A Selection of Articles on a New View of Money and WHY it Matters | Modern Money Theory

Introduction to an Alternative History of Money

Author(s): L. Randall Wray

Download: Working Paper No. 717


This paper integrates the various strands of an alternative, heterodox view on the origins of money and the development of the modern financial system in a manner that is consistent with the findings of historians and anthropologists. As is well known, the orthodox story of money’s origins and evolution begins with the creation of a medium of exchange to reduce the costs of barter. To be sure, the history of money is “lost in the mists of time,” as money’s invention probably predates writing. Further, the history of money is contentious. And, finally, even orthodox economists would reject the Robinson Crusoe story and the evolution from a commodity money through to modern fiat money as historically accurate. Rather, the story told about the origins and evolution of money is designed to shed light on the “nature” of money. The orthodox story draws attention to money as a transactions-cost-minimizing medium of exchange.

Heterodox economists reject the formalist methodology adopted by orthodox economists in favor of a substantivist methodology. In the formalist methodology, the economist begins with the “rational” economic agent facing scarce resources and unlimited wants. Since the formalist methodology abstracts from historical and institutional detail, it must be applicable to all human societies. Heterodoxy argues that economics has to do with a study of the institutionalized interactions among humans and between humans and nature. The economy is a component of culture; or, more specifically, of the material life process of society. As such, substantivist economics cannot abstract from the institutions that help to shape economic processes; and the substantivistproblem is not the formal one of choice, but a problem concerning production and distribution.

A powerful critique of the orthodox story regarding money can be developed using the findings of comparative anthropology, comparative history, and comparative economics. Given the embedded nature of economic phenomenon in prior societies, an understanding of what money is and what it does in capitalist societies is essential to this approach. This can then be contrasted with the functioning of precapitalist societies in order to allow identification of which types of precapitalist societies would use money and what money would be used for in these societies. This understanding is essential for informed speculation on the origins of money. The comparative approach used by heterodox economists begins with an understanding of the role money plays in capitalist economies, which shares essential features with analyses developed by a wide range of Institutionalist, Keynesian, Post Keynesian, and Marxist macroeconomists. This paper uses the understanding developed by comparative anthropology and comparative history of precapitalist societies in order to logically reconstruct the origins of money.

A Meme for Money

Author(s): L. Randall Wray

Download: Working Paper No. 736


This paper argues that the usual framing of discussions of money, monetary policy, and fiscal policy plays into the hands of conservatives.That framing is also largely consistent with the conventional view of the economy and of society more generally. To put it the way that economists usually do, money “lubricates” the market mechanism—a good thing, because the conventional view of the market itself is overwhelmingly positive. Acknowledging the work of George Lakoff, this paper takes the position that we need an alternative meme, one that provides a frame that is consistent with a progressive social view if we are to be more successful in policy debates. In most cases, the progressives adopt the conservative framing and so have no chance. The paper advances an alternative framing for money and shows how it can be used to reshape discussion. The paper shows that the Modern Money Theory approach is particularly useful as a starting point for framing that emphasizes use of the monetary system as a tool to accomplish the public purpose.

It is not so much the accuracy of the conventional view of money that we need to question, but rather the framing. We need a new meme for money, one that would emphasize the social, not the individual. It would focus on the positive role played by the state, not only in the creation and evolution of money, but also in ensuring social control over money. It would explain how money helps to promote a positive relation between citizens and the state, simultaneously promoting shared values such as liberty, democracy, and responsibility. It would explain why social control over money can promote nurturing activities over the destructive impulses of our “undertakers” (Smith’s evocative term for capitalists).

The Rise of Money and Class Society

The Contributions of John F. Henry

Author(s): Alla Semenova, L. Randall Wray

Download: Working Paper No. 832


This paper explores the rise of money and class society in ancient Greece, drawing historical and theoretical parallels to the case of ancient Egypt. In doing so, the paper examines the historical applicability of the chartalist and metallist theories of money. It will be shown that the origins and the evolution of money were closely intertwined with the rise and consolidation of class society and inequality. Money, class society, and inequality came into being simultaneously, so it seems, mutually reinforcing the development of one another. Rather than a medium of exchange in commerce, money emerged as an “egalitarian token” at the time when the substance of social relations was undergoing a fundamental transformation from egalitarian to class societies. In this context, money served to preserve the façade of social and economic harmony and equality, while inequality was growing and solidifying. Rather than “invented” by private traders, money was first issued by ancient Greek states and proto-states as they aimed to establish and consolidate their political and economic power. Rather than a medium of exchange in commerce, money first served as a “means of recompense” administered by the Greek city-states as they strived to implement the civic conception of social justice. While the origins of money are to be found in the origins of inequality, a well-functioning democratic society has the power to subvert the inequality-inducing characteristic of money via the use of money for public purpose, following the principles of Modern Money Theory (MMT). When used according to the principles of MMT, the inequality-inducing characteristic of money could be undermined, while the current trends in rising income and wealth disparities could be contained and reversed.

Money, Power, and Monetary Regimes

Author(s): Pavlina R. Tcherneva

Download: Working Paper No. 861


Money, in this paper, is defined as a power relationship of a specific kind, a stratified social debt relationship, measured in a unit of account determined by some authority. A brief historical examination reveals its evolving nature in the process of social provisioning. Money not only predates markets and real exchange as understood in mainstream economics but also emerges as a social mechanism of distribution, usually by some authority of power (be it an ancient religious authority, a king, a colonial power, a modern nation state, or a monetary union). Money, it can be said, is a “creature of the state” that has played a key role in the transfer of real resources between parties and the distribution of economic surplus.

In modern capitalist economies, the currency is also a simple public monopoly. As long as money has existed, someone has tried to tamper with its value. A history of counterfeiting, as well as that of independence from colonial and economic rule, is another way of telling the history of “money as a creature of the state.” This historical understanding of the origins and nature of money illuminates the economic possibilities under different institutional monetary arrangements in the modern world. We consider the so-called modern “sovereign” and “nonsovereign” monetary regimes (including freely floating currencies, currency pegs, currency boards, dollarized nations, and monetary unions) to examine the available policy space in each case for pursuing domestic policy objectives.

This working paper is also available in Spanish.