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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Let's All Talk Past Each Other

Cullen Roche: 

The govt CAN set the price of anything it wants. It can also put us all in jail, murder everyone, give everyone a job, tax us all 100%, etc etc. But none of this means they SHOULD. MMT takes the monopolist argument to this extreme claiming that the govt SHOULD hire everyone just because it can – based on the idea that this is just what monopolists do – they set prices, etc. It’s just wrong because the idea of the money monopolist is wrong. And instead of building a persuasive moral argument here they build a faulty economic argument based on a misleading perception of the way the monetary system works. Wray says it’s all just based on an understanding of modern money. Except the MMT idea of the way the money system works is wrong! Which is why they make these faulty conclusions like the JG. Personally, I think they’d have more luck selling the JG as a moral policy because the economic argument is very weak in my opinion. (http://monetaryrealism.com/)

L. Randall Wray:

Here’s the rub. Bank money is privately created when a bank buys an asset—which could be your mortgage IOU backed by your home, or a firm’s IOU backed by commercial real estate, or a local government’s IOU backed by prospective tax revenues. But it can also buy one of those complex sliced and diced and securitized toxic waste assets that created all the trouble since 2007. A clever and ethically challenged banker will buy completely fictitious “assets” and pay himself huge bonuses for nonexistent profits while making uncollectible “loans” to all of his deadbeat relatives.   

The bank money he creates while running the bank into the ground is as good as the government money the Treasury creates serving the public interest. And that crooked banker will happily pay outrageous prices for assets, or lend to his family, friends, and fellow frauds so that they can pay outrageous prices, fueling asset price inflation. This generates nice virtuous cycles in the form of bubbles that attract more money until the inevitable bust. I won’t go into output price inflation except to note that asset price bubbles can fuel spending on consumption and investment goods, spilling-over into commodities prices, so on some conditions there can be a link between asset and output price inflations. 
...
Since government is the only source of the currency required to pay taxes, and since at least some people do have to pay taxes, government has pricing power—that is, can set the conditions according to which it will supply the currency.  
Just as a water monopolist does not let the market determine an equilibrium price for water, the money monopolist should not let the market determine the conditions on which money is supplied. Rather, the best way to operate a money monopoly is to set the “price” and let the “quantity” float—just like the water monopolist does.  
My favorite example is Minsky’s universal employer of last resort (ELR) program in which the federal government offers to pay a basic wage and benefit package (say $12 per hour plus usual benefits), and then hires all who are ready and willing to work for that compensation (Wray 1998). The “price” (labor compensation) is fixed, and the “quantity” (number employed) floats in a countercyclical manner. With ELR, we achieve full employment (as normally defined) with greater stability of wages, and as government spending on the program moves countercyclically, we also get greater stability of income (and thus of consumption and production).   ("Keynes after 75 Years...")


Cullen obviously completely misinterprets(and misunderstands) Wray.  Yes, the federal government is the monopoly issuer of our currency, but that doesn't mean they have 100% control over what happens with that currency (anymore than a monopolist of water has control over how their water is consumed or used at the end of the day).  Further, I would presume the MMT folk would agree that the private demand for credit can have a feedback (circuit / horizontal) effect on the issuance of more and more currency.

The other annoying thing about Cullen's analysis is he seems to think he's (and Steve Waldman) come up with a fresh new paradigm he calls "diaganolism."  I don't know if he's aware, but the concept of an upward sloping credit money curve goes back to the 80s and 90s and the horizontalist v. structuralist debates which Wray is perfectly aware of.   Wray: "There are structural and horizontal aspects of the money supply process."

Wray equates MMT understanding of money monopoly with Minsky's jobs guarantee (employer or last resort) idea.   Though, to my knowledge, he never ties the two together. IE, how is the government the monopoly issuer (demander) of labor jobs?  I don't get that.  I don't see the relationship.  It's made up.  It's not at all the same.  That neither suggests JG is a good idea or a bad idea (I've expressed skepticism but that's just me) but it also doesn't at all mean: "because government is the monopoly issuer of the dollar therefore they should become an employer or last resort."  I don't see this connection.  Feel free to enlighten me but it's almost like he's taking a positive statement about how money operates to conclude a normative statement about how labor should operate.  

46 comments:

Ramanan said...

