You are browsing the archive for Barack Obama.

What That Letter Should Have Said

9:54 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

On Valentine’s Day, Senator Bernie Sanders sent a letter to the President, authored by himself and signed by 15 other Senators, all Democrats. The letter was a response to the rumors that the President intends to include his Chained CPI proposal to cut Social Security benefits in the budget he will soon send to Congress. It summarized:

Mr. President: These are tough times for our country. With the middle class struggling and more people living in poverty than ever before, we urge you not to propose cuts in your budget to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits which would make life even more difficult for some of the most vulnerable people in America.

We look forward to working with you in support of the needs of the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor – and all working Americans.

The letter also stated a number of the usual talking points made in arguments against cuts to Social Security. In addition, it also contained praise for the President for his actions in improving the economy, creating jobs, and reducing the deficit, and it mentioned some specifics, including reduction of the Federal deficit to less that half of the $1.4 Trillion deficit he began with. The letter also asserted the need to do much more, especially in the areas of the economy, reducing unemployment and wealth and income inequality, and reducing the deficit “. . . in a fair way.”

It is a positive development that a group of Senators decided to preempt the President’s budget offering stating their disagreement with any proposed cuts to SS, Medicare, and Medicaid, but I think there were a number of ways in which the letter could have been done more effectively. First, It would be great if progressives urging the President not to cut the safety net would stop reinforcing the frame that lower deficits are good and that the President is due praise for cutting the deficit so sharply (CBP projects a 3.0% of GDP deficit this fiscal year). It is not good that he has cut the deficit so much, because in doing so, he has subtracted from Federal Government additions of Net Financial Assets (NFAs) to the economy. These contributions are projected to be so low this year that they will only compensate for the demand leakage due to the trade deficit, leaving no additional NFAs for net aggregate private sector savings.

Given the presence of unequal economic power to collect financial assets in the hands of economic elites, the implication of this is that the lower deficits will only further exacerbate inequality in the United States as well as contribute to continued high and long-term unemployment and stagnation (low growth) in the economy. In short, the austerians, including the President and other Democrats and Republicans who have been insisting on lower deficits are responsible fr the stagnation we see all around us.

Second, the letter would also have been more effective, if it had more than 15 signatures on it. Many Democratic Senators are running for re-election this year. Do they really want to be running as one of the faces of a party whose head is advocating for cuts to Social Security? Is this really good for Kay Hagan, Jeanne Shaheen, Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, Mark Warner, Cory Booker, Tom Udall, Mark Udall, Chris Coons, and John Walsh? So why haven’t they signed the letter? Do they really expect to re-elected if they decide to support a budget that contains chained CPI, and, even if they don’t support it, will they benefit if their party leader is proposing chained CPI? So why wasn’t Bernie Sanders able to get these additional signatures from Democrats who face challenges and are running this year?

And third, this letter would have been much, much stronger if the Senators who signed it said to the President directly that they know that there is no short or long-term debt problem and hence no further need to worry about cutting the deficit to achieve fiscal sustainability or ficsal responsibility. And that they also know that any debts that the Treasury has incurred in the past, or deficits that it incurs in the future, can be either paid off as they fall due, or covered completely by revenues from High Value Platinum Coin Seigniorage (HVPCS) used under the authority provided by legislation on denominations, specifications, and design of coins, passed in 1996. (Full details and issues surrounding HVPCS are given in my e-book.) They also should have added that since there is never any need based on the idea that “we’re running out of money,” to cut any safety net programs, that they want the President to know that everyone signing the letter is committed to voting to kill any budget offered by the President including the chained CPI, or any other provision cutting safety net programs.

A letter enhanced in the three ways I’ve just outlined would have been a damn sight more effective in warning Obama off the chained CPI, than the one Bernie Sanders and the other 15 Senators sent. And it also would have been much more effective in getting those Democratic Senators who signed it and are running, elected in November.

Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

The TPP: A Dangerous Proposal Whose Time Has Gone

8:12 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

The TPP clearly compromises US sovereignty and Congress’s ability to pass legislation approved by the heavy majority of Americans.

A recent, very good post at Naked Capitalism by Clive, suggests:

. . . Dear readers, you may think that writing to your elected representative, commenting negatively on articles you read in the mainstream media about the TPP and generally kicking up a bit of a fuss, making some noise, is a waste of effort. That is not so. The world does watch what goes on in the US. If popular sentiment is against something, the US government has a much harder job of convincing foreigners that it’s just them being awkward and reactionary and not getting the big, progressive, reform-minded, modernising picture.

I agree that this is a good proposal for one way the American public could register its objections to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with foreign leaders. But, I think that such letters ought also to point out that even if the TPP were railroaded successfully in the next few months, then it is unlikely to stick. After all, it is only a Treaty. Wouldn’t an electoral victory here by a movement dedicated to overturning corporate control of the political system, result in withdrawal from the TPP before any concrete legislation likely to conflict with it was passed by Congress?

