Going Beyond Exchange

Traditional economics reveals the dynamics of exchange. But is that all there is? Late economist Kenneth Boulding recommends that we look further. Once we consider that some transactions only go one way, we can see the economy in a different light.

If you’re a high school student and you’re hungry for lunch, you may go out and buy yourself a sandwich. You give the deli guy five bucks, and he gives you a BLT. That’s exchange! But where did your five dollars come from? If you’re lucky, your parents gave it to you. Just like they gave you breakfast, your clothes, and a home to live in. And what did you give them? Probably your dirty laundry.

Modern-day, Western world parenting is an example of a one-way exchange. Parents provide for their children because the market doesn’t. And they do so without expecting much in return. Upon reaching adulthood, none of us receive an invoice detailing the costs we incurred. If we did, we’d probably be quite disturbed. In some cultures, children “pay back” by supporting their parents when they are older. But in the West, retirement plans, social security, and old-age homes have largely removed that expectation too.

Economist Kenneth Boulding advocated for such one-way exchanges, or “grants”, to be included in our study of the economy. Grants make up a big part of our distribution of resources, he argues, but economists have limited themselves to the study of exchange. To construct a more holistic framework in which both systems are fully represented, Boulding introduces “Grants Economics,” which adds to our understanding of the economy both at the micro-level (grants within the household) as well as at the macro-level (grants from the government*).

Boulding distinguishes grants by their motivating force. In the example of parental care, the motivating force is one of love. Parents provide for their children because they care about them. Charity, scholarships, and much of government transfers fall into the same category. But each economy also contains grants based on threat. If you’re about to buy your deli sandwich, and an armed robber comes in, you may hand over your money because you’re scared of getting hurt. That’s a grant as well.

Every system, he explains, contains elements of exchange, love-based grants, and threat-based grants. But their respective shares in the total economy vary. To visualize this, Boulding presents a triangle, the corners of which represent a pure exchange-system, a pure love-based grant system, and a pure threat-based grant system. All the points inside the triangle represent different proportions in which the three systems can be combined. Where in the triangle we are, and where we are going, is the question.

At times, Boulding adds, the love-based grants economy may grow to compensate for failure in the exchange economy. If, for example, a hurricane strikes, we recognize the exchange system cannot support the situation, and make donations (grants) to fill the gap. But if we feel the efficiency of our grants is inadequate, the grants economy may shrink again. Only if perceive our grant to be able to be more useful in the hands of the grantee than in our own, do we want to provide it.

Since the 1970s, Boulding’s work has largely been forgotten. Perhaps because his definition of a grant, and the distinction between love and fear can be fuzzy at times, or because the scope of the theory is so vast. Nevertheless, the framework deserves credit for its potential to open our eyes to all the different ways in which resources are distributed. It can get us to think about the nature of our transactions.

Today, it may look like our current economy is increasingly based on exchange. Whereas we used to call a friend to help us assemble a new IKEA couch, many people may now use Handy to book an hour of paid-labor from someone they never met. Later that day, they may log in to TaskRabbit to hire someone for an errand. With the help of modern technology, Interactions that we would otherwise do without asking much in return are becoming two-way transfers.

At the same time, exchange continues to fail us, making large numbers of people rely on grants. In 2016, one in seven Americans received food stamps. That’s 43 million people for whom exchange is not bringing enough food on the table. On the other end of the income distribution, it may seem like things are different. But half of young adults (many with families of a high socio-economic status) rely on financial help from their parents. That’s a grant–typically with less of a stigma than food stamps–but a grant nonetheless.

These trends, and our potential path in the triangle raise various questions. How equal is our access to grants? Should we supply more grants (even a basic income?) or should we boost exchange (perhaps with a job guarantee?) Do we think we’re moving more towards a system based on love, in which care for one another dominates? Or are we finding it tough to get grants out of people unless we threaten them into providing them? Is there an ideal point in the triangle? Can we get there? Ponder on it. Boulding did so too, and being the only economist to sprinkle his books with poetry, he put his thoughts as follows:

Four things that give mankind a shove
Are threats, exchange, persuasion, love

But taken in the wrong proportions
These give us cultural abortions

For threats bring manifold abuses
In games where everybody loses

Exchange enriches every nation
But leads to dangerous alienation

Persuaders organize their brothers
But fool themselves as well as others

And love, with longer pull than hate
Is slow indeed to propagate

                                – Boulding, 1963

*Sometimes, of course, the lines between exchanges and grants are blurry. If we use taxes toward social security, and cash in at old age, that might be better described as a deferred exchange. If we, however, find ourselves on unemployment benefits, food stamps, rent support that we receive without having made an equal contribution, we can speak of a grant.

