I have recently started to include in my regular podcast diet, a programme with the optimistic title, People Fixing the World. Recent episodes have included: Riding the solar railway, on how to make train journeys greener using the power of the sun; Making meat in a lab about how meat grown in labs could reduce our environmental impact. Another back number I am looking forward to listening to is How jellyfish can help us, which explains how jelly fish could be used to filter microplastics from water and develop new medicines. In a world where much of our news is depressing on an apocalyptic scale, People Fixing the World offers a lifeline to those who feel overwhelmed by the problems we face, and whose inclination is, not unreasonably, to turn away rather than to engage.
The most recent episode of People Fixing the World, to which I have just listened, featured Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, which visualises our economy as a doughnut, in which the centre of the doughnut ring represents those who do not have enough to survive with dignity, and the the outer edge of the doughnut represents the limits to our energy use, outside of which sustainability of our planet is at risk. This is not the first time I have encountered Kate Raworth’s ideas and, I must be honest: Doughnut Economics strikes me as a worthy, but rather slight theoretical contribution to the problems we face. The programme nevertheless provides an interesting story about the way projects in Amsterdam have used the doughnut model as a basis for providing food, clothing and sustainable housing.
If you are looking for a more significant contribution to economic thinking, then I would recommend Stephanie Kelton’s The Deficit Myth, in which she explains, amongst other things, how the limit to a government’s ambition is not money, but the actual national resources at its disposal. Where these resources are being left unused or underdeveloped, there need be no limit to government spending in order to activate them, for, as she points out, governments issue the currency and are not subject to the same limits as are currency users who are obliged to balance their books. I have read several articles critiquing Modern Monetary Theory(MMT), of which Professor Kelton is an advocate, and would have to admit that I have found the arguments against difficult and obscure. Kelton’s book, is, by contrast, a marvel of clarity, and for this reader certainly, provided answers to many questions about government borrowing and the deficit, that have been troubling me for years.
John Maynard Keynes, is clearly the inspiration driving MMT. It is said, he wrote The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, as a weighty — and challenging — riposte to those economists who dismissed his brilliant and popular journalism as lacking real substance. This does provide some evidence that economists have a tendency to hide behind walls of jargon and complex mathematics, despite the fact that the leading arguments put forward to the public to defend austerity policies are patronising homilies concerning household budgeting and the non-existence of the magic money tree. It is almost as though there is a fear amongst those who defend the status quo, of a clear light being shone on some fundamental truths about how government finance works, and more importantly, how it could work better and in favour of us all.
The Deficit Myth at the very least offers some important insights and challenges to orthodox economists. If you are interested in fixing the world, and not merely tinkering with its problems, this is a book worth reading. In the meantime, by all means, give People Fixing the World a listen.
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People Fixing the World Podcast from the BBC World Service
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