Posts

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.

Financing Medicare For All

If you only read mainstream media you’d think Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill was terrifyingly expensive. An opinion piece behind the paywall in the Wall Street Journal cites a couple of studies with huge headline numbers like $2.5 trillion dollars in the first year, from the Urban Institute. Taxes will soar, government takeover of health care blah blah blah. It comes from centrist Democrats like Jonathan Chait and Ezra Klein who I saw in an appearance on Seth Meyer’s show. Here are two things to bear in mind in self-defense.

1. In 2015, we spent about $3.2 trillion on health care in the US. There is a cool graphic here showing where it was spent and who paid that amount. Maybe the cost of health care covering everyone for the kinds of things the Affordable Care Act requires would cost more than that. (The Sanders Plan covers other services as well as those under the ACA, but let’s ignore that because I can’t find numbers.) We calculate the additional amount we would need by adding the cost of all uninsured people and the cost of the care that people with insurance can’t afford because of deductibles and other co-pays, and subtracting the savings from the new plan. Any analysis that doesn’t start with this is bullshit.

It’s true that the Sanders plan would change who pays and how much, so someone would have to redo that cool graphic I mentioned. Some businesses would pay more, others less, and there would be a change in corporate taxation as deductible costs of insurance change. Some individuals would pay more and others less. But whatever those changes might be, the amount we need to raise isn’t frightening, and practically everyone will be better off.

It’s easy to see the savings from negotiating drug prices, lowering the reimbursement to doctors and hospitals, reducing excess profits from the health insurance companies, and reducing the costs of administration throughout the health care business.

It’s also easy to see that the additional costs are not that high. Approximately 9.1% of us were uninsured in 2015, so the cost might be as high as 10%, or $320 billion. That doesn’t seem too terrible when the savings are deducted. It will be easy to finance that if we want to. I have a long list of things to cut if anyone cares, starting with dismantling the carceral state.

2. We need to think clearly about taxation. We live in a fiat money system; the US is sovereign in its own currency and cannot go bankrupt. I’ve read Modern Monetary Theory by Randall Wray and many shorter pieces and I am convinced. I could make an interesting argument from MMT about this whole matter, but I won’t and I not going to focus on that. If single-payer a hard sale, convincing the devotees of Econ 101 (course title: My Neoliberalism) about MMT is hopeless. Actually with the excellent Stephanie Kelton as a teacher and leader I could well be wrong. Check out this on the Twitter, and follow her if you don’t already.

I agree with Warren Mosler, another MMT theorist, that taxes for revenue are obsolete. But that doesn’t mean that taxes are obsolete. Quite the contrary. Mosler quotes from a 1945 speech by Beardsley Ruml, chair of the New York Fed, to the American Bar Association. Ruml gives four grounds for taxation other than revenue:

1. As an instrument of fiscal policy to help stabilize the purchasing power of the dollar;

2. To express public policy in the distribution of wealth and of income, as in the case of the progressive income and estate taxes;

3. To express public policy in subsidizing or in penalizing various industries and economic groups;

4. To isolate and assess directly the costs of certain national benefits, such as highways and social security.

We can make a case for taxes and other measures to support Medicare for All relying solely on those four principles, without explicitly discussing MMT. If we do that, we lay a foundation for future tax issues, and for a sensible discussion of tax reform more broadly. I have a list of tax changes that will meet those standards. How about that NASCAR deduction for a starter. We raise a bit of money and get rid of a bit of corruption with one change.

This is a great teachable moment for MMT, just as the government shutdowns were with the heated arguments about the trillion dollar coin. I know Kelton and others will push on the MMT side. We need to win this, and we can’t afford to fight on two fronts. In particular, it isn’t helpful to attack people who don’t want to argue about MMT on the way to fixing our health care system. People like me.