Originally published on The Minskys

Spotlight on: Stephanie Kelton

If you want to know what happens on the cutting edge of economic policy-making, listen to Stephanie Kelton. She explains how a government spends, and how confusion about debt and deficits have held America back. Shaking up democrats and republicans alike, she argues there is nothing inherently dangerous about a large budget deficit. We should aim for a balanced economy, she says, not a balanced budget.

Her encouragement of ambitious fiscal spending is rooted in Modern Money Theory, which reveals the true nature of money as a creature of the state (discussed in detail here). So long as a government is sovereign and has its own central bank, Kelton shows, it is the sole issuer of its currency. Being the sole issuer of its currency, it can never run out of money, and it will never fail to meet its debt obligations. It’s completely able to spend as needed.

Kelton is always quick to respond to the most common points of critique. Is she arguing for the government to run infinitely large deficits forever? No. She advocates for the government to determine its spending level based on the state of the economy. Spending should be high enough to facilitate full employment, and low enough to keep inflation in check. The spending level should be chosen based on the impact it has on the economy. Not based on whether it allows for two columns to sum up nicely in Excel.

Over the past couple of decades, this school of thought has gained significant momentum. Kelton, who teaches at the University of Missouri Kansas-City, gained traction in the world of finance and more recently broke into Washington, where she served as Bernie Sanders’ chief economic advisor during his campaign. Providing the economic backbone behind Sanders’ plans to raise the incomes of the 99%, the vast potential of Kelton’s approach to fiscal policy gained recognition. Kelton still works with Bernie to further his movement and mobilize support across the globe.

It is worth keeping Kelton’s message in mind as the Trump presidency unfolds. Judging by this articlein Politico, Trump plans to cut taxes on the wealthy, and “make the deficit great again.” Considering Kelton’s stance on the matter, such a move should be recognized as problematic because it worsens income disparities, not because it worsens the budget deficit. We should judge Trump on the impact he makes on the economy, not on his ability to balance the books.

Kelton’s message can also provide a powerful weapon against the republican majority that the democratic party will soon be up against. Her advice for democrats is as follows:

“Democrats face a difficult road ahead. Having failed to recapture the Senate, there may be few opportunities to advance progressive goals — e.g. raising the minimum wage or boosting infrastructure spending — without compromising other core values. Democrats may be tempted to give Republicans a taste of their own medicine by hollering about budget deficits as cover for obstructionism. That would be a mistake. Instead, they should stand firm against cuts to programs like Medicare and Social Security, exposing the truth about the government’s ability to sustain these programs indefinitely. And when they fight efforts to deliver huge tax cuts for those at the very top, they should make it clear that their opposition is not based on the budgetary impact but rather on the social and economic effects of widening income and wealth disparities.”

If you’re curious for more, be sure to follow Kelton on Twitter, and keep track of the blog she runs with Bill Black. You should also have a look at her crystal-clear presentations. Click here for a talk on the role of government, here for her ideas on inequality, and here to hear about her thoughts on the Bernie Sanders movement. And if you want to know how all this applies to the Euro-zone, this piece she wrote with Randall Wray is a great resource.

Originally published on The Minskys

The History of Money: Not What You Think

Most of us have an idea of how money came to be. It goes something like this: People wanted to exchange goods for other goods, but it was difficult to coordinate. So they started exchanging goods for money, and money for goods. This tells us that money is a medium of exchange. It’s a nice and simple story. The problem is that it may not be true. We may be understanding money entirely wrong. 

The above story assumes that first there was a market, and then people introduced money to make the market work better. But some people find this hard to believe. Those who subscribe to the Chartalist school of thought give a different history. Before money was used in markets, they say, it was used in primitive criminal justice systems. Money started as—and still is—a record of debt. It is a way to keep track of what one person owes another. There’s anthropological evidence to back up this view. Work by Innes, and Wray suggest that the origins of money are more like this:

In a pre-market, feudal society, there was usually a system to maintain justice in the community. If someone committed a crime, the authority, let’s call him the king, would decide that the criminal owed a fine to the victim. The fine could be a cow, a sheep, three chickens, depending on the crime. Until that cow was brought forward, the criminal was indebted to the victim. The king would record the criminal’s outstanding debt.

This system changed over time. Rather than paying fines to the victim, criminals were ordered to pay fines to the king. This way, resources were being moved to the king, who could coordinate their use for the benefit of the community as  a whole. This was useful for the King, and for the development of the society. But the amount of resources coming from a criminal here and there was not impressive. The system had to be expanded to draw more resources to the kingdom.

