Appearance on the MMT podcast

From The Cory Doctorow Wiki


The difference between utopian and dystopian technology is not what features the technology has, but whose finger is on the button



August 14, 2019



MP3 ( MB)


«I’ve been following the Modern Monetary Theory debate for about 18 months, and I’m largely a convert: governments spend money into existence and tax it out of existence, and government deficit spending is only inflationary if it’s bidding against the private sector for goods or services, which means that the government could guarantee every unemployed person a job (say, working on the Green New Deal), and which also means that every unemployed person and every unfilled social services role is a political choice, not an economic necessity.

I was delighted to be invited onto the MMT Podcast to discuss the ways that MMT dovetails with the fight against monopoly and inequality, and how science-fiction storytelling can bring complicated technical subjects (like adversarial interoperability) to life.

We talked so long that they’ve split it into two episodes.»



Relevant links

Cory's writings on MMT at Boing Boing


[Opening banter]

Introduction to MMT

[0:02:16] Host: Before we dive in if you're new to MMT you can listen to our early episodes to get up to speed, or here's hopefully an easy way to comprehend it that will apply to most if not all people listening. You very likely live in a country which has a national currency. That currency is issued by a currency issuer. So in the UK the British pound is issued by the UK government, in the US the US dollar is issued by the US government, the Australian dollar is issued by the Australian government and so on. Makes sense right? But then how does that sit with the notion that our governments have run out of money as the austerity carnival barkers are often telling us on the news? Now the quick answer is it doesn't. A government that issues its own currency can spend as much of it as it likes on anything it likes without financial limit. It can spend too much money and cause inflation. It can spend too little and cause unemployment, but it can't run out of its own currency. Of these two potential problems inflation or unemployment the first one, inflation, is the one that gets more attention in economic and political discourse these days. We've forgotten that full employment used to be a mainstream common sense aspiration that politicians would campaign on. Why do politicians care more about inflation than unemployment? Well let's face it, what a disgruntled unemployed people going to do. Go on strike, withhold labor, make demands? Nope. So governments across the world would rather see unemployment than inflation, and to their shame orthodox economists rationalize it. So if you're in power and you want to hang on to it the only trick you need to pull off is to convince the unemployed that they only have themselves to blame for their situation, which is pretty easy to do when you've got certain economists and a bovine media culture to help you out.

But just imagine for a moment that you don't want people to die for no reason, and you'd like a functional economy. Well MMT economists have figured out a way for governments to spend for full employment without causing inflation, by guaranteeing a job to anybody that wants a job but can't yet find one at a fixed wage in conditions and this becomes the public option for workers. The job guarantee wage becomes the national minimum wage and the job guarantee working conditions become the minimum working conditions for all workers. Wait a minute this all sounds a bit radical. No, this is actually how we do it at the moment. In Britain we guarantee every person who can't find a job a job. If you can't find a job in this country the government will hire you at a subsistence level wage to stay home and have an austere life in order to fight inflation. It's also known as being on universal credit. MMT economists are saying let's have this other option. We have the money, remember, we can't run out. We could just spend too much or too little. How do we not spend too much and risk inflation? Well the job guarantee does this by buying something that's for sale, namely people looking for paid work that haven't found it in the private sector – rather than something that is scarce and bidding up the price of that thing. How do we make sure the government and the private sector don't get into a bidding war over the same workers? We keep the job guarantee wage at a fixed level that allows a dignified existence. Private sector employers just have to better the job guarantee in terms of wage and conditions. The job guarantee scheme is there to enable workers within it to transition back out into private sector employment when the economy improves.

What if I don't trust the government to create meaningful jobs? Well maybe you shouldn't trust the government to do that given at the moment the job they guarantee is awful and badly paid. MMT advocates are just trying to make that job a bit better, actually doing something and relating to people. Remember private sector employers prefer to hire people who are already working to people who are unemployed, so whatever the job guarantee job is it will be meaningful in the sense that it's creating a worker that the private sector would rather hire. Don't worry, if you're ideologically opposed to the job guarantee, you can have your old job back having an austere life and fighting inflation. Nobody's taking that away. The job guarantee is aimed at ending involuntary unemployment. You can be voluntarily unemployed if you like. The job guarantee is also federally funded, but locally administered, to make it responsive to local needs. Now what if I don't want the people who are unemployed and underemployed in my community to have the option of a better life doing something for a livable wage and gaining bargaining power? Well that would mean you and I are from a different place in the ideological spectrum, and if you are please consider that someone's spending is someone else's income. So maybe imagine what the increased spending power of the job guarantee workers could do for your community, your business, and how many resources will be freed up now that we're not having to talk quite so many people down from window ledges. Yes despair is a great way to get people to accept low pay bad conditions and cheap self-medication from the supermarket boozile, but it can get messy. Or we could just keep on pretending that unemployment is purely the result of laziness and continue the ideological race to the right that's been doing us so much good lately.

