A Primer On Pragmatism: Applications

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

This introduction to pragmatism was motivated in part by the fact that the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson identifies herself as in the pragmatist tradition, but there are other reasons. Our political environment is toxic. It’s hard to maintain our sense of self, of our values, our hopes, and our sense of security. Philosophy offers us reminders of the existence of our values, and the role they play in holding us together as individuals and in our relations with others. It takes us away from the noise and the turmoil and puts us in a quiet atmosphere where we can nurse our wholeness. It can provide us with armor against the forces that are ripping at us.

With that in mind, I’ll close with a brief discussion of democracy and Modern Money Theory. Both begin with the key idea of pragmatism, that all our ideas, no matter how old, were formed for human reasons, and to meet human needs. All of them, no matter how old, are subject to rethinking in light of new conditions.


Pragmatism is particularly well-suited to democracy. The most striking justification for democracy is found in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I’m not so sure these truths are self-evident. Prior to that time, the dominant view was that some people are born to lead, and others are only fit to follow. As Peirce and James point out, philosophical systems then were grounded in the idea that there is a universal truth outside human experience, but one that the best of us can comprehend somehow. Those lucky people can construct a social system that accords with the will of the universe, or the Almighty. Many of them argued for centuries that the King ruled with the blessing of the Almighty, and everyone else was inferior, fit only to follow.

At the time Jefferson wrote, the French and the English were directly contesting the divine right of kings, and there was discontent with the idea of hereditary authority. But the US was the first country to adopt Thomas Jefferson’s formulation as a founding idea. It’s a revolutionary statement, and one we are still trying to reify, not just in our government but in our social lives, our work, and other institutions.

The Declaration was a break with what seemed like a firts principle. And that is fundamentally a pragmatist act: rejecting a first principle because it isn’t working to create the kind of lives people wanted. Jefferson’s formulation wasn’t totally original. It derives from prior thinkers, but instead of laying out a rule, it articulates a value, a value that should guide our efforts to create a decent society. The system of government created by the Constitution was supposed to be one that would enable the creation of a new kind of society, one informed not by rules thought to be eternal, but by values that are thought to be best for human beings.

There have always been people insisting that there are eternal rules, and that deviation from those rules would bring disaster. They settle all doubt by tenacity, as Peirce would say.

Pragmatists say that we have to justify our choices on the basis of what works. But the first step is to decide what our priorities are. We do that by defining our values and our goals, and then by working out the best way to reach them. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness my not be the best goals for today, but they’re a start. Our task is to decide what that means in today’s society. Anderson says we don’t want to be humiliated or dominated. That’s a good way of talking about what liberty and the pursuit of happiness might mean today. We won’t the answers by looking outside our human experience.

Modern Money Theory

Much of neoclassical economics is grounded in normative concepts. One of these is Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, discussed in §2.1 of this entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The economist and mathemetician William Stanley Jevons used this normative concept to create the economic idea of marginal utility, one of the foundations of neoclassical economics. See pp 9-10 here.

Utilitarianism is a normative idea. This is from the Stanford link:

… [Bentham] promulgated the principle of utility as the standard of right action on the part of governments and individuals. Actions are approved when they are such as to promote happiness, or pleasure, and disapproved of when they have a tendency to cause unhappiness, or pain. Combine this criterion of rightness with a view that we should be actively trying to promote overall happiness, and one has a serious incompatibility with psychological egoism. Cites omitted.

Jevons explicitly sets out to mathematize Bentham’s utilitarianism. Marginal utility is therefore grounded in a normative idea. It incorporates a specific value, but the value is hidden and ignored when it comes to putting marginal utility into practice. It is only loosely, if at all, based on practical experience of human behavior. Nevertheless, it is the foundation of large parts of neoclassical economics and of its modern version, neoliberalism.

Pragmatism rejects the idea of starting from normative theories. I don’t know how to deal with marginal utility from a pragmatic point of view, so I turn to another fundamental idea of economics, the creation of money. As best I can tell, mainstream economists say that banks create money. There’s a story about bank multipliers you can google. Governments get money by taxation or borrowing. In this story, the private sector is responsible for money creation subject only to some loose guidance from the Federal Reserve Board. This protects us by making sure Congress can’t ruin the financial sector with profligate spending and borrowing which would automatically happen, and which would be an inflationary disaster.

