Thursday, January 18, 2024
HomeMacroeconomicsThirteen Questions about Money – J. W. Mason

Thirteen Questions about Money – J. W. Mason

I taught a class last semester on alternative theories of money, drawing heavily on Money and Things, the book I am working on with Arjun Jayadev. It was one of the best classes I’ve ever taught in terms of the quality of the discussions. John Jay MA students are always great, but this group was really exceptional. It was a a privilege to have such  thoughtful and wide-ranging conversations, with such an enthusiastic and engaged group of (mostly) young people. 

The class syllabus is here. A number of the readings were draft chapters from the book. I am not posting these publicly, but if you are interested you can contact me and I’ll be happy to share.

In this post, I want to sketch out some of the puzzles and questions around money — my own version of what makes money difficult. Many of these were explicit topics during the semester, others were in the background. I wouldn’t claim this is a comprehensive list, but I think most debates around money fall somewhere on here.

The first problem is defining the topic. When we talk about “money” as a distinct set of questions in economics, what are we distinguishing from what? In particular, are finance, credit and interest on the money side of the line?  Given that aggregate demand is, presumably, defined in terms of desired  monetary expenditure, are demand and its effects a subset of questions around money? The main classification codes for economics articles include a category for “Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics”; this suggests an affirmative answer, at least in the mainstream imagination. Do we agree?

Put another way, a focus on money in economic analysis means something quite different if the implied alternative is an imagined world of barter, versus if it’s a a broader range of financial arrangements. In the first case, talking about money involves a broadening of perspective, in the second case a narrowing of it. If someone says, “we have to think about the business cycle in terms of money” are they rejecting Real Business Cycle approaches (a good thing, in my book) or are they telling us to focus on M2 (not so good)?

In principle one would like to delineate the field designated by “money” before asking questions within it. But in practice what concepts we group with money depends on our views about it. So let’s move on to some more substantive questions. 


1. First, is money better imagined as a (physical) token, or as a unit of measurement? Or perhaps better, does our analysis of money start with exchange, or with accounting? Do we start by asking what is the thing that is exchanged with commodities, and then build an account of its use as a standard of value and in debt contracts on top of that? Or do we start with he idea of money as a unit like the meter or second, which is used to denominate obligations? In which case the debts incurred in the circulation of commodities appear as one particular case of the more general category, and the question of what exactly is accepted in settlement of an obligation is secondary.

I think of this as the difference between an exchange-first and and an accounting-first approach; Schumpeter makes a similar distinction between money theories of credit and credit theories of money. You’ll find most economists from Adam Smith to modern textbook writers on the first side, along with Marx (arguably) and most Marxists (definitely). On the second side you’ll find Keynes (in the Treatise if not the General Theory) along with Schumpeter, various chartalists, and sociologists like Geoffrey Ingham. 

This is a question about logical priority, about where we should start analytically. But the same question can be, and often is, posed as a historical one. Did money originate out of barter, or out of a system of public record-keeping? In principle, the origin of money is separate from the question of how we should best think go if it today. But in practice, almost everyone writing about the origin of money is interested in it because they think it is informative about, or a parable for, how money works in the present.

Another dimension of this question is how we think of the central bank. Do we think of it as — in some more or less metaphorical sense — issuing the nation’s currency? Or do we think of it as the peak institution of the banking system? 

2. A second question, related to the first one, is, where do we draw the line between money and credit? Is there a sharp divide, or a continuum? Or does money just describe particular kinds of credit, or credit as it is used in certain settings? To the extent there is a distinction, which is primary and which is derivative? Is money any promise, or any promise that can be transferred to a third party, or anything that can be used to settle an obligation? Almost any statement about money can have a different meaning depending on what parts of credit and finance are implicitly being included with it.

Similarly, is there a sharp line between money and other assets, or does money describe some function(s) that can be performed to different degrees by many assets? An important corollary of this is, is there a meaningful quantity of money? If there is a sharp line between money and other assets then at any moment there should be a definite quantity of money in existence. If  “moneyness” is a property which all kinds of assets possess in different degrees, then there isn’t. This is a more important question than it might seem, because many older debates about money are were framed in terms of the quantity of it, and it’s not always obvious how to translate them for a world where liquidity exists across the balance sheet, on both the asset and liability sides. 

This is a question where the conventional wisdom has shifted quite sharply over the past generation. Into the 1990s, both mainstream and heterodox writers used the money stock M as a basic part of the theoretical toolkit. But now it has almost entirely disappeared from the conversation in both academic and policy worlds.