The TPP is one of those things that would really engender paranoia here in the United States. In turn, this would become a continuing foundation for anti-government and second American Revolution buffs to use in building a much bigger movement.

After all, the TPP clearly compromises US sovereignty and Congress’s ability to pass legislation approved by the heavy majority of Americans. There’s no way for the TPP to avoid perceived sovereignty violations, especially in the medium term. Each one of these incidents would be played up by nationalists and their protests would make good and continuing fodder for the media. The Treaty, in operation, would be a constant source of outrage. Over time, the anger against politicians and parties that passed the TPP is sure to build, and that anger will burst forth in one or more new nationalist movements that will first rival and then surpass what we’ve seen from the tea party.

So, other nations can legitimately be warned that agreement with the United States on the TPP would be the worst thing they can do if they care about political stability and a reasonable foreign policy emanating from the United States, since the medium term result of any such treaty is likely to be a wave of xenophobia and isolationism in the United States. The last thing that Asian nations need from the United States is that result; and the best thing they can do to get what they need least is to pass the TPP – the perfect political tool for the xenophobes and isolationists to use to build a radical nationalist movement.

Do other nations negotiating the TPP recognize this likely result yet? Do they really want to feed the underlying conditions for that kind of explosion in the United States? I doubt it. So, we need to inform them both of what American public opinion really thinks about the TPP right now, and also about the likely future of the TPP and American and international political stability if they follow the lead of the United States and pass the Treaty.

Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.

Read the rest of this entry →

Dick Durbin Insults Everyone Else’s Intelligence About Social Security

3:33 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Yesterday on Fox, Senator Dick Durbin said:

WALLACE: I’m going to talk about ObamaCare on a second, but you’re not answering my question. Why does taxes — why do taxes have to be on the table? Why can’t you just make a deal, short-term spending for long-term entitlement reform — which, Senator, you support and President Obama support. You have supported the idea of some entitlement reform.

DURBIN: That’s right. I do, and I’ll tell you why — because Social Security is going to run out of money in 20 years. I want to fix it now, before we reach that cliff.

Medicare may run out of money in 10 years, let’s fix it now. And that means addressing the skyrocketing cost of health care. That’s what ObamaCare is focused on, and yet, the Republicans want nothing to do with it.

If we don’t focus on the health care and dealing with the entitlements, the baby boom generation is going to blow away our future. We don’t want to see that happen. We want to make sure that Social Security and Medicare are solid.

The “. . . may run out of money. . . . ” and “. . . dealing with entitlements. . . “ memes, in reply to Chris Wallace’s question suggests that a deal trading increased revenues for Social Security and other entitlement cuts is acceptable to him. So, Durbin’s argument is that because Social Security Trustee and CBO projections, based on very pessimistic economic growth projections for the whole period, show a shortfall in the Social Security “Trust Fund” in 20 years, it is acceptable to make entitlement cuts now if the Democrats can get increased revenue from higher taxes, as if entitlement “reform” were the only way to meet the perceived Social Security solvency problem. But who would it be acceptable to? Read the rest of this entry →

What Happens Now?

7:12 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In the aftermath of the great 2013 government shutdown/debt ceiling crisis, and the kicking of the can down the road while maintaining austerity once more, the subject on many minds is where do negotiations over fiscal policy go from here? Will the new “budget committee” produce more austerity and do a grand bargain including the “chained CPI”? Will Congress finally turn towards economic growth and job creation, or will we continue to have more shutdowns and debt ceiling crises in 2014?

Chained CPI and the “Grand Bargain”

Let’s begin with “chained CPI” and possible “Grand Bargains.” The President seems to still want one, but the question is, does anyone else? And, if they don’t, can he still get it through?

It’s dangerous for anyone running in 2014 to vote for chained CPI. Surveys show that overwhelming majorities of all Americans want no cuts to Social Security and Medicare, and also that 40% of tea party respondents are 55 or over, and are not likely to support such cuts, either. Nor do they appear to be anti- “their” Medicare. It’s the corporate Republicans who oppose these things. So, I don’t think the corporate Republicans would get much love from the tea baggers for supporting entitlement cuts, apart from Medicaid, which I think the tea party views as welfare. Certainly any credit the Congressional Republicans would get from their tea party base for voting for “chained CPI” would not outweigh their having given in on the CR and the rise in the debt ceiling just passed.

So what can the corporate Republicans in Congress gain from voting for chained CPI? Very little, I think, unless the Democrats get behind it, and then they can run against the Democrats as having sold out Social Security, as long as not many Republicans vote for it. In that case, however, the Democrats won’t have enough cover to vote for it, so they are unlikely to do so.

