Category Archives: Economics and Trade

Adam Smith Would Have Supported the Jones Act

By Michael D. Purzycki

Advocates of free trade often criticize the Jones Act as an unnecessary protectionist measure. Today, with inflation and supply chain weaknesses prominent in the news, the requirement for all cargo moving between American ports to be transported by U.S.-flagged ships strikes many as a senseless increaser of prices. Critics allege that the Jones Act makes intra-U.S. shipping “prohibitively expensive,”1 and call for “repeal or significant reform of this outdated law.”2 Why, they ask, should consumers pay higher prices so American sailors can protect jobs that foreign sailors could do just as well, for less money?

However, a strong case for the Jones Act can be found in the writing of one the first great advocates of the free market: Adam Smith. While he is remembered as the father of modern capitalism, he did not believe in market forces reigning supreme in every sector of the economy. One of the exceptions to his laissez-faire beliefs was the Navigation Acts, Britain’s equivalent of the Jones Act in Smith’s time, which he defended on national security grounds.

There is a lesson in Smith’s stance for the Jones Act’s critics. All sectors are not created equal – those that help support national security are different in importance, and different in the need for government intervention, from those that support private consumption. By giving American seafarers opportunities to practice their skills, the Jones Act helps the United States prepare for great power conflict. This is especially vital when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reminded the world how important NATO is to international security, and how vital it is for the U.S. to be ready to quickly defend its allies when they are attacked.

The Importance of the Merchant Marine

Passed in 1920, the Jones Act was intended to rectify a national security weakness that had emerged during World War I. As the Navy League has put it, “having realized the nation’s merchant fleet was not independently robust enough to neutralize German attacks,” Congress was determined not to allow such vulnerability in future conflicts.3 By making the transportation of cargo between domestic U.S. ports the preserve of American ships and their crews, it sought to give the U.S. Merchant Marine experience that would prove valuable during another major war.

If there were ever a situation in which the Merchant Marine proved its worth, it was World War II. Merchant mariners were the ones who brought American weapons, ammunition, and food to Britain in the face of Nazi U-boats. Their casualty rate was higher than any branch of the military, with 9,300 merchant mariners killed.4 But thanks to the Merchant Marine, when the Allies began to liberate Europe from Hitler, “[n]o Allied army was ever driven back from a hard-won beachhead for lack of supplies,” as TIME put it in 2016.5

Today, thanks to the Jones Act, the U.S. has “thousands of skilled mariners who, during surge sealift operations, can operate government-owned sealift vessels and provide supplemental crews on international fleet ships,” in the words of the Navy League.6 The act has endured for more than a century despite long-standing criticism from those whose belief in free trade trumps what value they might see in America’s sealift capability. For the sake of national and international security, it should be kept in place; however, many voices continue to clamor for its repeal.

When Free Trade Works

There are cases in which free trade makes geopolitical as well as economic sense. After World War II, the U.S. undertook the reconstruction of Western Europe and Japan, helping to ensure they would not fall into the Soviet orbit during the Cold War. It did this not only through direct funding efforts like the Marshall Plan, but by opening the American market to European and Japanese exports, helping to revive industrial bases devastated by the war. As Robert D. Atkinson and Michael Lind noted in American Affairs in 2019, when West German and Japanese industries began to gain ground against their American competitors, “the U.S. government looked the other way (or in some cases, provided active support for these policies), in the interest of a unified alliance against the Soviet Union.”7 Pairing NATO and the U.S.-Japan alliance with economic growth across the Atlantic and Pacific tightened the links between the U.S. and its allies in the struggle against communism.

Similarly, had the United States ratified the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), today it would be standing at the head of a twelve-nation bloc making up 40% of the world’s GDP – including highly developed economies like Japan, Australia, Singapore, and Chile – while pointedly excluding China.8 The U.S. would be taking the lead in writing the rules of trade in the Pacific, rules serving the interests of American industries and workers rather than the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, since the U.S. abandoned the TPP, a successor agreement has emerged – one that China now seeks to join.9

The value of excluding China points to the need for a national security exception to free trade. While Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine has understandably focused the world’s attention on eastern Europe, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, or a Chinese attack on Japan, is a continuous possibility. When conflict with rival great powers is on policymakers’ minds, sealift capability should be, too. If the U.S. cannot get its troops and their supplies to the front, it will be at a disadvantage. A country unable to protect its vital interests is a country unable to enjoy the benefits of international trade.

Can the U.S. Do Sealift?

Today, America’s ability to bring its forces and supplies to battle is far from certain. In January 2020, Rear Admiral Mark Buzby told the Surface Navy Association Symposium that, in a September 2019 exercise to test the Ready Reserve Force’s ability to sail on short notice, only about 40% of the vessels involved proved ready to leave port.10 This is a troubling statistic at a time when the U.S. may have to rapidly move personnel and equipment across the Atlantic to protect NATO allies from Putin’s forces.

