Modern Monetary Theory and The Trans Agenda (Essay)

By Nia Cola

To be trans today is to be treated as a political agent at all times, but afforded no  substantive political agency. Everything you do is scrutinized, as your right to exist remains under constant review. In response, trans liberation means actualizing authentic ways of being, without waiting for the sovereign judgment of cis society. The question of how to achieve this will always be open-ended and multi-faceted. Whatever our focus, however, trans liberation requires a gender framework that expands the present bounds of possibility, in excess of the limited forms of life that have been previously afforded space. Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) gives us just that framework. 

MMT allows space for limitless social rearticulation through public spending and employment. In positing money as an infinite public resource, MMT provides a viable counter-narrative to dominant theories of “commodity money,” which account for human differences as economic costs and potential liabilities when it comes to building a mass political base. And while the prevailing economics casts money as an unproductive and symbolic veil over finite resources, MMT’s insistence on money’s active role in directing production allows us to see the affordance of difference as a policy variable. MMT also serves as a powerful analogue for the trans struggle against what could be called “sound gender” ideology—the assertion of a strictly material gender reality that the introduction of new pronouns can only debase. 

Grounded in such materialist reductionism, the stigmatization of trans people is implicit in the hegemonic gender binary system, which is part and parcel of colonial systems of knowledge and control. The patriarchal family, as an “independent” driver of social reproduction, stands in for the Western nation-state’s self image as necessarily profit-seeking and extractive. And Western anxieties about queer and trans forms of life allegedly “replacing” traditional lifestyles are in some ways a projection of the West’s own justification for settler-colonialism, whereby the existence of colonizers required the genocidal “replacement” of indigenous populations.

The sweeping social identities that Western thought derives from the ideology of biological dimorphism, however, are by no means universal. Despite sexual dimorphism, not all cultures have held to a strictly binary view of gender. There are, in fact, many ways for sexual reproduction to be folded into social reproduction, and so the supposedly “practical” and “material” bases of gender identity are in fact socially constructed and essentially contestable. What is more, because the archetypal reproductive household is socially constructed, the very fact of trans existence holds open space for rearticulation and reconfiguration. Trans existence, in other words, belies the falseness of cis society’s claims about itself. If trans existence is so destabilizing, what we’re dealing with are the symptoms of repressed truths about gender—namely, that there are no fixed truths. 

A rigid gender binary restricts individuals from acting outside of a narrow scope of social norms and becomes the basis for social and economic exclusions predicated on one’s performance of gender. While there is nothing evil about trying on binary gender roles, the politics of performance must be self-consciously nested in a contingent and playful non-binary spectrum. This essential space to play and experiment with gender cannot be conceived merely as escaping coercion. It demands ongoing cultivation and maintenance by way of an MMT-based political economic “agenda” that aims to secure trans agency in myriad urgent ways.

The Trans Agenda

As a function of a repressive cis gender binary regime, trans people must daily confront tremendous hardships and challenges. They face extraordinarily high rates of unemployment, for example, often recorded at around three to four times the rate for cis people. Trans persons also suffer from meager wages, lower levels of college attainment on average, and extremely high rates of poverty. Due to social and institutional discrimination, a large proportion of trans people are involved in the Sex Work (SW) industry. The criminalization and stigmatization of this precarious line of work exposes trans people to high degrees of financial and bodily risk, contributing greatly to the high rates of violence perpetrated against the trans community. 

For this reason, decriminalizing SW is an essential part of any trans liberation agenda. It is undeniable, however, that a significant portion of trans participation in SW is tied to discrimination elsewhere, and so justice for trans sex workers cannot be taken in isolation. If trans people are going to achieve liberation, it will mean provisioning lives we want to lead—including those of us who happily participate in SW. 

The issue of discrimination at the point of access to social goods can be viewed as a matter of equal protection under the law, and for this the solution is simple: pass statutes that make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity. While this is of course a long Civil Rights fight, a good start would be passing the Equality Act, which would immediately alleviate explicit discrimination as a concern by making it illegal at the federal level. The Equality Act was passed by the House for the second time on February 25, 2021 and is awaiting a vote in the Senate. 

Still, the trans agenda must go further. A comprehensive policy platform could fill a tome, of course, and it would be good to develop such an agenda in the future. Here, however, I would like to focus on two key policies–a Federal Job Guarantee (FJG) and, below, Medicare for All–which are only realizable if we embrace the radical implications of MMT. 

The MMT lens implores us to look at the world in an expansive and generative way, rejecting binary and zero-sum thinking at the level of fiscal provisioning. The fundamental insight of MMT is that money is not a private commodity that must be taken from the market via taxation in order to fund the public sector. To the contrary, governments create money to finance their operations, and taxation is simply one tool among many to manage the shape and distribution of monetary demand (as well as ensure a common denomination. Money’s role in mediating access to and participation in social provisioning is a limitless public resource, which can be used however we want and across any time horizon. 

For this reason, the monetary agency of the Federal government to name and finance public priorities can be mobilized at any time to create a public option for employment. If designed and fought for as a fully inclusive and trans affirming program, a FJG would not only establish a wage-and-benefits floor for the entire economy and begin to challenge and change the social meaning of work. It would also create an inalienable foundation to both support and further facilitate trans liberation, while buttressing trans resilience against hostile employment authorities. 

