(MMT - JG) + Medicare for All Not = MMT
In my last post, I discussed the first part of Beowulf's post entitled: “(MMT - JG) + Medicare for All = MMT,” and also some dialogues between Jamie Galbraith and both TomThumb and Beowulf related to the MMT Job Guarantee 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.
In Beowulf's post, he highlights replies by Jamie to a question about the JG including this point:
“. . . 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.”
Beowulf then remarks:
“I rather agree with his last point. As I’ve suggested before, Congress should dump universal healthcare funding onto the Fed’s lap. This would have the side benefit of providing the Fed with a fiscal policy tool; they could periodically adjust the rebate’s ratio of seigniorage vs transaction fee revenue depending on economic conditions.”
Beowulf then follows with more details of one of his way out-of-box proposals illustrating an unequaled talent (and I mean this in the best possible way) for policy wonkery, that puts the likes of the unjustly celebrated Ezra Klein to shame. Before I get to these details however, I'll note that the general idea would require Congressional legislation and also legislation that gives the undemocratic Fed more authority than it has now.
In my view it would reinforce the Fed's position in the Government, and since I think that position both violates constitutional separation of powers and also provides the financial industry with undue influence over the operations and policies of the Central Bank, my first reaction to Beowulf's proposal is that it incorporates a big negative to begin with.
Beo goes on with the details:
“To take a few minutes to unpack my last paragraph (you can punch out if you don’t want to go into the weeds)… While Obamacare was being debated in 2009, Anthony Weiner went on the Morning Joe show to make a ridiculously strong case for a single payer system (Part I, Part II). Congressman Weiner was promised a floor vote on a Medicare for All bill he drafted but Pelosi and/or the White House pressured him to drop it so people would pay less attention to how flawed Obamacare really was (but I digress). Unlike the HR 676 Medicare for All bill that you often see touted, Weiner’s bill was actually vetted by the CBO so its additional expenditures were matched by additional taxes… A LOT of new taxes (approx $1 trillion a year, that’s over and above current govt health spending that’d roll over into the new system). Raising taxes seems rather unnecessary since Congress could accrue this revenue without taxes or inflation simply by mandating the Fed deposit an equivalent amount in TGA every year.”
So, there's the Congressional action necessary for universal health care. Congress has to legislate Medicare for All, and then has to mandate that the Fed deposit an equivalent amount without either taxing or borrowing. So, where would the money come from? Beo goes on:
“The Federal Reserve Act was amended in 1980 to give the Fed governors (and NOT the FOMC) the authority to levy and adjust bank transaction fees. Of course this is completely different from bank transaction taxes, after all, only Congress can levy taxes! In 2005, UW-Madison Econ professor Edgar Feige proposed to President Bush’s tax reform panel a bank transaction tax (of approx. half of one percent) that would generate $1.8T in revenue (in 2002 dollars). My reading of the FRA is that the Fed could enact Feige’s plan on its own (though Congress can always push them if they won’t jump). In perhaps the most wonderful example ever of “its a feature, not a bug”, economist Bruce Barlett complained of Feige’s plan,
“Since GDP equals the money supply times the turnover of money—what economists call velocity—a fully effective transactions tax will presumably reduce velocity. Consequently, it would be severely deflationary unless the Federal Reserve substantially increased the money supply to compensate. It also means that the tax base will shrink as soon as the tax is imposed.”
“So this is the plan, the unstoppable force of $1 trillion in inflationary Medicare spending would meet the immovable object of $1 trillion in deflationary transaction fees. Of course we only need spending and revenue to match at full employment (and even that assumes no trade deficit demand leakage). At other times, The Fed could use this as an adjustable fiscal policy tool (the Board of Governors can amend their fee schedule at any time). When the economy falls short of full employment with balanced trade, the Fed could fund Medicare by cutting transaction fees and filling the deficit by way of the Mint with coin seigniorage (I’ll just note in passing that ordering, say, a $1 billion platinum coin seems less wasteful than a billion $1 coins, reasonable minds can differ).”
So, Beo has advanced an ingenious proposal for passing Medicare for All with perpetually mandated Fed funding coming from 1) bank fee revenue collected by the Fed and then deposited in the TGA, and 2) US Mint coin seigniorage profits generated by high face-value platinum coins during those years when recessions make it desirable for the Fed to back off some portion of its fee revenue for covering Medicare for All spending. Funding health care this way would not come up against the debt ceiling problem, and it would likely save the non-Government sector at least $800 B per year, or $8 Trillion over a decade, which it could use for other things besides health insurance/out of pocket spending, by putting the private health care insurers out of business and by disciplining the providers through cost negotiations with the Government, now acting as the single-payer.
