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Dialogues with Jamie Galbraith and the MMT Job Guarantee

letsgetitdone's picture

A few days ago my friend Beowulf decided to exercise his wry sense of humor with this title of a post he offered for our consideration: “(MMT - JG) + Medicare for All = MMT.” Beo then goes on to talk about some details of a comment exchange with Jamie Galbraith at one of FiredogLake's Book Salon's featuring Jamie's new book Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis.

Dialogue 1, Jamie Galbraith/TomThumb

Beo points out that Jamie has been closely associated with the approach to economics called Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), most recently in a pretty good Washington Post article by Dylan Matthews, someone who clearly has little familiarity with who's who in MMT world. After setting the stage by pointing out that association, Beo goes on to quote part of Jamie's comment giving his reply to a previous question about what he thinks of the MMT Job Guarantee (JG) proposal.

Here's that reply:

“. . . To come back to the job-guarantee approach, I think asking the government to create jobs directly is not a robust solution. The problem is that the program goes right into the budget firing line, where it will get chopped up. That was the experience with CETA, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, back in the 1970s.

“So I prefer to think in terms of how to get decentralized institutions doing useful things, with their own funding streams, so that you can create jobs that endure. Education, health care, social services, home care, neighborhood conservation.”

Later FDL commenter TomThumb replied this way to Jamie:

“I worked under CETA as a Social Worker Assistant and then went right to Social Work graduate school when that ended in 1977. CETA works!

“Seems like you are giving up without a fight.”

To which Jamie replied:

“Good for you. I was on the congressional staff at that time so I still have some scars from the previous fight.

“But I think there are ways to get jobs funded — you just have to put a few degrees of separation between the program and the budget-cutters.”

TT quickly shot back:

“No. I disagree. I enjoyed it when you used to call for a direct frontal attack on their weasel words about creating jobs. Anything else is caving. In my opinion. Call them out for being do nothings. That is better than watching people get hurt every day and not making any changes.”

To which Jamie replied:

“Point taken. It’s a tactical issue and there are mornings when I agree with you.”

This exchange with TomThumb shows that Jamie is of two minds about direct Government job creation, and suggests the possibility that he might well prefer it if a Job Guarantee program could be structured as “. . . . a robust solution.”

I think it can be, but that discussion will have to wait for later in the post.

Dialogue 2, Jamie Galbraith/Beowulf

At this point Beowulf entered the discussion asking Jamie what he meant by the idea of getting jobs funded by putting “. . . a few degrees of separation between the program and the budget-cutters.”

To which Jamie replied:

“Well, I like the non-profit sector in this country a lot. Health care, education — these are useful things. Paul Samuelson once said to me “Health care is 15 percent of GDP, and it’s the best 15 percent of GDP.

“The thing about these sectors is, they have multiple funding streams. Higher ed has state money, federal money, tuition, philanthropy… This buffers the institution from cuts.

“If you go to (say) France, and look at what happens when you rely entirely on state funding for universities, you’ll see what I mean.

“That said, the federal government handles *insurance* extremely well. Social Security and Medicare are functional, efficient programs. That is why they are so hated by some people – and prized by others.”

To which Beo replies:

“That’s an interesting point, from a political standpoint, multiple sources of funding makes it more difficult to starve the beast (to say nothing of the politically powerful stakeholders in education and healthcare who won’t take losing their funding lightly).”

This dialogue is really interesting from an MMT point of view. Here's Jamie Galbraith and Beowulf, both of whom have more than a passing familiarity with MMT, talking about job creation in the non-profit sector through funding that doesn't derive from Government deficit spending.

Now, that kind of job creation isn't impossible provided the fiscal multiplier trades involved are favorable, but both Jamie and Beowulf know very well that, assuming multiplier trade-offs are equal, without deficit spending by the Government sector, or the non-Government sector decreasing its total savings and perhaps increasing its debt, raising funding for non-profit sector jobs is likely to cost jobs elsewhere in the non-Government sector. They also both know that from a purely economic/fiscal point of view there's no problem in funding a JG program. The problem with it is political. Namely, that in the current political climate a JG program, however structured, is very difficult to legislate (a point all three of us agree on).