So, then we have to ask, what can induce the Democrats to vote for entitlement cuts knowing it will hurt them in the elections? Will the President be a big factor in the Congressional elections? He wasn’t in the elections of 2012, and, he was a negative in the 2010 wave election. Can he deliver votes by campaigning for other Democrats? Does he even want to? Does it matter to Congressional Democrats if he gets annoyed at most of them? I doubt all of these things.

Why will Patty Murray and Harry Reid (both of whom may want to run again in 2016) vote for chained CPI? To end the sequester? As Joan McCarter says, the coming second round of the sequester hurts the Republicans more than the Democrats. So, where’s the incentive for Democrats to go along with the President on chained CPI? I don’t think there is any.

If the President wants chained CPI this Spring, then he needs to assemble a corporate, Wall Street-supporting coalition from both parties, and that has to be large enough for a majority in the House. Since many Republicans would see passing the chained CPI as a victory for the President if he continues to support it, and the Democrats in Congress don’t, then we’re talking about a situation where the Tea Partiers and their allies would be called upon to pull the President’s chestnut out of the fire. How many votes do you suppose he’d get from the Tea Partiers and other Republicans for this? Keeping in mind that they just got 144 votes in the House to continue the ruinous shutdown/debt ceiling crisis, maybe 40, or 50? Or even that many, given that they’ll want to run against the Democrats on Social Security in 2014, if possible, and won’t see any political gain in holding hands with him as everyone jumps off the “I voted against SS” cliff?

And how many House Democrats would he get to play along? 150? 100? More? I think if he can’t get 200, an almost impossible outcome with at least 90 “progressives” very uncomfortable with the proposal, then this dog won’t hunt. The more he’s likely to fall short, the more likely it is that Democrats will see themselves as walking the plank for nothing, and will just run away from the proposal, and vote against it if need be.

Now you may see this scenario as far-fetched, because you may be thinking there would be some big omnibus deal with the Republicans that chained CPI would just get tucked into, and that would be irresistible for “progressive” Democrats. But what do the Republicans have to give? They certainly won’t offer any additional taxes on the wealthy. That’s poison to them. And they certainly won’t offer any increased deficit spending, say on infrastructure, because that would weaken the deficit/debt play they plan to run for all they’re worth in the election, and also because they know that infrastructure spending will reduce unemployment, and perhaps improve prospects for Congressional Democrats in the elections.

So what can they offer? Only concessions on the sequester. But here, if Pelosi, Murray and Reid play tough, as they certainly ought to do, then as Joan McCarter explains, the Republicans either have to shoot themselves in the foot again by keeping in place the sequester, or they would have to come to agreement. Then, if the Democrats know what’s good for them in 2014 (not a sure thing by any means, but still likely, in light of how well refusal to budge has served them over the past two weeks), then they won’t accept anything less than full lifting of the sequester. It’s harmed the economy for long enough, we need them to get rid of it, and they need that too.

The Republicans will then play games proposing lifting the parts of the sequester they don’t like, while giving the Dems nothing or only very little. At this point the Democrats need to take an all or nothing position on the sequester, rejecting the Republican’s salami tactics, and calling on the public for an end to the sequester nonsense, which has hurt the economy so grievously already.

The Rs will respond either by agreeing to lift it, or they will refuse. If they refuse, then the Democrats get to blame them for the down economy, we will surely see in the run up to the election, and the Democrats can run against that down economy which they would then claim was caused by the Republican shutdown, multiple debt ceiling crises, sequester, and blocking of any efforts to lower unemployment with jobs programs. (“They promised us “jobs,” “jobs,” “jobs,” and what did we get? Debt ceiling crises, sequesters, a government shutdown, more unemployment, and an economy in the ditch.)

Given that CBO projections will probably show the deficit going down to $400 Billion or less in FY 2014, which is about 2.5% of GDP, the Republican emphasis on “teh debt” and the deficit will not trump a Democratic campaign blaming Republicans for the lack of recovery and calling for jobs programs. Add to the above themes the Republican War on women, and suppression of voting rights of seniors, blacks, hispanics, and urbanites, and we have a Democratic victory in 2014 large enough to get back the House and keep the Senate.

Given all this, I don’t think there will be any Grand Bargain or chained CPI “compromise” in the near future and in the run-up to the election. It just makes no political sense for most Democrats and many Republicans. It may come up again in the lame duck and possibly in the next Congress, Republican or Democrat, if the President continues to push it. But I don’t think we’ll see it again this fiscal year.

Continued Austerity?

