Promises All the Way Down: A Primer on the Money View

This post is part of a symposium on the Methods of Political Economy.

Elham Saeidinezhad

It has long been tempting for economists to imagine “the economy” as a giant machine for producing and distributing “value.” Finance, on this view, is just the part of the device that takes the output that is not consumed by end-users (the “savings”) and redirects it back to the productive parts of the machine (as “investment”). Our financial system is an ornate series of mechanisms to collect the value we’ve saved up and invest it into producing yet more value. Financial products of all sorts—including money itself—are just the form that value takes when it is in the transition from savings to investment. What matters is the “real” economy—where the money is the veil, and the things of value are produced and distributed.

What if this were exactly backwards? What if money and finance were understood not as the residuum of past economic activity—as a thing among other things—but rather as the way humans manage ongoing relationships between each other in a world of fundamental uncertainty? These are the sorts of questions asked by the economist Perry Mehrling (and Hyman Minsky before him). These inquiries provided a framework that has allowed him to answer many of the issues that mystify neoclassical economics.

On Mehrling’s “Money View,” every (natural or artificial) person engaged in economic activity is understood in terms of her financial position, that is, in terms of the obligations she owes others (her “liabilities”) and the obligations owed to her (her “assets”). In modern economies, obligations primarily take the form of money and credit instruments. Every actor must manage the inflow and outflow of obligations (called “cash flow management”) such that she can settle up with others when her obligations to them come due. If she can, she is a “going concern” that continues to operate normally. If she cannot, she must scramble to avoid some form of financial failure—bankruptcy being the most common. After all, as Mehrling argues, “liquidity kills you quick.” This “survival constraint” binds not only today but also at every moment in the future. Thus, generally, the problem of satisfying the survival constraint is a problem of matching up the time pattern of assets (obligations owed to an actor) with the time pattern of liabilities (obligations an actor owed to others). The central question is whether, at any moment in time, there is enough cash inflow to pay for the cash flows.

Continue reading

The Constitutional Theory of the Business Enterprise: Toward a Monetary Theory of Production

This post is part of a series on the Methods of Political Economy.

Jamee K. Moudud

Neoclassical economists see-saw between the twin poles of perfect markets and “market failure” in either advocating laissez faire or state intervention.  And yet this dichotomy rests on a fundamental mischaracterization of the business enterprise, its role in society, and markets more generally. This essay draws out a heterodox theory of the firm and argues that real-world business behavior can only be understood in light of insights from the Law and Political Economy (LPE) tradition. I draw on the classical economists as well as the Oxford Economists’ Research Group (OERG), especially P.W.S. Andrews.  The constitutional theory of the business enterprise (“small-c constitutional” as used by Sabeel Rahman and Christine Desan) discussed here fuses this economics literature with the Legal Realist framework, thereby creating a bridge between microeconomics, macroeconomics, and law. Development of this theory and its implications ought to be central to LPE approaches to understanding how firms do and might operate.

Continue reading

A Single Federal Usury Cap is Too Blunt an Instrument

NB: This post is part of a debate on the Loan Shark Prevention Act, a bill that would introduce a federal usury cap. Emma Caterine’s response is here.

Anne Fleming–

In May 2019, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unveiled the Loan Shark Prevention Act, a bill that would cap the cost of consumer credit nationwide. Under the bill, the total cost of a loan, calculated as an annualized percentage rate (APR), could not exceed 15%.

Although high credit card charges are the bill’s main target, payday loans rank among the most expensive forms of consumer credit in the United States. A typical payday loan from a storefront lender costs $15 per $100 borrowed. For a $350 loan that must be repaid in one lump sum in two weeks, the borrower would pay $52.50 in fees. This equates to a 391% APR.

Payday lenders argue that it is misleading to calculate the cost of their products in terms of an APR because payday loans are not marketed for long-term use. But most borrowers cannot repay their loans in full in two weeks. Instead, they pay only the fee and rollover the balance into a new two-week loan. In this way, consumers can end up in a months-long cycle of borrowing, paying hundreds of dollars in fees. This vicious cycle is especially concerning because most borrowers are low-income, just making ends meet. Furthermore, Hispanic and African-American households account for a disproportionate share of payday loan users.

In other words, high-cost credit is a real concern that policymakers must address. But a one-size-fits-all 15% APR cap is a blunt instrument for tackling this problem.

Continue reading

Money & Memory, Capital & Communion

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Robert Hockett–

Imagine that I incur an obligation to you – an ‘affirmative’ obligation, let’s say. Perhaps it’s through violating some ‘negative’ obligation to you, wronging you in a manner that triggers a right to redress. Perhaps it’s through promising you something. Perhaps it’s through membership in some group, the members of which are expected to ‘pay dues’ of some sort.