Modern Money Theory starts with a question: how is money created? It looks at the things that are done as a result of which there is money. Governments create money by spending it. They reduce the amount of money by taxation. They may or may not issue bonds. MMT is based on observable facts. The description of the creation of money leads to other testable ideas and to a completely different concept of the role of government in money creation and society.

Money creation is a governmental action, and thus is subject to politics. Congress decides how much money is created, and how the new money is used. The old story tries to deny this reality with cloudy abstractions and claims that it’s all the working of some invisible hand. Pragmatists don’t believe in invisible hands. They say that politics is the arena in which we decide about how to use the power to create money.

MMT isn’t just for progressives. Deficit hawks and small government supporters get to argue their opinions, and to assert their values. This is a quote from Modern Money Theory by Randy Wray:

However, I also believe that most of the tenets of MMT can be adopted by anyone. It does not bother me if some simply want to use the descriptive part of MMT without agreeing with the policy prescriptions. The description provides a framework for policymaking. But there is room for disagreement over what government should do. Once we understand that affordability is not an issue for a sovereign currency-issuing government, then questions about what government should do become paramount. And we can disagree on those. (Emphasis in original.)

The fact that MMT is value-neutral, that it can be used by people of every political persuasion is a powerful point in its favor. I don’t think we can say the same thing about neoliberalism.


There is much more to be said about pragmatism. It is a powerful tool we can use to cut through old ideas and useless distinctions. But perhaps its most important contribution is that it is an open-ended theory. It makes room for the endless possibilities of human beings. I think that is a powerful value.

The Politics Of The Green New Deal: We Can’t Pay For That

Posts in this series:

The Green New Deal Challenges The Domination of Capital

Part 1 on Labor

The Politics of the Green New Deal: Part 2 on Capital

The Politics of The Green New Deal: The Opposition Of The Rich

The Green New Deal: OMG It’s Socialism!

Seriously. How on earth will we pay for the damage done by climate change? Water rising along the coasts and flooding huge parts of our oil and gas refining infrastructure? Resettling millions away from new floodplains in Nebraska and Florida? Food shortages? Dirty water? Hurricane and tornado damage? Storm costs already are running over $240 billion per year at least. The costs of three hurricanes and 76 wildfires last year alone ran to something like $300 billion. The National Climate Assessment identifies several areas of enormous concern: extreme heat, lost labor, infectious diseases, droughts and floods, decreased food production, and failing water and sewage systems.

We have a good current example in the recent floods in Nebraska. Flood water is running into the Missouri, where it overwhelmed the sewage treatment system in Omaha, dumping an estimated 65 million gallons of raw sewage. That fetid stream of filth is expected to continue for two to three months. Cities downstream will have to treat their water against unnamed pollutants, presumably e. coli among others.

Even without Omaha’s sewage, the floodwaters would not be safe because of human waste from septic tanks, animal waste and chemicals from farm fields, along with chemicals from urban and suburban parking lots and industrial sites, experts say.

That sewage and the related flood water is headed to the Mississippi through New Orleans. and the delta, washing out more of Louisiana on its way, and into the Gulf where the Red Tide from last year finally disappeared in February after a sixteen month bloom.

The floods are also causing serious problems for farmers. This story in the New York Times quotes farmers who are unable to get to their fields which are drowned by recent floods. The Kearney Hub of Kearney Nebraska says planting will be delayed; and adds fascinating details on how farmers should cope with wet fields. Eventually they may be driven off their farms. We can guess that capitalists will buy up the farms at foreclosure or otherwise. This will gradually concentrate food production in fewer and fewer hands, which leads to higher prices for food consumers.

But we never talk about how to pay for climate catastrophe. The financing talk is always about how to pay for efforts to cope with it. That’s apparently going to be a big part of Republican strategy, along with their other scare tactics. You have to admire the chutzpah of Republicans complaining about the cost of the Green New Deal after handing trillions in unfunded tax cuts to their donors. They are joined by plenty of moderate Democrats, and cost is one of the reasons.