What we will see however, is continuing austerity from CRs or budget agreements, whether or not the sequester is lifted. Where a trade deficit exists, Government austerity is either running a surplus, or a deficit so low that it doesn’t make up for the leakage in demand due to the trade deficit. Let’s say one’s trade deficit is 3.5% of GDP, then the Sectoral Financial Balances (SFB) Model (whose terms refer to flows of financial assets among the three sectors of the economy in any defined period of time):

Domestic Private Balance + Domestic Government Balance + Foreign Balance = 0

tells us that the domestic private sector, taken as a whole, can’t increase its net financial assets, unless the Government has a deficit greater than 3.5%. And, if we wanted to provide for the domestic private sector to save 6% while it was running that 3.5% trade deficit, anything less than a Government deficit of 9.5% of GDP would not meet that objective.

Of course, no budget proposed by anyone in Congress or the White House envisions a deficit this large. Patty Murray’s Senate Budget proposed in the Spring of 2013 envisioned a 4.2% of GDP deficit for FY 2014, just a bit more than the austerity boundary of 3.5%. Paul Ryan’s House Budget proposed a 3.2% deficit, which is an austerity budget, in the precise sense that given a 3.5% trade deficit, it would entail the private sector running a deficit and losing 0.3% in net financial assets.

Will either a compromise bill coming out of the budget committee, or a CR, after a failure to agree on a budget, be closer to Ryan’s or Murray’s deficit figure? I think it will be closer to Ryan’s; partly because the Congress just passed a CR for the first approximately three months of the fiscal year that is closer to Ryan’s view than to Murray’s and which maintains the sequester, and partly because I doubt that the Democrats will even propose a more expansive budget involving a deficit, but will just focus on getting the sequester removed in early 2014, and will then turn to other problems and to positioning themselves for the fall elections.

Growth and Jobs or Shutdowns and Debt Ceiling Crises?

I think the answer is neither. We may have shutdown and debt ceiling threats before the 2014 elections; but we will not have either of these types of crises, because the cost in public opinion, if it keeps trending the way it has been, will be too heavy for many Republican candidates, except for those in the reddest gerrymandered districts, to bear in 2014. I believe they know this, and that many of them are increasingly willing to chance getting primaried by tea party candidates in order to avoid probable defeat from Democrats, if they toe the tea party line and then try to run.

So, I think the shutdowns and debt ceiling scares are over until after the elections. That means there will have to be an agreement on a CR for the first part of FY 2015 by next October 1. That will happen because there’s no way the Republicans will chance another hostage-taking taking a month before the next elections.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that there will be very little growth and very few new jobs. If the sequester remains in place for the rest of FY 2014, unemployment is likely to increase, not decrease, because Government will continue to be a fiscal drag on the economy, and the private sector is likely to avoid expansion without increased demand. That demand could be manufactured by a credit bubble; but it doesn’t look like that is in the offing for 2014. So, the shortfall in demand produced by the Government will not be made up from private sector spending.

On the other hand, if the sequester is lifted, then this will make some difference. We will probably see declining unemployment if that happens, but since the deficit was much too small to sustain a vigorous expansion, even before the sequester, the decline in unemployment, increased job creation, and economic growth, will all happen only slowly, and by election time we will still see an unhappy public, but maybe one that is a little more hopeful about the future than we are now seeing.

I don’t know yet whether the falloff in economic activity due to Government austerity or near austerity, will be enough to produce another recession in the middle of this long stagnation period, Richard Eskow has aptly named “the long depression.” But there is some chance that this will happen before the fall elections. If it does, then we will see a messaging war on who bears the blame for the downturn, and the outcome of the elections will hang on the outcome of that war.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Off the Debt Limit Hook for at Least the Next Four Months

10:21 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

(photo: L. Marie)

Provided that the Senate and House follow through on the scenario now on the table, it looks like the game of chicken worked for the Democrats this time. We’re off the hook on default and Government shutdown for now, and Washington village pundits are in full-throated cries of celebration.

Congress is off the hook too. They don’t have to offer any solutions to real, rather than manufactured, problems.

The President is also off the hook, he won’t, for now, need to exercise any of the options, like minting the coin, using consols, or premium bonds, or asset sales to the Fed, or others available to him to render the debt limit legislation impotent. So, he gets to preserve debt limit threats from the Republicans as a negotiating tool they can use to “force” him into entitlements cuts later on.

In fact, as I write Jay Carney is already talking about the President taking “a balanced approach” to future negotiations of fiscal policy so that the burdens of sacrifice will fall on everybody fairly. And, a bit later, there’s Nancy Pelosi echoing the Administration line on future negotiations. That, of course is also the Pete Peterson, Bowles-Simpson, catfood line for justifying further victimization of food stamp recipients, seniors, children, and the people who have paid the price for the Crash of 2008 and the neoliberal period in American fiscal policy beginning in 1977.

However, the deal that looks like it will happen isn’t a solution, but just kicking the can down the road including built-in pretty good possibilities for future Government shutdown and debt ceiling crises in just three – four months, if Congresspeople have the guts to subject the American people to this nonsense again in an election year.