Meanwhile, an October 2020 report by CNA on COVID-19’s effects on seafarers around the world, described “despair in the US Merchant Marine.” It was unclear whether Military Sealift Command’s (MSC) “Gangways Up” policy, keeping mariners on their ships to protect them from the pandemic, was truly “balancing the health of the fleet with the wellbeing of the mariners.”11 Mariners’ health should be factored into discussions of the Jones Act. If the crews who transport troops and equipment are not physically or mentally healthy, even vessels ready to set sail may not be of much use.

These vulnerabilities coincide with the relatively low priority the U.S. places on military sealift. At a February 2022 conference of the National Defense Industrial Association, Eric Labs, a naval analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, described sealift as the “black sheep” of shipbuilding.12 Even though sealift vessels move about 90% of Army and Marine Corps combat equipment and supplies, less than two percent of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget is being allocated to sealift platforms.13 If low investment in vessels is paired with the U.S. undermining the crews needed to man those vessels, American sealift could be doubly weakened when the country needs it.

Britannia Ruled the Waves

When 17th century England sought to become the world’s preeminent sea power, it understood the importance of a nation’s hard power to its trade. Beginning in 1651, the Navigation Acts sought to ensure England had a robust maritime workforce. The first act, passed during England’s brief period as a commonwealth after the execution of King Charles I, read:

“…no Goods or Commodities whatsoever, of the Growth, Production or Manufacture of Asia, Africa or America, or of any part thereof…as well of the English Plantations as others, shall be Imported or brought into this Commonwealth of England, or into Ireland, or any other Lands, Islands, Plantations or Territories to this Commonwealth belonging, or in their Possession, in any other Ship or Ships, Vessel or Vessels whatsoever, but onely in such as do truly and without fraud belong onely to the People of this Commonwealth, or the Plantations thereof, as the Proprietors or right Owners thereof; and whereof the Master and Mariners are also for the most part of them, of the People of this Commonwealth”14

After the monarchy was restored in 1660, King Charles II continued the policy. The second Navigation Act, passed in the first year of his reign, stated:

“…noe Goods or Commodities whatsoever shall be Imported into or Exported out of any Lands Islelands Plantations or Territories to his Majesty belonging or in his possession or which may hereafter belong unto or be in the possession…in any other Ship or Ships Vessell or Vessells whatsoever but in such Ships or Vessells as doe truely and without fraude belong onely to the people of England…or are of the built of, and belonging to any of the said Lands Islands Plantations or Territories as the Proprietors and right Owners therof and wherof the Master and three fourthes of the Marriners at least are English.”15

This was, as James Fallows noted in a 1993 Atlantic article comparing different philosophies of trade, “blatantly protectionist legislation.”16 At first glance, these laws appear likely to alienate an advocate of the free market like Smith. And yet, the patron saint of capitalism supported them.

Smith’s National Security Exception

In his 1776 magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote:

“The defence of Great Britain, for example, depends very much upon the number of its sailors and shipping. The act of navigation, therefore, very properly endeavours to give the sailors and shipping of Great Britain the monopoly of the trade of their own country, in some cases, by absolute prohibitions, and in others, by heavy burdens upon the shipping of foreign countries.”17


“As defence, however, is of much more importance than opulence, the act of navigation is, perhaps, the wisest of all the commercial regulations of England.”18

There is a sense in which Smith’s position should not be especially surprising. His book is, after all, about the economic strength of nations, not individuals or corporations. Given his understanding of the need for geopolitical power to protect trade, it makes sense that he would favor British seafaring strength over market forces when the two conflicted.

America’s strength and prosperity, like Britain’s before it, has always depended on maritime power. Like the Royal Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries, the United States Navy is the ultimate guarantor of its country’s preeminence on the world stage, both economically and politically. And like Smith’s Britain, today’s America requires a capable maritime workforce, one that can regularly exercise its skills, so it is prepared for war when the time comes.

Follow Smith’s Example

At a time of high inflation, it is understandable that consumers and their representatives would look for any possible way to lower prices. But quickly putting more money into people’s pockets is not the only aim of public policy with a maritime component. National security, including the ability of a country to win conflicts and protect its interests abroad, makes national prosperity possible in the long term – and conflicts like the current war in Ukraine show just how vulnerable economic forces are to the military power of America’s rivals.

As a superpower whose closest allies are oceans away, the U.S. must always be able to bring its troops and their supplies quickly across those oceans to its allies’ defense. The current threat of Russia, and the long-term threat of China, should focus policymakers’ attention on sealift capability. Keeping the Merchant Marine in good working order is in America’s interest, even if it raises prices a little. In the spirit of Adam Smith, and his nuanced understanding of markets and security, the U.S. should keep the Jones Act in place.

Michael D. Purzycki is an analyst, writer, and editor based in Arlington, Virginia. He has worked for the United States Navy, Marine Corps, and Army. In addition to CIMSEC, he has been published in Divergent Options, Merion West, the Washington Monthly, Wisdom of Crowds, Charged Affairs, Braver Angels, and more. He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki and on Medium at The views expressed here are his own.