3. Third: To the extent that it is meaningful to talk about a quantity of money, is the quantity fixed independently of demand for it, or does it vary endogenously with demand? (And if so, does this happen within the banking system, or through the actions of the monetary authority? — the old horizontalists versus verticalists debate.) When I was first studying economics, this question was a central line of conflict between (Post) Keynesians and the mainstream, but its valence has shifted since then. “Banks create money” used to be a touchstone for heterodox views; now it’s something that everyone knows. There is still the question of how much this matters, i.e. how much bank lending is constrained by the supply of reserves or monetary policy more broadly. Victoria Chick has a fascinating piece on shifting views on this question over the 20th century.

In general, talking about how M varies with demand for it now feels a bit conservative and old-fashioned, since it assumes that the money stock is an economically meaningful quantity.  After teaching some of the same articles on these questions that I read in graduate school, I feel like the question is now: How can the debate over endogenous money be reformulated for a world without a distinct money stock? Another possible reframing: Is endogeneity inherent in the nature of money, or is it a contingent, institutional fact that evolves over time? At one point, bitcoin looked like an effort to re-exogenize the money supply; but I don’t think anybody talks about it that way anymore.

The flip side of the question of endogenous money — or maybe an alternative formulation of it — is, is the supply of money ever a constraint (on credit creation, and/or on real activity)? A negative answer is stronger than simply saying that the money supply is endogenous, since it further implies it can be expanded costlessly. 

4. This leads to the fourth question: What role does money play in the determination of the interest rate? Is interest, as Bagehot got put it, the price of money? Or is it the price of savings, or of future relative to present  consumption, which just happens to be expressed (like other prices) in terms of money? This is another long-standing frontline between orthodox economics and its Keynesian challengers, which remains an active site of conflict.

In the General Theory, Keynes developed his claims about money and interest in terms of  demand for an exogenously fixed stock of money. This was a serious wrong turn, in my view; chapter 17 (“The Essential Properties of Interest and Money”) is in my opinion the worst chapter of the book, the one most likely to confuse and mislead modern readers. But unlike endogeneity, this is a Keynesian theme that is easily transposed to an accounting-first key. We simply have to think of interest as the price of liquidity, rather than of one particular asset. This view of interest — as opposed to one that starts from savings — remains arguably the most important dividing line between orthodoxy and followers of Keynes. In general, if you want to work within Keynes’ system, you shouldn’t be talking about saving at all. 

5. The role of money in the determination of the interest rate leads to a fifth, broader question: Is money neutral? If so, with respect to what? And over what time horizon? In other words, do changes in the supply (or availability) of money affect “real” variables such as employment, or do they affect the price level? Or do they affect both, or neither?

From a political-policy perspective, neutrality is the question. Can increasing the availability of money (in general, or to some people in particular) solve coordination problems, mobilize unutilized resources, or otherwise increase the real wealth of the community? Or will it only bid up the price of the stuff that already exists? When, let’s say, late-19th century Populists demanded a more elastic currency, were they expressing the real interests of their farmer and artisan constituency, or were they victims (or peddlers) of economic snake oil? And if the former, what were the specific conditions that made more abundant money a meaningful political demand?

Another way of looking at this: Does money just facilitate trades that would have happened anyway? (What does it mean to facilitate, in that case?) On the other hand, if we think of money as a technology for making promises, for substituting a general obligation for a particular one, then it may do so to a greater or lesser extent. Increasing the availability of money, or broadening the range of ways it can be used, should make new forms of cooperation possible. If money is useful, shouldn’t it follow that more money is more useful?

Turning to the present, is the availability of money an important constraint on decarbonization?  The content of this question is contingent on some of the earlier ones; is the terms no which credit is available to green projects a question of money? But even if you say yes, it’s not clear how important this dimension of the problem is. There’s a plausible case, to me at least, that there is a vast universe of decarbonization projects with positive private returns at any reasonable discount rate, which nonetheless aren’t undertaken because of a lack of financing. But it’s also possible that credit constraints are not all that important, at least not directly; that what’s scarce is the relevant skilled labor and organizational capacity, not financing. 

Though it lies a bit downstream from some of the more fundamental theoretical issues, money’s neutrality is probably the highest-stake question in these debates.

To what extent, and under what conditions, can increasing access to money and credit develop the real productive capacities of a community? To what extent are shorter-term fluctuations and crises the result of interruptions in the supply of money and credit? One reason, it seems to me, that debates on these questions can be so murky and acrimonious is that while economic orthodoxy makes a strong claim that money is neutral, there is no well-defined pole on the other side. Rejecting the textbook view, in itself, doesn’t tell us much about when and how money does matter. 