Here’s Annie Rose-Strasser’s outline and analysis of the deal at Think Progress:

– Government funded through January 15 at sequestration levels

– Debt limit extended until February 7, subject to vote of Congressional disapproval, which Obama can veto

– A budget conference established to come up with long-term spending plans by December 13

– Income verification for recipients of subsidies under Obamacare’s newly-established exchanges

– Backpay for furloughed workers

Also, notably, here are some of the demands that Republicans have made in the last few days, but that are NOT in the bill:

No repeal of the “extraordinary measures” provision that allows the Treasury to do accounting tricks to avoid default

No ‘Vitter Amendment‘ that would have taken away employer contributions from the health plans of Congressional staff

No provisions related to birth control access

No flexibility in how government agencies make budget cuts to their programs, as they are required to under sequestration

No repeal or delay of the medical device tax

No repeal or delay of the reinsurance tax

No repeal, replacement, or delay of any aspects of Obamacare’s exchanges or individual mandate

It might look like this is overall a good deal for Democrats given the number of things that Republicans aren’t getting. It is good: It reopens the government and lifts the debt ceiling without doing any major additional damage to existing programs.

The word “additional” is the key here, since enormous damage has already been done to people and programs due to the various compromises made to avoid shutdown and debt ceiling threats since August 2011. These deals have placed increasing fiscal drags on the American economy and, increasing Government austerity that is preventing full recovery from the Great Recession. The current “deal” already involved a pre-surrender by Democrats to Republican proposed CR spending levels. Annie Rose – Strasser recognizes this.

But it’s important to remember that the baseline for negotiations wasn’t exactly even: Democrats accepted the major budget cuts of sequestration (slated only to get worse on January 15, the same day their budget deal expires), and their only demand was actually the status quo: Keeping the government running and having the country fulfill its financial obligations. They didn’t request to restore the funding sequestration took away, they didn’t demand any new programs or initiatives that Democrats support. And if the previous budget conference is any indication, the one established under this deal has the potential to blow up in Democrats’ faces, leading to more cuts instead of an actual, long-term budget. In that sense, while it is the best, cleanest deal we can get, the Democratic party has been pulled slightly from center to right, not from left to center.

Meanwhile, Republicans threw everything but the kitchen sink into their negotiations. It’s no surprise they’re taking a lot of losses.

Yes, we will have the Government open and the debt ceiling temporarily raised to get us through a few months, and the President is saved from going outside his comfort zone and giving the teahadists an excuse to try to impeach him, but the fundamental problem of the gradual imposition of increasing levels of government austerity creating economic stagnation is not being addressed, and, in addition, the even more serious problem of having laws in place that give a small minority in Congress the possibility of holding both the US and world economies hostage to their ideology is also neither being addressed nor solved.

So this is no victory, and no cause for celebration. The conditions are still there supporting a Great Betrayal, and another slide into recession, along with the possibility of another Global Crash due to financial manipulations in the mortgage international derivative markets.

Meanwhile, what can we look forward to? A brief respite from budget battles and then a rush through a manipulated membership budget conference designed to produce a Bowles-Simpson austerity “solution” to be completed by December 13, to be voted up or down, and with a good likelihood that this Conference will either fail to come up with a result, or that its results will be rejected by teahadists or fellow travellers who will never accept tax increases, and by progressives who will be unwilling to vote for entitlement cuts in the face of upcoming elections.

Meanwhile, the drag on the economy and the unhappiness of the 99% will continue with no real relief in sight because no in either party has the courage to repudiate the dogma that a sovereign fiat currency nation like the United States can have a long-term debt problem requiring a long-term deficit reduction solution. Truly, everyone in Congress needs to be replaced by people who understand the Modern Money Theory (MMT) approach to economics and who are willing to explain it to their constituents and to advocate for fiscal policies based on it.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives)

Photo by L. Marie under Creative Commons license

Rationalization and Obligation, Part VI: What He Ought to Do, What He Probably Will Do

6:46 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

This is Part V of a six part series replying to a claim by the President at his recent White House News Conference. Part I covered the News Conference and the first two (the selective default, and the exploding option) of seven options the President might use to try save the US from defaulting in the face of continued deadlock in the Congress on raising the debt limit or repealing the law enabling it in its entirety. Part II discussed Platinum Coin Seigniorage, invoking the 14th amendment to justify continuing to issue conventional Treasury debt instruments, and consols. Part III discussed premium bonds, and Treasury sales of the Government’s material and cultural assets to the Federal Reserve. Part IV, then evaluated all seven options in light of variations among them in likely degree of legal difficulties they might face, and also the likely impact of each on confidence in the bond markets, if used. Read the rest of this entry →