1 The Editors. “Supply-Chain Crisis Isn’t Going Away.” National Review, December 15, 2021.

2 Grabow, Colin, and Inu Manak. “The Case against the Jones Act.” Cato Institute, June 2020.

3 Navy League of the United States. “China’s Use of Maritime for Global Power Demands a Strong Commitment to American Maritime.” November 2020.

4 Geroux, William. “The Merchant Marine Were the Unsung Heroes of World War II.” Smithsonian Magazine, May 27, 2016.

5 Geroux, William. “World War II Shows Why We Need the Merchant Marine.” TIME, April 21, 2016.

6 Navy League of the United States. “China’s Use of Maritime for Global Power Demands a Strong Commitment to American Maritime.” November 2020.

7 Atkinson, Robert D., and Michael Lind. “National Developmentalism: From Forgotten Tradition to New Consensus.” American Affairs, Summer 2019.

8 Granville, Kevin. “The Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Accord Explained.” New York Times, July 26, 2016.

9 Reuters. “China applies to join Pacific trade pact to boost economic clout.” September 17, 2021.

10 Werner, Ben. “Test of Ready Reserve Force Exposes Need For Newer Ships, More People.” U.S. Naval Institute, January 16, 2020.

11 Tallis, Joshua, Cornell Overfield, Kevin Inks, and Cherie Rosenblum. “Adrift: COVID-19 and the Safety of Seafarers.” CNA, October 2020.

12 Harper, Jon. “Military Sealift Considered ‘Black Sheep’ of Shipbuilding Family.” National Defense, March 25, 2022.

13 Ibid

14 “An Act for increase of Shipping, and Encouragement of the Navigation of this Nation.”

15 “An Act for the Encourageing and increasing of Shipping and Navigation.”

16 Fallows, James. “How the World Works.” Atlantic, December 1993.

17 Smith, Adam. “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.”

18 Ibid

Featured Image: A large banner bearing “Jones Act” is featured on a large container ship (Credit: Kendra Seymour).

The Financial Foundations of U.S. Hegemony: Rethinking Modern Monetary Theory, Part 2

By Michael A. Dennis and Anand Toprani

Part One introduced readers to an idea, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), which challenges many of the shibboleths of public finance, most notably the desirability of balanced budgets. In The Deficit Myth, author Stephanie Kelton described her conversion to MMT as a Copernican moment in which the scales suddenly fell from her eyes. She now understood that currency “issuers” have utterly different problems than currency “users.”

To illustrate this point, Kelton described a thought experiment she conducted while working in the U.S. Senate. She asked her fellow staffers on the Budget Committee if they would abolish the U.S. national debt and nearly all agreed. She then asked if they would rid the world of Treasury bills. The very same people now hesitated, realizing instinctively that Treasury bills and the national debt are identical – the two sides of the government ledger that must balance.

Subconsciously, far too many public officials and national security professionals remain in thrall to a Gold Standard mentality about finance – specifically the notion that a paper currency must be “backed up” by something precious to have any value. During the heyday of the Gold Standard before 1914, a nation’s money supply was tied to the quantity of gold it possessed, but the last remnants of that system vanished in 1971, when President Richard Nixon refused to convert U.S. dollars for gold.

As Kelton realized, the end of the Gold Standard did not mean an end to Gold Standard thinking. Even those well-versed in financial matters could not grasp that the supply of money was not tied to the supply of some metal stored in a vault.

The Peril and Power of MMT

The pandemic has shown MMT’s power, although proponents have not really claimed it as their vindication. Instead, the pandemic has become, like the 2008 Financial Crisis, another demonstration of John Maynard Keynes’ continuing relevance. This is a welcome development, but Keynes is perhaps not as useful for dealing with the challenges we face moving forward. If Copernicus removed Earth from the center of the solar system, MMT essentially removes money from the center of economics and replaces it with politics – who gets what, when, and how in Harold Lasswell’s immortal turn of phrase.

Without resorting to scaremongering about “hyperinflation,” there are plenty of legitimate criticisms of MMT. Kelton unfortunately relied on bad history in the service of good politics. For instance, she claimed that “Deficits did not stop Franklin Roosevelt from implementing the New Deal,” which echoes right-wing condemnations of FDR more than the judgments of sober historians. She also asserted that there is a causal relationship rather than just a correlation between periods of deficit reduction and financial crises. Boiling down a number of 19th century panics or the collapse of the international financial system after 1929 to American presidents’ debt reduction is a form of historical reductionism that obscures the complex sources of global financial crises. It is no different than claiming that the 2008 crisis was the fault of minority U.S. homeowners defaulting on their mortgages.

At this point, supporters of MMT might accuse this article of historical nitpicking. The authors would counter that any political program is stronger if rests upon a solid historical foundation.

