Jan 15, 2021

More Money Less Problems

Back in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning and the shelter-in-place orders brought the economy to a screeching halt, a quirky-but-clever idea to save the economy made its way up to some of the highest levels of government. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib proposed an ambitious relief bill to keep the country’s metaphorical lights on: recurring payments to people to help them stay afloat during the crisis. And the way Congress would pay for it? By minting two platinum $1 trillion coins. (You read that right). 

In this episode, we take a jaunt through the evolution of our currency, from the gold-backed bills of the 19th century, to the most powerful computer at the Federal Reserve. And we chase an idea that torpedoes what we thought was a fundamental law of economics. Can we actually just print more money? 

This episode was reported by Becca Bressler and was produced by Becca Bressler and Simon Adler.

Special thanks to Carlos Mucha, Warren Mosler, David Cay Johnston, Alex Goldmark, Bryant Urstadt, and Amanda Aronczyk. 

To learn more about these ideas check out: 

Stephanie Kelton's book The Deficit Myth

Jacob Goldstein's book Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing and the Planet Money podcast

Betsey Stevenson's podcast Think Like an Economist 

This website for more about #MintTheCoin

And for a fun quick read, check out this WIRED article about the surprising origin of the trillion dollar coin.

 

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(SOUNDBITE OF RADIOLAB INTRO)

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JAD ABUMRAD: Hey. I'm Jad Abumrad. This is RADIOLAB. And today...

BECCA BRESSLER: All right, we're back in business.

JAD ABUMRAD: All right.

Producer Becca Bressler brings us a story about money.

BECCA BRESSLER: Yeah. So - and it actually kind of started like I feel like a lot more things are starting at the show - with a tweet. And...

JAD ABUMRAD: Man, that's depressing. That's a depressing development.

BECCA BRESSLER: It is depressing. But basically, I saw this tweet that said, mint the f***ing coin.

JAD ABUMRAD: Mint the coin.

BECCA BRESSLER: The f***ing coin.

JAD ABUMRAD: So the coin.

BECCA BRESSLER: Yeah. So I saw this tweet back in March, when the economy was falling into a tailspin.

Dad?

MARK BRESSLER: Yeah, I'm here. Hello.

BECCA BRESSLER: God dammit.

And the government was talking about the first relief bill for people who were in danger of losing their business.

Dad, hold on. I dropped my phone.

MARK BRESSLER: OK.

BECCA BRESSLER: Like my parents, who happen to run a small business in California.

MARK BRESSLER: People knew that the amount of money they allocated wasn't nearly enough, and the government was going to run out of money. You know, I felt tremendous pressure to get on it.

BECCA BRESSLER: My dad told me it was really confusing. It wasn't exactly clear who you could get money from. He tried one bank, then another, then another.

MARK BRESSLER: They were so backed up that I could not get through online. It was a cluster f***.

BECCA BRESSLER: And so while all of this was going on, I saw that mint the coin tweet. And it took me to a proposal that would basically solve this whole thing - dump trillions of dollars into the economy to bail all these people out just by making a f***ing coin.

JAD ABUMRAD: OK.

BECCA BRESSLER: So I first just started by calling up one of the guys who got this idea out there.

Ro-hahn (ph)?

ROHAN GREY: It's Rohan, just by the way.

BECCA BRESSLER: Rohan, oh, my God. I'm so sorry.

ROHAN GREY: No, no, no. It's not a problem. I don't really care.

BECCA BRESSLER: This is Rohan Grey. He's a law professor at Willamette University.

ROHAN GREY: I worked with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib on developing the ABC Act to #MintTheCoin.

BECCA BRESSLER: And he told me the proposal was to inject $2 trillion worth of cash into the economy. And the way that they plan to finance this...

ROHAN GREY: This would be funded through the minting and issuing of a series of trillion-dollar platinum coins.

JAD ABUMRAD: Literally coins worth a trillion dollars.

BECCA BRESSLER: Yes, platinum coins worth a trillion dollars each.

JAD ABUMRAD: Why would that fund anything?

BECCA BRESSLER: Well, so the argument goes that under federal law, the treasury secretary has the authority to direct the mint to issue platinum coins at whatever denomination they choose.

