Pluralistic: 8 Apr 2021

Today's links

We CAN have nice things (permalink)

Biden rightfully calls the $2.2t stimulus package a "once-in-a-generation investment in America," but as AOC points out, it's not nearly enough – the $40b for housing nationwide would barely cover the bill for NYC alone.

The country and the Democrats can't afford to smallball this one. The real debts we've racked up – infrastructure, health, education and climate – matter far, far more than the "national debt" that goldbug bedwetters never stfu about.

As Stephanie Kelton writes in the New York Times, the US can't run out of US dollars; debts do not constrain federal spending. Instead, the US government is constrained by resources: available workers, idle factories, raw materials.

The USG can make as many dollars as it needs by typing zeroes into a spreadsheet, but it conjuring more laborers and productive apparatus is far more difficult. Inflation isn't the result of too many dollars, it's the result of too few things you can buy with those dollars.

That's why an anti-inflationary spending program isn't about constraining spending, it's about increasing the pool of things governments can buy. Right now, we have lots of un- and under-employed people who need good jobs doing necessary care, climate and infrastructure work.

But the $10t worth of spending America needs to attain resiliency for the coming century of climate emergencies will put every American who wants a job to work for as many years as they are willing to work and still not fill the gap.

Of course, there's a simple solution to this: reform immigration policy to welcome the millions of people who are literally dying to come here, trained and untrained alike (worker training is another job that needs doing). Type zeroes into a Treasury spreadsheet so we can pay them a socially inclusive wage with decent benefits. Put them to work alongside the people who are already here, building the country's productive capacity so that we can make more things that are for sale in dollars.

As Kelton explains: procurement rules that give preference to onshore goods and taxes that discourage offshoring are both anti-inflationary measures, because they increase the pool of goods for sale in US dollars, meaning more dollars can be safely spent.

But creating domestic capacity is a long-game and we need to spend a lot of money right now, which is why Kelton argues against Biden's "Buy American" rules: "There will be no lack of eager foreign producers if we need to relieve some demand pressure on the domestic front."

The right way to address America's massive real-world debts isn't to choose an arbitrary dollar figure and decide which debts we'll service – it's to decide what we want America to be and then figure out how we'll resource that vision.

Or as Bernie Sanders puts it: "You don’t start off by coming up with a sum and working down. You start out by looking at the needs that need to be addressed and adding them up."

This Modern Monetary Theory framework is gaining currency today, but it's hardly new.

It's been a current in economic thought for a long time. Back in 1945, New York Federal Reserve Chairman Beardsley Ruml gave a speech to the American Bar Association called "Taxes for Revenue Are Obsolete," explaining how America financed the war.

He explained America didn't depend on taxes or war bonds to pay for the war effort – rather, these were a way to sequester the new money being spent into existence to pay for the war effort, so that those wages didn't compete with government spending for rubber, metal, etc.

The US government could make all the dollars it wanted, but it couldn't conjure up rubber or steel. That was constrained, and to dampen private sector demand, the USG clawed back some of the war-wages (taxes) and encouraged voluntary deferred spending (bonds).

Biden touts his $2.2t proposal as "fiscally responsible" because of its "payfors" – tax increases to match new spending with new taxing. Taxing is anti-inflationary (because it reduces private-sector spending power, leaving more goods on the market for the public sector).

We should tax the super-rich…but not to fight inflation. As multiple tax giveaways to the wealthy had demonstrated, giving rich people more money doesn't translate into the hoped-for stimulus that would come from new private-sector spending.

By definition, the rich have their material needs met. Even if they rush out and buy show-horses, ostrich-leather jackets, or super-yachts, these only absorb a minute fraction of their windfalls – the rest get pumped into assets, creating asset bubbles.

Trump's 2017 tax cuts and 2020 covid stimulus pumped trillions into the economy, but almost all of it went to the rich, who used it to play the financial casino, not to buy the labor of un- and underemployed people, nor the things they could make with that labor.

These trillions didn't create general inflation, but in certain asset classes (some socially useless ones like NFTs, stonks and exotic derivatives) we saw runaway inflation. Unfortunately, some of these asset bubbles intersected with basic human needs, like housing.

All that to say that stimulus "payfors" that only hit those making more than $400k will only be weakly anti-inflationary. Those people don't buy real goods with their money, so taking it away won't do much to reduce demand for real goods.

Which is not to say that we shouldn't tax the rich. We totally should. Wealth concentration is hugely corrosive, an endless perverter of public policy, a cancer within democracy that subordinates the public good to the endless pampering of a minuscule elite. Tax 'em!

That's why we should all be very excited about Janet Yellen's announcement that America is getting out of the corporate tax-break game. If she pulls this off, it's the beginning of the end for financialization itself.

But if we're going to spend $2.2t – or better yet, $10t on stimulus – we can't prevent inflation by taxing the rich. We need to do it with a combination of increasing the pool of goods and labor for sale in US Dollars, and by decreasing private sector demand.

That might mean more tax, but it could also take other forms – such as the Library Socialism vision of circulating abundance, whereby you are freed from the idiocy of owning a terrible drill that you use once a year, and instead get an absolutely amazing drill, on demand, that your neighbors also get to use.

This is a uniquely 21st century way of thinking about material luxury: solving the coordination costs of public ownership of certain goods using networked technology; it's the inverse of the "Great Reset" where you rent everything and own nothing.

