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September 12th, 2019

↳ History

Money Parables

Three competing theories of money

In the past year, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has shifted the policy debate in a way that few heterodox schools of economic thought have in recent memory. MMT’s central notion—that nations with their own strong currencies face no inherent financial constraints—has made its way into politics and, notably, the world of finance. The last few months have brought MMT explainers from financial media outlets including Reuters, CNBC, Bloomberg, Barron’s, and Business Insider, as well as from investment analysts at Wall Street firms including Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Fitch, Standard Chartered and Citigroup.

Popularizing the shorthand notion that “deficits don’t matter” has been an achievement for those promulgating MMT. Yet one largely unappreciated change brought about by the MMT debates involves a somewhat subtler point: a shift in the implicit story we tell about money.

The rise of MMT poses a challenge to the mainstream commodity money story. That parable, familiar to anyone who has taken high school economics or read Adam Smith, involves an inefficient barter system that gives way to the more convenient use of some token that represents value, typically a precious metal. If government plays a role in this story, it is only to regulate money after the marketplace births it.

The MMT parable—known in the literature as chartalism—reverses the commodity money view. For chartalists, money arises through an act of law, namely the levying of a tax which requires citizens to go out and get that which pays taxes; the state comes first and markets are subsequent. As Abba Lerner puts it, money is “a creature of the state.”

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June 13th, 2019

Elections, Social Democracy, and the Neoliberal Shift

An interview with Adam Przeworski

Throughout the 20th century, radical social movements were plagued by their relationship to existing state institutions. Across Western Europe, labor movements found political expression in parties like the Swedish Social Democrats, the German SPD, and the French Socialist Party. In their pursuit of the democratization of wealth and political power, these organizations were criticized for moderating popular demands in favor of cross-party compromise. And while social democratic governments did make significant gains in the postwar period, today's landscape seems to testify against the durability of their reforms.

I met with Adam Przeworski—Professor of Politics at NYU, former member of the September Group of analytical Marxists, and a leading theorist of political economy—to discuss the role of elections in effecting social change, and the political transformations underway today. Over the course of a career spanning thirteen books and over 150 published articles, Przeworski's foremost contributions have been in the study of democratic transitions, distributional politics, and the determinants of economic growth.

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May 16th, 2019

Feminist Theory, Gender Inequity, and Basic Income

An interview with Almaz Zelleke

Feminist and women's movements in the mid-20th century developed demands for an unconditional basic income that emerged out of concrete experiences with the welfare state. What can the current discussion around UBI learn from examining this largely sidelined history?

In this conversation with basic income scholar Almaz Zelleke, we look at this history—and examine the reasons for its absence from the dominant intellectual histories of unconditional cash transfers. More broadly, our conversation explores political change and the processes that lead to policy creation. It touches on the movements that have brought basic income into the 2020 election cycle, considers how to focus political will surrounding basic income, and concludes with policy recommendations that will move America incrementally towards an unconditional UBI.

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May 3rd, 2019

How Do States Pay for Wars?

An interview with Rosella Cappella Zielinski

Academic study of war in the social sciences is as old as historiography itself, and political economists have considered the economic logic of war and peace for centuries. Yet social scientists have left several questions on the financing of conflict unaddressed. In her 2017 book How States Pay for Wars, Professor Rosella Cappella Zielinski maps out a theory of war finance.

As a sub-discipline, war finance has long existed on the periphery of academic debates in International Relations. Cappella Zielinski’s book is a novel contribution to a growing field, providing the first systematic review and analysis of how states are able to float the cost war. Her overarching theory of war finance is expansive, flexible, and useful for understanding the far-reaching implications of wars past and present. Cappella Zielinski’s research sheds light on the “tools of the trade” for raising money, the balancing act between domestic political concerns and politicians’ war finance decisions, and the unexpected consequences war finance has on income inequality.

Below we discuss what first sparked her interest in war finance, the history of the sub-discipline, and the puzzles that remain to be solved.

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November 9th, 2018

Banking with Imprecision

​In 1596, Spanish troops under the leadership of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia set fire to their own ships in the waters near Cadiz. The sinking of these thirty-two vessels was a tactical necessity: a joint Anglo-Dutch navy had annihilated the slapdash defenses of the city, driving the Spanish ships off to nearby Puerto Real. The Spanish had preferred to see their ships sunk rather than captured by the enemy. Cadiz itself was occupied and sacked, and its most prominent civilians were held for ransom. War, as the Spanish were acutely aware, was very costly. Later that very year, Philip II, King of Spain, would declare bankruptcy. 1

Though he was one of the most powerful monarchs of the era, it is difficult to sympathize with the sheer magnitude of the work with which King Philip II of Spain had to contend. Not only did he have to protect his Iberian possessions, but he also had to prosecute a war against the recalcitrant Dutch in the Low Countries, outmaneuver the Protestants in France, and maintain a bulwark against the Turks in the Mediterranean. 2

In their book, Lending to the Borrower from Hell, Drelichman and Voth have done a remarkable job of illuminating Spanish finance in the 16th century.Notably, the fiscal machinery underpinning imperial operations was managed mostly by a tight-knit cartel of Genoese bankers. Sovereign lending, astonishingly, allowed for a plethora of state actions in a time before instant communication. The foundations of empire rested on a relatively simple model: control certain streams of income and then borrow against them. The institutional origins of our modern sovereign lending come from this tradition. Dealing with uncertainty is an inherent part of this model – now as it was then. What is of use to modern scholars is how the same problem was conceived of and partly surmounted by our institutional forebears.

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