[0:07:32] For those of you who want to understand and improve the situation this is the podcast for you. Episode 20 with MMT founder Warren Mosler is a great introduction into understanding where money comes from and how and why it's issued. I think if we want to make change, if we want to make our economies functional, we need to understand the money system as it is and how we can improve it, and then we need to be able to talk about both of these things in a way that makes them compelling and urgent, and I think one way to do that is to tell better stories. So here's Cory Doctorow.

Interview with Cory Doctorow


[0:10:05] Host: So first of all how did you come to MMT, how did it first come up on your radar? Tell us the whole journey.

[0:10:11] Cory Doctorow: Well it was it was through posts on Naked Capitalism, the group blog helmed by Eve Smith, and with a great little cadre of writers and thinkers and commentariat… They've got an especially good commentariat, it's one of the few places where reading the comments really rewards the effort. And particularly as it was linked to projects like Green New Deal I found it more and more interesting. I'm not an accountant, nor am I an economist, and I'll say one of Boing Boing's commenters had a very sharp observation about MMT, which is he said that MMT treats capital flows as accounting entities, and economists tend to be drawn from the wealthy and accountants tend to be a little more blue colar, and that some of the snobbery may just be class snobbery, that to a first approximation economics is how you think about these things if you're rich, and accounting is how you think about these things if you actually have to handle money – and MMT is a more accounting than economic approach, although you can tell me if I'm totally wrong about that.

[0:11:15] Host: I totally agree and I think Warren, who made the first breakthroughs with understanding MMT, I think that came first and then he got together with Bill Mitchell after that. Because Bill added in the job guarantee, the buffer stock ideas after that, but I think I would call that coming up from the grassroots. He was an outsider, he started interacting with the post-Keynesians on the internet message boards and initially, if the story goes as I understand it, they were skeptical and I think Randall Ray had Stephanie Bell, who's now Stephanie Kelton, studying under him and she was skeptical and he said, "why don't you go out there and just talk to the Fed, do the balance sheet accounting and see if he's right". And she had to come back and go "yeah, he is actually right". So it did come from the grassroots, as I understand it.

So anyway, look let's say we've got some people listening here who don't know what MMT is, and I'm talking to a master storyteller. How would you describe MMT to the uninitiated?

[0:12:37] CD: It's true and I'm also keenly aware that I think most of the people listening are better informed on this subject than I am, but I'll do my best and if nothing else maybe this is a way for you to check your own communication strategy. I often find that if I try to to explain something to them, that getting them to explain it back to me is a good way to find out where my own explanations have gotten confusing or fallen short.

I think that at its core MMT says that under modern conditions, where most money is untethered from any kind of real-world asset reserve, that countries that issue their own currency, and whose debt is denominated in that currency, do not incur inflation merely by buying goods and services from the private sector, but rather that inflation only kicks in when the private sector and the public sector are bidding against each other because the public sector is procuring things that the private sector has a use for. And that the implication of this is that if there is any idle resource, and that could be a material resource but more importantly labor, if there are people who need work doing or who need work themselves, then the government can just pay some of those idle workers to do the work, and they won't be competing with the private sector and there won't be inflationary pressure. And then there's a bunch of stuff about where money comes from and so on, that that money comes into existence when the government spends it, that it taxes it out of existence, that government programs aren't paid for through taxation, and so on. And that's actually an area where I think the story… I think that when I hear MMT-ers talk about the story, they say "oh isn't it bizarre that people think that governments tax to cover their spending, and that money is spent into existence and taxed out of existence". And I think that it's not an unreasonable assumption, not only because it's the orthodoxy, but because when we say oh well governments spend money into existence, and tax money back out of existence what we mean is that sovereign currency issuers, whose debt is denominated in their own currency, are the ones who are spending money into existence and taxing it out. And that's not true of many other kinds of governments, including municipal governments and also governments that, either de facto or de jure, are reliant on other countries for their currency, whether that's the eurozone or just caribbean islands where the currency is so weak and and so unstable that dollars are the de facto currency, and so on.

And obviously it's not true of those entities, and so if I were going to try to explain this story, the place that I rarely hear MMT-ers go is to start by saying "look, we're talking today about a very specific kind of government, and it's not the government that you interact with most often." Even if you're an american the government that you interact with most often is probably your city government, and your city government most assuredly does tax money to pay for its services. I guess that's the place where I fault MMT-ers for leaving some things out of frame that actually explain why there is this confusion.