There are also numerous reasons to be skeptical of MMT from the perspective of political economy (the interrelationship of political and economic affairs). Supposedly, monetary sovereigns have no deficit constraints if they control their own monetary supply and borrow in their own currency. This is true but only up to a point.

First of all, conflating monetary sovereignty with being a currency issuer seems a rather narrow definition of sovereignty. According to the Mundell-Fleming Trilemma, if a government chooses to embrace monetary sovereignty (narrowly defined as an independent monetary and fiscal policy), it must choose between stable exchange rates and capital mobility. During the Bretton Woods era, the nations of the developed world chose the former, and afterward, the latter. There were many reasons they went in these directions, but they had to make a choice. Once a country has committed itself to capital mobility and independent monetary/fiscal policy, it must accept the risks posed by fluctuating interest rates.

Additionally, although its supporters never acknowledge it, MMT poses risks for countries that must purchase large quantities of goods in foreign currencies even if they are monetary sovereigns. Consider the example of Britain, which is dependent on imports of any number of goods as well as capital for its financial services sector. One term that never appears in The Deficit Myth is the “twin-deficits hypothesis” – the idea that government deficits might worsen a nation’s trade balance by encouraging domestic consumption, which can raise domestic prices if the economy is at or near capacity or encourage imports. Unless earnings by foreigners are converted into bonds to cover government deficits, the importing nation will suffer currency depreciation.

This is a real danger for all countries that must purchase goods in foreign currencies. While Britain has monetary sovereignty, what would happen to its exchange rate if its budget deficit causes its current-account deficit to balloon? Either its exchange rates will deteriorate, which will happen for a country dependent on imports, or it must impose capital controls. Keynes was not afraid of capital controls and had a clear preference for limited external trade but adopting his mindset would entail a radical transformation of British society.

Furthermore, what about all the countries that do not have to worry about the deficit constraint but are not monetary sovereigns? The German government, for example, can borrow in its own currency, but it is not a currency issuer – rather, it is the European Central Bank. Nevertheless, the nominal interest rate on German debt has been 1% or less since 2012. Not every member of the Eurozone enjoys such a luxury – why? Is it because Germany is such a valued customer or because it generates massive current-account surpluses? Despite this uncertainty, Germany enjoys considerable fiscal flexibility even though, according to MMT, it should not.

The reality is that MMT, while a compelling theory for understanding how states can use their control of money to achieve specific political ends, has little to say about the structure of economies or how best to allocate resources. As our colleague Mark Blyth put it in his inimitable fashion, MMT assumes: “Get the money right and everything else follows.”

The example of Germany shows that MMT has it entirely backward – states must get the economy “right” before they can take advantage of the monetary/fiscal opportunities of MMT. Specifically, the Germans can afford to ignore deficits today because they spent decades building an industrial Exportweltmeister that is the envy of the world. It is the sacrifices of ordinary Germans that makes their nation such an appealing counterparty rather than the worries of German elites about hyperinflation and rejection of budget deficits.  

The Ironies of MMT

For an idea associated with the social-democratic left, MMT shares neoliberalism’s dim view of democratic oversight. Kelton is critical of the Federal Reserve’s technocratic management, with its inflation phobia and search for the “Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment” (NAIRU). Granted, Uncle Sam’s track record at managing tax policy to compensate for inflation hardly inspires confidence, either – as evidenced during the 1960s, when taxes could not reduce consumption fast enough during the boom in spending resulting from the Vietnam War and the Great Society. Therefore, Kelton wants to substitute rule by central bankers with automatic legislative stabilizers that modify government spending to account for inflation or unemployment. In other words, she is substituting one form of technocratic governance by financiers for another led by MMT economists.

Implementing such a system depends less on economic persuasion than political power. Such power is essential for stabilizing this arrangement at home and abroad. We have already seen, however, that some nations can only do the former but not latter. In fact, the only true monetary sovereign capable of fulfilling the promise of MMT is also the closest thing the world has to a hegemon – the United States.

The United States is a monetary hegemon because the world is denominated in dollars, not renminbi, sterling, euros, or yen. Despite the rise of China, the U.S. dollar still accounts for over 60% of central bank reserves and over 40% of all cross-border loans, international debt securities, global trade invoicing, and payments through the SWIFT system (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, which governs how banks communicate financial transactions across international borders). This hegemony is not without its costs – a higher dollar makes U.S. exports less competitive – but it allows the United States to exert a degree of influence over world affairs beyond what its other instruments of national power could deliver by themselves.

The Risk of Ignoring the Power Pyramid

Given the extent of this power, it is remarkable that the United States has done so much to undermine Susan Strange’s pyramid of national power, described in Part One: military force, productive capacity, financial strength, knowledge production, and maintenance. Whether by restricting immigration, cutting the funding for research and development, or imposing sanctions with an unprecedented alacrity against its allies as well as its rivals, administrations of both parties have displayed little awareness of the factors that made the United States a great power.

