A couple of weeks ago Alice Marshall responded to some of the criticisms I made of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) a few months back. Her post is a good summary of both what I agree with about Modern Monetary Theory and my reservations. In fact, these few sentences put both in a nutshell:
Taxes do not finance government expenditure at the federal level. That alone is reason to embrace MMT. If it explains the world as it is, and I put it to you that it does, than we should use it as a basis for public policy.
I agree 100% with the first two sentences, which cover the monetary theory part of Modern Monetary Theory. Modern Monetary Theory can and should be used against those who call for austerity because we (allegedly) have no money. As I wrote earlier, though, I don’t think a successful effort would end the call for cuts in government spending:
The people who oppose policy like a job guarantee do not do so because they haven’t been introduced to a sufficiently persuasive economic model. They do so because they are ideologically opposed to federal social programs, and if you take away their current argument (“because no money”) they will just substitute it with the next handiest one (“because inflation”). But that’s not a legitimate problem, you say? No it isn’t. Neither is insolvency. Has that deterred them so far?
Still, succeeding would make those who used the “we’re broke” excuse look foolish, and that would have political consequences. As I concluded before, that seems like a tall enough order by itself.
So far, so good. It’s the extension of Modern Monetary Theory beyond monetary theory where I start to have reservations. Using Modern Monetary Theory as the basis for public policy is tricky because in addition to justifying liberal priorities like funding safety net programs or a job guarantee, it can also be used for neoliberal ends like slashing taxes and eliminating the minimum wage. When Modern Monetary Theory stops being a monetary theory, vague notions like “public purpose” and “productive capacity” come into play. Marshall admits we already have Modern Monetary Theory for big banks, as evidenced by the bailout and other extraordinary measures. Who is to say public purpose hasn’t been served by that? Who’s to say there isn’t an abundance of productive capacity bottled up in our entrepreneurial job creators just waiting to be unleashed by the elimination of the capital gains tax?
Nothing about Modern Monetary Theory is inherently just or equitable. It is, as Alice says, just a description of the way the world works - which is why I don’t really understand liberals putting a whole lot of time or energy into it. If one’s priority is the establishment (or protection) of just and equitable policies, Modern Monetary Theory is a terrible place to start. Every bit of time and effort getting it broadly accepted will get you precisely zero percent closer to those goals.
There isn’t a single founder of Modern Monetary Theory or a canonical text. Everything beyond that initial monetary theory is up for grabs. I’ve cited people presented as authorities on the subject only to be told they weren’t really MMT. But since there isn’t a single definitive source on how Modern Monetary Theory defines its non-monetary theory terms, that can be an argument against any objection. No one is MMT - or everyone is.
Those on the left tend to fall back on a sort of “MMT plus” formulation, as Alice does: “Speaking only for myself, I consider increasing taxes on the rich as necessary for preserving democracy.” Right, because Modern Monetary Theory can be used to justify cutting taxes, and whoever wins the battle for the soul of MMT will get to decide just how liberal - or neoliberal - it will be in practice. Which side would you bet on, particularly if it starts to be taken seriously? Political and economic elites have a pretty good track record of co-opting movements. One that has the enormous wiggle room of Modern Monetary Theory’s non-monetary theory components could be immediately put in their service, without even a brief period of progressive utility.
That’s why I think it is better to make the case for liberal policy up front, instead of obscuring it behind a Rorschach test presented as a monetary theory. Make the case for a job or income guarantee, or better funding of social programs, or what have you, make that case directly. If anyone asks how to pay for it, MMT. But lead by arguing in terms of justice and equity. Modern Monetary Theory is the details, and details belong in the background.
We’ve known for a while that fracking wells have serious integrity issues. A couple of years ago Anthony Ingraffea reported (PDF) on extensive well failures in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale. In June Ingraffea and a team of researches at Cornell followed up with a study estimating forty percent of Marcellus wells will fail over time. Newer wells appear to show higher leakage rates than older ones, so structural integrity is an increasing risk. Since there is no financial or regulatory incentive to build them well, they are getting less and not more reliable. The team also noted that the oil and gas industry was not exactly forthcoming on this topic:
Due to the lack of publicly available structural integrity monitoring records for onshore wells from industry, more recent studies have used data from state well inspection records to estimate the proportion of unconventional wells drilled that develop cement and/or casing structural integrity issues.