Rationalization and Obligation, Part V: Differences Are Everything

7:38 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

This is Part V of a six part series replying to a claim by the President at his recent White House News Conference. Part I covered the News Conference and the first two (the selective default, and the exploding option) of seven options the President might use to try save the US from defaulting in the face of continued deadlock in the Congress on raising the debt limit or repealing the law enabling it in its entirety. Part II discussed Platinum Coin Seigniorage, invoking the 14th amendment to justify continuing to issue conventional Treasury debt instruments, and consols. Part III discussed premium bonds, and Treasury sales of the Government’s material and cultural assets to the Federal Reserve. Part IV, then evaluated all seven options in light of variations among them in likely degree of legal difficulties they might face, and also the likely impact of each on confidence in the bond markets, if used. Read the rest of this entry →

Rationalization and Obligation, Part IV: Differences Among Options

7:05 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In Part I, Part II, and Part III, I listed and analyzed seven options, analyzed them and also pointed out that the President’s 14th amendment option, actually makes turning to the 14th as a justification for continuing to issue debt beyond the ceiling, a last resort, and also places an obligation on the President to exhaust other available options, whose legality is probable, but not finally determined by the Supreme Court. But, in his recent Press Conference, the President also failed to recognize any differences among the options in relation to his main point: that loss of public confidence caused by legal challenges would affect sales of debt instruments and other options including Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS).

Differences in levels of legal uncertainty among the options would surely affect the confidence issue. Option 1, selective default, seems legal, if not followed by Fed forgiveness of Treasury debt. It would probably have the effect of a partial government shutdown. But, as long as there’s no default on repayment of debt to everyone but the Fed, confidence related to buying Treasury debt should not be affected.

Option 2: the exploding option, is one of those that might result in both a legal challenge, and some uncertainty in markets, but I don’t think very much uncertainty, since whatever the Supreme Court decides about the legality of this, it’s hard to see them being able to do anything about it except ordering the Treasury and the Fed to stop breaking the law prohibiting the Fed granting credit to Treasury. Since the Treasury would be using the exploding option to acquire reserves from the Fed, but would not be issuing debt instruments, the Court wouldn’t be able to decide that the Government had no obligation to repay illegally issued Federal debt, which is the scenario the President used in his News Conference.

Option 3, is Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS). Legal questions about the coin have been raised, but as I said in Part II, the preponderance of opinion is that the coin is legal and will survive if challenged.

So, the question becomes whether a challenge to it will create a lack of confidence in markets affecting Treasury bonds? I really doubt that, however, since the “house ownership” metaphor, used by the President doesn’t apply to the coin, either. Its practical force comes from the idea that the market will reject debt instruments offered for sale after the debt limit is reached. However, the primary initial use of the coin would be to pay down the debt level, so no debt issuance would be involved in its use. Why should there be a problem with “bond market confidence” when debt repayment is continuing?

Only new creation of reserves by the Fed would be involved. So, the issue of confidence affecting debt marketability doesn’t arise in this case, since the private markets would not have to “buy” new reserves offered by the Treasury after the debt limit is reached, as they would questionable debt instruments issued by the President.

And certainly while legal challenges are going on, the President could be drastically reducing the debt subject to the limit by using coin proceeds to pay back debt, increasing confidence in markets with every significant payoff. Of course, this depends on whether the President mints a High Value Platinum Coin (HVPC), say $60 Trillion in face value, rather than “a small ball” TDC alternative, but that’s his choice, after all. So, in the end, whether there’s a problem with bond market confidence depends, in the end on the politics of choice, and not whether he uses PCS or not.

As for the Fed, it may or may not cooperate with the Executive on crediting the coin. But the law provides that in cases of disagreement in interpretation between the Fed Chair and the Secretary of the Treasury, that the view of the Secretary shall prevail.

In other words the Fed can be made to cooperate when it comes to crediting the coin, and it is highly doubtful that if the Fed is between the rock and the hard place of crediting the coin or allowing a default, that it will then choose the latter and risk the financial system collapsing. The Fed, after all, is pretty “chicken” about financial system crashes, and is likely to embrace its own version of There Is No Alternative (TINA), since, in addition to the rock and the hard place, the Fed’s compliance is unambiguously required in the law.

If the President did mint a really big coin, say the $60 T one, and then quickly paid off the intragovernmental and Fed debt, about $6.7 Trillion, and continued paying off short-term debt, and if the Court then granted standing, and, after six months or so, for example, declared his action unconstitutional, what would be the remedy the Court could implement to unwind the action, and the repayment of about $2 Trillion in debt to non-Federal entities? The Court might relatively easily be able to undo the $6.7 Trillion in repayment, but once the debt to non-Federal entities is redeemed; then it is redeemed. The former US bondholder “creditors” aren’t giving their money back.