ROHAN GREY: And so the way that the mint would do this today is - whether it's a dollar coin or a trillion-dollar coin, the mint sells coins to the Federal Reserve. The Fed puts that amount in the mint's account, and then the Treasury has that available to spend as part of regular budget operations.

JAD ABUMRAD: And what would that do? Would that just, like, suddenly make $2 trillion appear?

BECCA BRESSLER: Well, according to Rohan...

ROHAN GREY: I mean, that's exactly right.

JAD ABUMRAD: You're telling me that money just Harry Potters itself into existence the moment they print a coin? How the hell does that work? And wouldn't that just make our money worth less?

BECCA BRESSLER: So these were the exact questions that I was left with. And it turns out...

STEPHANIE KELTON: You know, once you see it, you know, you don't want to go back to the old way of thinking and talking about these things...

BECCA BRESSLER: As I set out to get some of these answers, talking to folks like economist Stephanie Kelton here...

STEPHANIE KELTON: ...Because you realize so much more is possible.

BECCA BRESSLER: ...It became pretty clear that the only thing I thought I knew about money was wrong.

JAD ABUMRAD: The one thing.

BECCA BRESSLER: The one thing.

(LAUGHTER)

JAD ABUMRAD: OK, so where do we start?

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Hold on. I'm tangled in my headphones.

BECCA BRESSLER: We're going to start with this guy.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: I really am discouraged by the fact that I feel like I'm getting worse at recording from home. Like...

BECCA BRESSLER: This is Jacob Goldstein.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Co-host of Planet Money, and I'm also the author of a book called "Money: The True Story Of A Made-Up Thing."

BECCA BRESSLER: And he says to understand where money comes from today, we've got to understand what it used to be.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Let's just do the gold standard. You want to do the gold standard? We can do the gold standard.

BECCA BRESSLER: Let's do it. Let's do the gold standard.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK. So, you know, for a long time, gold and silver, in varying ways, were money. But in the 19th century, the world sort of locked in on the gold standard.

BECCA BRESSLER: Which was basically a way of saying that the dollar was really just a paper representation of a little bit of gold.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Exactly. Gold would quite literally turn into money. So, like, you would pull gold out of the ground, take your gold to the U.S. Mint, and they would give you money. In the U.S., it was, I believe, $27.67 for one ounce of gold.

BECCA BRESSLER: And this was the way it was all over the Western world. Gold was really this stabilizing and standardizing common currency.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: But what happens when you make that rule is the value of money changes according to how much gold is coming out of the ground.

BECCA BRESSLER: Can we just break that down for a second? - because...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, that's a lot.

BECCA BRESSLER: No, no, it's just like one thing falls, and then the other thing rises. And I'm just like, oh, my God.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: I mean...

BECCA BRESSLER: So...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: The simple - here's the simple version. Like with any thing...

BECCA BRESSLER: Yeah.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: With any thing in the world, all else equal - and there's a lot riding on that all else equal - all else equal, the more of it there is, the less each one is worth. And that's, like, basic supply and demand, right?

BECCA BRESSLER: OK. Yes.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: The supply goes up, the price comes down, which is another way of saying, in the gold standard world, the more gold there is, the more expensive things are going to get.

BECCA BRESSLER: To help visualize this, Jacob says, imagine it's the 1840s, and you've just arrived out in California.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: And $20 - an ounce of gold...

BECCA BRESSLER: Yeah.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: ...Buys - I don't know. What do you want to have?

BECCA BRESSLER: Oh, God. What do I want to have? I don't know. A car (laughter).

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Well, there were no cars.

BECCA BRESSLER: (Laughter) That's right.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: A horse - how about a horse?

BECCA BRESSLER: (Laughter) A horse - that sounds great. That sounds great.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: OK.

BECCA BRESSLER: So one horse costs $20 or an ounce of gold.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: But now let's say there's a gold rush.

BECCA BRESSLER: OK.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Suddenly, gold is flooding in. The availability of horses is still the same, but gold is everywhere.

BECCA BRESSLER: What happens in that moment is inflation. Prices go up...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: ...Because the more money you put into the world, the less valuable each piece of money is going to be - the less stuff it's going to buy. So when there's a rush, my $20 doesn't buy me a horse anymore because gold isn't that hard to come by. So now, maybe I need to spend $30. Maybe I need an ounce-and-a-half of gold to buy a horse.

