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The Job Guarantee and the MMT Core: Part Fourteen, MMT Is A Holistic Knowledge Claim Network

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The recent extensive blogosphere discussion on the JG and the MMT core began with a post by John Carney that stated his opposition to the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) Job Guarantee proposal and claimed it either wasn't an essential component of MMT, or that if it was, then MMT was wrong. Cullen Roche, a well-known popularizer of MMT at his Pragmatic Capitalism blog then asserted:

”It’s not that I think the JG “cannot” be a component of MMT (Bill drew a very clear line in the sand saying that the JG is “central” to MMT and not “peripheral”), but that our knowledge, understanding and implementation of modern money need not involve the JG. The JG might be central to the idea the founders had when creating MMT, but that just means it’s central to the original concept of MMT as they saw it. . . .

This is true as far as it goes. But, it's also true that the JG is still part of the MMT core, because MMT is committed to Public Purpose, the MMT developers have tied Public Purpose to Full Employment (FE) and Price Stability (PS), and the best knowledge we have at this point, after years of study of the JG, is that in the context of a program also specifying full payroll tax cuts and State revenue sharing, it is the policy that is most likely to produce FE and PS.

But Cullen is proposing that the JG should no longer be considered part of the MMT core because:

. . . they have by no means proven the JG to be the optimal usage of the government’s monopoly currency supplier powers (despite substantial evidence and persuasive arguments) . . . . and in fact could come at substantial long-term cost. Instead, I think there are better options which can also lead to price stability and full employment.”

In earlier posts in this series I've criticized the specifics of Cullen's and also John Carney's arguments against the JG, and, I hope and expect, that I've shown that there is little merit to them, and that they mainly consist of pointing to low likelihood side effects of the JG, disagreements with the objectives of FE and PS, and apparent lack of concern for the overall goal of Public Purpose.

Here I'll add that MMT writers can't possibly “prove” that the JG program is “the optimal usage of the government’s monopoly currency supplier powers”, because they'd have to prove that a better policy than the JG can't be formulated, and proving this would be proving a negative, an impossibility.

Of course, it's possible to “prove” that the JG program is not optimal for its purpose, since this can be done by proposing a single policy that works better than the JG. However, my previous posts have shown that rather than come up with such a policy, Carney and Roche have offered reasons why they think the JG won't work, and then have moved on to attack the objective of Full Employment with Price Stability as less desirable than other goals, in Cullen's case the goal of “prosperity” through “full productivity,” which Carney later concurs with.

My purpose now, however, is not to rehearse my earlier critiques of the views of Carney and Roche. It is to address the more general and important issues of how the core of any approach to economics, including MMT, emerges; what is part of the MMT core right now; and how such a core ought to be evolved over time. I'll begin in this post by introducing the idea of holistic knowledge claim networks in economics and its general implications for what should be included in such networks and MMT's knowledge claim network. My next post, will present my assessment of the components of the MMT network right now, and the concluding post in the series will state my view of what's in the MMT core right now, and how MMT ought to be changed in the future.

The Knowledge Claim Networks of Economics Emerge Through Iterative, Incremental Value-impregnated Decision making

It's worthwhile to reflect a bit on how economic Knowledge Claim Networks (KCNs) -- networks of statements about the way the world is, works, ought to be, will be in the future, and how knowledge of it can be developed -- for research and policy emerge.

First, the people who form them come to the task with ideas about the differences between the world as it is and the world as they want it to be. Let's call these the social/value gaps motivating activity.

Gaps like these always exist. People meet them with action when they know how to close them. Where they think they need more knowledge to close them, they consider which social/value gaps accompanying these knowledge gaps (“problems”) they see are important enough to devote their attention to, and which aren't worth their effort to try to close.

A choice like this, the selection of a knowledge gap to be addressed and closed, requires a decision, relying on the values people hold and the importance they attach to those values. There is nothing value-free or value-neutral about a decision. If an existing social/value gap seems particularly important to people, and if they have the resources to address the knowledge gaps associated with it, then they will select those as “problems” to be solved by the KCN, they will be creating.

