Biden Can Go Bigger and Not ‘Pay for It’ the Old Way

Modern Monetary Theory is not alone here. For a historical outlook, we can revisit what John Maynard Keynes proposed in “How to Pay for the War: A Radical Plan for the Chancellor of the Exchequer,” a lesser-known work of his. To the contemporary ear, the title suggests that Keynes was trying to figure out how to come up with the money to finance World War II spending. He wasn’t.

Keynes understood that the British government, which controlled its national currency, could create all the money needed. The purpose of the book was to show the government how to scale up and sustain higher levels of spending while containing inflationary pressures along the way. It noted the soldiers, bombers, tanks, combat gear and more that would be needed to prosecute the war and how the entire economy would need to be reoriented, quickly, to supply those things.

We’ve all grown accustomed to thinking about taxes as an important source of revenue for the federal government. That’s in part because it’s easy to think of the federal government as being like state and local governments, which without sufficient revenue — from income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes and more — could not finance their operations. Yet these entities don’t have the federal government’s currency-issuing powers, which greatly changes the spending capacity of government.

In 1945, a man named Beardsley Ruml delivered a fiery speech before the American Bar Association titled “Taxes for Revenue Are Obsolete.” He wasn’t a crank. He was the chairman of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. As Mr. Ruml explained in that speech, taxes first and foremost help to avoid a situation where too much money chases after too few goods: “The dollars the government spends become purchasing power in the hands of the people who have received them,” he said, while “the dollars the government takes by taxes cannot be spent by the people.”

More recently, economists like L. Randall Wray and Yeva Nersisyan have begun to think about how to pay for a Green New Deal using Keynes’s earlier “radical” framework. And even if one were to accept the terms of the old deficit-oriented budgeting currently favored in Washington, going even bigger on infrastructure, if executed carefully, is still doable: Larry Summers, the former Obama White House senior economist, admitted in 2014 that “public infrastructure investments can pay for themselves” and that “by increasing the economy’s capacity, infrastructure investment increases the ability to handle any given level of debt.”

We face enormous intersecting crises: a climate crisis, jobs crisis, health crisis and housing crisis, among others. It is going to require a lot of money to do what is necessary. As Kate Aronoff recently wrote in The New Republic, “To meet the emissions targets outlined in the Paris Agreement, experts estimate the United States government will need to spend at least $1 trillion annually.” And the White House’s infrastructure proposal, while historically ambitious, still falls far short of the scale of the problem.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez pointed out, for instance, that Mr. Biden’s plan has a $40 billion investment in public housing for the entire nation but New York alone may have that level of need.

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