Garth,

IMHO, Macroeconomics should be about how to reach full employment *worldwide*.

I know you have made the distinction between positive and normative economics in the past and that is a normative point of view personally - although I don't use it when describing economies.

Having said that there is nothing enforced on an economist to research only in topics on full employment. It shouldn't be.

The Chartalists' point of view is that since presumably Macro is the subject of full employment and they have an answer to the question - why not use it.

However they should be careful in not trying to go for the overkill. For example, there is, I believe no monopoly in the sense meant. The phrase monopoly is used by economists to describe the fact that central banks have a monopoly on currency *notes* (which were earlier issued by banks as well - no longer, mostly).

There is no monopoly on the "dollar" because the $1 in your bank account is as much a dollar as is the $1 of currency notes.

There is no monopoly on money if money is defined as monetary aggregate measures such as M1, M2 etc.
And if money is defined to mean government's liabilities ... The government sector is the only issuer of its liabilities such as Treasury securities and if there is a monopoly here then so is the case for GE which is the monopoly issuer of GE bonds. Nobody else can issue GE bonds.

So the only monopoly - in a restricted sense - is on currency notes and settlement balances of banks. A pure monopolist in the economists' sense can - I imagine - control the supply of what he produces - such as not producing anything - but a central bank cannot fully control the supply of settlement balances - for example while it can reserve add, it cannot reserve drain so easily.

I am somehow reminded of this from a Joan Robinson article "What Are The Questions"

The movement of the 'thirties was an attempt to bring analysis to bear on actual problems. Discussion of an actual problem cannot avoid the question of what should be done about it; questions of policy involve politics (laissez-faire is just as much a policy as any other). Politics involve ideology; there is no such thing as a "purely economic" problem that can be settled by purely economic logic; political interests and political prejudice are involved in every discussion of actual questions. The participants in every controversy divide into schools-conservative or radical-and ideology is apt to seep into logic. In economics, arguments are largely devoted, as in theology, to supporting doctrines rather than testing hypotheses.

Ramanan said...

Garth,

I posted a comment here. I guess the spam filter thought it was spam. Can you check?

Garth A Brazelton said...

Sure, if I can figure out how to do that :). If you send me your comment, I'd be happy to post it on your behalf.

Ramanan said...

Oh I hadn't saved but now I see it has appeared.

Garth A Brazelton said...

I figured it out! How proud I am :).

I actually agree with your point Ramanan the use of the word 'monopoly' is a bit misleading. But again, these are semantic issues that MMT seems to have a problem in general.

I was trying to explain the nuance you outline by suggesting the the Central Bank is the sole creator of the currency (in terms of the monetary base) while also simultaneously saying money is endogenous (there is a horizontal component a la Steve Keen, etc). It is in this sense though that using terms like 'monopoly' seems to be not very useful. 100% agreed.

And I think this is a legitimate point raised by Roche as I believe Wray confuses things further by trying to tie JG with MMT on this basis of 'monopoly'.

That said, Roche seems to confuse Wray's occasional poor choice of words against his volumes of research and thought (including the paper I cite) where he very clearly outlines positive modern monetary actions.

Both men talk past each other.

Garth A Brazelton said...

At the end of the day, rather than using the word "Monopoly," Wray could suffice in saying that the government, unlike the private sector, has unlimited power to extinguish liability by creating unlimited amount of monetary asset.

The private sector can only extinguish certain liability by the accommodation of the public sector.

IE, it's not that the government is a 'monopolist' of money - it's that it has the root of the power.

Anonymous said...

Have either of you actually read Wray's work on this subject?

He is clear:

"Much confusion is generated by using the term “money” to indicate a money “thing” used to satisfy one of the functions of money. I will be careful to use the term “money” to refer to the unit of account or money as an institution, and “money thing” to refer to something denominated in the money of account—whether that is currency, a bank deposit, or other money-denominated liability."

http://www.moslereconomics.com/wp-content/graphs/2009/07/money.doc

Whether we agree with Wray's use of the term or not makes absolutely no difference to whether the JG or other MMT policies are a good idea.

Cullen Roche's argument - that 'money is not a government monopoly because banks issue credit, therefore there is no rationale for the JG because that depends on money being a monopoly'
is simply purely nonsensical. It is utter garbage. It's such a transparently muddled and irrelevant argument that it really is extremely difficult to see why anyone would treat it with anything other than total derision.