To expand the system, the king created debt-records of his own. You can think of them as pieces of papers that say King-Owes-You. Next, he went to his citizens and demanded they give him the resources he wanted. If a citizen gave their cow to the king, the king would give the citizen some of his King-Owes-You papers. Now, a cow seems more useful than a piece of paper, so it seems silly that a citizen would agree to this. But the king had thought of a solution. To make sure everyone would want his King-Owes-You papers, he created a use for them.

He proclaimed that every so often, all citizens had to come forward to the kingdom. Each citizen would be in big trouble, unless they could provide little pieces of paper that showed the king still owed them. In that case, the king would let the citizen go, and not owe them any longer. The citizen would be free to go off and acquire more King-Owes-You papers, to make sure he would be safe the next time, too. This way, all the citizens needed King-Owes-You papers to stay out of trouble. That made King-Owes-You papers widely accepted, and consequently, also a useful medium of exchange. This lead to the rise of markets.

This same pattern can be observed in more recent history. Matthew Forstater and Farley Grubb find that when European colonizers arrived in the New World, they wanted to get the local population to work. But when they offered them to work for a wage, the locals —who never saw a coin before— didn’t see the point. So then the Europeans decided that every hut had to pay them a certain amount of coins every so often in order to stay out of trouble. Now, having to make sure they could pay their tax to the authorities, working for a wage seemed like a good idea.

Not much has changed since then. Money can still be understood as a debt-record, or an IOU. In the US, we have dollars. Dollars are created by our version of a king: the government. We can understand them to be pieces of paper that say USGovernment-Owes-You. Just like the King in our story uses King-Owes-You papers to pay for resources, the US government uses dollars to pay for things that citizens provide. Rather than a cow, US citizens may supply a road, and receive dollars from the government as compensation. This means that now that they built a road, the government owes them. This is good for those citizens, because when it’s tax day, that’s what they need. They give the government their dollars (which show the government still owed them) and in exchange, the government doesn’t put them in jail.

Originally published on The Minskys

In the Spotlight: Pavlina Tcherneva

If I ask you to picture an economist, chances are you’ll visualize an older white male who makes you feel bad for failing to understand mysterious diagrams. Those certainly exist. But so does Pavlina Tcherneva. Chair and Associate Professor of the Economics Department at Bard College, Pavlina spearheads the group of faculty that convinced me (daughter of graphic-designer-dad and dancer-mom) to get a degree in Economics, and then another. 

Pavlina’s Work in a Nutshell
Pavlina is comfortable in many unconventional territories of economics. She can tell you why the government should be your backup employer, why the federal budget really need not balance, and what money really is. Besides the US and her native Bulgaria, she’s consulted policy makers in Argentina, China, Canada, and the UK. Her work has been recognized by a wide range of people; most recently by Bernie Sanders, who used her graph to illustrate his point on inequality.

Current Research
Pavlina’s current research focuses on the “Job Guarantee” policy, which recommends the government acts like an employer of last resort by directly employing those people looking for work during economic slowdowns. In 2006, she spent her summer in the libraries of Cambridge, examining the original writings of Keynes. She offered a fresh interpretation of his approach to fiscal policy, and got a prize for it, too. Today, she investigates what the policy can do for economic growth, the unemployed, and in particular: women and youth.

Path to the Present
If you’re feeling inspired, take note: Being like Pavlina doesn’t happen overnight. In her case, it began with winning a competition that sent her to the US as an exchange student. She then earned a BA in math and economics from Gettysburg College, and a PhD in Economics from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Her undergraduate honors thesis was a math model of how a monopoly currency issuer can use its price setting powers to produce long-run full employment with stable prices.

As a college student, she helped organize a conference in Bretton Woods around this idea, which became the inaugural event of what has become known as Modern Monetary Theory. Then, there were a few years of teaching at UMKC and Franklin and Marshall, and a subsequent move to the Levy Economics Institute and Bard College several years ago. In the midst of all that, she was a two-time grantee from the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) in New York. Today, Pavlina lives in the Hudson Valley, together with her husband and daughter.

Eager for more?
If you’re curious about the Job Guarantee policy, here is both a 15 minute video, and a 150 page book. To understand Pavlina’s take on the Federal Budget, this article goes a long way. And to figure out what’s the deal with money, read this chapter of her book. Her work on inequality was featured in the New York TimesNPR, and other major media outlets. She has articles published by INETHuffington Post, and over a dozen works on the SSRN.

Originally published on The Minskys