Building a trans positive FJG, meanwhile, would build union power by diversifying and expanding the traditional white cis culture of union membership. As a unionized public works system, the FJG will no doubt irreversibly alter the balance of power between unions and employers throughout the economy. Yet while unions have in the past proven to be crucial countervailing forces against employers, traditional unions are far from perfect and insufficient on their own. Indeed, even in their heyday, large unions predominantly shaped and supported a repressive and exclusionary mid-center social order. 

A diversified FJG union, by contrast, will not merely boster trans life. It would also strengthen the bargaining power of public and private unions alike by preventing them from holding minority groups hostage to exclusionary majorities, or even corrupt alliances with management. A FJG union, moreover, would allow workers to refuse to work in striking sectors, providing an expansive foundation for industrial solidarity that transcends the false opposition between living for one’s self and living for one’s class. 

Too Many Pronouns Chasing Too Few Genders?

As with any expansion of government spending, the standard objection leveled against the FJG is that it will cause runaway inflation. Behind this explicit argument looms an implicit and quite violent social implication: If paying everyone to work increases the rate of inflation, as might be alleged by mainstream economists, the implication is that some of those people are being paid above what they’re worth. Or to paraphrase the economists, it is too many dollars chasing too few socially legitimate goods. Setting aside other critiques of mainstream economics, this is a startling statement about the value of the work of women, queer people, and people of color. It’s a declaration that we are not capable of producing work valuable enough to justify a living wage.

If one outright rejects the possibility that marginalized people can make social contributions that justify a living wage, then it follows that they either should live off the goodwill of “the productive” through redistributive policies, or that they don’t deserve to live at all. While few people will state the latter openly, the former view is highly patronizing and built to fail under pressure. Buttressed by such toxic logics, the work of marginalized communities has therefore long been under-valued, and the expectation that their employment will result in inflation reflects this legacy. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the inflation bogeyman is also wielded against trans people through opposition to trans healthcare. Medical interventions allow trans people to assimilate into cis society to the extent that they desire, or equally to challenge the gendered expectations that are hurting them in the first place. We can hear echoes of the inflation panic about illegitimate jobs in objections to trans inclusion in universal healthcare policies such as Medicare for All. According to this reactionary logic, gender affirming care is superfluous and cosmetic rather than “material” in some fundamental sense. The suggestion that there is a tradeoff between trans and universal healthcare implies that provisioning healthcare services for trans people is beyond the capacity of our economy to manage. But this is a demonstrably false statement. The expansion of trans healthcare would likely be a one-off event in terms of increased capacity needs. 

It is reasonable to expect the amount of trans people who would need to be served would increase as stigma falls, more people decide to transition, and healthcare provisions become more available; however, there is scarce evidence that provisioning such a future is somehow beyond our economy’s ability to adapt to these increased needs. It can be hard to shake the feeling that many of these detractors are opposed to trans healthcare not because they genuinely believe in a resource constraint, but simply because they do not wish to see trans people exist in public life. 

Queering Money

To guarantee adequate jobs and healthcare to trans people—and build coalitions around such struggles—we need a fundamental shift in thinking when it comes to government budgeting. When money is imagined as fundamentally scarce, social change is routed through the problematic language of redistribution and replacement rather than creation. This in turn creates an “any port in the storm” mentality when it comes to building coalitions, as the variegated experiences of trans people are reduced to a representative “average” trans person who can be more simplistically advocated for. And as we see, the impulse to reduce and assimilate what is particular into what is imagined as universal for the sake of “widening the coalition” is observable in class reductionist calls to not discuss trans healthcare at all, in favor of supposedly “universal” healthcare services.

MMT, by contrast, provides a different foundation that allows us to articulate a comprehensive trans agenda on generative rather than zero sum terms. In the MMT story, when public money is motivated toward some end, fiscal authorities create it. Because money is created rather than found, spending precedes rather than follows taxation. Creation does not need to be “paid for” by destruction, and the trans agenda does not need to be routed through such zero sum logics. Money creation authorizes public job creation at the same time that it authorizes private purchasing power.

In the dominant economic view, money creation is inflationary because it is imagined as abstract bids on fundamentally scarce goods. In contradistinction to this view, MMT sees public spending, not as subtracting from a fixed pool of public resources, but instead directing its expansion. This is because, as any heterodox economist will tell you, resources are as socially constructed as gender. The flow of inputs at every point of production is linked to the flow of outputs at another. Capacity is therefore created rather than given, and when the government invests properly it can create new capacity over time.

The policies discussed above are possible only with an MMT framework that speaks in the register of rights and guarantees, rather than goals and aspirations. A FJG will require large variations in spending, and any method of ‘paying for’ the program would have to be just as flexible. And while Medicare for All would likely entail more stable spending patterns, it’s too great a budget item to tie to taxation, dollar for dollar. The last thing we need is policy that analogizes gender affirming healthcare services to zero sum redistribution. A proper budget in an MMT framework would deliberately target resource bottlenecks and invest in expanding production where necessary. 

If properly wielded and understood, public money harbors radical potential to reshape society for the better. These two policies would vastly improve life for trans people, but there is no final word in what makes the trans agenda, any more than there is a final word in what makes a trans person. It is imperative, however, to go big. Putting a Federal Job Guarantee and Medicare for All into action for this trans agenda would be a great start.

* “Money” by free pictures of money is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.

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