Sunday, December 16, 2012
Chartalism = the McDonald's coupon theory of money
While chartalism is usually associated with the state and its ability to tax, there's no reason that this must be so. In fact, I like to think of chartalism as stateless. I call this the McDonald's coupon theory of money.
What I'm specifically addressing here is the chartalist idea that paper notes issued by the state have value because the state imposes a liability on its citizens that can only be discharged by the use of this paper.
McDonald's Corporation can do the same thing if it imposes an obligation on the burger-eating community to pay for all Big Macs with McDonald's-issued coupons. One coupon buys one Big Mac, say. In order to pay their "tax" and get a burger, Big Mac fans have to somehow acquire these coupons ahead of time.
McDonald's pays for a portion of its supplies by printing and issuing these coupons as payment. So one way that Big Mac fans can get their hands on coupons is by providing services to McDonald's... say cleaning floors or selling them pickles. Another way fans can get coupons is by approaching someone else who is already a supplier to McDonald's and offering them gold, silver, or some other media in exchange for coupons. An active secondary market would probably develop for these coupons.
McDonald's is required to spend enough coupons into existence so as to meet the very real demand people have to settle their obligation to buy Big Mac's with coupons.
Because McDonald's and Big Mac fans are everywhere, it's likely that these coupons will begin to circulate broadly. For instance, corner stores may begin to accept McDonald's coupons in payment for stuff, as will hotels and other merchants. They'll be willing to do so because they know they can pass the coupon off as change to a Big Mac fan at some later point in time. If not, they themselves may want to use it to buy a Big Mac. McDonald's coupon become ever more liquid, their degree of moneyness increases, and they emerge as a globally-useful medium-of-exchange.
Now burger lovers needn't submit to the McDonald's "tax". Burger King still allows customers to buy a Whopper without having to secure a coupon ahead of time. But if Burger King, Wendy's, A&W, and other burger joints institute a similar coupon-mechanism, then burger lovers will have to submit to some sort of coupon-tax.
In any case, I hope you can see why chartalism needn't be explicitly intertwined with the state. We can imagine worlds without states that have circulating chartal media-of-exchange. This is a world of private coupon monies. Theorizing in this way makes monetary discussion easier since it removes the political aspect of the debate, rendering it purely technical.
While I can imagine chartal worlds, I don't think the real world is particularly chartal. Coupons exist, but they rarely circulate outside of a very proscribed range. Here is one example of a circulating chartal money, in which Zimbabweans started to widely use gasoline coupons during the Zim$ hyperinflation. Chartal monies certainly become more prevalent during times of monetary stress.
Nor do I think modern central bank liabilities are chartal coupon monies. In my hypothetical example, McDonald's spent coupons into existence. Modern governments can't fund themselves by issuing coupons, they can only spend after having taxed or issued bonds. Nor are people obligated to use central bank notes or deposits to discharge government obligations – they can, and typically do, use other media. The upshot of this is that if governments announced that they'd only accept gold in payment of taxes from here on in, central bank liabilities would continue to be a valuable and popular medium of exchange. Not so our hypothetical McDonald's coupons. If McDonald's ceased accepting coupons for Big Macs, they'd be worthless.
PS. Just because I am saying that modern central bank money is not chartal doesn't mean that I think we can ignore the state in understanding how modern money gets valued in the marketplace. I think that acceptance of particular media of exchange by the state helps drive the liquidity premia of those media. See this old post.