It’s astonishing that no defenders of the Green New Deal ask their opponents how they plan to pay for climate disaster. Instead, they struggle to answer their detractors. Many advocates of the Green New Deal have turned to MMT because it makes it clear that we can do everything in the Green New Deal and more, subject to resource constraints such as adequate and trained labor, natural resources, technical knowledge and entrepreneurial skills. Here’s a good discussion from the excellent Stephanie Kelton.

I’ve read Randy Wray’s book, Modern Money Theory: A Primer on Macroeconomics for Sovereign Monetary Systems. I’ve also read some mainstream economics, some of which I discussed here at Emptywheel. For me, MMT is superior. Mainstream economics has a number of normative ideals at its heart, as we saw in my discussion of the theory of marginal utility of William Stanley Jevons (for example, here). As I see it, mainstream economics privileges the concerns of the individual over the well-being of the society in which the individual lives and works. On the other hand MMT gives a descriptive account of the economy, with no obvious normative implications. As Wray says in §7.10:

On one level, the MMT approach is descriptive: it explains how a sovereign currency works. When we talk about government spending by keystrokes and argue that the issuer of a sovereign currency cannot run out of them, that is descriptive. When we say that sovereign governments do not borrow their own currency, that is descriptive. Our classification of bond sales as part of monetary policy, to help the central bank hit its interest rate target, is also descriptive. And finally, when we argue that a floating exchange rate provides the most domestic policy space, that is also descriptive.

Functional finance then provides a framework for prescriptive policy.*

I don’t think mainstream economics will ever be merely descriptive in this sense. It isn’t even capable of getting rid of obviously bad ideas, like austerity or the Philips Curve, both of which are suffused with normative implications. There are still politicians who think we should have a constitutional balanced budget amendment. Stephen Moore, Trump’s nominee to the Fed, has argued for a return to the gold standard.

But you don’t have to accept MMT to see that the Green New Deal is affordable. Here’s a well-written paper by J.W. Mason of the Roosevelt Institute. I think Mason considers himself to be a heterodox economist, as opposed to a mainstream economist. He justifies financing important public projects like the Green New Deal in mainstream Keynesian terms.

In the end, someone is going to pay. We either pay to ameliorate the problem, or we pay to cope with the horrifying costs of surviving.

*Quoted from this post.

Edited to correct name of Kearney, Nebraska and typos.

Democracy Against Capitalism: Capital In A Fiat Money World

In Democracy Against Capitalism the Marxist scholar Ellen Meiksins Wood says that the driving force of capitalism is the urgent desire to accumulate more capital. As we know, and not just from Marx, capitalist only expends capital in the expectation of profit, and generally can be counted on to invest capital if profit seems likely.

In the US, it has always been the norm that those with access to capital should control every possible avenue that might lead to profit. The government has always been there to provide cash to support capital, with no compensation or justification to the government except maybe new jobs. As an example, the US handed huge tracts of land and direct subsidies to the crooks and cheats who built US railroads. I learned about this from Frank Norris’ book The Octopus, but Railroaded, reviewed here, looks even better. And here’s a sympathetic explanation of this monstrous give-away. There’s an obvious question that no one asks: if railroads were so important, why didn’t the government just build them?

In this post I looked at Wood’s definition of historical materialism and its use in the evolution of the separation of politics and economics starting in the middle ages. The comments add a lot of fascinating detail; thanks to all. What’s missing from Wood’s discussion and from economics generally is the motivation behind this evolution, namely greed and indifference to other humans. As the reviewer of Railroaded, the historian Michael Kazin, says:

The history of American capitalism is stuffed with tales of industries that overbuilt and overpromised and left bankruptcies and distressed ecosystems in their wake: gold and silver mining, oil drilling and nuclear power, to name a few. The railroad barons wielded more power than other businessmen in the Gilded Age. But their behavior revealed a trait they shared with many of their fellow citizens: too much was never enough.

