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From Piketty to Law and Political Economy

By Frank Pasquale

Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century continues to spur debate among economists. It has many lessons for attorneys, as well. But does law have something to offer in return? I make that case in my review of Capital, focusing on Piketty's call for a renewal of the social science of political economy. My review underscores the complexity of the relationship between law and social science. Legal academics import ideas from other fields, but also return the favor by informing those fields. Ideally, the process is dialectic, with lawyers and social scientists in dialogue.

At the conference Critiquing Cost-Benefit Analysis of Financial Regulation, I saw that process first hand back in May. We at the Association of Professors of Political Economy and the Law (APPEAL) are planning further events and projects to continue that dialogue.

I also saw a renewed synergy between law and social sciences at the Rethinking Economics conference last month. Economists inquired about bankruptcy law to better understand the roots of the financial crisis, and identified the limits that pension law places on certain types of investment strategies.

Some of the organizers of the conference recently took the argument in a new direction, focusing on the interaction between Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and campaign finance reform. "Leveling up" modes of campaign finance reform have often stalled because taxpayers balk at funding political campaigns. Given that private campaign funders' return on investment has been estimated at 22,000%, that seems an unwise concession to crony capitalism. So how do we get movement on the issue?

For MMT backers, the answer is relatively clear:

[M]oney is not a feature of our natural environment, but a social construct, mediated by law. . . . One profound implication of this view is that the common belief that the U.S. federal budget is constrained like a household budget is a myth. . . . The U.S. federal government does not need to tax or borrow in order to fund itself. Taxes accomplish many functions, but they do not “fund” federal government spending. . . .[For] the campaign finance reform community to increase its chances of victory in implementing its policies (especially those aimed at changing the initial distribution of economic power), it must provide a more truthful and accurate account of the relationship between governance and modern money. In order to win over skeptics, campaign finance reform advocates need to explain that neither the national fiscal position nor people’s checkbooks need suffer in order for a scheme like democracy vouchers to work. People need to hear that it is right and reasonable for them to ask that public money be put to work for public purpose.

We do see the unrestrained money-creating capacity of the government on display in endless rounds of "quantitative easing." The AIG trial reminds us that intervention can become extraordinarily fine-grained and manipulative. Modern monetary theorists seek to harness that power in favor of public purposes, such as infrastructure building, campaign finance, or other investments. And we should be under no illusion that they are trying to shift economics from a stable science to politicized ideology. Dominant paradigms of economics in general (and public finance and accounting in particular) are the site of constant struggle over values. Advocates of austerity push for "fair value accounting" and "dynamic scoring," for little discernible purpose other than upward wealth redistribution. If those committed to some baseline of infrastructure, health, and education fail to press back with our own theory of public finance, we will fail, both intellectually and strategically.

To return to my original, methodological concern: a renewed emphasis on a key legal insight (the government cannot default on debt it issues in its own currency) can lead to an adjustment to economic theory (MMT), which in turn informs a new legal proposal to get past the current, futile campaign finance reform debate. It's a movement from legal insight to economic insight back to legal insight, or L - E - L. Of course, any implementation of MMT-driven campaign finance reform will need to sidestep SCOTUS's AZ FECFCPAC v. Bennett strictures. But that will be a much easier task than, say, trying to impose limits on spending by wealthy candidates or corporations. Just as MMT gets us past the zero-sum logic of taxation and CBO scoring in fiscal policy generally, it transcends the usual "level playing field" or "equal influence" paradigm of campaign finance. The legal foundations of MMT make it both scientifically, and normatively, a better theory of our economic system than the dominant paradigms of monetary policy.


PasqualeFrank Pasquale is Professor of Law at the Francis King Carey School of Law, University of Maryland. His research addresses the challenges posed to information law by rapidly changing technology, particularly in the health care, internet, and finance industries. His book The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information (Harvard University Press, 2015) develops a social theory of reputation, search, and finance. He is also a prolific blogger, posting at both Balkanization and Concurring Opinions; this post is reprinted from the former with the permission of the author.


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