[0:16:19] Host: yeah so my reaction to that would be, I think for me the story does start with where does money come from because it just seems a bit more of a… It's an interesting question, rather than talking about what sovereignty is and things like that. Because even the dollars that your municipal government is using had to come from somewhere. So even if they taxed them off of the people living in that municipality, those dollars had to come from somewhere. Even those dollars were spent into existence by the issuer of the currency, so I think MMT is constantly emphasizing this: you got to understand the difference between an issuer and a user of a currency. So I think that's why we, or they, focus on who issues the currency, because really we're pushing up against this idea that we can't have a green new deal because we don't have any money, or we can't spend for full employment because we've run out of money, we can't do x, we can't have a nice NHS because we've run out of money. So I think that's why people go down that path and go we'll look for a sovereign government, which is like most countries… there's very few currencies that are pegged. So I think that's the reason why we focus on the sovereign currency side of things. And after that people go "yeah but why are the eurozone countries in trouble then?" and then you have to explain that they are not issuers of their own currency, they're users of their own currency. So that's why it seems to come in that order for me

[0:18:18] CD: I think that's very fair. I would say that if there was a different way to tell the story, that I would start with the question of how is it that we have a system that has fallow resources, a system that is designed you know… I think the thing that's often missing when we talk about markets is that the justification for markets, the original justification for markets, is that they're efficient allocators. That they may not be the best but they're the least worst at allocating, and if we let markets do allocation then we don't have a factory that just produces forks long after anyone needs forks, that markets kind of solve this and that markets also – and this is an important part of the micro story, that I think is worth telling too – that markets migrate capital into the hands of people who are sort of graced by their creator with the wit and insight to promote the general welfare if only they are allowed to allocate that capital. And so I think that there's a really important counter story to be told, which is that we have unemployment, we have empty houses, we have people who need houses, we have underutilization, we have all of these misallocations, including the finance curse and all these people who are really smart who are devoted to doing socially useless things, like writing bots to stealth purchase shares in the name of liquidity provision or whatever… I met a group of extremely lovely chaps in the city once, who were all physics grads from Cambridge and their joke was we have diversity because one of us is from Oxford, and they're all PhDs and all they did was liquidity provision, and it was incredibly profitable. But when you actually peg them down on what it was it was also totally socially useless. So how is it that we have this supposedly extremely efficient allocation process that has failed to allocate. And when you ask people that their answer is inevitably "oh but it's my money. It's my money, I get to choose how to spend it. Who cares if it's inefficient", and if that's where the circularity of the story is revealed – because we say we'll we give you the money, because supposedly you'll allocate it efficiently. When you're not allocating it efficiently we then have to ask "why did you get the money, again?", like "why is that your money instead of someone else's money?"

[0:20:41] Host: Yeah, and I think this is why the Modern Money network often tries to focus people on saying "actually it's the public money". It's a public monopoly, for starters, and it's… and another way in to talking about MMT is going "where does unemployment come from, if everything's functional how are there people not being employed? Because they want a job and they can't find one" and those episodes that you recommended that's kind of what Warren Mosler says is that the government, as soon as they laid on a tax, as soon as they said you owe us so many dollars – and if we bring this story back to before there were dollars, the first dollar spent into existence could have only been spent into existence because people needed it. So you lay on a tax bill on the whole nation, and the whole nation becomes unemployed. Now I know Steve Keane doesn't like that framing of the government creates unemployment by laying on taxes, because it kind of sounds like you're being a libertarian or something like that, but if you want a government to be able to do big things, which we kind of do now with the climate and everything, then you're going to have to have this thing called money, you're going to have to have this coercive system. And the way you give it its validity is by making sure that the people using the monopoly have been voted in by some due process, so that on aggregate that they're telling us to do what we voted them in to do, if that makes sense.

[0:22:31] CD: Yeah, and and I think that's a good argument. I will tell you what I think the counter argument of advocates for market systems would be, which is that we never said that we would cure unemployment, we just said that the levels of unemployment… or the inefficiencies created by markets would be lower than the inefficiencies created by central planning. And that's where there's another Anglo-Canadian writer, who I'm very fond of, that I think has something to say here, which is a guy named Leigh Phillips, who claims not to be a marxist, but sure writes like one. And Leigh co-wrote a book last year called The People's Republic of Walmart, where he revisits something called the calculation debate, or the socialist calculation debate, of the 1920s in Austria, where you had Hayek and von Mises arguing that you just literally couldn't build a computer big enough to do allocations on the scale of a nation state, and that it was just too computationally intensive, and that's why we had to have this least worst solution of markets rather than a kind of rationalist planned system. And Leigh's response is that when you look at the scale of the largest institutions in the world, Walmart is one, Amazon's another, the Pentagon is a third, the People's Liberation Army is a fourth, they are not market institutions right, and their their command economies are on the the order of magnitude of the Soviet Union in 1989. This shifts the debate. If we go back to Hayek and von Mises, whose argument wasn't, at that point, that markets were moral goods, but rather that markets were the least worst option. Now we have another option, which means that markets are a thing that we can use or not use as we choose, but if we want to allocate efficiently on scales of large industrial nation states, that markets are now no longer the only tool in our toolbox. And I like that framing because moving markets away from being moral arbiters only does good in the world. Because one of the things that justifies unemployment is to say oh well unemployment is a source of moral judgment by the market, it's an outward… In the same way that leprosy tells you that the leper has been disfavored by god, sleeping on a park bench tells you that the market has weighed you in the balance and found you wanting. And this is a great counter to that. This returns markets to this utilitarian argument that we use markets because we don't know what else we have and now we say oh well we know we have something else now