And I'm being a bit rude here because it's just getting so very tiresome. The Cullen Roche Show is just becoming increasingly boring and irritating over time.

Garth A Brazelton said...

Anonomous,

Rudeness aside I disagree that that is all of what Cullen Roche is saying exactly (I feel you are taking some of his concerns out of context), and I can't confirm or deny Wray's use of 'money' vs. 'money thing' and whether or not he stays true to the distinction over decades of research and blog posts, but I will say I think creating the term money "thing" is what is nonsensical.

In the end, your irritation and annoyance toward me is not well founded. If you are irritated by Mr. Roche, go rant on Mr. Roche's blog... anonymously if you like.

Anonymous said...

I'm not irritated by you, just by Roche's endless repetition of silly arguments. I don't comment over there.

The following quotes may be of some help to those MMRists who are still confused about Pavlina Tcherneva's particular stance on this subject:

"the State is the “money monopolist” of what it demands for payment of taxes"

"To recapitulate... the government is the single monopoly supplier of currency, and as such it has the power to set taxes and prices exogenously. Furthermore, there is an option open to the State that can eliminate the problems of unemployment and provide
meaningful price stability as well."

http://www.epicoalition.org/docs/Pavlina_2007.pdf

Ramanan said...

Anonymous,

"Have either of you actually read Wray's work on this subject?"

Yes i have.

"He is clear:"

No, he is not clear.

" I will be careful to use the term “money” to refer to the unit of account or money as an institution,"

okay but historically money arose without the State. wray himself has stated many times that money existed before the State came in.

self contradiction.

"it's just getting so very tiresome."

Same here. some good syntax may help.

Ramanan said...

Garth @May 3, 2012 1:18 PM,

Yes I guess it's not easy to convince the power of fiscal policy so there is a tendency there to exaggerate things.

I believe Cullen attempts to say that.

Ramanan said...

"...has the power to set taxes and prices exogenously."

which country's government sets prices exogenously?

Anonymous said...

"which country's government sets prices exogenously?"

The quote says "has the power to set prices exogenously".

Senexx said...

First, let me say I wish Cullen &c the best of luck with MMR.

On the term monopolist or monopoly I find the word accurate, relevant and useful. On Neochartalism/MMT as a whole it lifts the veil on every other economic school of thought which uses nebulous terms.

MMT terminology will improve but I don't find the semantic argument over monopoly or whether we change the word to power or "root of power" useful at all. Those challenged by the word "monopoly" could just as well use the phrase "swing producer" as is the case with oil & Saudi Arabia - it will go closer to what you intend to say but I find the "root of power" or "swing producer" when referring to the monopolist issuing of currency misleading.

The semantic issue is with other schools of thought. I've echoed this on the web in my quick response to Lavoie's friendly criticism of MMT where he prefers MMT to use standard economic jargon. That to me is just hiding MMT back behind the veil.

At times I've seen MMR reflect TCM or MCT (circuitist) views if you prefer and to all their counter-proposals it seems as if they are reinventing the wheel.

markg said...

From my understanding of MMT, the govt MUST spend enough so the private sector has enough money to pay its tax obligation. This must happen for the system to work properly. How does the govt know how much to spend? The govt must know how much the private sector is going to save, invest, and trade externally. And the govt must know this in advance. After the fact is too late. The way I see it, the only way to get it right is to float spending. Since taxes create unemployment, the spending that should be floated is to buy the unemployed labor. This is why a JG is a necessary part of MMT. Roche will never understand the true nature of the system. Disclaimer: I am not an MMT expert so do not use my comments against MMT.

Ramanan said...

"I've echoed this on the web in my quick response to Lavoie's friendly criticism of MMT where he prefers MMT to use standard economic jargon"

Well he was responding to the fact that the Neochartalists tend to use language such as spending for lending by the central bank. Hence he is quite right.

Ramanan said...

" govt MUST spend enough so the private sector has enough money to pay its tax obligation."

Yes they say that and it is incorrect.

Take the Australian domesticprivate sector. It is a net debtor to the other sectors. Yet it pays taxes.

Anonymous said...