Apart from that shared judgment of political difficulty, Jamie and Beowulf appear to diverge. Jamie says that not proposing a JG program is the best tactical choice right now. But Beowulf, who now favors the Modern Monetary Realism (MMR) approach, is opposed to the JG on strategic grounds because the MMR position is that the JG will not work as advertised by MMT, specifically, MMR believes that it will not produce full employment at a living wage with price stability, even if implemented as part of a broader MMT-like program including full payroll tax holidays and State revenue sharing.

The Upshot of the Dialogues

So, the upshot of these two contrasting dialogues is that both Jamie and Beowulf are talking outside of the MMT paradigm. And they are not acknowledging, or evaluating the implied MMT view that more “robust” job creation done in the non-profit sector without Federal deficit spending backing it, will in the end, either not be robust at all, or, alternatively will decrease the robustness of other non-Government sector employment.

Put another way, the lack of robustness critique of the JG policy idea based on the notion that JG funding will always be in the line of fire from deficit hawks and Republicans applies equally well to funding job creation in the non-profit sector, because ultimately that funding too, just like JG funding, can only be based on Federal deficit spending if it is to create new jobs, at least if we assume that imports will exceed exports, and that the non-Government sector will want to increase total savings during the period when new jobs are to be created.

Also, it looks like TomThumb, has it right. Jamie is giving up on the Job Guarantee idea too fast, because his view of its ultimate political fragility applies equally well to his proposal that the non-profit sector ought to do the job creation with non-Federal deficit funding. So, where do we go from here with the Job Guarantee proposal for direct job creation? Here are a few comments that contrast with Jamie's doubts and his views on the lack of robustness of JG job creation.

First, from my point of view, none of the MMT recovery proposals are likely to be accepted in today's political climate. So, the political feasibility criticism of MMT's JG proposal isn't any more weighty right now than similar criticisms of its payroll tax cut, and State revenue sharing proposals.

If any of them are to be passed, it will be necessary to overcome the ideology of austerity and get people in Washington to accept the fact that the American Government can't have solvency problems. Doing that is job no. 1.

When and if that is done, and people really believe that the Federal Government can afford the social safety net and all sorts of other spending too, then we can consider whether the whole MMT program including the JG is politically feasible or not. My last post outlines some things the President can do to take austerity off the table and bring the day when we can do this with a real feel for feasibility closer.

But these are not to the point here. The point, instead, is that when it is off the table, then there will be no compelling reason why permanent automatic annual Federal funding of FDR's right to a full-time job offer at a living wage, for every person if she/he wants to work, could not be funded through Federal spending, whether deficit or otherwise.

Second, Jamie says he prefers that the non-profit sector create the new jobs. However, the current MMT JG proposals are formulated so that even though the Government is the funder JG jobs, the work itself is actually defined, structured and supervised by the non-profit sector with the participation of local stakeholders who would define jobs that produce societally valued outcomes. Pavlina Tcherneva has been doing a lot of writing about this lately, (See also recent posts) as has Randy Wray. (See posts 38, 42-45 and also the response posts following each one.)

So, even though, the funding for an MMT JG program would come from the Federal Government, the non-profit sector would be heavily involved in specifying the jobs for the JG program. The result should be a program incorporating many of Jamie's ideas about non-profit capabilities, based on Federal funding that might have no robustness problems at all, provided that the ideology of fiscal austerity is politically defeated by the time the MMT program, including the JG passed.

Third, Golfer1John, a commenter on one of Randy Wray's recent JG posts suggested that the JG be renamed as The “Employment Insurance” program. I think this is a good name for it, because it describes what it offers to individuals who have been caught up by economic forces beyond their control, and it can also be marketed as part of an economic bill of rights.

In an environment where austerity has been defeated and the government is revealed as being able to fund anything that isn't so expansive that it will cause inflation, it ought to be no problem to justify both an employment insurance program to guarantee a job offer to people who want to work, and also a universal health care program based on the idea of Medicare for All. So, we can have recovery, Job Guarantees, Universal Health Care, and Reconstruction of our severely damaged economy and society without having to worry about "running of of money."

Beowulf's Proposal

After highlighting Jamie's view on the JG, but failing to review Jamie's exchange with TomThumb, Beowulf goes on to offer a proposal of his own about Medicare for All, playing off Jamie's remark that the Federal Government “handles 'insurance' very well. I'll discuss that brilliant, but ultimately undesirable, proposal in a future post. And that's when we'll get into the humor reflected in the title: “(MMT - JG) + Medicare for All = MMT.”

