Welcome to the Shepheard Walwyn podcast and a two part interview with Michael Hudson, perhaps to the world’s most influential (but rarely acknowledged) economist. Michael has had a remarkable career starting off as a practical or reality-based economist working for a variety of institutions looking and how banks really behave.
On August 8th, Donald Trump took four executive actions on coronavirus relief. One was a memorandum deferring, to the end of the year, payment of the employee portion of the payroll tax for employees making less than $4000 biweekly. (Employer payments had already been deferred in the CARES act.)
We are again reaching the point in the business cycle known as “peak debt,” when debts have compounded to the point that their cumulative total cannot be paid. Student debt, credit card debt, auto loans, business debt and sovereign debt are all higher than they have ever been. As economist Michael Hudson writes in his provocative 2018 book, “…and forgive them their debts,” debts that can’t be paid won’t be paid. The question, he says, is how they won’t be paid.
The Democratic Party has clearly swung to the progressive left, with candidates in the first round of presidential debates coming up with one program after another to help the poor, the disadvantaged and the struggling middle class. Proposals ranged from a Universal Basic Income to Medicare for All to a Green New Deal to student debt forgiveness and free college tuition. The problem, as Stuart Varney observed on FOX Business, was that no one had a viable way to pay for it all without raising taxes or taking from other programs, a hard sell to voters. If robbing Peter to pay Paul is the only alternative, the proposals will go the way of Trump’s trillion dollar infrastructure bill for lack of funding.
The U.S. federal debt has more than doubled since the 2008 financial crisis, shooting up from $9.4 trillion in mid-2008 to over $22 trillion in April 2019. The debt is never paid off. The government just keeps paying the interest on it, and interest rates are rising.
As alarm bells sound over the advancing destruction of the environment, a variety of Green New Deal proposals have appeared in the US and Europe, along with some interesting academic debates about how to fund them. Monetary policy, normally relegated to obscure academic tomes and bureaucratic meetings behind closed doors, has suddenly taken center stage.
“Quantitative easing” was supposed to be an emergency measure. The Federal Reserve “eased” shrinkage in the money supply due to the 2008-09 credit crisis by pumping out trillions of dollars in new bank reserves. After the crisis, the presumption was that the Fed would “normalize” conditions by sopping up the excess reserves through “quantitative tightening” (QT) – raising interest rates and selling the securities it had bought with new reserves back into the market.
Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) is getting significant media attention these days, after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview that it should “be a larger part of our conversation” when it comes to funding the Green New Deal. According to MMT, the government can spend what it needs without worrying about deficits. MMT expert and Bernie Sanders advisor Prof. Stephanie Kelton says the government actually creates money when it spends. The real limit on spending is not an artificially imposed debt ceiling but a lack of labor and materials to do the work, leading to generalized price inflation. Only when that real ceiling is hit does the money need to be taxed back, and then not to fund government spending but to shrink the money supply in an economy that has run out of resources to put the extra money to work.
The interview with Professor Michael Hudson was conducted on 7 May 2018 in Beijing, by Professor Lau Kin Chi and Professor Sit Tsui Jade. Professor Hudson talked about his formative years, and his turn to economics from music as he found his mentor Terence McCarthy’s speech about economics beautiful and aesthetic. He recalled his experiences in research and teaching, and the background leading to his writing the many books on imperialism, balance of payment, history of debt, and fictitious capital. The interview was edited by George Lee, and produced by the Global University for Sustainability, July 2018.
Left Forum 2018: As our demands grow bolder—true full employment, the rebuilding of the social safety net starting with Medicare for All, an overdue green and just transition—so will the naysayers’ inevitable refrain: “How will you pay for it?” Developments in our understanding of monetary theory and the money system has, thankfully, illuminated a path forward out of the trap of austerity: when we understand how money actually works, we know that the obstacles to bold action at a national scale on jobs, healthcare, and climate are political, not economic.
War has indeed become perpetual and peace no longer even a fleeting wish nor a distant memory. We have become habituated to the rumblings of war and the steady drum beat of propaganda about war’s necessity and the noble motives that inspire it. We will close hospitals. We will close schools. We will close libraries and museums. We will sell off our parklands and water supply. People will sleep on the streets and go hungry. The war machine will go on.