Modern Monetary Theory and Addiction
I was in a debate this morning on twitter about the validity of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT – not to be confused with Methadone Maintenance Therapy in this post), but ran into problems with the 140 character limit. For those of you who don’t know, MMT is a theory based on government’s monopoly of excreting fiat currency as a basis for an economy. Basically MMT says that money is what the government says it is. If the government wanted us to pay our taxes in chocolate, we’d use chocolate for money. But the government wants Federal Reserve Notes (or their bank deposit equivalents) and so that’s what we use as money. It’s a compelling theory that fits the facts of our lives today and has gotten a lot of followers lately.
The point I was trying to make in my twitter debate was that the flaw of MMT, the thing that makes it not something to base long term predictions on, is its original assumption. That assumption, that money is money because the government says it is, might be true today in America, but it isn’t always true. In fact, it isn’t even true most of the time in most places in our history.
The word money comes from Jupiter Moneta, a temple at the center of Rome which was used as a mint. The ancients saw money as part of the natural world. It was a gift of the gods like trees, rivers, and thunder. You could use it, you could modify it, but you could not have total dominion over it. And you certainly could never forget its natural power. Greek myths are replete with examples of mortals who, in their hubris, denied the power of nature. Man can control nature to an extent, but as soon as he thinks he has it licked it’s game over.
Money is money because several billion interdependent economic actors all making decisions about what is best for them bring about its emergence. Money is an emergent property of a complex natural system. There have been many forms of money over many thousands of years, many governments that went along with them, and many governments that tried to deny money’s emergent nature. So my point about MMT was that money isn’t money because the government says it is, at least not always and in all circumstances, and when governments forget money’s natural force, it’s game over.
So what does this have to do with addiction? Addiction is an illness, a natural phenomenon. It emerges from nature because of forces that aren’t in our control as individuals or as a professional field. We can treat addiction, we can effect addiction, we can modify addiction, and, perhaps, one day we can cure addiction, but we can’t do anything effective over the long haul if we forget its natural power or its natural origin. There are some in our field, in fact it may be the majority, that believe addiction isn’t a natural illness. Some think it’s only the result of other illnesses; some think it’s the result of psychological trauma; some think it’s the result of learning and thinking; some see it as a natural consequence of certain personality types. But what only a minority actually see, is that addiction is a natural illness. It exists in nature, and would, with or without modern drugs. The symptoms, the natural history, the course, are all unchanged from that described in history. What’s changed is modern drugs, but those are epiphenomena, much like central banks are to money. They may look like they are driving the train now, but this train has been going along long before they got here, and probably will long after they are gone.