Ramanan,

Tax obligations are settled in the state currency. That can't really happen unless the state provides some of that currency in the first place.

"self contradiction"

There isn't really a contradiction between arguing that "money is a public monopoly" today (in the sense meant by Wray) and stating that money may have preceeded 'the state' historically.

Perhaps Wray has changed his views on the historical origins of money over the years, perhaps he hasn't. Maybe there are inconsistencies between his different accounts. This is irrelevant to the question of whether the JG and other MMT policies are good ideas or not.

Here's Wray describing his position again in a different paper:

"if we recognize that the money
of account is chosen by the state, and that only the state can issue domestic currency, then we should view “money” as a public monopoly."

http://www.levyinstitute.org/pubs/wp_658.pdf

Notice the speech marks?
Again, we can disagree with Wray's argument and his use of language, but this makes absolutely no difference to whether the JG is a good policy option or not. For some bizarre reason however, Cullen Roche seems to believe that it does.

Anonymous said...

Roche's odd confusion over this subject seems to spring from his apparent misreading of certain texts regarding price setting and monopoly.

The following quote from Paul Davidson's 'Full Employment and Price Stability' (http://moslereconomics.com/mandatory-readings/full-employment-and-price-stability/) should help to clear up some of Cullen's confusion:

"The government has the same pricing options with its money of any monopoly supplier of an absolute necessity. An analogy can be drawn, for example, with an electric utility monopoly although taxes give the currency monopolist a tool to regulate demand that the electric utility monopolist does not have.

How does the monopolist price his product? There are two options:

1.Set price, p, and let quantity, q, float, or
2.Set q and let p float.

The first option is generally preferred, with a gold standard or the proposed ELR program two examples of using the first option.

However, the government is currently employing the second option. It sets a budget that determines q (spending), and lets the market determine p (price level) as all purchases are made at market prices. If the monopolist decides to set q, and let the market decide p, it must constrain q so that demand exceeds q, or, for all practical purposes, the price of its product will fall towards 0. Government constraint of q to control p means using continuous unemployment and excess capacity to maintain price stability. Surely this would never be considered a viable option in running an electric utility monopoly, for example.
......

The ELR proposal uses the option of setting one price, the ELR wage, paying market prices for other purchases, and letting the total quantity of government spending be market determined.

With a gold standard, gold can always be considered fully employed as gold can always be sold to the government at the fixed price. Likewise, with an ELR policy, labor can always find a buyer."

Senexx said...

"Well he was responding to the fact that the Neochartalists tend to use language such as spending for lending by the central bank. Hence he is quite right. "

Not if you accept the consolidated Treasury/Central Bank argument.

Even if you don't, it just requires more words to explain the exact same double-entry accounting result. So there was some abstraction, so what?

"Take the Australian domesticprivate sector. It is a net debtor to the other sectors. Yet it pays taxes."

And watch the recession hit in the oncoming year unless deficit spending comes in via another stimulus package.

Let's accept what you say at face value though - so what happens?

Garth A Brazelton said...

"
The ELR proposal uses the option of setting one price, the ELR wage, paying market prices for other purchases, and letting the total quantity of government spending be market determined."

THis is part of what doesn't make any sense using the monopoly analogy.

A monopolist sells one good and sets the price of that good and let's quantity float.

The above sets one price of one type of thing - but not all prices, just part of one price of one thing in the entire economy (it sets a wage floor set by the public sector but all other wages are free to float in the private sector).

It let's all other prices of everything else be determined elsewhere....it's not at all like a monopoly. IMOP this employs a fallacy of aggregation - it assumes the actions of individidual (monopolist) at the group / macro level. It it in this sense that it is nonsensical.

Anonymous said...

"A monopolist sells one good and sets the price of that good and lets quantity float."

Davidson argues that a monopoly supplier can either set price and let quantity float, or can set quantity and let price float.

To solve the problem of unemployment whilst controlling inflation, the government can set a price (ELR wage) and let the quantity (number of people in the ELR) float. The alternative approach, of setting a quantity and letting price float, entails the existence of unemployment so as to control inflation.

Garth A Brazelton said...

The long and short of it for me is that MMT makes an assumption that ELR/JG's buffer stock invokes some automatic price stabilizer via the wage-price relationship.