This is terrible, but at this point it is not news. So it was a little surprising Monday to see a new study about the structural integrity of fracking wells getting lots of play. Not that I’m complaining - better late than never - but it just seems like something to be treated as further confirmation of what we already knew, not some startling new discovery.
To her credit, Becky Oskin brought up the prior study and framed it in context. Mose Buchele of StateImpact Texas didn’t bring in the Marcellus angle, though maybe it’s outside his scope. A couple other reports really missed the mark though, and for the same reason: an industry-friendly framing of the scope of fracking.
From an environmental, policy, and public health perspective, fracking ought to be viewed as any activity in the entire industrial chain of unconventional natural gas extraction. Silica sand mining in Minnesota is fracking. Its transport to sites is fracking. The drilling of the well is fracking, the extraction from the well is fracking, the transport of the gas is fracking, and the storage of the toxic byproducts - until the last molecule goes inert - is fracking. Calling just the extraction of natural gas fracking is misleading at best and deceptive at worst, because that thing could not exist without all those other things. For anyone who cares about the entire impact of the process, it is absurd to characterize one part as the entirety.
Yet that is just what Matt McGrath of the BBC did, in an article headlined “Weak wells not fracking caused US gas leaks into water.” His article largely gives a pass to the industry, at one point flatly stating: “In none of the investigated wells was there a direct link to fracking.” As though those with contaminated water will be relieved the reason was shoddy practices by the industry and not something intrinsic to drilling. Ben Geman’s piece similarly leads with that framing: “They found that problems with gas-well construction, not fracking itself, is letting gases escape and reach drinking-water wells in some cases.”
Geman does a good job including caveats, and towards the end argues against exactly the framing he uses at the top: “the issues of water quality and fracking can’t be considered in isolation regardless of what’s allowing contaminants to escape.” But it’s damned frustrating to see what most people will take away - the headline and the start of the article - make the opposite point.
It could be that McGrath and Geman were too quick to accept a carefully parsed description from one of the authors:
“These results appear to rule out the possibility that methane has migrated up into drinking water aquifers because of horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing, as some people feared,” said Prof Avner Vengosh, from Duke University.
The team attempted to isolate a single variable and examine it, which they did, and they reported the results. All well and good. But outlets like the BBC and the National Journal report on a PNAS paper in the public’s interest. In other words, the important thing here is not the “horizontal drilling” part but the “methane in drinking water” part. So a study that exonerates one part of the process, but that says nothing about another (already-known) reason for contamination, gets us exactly nowhere in terms of its importance for the average citizen.
Maybe the reporters were swayed by the optimistic recommendations from the researchers. McGrath: “‘You need strong rules and regulations on well integrity,’ said Prof Jackson.” Geman: “[Ohio State earth-sciences professor Thomas Darrah] said that the findings are ‘relatively good news’ because ‘most of the issues we have identified can potentially be avoided by future improvements in well integrity.’” I don’t see how an industry that pushes through anti-transparency exceptions, buys politicians left and right, routinely outpaces the ability of agencies to monitor it, requires omertà for regulators but has a revolving door for them when they leave, violates the law yet continues to operate with impunity, doesn’t have sound construction practices elsewhere, and has a corrosive effect on democracy itself is going to embrace strict new rules on well construction.
That seems to be an important bit of context for the story. Leading with an (at best) incomplete framing and following up with hopeful policy prescriptions from scientists seems more likely to misinform readers than enlighten them. Because here is the message that comes across: There is a great and wonderful theoretical version of fracking out there we all should believe in, and any failure to see it in the real world is the fault of those who don’t share the vision, not of fracking itself. Yet somehow the fracking we end up with always ends up being so much worse than the fracking we are promised. Maybe someone could write an article about that.
On Monday the New York Times ran a piece by Nelson D. Schwartz titled “Boom in Energy Spurs Industry in the Rust Belt.” As straight news articles go, it’s not very straight. For some reason, the Times likes to give the occasional sloppy, um, kiss to the fracking industry, and this seems to be the latest in the series.
Near the start is a “correlation equals causation” argument: Fracking is big in northeast Ohio; factory hiring has ticked up in northeast Ohio; therefore fracking has led to the uptick:
Here in Ohio, in an arc stretching south from Youngstown past Canton and into the rural parts of the state where much of the natural gas is being drawn from shale deep underground, entire sectors like manufacturing, hotels, real estate and even law are being reshaped. A series of recent economic indicators, including factory hiring, shows momentum building nationally in the manufacturing sector.