That still true, and governments under both parties are as willing as they ever were to let the capitalists profit and to stuff their pockets with subsidies. As an example, look at the Democrats who run Chicago. In 2008, Chicago leased its parking meters to a group of investors headed by Morgan Stanley; investors today include the wealth fund of Abu Dhabi and other hidden investors. Mayor Richard Daley agreed to a front payment of $1.15 billion to the city.

In the seven years since, the meter company has reported a total of $778.6 million in revenues. It’s on pace to make back what it paid the city by 2020, with more than 60 years of meter money still to come.

There’s the incredible story of the city getting ripped off for hundreds of millions of dollars in derivative transactions. Chicago recently offered Amazon over $2 billion to put its new headquarters here.

That eagerness to coddle capitat has always been part of our culture. Maybe it could be justified in a society hemmed in by commodity money and weak financial markets, where there might be some limitations to the amount of capital available for investment. But there is far more capital looking for profits today than there are plausible investments. We’ve just run a huge real-life experiment. The Republican tax bill gave corporations billions of dollars in tax breaks for money stashed “offshore” to avoid taxes. The brilliant CEOS had no profitable use for it and gave it to their shareholders.

Here’s an example of the amount of capital available to waste, electric rental scooters. Much of that useless capital is employed in various kinds of direct exploitation like payday lending.

Beyond the factual reality of a world awash in capital, we don’t live in a world of limited money. Money is a commodity created by the state. It isn’t pieces of metal, and it isn’t limited by how much of the metal there is in government vaults. Government can create all it wants and needs. The Republicans just passed a bill slashing US revenues for the foreseeable future. Then they passed a bill raising spending. Where is that coming from? Stephanie Kelton explains in a quick and easy introduction to Modern Money Theory.

Returning to the railroads, the government could have built them itself, using a combination of taxes, revenues and borrowing. It might have taken longer; and it would have been corrupt though it would never have been as corrupt as it actually was. Why didn’t that happen?

Or look at oil. In some countries, oil is owned by the State, which employs people directly to drill and refine, or hires private drillers and refiners. We don’t do that. We just let the capitalists take the resources out of public land for a small fee which is rebated in the form of sickening tax breaks like depletion allowances.

There was never any justification for the US system other than the demand of the rich and powerful for greater profits with utter indifference to the rest of us who are left to clean up after the bankruptcies, frauds, toxic spills, nuclear waste and whatever other trash they leave behind. Capitalists won’t make society a better place, because that isn’t profitable. Capitalists believe that they should be able to expropriate all the profits from their investments. The point of making society better is that the benefits from that either can’t be monetized, or we don’t want to lose the benefits to the demand for profit. We don’t need capitalists to make society better and we never did. We just need to be able to control our own government, making it operate for our mutual benefit.

Mankiw’s Ten Principles of Economics Part 11: Conclusions

The introduction to this series is here.
Part 1 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 3 is here.
Part 4 is here.
Part 5 is here.
Part 6 is here.
Part 7 is here.
Part 8 is here.
Part 9 is here.
Part 10 is here.

This series is an outgrowth of a series of short essays [links here] on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Change. Economists desperately want people to think they are scientists, so much so that they will put on lab coats as in this delightful story.

Donning customized white lab coats, University of Delaware officials cut the ribbon on the new Center for Experimental and Applied Economics at UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources last week.

“Our experiments pay people cash to analyze their decisions,” said Kent Messer, a professor … .

Chapter 2 of Mankiw’s introductory textbook has a section titled “The Economist as Scientist”. He claims that just like physical scientists, economists “… devise theories, collect data, and then analyze these data in an attempt to verify or refute their theories.” P. 22. Based on this section, I thought he was saying that the 10 principles I’ve discussed in this series were in the nature of scientific principles. I suggested that with the addition of methodological ideas and some basic assumptions about the goals of a society, they could be treated as a paradigm in the sense Kuhn describes.

The goals of this series were: 1. to examine that possibility; 2. to see if these principles served as a structure for neoliberal economic theory, and 3. to see if there were other ways of looking at these principles that would be enlightening.