But anyone that has lived through our most recent debt bubble knows that wage-driven inflation isn't the only thing one need be concerned with.

JG also can add perversions to the labor market and disincentives to leave the program. It also, in so far as there is no such thing as a 100% labor driven project, could distort relative prices of capital and obviously moral hazard issues come into play as well.

Point is, just because it works in an equation, doesn't mean it's essentially the best option.

Anonymous said...

"anyone that has lived through our most recent debt bubble knows that wage-driven inflation isn't the only thing one need be concerned with."

You're right. And the MMTers know this too. The point is that the JG is simply an alternative to the current policies of controlling wage-driven inflation through unemployment.

The JG would in theory do much the same thing as current NAIRU-type policies, except that the 'buffer' (as MMTers call it) would be employed rather than not.

"JG also can add perversions to the labor market and disincentives to leave the program. It also, in so far as there is no such thing as a 100% labor driven project, could distort relative prices of capital and obviously moral hazard issues come into play as well."

These are valid criticisms and may be real problems. They are worth discussing. A pseudo argument made on the basis of some misunderstood texts and irrelevant out-of-context quotes (a la Roche) is not.

Woj said...

My reading of Minsky's ELR is somewhat different from the JG as suggested by current MMTers. In MInsky's case, the wage price was set at some minimum level and could not be adjusted upwards. Therefore, individuals accepting those jobs hold no hope of any raises while working for the public sector. The programs suggested by Minksy were also directed largely at the youth population with a goal of maintaining full employment (4-6% unemployment, not 100%).

From my reading, the current JG attempts to make public employment significantly more desirable and to include a much larger population. An issue with either program is that once government enacts this sort of plan, there will be enormous political pressure to push up wages and benefits for those employees so that the program continues to increase.

I'm not entirely against the ideas presented by Minsky, but think more time should be spent discussing the political pressures that this type of program induces and how to manage those problems.

Anonymous said...

The JG is a fixed wage program - that's the basic point. There appears to be some disagreement among MMTers about exactly what that wage should be, what kind of work should be offered, or what kind of additional benefits should come with the job.

The work could be provided directly by government or through private non-profit organisations.

The basic JG idea is the same as Minsky's, though the number of people in the JG program could potentially be everyone who is involuntarily unemployed (willing, able and fit to work).

The only alternative solution for full employment (along with with low inflation) that I have seen offered by the 'MMRists' is Vickrey's inflation controlling market for price-rising permits - which is basically about controlling prices across the whole economy. Other than this the MMRists either tend to ignore the issue and imply that it's not their responsibility to come up with a solution, or else they dismiss unemployment as unimportant or the unemployed as being 'mentally ill'. Mike Sankowski also appears to be advocating a higher inflation target of around 4%, which might be an idea worth pursuing, or it might not.

Ramanan said...

"Not if you accept the consolidated Treasury/Central Bank argument.

Even if you don't, it just requires more words to explain the exact same double-entry accounting result. So there was some abstraction, so what?
"

No even if you consolidate, lending by the consolidated entity is not called spending.

Basic accounting.

Ramanan said...

"Tax obligations are settled in the state currency. That can't really happen unless the state provides some of that currency in the first place. "

Man ... same old, same old.

Yeah right. Try imagining grown up people who do not have a money economy gather and form a government and everyone is waiting for the government to "first spend and collect taxes"!

The argument "first spends" is really silly.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't referring to some hypothetical situation involving grown up people in a non-money economy.

I was saying that if the government wishes to take a form of money from the private sector which only the government produces, then it has to give some of that money to the private sector first.

Ramanan said...

"I was saying that if the government wishes to take a form of money from the private sector which only the government produces, then it has to give some of that money to the private sector first."

Again the first spends is silly. You could simply state that if the private sector wants a lot of saving, the government has to accommodate this demand by running a higher deficit unless it is prepared to run the economy at less than full employment.

Instead you go arguing one of chicken or egg came first and are adamant about it.

Anonymous said...

You could say that.

No reason why you shouldn't also state something that is simply logical - especially given the common misconception that government has to 'get money in' before it can 'put money out'.

The chronological sequence of the history of money since year zero(chicken and egg) were not what I was referring to above.

Anonymous said...

*was

Ramanan said...

"especially given the common misconception that government has to 'get money in' before it can 'put money out'."