In virtue of this obligation, I, the ower, am now ‘liable’ on the new obligation. You, the owner, now ‘hold’ a new asset – the asset that’s my liability. Here is the start of accounting. Of shared ledgers. All accounting at bottom is obligation-accounting, justice-accounting – tracking what’s due and by whom and to whom.

Liabilities that come into existence ex nihilo – by my promising you something ‘gratuitously,’ for example – give salient rise to a two-sided danger, something a lot like the Janus-faced monetary risk of ‘inflation’ and ‘deflation.’ For one can in principle promise more than she can deliver, thereby devaluing her promises in time. Or, fearing this prospect, she can ‘not make any promises,’ thereby impoverishing her life by depriving it of the rich fabric of association and shared action that lends and brings value to life in communion with others.

Promissory inflation and deflation, through devaluation or contraction, deprive life of much of its obligatory content. And life without obligation would be life without liabilities, life without assets. It would in that sense be life without worth, without wealth, without value. It would be life without any vindicatable expectation – life without ‘rights,’ without ‘wrongs,’ without ‘right or wrong.’

How dismal that would be.

Life with real value accordingly requires, not gold (more on which below), but observance of some ‘golden mean’ – the mean between wronging and not acting, the mean between over- and under-committing. And this is as true of us in our collective capacities as it is of us in our individual capacities.

Continue reading

Predatory Lending and the Predator State

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Raul Carrillo–

Like most advocates of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), I didn’t embrace the paradigm because I dig late-night chats about accounting identities. Rather, I found it while pursuing economic justice (following the lead of Angela Harris, Emma Coleman Jordan, and other allies). Today, I fight financial predators — banks, landlords, debt collectors, and agencies engaged in racialized wealth extraction — on the daily. And so, my MMT enthusiasm remains…practical.

Although the commentariat caricatures MMT as a rationalization for U.S. deficit spending, it’s something more powerful — a new interdisciplinary lens, shaped for eyes on the prize of justice. Most importantly, MMT is rooted in legal analysis; its neochartalist foundations help illuminate financial hierarchies — so we can better dismantle them around the world.

As elites literally claim human survival is “too expensive”, it’s crucial for movements to absorb this symposium’s chief insight: money itself, although not always starkly a creature of the “state”, is a creature of law, just like the institutions through which it flows.

When we analyze money as public software, rather than private hardware, we see political economy differently. For example, as Harris argues, any movement for economic justice must overcome the toxic trope of the “undeserving benefit recipient” (and the corollary trope of the put-upon khaki-clad patriarch). In my view, MMT helps us challenge this divide-and-conquer strategy, by undermining the technical premises of “taxpayer citizenship” — the racialized and gendered notion that rights should correspond to one’s nominal contributions to government coffers. When Stephanie Kelton reminds us that “money doesn’t grow on rich people”, she is making an inference LPE readers should appreciate: the wealthy do not get their money by generating it, but by mastering a system that routes tradeable legal claims on real resources that we collectively produce (i.e. “money”) to themselves. As I’ve emphasized, the coercion Robert Lee Hale described leads the rest of us not merely to work, but to work for legal tender, which can settle debts between individuals, but must satisfy debts to the state (most notably, taxes).

Continue reading

Reclaiming Public Fiscal Power for Transforming Precarity

Reclaiming Public Fiscal Power for Transforming Precarity

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Martha T. McCluskey–

Basic legal ideas about taxation stand in the way of proposals for ambitious fiscal policies to address pervasive economic insecurity among both middle class and lower income households.

The conventional legal framework posits two primary functions for taxation. First, taxes raise revenue to finance government goods and services. Second, taxes redistribute resources, transferring money from some private interests to others based on ideas about distributional equity. Taxes also regulate private economic behavior, but this third function is generally treated as supplementary and subordinate, with economic ordering mainly directed by basic legal rules and the administrative state.

In orthodox law and economics, “optimal” tax policy achieves the two primary goals with the least “distortion” of private value-maximizing decisions in a presumed efficient and equitable market unsullied by taxes. This optimal tax theory aims to replicate a mythical market where money passively realizes and measures an underlying value fixed by barter-like exchanges of real goods, and services.

This seemingly benign conceptual frame implicitly locates economic productivity in a distinct and underlying private market sphere, with government taxing and spending cast as taking value from those who have created it. From this starting point, households can receive public support either as beneficiaries of forced public charity or as responsible consumers willing and able to pay an equivalent amount in taxes. If progressive taxing and spending programs are construed as involuntary, inherently inefficient, transfers of money from productive market winners to support less capable market losers, then that public support will tend to appear to generally inscribe rather than relieve conditions of precarity and powerlessness.

This conventional frame obscures how taxation creates money as a means for generating and distributing economic power and insecurity. Tax theory tends to ignore how law constructs and governs money, treating money as a neutral measure of social contribution.