As a practical matter the Court can’t do anything about that, since the reserves paid out are in private hands. Further, even if the Court ordered that the Treasury return the reserves used to repay the intragovernmental and Fed debt to the Fed and to issue new bonds to restore the status quo, all that would do is stop the President from paying down further debt, but still not eliminate the headroom under the debt ceiling he had created by paying down debt held by non-Government entities. So, even in this case of extreme reaction by the Court, he’d still improve the debt limit situation by minting the platinum coin, without taking the chance that the markets might reject the debt instruments without requiring higher interest rates.

Option 4, is the 14th amendment option nullifying the debt ceiling. The President has a point here, that if this were challenged in Court then bond markets might feel uncertain about buying bonds issued during the period the debt was exceeding the ceiling. However, even if the Court ruled not only that the debt issuance was illegal, but also that the debt instruments should not be honored, a very long-shot finding, I think, does anyone seriously think that the Congress would cause a default by refusing to guarantee those bonds after the fact of Treasury’s issuance of them? If you believe that, then I have the proverbial pretty big bridge to sell you.

The uproar would be far worse in that case than it was in relation to the issue of whether Federal workers would get back pay at the end of the shutdown or not. In any event as I said earlier, using the 14th amendment to justify violating the debt ceiling on grounds of constitutionality can only be a last resort when all other options haven’t worked. So, the President has an obligation to try the others before he even turns to this option.

Option 5 is the consols option. If challenged in Court, this is probably the least likely option to be overturned. The law doesn’t prohibit issuing consols, and while anyone with the money can sue over anything, the buyers of consols will certainly evaluate what the chances are that debt instruments of this type can be viewed as violating the debt ceiling, or as prohibited.

I think the chances here are slim and none, and that people would feel very comfortable buying consols because they would be confident a) that the Federal Government would not default on its interest payments, and b) that the consols would always be redeemable in private markets where buyers looking for these kinds of instruments would be willing to buy them. So, I think it’s incorrect to lump consol offerings into the same category as conventional bonds clearly issued in reliance on the 14th amendment and in obvious defiance of the debt ceiling. They would not be nearly as subject to doubt and uncertainty as conventional bonds would be.

Option 6, premium bonds, is another bond option that, like consols, seems to provide a way of escaping the debt ceiling while being less likely to shake the confidence of the bond market. I think that’s true because it’s hard to see what’s illegal about this kind of bond issue. All that’s different is a higher interest rate offering which allows Treasury to sell at a higher price at auction while obligating itself to a lower face value that must be repaid.

However, Matthew Yglesias and Kevin Drum are persuaded that such bonds are “. . . .bound to set off an avalanche of litigation and uncertainty about what’s really what.” Well, anything is possible, of course, but even if there is litigation aimed at this very simple and apparently legal expedient, why would that shake the markets very much? And if they did react with a bit of unsteadiness, wouldn’t there be a good deal less uneasiness than there would be with Treasury Bonds that might turn out to be unauthorized by Congress. I certainly think so.

Option 7, sales of Treasury material and cultural assets, is another option that involves the Treasury getting reserves from the Fed in return for an asset. It is in the same category, in this way, as the platinum coin, and the exploding option. But an asset sale, while possibly having the questionable political aspects I discussed earlier, is simpler and easier to understand than the exploding option, and less “out there” from the standpoint of financial practitioners and economists than the platinum coin. In addition, the Federal Government sells material assets continuously, but not to the Federal Reserve. However, I know of no legal prohibition against such sales. And faced with the choice of making such sales, or Government default threatening an international financial crash, I expect the Fed might well invoke TINA and take the plunge.

I also know of no reason why sales of assets like these would shake confidence in the markets. After all, the Treasury would be doing everything it can do to pay the debts of the United States and would be successfully doing so. So, why should that lead to “. . . an avalanche of litigation and uncertainty about what’s really what.” In Part V, I’ll continue this reply to the President’s TINA claim by summarizing my evaluation of differences among the options.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Read the rest of this entry →

Rationalization and Obligation, Part III: Premium Bonds, and Asset Sales

7:34 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In Part I of this six-part series I presented the President’s explanation of why he can’t use alternative options for coping with the default threat arising out of refusal to raise the debt ceiling, a summary of the kinds of difficulties characterizing it, and discussed two of seven options, selective default, and the exploding option, the President has to deal with it, apart from the way he seems to have chosen. In Part II I discussed the next three options, platinum coins, 14th amendment, and consols, and commented on the legal issues related to them. Here, in Part III, I’ll cover two options which have started getting attention most recently.

Premium Bonds

6. Premium Bonds (See wigwam’s discussion):

“. . . are those whose interest rates are sufficiently high relative to their principal that they are expected to sell at a premium (i.e., negative discount), bringing their full issue price (principal plus premium) to the Treasury while adding only their principal to the national debt.”