6. The other side of this is the sixth question: What is the relationship between money and inflation? If money is neutral with respect to the “real” economy (bracketing what exactly this means) then what it does affect must be the price level.  If you pick up, let’s say, Paul Krugman’s international economics textbook, you will find the thoroughly Friedmanesque claim that the central banks its the supply of money (M), that in the short run an increase in the supply of money may raise output and employment, but over periods beyond a few years, changes in the money supply simply translate one for one into changes the price level, with output and other “real” variables following the same path regardless of what the central bank does.

The claim that the price level varies directly with an exogenously fixed money supply is the quantity theory of money, arguably the oldest theory in economics. This can be derived on first principles only under a set of stringent assumptions that clearly done’t describe real economies. So is there some broader metaphorical sense in which it is sort of true, at least in some times and places? Inflation is only defined with respect a unit of account, but it’s not clear that there is any necessary link with money in its concrete existence. 

Here, unlike the previous question, there are (at least) two well-defined poles. Anyone who has read anything on these issues has encountered Friedman’s koan that inflation is everywhere and always a monetary phenomenon. Against this there is a vocal group of economists (both Post Keynesian and more mainstream) who counter that “inflation is always and everywhere a conflict phenomenon.” Personally, I am not convinced that inflation is always and everywhere any one particular thing. But that is a topic for another time.

7. More broadly, whether reimagine “the money supply” as a fixed quantity or in terms of more or less elastic credit, we can ask, are changes in money supply  linked to changes in prices, in incomes, in the interest rate, or some combination of them? This leads to the seventh question: Is the money supply, or the terms on which money is provided or created, an appropriate object of policy? This is partly question about what social objectives can be advanced by changes in the availability of money. But it is also a question about whether there is something inherently public about money as a social ledger, which means that it should be (or in some sense always is) the responsibility of the state.

8. Which brings us to question eight: Is there a fundamental relationship between money and the state, and with the authority to collect taxes? Georg Simmel famously described money as “a claim against society”. Who represents society, in this case? Is it — necessarily or in practice — the government? If we think of money as a ledger recording all kinds of obligations as commensurable quantities and allowing them to be netted out, is the use of such a shared ledger necessarily imposed by a sovereign authority, or can we think of it as arising organically? A bit more concretely: Is the value of money backed, in some sense, by the authority to tax? This view is strongly associated with chartalism. But you can also get a version of it from someone like Duncan Foley, working within the Marxist tradition.

9. Turning to money as a unit of measurement, our ninth question is: Do money values refer to some objective underlying quantity? And if so, what is it? What does it mean to speak of “real” values underlying the monetary ones? Obviously money values have objective content within a given pay community. For an individual within the community, the fact that two objects – or more precisely, two distinct property rights – have an equal price, implies the possibility of a choice between them. Ownership of this stuff and ownership of that stuff are equivalent in the sense that one can have one more of one by giving up an equal value of the other. For the community as a whole, we can, on some not too unreasonable assumptions, interpret price as reflecting the possibilities of producing more of one thing as opposed to something else. 

But what about when comparisons are made outside of an exchange community? If there is no possibility of substitution either in the purchase or production of things – where there is no market in which they exchange – is there a sense in which we can nonetheless compare their value? Do the quantities of money describe some underlying “real” quantity? When we compare “real income” ver time or between different countries, what is it exactly that we are comparing?

The textbook answer is that we are thinking of the economy in terms of a single representative consumer whose preferences are the same in all times and places (and at all levels of income), and asking how much income in one setting it would take to buy a basket of goods that this representative consumer would willingly swap for the average basket of goods consumed somewhere else. When stated like this, it sounds absurd. Yet this is literally the basis for widely used price level measures like Purchasing Power Parity indexes used to compare real incomes across countries. The problem is actually even worse than this, since even on the most heroic assumptions there is no way to consistently measure price levels both across countries and over time. But it’s very hard for people — certainly for economists — to give up the idea that there exists something called “real GDP” or “real income” that behaves like a physical quantity. 

If the neutrality of money is the question with the most immediate real-world implications, this one, I think, is where there is the biggest gap between what people assume or think they know, and what holds up on closer examination.