As a result, they have presided over the gradual evaporation of the United States’ technological edge. For example, the United States, once the source of the world’s most powerful computer chip designs, is no longer the world’s leader in this vital technology. The Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) is the most advanced fabrication plant in the world capable of rendering the 5 nm chips that lie at the heart of Apple’s future laptops and phones.

People – and not just Americans – pay for these chips and the products housing them in dollars, but how much longer will that be the case in a world where the “most important” real estate for the world economy is in Taiwan rather the United States? Fortunately, Taiwan remains a de facto U.S. ally, but what happens if China achieves its goal of chip independence –a quest fueled, in part, by the Trump and Biden administrations’ restrictive trade policies?

This transition of technological power away from the United States is evident in the most ordinary of circumstances. Consider one of the most-popular apps on the phones of America’s youth: TikTok. Despite the fact that TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, is not part of an industry that benefited from Chinese government patronage, the AI in TikTok is apparently beyond the skills of U.S. programmers, which explains the U.S. government’s wariness toward TikTok’s Chinese origins. U.S. government efforts to engineer that company’s sale to an American firm appear to have stalled, but Washington has nonetheless set a dangerous precedent – the United States relied on political coercion to stem the dissemination of a superior Chinese product irrespective of consumer preferences.

It might seem ridiculous to national security professionals to think that China’s development of an app to share user-generated videos presages a geopolitical revolution, but consider the following point. Despite crushing Nazi Germany and sending the first man into space, the Soviet Union never produced something that an American firm could not match or better, much less a consumer good that captured the United States’ youth demographic.

Perhaps worse, the country is discouraging the best means of redressing the qualitative difference between Chinese and U.S. firms: immigration. These immigrants play a vital role in the worldwide knowledge economy – the vaccines Americans are counting on to deliver them from the pandemic are the result of small firms populated by immigrants either in the United States or, in the case of the Pfizer vaccine, in Germany. In the alternative universe where Donald Trump won a second term in 2020, U.S. research productivity would further suffer due to the restrictions on visas for graduate students and postdocs in the physical and biomedical sciences. U.S. universities have already taken a financial hit since foreign students often pay the retail tuition price, especially students from China.

MMT: An Incomplete Solution

If MMT is the answer to some of the most challenging threats confronting the United States – notably the transition to a green economy – Americans cannot afford to forsake the preservation of U.S. monetary hegemony. U.S. hegemony does not rely on the crude metrics of earlier generations – numbers of soldiers and weapons, or steel, coal, and oil production – but rather on something both more ephemeral and durable: the confidence of the rest of the world that it can benefit from U.S. hegemony.

If debt is not really the constraint but rather inflation, as MMT advocates contend, the next question Americans must answer is how the government should mobilize its seemingly unlimited fiscal resources. Military strength is a vital component of Strange’s pyramid, but it seems the United States has reached the point of diminishing marginal returns. New weapons take too long to develop and cost too much to mass produce. Despite record budgets, U.S. military aircraft and ship readiness rates are deficient, which has problematic implications for the readiness of the rest of the military, and the Pentagon has been of modest help during the pandemic.

Rather than continuing to pour money down the defense sinkhole to purchase new weapons when it cannot maintain the ones the country already has, the United States should be using government spending to “build back” the U.S. entrepreneurial state to confront the challenges posed by climate change, recover from the pandemic, and repair the nation’s physical and human infrastructure. A national government that is free from the sorts of constraints that limit private firms can and should spearhead this effort.

There are still some who would argue that the United States should rely on the “invisible hand” to allocate capital. It is an alluring theory, but U.S. historical experience has thoroughly undercut it. After World War II, it was the entrepreneurial state rather than “heroic capitalists” that bore the risks to invest in new knowledge, and which continues to pay dividends today. Private firms that are beholden to shareholders demanding immediate returns on their investment simply cannot undertake the kinds of long-term, speculative investment in pure (as opposed to practical) R&D required to generate genuine novelty.

Just as the U.S. government has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force and printing money, so too does it have a near-monopoly on the ability to take risks over long-time horizons. Recall that it was U.S. Army ordnance in the 19th century that perfected the development of standardized parts over a 40-year-plus period in its arsenals. In the 20thcentury, the U.S. government provided invaluable support to several industries, including aviation, nuclear power, computing, and space. This should not imply that governments are wiser than private investors, only that the former can afford to place large bets that they might lose; after all, they are gambling with the house’s money.

These sorts of investments rarely seem justified under normal circumstances, but they can generate enormous windfalls. One of the many legacies of government sponsorship of R&D in the United States was a biomedical research system that allowed for the rapid development of the mRNA vaccines that are taming COVID-19. Whether it was supporting research on DNA and RNA that venture capitalists ignored or the vast array of technologies now embedded in smartphones, the U.S. government was essential in “bringing good things to life.” That the latter was an advertising slogan from General Electric from 1980 to 2003 only reinforces a collective historical amnesia, just as Americans forget how money actually works.