Continue reading

Financial Regulation and Social Reproduction

Financial Regulation and Social Reproduction

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Donatella Alessandrini —

Even amongst critical scholars, there is a tendency to treat international regulation of money and finance as “strictly economic”, distinct from the “social” domains of labor, the environment, and socio-economic rights. This conceptual separation cedes the realm of finance to the “neutral” neoliberal technocracy while occluding interrelationships between finance, production, and social reproduction. Placing social reproduction at the center of our analysis forces us to overcome these false dichotomies and confront finance’s role in the shaping of the “social”.

Continue reading

Money and Property

Money and Property

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Lua Yuille and Rohan Grey —

Money and property law are mutually constitutive. Property rights are defined and valued in terms of their relationship to monetary instruments, while whether something counts as a monetary instrument for this or that purpose is itself a result of bundling property rights a certain way. Yet property law treats money as opaque: a neutral measuring stick that happens to prove useful in the process of doing the real work of property.* This is partly because money is grossly under-theorized and misunderstood by property law scholars. In property law, “money provides the unit in which prices appear, supplies a medium of exchange, and acts as a store of value”, but it does so as if by magic. Unlike students of economics, who are introduced to money through the self-consciously ahistorical fable that money evolved as an evolutionary response to the inefficiency and inadequacy of barter, American law students are not formally introduced to money at all. Money is taken as an idea that needs no articulation or unpacking. The result is a  ‘functional monetary illiteracy’ that fails to conceptualize the complicated relationship between money and property law, serving to obscure the role of the state and of private power in defining each.**

Continue reading

The Legal Construction of Value

The Legal Construction of Value

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Roy Kreitner —

Legal realists and their heirs made it into a truism: law is constantly entangled in value judgment. The statement is typically aimed at undermining one sense of the claim that law and legal judgment are or even could be neutral, value-free. But that is no the full extent of the realist point.

Beyond the issue of neutrality lies the question of how law constitutes value in the first place. It is not just that legal decisionmaking necessitates underlying values, it is that legal decisions shape the process of attributing, assigning, or creating value. Of course, there are multiple modes of valuation, and some are (thankfully) quite distant from the law (think friendship). But modern market societies overwhelmingly value resources, goods, services, and benefits of almost every stripe through money, and money is made of law. This may seem a simple point, but exploring its implications should disorient—and perhaps reorient—how we think about the relationship between law, values, and markets.

Continue reading

Money as a Constitutional Medium

Money as a Constitutional Medium

NB: This post is part of the “Piercing the Monetary Veil” symposium. Other contributions can be found here.

Christine Desan —

In 2017, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York published a comic book on the origins of money. The story, called “Once Upon a Dime,” unspools sweetly. Far far away, on the planet Novus, a community of good-willed humanoids live together, trading what they have for what they need – mustard for fish, wheels for cakes. In good time, the inconveniences of barter push them to innovate. All agree to give and take artfully carved river stones as money. That eases their trade; they can “Do It More Efficiently” (thus the “dime”) and the little community prospers. People soon warehouse their rocks with a caretaker, who begins allowing customers to transfer rocks from one account to another by check. The caretaker also advances some of the funds he has “stored here at the bank.” Inter-bank loans follow naturally, as does a run on the banks. In the end, the group establishes a central bank to monitor the other banks and lend them money during emergencies.  In short, “first money replaced barter,” then banks developed “as storehouses” and as lenders, then the group appoints a central bank to supervise the banks.

“Once Upon a Dime” does not stray from the conventional story about money. To the contrary, it reinforces the tale, teaching it at a primary level and in living color. That makes the comic all the more arresting: it makes a constitutional argument about the nature of money and its place in society even as it deflects attention by casting the medium as a mechanical fix for a private problem.

Consider, first, the way the comic locates money firmly within the sphere of individual choice as opposed to the political will: money is the product of entrepreneurial initiative (the proposal to use rocks as a medium), adopted by social acclaim (convention as opposed to public authority), and targeted at a technical problem (awkward exchange). Distribution is assumed; the river rocks somehow spread around society. Banks evolve from a storage mechanism, a phenomenon of convenience more than credit. As for credit, it simply shifts resources, rather than creating new value, a service like any other. The central bank is only ambiguously “public,” an institution that will enforce self-evident standards of practice and provide occasional rescue.

Consider, in turn, the way the narrative diverts our attention as lawyers. By locating money as an inert medium and banks as the mechanism that pools and shifts the medium, the story asserts them only and emphatically as technologies of exchange.   Public authority surfaces only as a coordinating mechanism, occasioned to resolve a predictable collision of individual demand. If money operates on earth as it operates on Novus, there is really nothing much for us to see.

That is where the story falls apart.

Continue reading