An elegant proposal, right? But there are a few problems with it.
First, it makes the Fed always very subject to bank influence in the position of deciding what the bank fees will be. No doubt the banks will continuously push for reductions in the fee revenue and more reliance on seigniorage for Medicare funding.
Second, as indicated earlier, it increases the authority of an undemocratic institution that is already too powerful.
Third, why would Congress agree to mandate the Fed to go this way? The fees involved will be viewed as taxes by the banks, whatever they are called, so they will oppose them and will require their allies in both parties to defeat such a proposal.
Fourth, isn't the fiscal tool given to the Fed in the proposal relatively ineffective and also unnecessarily generous to the financial sector in hard times? That is, backing off the transaction fee revenue will feed bank gross profits which will be transmitted disproportionately to wealthy executives and stockholders. So, isn't the fiscal multiplier associated with backing off fee revenue and using coin seigniorage to fund Medicare for All likely to be relatively ineffective since we know that multiplier is likely to be similar to the one associated with tax cuts for the wealthy, which is roughly 30 cents on every dollar cut?
Fifth, isn't this proposal unnecessarily complex from a political point of view? That is, if Proof Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PPCS) (the method of getting around the debt ceiling originally suggested by Beo some time ago) is going to be used anyway, and the Executive is going to be brought into the picture, then why start with the Congress to try to get this done?
Why not do what I suggested in this recent post and earlier? Namely let the President start with a $60 T coin, pay down all the intra-governmental debt within a week, have the executive pay off all the debt subject to the limit held by the non-Government sector as it comes due, and then have roughly $45 Trillion in unappropriated funds sitting in the TGA, waiting for Congress to target them at specific programs.
The $45 T sitting there would serve as a very visible reminder that the Government has the money to do whatever it needs to do to help solve America's many problems; and certainly much more than enough needed to fund the full cost of Medicare for All for many years to come, in addition to State revenue sharing, payroll tax holidays, and a Job Guarantee program to entirely end the Great Recession and enable full employment at a living wage. I think this plan is much simpler than Beowulf's new proposal, and it has the advantage that it can generate unremitting pressure on the Congress to create Medicare for All, which it could no longer easily turn aside by pleading that the US is running out of money with $45 T sitting in the bank, and the capability to generate still more money at will if needed. No one would be able to tell the lie that the US was running out of money ever again.
Finally, it should be obvious that “(MMT - JG) + Medicare for All = MMT” is false, because even if PPCS is used for Medicare for All, its substitution for the JG still falls short of MMT objectives. Adding Medicare for All to other MMT initiatives, without implementing the JG will bring the economy closer to FE, than would have been the case without Medicare for All, but that wouldn't change the fact that we would still be relying on a buffer stock of unemployed persons to contain inflation. That's not an MMT prescription, because it is less in conformance with public purpose than relying on a buffer stock of employed persons for a host of reasons reviewed in many posts here.
But, in addition, and just as important, the JG program in its MMT context makes real for the first time FDR's proposed economic right to a job for all who are willing and physically and/or mentally able to work. I think that right is an essential aspect of the idea of public purpose, and that's why the JG program ought to be, and is, so closely tied to MMT.
In short, (MMT ? JG) + Medicare for All Not = MMT, and the only way someone can believe that it does, is if they either don't believe that the goal of economic policy in a democracy is to fulfill public purpose; or alternatively, if their ideas about public purpose don't include the right to a job offer at a living wage. Do all who call themselves MMTers believe in this right? I don't know.
But I do think that in the future, as more people in economics come to recognize that there are no value-free economic systems, and that MMT cannot be free of values and normative commitments, MMTers will come to recognize that they can't avoid making their normative commitments explicit. And when that day arrives, I think most MMT supporters and practitioners will decide that the normative commitments to real Full employment and FDR's right to full-time work are part and parcel of MMT, as is the JG itself, because it is the best method yet devised for fulfilling these aspects of public purpose.
And also because if MMT is anything at all, then it is surely the Economics for the Public Purpose that John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about in the 1970s. MMT is the modern embodiment of the tradition named by Galbraith in that fine book. Many of us still, and will always, revere the vision expressed in that book. To those who feel this way, Economics for the Public Purpose is the only economics we will practice, because it is the only economics worthy of the name.