Not All Spending is Equal

Critics of MMT are right about one thing – not all spending is equal and running up deficits over the long run without enhancing the nation’s productive capacity and its economic attractiveness will undermine U.S. monetary hegemony. The goal of an expansive fiscal policy should be the creation of an economy in which people from all over the world wish to continue participating, which in turn will preserve the dollar as the preferred instrument for both debt and credit.

There are steps that the U.S. government can take that would generate dividends for the United States’ economic and national security. The government could, for example, revisit the 1958 National Defense Education Act that resulted from the fear following Sputnik’slaunch that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union. A new education act would enable training up the workforce that contemporary industries demand. It should fund industrial apprenticeships in both civilian and defense industries, as well as the vocational training that the United States has allowed to wither. The country might also turn the surfeit of advanced degree graduates into managers of government investments in fields vital to its national health instead of stranding them as poorly paid adjuncts in the U.S. educational gulag.

Perhaps the great irony of contemporary American political economy is that many of the proponents of MMT are also the biggest critics of the other aspects of U.S. power that make MMT possible. The United States can afford the Green New Deal as well as providing universal health care and other necessities – but only as part of a wider process of “keeping America great.”

Politics truly makes for strange bedfellows.

Michael A. Dennis and Anand Toprani are professors of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College and visiting professors at Brown University. They wish to acknowledge their profound debt to their colleague, Brown University professor Mark Blyth, whose insights inspired this piece.

The views expressed here are Dennis and Toprani’s and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.

Featured Image: U.S. Capitol Building is superimposed over scaffolding and currency imagery. (Credit: Christina Animashaun)

The Financial Foundations of U.S. Hegemony: Rethinking Modern Monetary Theory, Part 1

By Michael A. Dennis and Anand Toprani

Part One

Wars and pandemics expand the realm of the possible. By passing the $2 trillion CARES Act plus the more recent $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, the U.S. government staved off some of the COVID-19 pandemic’s worst economic effects. Recognizing that one person’s spending is another’s income, Washington and governments around the world put their economies on life support until the measures necessary to contain the virus took hold and normal economic activity might resume. The U.S. government’s handling of the pandemic has been mixed, but it has demonstrated one fact beyond any reasonable doubt: mammoth U.S. budget deficits don’t have the sorts of deleterious effects about which some in Washington have long warned.

Aside from forcing some economists and public officials to reconsider their aversion to deficits, the events of the recent past have seemingly validated some, if not all, of the tenets of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Proponents of MMT – previously a fringe, “heterodox” idea in economics departments – argue that “monetary sovereigns” – countries that control their own money supplies and borrow in their own currency – can afford to run deficits so long as they do not cause excessive inflation (too much money chasing after too few goods).

MMT offers a potential solution to the current economic predicament in the United States. Even before the pandemic, progressive politicians announced MMT was the answer to how the United States might fund the Green New Deal without having to worry about deficits or increased taxes. Many economists and conservative politicians criticized this embrace of MMT, sometimes for specious reasons.

To be clear, MMT is not beyond criticism: its proponents often overlook the central role of U.S. power in their understanding of political economy (how politics shapes markets and economic outcomes). This article will suggest that MMT is only possible because of the special character of American power within the international system and its most visible instrument: the dollar. It is an artefact of American hegemony as well as its potential savior.

Understanding U.S. Power

The United States has seen better days. The country long ago gave up the title of “workshop of the world,” and despite the size of its defense budget, it has not won a war in decades. None of this means that American hegemony is a myth. In some realms, it is greater than ever before. Which nation could have stabilized the global financial system after 2008? During the recent pandemic, no one even questioned the Federal Reserve’s leadership in forestalling another crisis. That sort of power was beyond the comprehension of Victorian statesmen and is likely beyond the grasp of Communist China.

What makes the United States different despite its economic, military, political, and moral shortcomings? Why does the rest of the world not only allow the United States to live beyond its means but even to subsidize it – what generations of embittered European statesmen called “exorbitant privilege”? The cause of these U.S. deficits is not social spending only: U.S. defense spending between 1992 and 2019 equaled 83% of the total U.S. current-account deficit – the balance between what the country buys from and sells to foreigners – during that period.

The exact nature of the spending answers the “how,” but the “why” – that is, why do foreign ants support U.S. grasshoppers? —remains. Perhaps the main reason is that foreigners want to hold U.S. dollars, which remain indispensable for international trade. While 23% of global exports excluding commodities are invoiced in dollars, only 10% go to the United States. Foreigners sell in dollars because they know those same dollars can be used to buy whatever they need, even if it is not produced in the United States. They also use them to buy U.S. public and private debt. Few investments are safer than Treasuries while U.S. corporate debt has obvious attractions considering the size of the U.S. economy and the absence of capital controls (unlike China).