No, there is no misconception. The US Treasury has no overdraft facility at the Federal Reserve.

So it has to get funds to spend.

You have to talk reality. This is not the first time I (and some commenters) have argued on this - check old Mosler threads and that in Billy Blog.

It's immaterial, spends first or spends later. In either cases the sectoral balances identity holds.

Now, this discussion is much away from other things but once again says that the way you construct statements unnecessarily becomes counterproductive. There is simply a problem of syntax.

Ramanan said...

*you as in MMTers in general

Anonymous said...

"No, there is no misconception. The US Treasury has no overdraft facility at the Federal Reserve.

So it has to get funds to spend."

If you've been following recent operational debates, you would know there are ways to get around this. Not a hard and fast rule.

"...once again says that the way you construct statements unnecessarily becomes counterproductive."

Not sure how you would call this "counterproductive." To whom is this counterproductive? You and a few other people? I find it irrelevant to the general message. When MMT interacts with mainstream the specifics never surround specific operational requirements between the Fed and Treasury. Where is the countered production?

Anonymous said...

I'm the previous anon, not the one above.

"The US Treasury has no overdraft facility at the Federal Reserve."

You are ignoring the fact that the Treasury and Federal Reserve are both different parts of the federal government.

The Fed is unusual in that it has a structure in which public and 'private' aspects overlap to a certain degree. Most central banks have a much simpler institutional structure.

The 'Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System' is an independent agency of the executive branch of the Federal Government (appointed by the president), and it determines monetary policy.

Ramanan said...

Anons,

this is confusing. May 4, 2012 10:55 AM sounded like the Anon from above but May 4, 2012 2:09 PM says he/she is the original Anon.

Either way, in the extreme event of market turbulence, the US Treasury can use its line of credit at the Federal Reserve but that's in future not now.

Right now, the US treasury needs funds at its TGA and TTL accounts to spend.

Whether this is good or bad is an entirely different matter.

You could simply state this instead of trying to argue as if the US Treasury has an open line of credit at the central bank whereas it has zero line of credit in reality.

A better way to say all this instead of using silly arguments such as "spends first" is to say that in most circumstances the government expenditure and the tax rate can be considered to be exogenous with the financing requirement as a residual.

Of course that doesn't appeal to a nontechnical person so there is a tendency to oversimplify and argue that "government spends first" and that the private sector needs to pay taxes and hence the government needs to run a deficit which is a dubious conclusion.

As I mentioned above - for the case of Australia, the domestic private sector is a net debtor to the other sectors and yet pays taxes - so your kind of reasoning is faulty.

Another example: an economy can be a strong net exporter and doesn't need government expenditure "to pay taxes". The government can happily be running a surplus for years without the domestic private sector having difficulties in paying taxes.

Anonymous said...

"When you pay taxes by writing a check to the federal government, they debit your bank’s reserve account at the Federal Reserve Bank. Reserves can only come from the Fed; the private sector can’t generate them. If your bank doesn’t have any, the check you write results in an overdraft in that bank’s reserve account. An overdraft is a loan from the Fed. So in any case, the funds to make payments to the federal government can only come from the federal government."

http://moslereconomics.com/wp-content/powerpoints/7DIF.pdf

"Right now, the US treasury needs funds at its TGA and TTL accounts to spend."

Kelton analyses this assumption in this paper:

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=115128

"an economy can be a strong net exporter and doesn't need government expenditure "to pay taxes". The government can happily be running a surplus for years without the domestic private sector having difficulties in paying taxes."

So long as there is enough "government money" or debt already in existence then technically you're correct.

Personally I remain unsure about the MMT claims that trade deficits aren't necessarily a problem and that "imports are a benefit, exports are a cost".

Calgacus said...

I will say I think creating the term money "thing" is what is nonsensical.

Well, then Keynes (or even earlier thinkers) should be blamed. Wray merely cites him & his definition.

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BW said...

I think what you're getting at in the post is that the split between MMR and MMT is really semantic.

The confusion comes in that some MMTers tend to equate MMT with JG. This is not because you have to support the JG if you understand the monetary system, but because JG has been a common thread of many of the developers of MMT.

When you actually MMT people about it they will say that ELR/JG is one possible policy option based on an understanding of how the monetary system works.

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