BECCA BRESSLER: And this phenomenon throughout the 19th century just had prices whipsawing.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yahoo.

BECCA BRESSLER: More gold would be discovered...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: ...And the price of everything would go up.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASH REGISTER)

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: There would be inflation.

BECCA BRESSLER: But then, fast forward a couple of years...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Gold became scarce, and so prices fall.

BECCA BRESSLER: Lower prices - deflation.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: But then...

BECCA BRESSLER: ...Just a couple years later...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yahoo.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: There's a gold rush in the Klondike, and there's a gold rush in South Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yahoo.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: And because suddenly more gold is coming out of the ground...

(SOUNDBITE OF CASH REGISTER)

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: ...Prices start going up.

BECCA BRESSLER: And this up and down and up and down...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: That is what happened in America for decades.

BECCA BRESSLER: Where gold, something supposed to keep money stable, was actually doing the exact opposite.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Like, the whole world's price level was sort of arbitrarily determined by how much gold is coming out of the ground.

JAD ABUMRAD: All right. Maybe this is a stupid question, but, like, why not just do it a different way? Like, untie the dollar from gold and go a different direction?

BECCA BRESSLER: There were people advocating for that.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: There's a whole presidential election in 1896 that's about money and what should be money.

BECCA BRESSLER: But it never really got anywhere, in part because, like, I don't know, it was hard to imagine an alternative. As long as the dollar was tied to gold, the thinking went, it meant something. Like, it meant a piece of metal that you could go and trade it for. And if that was no longer the case, I mean - I don't know - what does money mean at that point? I mean, to go off gold would require people to fundamentally rethink what money was. And so this up and down and up and down and up and down continued.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: And what finally breaks this cycle is not some change in the way people think about money, but rather...

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JACOB GOLDSTEIN: ...The Depression.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Stock markets buckled and crashed.

BECCA BRESSLER: October 1929...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: The stock market crashes. The economy starts to collapse. People start to lose their jobs.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Nearly 1 man out of 4 unemployed.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: And there's just a massive wave of bank failures.

BECCA BRESSLER: And the federal government just can't seem to right the ship.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: But there is this sort of fringe group of economists who have been arguing that the problem is the gold standard - that being on the gold standard has not given America the sort of latitude to put more money out into the world to get people spending.

BECCA BRESSLER: Basically, they're saying we need to get more money in people's pockets to kick-start the economy. But on the gold standard, the only way to get more money is to find more gold somewhere.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: And Roosevelt supported the idea that the gold standard was the problem. And so after Roosevelt is elected, in this just, like, insane few months in 1933, he just completely - I don't even know what the words - he, like - the amount he does with money in, like, basically March and April of 1933, he, like, completely throws out, you know, hundreds of years of the way money works.

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FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT: The United States must take firmly in its own hands the control of the gold value of our dollar.

BECCA BRESSLER: Including the gold standard itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANKLIN D ROOSEVELT: I am authorizing the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to buy or sell gold at prices to be determined from time to time after consultation with the secretary of the Treasury and the president.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: He breaks that, you know, sacrosanct rule that $20.67 gets you an ounce of gold. And, like, that moment in the spring of 1933, like, that is the great sort of break between traditional money and money as we know it now.

BECCA BRESSLER: I guess then it's like, what does money mean? If it no longer means that you can redeem it for gold, is there, like, a crisp way of describing what it means in this, like, new world order?

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: I mean, maybe the question is, like, what is it backed by? What does it rest on, right? And clearly, it used to be the foundation of money was gold.

BECCA BRESSLER: Right.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: I think now, the foundation of money is the government, right? Like, whatever money you're using, the thing you are trusting in is the government that issues that money.

BECCA BRESSLER: And Jacob says that means that the government can kind of just print as much money as it wants, including this trillion-dollar coin. It can mint it and - poof - all of the sudden, there's a trillion more dollars in the world.

JAD ABUMRAD: I understand those words, but they don't - they somehow (laughter) bounce right off of my head. I guess I think I'm really confused.

