roots of a coordinated alliance between the leading progressive parties—including the Green Party, the Progressive Independent Party, and the Justice Party—which agreed, among other things, to the possibility of holding progressive primaries that would then field a single progressive candidate in the general elections. Most notable, however, the Huffington piece concluded with the header: Progressive Economics: “How do we pay for it?”
In the concluding paragraphs, MMT—and the fact that taxes do not fund federal spending—is admirably broad-brushed by Steve Grunbine of Real Progressives, who was an active attendee at the conference. An LA Times op-ed by Stephanie Kelton, titled “Congress can give every American a pony (if we breed enough ponies)” is also prominently discussed. The upshot of the explanations is that “the only obstacle” to implementing the expensive goals of the progressive platform—e.g. Medicare for all, free College tuition, a Job Guarantee—becomes simply an issue of “politics, not economics or ‘how to pay for it.’”
This, it seems to me, is a crucial moment for the MMT community. Not only has a historically fragmented progressive movement apparently begun to coalesce into a unified voice, but that voice—of necessity, I believe—has actually begun the difficult process of convincingly explaining the workings of modern fiat money to the political mainstream. This is something even Bernie Sanders never attempted to do, even though he had one of the most competent personal coaches for the doing of it in Prof. Kelton. The reality is, the understanding of modern fiat money is what will make the progressive agenda ultimately work—and as that realization and understanding spreads, it should dramatically strengthen and empower the progressive alliance on many fronts.
Rather than celebrating this apparent breakthrough, however, the MMT community should be sounding alarm bells and quickly mobilizing its best efforts to do the one thing that might assist and enable this new progressive alliance to actually succeed in putting out its message: We need to create a succinct, easy to understand and remember, narrative that progressive leaders and activists can consistently use to explain how they are going to pay for their initiatives. This narrative needs to include not only “talking points” but, perhaps even more important, “deflecting points” to quickly defuse the mainstream bombs that are going to inevitably be lobbed at it.
As I recently discovered at an Economics of Happiness conference, no matter how well you believe you understand it, MMT has the disarming characteristic of being extremely vulnerable to attack by people who “understand” that “just printing money” is a dangerous political gimmick; who “understand” that if the government spends more than it collects in taxes, the deficit will increase; who “understand” that if the government continues to run a deficit, the national debt will become unsustainable, that taxes will have to increase, etc.,etc.—and all of this from ultra-progressive interrogators!
These words—“printing money,” “the deficit,” “national debt,” “increased taxes,” are the political problem we confront—and the political problem the newly emerging progressive alliance must overcome. It is an oxymoron in the everyday human psyche to say, “It’s Okay for the federal government to deficit spend.” It is illogical to say, “The federal government doesn’t have to repay the National Debt.” It is cognitively fantastical to hold the position that we can increase federal spending without “increasing taxes.” Because of these ingrained think-patterns, it is not enough to simply say it is a “political” problem and not a “fiscal” problem, because the political problem is the fiscal problem. And the fiscal problem is powerfully—and stubbornly—defined by the unavoidable language we must use to talk about it.
Hence the crucial importance of providing the new progressive alliance with a “handbook” of the operations of modern fiat money. There can’t be a dozen different explanations—there can only be one, consistent explanation repeated again and again by every progressive leader and activist. And they can never falter in having a specific, positive and understandable response to every mainstream attack that will come their way.
How can this “handbook” be created in the most expeditious way? There is not a lot of time before the explanations will have to start being made in earnest. And if the explainers aren’t prepared, the results could be a disastrous setback for MMT and the progressive movement in general. I have some ideas about it, but before I put them to paper, I’d like to defer to the MMT community, especially its leadership—i.e. Msrs. Mosler, Wray, Kelton, Mitchell, Tcherneva & Black—for their thoughts on the matter: How can we organize the best effort we can muster to put the most effective, easy-to-use-and-understand MMT narrative in the hands of the newly emergent progressive alliance? Time is of the essence.