[0:25:08] Host: Yeah, I would just add into the markets versus central planning thing: With the MMT job guarantee, what everybody says about that is, it's federally funded – because the federal government's the one that can't run out of tokens – and it's locally administered so you have a community system to decide what's needed in the community. So it gets away from that big governmenty spook story. And that's kind of how municipalities work at the moment, over here anyway. My local council, at least half of the money that it spends comes from central government. It doesn't all come from business rates and council tax and stuff. Since understanding MMT I'd rather all of it came from central government, or as much of it as possible

[0:26:09] CD: Yeah, clearly local taxes are prone to local problems. While local self-determination is often a lovely thing, I also think that the realpolitik of this is that local governments are also the province of the most small-minded NIMBY-ism, and the host of problems that arise from it. I lived in Hackney for 13 years, and our local government was dysfunctional in many visible ways, not least that when they wanted to tear down the office building full of low-cost offices across the street from us and build a luxury hotel that was permitted, but when we wanted to build a small plastic greenhouse on our balcony so that we could grow vegetables, that was considered to be disruptive of the street scene. And the realpolitik of this is that the stakes are very low in local government, which means that influence peddling works really, really well. We see this in the US at the state level, where the state houses have been targeted by oligarch operators for legislative reform and they have become hotbeds of some of the worst legislation in America. It is a real problem, and I was taken aside by local labor activist one day while I was in the park, who said «hey I saw that thing you wrote about how furious you are with the local planning board, you should know that your counselor, because he's in a safe labor seat, is selected by the labor membership at a nomination meeting with 12 people, and that your counselor was effectively elected by seven people of 12» and that's the actual election that goes on. So while I think in general we can say that local governments can be more responsive to local needs than than national governments, that they are also subject to exactly the same kinds of corruption problems, or rather a different kind of corruption problem: the rotten borough problem, that doesn't magically get solved when we increase the monetary supply.

[0:28:24] Host: No, not at all, but we do run the school system like that, don't we, and we don't go «well let's just do away with the school system, because we can't trust local governments because they're corruptible»

[0:28:36] CD: Well, funny you should mention…Hackney turned its schools over to a trust that is opaque and not subject to Freedom of Information requests, public records requests. They spend millions of pounds on behalf of the taxpayer with no accountability and no oversight, and of course that's only been accelerated by the academy movement, where you have public funding of private institutions, where only very recently were they prohibited from teaching, for example, that the earth is only 5 000 years old and the dinosaurs and humans cohabitated at one point.

[0:29:25] Host: Isn't at the point though that yeah, okay all that given, you still wouldn't do away with the school system would you because hackney's corrupt you wouldn't do that would you?

[0:29:34] CD: No, and I would say that there's a micro story that is in some way missing from the MMT account, and I guess it's just that you operate at different layers when you think about change. Laurence lessig, the cyber lawyer, says that the world is regulated by code; what's technologically possible. Norms; what's socially acceptable, law; what's lawful, and markets; what's profitable, and so you pick one of those and you necessarily aren't talking about the other ones. But there is a micro story about how do we shift the way that we think about allocation at that local level. What does the normative project look like, that allows us to have credible functional institutions at the local level that creates jobs wisely.

[0:30:28] Host: Where would you say that is being gotten right? Anywhere?

[0:30:35] CD: Yeah, that's a really good question. So, at its best Occupy had a lot of material on this. The cooperative movement often has good material on this. Where it's really interesting to get down in the weeds with some pretty nerdy stuff is in the split between the so-called open source movement and the free software movement. Free software was what it was originally called, and it was founded by this guy, Richard Stallman, who's a MacArthur Genius Grant winner, who was an MIT artificial intelligence researcher who literally came into the lab one day and found that the drawer where the paper tapes were kept for programming the computers had been locked up because one of the his fellows from the lab had founded a commercial business, and now some of the lab's work was a trade secret. And he was so offended by this that he vowed that he would recreate the entirety of UNIX, which was AT&T's flagship operating system. But he would rewrite it himself, with whatever volunteers he could scrounge, to create a free version of of UNIX that wouldn't just be free in the sense that it didn't cost anything, but free in the sense that it delivered freedom. The freedom to understand the code, to run the code, to share the code, and to make improvements to the code. And this was a kind of fringe ideology, and when it became mainstream was when it was rebranded as open source, that really emphasized the instrumental benefits – that your code is better if you expose it to peer review. And what's happened now, sort of 15-20 years down the line from that split, is we have software companies, like Google, that have managed to create open source that isn't free. So you can download all of this so-called free software that Google uses in its data centers, and you can look at it and improve it and share it, but you can't alter the way that you interact with Google. Because all of that software runs on the server side, so Google has produced software freedom for themselves and open source for the rest of us.

