Nov 11, 2020
Welcome to episode 54 of Activist #MMT. Today I talk with third-year MMT activist, Sam Hollenbeck. Along with my recent guest, Amber Griego, Sam is a co-founder of the organization Beyond the Spectrum. Sam and I start by talking about parenting young children in the face of increasingly-likely global societal collapse.
He then describes his journey through mainstream politics to MMT. This was highlighted by his excitement followed by letdown of both Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders, although for very different reasons. Sam was introduced to MMT by my previous guest Lana Dell (who spoke with me in episode 15). Lana referred Sam to the online activism group Real Progressives, where he had his lightbulb moment in videos with Steve Grumbine and Ellis Winningham.
For years before, however, Sam knew something was wrong with his understanding of economics. This is exemplified by his realization that it is simply not possible for the same money to circulate around and around through a community. Although he couldn’t put words to it at the time, he knew there must be an external source of new money in order to keep the economy going – not unlike the Go-spot on a Monopoly board. The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system can only increase. another way of saying this is, a reaction always contains less energy than what caused it. This implies that no system can function in the long term unless it is powered by some external energy, which obviously must come from some external system. Perpetual motion machines do not exist.
Sam lives in a New York town bordering Pennsylvania, which he calls “a rusted out post-industrial wasteland." Sam volunteers with his ten-year-old daughter at a resource center for families struggling with substance abuse. It's called Truth Pharm (which you can find at https://truthpharm.org/ and TruthPharm on Twitter). Here's Sam's description of the organization:
Truth Pharm is a resource center for individuals and families struggling with substance use disorders. They providing Harm Reduction education, resources, services and support and assist people who are transitioning in or out of treatment or incarceration. They also advocate and activate for policy changes to fight against the failed War on Drugs.
The lack of jobs and more specifically, a job guarantee (in addition to a lack of healthcare and education, and the terrible burden of private debt), is a major reason that people are driven to drugs (and guns) in the first place, why his town is a rusted out wasteland, and why Truth Pharm is needed at all.
Like so many charitable organizations, Truth Pharm doesn’t have the staff or funding necessary to properly serve those who are desperate for its services. A job guarantee would provide that staffing and funding. At the same time, it would make Truth Pharm much less necessary, because it would have less clients, and would therefore need less staff and funding. In addition to receiving a socially-inclusive wage, those who might have been clients would simply have more positive things to focus on.
What I take most from my conversation with Sam, however, is the idea of balance, and I mean that in the broadest sense. First, balance between academic study and theory, versus practical experience. Sam felt he was missing what was happening in his own community, so he chose to spend much of his time volunteering locally. Although this meant less time for academic study, it allowed him to see the mass suffering caused by a half-century of neoliberal-era policies, up close and personal. This experience provides critical context for those academic concepts, and transforms those numbers and statistics into actual human beings.
Balance is also doing what it takes to survive now. To pay this month’s rent – to cancel this month’s rent. Sharing the knowledge that the issuer could pay all rent, if only they wanted, is not helpful to someone facing potential eviction. Even if our federal representatives did choose to pay all rent, it would take a substantial amount of time before it affected the lives of those who are desperate today.
Two balance-related decisions I’ve made for my podcast is, first, to interview both academics and laypeople. It’s important to know how laypeople perceive and are affected by the academic concepts. This is especially true given how MMT academics have (necessarily) chosen to spread the knowledge among the general public primarily via blogs and social media. I’ve also decided to not just discuss academic concepts, but also how their personal lives led them to and are affected by MMT. This final element was inspired by late UMKC professor Fred Lee’s book, A History of Heterodox Economics.
My recent interview with Pakistani PhD economist Asad Zaman taught me that western education strongly discourages balance. It pushes students to diving headlong into a single subject, resulting in the exclusion of all others. This is a negative and even devastating philosophy, in the sense that without confirming that a particular theory applies to the real world, that theory becomes progressively more detached from reality. What’s devastating is when those in power use those theories to implement policy that affects millions. Not so coincidentally, the MMT project is deliberately and decidedly interdisciplinary.
Finally, balance can not only be achieved as an individual, but also as a collective. The universe of podcasts entirely or largely dedicated to MMT is very diverse: MMT Podcast focuses on academic concepts. Money on the Left discusses MMT through an interdisciplinary lens. Macro N’ Cheese balances between MMT and progressive politics. A new podcast called Superstructure discusses politics and other topics through an MMT lens. My own podcast balances between academic concepts and personal stories.
We all choose our different ways to balance, both what we do, and how we do it. All are important in their own ways. No individual can do it all. No individual is responsible for preventing climate and societal collapse. As a team, however, we can refer and defer to each other as and when necessary. We can realize our own limitations and ask for help and rely on others when we need it. When we happen to have more energy and time, we can assist those who need help, even if they don’t ask for it. And of course, we could choose to join together, stand up, and demand better, in order to give our children even a small shot at living out a full life with even a modicum of the privilege that we enjoy today.
And now onto my conversation with Sam Hollenbeck. This is part one of a two-part conversation.
For an overview of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) with many reliable sources to learn more, here is a good place to start:
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