Once problems are selected, the people formulating a new KCN create and select the categories, conceptual frameworks, hypotheses, models, facts, data, and “theories” that they will use in creating the solutions for those problems. Some of this activity will occur in conjunction with their attempts to formulate and choose the problems they will address, or activity in this area may motivate them to return to problem formulation and selection activity.

In other words, there's no hard and fast temporal distinction between defining problems, conceptualizing and formulating categories and arriving at hypotheses, facts, models, etc that people use to solve, or try to solve, problems. The conceptual distinction between these different types of activities is important for understanding and analysis, but it doesn't indicate that distinct stages, unmarked by overlaps and feedback relations exist in the actual process of creating a KCN in economics.

It's important to notice, as well, that this process of conceptualizing categories, frameworks, theories, etc. is in no way a value-free process. Of course, it's constrained by one's ideas about what the important knowledge gaps are. So, the values affecting the problem phase of development certainly pass through to this one. But, additionally, when one considers that formulating categories, frameworks, theories, etc. always involves consideration of multiple alternatives of each of these things, then it's also clear that there are decisions in other parts of the process of inquiry that values must effect. The formulations that intrigue people, that use categories resonating with them, that seem to speak to their moral and ethical concerns, or reflect on them, will certainly effect decisions people make about what theories, models, etc will be selected for attention in later investigations and testing.

Objectivity here is about fairness -- the willingness to consider major conceptual frameworks (including value propositions), theories, and hypotheses bearing on a particular problem or problems that compete with and contradict each other, regardless of which alternatives one wants to consider. There's also a balance between the need to cut down on all the competing notions that might be considered to a set of manageable alternatives, while still emerging with a set of competing theories that is reasonably complete and doesn't exclude serious formulations that might prove to be true (from the descriptive standpoint), or legitimate (from the value standpoint).

The objective of this phase of the process is ending up with a fair comparison set of KCNs and their accompanying theories, hypotheses, data, etc. But there is never any guarantee that one has done so. It's like the idea of maximizing profits in a business. One may try do that, but one can't possibly tell whether one has failed after the fact, until others or yourself come up with counter-examples showing missed opportunities for making greater profits. On the other hand, if there are no counter-examples, that still doesn't mean one has succeeded. That, you'll never know, because nobody can exclude the possibility that the necessary counter-example won't suddenly appear.

After conceptual categories, hypotheses, models, facts, data, and “theories” get formulated then the issues of testing competing formulations arise. In an open KCN situation everything is subject to criticism and refutation including even reconsideration of the important social/value and knowledge gaps. The issue here is arriving at a KCN that has been most successful in meeting critical attempts at refutation. It's not ideological defense of it against all comers as a lawyer would defend a client that counts. Instead, what's important is subjecting it and the alternatives to it in the fair critical comparison set, to the strongest attacks possible to see if the KCN is strong enough to withstand “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

When people do that they are generating their new KCN using a fair critical comparison process. To the extent they fail to meet that standard, the resulting KCN is likely to be of lesser quality and to have less adaptability to the challenges it will inevitably face. Of course, in reality, most approaches don't emerge through a process of fair critical comparison. They deviate from this ideal in varying degrees.

But whatever the deviation, the main point is that even if the ideal of fair critical comparison is approached very closely, the process of critical evaluation still involves value judgments because decisions choosing one approach over its alternatives always involve value judgments about whether the critical grounds for preferring one alternative over all the others are strong enough, and whether the risks of selecting that alternative are low enough that one is making the best decision one can in choosing to rely on the KCN one ends up selecting.

So, there's no escaping value judgments in arriving at KCNs in economics whether or not one is trying to be objective. Not that objectivity in a meaningful sense is impossible. I'm NOT claiming that. But, I am saying that value neutrality is impossible. It is a sham that denies the reality of the need to make decisions in developing knowledge including new KCNs in economics.