Rather, it's a world where you get much, much more for less – and where they things you have are under your democratic control, rather than that of a remote corporate landlord.

There are many ways to reduce private sector demand while making things better for everyday people. A future where we pay off our (real, non-financial) debts is a future where we are safer, healthier, happier, and wealthier in real, material terms.

Howard Dean's racist, genocidal pharma sellout (permalink)

Remember Howard Dean, the progressive champion who campaigned on equitable health care and other desperately needed policies?

He's dead.

He's been replaced by Howard Dean, the not-a-lobbyist who won't tell anyone what he does for the giant lobbying firm Dentons.

The old Howard Dean supported single-payer healthcare. The new Dean opposes it.

But then, that new Dean works for Dentons, the largest law firm in the world, alongside Newt Gingrich, as a "senior advisor" to the firm's lobbying arm.

Dentons lobbies for pretty unsavory characters, including Big Health. Dentons owes its world-beating scale to a 2015 merger with the massive Chinese law-firm Dacheng.

Last month, the new Howard Dean published a remarkable op-ed in Barron's, opposing any measure to permit the world's poorest countries to manufacture generic versions of the covid vaccines they desperately need.

The arguments Dean fields for this are tired, racist, and manifestly untrue arguments, straight out of Big Pharma's playbook:

I. Poor countries can't make vaccines (reality: poor countries are already among the world's largest pharmaceutical manufacturers) and;

II. No one will invest in pharma if poor people don't have to pay extortionate royalties in exchange for their lives (reality: pharma doesn't invest in pharma! The pharmaceutical industry is entirely and totally dependent on public R&D spending).

As Lee Fang writes in The Intercept, there's an explanation for this surprising change of heart: "[Dean] reversed his positions on virtually every major progressive health policy issue since moving to work in the world of corporate influence peddling."

Dean insists he's not a lobbyist, but he sure acts like one, trading on his reputation as a "liberal lion" to sell policies to benefit pharma at the expense of the public – like his work with BIO to secure exclusivity for breast-cancer treatments.

This would all be appalling on its own terms – a medical doctor who convinced progressives (including me) to volunteer for his presidential bid, selling out to corporate health-care profiteers, but when it comes to vaccines, this goes beyond selling out. It's genocidal.

As things stand, 85 of the poorest countries will not have widespread vaccine access until 2023. That's not just a death sentence for the Global South – it's also a chance for the new mutant strains to develop and endanger the whole human race.

The racist lie that brown people can't manufacture their own vaccines is being peddled to maximize profits for some of the cruellest, most profitable, most publicly subsidized companies on Earth – and it's not merely unfair, it's an existential threat to human civilization.

As Steven W Thrasher writes in Scientific American, the entire vaccine passport debate is a bullshit distraction from the real issue: getting vaccines to every person who can safely take them, in every country on Earth.

As Thrasher writes, today, borders are being used to decide who can get a vaccine. Tomorrow, vaccine passports would punish those unvaccinated people by denying them the right to cross borders. Vaccine equity is the only just vaccine passport.

"It is morally reprehensible (not to mention epidemiologically self-defeating) that countries can prevent vaccines from crossing their borders and want their own citizens to be able to cross those borders and travel to countries that are denied vaccines — and then use the threat of infection to keep the people of those unvaccinated countries inside them…A vaccine passport conflates the notions of biology, nationalism and surveillance; it builds on and passively accepts the ethics of passport privilege in general."

Thrasher cites "Covid-19 vaccine passports will harm sustainable development," in The British Medical Journal, adding, "The idea that one 'needs' to go on vacation or attend an academic conference abroad at this point in the pandemic is morally unjustifiable. This is especially true if you are traveling to or from a place where you know others do not have access to vaccines—and you want a special piece of paper proving that you do, which would allow you to cross the border."

This is the kind of thing you'd expect Dr Howard Dean, the progressive lion who championed single-payer and curbs on drug prices, to write. But he's not. Instead, he's peddling racism and profiteering to serve his corporate paymasters.

RIP, Dr Dean. You sold your legacy – and our future – for a mess of potage.

(Image: David, CC BY, modified)

60 seconds of giddy, terrifying, delightful surrealism (permalink)

Self-described "magic realist" filmmaker Fernando Livschitz and his small Argentinian production house Black Sheep films are a font of superb, thrilling short movies.

The latest is ANYWHERE CAN HAPPEN, a description-defying 60-second short that seamlessly combines computer graphics, stock footage, and VFX in a montage of surreal, dizzying scenes.

As Jason Kottke writes, it's part of the democratization dividend that we get when the power to turn your vision into a shareable reality is put into more hands.

All of Livschitz's work is purely amazing – there were moments that made me laugh and others that sent bolts of pure, atavistic anxiety through me, packed into an unimaginably compact form.

This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago Pope invites Bernie Sanders to Vatican to speak about “social, economic, and environmental” issues

#5yrsago The international art market is a money laundry whose details are in the Panama Papers

#5yrsago Tax investigators and bill collectors use Rich Kids of Instagram to uncover oligarchs’ hidden millions

#1yrago Nurse suspended for distributing crowdfunded PPE

#1yrago Cleveland Plain Dealer executed by union-busting owners

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Naked Capitalism (, Kottke

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