BECCA BRESSLER: (Laughter) I will do my best to unconfuse you after we take a quick break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAD ABUMRAD: Three, two, one - no more break.

Hey. I'm Jad Abumrad. This is RADIOLAB, here with producer Becca Bressler who, before the break, told me that money isn't based on anything real, and the government can just apparently make as much as it wants. That's what...

BECCA BRESSLER: Yes.

JAD ABUMRAD: ...You said.

BECCA BRESSLER: Kind of...

JAD ABUMRAD: ...That you are on the record saying that.

BECCA BRESSLER: (Laughter) I stand behind that. But just to recap real quickly - so there's this idea that in order to save the economy from this free fall that it's been in for the past many months, the government should just print trillions of dollars of new money, like print a couple of platinum coins, slap a trillion dollars on the face of it, and put that money into the economy. And according to a bunch of economists I've been talking to, they can just do that.

JAD ABUMRAD: They could just - I mean, why have a coin? Why don't they just print the money? I mean, just...

BECCA BRESSLER: Well, so if you want to get into it, we can get into it. But (laughter)...

JAD ABUMRAD: I mean, I don't know. I mean, is there a good answer for that?

BECCA BRESSLER: Well, it's like a legal quirk that allows them to do that with platinum. Like, you can't do it with other metals.

JAD ABUMRAD: With platinum only?

BECCA BRESSLER: With platinum only, yeah.

JAD ABUMRAD: Really?

BECCA BRESSLER: Yeah. It's just this sort of weird quirk of the law basically to just, like, help the Treasury make money through collectible coins. One of the ways that the government actually makes money is selling collectible coins. So they started selling platinum collectible coins. But in order to sort of give them the flexibility to just kind of, like, make money, they can put any number on the face of the coin, and that's how much it is worth.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow. There's a whole, like, procedural wonkery (ph) happening.

BECCA BRESSLER: Oh, for sure. And it's because of this procedural wonkery that the government can just print these coins, say they're worth a trillion dollars and throw them into the economy to keep everybody afloat.

JAD ABUMRAD: But - (laughter) but then I know - it's so interesting. On some level, I understand what you just said. But on another level, I'm like no. If the government's going to give people money, somebody's got to pay for that (laughter). I don't know who. I don't know who it is, but somebody's got to pay that money back.

BECCA BRESSLER: Well...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAND PAUL: If you're looking for more COVID bailout money, we don't have any. Congress has spent all the money.

BECCA BRESSLER: That's exactly the argument some people in Congress make against these stimulus bills.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAND PAUL: The coffers are bare.

BECCA BRESSLER: They say we're out of money and the only way to get more is to go borrow it from somewhere...

JAD ABUMRAD: Right.

BECCA BRESSLER: ...Which adds to the national debt and freaks everybody out. And that's where these bills tend to get stuck.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

BECCA BRESSLER: But...

STEPHANIE KELTON: No, no, no, no.

BECCA BRESSLER: ...Turns out, it doesn't have to work that way.

STEPHANIE KELTON: The federal government of the United States of America has the sole legal authority to issue our currency. It can literally never run out of money.

BECCA BRESSLER: This is Stephanie Kelton, an economics professor at Stony Brook University. And she says the government's not like you or me who need to earn or borrow money in order to spend it.

STEPHANIE KELTON: Congress has the power of the purse.

BECCA BRESSLER: Which means Uncle Sam's pen that signs the government's checks and funds any spending...

STEPHANIE KELTON: ...As long as there's ink in it, can fund any damn thing they choose.

BECCA BRESSLER: And that's the idea behind this trillion-dollar coin. Congress could use it to just add a couple trillion dollars to the economy without adding to the national debt.

STEPHANIE KELTON: Exactly.

BECCA BRESSLER: And, you know, this idea sounds kind of out there, but we've sort of done something like it before - and pretty recently.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: This is going to be one of the watershed days.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: So - OK.

BECCA BRESSLER: Jacob Goldstein again.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: So start with the financial crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Let's talk about the speed with which we are watching this market deteriorate.

BECCA BRESSLER: So if you go back to the crash of 2008...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: The economy is collapsing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The losses, staggering; the fear, climbing...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: And the financial crisis is so bad, the government is like...