And that division, those chickens coming home to roost, has reopened the question of ethics in collective enterprise, that has dovetailed with the wider tech lash where you have tech workers who've woken up one day and said «oh the reason we get really nice coffee and massages at our chairs is not because our bosses are our lovely fellows who want to take care of us, but because we're in such high demand that if we were even a little sad we could cost the company a lot of money and therefore, if 20 000 googleers walk out to demand that the company be held to account for paying off an alleged rapist 80 million dollars to leave the company because he created Android, that we can actually make shifts in our corporate culture». And so you have this simultaneous thing happening where people are suddenly talking about software freedom again and tech workers are suddenly going «oh wait a second, we have a ton of political power», And now we are talking about how collective enterprise should be run, who should contribute, who should be in charge, how we resolve our disputes and so on. That's a really exciting conversation that's being had kind of in my corner of the world.

[0:33:48] Host: Yeah and that brings us perfectly to your latest book, Radicalized, which is a collection of four novellas and you got some concepts in there that you've been trying, and obviously succeeding, through your fiction and nonfiction and your activism to make urgent. And I wondered if you got time to lay out that first story, which is called Unauthorized bread, which is just two amazingly funny words when you put them together. So the first story is called Unauthorized bread, but how that plugs into the concept of adversarial interoperability?

[0:34:22] CD: Sure. Unauthorized bread it's a novella about a a young refugee woman from libya who is in subsidized housing in America. And in America, just as in the UK, you can get planning variances that will allow you to build bigger buildings than are otherwise permitted on the lot that you have, if you agree to build below market rent units. And one of the things that builders on both sides of the Atlantic have done, is sort of performatively behaved in the cruelest possible fashion towards the people in the lower rent subsidized units in their buildings. So it started with things like poor lobbies and poor doors, where you would go in a separate door if you were in this in the sub market rate units and you wouldn't be in the lobby with other people. Sometimes you'd have your own lifts, so that rich people and poor people wouldn't have to see each other in the lift. Most recently there was an enormous scandal in London because a property developer got permission to build on the site of an alms house that inspired Charles Dickens to write Oliver Twist. And he built a set of mews that opened onto a courtyard with a lovely playground and then under construction received planning variance that allowed him to build a wall between the sub market rent units and the playground, so that the children in those units could look on their social betters but not join them. And then, in order to satisfy the requirement that there be somewhere for all the children to play, he gave the poorer units a one meter wide, nine meter long strip of grass that children could run up and down on.

[0:36:02] Host: So just to be clear, this is not science fiction

[0:36:05] CD: That part's not the fiction. [Laughing]

[0:36:13] Host: Tt just reminds me, I heard… I mean I've never watched it but I heard… the The Apprentice, the Donald Trump TV show, when you get voted off you have to go and you have to stay in a place where you watch everybody party, everybody that did win. I'm pretty sure that's… There's this other layer where no, no it's not enough for you to lose, you've got to feel that you're a loser all the time.

[0:36:41] CD: There has to be some performative cruelty in the mix. But not just performative cruelty, because as everyone knows being poor is much more expensive than being rich. If you're poor you pay higher interest rates on loans that are on worse terms and have ballooning payments later on, and so on. And so in the story of Saliman and Authorized bread, she's in a subsidized building where they share a set of lifts with rich people, but the lifts won't stop if there's a rich person in it when they're paged from the poor floors. You have to wait until all the rich people in the building are no longer requesting or using a lift before it'll stop for you. And then when you get into your flat, finally, having gone up 45 flights of stairs because you didn't want to wait for the lift for half an hour, you find that every appliance in your flat is designed to extract as much revenue from you, by only allowing you to use manufacturer approved consumables. So a bit like your your printer that only takes official, authorized ink, your dishwasher will only wash authorized dishes, and your washing machine will only launder authorized clothes, and your toaster only toast authorized bread. And all this costs much more than than the traditional stuff. And it has this great circular market logic argument which is, well if we get more money from our subsidy tenants, we can build more subsidy housing that will allow us to have more subsidy tenants, and isn't it wonderful. It's a virtuous cycle, it's social enterprise. And the kinds of firms that run this kind of business are also the kinds of firms that love to play a lot of games with debt. And so periodically they are are cycled through pro forma bankruptcies that allow them to shed debt, and kind of screw the punters who are dumb enough to invest in them, and allow them management and the the first in to walk away with lots of money. And so one day all the appliances stop working, because all the servers have been shut down, because all the companies are in receivership. And that actually turns out to be a blessing in disguise for Salima and her neighbors, because it's the excuse that they need to start jailbreaking their appliances. And when they do they realize that the important thing about technology is not what it does, but who it does it for and who it does it to. That the difference between utopian and dystopian technology is not what features the technology has, but whose finger is on the button. And once they're controlling their own appliances they enter an era of sort of unparalleled golden glory with their technology, which very quickly turns to terror when they recognize that the appliances that they have are going to be coming online again soon as these companies restructure through their bankruptcies, and their built-in telemetry is going to grasp them up to the firm which is going to call on the police, because under U.S. law, since 1998, it's been a class A felony punishable by a $500,000 fine and a five-year prison sentence to modify a copyright lock, under something called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that came to UK and Europe through article six of the European Copyright Directive of 2001. And so they are literally in fear of their lives. If they don't put all the appliances back, which many of the people involved don't want to do under any circumstance, then they'll all be caught, and since committing a felony jeopardizes your refugee status they all face deportation back to countries where they have fled in fear of their lives.