The first goal seemed perfectly reasonable. According to Kuhn, you don’t write a physical science textbook unless the community of scientists who study that area agree on a paradigm of the discipline. But my brief looks at these principles makes me think that they are either vacuously true, reductive to the point of absurdity, or hotly contested by other economists. I think I have shown that these principles do not operate as a statement of agreed-upon ideas about the way the economy works. They barely describe individual activity in any useful way.

Consider Principle 4, People Respond to Incentives. Of course they do sometimes, and sometimes not. And sometimes they respond in wildly disparate but perfectly reasonable ways. You see a car advertisement offering a price break for buying right now. Does Principle 4 help you understand how I might respond? Here’s a harder example. Interest rates go up. That creates an incentive to do what? Buy a house before rates go up further? Wait to see if higher interest rates cool off the housing market so houses are cheaper, so maybe even with higher interest rates your mortgage payment will be lower? Consume less and save more money? Wait for the stock market to go down and buy stocks? What conclusions can be drawn from this principle? How is it useful? Any time you might want to apply it, you have to look at the specifics of the situation, including the people who are supposedly going to respond to the incentives. Also, lacking data, there is a strong tendency to assume other people think like you do.

The function of the paradigm for Kuhn is to provide a platform for further research in what he calls normal science. There is an economics example in Part 10, the effort to figure out the relation between inflation and employment. People like Laurence Ball and Sandeep Mazumder of the International Fund, whose work I quote, can make a living working on ways to find an historical relationship, regardless of whether it says anything about the future. But surely if the relationship cannot actually be specified usefully after years of effort, it isn’t a real principle, and it doesn’t form the basis for a sensible research program. Morgenerally, Mankiw admits that in this blog post that there is much about macroeconomics that people don’t know.

Kuhn says that there is a difference between physics and chemistry textbooks and social sciences textbooks.

In history, philosophy, and the social sciences … the elementary college course employs parallel readings in original sources, some of them the “classics” of the field, others the contemporary research reports that practitioners write for each other. As a result, the student in any one of these disciplines is constantly made aware of the immense variety of problems that the members of his future group have, in the course of time, attempted to solve. Even more important, he has constantly before him a number of competing and incommensurable solutions to these problems, solutions that he must ultimately evaluate for himself. P 164

That does not describe Mankiw’s textbook which reads just like the physics and chemistry textbooks Kuhn describes. There are summary remarks about historical figures in the field, and the discipline is presented as a cumulative result of a steady progress of understanding. There is no question about the truth content of a single statement in Mankiw’s text, no hint that respectable economists reject his conclusions. Any student who only takes intro to economics using Mankiw’s textbook will never learn about the massive differences among schools of economics, will never learn that there are alternatives to the monetarist/neoliberal views implicit in the book, and will never have a way to examine economic policy problems from any perspective other than Mankiw’s.

That is what makes this textbook approach so dangerous. Mankiw presents a finished survey of the field, with the imprimatur of authority, when there is no consensus. It’s a fair reading of this book to call Introduction to Neoliberal Economics. It’s not fair to call it a balanced presentation of a discipline shot through with contested assertions.

I think I’ve shown that the discipline of economics has not reached the stage at which it is possible to create universal principles. That is a waste of time, and I will not spend any more time thinking about it. But it isn’t just that there aren’t any universal principles. As Kuhn would point out, with so many schools of economics there is no platform from which to evaluate any principle. The various schools conflict with each other on every possible level, and there is no way to test any theory that will satisfy the proponents of the exact opposite theory.

The worst part is that the rich have a death grip on economic policy. They choose to support policies that benefit them at the expense of the rest of us, and they hide behind a veneer of economics professionals who say the things that they want to hear. Those people teach economics using textbooks like Mankiw’s and that of Samuelson and Nordhaus. They control policy, because they have taught the leaders of today.

This and the preceding series have been really depressing to me. There is a tiny ray of hope. Bernie Sanders is the ranking minority member of the Senate Budget Committee. He appointed Stephanie Kelton as Chief Economist. She is the brilliant economist who chaired the Economics Department at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and she is a noted scholar in the field of modern money theory. That is a completely different way forward, and one that works for progressives and frightens conservatives. That’s got to be a good thing.