BECCA BRESSLER: We've got to do something.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yes.

BECCA BRESSLER: We've got to get money into people's hands, and we've got to get them spending to save the economy.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: So then, the Fed...

BECCA BRESSLER: The Federal Reserve...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: And - I'll - I'm not going to explain any of these things. And you can explain them somewhere else. We can talk it - data later.

BECCA BRESSLER: The Fed does a lot, but think about it like our government's bank.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: So the Fed says, OK, we're going to do this thing we've never done before. It's amazing what the Fed does. What the Fed does is...

BECCA BRESSLER: The chairman of the Fed, Ben Bernanke...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

SCOTT PELLEY: Aside from the president, he's the most powerful man working to save the economy.

BECCA BRESSLER: ...Or, like, one of his people sends a signal to this room.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: In downtown New York City at the New York Fed, there is a room, and it's just a normal room.

BECCA BRESSLER: And in this room, someone's going to receive that message, head to the computer, open up a spreadsheet...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Ish (ph).

BECCA BRESSLER: Maybe a little more complicated - but with just a few keystrokes...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: They just create trillions of dollars on their computer out of nowhere.

JAD ABUMRAD: So in the financial crisis bailout situation, they just made up a whole bunch of new money and dumped it into the economy?

BECCA BRESSLER: Well, yeah. I mean, in the end, that money went to the banks and just kind of sat around. There wasn't, like, a coin that would give the money straight to the people. But yes, they just waved trillions of dollars into existence that hadn't been there before.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow, that is some - you just kind of blew my mind. I just assumed that the money lived somewhere - I don't know, in a basement or a bunker.

BECCA BRESSLER: (Laughter) No.

JAD ABUMRAD: OK. OK. I get that money is no longer backed by gold. And so now, it just lives on a computer, and you can create it by pressing a few buttons. But even if you can do that, even if you can just add some zeros to a spreadsheet or whatever, it still seems like that would be a major big deal. Like, it would have blowback. Like, wouldn't you arrive at the very same scenario as the gold rushes, where the more money that is out there, the less valuable that money becomes?

BETSEY STEVENSON: OK. And the Zoom is officially recording.

BECCA BRESSLER: OK, great. OK. We did it. Thank you so much for...

  1. So yes, there is a danger in doing something like this.

BETSEY STEVENSON: We don't solve our problems by printing money because if we do that, it threatens to make our money worthless.

BECCA BRESSLER: This is Betsey Stevenson, an economics professor at the University of Michigan. And she told me that printing money can have a similar effect to those gold rushes.

BETSEY STEVENSON: There's more dollars, there's more money, but there's not more real stuff. And that's when we start to run the risk that it starts to push up prices.

BECCA BRESSLER: OK. And this is actually something you can see play out right now in Venezuela.

BETSEY STEVENSON: Venezuela has, for years now, been wrestling with hyperinflation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Venezuela already has the world's highest inflation, and it looks like the economic crisis there is about to get even worse.

BECCA BRESSLER: What happened in Venezuela is sort of complicated. But around 2014, the price of oil collapsed, and the cost to import goods to Venezuela rose. So to keep up with that, the government started printing money.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Effectively, what we're doing is putting more money on the street. More notes on the street means depreciation in the currency and nothing else.

BECCA BRESSLER: And as the money became worthless, they just kept printing more.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: The Central Bank hasn't been able to even print currency fast enough to keep up with inflation. And Venezuela's government can't afford the paper for the bills.

GUSTAVO OCANDO ALEX: (Speaking Spanish).

BECCA BRESSLER: This is Gustavo Ocando Alex. He's a journalist in Venezuela.

ARCELIA ROMERO: (Speaking Spanish).

BECCA BRESSLER: And he spoke with this woman.

ARCELIA ROMERO: (Speaking Spanish).

BECCA BRESSLER: Her name is Arcelia del Carmen Vilchez (ph) Romero. She's 70 years old, used to work as a secretary and is now retired, living off her pension.

ARCELIA ROMERO: (Speaking Spanish).

BECCA BRESSLER: And back before the crisis, Arcelia lived comfortably off that pension.

ARCELIA ROMERO: (Speaking Spanish).