[0:40:01] Host: But the concept of adversarial interoperability is the thing where you, when… I think an example that you use is when Facebook wanted to get in on MySpace's action, they invented a mechanism whereby it could get the messages from MySpace so you wouldn't have to leave Facebook to read MySpace. And that was a way to break MySpace's then monopoly on a social network right?

[0:40:38] CD: Sure, interoperability first of all is just allowing one thing to work with another. And there's different kinds of interoperability. Sometimes it's encouraged, so if you go and you buy Apple's developer license you can make software for their iPhones, so that's kind of cooperative interoperability. Sometimes it's indifferent, so when Audi sells you a car they don't care what you plug into the cigarette lighter, you can go and buy a USB charger and plug anything you want into it. Audi neither is trying to stop you from plugging things in, nor are they trying to encourage you to do it. It's entirely your own lookout. But then there's adversarial interoperability, so you might want to put third party ink in your printer, or a manufacturer might want to build a device that allows you to record things off of your cable that your cable operator has promised the rights holder they wouldn't record, or you might be starting a social network, and you want to solve the social networking problem of network effects, where all the people that’s your potential customers want to speak to are already using a rival service. And so in that case you can just make a little bot, and as a new user of Facebook you can give your MySpace login and password to the bot and it will go and pretend to be you at MySpace and download all the waiting messages for you and put them in your Facebook inbox, where you can reply to them and send them back. And that's the thing that Facebook used to its great advantage. Just as Apple once made a set of tools that would write and read files that have been made by Microsoft's Office suite, just as we've had third party printer ink forever, just as many companies got into the business of making IBM PC clones, and so on. Adversarial interoperability has really been part of technology's story all along. But about 40 years ago something really started to change. Just as the tech industry was being born, Ronald Reagan was elected as part of the cohort that includes Thatcher and Pinochet and Mulroney and so on. And the neoliberals, they bought into a very radical theory of monopoly regulation that had been promulgated by a guy named Robert Bork, who's probably best known for failing to secure a Supreme Court seat after being nominated, because when the Senate asked him about his actions in respect to Richard Nixon's crimes his accounts were so unconvincing that they failed to confirm him and he didn't get the job. So Bork had this bizarre idea that if you read really carefully the congressional record of the first anti-monopoly laws in the US, like the Sherman Act, you found that those lawmakers were completely indifferent to monopolies per se, and all they really cared about was stopping monopolies from raising prices. So so long as monopolies didn't raise prices in the short term on consumers, they could be allowed to form. And in fact they would produce great efficiencies if they were formed. And so 40 years later you have these companies that have gotten really big, and really concentrated, by doing things that were never permitted before Bork – buying all of their competitors, merging with their major competitors, being on multiple sides of the same transaction. It used to be that banks couldn't own businesses that competed with the businesses that they lent to, or railroads couldn't own freight companies that competed with the freight companies that bought space on their on their rails. But Google can own an ad company and a search engine and Amazon can make products that compete with the sellers on its platform. And when you look at how big they've gotten, one of the consequences of that is they've become much more influential– and they can either directly pass laws, or indirectly change the laws by hiring lawyers to forcefully argue certain legal interpretations of existing laws. And through this they have managed to shut down adversarial interoperability. They've gone up the ladder and then they've kicked it away. The software patents that would have gotten in the way of Apple making an interoperable version of Microsoft's office suite, or the copyright rules that would have stopped people from making IBM PC clones, or the tortuous interference theories or terms of service that would have stopped Facebook from competing with MySpace, those have all become a kind of thicket that has been erected around today's winners, that prevent anyone from doing to them what they did to their predecessors.

[0:45:09] Host: It seems to me you've taken quite an esoteric thing that's hard to enfranchise everybody to get excited about because there's a lot of dry language in there, and you've made it come alive to people.