Our real choice in describing a particular KCN is whether we want to view and evaluate it only in terms of its descriptive aspects or whether we want to view and evaluate it as a holistic knowledge claim network, a fusion of fact and value claims, including social/value gap, problems, conceptual frameworks approaches, theories, models, measurement models, data, narratives, policy prescriptions, data, and also the whole track record of criticism, evaluation, and testing of various aspects of the network. I think the growth of knowledge is better served by a holistic approach that subjects everything to continuous criticism and evaluation, rather than an approach that restricts evaluation to the descriptive aspects of a KCN, considers a portion of that aspect of the network its core, and “pins down” the rest of the network as beyond criticism, evaluation, and test because it is assumed as a given.

So, the KCNs that emerge from the interrelated sequential and sometimes iterative decision making processes that produce them, assume not only singular and universal knowledge claims about the world, but also knowledge claims about intrinsic and extrinsic value. Such KCNs also contain prescriptive knowledge claims that combine claims about value with claims about the way the way world is and works. To understand those networks we have to understand all three. The value claims, the claims about the world, and also the prescriptive claims combining the two.

So What?

I'm sorry about all the meta-theory in this post, but I think I need it to make some very important points:

First, even though one can state a purely descriptive KCN in economics, that network will be taken out of context and so will be incomplete. Specifically, it will be missing

1) the context of value assumptions accompanying selection decisions relating to social/value gaps, knowledge gaps, hypotheses, models, theories, measurement models, and data;

2) the prescriptive propositions combining the descriptive and value portions of the KCN; and

3) any narrative or historical context that isn't purely descriptive but contributes to the understanding of the KCN.

Second, one can't easily decide what parts of the descriptive aspect of the KCN are at its core, if the value, prescriptive, and sometimes even the narrative portion of the network are missing. The reason for this is that some descriptive knowledge claims may not seem central to the KCN unless one can see their relationship to the value, prescriptive and narrative components of the network. That is, the full context of the descriptive portion of the network may be necessary to assess what is important to the full network and what is not.

-- So, people having access to the descriptive portion of the network may decide to deemphasize development of parts of it that are not as interesting to them as other parts of greater theoretical interest.

-- Or they may import their own private values into decisions about the way in which the network ought to be developed.

-- Or, most importantly, they may fail to include attributes, properties, or variables in the network that are critical from the viewpoint of anticipating/measuring/evaluating side effects of private actions or public policies based on the purely descriptive “knowledge” offered by the network.

-- Or finally, people developing the descriptive part of the network by testing and selecting among theories and hypotheses, may not be able to assess the relative risk of error in accepting a hypothesis or theory in preference to its competitors.

Third, decisions about what parts of a KCN are part of the core will be heavily affected by one's value perspective on the network. In the history of science, the effort to banish values from inquiry and to isolate the descriptive aspects of science from the value and prescriptive aspects has resulted in people importing their own values into scientific processes and outcomes without being explicit about what their value knowledge claims are. These claims influence inquiry and its outcomes without having to face criticism, evaluation, and refutation.

In particular, they often result in decisions to write certain elements out of the descriptive aspect of the KCN because their implications may conflict with or expose implicit value commitments that people don't want to fight about. The result of all this is greater subjectivity in inquiry than would be the case if value knowledge claims were explicit and their relationship to prescriptive knowledge claims was easily traced. The further result of it is the growth of unbalanced KCNs whose descriptive aspects are developed in distorted ways, whose value and narrative aspects are very under-developed, and whose prescriptive aspects are very partial, ignore consideration of side effects, and are all about continued vulnerability to “black swans.”

The MMT KCN has been developed holistically by its originators. It is not focused on descriptive aspects of economics alone. It offers explicit value claims, it's normative aspect is pretty clear. Many of its practitioners, offer policy prescriptions rather than simply concentrating on the way the world is right now. In my next post we'll take a look at its components. But for now, I'll note that the social/value gap, problems, and prescriptive aspects of the MMT KCN are progressive and second New Deal oriented, and that is why many people who are persuaded by parts of the descriptive aspect of MMT want to do what they can to place these aspects into a secondary role and drive them out of the KCN altogether.

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