Schwartz provides one example of actual causation, a pipe mill that employs 350 workers. That’s definitely good news for those employed there, but is it an example of the kind of region-transforming development that would justify the expansive tone? He notes the site used to house a mill that employed 1,400 people when it closed in 1979. And even though 1,400 dwarfs the number now working there, it only represents the last gasp of a dying industry. If you want to compare it to a “good old days” picture you need to go back a couple of years - to before Sept. 19, 1977, Black Monday, when 5,000 people were laid off. If you really want to talk about a reshaping, those are the kind of employment numbers you need to see. (Towards the end of the article Schwartz calls it a “nascent renaissance,” which is a considerably scaled down vision from the top of the piece.)
An anecdote is not data, and the data is out there for those who want to find it. Dean Baker looked at manufacturing employment in Youngstown and found that it is still way down from before the recession. As for fracking’s contribution to the employment picture, a study earlier this summer found: “Since the beginning of the recession, the mining and logging sector, which includes the shale gas industry, has only created 1,300 jobs.” So even when bundled with the numbers of a larger sector, its employment contribution is tiny.
Schwartz’ “momentum building nationally” wording is problematic, too. People don’t live in aggregate. Industry jobs often go to out-of-state workers, and even regional employment gains may be temporary. Once again, we aren’t talking steel mills here. There aren’t thousands of locals being employed long term at good wages, and implying otherwise is a disservice to readers. Considering that employment has increased less than 1 percent in the counties with the highest number of shale wells, the boom in energy doesn’t seem to be reaching many ordinary Ohioans.
So if manufacturing isn’t getting a boost from fracking, what about hotels, real estate and law? That last one is hard to figure from the article; Schwartz quotes a managing partner at a law firm who is considering hiring more people. How exactly does that add up to an entire sector being reshaped? He doesn’t mention how real estate being transformed either, though presumably he doesn’t mean in terms of people being evicted from their homes, having their houses razed or not being able to buy insurance policies for them.
As for hotels, Schwartz mentions an investor planning to build one. Again, not revolutionary. Now, hotels can see a bump in revenue as migrant workers come in to build infrastructure, but that is a temporary benefit. Funny enough, it’s become something of a fallback position for the industry as the job bonanza stubbornly refuses to materialize: “We need to look downstream from the drilling rig and realize all the auxiliary economic activity that swirls around this thing.” Not jobs, mind you, but auxiliary economic activity.
Finally, the article leans heavily on boosterism (“a real game-changer in terms of the U.S. economy”) and hopeful projections (“production of shale gas and so-called tight oil from shale could help create up to 1.7 million jobs nationally. Many of those jobs are expected to end up in places like this”) from industry consultants. But none of the spin is given any kind of scrutiny, it is just uncritically passed along.
Look, I’m as happy as the next guy that the New York Times decided to parachute in and give the area its unvarnished appraisal (“Youngstown and surrounding Mahoning County is hardly Silicon Valley or even Pittsburgh”), but getting a story like this right requires a little more than a visit to the chamber of commerce and a deli. The next time they pack up their pith helmets and mosquito netting for a trip here, it would be nice if they brought along a little curiosity too.
Ismael Hossein-zadeh has an essay this week about how Marxism is better than Keynesianism at explaining the current terrible economic picture, and has better prescriptions for fixing it as well. To me the article is a great example of both the strengths and (greater) weaknesses of Marxist critique.
Marxist critique is strongest in describing the nature of capitalism and the environment it seeks to create. Capitalism seems to gravitate toward a permanent “reserve army of labor” - lots of out of work people who would love to have a job. Having a pool of idle but willing unemployed puts pressure on those who do have jobs. It puts downward pressure on wages, discourages organizing, and gives maximum leverage to the employer.
So far, so good. That dynamic should be front and center in any discussion on how to improve things. Asserting the right of collective bargaining and finding ways to support it is crucial. Getting all those people on the sidelines back into the game is vital. The article also has some interesting material on how the globalization of capital and labor are challenges that Keynes did not seem to anticipate, and that his theory does not adequately address.