[0:46:11] CD: It's funny because this started as a column in The Guardian, when I used to write for them, I called «If dishwashers were iphones». That was a letter from a Steve Jobsian figure, who is the CEO of a new kind of dishwashing experience company, that wanted you to know that foodborne illnesses have killed more people than any other cause in human history, and you can't expect us to get your dishes clean enough to eat off of if you want to put granny's china in there, and that's why we insist that you buy your dishes from us and no one else. And other people will tell you that it's a monopoly tactic, but no one forces you to buy a Disher dishwasher. I used to be a CIO, I used to administer lots and lots of Mac computers, I used to write purchase orders to Apple for a million dollars a year, and I know as well as anyone else that Apple users think of themselves as an oppressed ethnic minority. And I was hoping to break through and get people to see that if you can't open it you don't own it – that property is that which, as Blackstone said, that a man enjoys soul and despotic dominion over to the exclusion of every other person in the universe – and that if you can only install software that the vendor has approved, that it doesn't matter how wise you think that vendor is. If that vendor is wise, then you can just follow their recommendations. The only reason to turn a recommendation into a requirement is if you understand that some of your customers don't trust you to always be a wise guardian of their decisions. And it completely failed, but one of the things that happens is if you have a problem, and if the problem isn't dealt with, then over time the problem becomes more manifest and people come to where you are. And this is another thing I would say about communicating MMT is that eventually we're going to reach peak indifference to austerity, peak indifference to to bad economic policy – where it won't be that the majority of people care about it, but that the number of people who don't care about it will only go down from then on. And when that moment comes you will have a really important pivot to make, because you will go from trying to address denialism, overnight, to trying to address nihilism. That the corollary of thinking that it's not a problem, is thinking that it's too late to solve it. It's «now that I finally care about rhino populations there's only one left, we might as well find out what he tastes like.» And so that's a really hard job, because a lot of what you're trying to do when you're trying to convince people that there is a problem is convince them that it's urgent and an existential threat. And then you have to convince them that the existential threat can be addressed. And it's a very hard line to to cross

[0:48:46] Host: I think that's the importance of the MMTjob guarantee I think: We're going «look, there is a way out of this, there is a way out of the pathologies that are created by this thing that we deliberately do when we have a money system called unemployment.» We can guarantee everybody a job, we know we can afford it, because we just explained where money comes from. And the other powerful thing is to say «and it's how we already actually do it anyway, you already got a job guarantee, it's just staying at home and having a miserable life and fighting inflation – well we're just saying let's make that job a bit nicer and pay a bit more.»

[0:49:30] CD: I think that's a very compelling piece. And there's an interesting thing that's happened in our public discourse, to go back to science fiction, which is that a couple of years ago a lot of people, including me, were talking about abundance. We were saying well, we're going to have automation, we're going to have fully automated luxury communism, and the robots will do all the hard work and the people can do sort of what Marx talked about, where they start to make art and spend time with their families and so on. And as the climate emergency has become more manifest and vivid, talk about peak indifference, there's now this new sense that actually we're nowhere near abundance. That we have full, meaningful employment for everyone alive today and all of our children and grandchildren and probably great grandchildren, just remediating and defending against the chaos that will be created by our inaction on climate

[0:50:17] Host: Yeah, so I keep saying if they invent a robot that solves that problem, because that was our job… my interview with John Harvey, he's saying «if you've got a social problem, there's a job on the other end of that.» You don't get to say there's nothing to do in a world like ours, when there's all these social problems and it's burning to the ground. If the robots are doing everything they're doing a pretty shitty job for it.

[0:50:50] CD: Yeah, and it's funny, because when I hear jobs guarantee, the criticism that springs to mind is you think of of Keyne saying «we pay half the men to dig trenches and the other half to fill them in» and I don't know if you know this, but lLverpool is honeycombed with Victorian vaulted tunnels that were built after the Crimian war, when a local rich person saw all these shell shocked soldiers coming home who were heavily armed and had PTSD and didn't have jobs and he said «this is gonna end badly, I'm just gonna pay them to dig tunnels under Liverpool.» And periodically some car park will subside, and it'll be a new set of side tunnels that no one knew where there – they've never been mapped, they run under each other, just missing each other by millimeters, or parallel to each other, and they literally were built just to employ traumatized soldiers so that they wouldn't kill people. It's bizarre. So what we're living through now is the kind of long time scale version of this, where our ancestors dug these giant holes to get the coal out of the ground, and now we are gonna fill the holes in by engaging in the extremely labor intensive business of trying to get all that carbon that was once under the ground, capture it, and stick it back in the ground again. We are basically living through the Keynes's version of stimulus, only on a much longer time scale, with much higher stakes, because if we don't fill the hole in quickly enough we're all going to die

[0:52:15] Host: Before we move on from Unauthorized bread, there's this other theory of yours which I really like called the shitty technology adoption cycle. Can you tell the listeners about…

[0:52:29] CD: Sure, if you've got a terrible idea, and it's not just a terrible technological idea, but technology is where you see it most visibly, you need to on the one hand refine it and then on the other hand you need to normalize it before you can deploy it on everyone. And so, if you've got a terrible technology idea the way that you do that is you trial it on people who don't get to complain: kids, poor people, welfare recipients, refugees, mental patients, prisoners, parolees and so on. And once they've kind of knocked the rough edges off, and once we've had it normalized, then you can do it to everybody. You can work your way up the curve: blue collar workers, middle managers, white collar workers, eventually even the one percent are living under it. A really vivid example might be closed circuit cameras. 20 years ago if there was a closed circuit camera videoing you while you ate it was because you were in a super max prison. Now it's because you were unwise enough to buy a home automation system from Amazon or Apple. We have gone in in a single lifespan from a super max prison to luxury flats in Islington having the same technology, and that's how the curve works. And you see it in lots of other things, you see it in pension structures, to use a non-technological example, from the defined benefits pension to insisting that everyone who doesn't want to starve to death when they're old pump pound coins into the market slot machine and hope that they get a jackpot by the time they're ready to retire. All of that stuff started with poor people and worked its way up to the rest of us.