BECCA BRESSLER: She could buy food, clothes, groceries...

ARCELIA ROMERO: (Speaking Spanish).

BECCA BRESSLER: ...Even extra stuff, like a new bicycle for her nephew. But as Venezuela's economy spiraled out of control...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: Officially, Venezuela had 180% annual inflation last year.

BECCA BRESSLER: ...Arcelia's pension money...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: ...Four hundred and seventy-five percent...

BECCA BRESSLER: ...Became worth less and less.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: The annual inflation rate is now running at around 80,000%. They say it could reach 300,000, 400,000% this year.

ARCELIA ROMERO: (Speaking Spanish).

BECCA BRESSLER: And today, one month of Arcelia's pension can only buy her a single pack of toilet paper.

ARCELIA ROMERO: (Speaking Spanish).

BECCA BRESSLER: And she's very afraid of getting sick. The last time she tried to purchase medicine, it cost more than one month's pension.

ARCELIA ROMERO: (Speaking Spanish).

JAD ABUMRAD: Wow. I don't know that I fully appreciated how bad inflation can get. And what you just described does feel like the classic answer to that question of why can't we just print more money.

BECCA BRESSLER: Yes. And what happened in Venezuela is different than what might happen in the United States, but this is the fear that people have when you just print more money.

JAD ABUMRAD: Right.

BECCA BRESSLER: But according to Jacob Goldstein, here's the very weird thing. In the years after our government just printed all those trillions of dollars...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: We did not get inflation. Inflation was mysteriously, persistently low.

BECCA BRESSLER: And it has been ever since.

JAD ABUMRAD: Huh, that's weird.

BECCA BRESSLER: It's crazy. This is what everyone thinks, right? You add more money, you know, whether there's a gold rush or the Fed puts it into a spreadsheet, the value of that money should go down, prices up - inflation.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yeah.

BECCA BRESSLER: Well, so it's not working that way. Do you just throw the rulebook out then? Like, what do you - where do you go from there?

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: So - I mean, so there are explanations, right? There are explanations. Here are some of them.

BECCA BRESSLER: Jacob talked me through a bunch of these reasons. It gets pretty complicated. Inflation is still kind of mysterious, even to the experts. But let me just tell you about this one reason.

JAD ABUMRAD: OK.

BECCA BRESSLER: And it's actually about our expectations.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Yes. What people expect about inflation actually affects whether there is inflation and how much.

JAD ABUMRAD: Wait. I'm sorry. You're saying if I think there's going to be inflation, that somehow manifests inflation into existence?

BECCA BRESSLER: Yes.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Exactly right, exactly right.

JAD ABUMRAD: Well, how the hell does that work?

BECCA BRESSLER: OK. So let's take an example. You are saving to buy a new car.

JAD ABUMRAD: OK.

BECCA BRESSLER: And you're thinking that you're going to buy that car, like, next year, maybe the year after. But then you start realizing that over the last couple of years, prices have been consistently going up.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: It was 6%, and then it was 7%.

BECCA BRESSLER: So then this year you're thinking...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: I know what it's going to be, and you know what it's going to be. It's going to be 8% because that's just the world we live in.

BECCA BRESSLER: And so if you think that prices are going to go up by 8% next year, like, you're not going to wait to buy that car, right? You're going to go out, and you're going to buy it now. And everyone's thinking about this, right? Like, for you, it's a car. For someone else, it's a laptop. I am going to get a few extra bottles of my beauty supplies because...

JAD ABUMRAD: (Laughter).

BECCA BRESSLER: ...They are already very overpriced. And so when everyone goes out and starts buying more stuff, it puts this pressure on demand for that stuff.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: If demand for stuff, for everything, goes up and supply stays the same, prices will go up.

BECCA BRESSLER: Right.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: Right?

BECCA BRESSLER: OK.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: And like...

BECCA BRESSLER: So expecting inflation can literally cause it. But because inflation has been absent for so long...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: We just live in a world where we expect that prices aren't going to go up very much.

BECCA BRESSLER: And so that expectation...

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: It effectively keeps inflation low.

BECCA BRESSLER: Oh, my God. So it's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN: It's - it is absolutely a self-fulfilling prophecy.

