Many Modern Monetary Theory posts and other writings on fiscal responsibility, including my own, focus on the myths of neoliberalism, pointing out why they are myths and developing an alternative MMT perspective in some detail. Off hand, and I may have forgotten something, I couldn’t think of a brief positive MMT narrative related to fiscal responsibility containing primarily the truths, rather than the myths.

So, here’s my version, revised after calling for and receiving comments from readers at New Economic Perspectives, Correntewire, FireDogLake, DailyKos, and ourfuture.org. Thanks to Tadit Anderson, Mitch Shapiro, Nihat, James M., Marvin Sussman, joebhed, Clonal Antibody, Ed Seedhouse, JonF, Lyle, Thornton Parker, Sean, Golfer1john, Rodger Malcolm Mitchell, econobuzz, Lambert Strether, maltheopia, Ian S., for contributing significantly to the critical evaluation of the earlier version.

More comments, criticisms, recasting in more effective form, are all welcome.

The Narrative

– The US Government can’t involuntarily run out of fiat money, since it has the constitutional authority to create it without limit. Congress constrains and regulates this ability. But its existence is still a stubborn fact!

– In addition to taxing and borrowing money, the Government (including the combined activities of the Congress, the Treasury, and the Federal Reserve) has an unlimited capacity to create it. When it taxes and borrows, the Government removes money from the private sector. When it creates money, over and above what it taxes or borrows, it adds it to the private sector. Since this is the case, it’s clear that present proposals to reduce the deficit by an average of $400 Billion over the next ten years are sure to remove net financial assets from the private sector.

–The Treasury can keep borrowing money if we want it to. There’s no limit on the Government credit card except the one imposed arbitrarily by Congress in the form of the amount of debt-subject-to-the-limit, otherwise known as the debt ceiling. So, if the US does run out of money due to a failure to raise the debt ceiling between now and March 31, 2013 it will clearly be the fault of the Congress for refusing to raise the debt ceiling!

– Even though it may seem that foreign nations can place a limit on “the credit card” by refusing to buy Treasury securities at auction, foreign nations holding dollars basically have a choice between continuing to hold them and earning no income, or earning interest on securities. So, as long as other nations are exporting to the US and accepting dollars as payment; those dollars are likely to be invested in Treasury securities.

– Bond markets don’t control US interest rates; the Federal Reserve Bank does by exercising its authority to meet its target interest rates. Bond vigilantes have no power against the Fed. If they fight against its interest rate targets by trying to bid them up; then they will “die” in the flood of reserves the Fed can unleash to drive the interest rates down to its chosen target. The Fed can’t control the money supply. But it does control the price of it with its interest rate targeting.

– The bond markets will buy US debt as long as we keep issuing it; but if one insists on considering the hypothetical case where the markets won’t, the US would still not be forced into insolvency; because the Government can always create the money needed to meet all US obligations.

– The US is obligated by the 14th Amendment to pay all its debts as they come due. Nevertheless, our national debt cannot be a burden on our grandchildren; unless they wish to make it so by stupidly taxing more than they spend. This is true because, assuming the debt ceiling is raised when needed, or repealed, we have an unlimited credit card to incur new debt at interest rates of our choosing. So, we can “roll over” our national debt indefinitely. Or, alternatively, we can create all the money we need to pay off the debt-subject-to-the-limit, without ever incurring any more debt;

– A fiscal policy that measures its success or failure in reducing deficits, rather than by its impacts on public purpose, is fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable. The deficit is a meaningless measure because the US Government has no limits on its authority to create/spend money other than self-imposed ones, so neither the level of the national debt, nor the debt-to-GDP ratio can affect the Government’s capacity to spend Congressional Appropriations at all. Also, a deficit/debt oriented fiscal policy ignores real outcomes relating to employment, price stability, economic growth, environmental impact, crime rates, etc. which actually can affect fiscal sustainability by strengthening or weakening the underlying economy, and, with it the legitimacy of the Government and its fiat currency.