10. Related to this, question ten: Are relative prices prior to, or independent of, money prices? In his review of David Graeber’s Debt, Mike Beggs insisted that “States print the money, but not the price lists.”  This is the orthodox view — if one of commodity A trades for two of commodity B, that is an intrinsic fact about the commodities themselves, reflecting their costs of production and/or their ability to satisfy human needs.It doesn’t depend on the fact that  the prices are expressed in terms of money, or that the commodities are bought and sold for money rather than directly exchanged for each other.

But as I pointed out in my reply to Mike, not all economists agree with this. Hyman Minsky’s two-price model (much more interesting, in my mind, than the financial fragility hypothesis) is precisely an argument that money matters for the price of long-lived assets in a way that it does not for current output. The price of a building, say, cannot be derived from just the cost of producing it and the rent people will pay for it; it depend fundamentally on the terms on which it can be financed.

More broadly, we can think of some activities — those that lock in payment commitments while promising distant or uncertain income — as being more demanding of liquidity. Changes in the availability of money will change the price of these activities relative to those that are less liquidity-demanding.  From a Minskyan perspective, money is not neutral; the price lists depend fundamentally on how much (and on what terms) money is being printed.

11. Finally, some questions about the international dimension of money. First, various questions related to exchange rates — how they are, and should be, determined, and what effects they have on real activity. This is one area— perhaps the only one on the whole list — where, it seems to me, there is a very clear difference between today’s textbook views and pre-Keynesian orthodoxy. Today, floating exchange rates are treated as normal, and government interventions in the foreign exchange market are viewed with suspicion. Whereas the older orthodoxy assumed that currencies should, and apart from exceptional cases would, be permanently fixed in terms of gold. 

12. Twelfth: If we think of money as a ledger, does it matter where the ledger is kept? That the dollar is the global currency is true in obvious, observable ways — its unrivaled dominance in reserve holdings, foreign-exchange transactions, and trade pricing. (And despite constant predictions to the contrary, this shows no signs of changing.) But what constraints does this fact impose on the rest of the world, both in terms of international positions and domestic finance? And what, advantages (or disadvantages) does it have for the United States? 

One argument (made powerfully by Jörg Bibow, and also in this old working paper by me) is that in a world of unmanaged cross-border trade and financial flows, the United States current account deficit plays an essential role as a source of dollar liquidity for the rest of the world — that efforts to balance US trade will only lead to slower growth elsewhere. The assumption here, which may or may not be reasonable, is that there is something like of an exogenous stock of global money, even if not at the national level.

A related issue is how the financial and current account sides of the balance of payments balance. If we think of money as a token or substance, then any given transaction involves a certain amount of it either flowing into or out of a country, and the need for these flows to equal out evidently calls for some kind of market mechanism. On the other hand, if we think of money as a ledger entry, then the mere fact that a transaction takes place automatically creates an offsetting entry on the financial account. There may well be ways in which, say, foreign demand for a country’s assets causes its trade balance to shift toward deficit. But the argument has to be made in behavioral terms, it is not necessarily true.

13. Finally, thirteen: What does it mean to possess monetary sovereignty? Is having control over your own money a binary, yes or no question, or does it exist on a continuum? A more concrete aspect of this question is under what conditions countries can set their own interest rates. The older view was that a floating exchange rate was sufficient; the newer view — among established as well as heterodox economists — is that autonomous monetary policy is only possible with limits on financial flows, i.e. capital controls. Otherwise, what happens to your interest rate depends on the Fed’s choices, not yours.


I have my own opinions about what are more and less convincing answers to these questions. But my goal is not to convince you, or my students, of the answers. My goal is to convince you that these are real questions.

One reason that arguments about money-related questions are so often so painful an inconclusive, it seems to me, is that people start out from strong commitments to particular answers to various of these questions, or questions like these, without even realizing that they are questions — that it is possible to take a view on the other side.  Almost nobody who talks about “real GDP” pauses to ask what exactly this number refers to. That the interest rate is the price of liquidity — of money — is the pivot of Keynes’ whole argument in The General Theory. But it’s constantly ignored or forgotten by people who think of themselves as Keynesians. In general, it seems to me, debates connected with money are less often about disagreements on substantive issues than about different premises, which are seldom recognized or acknowledged. Before denouncing each other, before accusing people of some basic error of fact, let’s at least try to map out the intellectual terrain we are fighting over. 

A second purpose of this list is to show how these are not just academic questions, but have important implications for our efforts to, in Haavelmo’s phrase, become masters the happenings of real life. To be sure, this post doesn’t do this. But it was a goal of the class. And it is very much a goal of the book.




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