Hossein-zadeh’s critique starts to go astray with what he calls structural or systemic causes of unemployment, with Keynesianism producing a perpetual cat-and-mouse game. Stimulus spending gets an economy out of an economic downturn. When the economy is humming again the stimulus is pared back, which leaves the field open for capitalist exploitation, which then brings about an economic downturn. Repeat forever. In this telling Keynesianism is the cause of downturns, because that cycle could be done away with forever by not ending the stimulus. That seems at best uncharitable, since Keynesianism doesn’t claim to abolish the business cycle. It merely describes the tools to use during down times.
But Hossein-zadeh really goes far afield when he conflates Keynesians’ prescriptions with their expectations:
The Keynesian view that the government can fine-tune the economy through fiscal and monetary policies to maintain continuous growth is based on the idea that capitalism can be controlled or manipulated by the state and managed by professional economists from government departments in the interest of all. The effectiveness of the Keynesian model is, therefore, based largely on a hope, or illusion; since in reality the power relation between the state and the market/capitalism is usually the other way around. Contrary to the Keynesian perception, economic policy making is more than simply an administrative or technical matter of choice; more importantly, it is a deeply socio-political matter that is organically intertwined with the class nature of the state and the policy making apparatus.
It’s fair to describe the Keynesian approach as administrative or technical - magneto trouble and all that - but I haven’t gotten the impression that Keynesians, Paul Krugman foremost among them, are under any illusion that policymakers are compelled to embrace Keynesianism. There certainly seems to be a great deal of frustration about the nature of the public debate. The austerity narrative continues to be ascendant in spite of the overwhelming evidence of the harm it has caused. Keynesian policy, particularly the 2009 stimulus package, has been vindicated (and Krugman wrote at the time that it was actually not large enough) - yet it still seems to be regarded as disreputable in the capitol.
So of course Keynesians are frustrated, but not because they thought Washington was required to implement Keynesian policies and had not. They are frustrated because they see the current problem as a technocratic one with a known solution - but austerity budgeting continues to rule the day, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that it has failed. The carburetor is broken; fix it. Krugman sees a moral or ethical dimension as well: the refusal to fix it has inflicted a great deal of unnecessary misery. But Keynesianism ultimately just says, if this is your problem, here’s the solution.
Keynesianism is also clear about the role government plays in the economy: Let the private sector be the economic engine of first resort and government the last. If businesses are creating lots of jobs at good wages, money is circulating through the economy, and everything is going swimmingly, then leave it at that. If the private sector is stagnating or shrinking though, then the public sector needs to step in and provide the spending and job creation that the private sector isn’t. Once that changes - once businesses start hiring and spending again - government backs off and lets them do their thing. Policymakers can choose not to do that, and the expected result will be to make the problem worse. No illusions required. (Krugman does get irritated when leaders plead ignorance or act like no one knows what the answer is, though.)
Marxist critiques like Hossein-zadeh’s, on the other hand, lead with a lot of “workers of the world, unite” rhetoric, but leave what comes after the revolution offstage. Maybe it’s because that role - a centrally planned economy - doesn’t have a very good track record, and would be a tough sell for an American audience. Maybe it’s because it is much more entertaining to issue calls to arms than to figure out how to make a just, equitable and vibrant economy in a nation with hundreds of millions of citizens. Whatever the reason, though, it leaves a glaring and obvious hole in the center of the argument. And if you can’t bring yourself to name the thing you want, you can’t expect to reach anyone not already in the fold.
There’s a similar hole in the description of how the change will come about. Hossein-zadeh says Keynesianism’s fatal flaw is its expectation that politicians sympathetic to big money will enact policies antagonistic to it. (Again, I don’t think that’s true - Keynesiansm just describes how to address the issue. Whether leaders actually take that approach is another matter.) Hossein-zadeh envisions a bottom-up approach, with change being generated by “overwhelming political pressure from workers and other grassroots.” But he never describes how to build that pressure, and that makes his position look as fanciful as the one he criticizes. He writes: “the Marxian view that meaningful, lasting economic safety-net programs can be carried out only through overwhelming pressure from the masses - and only on a coordinated global scale - provides a more logical and promising solution.” OK, great. How?
Building a political movement in response to a gradually developing disaster is unbelievably difficult. It’s far more likely to spontaneously occur in response to a spectacular event. The activism in Ferguson since the killing of Mike Brown is a good recent example. (And incidentally, if one wants to build a grassroots social justice movement, identifying and supporting the issues people are currently speaking out on might be a good starting point - even if the issue isn’t the one you’re focused on.) A hurricane and a drought are both extreme ecological events, but one happens suddenly and visibly while the other is gradual and harder to spot. Which of those is more likely to inspire a strong response?