[0:54:06] Host: So I guess the the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. And another one of your themes is «seize the means of computation.» Is that the solution to what we're talking about here, with breaking monopolies and breaking through with our more winning paradigms? Can you unpack that for us?

[0:54:32] CD: Sure. I think it's very important to distinguish between solutions and necessary preconditions. We're not going to solve all of our problems by having free and open computers, but if we don't have free and open computers it will be very hard to solve any problems. Because when the computers that pervade your life, when the sensing actuating network nervous system that's all around you and holds the power of life and death over you is not legible, is not auditable, and is not improvable by third parties, then you are at the mercy of benevolent dictators – who even if they are benevolent today, you have no guarantee that they'll be benevolent forever, nor that their wisdom will hold forever. And they are, because they're dictators, not disciplined by the fear that someone else will come along and take away their leadership role. And so they are prone to all of the foibles of humanity, self deception and motivated reasoning and so on. And so when I say «seize the means of computation,» I mean that on the one hand, everybody who can would benefit from learning something about how computers work and how to reconfigure them – which is a term I prefer to reprogram them, because it encompasses the full stack of activities, starting from writing your own firmware or drivers for low-level components on your motherboard, all the way up to knowing how to alter the preferences on your system. And the means by which we teach people to do that is, on the one hand, by making the computers as simple to understand as possible and, on the other hand, by clearing the barriers to people who wish to help their neighbors and the people they love and the people they care about to improve their circumstances. That as the disability movement has it: «nothing about us without us» – any technology that affects your life, you should have the the possibility of having a look into every phase of its development – from the design to the deployment to the ongoing maintenance of it. Because you possess something that no one else designing that technology possesses, which is the intimate knowledge of how you live your life and what will benefit you, that no one else can ever fully understand. So this idea of technological self-determination, it's not the idea that you gnaw your own computer from a log, and it is exactly yours, but rather that when you take it upon yourself to change how your computer works – or to ask someone else to change how your computer works – that we clear as many impediments as possible between your impetus to do that and realizing it

[0:57:14] Host: So just to wrap up on Unauthorized bread: So you've got these esoteric, but vital to understand things. And you could just tell people, but they won't feel the urgency. And then you've written Unauthorized bread, and of course the whole thing just comes alive. And so I'm asking your gut here what you think a way forward is. We've got the same challenge with MMT. For me seeing MMT is like seeing whole nations of people making a huge error in perception every day of their lives and it kills people, because they're attached to a money story that's not true. So how can we communicate MMT in an Unauthorized bread style? I know I'm asking you to write a novela…

[0:58:06] CD: When I think about the leverage point – and I wrote about this a little in my last novel, Walkaway – I think about a critique that just says «if you have a thing that's useful, but the spreadsheets say that it's impossible to operate it, and yet you have the people who want to operate it, and you have people who want the things that would arise from it, and there's a factory that's shuttered, and you have workers willing to work, and you have people who want the thing the factory was making, but the spreadsheets can't figure out how to make it all work, then you have become imprisoned by an administrative tool.» And we know what that's like. My mom used to work for a local school board, she's a public school teacher and she graduated from teaching to being a kind of mentor to new, early childhood education teachers. And one of the things that she would do is, you'd have teachers who would say «we don't have any pencils in our class,» and she would say «I know where there is a closet full of pencils, but there's someone who has made up a rule that says you can't have any of those pencils, and I will go and explain to them in eye watering detail why they're not allowed to say no to me and I will take their pencils and give them to you.» So we all understand that there are times when administrative functions swallow the utility that they're supposed to be enabling. And the accounting conveniences of treating federal budgets, national budgets, as though they were a balance sheet, like a household balance sheet, which is a convenient thing to do… I am willing to say that there are probably times when it's useful to know the ratio of the money you're taxing out and the money you're spending into the economy, not because if you don't tax enough you can't spend, but because it it informs your intuition about what's going to happen next macroeconomically. that that convenience has swallowed our utility, and then I would write a story about a heroic person, like Terry Gilliam's Brazil, where you have the person who's going around fixing air conditioners without permission, and just say «at a certain point you need to clear away the administrative systems, because they have become self-perpetuating rather than enablers.» It's fine for us to pretend that the universe is Newtonian, but not when we start saying «you can't build that ship and account for quantum interference, because we all know that quantum physics are a fairytale and that everything is truly Newtonian.» At a certain point you have to discard the abstraction layer that you use to get a convenient handle on big complex phenomena, and deal with things on the bare metal. And when you're dealing with things on the bare metal you learn new things, then you have to build new abstraction layers – because no one writes code in Assembly if they don't have to, and no one should have to deal with money merely as an accounting set of flows. it's useful to think of them in economic terms as well as in accounting terms. So we maybe we just need to build new tools on that, and the way that we do that is by having these better stories.