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beowulf's picture
Submitted by beowulf on

I didn't mention TT because I thought Tom was sort of rude to Jamie (“Seems like you are giving up without a fight.”) when the guy was sharing his time with readers to talk about the economy and his new book (Inequality and Instability). It was my impression that "I take your point" was more about Jamie being polite than a statement of (depending on the day) agreement.

But even conceding the point, I think my objection to the JG is a bit different than Jamie's. It sounds like he's worried about the govt funding it properly, I'm more worried about the govt operating it properly.

Submitted by lambert on

.... operating it.

I've been involved with completely dysfunctional non-profit organizations (not including churches which, back in the day, I found quite functional). I know the grant writing cycle is awful, but the dysfunction seemed to have taken on a life of its own.

So I'd vote for government. Some things the government does pretty well, and this could be one of them. (No, I don't know what the litmus test is. Probably no public-private partnerships.)

There's also (and I know this is completely off topic) the idea that government should just give people money which is the only reason, for most people, to work. That would be bad why? Atrios keeps pushing it. The banksters get whatever they want, so, really, why not everybody?

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win. -- Mahatma Gandhi

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

I've supported Peter Cooper's JIG, and still do, but I think that everything we support should be in the context of driving home the point that there are no Government solvency problems. That's why I keep harping on the $60 T coin. Once we get the idea that we can't afford this or that off the table, we'll be in a much better position to discuss other choices we'll be always be able to argue for enough funding to make the programs we want to try out get a fair test. JG, IG, and all the other kinds of policies proposed to solve problems can't work if they're inadequately funded. But once we take the austerity stuff off the table, there will be no reason to underfund them.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

But that's no reason not to support the JG and try to get it right. It's just so plain that an employed buffer stock will work better than an unemployed buffer stock.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

I didn't think TT was rude, and had I been in Jamie's position I wouldn't have taken offense.

bungalowkitchens's picture
Submitted by bungalowkitchens on

could take place if the government were willing to just give people money- enough money to have a decent life.

God knows I'd be doing a lot more writing if I didn't have to worry about where the mortgage payment and health insurance was coming from.

Conformists die, but heretics live on forever.

Elbert Hubbard

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

See my reply to Beo. I'd also include Art and writing jobs in the JG. In FDR's time Art work was funded in his jobs programs, and the outcomes were great.

beowulf's picture
Submitted by beowulf on

Yeah, I think a Milton Friedman-style negative income tax like Cap Weinberger's (Nixon's HEW Secretary) Income Supplement Program really is the way to go.
http://books.google.com/books?id=8ct2KNq...

I've never understood why people worry so much about people freeloading on a guaranteed income system. Most people are honest and want to work. As for the dishonest ones, it'll be a lot cheaper to pay them to sit on their couch instead of paying them to sit in jail.

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

But I'd like to see more simulation work on these alternatives. I'd also like to see the JG because it represents the right to a job offer. Them I wouldn't mind the negative income tax or some other income guarantee program as an alternative. Then we could see what people choose for themselves We;re rich enough to offer the choice. So, I think that's what we should do.

Submitted by lambert on

... the WPA projects (like the recordings of Blues artists for the Library of Congress) had a huge return socially.

But I'm not clear on the values distinctions between the two. It's like Jack Crow's question (I'm paraphrasing): "Why can't we all take it easy?" That's a hard question to answer.

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win. -- Mahatma Gandhi

letsgetitdone's picture
Submitted by letsgetitdone on

both before and after different activities, and actually measure value using the Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP). There are many tutorials available on the web.

However, it's hard to anticipate valued outcomes before the outcomes are actually experienced. But freedom from work required by others is itself a valuable outcome that should be weighted very heavily.

reslez's picture
Submitted by reslez on

don't want to take it easy. You yourself would choose to work -- do you take yourself for an exceptional case? Or can you accept that you represent the vast majority of people?

Humans have a need to be socially validated, which means demonstrating one's usefulness to friends and potential allies. People who sit around doing nothing aren't good allies. We want to contribute and to appear that we're contributing. Look at the social pressure that gets put to bear against "freeloaders"!

The small fraction who don't share this nearly universal human drive, or the fraction who construct a sociopathic subculture instead, can spend their time in jail or on the couch, as beowulf points out.