It is vital to remember that U.S. military and industrial power during and after World War II made this system possible. At the same time, however, Americans should banish the illusion that U.S. military power alone sustains the United States’ financial position. Rather, it is U.S. scientific, technological, economic, and financial strength that underpin U.S. military power. Additionally, U.S. financial hegemony – which allows the United States to fund its deficits cheaply, pay for an outsized military, and exercise non-violent coercion of its adversaries and friends – rests on the centrality of the dollar and the U.S. production of knowledge.

The Power Pyramid

Many members of the national-security world are familiar with Harold Laswell’s concept of the “DIME” (diplomacy, information, military, and economics). The DIME are the instruments by which great powers influence the external environment, but they have little to say about the sources of that power. Whereas the instruments of power are similar across many nations, the sources of power tend to be peculiar and dependent on the specific context. So, let us focus our attention on the United States.

While the foremost English-language theorist of the sources of power is the sociologist Michael Mann, there is another thinker whose work is perhaps even more relevant to the contemporary United States and its financial hegemony. In a seminal 1987 essay, the pioneering scholar of international political economy, Susan Strange, argued that U.S. power was a four-sided pyramid comprised of military force, productive capacity, financial strength, and the capability of generating new and valuable knowledge, all of which make it an attractive destination for foreign investment as well as immigrants. For example, even in a world where the United States is no longer the greatest manufacturing power, it still designs some of the most sought-after goods while also owning the intellectual property that makes their production possible.

In reality, however, pyramids have five sides – the four you can see and the one you cannot: the base. One concept that is missing from Strange’s framework is maintenance, or, the base of the pyramid. This goes beyond the simple maintenance of physical assets to include the upkeep of the financial system and the multiple infrastructures (including human) upon which each of Strange’s other four sources rest. While maintenance might not be the most attractive or appealing idea, it would have prevented events such as the massive SolarWinds hack.

Strange’s pyramid demonstrates that there is a lot of merit to understanding how U.S. power stems from multiple sources instead of focusing myopically on the military instrument. U.S. hegemony has its origins in the United States’ overwhelming military, economic, and political victory during World War II, as well as the institutions and policies that the nation established in the war’s aftermath.

Dueling Economic Theories

Shedding misconceptions about the sources of U.S. economic and financial power requires an understanding of how money works in the world. As John Maynard Keynes famously observed, those who believed themselves devoid of any intellectual influence were “usually slaves of some defunct economist.” In the case of former President Donald Trump, that economist was Arthur Laffer, who popularized the notion that “tax cuts pay for themselves” by promoting higher economic growth. The 2017 Trump tax cuts, however, produced neither the promised economic boom nor runaway inflation. The problem remained deflation – too little money chasing after too many goods. So why was that the case despite the immense overhang of public debt even before the pandemic? Again, Keynes provides some answers.

In the 1920s, Keynes realized that the classical Quantity Theory of Money was false. Before him, economists believed, and many continue to believe, that an increase in the money supply produces inflation rather than increasing a society’s wealth. As Keynes realized, however, during an economic downturn, when people’s expectations discouraged them from spending money, deflation rather than inflation was the problem. Unfortunately, subsequent generations of economists have had to relearn his lessons.

With the pandemic gathering steam in the spring of 2020, lawmakers acted with unusual alacrity to pass legislation providing workers with a one-time payment of $1,200 and raising unemployment payments by $600. These and other measures allowed laid-off, furloughed, or underemployed workers to survive (temporarily) the unprecedented twist of the economic rheostat without shoving the economy into a wholesale depression. Financial markets, following a brief dip at the pandemic’s outset, rebounded after the Federal Reserve dusted off its 2008 Financial Crisis playbook and lowered interest rates to zero while pledging to buy distressed assets, including corporate bonds.

Not surprisingly, the size of the U.S. government’s budget deficit in 2020 relative to the overall economy (17.9%) was higher than any period since World War II. Yet, the rates on 10-year U.S. treasures dropped by two-thirds (1.8% to less than 0.6%) before stabilizing, at year’s end, at half of their rate in January 2020 (0.93%). The notion that U.S. debt could become cheaper the larger it grew undercut economic orthodoxy and even common sense, and yet that was precisely what was happening. If Americans were expecting conventional economic wisdom to explain what was going on, they were sadly mistaken.  

Enter MMT

It proved fortuitous that a former adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, Stephanie Kelton, published a book popularizing MMT, The Deficit Myth, just as the pandemic locked everyone in their homes. Although MMT’s proponents are reluctant to admit it, they are not advocating a radically new idea. As early as 1943, the economist Abba Lerner articulated the concept of functional finance. This was the theory that governments should use finance as a positive instrument to achieve certain policy functions, including full employment, if necessary by having the Federal Reserve purchase any unsold U.S. Treasuries.

Kelton’s greatest success was not of one creation but rather synthesis. She reframed Lerner and others’ ideas in clear, accessible prose and suggested how they might help to alleviate some of the worst problems confronting the United States.