BECCA BRESSLER: But so what's so interesting is, like, what's happening here is trust, right? We are - we just trust that our economy is going to work.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

BECCA BRESSLER: And with inflation nowhere in sight right now, I think about this trillion-dollar coin idea. And I feel really conflicted, and I'm not alone. It's a really controversial idea because there are risks here.

STEPHANIE KELTON: Absolutely.

BECCA BRESSLER: Stephanie Kelton told me, you know, if the government just keeps pumping money into the economy, there will come a point where there's too much money floating around.

STEPHANIE KELTON: And on that point, we can have real disagreements. We can have debates. We can talk about where, you know, the limits are.

BECCA BRESSLER: But when printing money, like, one of the big things you have to consider is where that money is going - right? Like, if everyone has more spending money, for example, then, like, yeah, the competition for your car or my, you know, shampoo is going to rise. There is going to be more money out there, more money chasing the same amount of stuff - right?

But in the situation that we're in right now, you know, we're in this pandemic and businesses are shutting down. For a lot of people, this money is just filling a hole that this pandemic has created. Like, my dad, for example, he's not using it to go buy a bunch of stuff that's going to just drive up the price of milk and eggs. Like, he's just keeping the lights on. He's using that money to pay his employees.

MARK BRESSLER: We also used it for rent.

BECCA BRESSLER: And like so many other businesses right now...

MARK BRESSLER: Had we not gotten the money, I'm almost certain that we would have closed our business.

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BECCA BRESSLER: I mean, like, my dad got so lucky. Like, he was very close to closing his business, and I just don't understand why you have to be lucky.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

BECCA BRESSLER: Like, the government could mint these trillion-dollar coins. They could pour a lot more money into the economy than they are right now. But there's this feeling that adding so much money into the economy is against the rules or something.

JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.

BECCA BRESSLER: ...Like it's a machine.

JAD ABUMRAD: Huh.

BECCA BRESSLER: But then, you know, just talking to Rohan, he gave me this other analogy. He said, think about it like a game, and the government is the referee.

ROHAN GREY: The goal of the referee there is to manage the points in such a way as a good game gets made.

BECCA BRESSLER: You know, the referee doesn't need to, like, take points from some people in order to give those points to someone else. They're just there to manage the flow of the game. And game rules can change, right? Just last season, college basketball moved the 3-point line back because it was too easy to hit that shot. And just like FDR had to get off the gold standard to save the economy after the Great Depression, like, maybe we're at another inflection point where it's time to change the game.

ROHAN GREY: It's unnerving to think of the big infinity sign in the sky because it's like bowling without bumper lanes, you know? If you have the power to create money in an infinite amount, obviously, that doesn't mean you should spend an infinite amount. But if you have that power - if you functionally have an infinity sign next to your bank account, there's no external discipline. It's sort of like when you become an adult and you realize you could just eat pizza every night.

BECCA BRESSLER: (Laughter).

ROHAN GREY: The only thing stopping you is that you have to grow up and not do that. Now, that doesn't mean you can't ever eat pizza. So you have to make that decision on your own terms about what those limits are. The only discipline comes from us.

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JAD ABUMRAD: This episode was reported by Becca Bressler and produced by her and Simon Adler. Special thanks to Justene Hill Edwards (ph) and Gustavo Ocando Alex. There's so much more to this stuff than we could get into. If you want to learn more, we have links on our website. You can check out Stephanie Kelton's book "The Deficit Myth," Betsy Stevenson's podcast called "Think Like An Economist" and, of course, Jacob Goldstein's book "Money: The True Story Of A Made-Up Thing," not to mention, of course, the podcast he works on, "Planet Money." They are amazing.

And before I go, I just want to say a very special thank you and goodbye to Michelle Harris, who has been our fact-checker for the past several years and is moving on. Thank you for keeping us honest, Michelle. We will really miss you. And that is it. I'm Jad Abumrad. This is RADIOLAB. We'll see you next week - maybe sooner.

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HOPE KAMER: Hello. This is Hope Kamer (ph) calling from Portland, Ore. RADIOLAB was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer.

Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster with help from Shima Oliaee, Sarah Sandbach and Jonny Moens. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.

Copyright © 2020 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at www.wnyc.org for further information.

 

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