Marxist critique depends on workers rising up en masse, but never seems to describe how that happens. It leaves the hardest task to the imagination. And since spontaneous large scale organizing doesn’t just naturally happen on its own, the likely situation is for people in bad situations to stay in them. (Which can easily lead to a theoretical love of the common man souring into contempt for the actual sheeple who participate in their own oppression.) Hossein-zadeh is presumably aware of this, since he links to a piece by Alan Nasser noting that “US workers tend to quiescence.” Isn’t that a rather big hurdle? How does he propose to overcome it? Instead of utopian calls for wide scale mobilization, presumably led by those doing the calling, why not show solidarity with those already doing so on a smaller scale?
Why not go to those in Ferguson, or those fighting water shutoffs in Detroit, and say “what do you need us to do?” Marxist prescriptions like Hossein-zadeh’s never seem to want to get into the details, or to recognize the activism already dotting the landscape. It always seems to boil down to, everyone throw in with us. And that might be the biggest illusion of all.
Several weeks ago members of the group Concerned Citizens Ohio met with a state representative to discuss fracking, injection wells, pipelines and the natural gas industry in general. Here is something I’ve noticed about these meetings: If you want officials to take action, figure out how to put them on the spot. For instance, when we met with township trustees about injection wells, they were pleasant if slightly exasperated. The state controls all that, our hands are tied, they assured us.
But when we asked them to sign a purely symbolic statement urging the state to return siting authority for injection wells back to local communities, boy howdy did the sparks fly. When they could claim they were powerless they were very nice, but when we asked them to do something they were clearly able to - even something harmless like a nonbinding gesture to Columbus - their backs went up.
Now, a heated exchange like that is not my idea of success; I’d much rather have them willing to work with us. That won’t always be possible though, and getting reluctant officials on record as being unwilling to even lift a finger is useful too. If nothing else, it lets you know who you can count on. Either way, though, the idea is to bring to officials something they have unquestioned authority to act on. And make sure to keep the “something” singular. With a multiple part question or request it’s easy to pick the most favorable one, address that and ignore the rest. I don’t think it’s a good idea to leave wiggle room like that; better to pick the best available issue and stay on it.
That approach seems best suited for a legislative session or other official meeting, though. At a town hall or arranged date with a group, the best you can probably get is a promise to introduce something or a pledge to work on it. On the other hand, a more informal setting can be useful for “what the heck are you people doing, anyway?” type questions. When it comes to fracking, Republicans are usually on board, while Democrats are equivocal allies at best. In Ohio, a handful of representatives have been good on the issue, but others are already cashing in - and the national party is increasingly siding (via) with the oil and gas industry.
So approaching a Democratic officeholder with environmental or quality of life issues, no matter how heartfelt and sincerely expressed, is probably not going to accomplish much. The response will be, different studies say different things, and any anyway look at the big picture: things have really improved over the last few decades (the river never catches fire any more!) Unless some urgent problem is happening, arguments about long term risk and degradation will unfortunately not get much traction.
It seems better to go right at the main pillar of their support on the issue - jobs and the economy. The right approach can put them on the spot. Here is an adapted version of my comments (as I best remember them) at the meeting with the state rep. (Greetings etc. omitted.) Feel free to adapt them for any meetings you may have, and let me know if you have any thoughts on how to improve them:
It really bothers me to see how timid Democrats have been on fracking. Any time a Republican says “jobs” Democrats dive under the desk, but the promise of jobs is largely a mirage. Last summer the Plain Dealer reported that employment had increased less than one percent since drilling began in eastern counties. In January the Dispatch noted that the jobs aren’t there, and even the industry has started touting “auxiliary economic activity” instead. Transients come into town while the infrastructure is being built, leave when it’s done, and the community has little to show for it.
There’s a temporary bump in sales receipts for restaurants, hotels and strip clubs, but no long term benefit. It isn’t like a steel mill that employs thousands of locals at good wages year after year (and supports ancillary business as well, incidentally). Fracking has been going on here long enough for the results to be in. It doesn’t create jobs in the way citizens would like to believe, and it should now be a political for any officeholder to say so. Democrats have the evidence to hit back, and hit back hard, on those claims. A handful of exceptions like Nickie Antonio and Bob Hagan have spoken out on the issue, but most have just done a whole lot of shutting up. And it’s enormously frustrating.