MMT rests upon a set of observations that are familiar to any student of Keynesian economics. First, what is commendable on the individual level may have catastrophic social effects because one person’s spending is another’s income – that is to say, any collective effort to reduce spending and “deleverage” (liquidate debts) is liable to reduce aggregate wealth. Keynes called this the “paradox of thrift,” but it was also a practical demonstration of the first lesson in every accounting class: double-entry bookkeeping. Assets at the close of business must equal liabilities and deferred equity – i.e., both sides of the ledger (credits/debits) must balance. Government deficits are not always a problem since these public deficits create private surpluses and vice versa. If the government has more money than it needs to fulfill its obligations, it means that the collective ordinary people have less.

This logic operates in many different forms and venues. Perhaps the best-known example repeats every year on the same day – Christmas Eve – when networks re-air It’s a Wonderful Life. Among its many charms, the film captures the high drama of the “bank run.” As the harried bank manager (Jimmy Stewart) explains to the panicked townspeople, if every depositor attempts to withdraw their money simultaneously, the bank will have to call in its outstanding loans. This will either tip borrowers into insolvency or force them to cut spending, often by laying off workers or deferring investment, which will further depress the economy. (As a side note, perhaps the best explanation of how fear can paralyze a banking system and the entire economy, and how to restore confidence, is President Franklin Roosevelt’s very first “Fireside Chat.”)

The second observation underlying MMT is that nations are not households. Personal budgets and debt obligations are not the same as those of a national government. Besides having a monopoly on the legal use of force, the most important distinction between Uncle Sam and the average American is that only the former can issue legal tender. Following the final collapse of the Gold Standard in 1971 (the Bretton Woods System, which pegged the price of gold at $35 an ounce), according to MMT, certain governments that issue their own currency, such as the United States but also Japan, Canada, Australia, etc., can never run out of money since they control the supply of this resource. This is the foundation of what Kelton calls “monetary sovereignty.” Virtually every nation issues its own currency but only a fortunate few may borrow in their own currency (often from their own citizens’ savings), which spares them the need to peg their currency to another or generate current-account or budget surpluses to service their external debts.

Third, because the U.S. government, through the Treasury and the Federal Reserve (the government’s bank), is the only legal issuer of dollars and has a monopoly on the legal use of force, it can compel everyone within its jurisdiction to pay taxes in U.S. dollars. (MMT theorists, like economists in general, prefer not to acknowledge the role that violence plays within economic systems, but it is implicit within their theories.) This means that households, businesses, as well as state and local governments are what Kelton calls currency “users” as opposed to currency “issuers.”

The question then becomes: Why would the government go through the rigmarole of creating bits of paper and then force its citizens to return some of them every Tax Day or encourage the conversion excess dollars into government bonds (“green” dollars into “yellow” dollars, in Kelton’s formulation)?

The answer is simple but not necessarily intuitive, which is perhaps Keynesian economics’ most-significant shortcoming: National governments with sovereign currencies do not tax and borrow to spend. Instead, they spend first, using money that they and banks create. Then, they tax and borrow, not because they are running out of pieces of paper but because they want to combat inflation and reduce inequality. Americans can see this process at work during fights over raising the debt ceiling — a political farce masquerading as a debate over whether the U.S. government should issue further debt to cover money it has already spent.

Just because proponents of MMT argue the United States can spend money without worrying about deficits does not necessarily mean it should. Not all spending is equal in its contribution to maintaining a nation’s position at home and abroad. Unfortunately, MMT does not provide any guidance about how to spend money besides satisfying a liberal policy wish list. It is surprising that conservatives have been so hostile to MMT because they could theoretically use it to justify higher defense spending or further tax cuts.

In fact, the United States should be wary of supporting any spending program that fails to strengthen the pyramid Strange identified. Doing so may undermine the U.S. financial hegemony that makes MMT possible, not to mention the gargantuan U.S. national security apparatus.

MMT: An Opportunity?

Combining MMT with Strange’s framing of American power offers national security professionals a rare opportunity to learn about government finance from the federal government’s response to COVID-19. Are there lessons that apply beyond the pandemic? More important, how does American financial strength underpin and serve U.S. power more broadly? These are issues that elucidate crucial dimensions of national security and the nature of the United States’ hegemonic role within the international system.

Kelton described her conversion to MMT as a “Copernican moment,” but the depth of her embrace is almost religious, evoking Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. MMT is truly a powerful tool for re-conceptualizing the role of governments in managing the economy to grapple with current (inequality) and future challenges (climate change), but it possesses certain blind spots. In Part Two, the authors will explain the gaping hole at the heart of MMT – not the usual screeds of deficit “hawks” but rather an appreciation of how monetary sovereignty is intimately bound up with political and military hegemony.

Michael A. Dennis and Anand Toprani are professors of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College and visiting professors at Brown University. They wish to acknowledge their profound debt to their colleague, Brown University professor Mark Blyth, whose insights inspired this piece.

The views expressed here are Dennis and Toprani’s and not necessarily those of the U.S. government.

Featured Image: Graphics of U.S. currency superimposed on U.S. government imagery. (Credit: Christina Animashaun)