– The Federal Government is not like a household! Households can’t make their own currency and require that people use that currency to pay taxes! So, their supply of dollars is always limited; while the Government’s supply is a matter of its decisions alone.

– Social Security has no solvency or “running out of money” problems. The SS crisis is a phoney one. No solution to this “fiscal crisis,” bipartisan or partisan, is needed. What is needed is a solution to the political problem of getting SS’s funding guaranteed in perpetuity by Congress, just the way it guarantees funding for Medicare Parts B and D. The same applies to the so-called Medicare crisis. It too is phoney, and can be solved easily by Congress guaranteeing funding in perpetuity to Medicare Parts A and C.

– However large the Federal Debt becomes, it cannot be a “crushing burden” on our Government, because Federal spending is virtually costless to the Government, if it wants it to be.

– Greece and Ireland are users of the Euro, not issuers of it. So, their supply is always limited and that’s why they can run out of Euros. The US is the issuer of Dollars; so it’s supply of dollars is limited only by its desire to create them, and its ability to mark up private accounts, and that’s why it can’t become Greece, Ireland, or any other Eurozone nation.

– Austerity requiring budget surpluses cannot work in the United States economy because surpluses, defined as tax revenue exceeding spending, destroy net financial assets in the private sector. Unless these financial assets are replaced through revenues acquired by running a trade surplus; the continuous loss in net financial assets by the private sector is unsustainable, eventually leading to credit bubbles, recession or depression, and the return of deficit spending. It is mathematically IMPOSSIBLE for the USA to simultaneously run a government surplus, have a trade deficit and increase aggregate private sector wealth! (h/t Ian S.)

– It is fiscally irresponsible to frame and follow a long – term deficit reduction plan (limited austerity) when both a trade deficit and an output gap exists, because by definition, such a plan is one that must remove more net financial assets from the economy than would otherwise be the case every year the plan is pursued. Eventually, if pursued for long enough, declining rate of addition to financial assets will exacerbate the output gap by lowering aggregate demand and causing both labor and capital to deteriorate, thus reducing the productive capacity of the economy, and the Government’s ability to sustain deficit spending producing outputs of real social value.

– REAL fiscal responsibility is a pattern of fiscal policy intended to achieve public purposes (such as full employment, price stability, a first class educational system, Medicare for All, etc.), while also maintaining or increasing fiscal sustainability, viewed as the extent to which patterns of Government spending do not undermine the capability of the Government to continue to spend to achieve its public purposes. REAL fiscal responsibility is Government fiscal policy creating greater real benefits than real costs for people! It has nothing to do with conforming to some standard simple measure like an acceptable debt-to-GDP ratio that has only a questionable theoretical connection to the actual well-being of people. It’s political malpractice to give greater priority to that kind of abstraction than to full employment, price stability, a strong social safety net, and Government programs that will help us solve the many outstanding problems of our nation. Let’s put an end to the domination of Washington by that kind of malpractice.

Conclusion

Current claims that we have a fiscal crisis, must debate the debt, must fix the debt, and must immediately embark on a long-term deficit reduction program to bring the debt-to-GDP ratio under control, all misconceive the fiscal situation. They are based on the idea that fiscal responsibility is about developing a plan to bring the debt-to-GDP ratio “under control,” when it is really about using Government spending to achieve outputs that fulfill “public purpose.” There is no fiscal crisis that will require “a Grand Bargain” including cuts to popular discretionary spending and entitlement programs. It is a phoney crisis!.

The only real crisis is a crisis of a failing economy and growing economic inequality in which only the needs of the few are served. MMT policies can help to bring an end to that crisis; but not if progressives, and others continue to believe in false ideas about fiscal sustainability and responsibility, and the similarity of their Government to a household. To begin to solve our problems, we need to reject the neoliberal narrative and embrace the MMT narrative about the meaning of fiscal responsibility. That will lead us to fiscal policies that achieve public purpose and away from policies that prolong economic stagnation and the ravages of austerity.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Photo by Evan-Amos under Creative Commons license.