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Yes, We Can Afford Prosperity! Guest Post

I just received a copy of the recent newsletter of the Health Services Employees, Local 768, District Council 37, AFSCME, AFL-CIO. It contains three articles by Michael Merrill, Dean of The Harry Van Arsdale Jr Center for Labor Studies, SUNY. Michael presents a good application of MMT to support his argument that our sovereign government can, and should, do more to promote shared prosperity.

While there are a couple of things I might have stated somewhat differently, there is so much in the newsletter that is worth reading that I thought it would be good to post each of Michael’s articles as guest blogs. In the first blog he counters the nonsense that Uncle Sam is too poor to do much to dig our country out of the deep hole in which it finds itself. In the second he presents the principles of MMT, with his own twists. In the final piece, he provides a brilliant defense of public sector workers.

So with Michael’s permission, here is part 1. I also encourage everyone to take a look at the newsletter: http://www.esc.edu/labor-studies-center/local-768-newsletter/. It is a nice antidote to the hysteria in Washington that threatens to shut down our government.

WE CAN AFFORD PROSPERITY!

by Michael Merrill

The Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies

The general public has been taught for thirty years and more to think of government as a burden on themselves and others, and therefore an obstacle to our shared prosperity. Anti-government propagandists have not only kept up a steady drum beat against any notion of public service that is not minimal, but they have also worked to slash government spending wherever and whenever possible.  Meanwhile, they promise that, if only we are patient, prosperity and happiness for all will emerge from the ruins of our public life.

They are wrong. And they always will be wrong. Cutting taxes and government social programs does not guarantee broadly-shared prosperity. It guarantees broadly-shared misery. And obstructing government effectiveness does not reward work. It rewards greed. Less government is not the path to more opportunity.  It is the path to less.

None know this more clearly than public employees, who do the work of government: it is the ground from which prosperity grows, that which makes the pursuit of happiness possible. As such, it is absolutely essential to our mutual well-being. Without good government, there can be no prosperity. They entail each other: the deeper and broader the government, the deeper and broader our prosperity.

What then do we do whenever the private sector cannot or will not deliver the goods? We mobilize government agencies to do what needs to be done—for example, provide jobs to the people who want to work, and essential services to all who have no access to them.

Take any service of choice: education, health care, communication, transportation, employment, or whatever. The government can, and properly ought, to ensure that they are available to everyone.

Take jobs. We can and should a provide job for everyone who wants to work; and we can and should ensure that such jobs pay a living wage. Such a jobs program is not a pipe dream or a wild fantasy. We have had them before—during the 1930s, for example, when the New Deal created jobs for millions of Americans; and during World War II, when the need to fight fascists on two fronts in a global conflict required that every able-bodied person be enlisted in the effort.

There is simply no good reason not to initiate such a program immediately, and every good reason to do so. It is not only the right thing to do. It is also possible. And it will certainly make us better off, not worse.

Those who disparage the idea of an active government dissent from this view. They insist that a job and wage guarantee would sap the moral fiber of the nation. They, too, are wrong. There is no reason to question, for example, the moral character of the vast majority of members of the armed forces. And yet they have both a job and a wage guarantee. There is no contradiction between working for the public and being a good worker.

Can we afford such programs? Even those who support government action to put the unemployed to work, worry we can’t—that doing the right thing will cost too much money. Aren’t taxes already too high? Isn’t the debt already too big? Won’t the combination bankrupt us or our children? Even though we are the richest nation in the history of the earth, there are many children in the US who go to bed hungry and many others who are homeless. And if we can’t afford to feed the hungry or house the homeless, how can we afford to employ the healthy—and at a living wage, no less?

These fears, too, are misplaced. They are the effect of either a failure to understand how modern money economies work or a cynical refusal to accept our responsibilities. The poverty or misfortune of some is neither a necessary condition nor a necessary effect of the wealth and fortune of others.

In fact, as I explain below, we can afford to do what we need to do.  The government, considered as a whole, is not restricted to spending only the money it raises in taxes or borrows from creditors. On the contrary, it creates the money it spends. It can pay cash—its own, not ours—for whatever it needs.

How is this possible you wonder? Isn’t taking such a view just laying the groundwork for over-spending and run-away inflation? No. The doomsayers are wrong and we will see below why they are wrong.  We actually have more to fear from austerity and deficit-mongering than from responsible spending and a healthy public sector.

The upshot of it all is that so long as the government manages its money-making capacity responsibly—in particular, so long as there is a government and it only pays people to do things that need to be done, then it can never run out of money and therefore never be forced to default—i.e., be unable to pay what it owes.

In other words, we can afford to do the right thing—ensure that everyone who wants to work has a job and makes a living wage; that everyone who is qualified to go to school can do so; that everyone who needs healthcare can get it.

Let’s see why.

More to come in the second part of the series.

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