Matt Levine explains the idea in more detail here, and here. But what it amounts to is that the debt subject to the limit is the total face value of all the unredeemed fixed maturity date debt instruments of the United States. So, if the Treasury auctions off a bond and sells it for more than its face value, then it gets enough money to not only roll over debt equal to the face value, but also to pay down additional debt, or deficit spend, as well. But, how can it sell a debt instrument by more than its face value? The answer is to offer interest rates higher than the rates offered for conventional bonds.

How high the rates would need to be, and the duration of the premium bonds offered, would need to be determined by how much in additional funds would be needed to stay under the debt ceiling and spend all appropriations. Levine suggests a “. . . 10-year at a 1.836% yield and the 30 at 3.026%” for example. So, interest rates for the premium bonds would not have to be sky high. Nevertheless, there is a problem with the idea of premium bonds:

”Of course then you’d have to pay the interest! This would be a fairly short-term solution; after a year of doing this you’d be incurring an extra $250+ billion in interest payments that you’d have to fund by issuing ever-higher-coupon Treasuries, leading I suppose to a death spiral. If I were doing this on a tabula rasa I’d probably bump the interest rate a bit at the cost of deferring payments for a year or two, making this a breathing-room rather than permanent solution, but obviously the further you get from regular-Treasury-bond structure the weirder this looks.”

And there is another problem too. The Federal Reserve controls interest rates in the United States by targeting its Federal Funds Rate, which is currently very near zero. This rate in turn influences Treasury offering which are only a bit higher for short-term debt instruments, and progressively higher for longer-term instruments. These rates, in turn, percolate throughout the economy and keep interest burdens where the Fed thinks they should be in the current fragile economy. However, if the Treasury begins to offer securities at much higher interest rates, than this will affect other investments throughout the economy that will have to offer rates higher than Treasury premium rates throughout the economy. In short, premium bonds will undermine Fed monetary policy even as they stave off default.

Kevin Drum also offers some negatives to the premium bonds idea after remarking favorably on it. He hints at legal difficulties and wonders about what a judge would say about it. But he has no real legal objection to this. He also remarks on the confidence issue. I’ll take that up below.

sales of material and cultural assets to the Fed,

7. The last option, sales of material and cultural assets to the Fed, just arose out of a multi-party e-mail exchange about debt ceiling issues. Warren Mosler pointed out:

the coin is about the fed buying an asset from the govt.
they could buy other gov assets as well? national parks? military equipment? spr? etc. etc. any asset sale to the Fed by the gov. works same? legal restrictions?

And L. Randall Wray expanded on the idea and shortly thereafter blogged this piece offering the following proposal, a bit tongue in cheek.

. . . We’ve got museums and national parks shut down. Why not sell them to the Fed? We can find a few trillion dollars of Federal Government assets to sell–and the Treasury can pay down enough debt to postpone hitting the debt limit for years. Heck, if we run out of Parks and Recreation facilities to sell, why not have the Fed start buying up National Defense? How much are our Nukes worth? That should provide enough spending room to keep the Deficit Hawk Republicans and Democrats happy for a decade or two.

This proposal shares with Jack Balkin’s “exploding option” proposal the idea that the Treasury Department can sell assets to the Federal Reserve to raise revenue. I’ve been able to find no prohibition in law that would make this illegal. And, as long as a fair price reflecting likely market value is paid by the Fed, I don’t think such transactions would raise legal problems.

This option is a temporary one. But it might buy enough time for Congress to become Democratic again, whereupon the Democrats could repeal the debt limit legislation, ending debt ceiling crises.

There is a problem with this option relating to who within the Fed system buys Treasury’s assets. The Federal Reserve Board of Governors is a self-funding Federal Agency; but it is nevertheless Federal, so the sale of Government property to it still leaves the assets in the hands of Government. But what happens if the assets are sold to one or more of the regional Fed Banks. These are agents of the Federal Government, but they privately owned. The transfer of Federal assets would surely raise the issue of turnover of federal property to the private sector. Also, if the regional Fed Banks ever sold any of those assets to private organizations that are not agents of the Government, for example, the big banks whose representatives sit on the regional Fed Bank Boards, we would see immediate charges of corruption and private sector looting of Government property. The next post, Part IV, will cover differences among options in their likelihood of having severe legal problems, or seriously undermining loss of public confidence in debt instruments.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Read the rest of this entry →

Rationalization and Obligation, Part II: Coins, the 14th, and Consols

6:33 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

This six-part series is a reply to the President’s glossing over the options open to him apart from playing “chicken” with the Republicans over the debt ceiling. Part I, presented the President’s explanation, a summary of the kinds of difficulties characterizing it, and discussed two of seven options, selective default, and the exploding option, the President has to deal with it, apart from the way he seems to have chosen. Part II will discuss his platinum coin, 14th amendment, and consols.

Platinum Coins, the 14th amendment, and Consols

3. Using the authority of a 1996 law to mint proof platinum coins with arbitrary face values in the trillions of dollars to fill the Treasury General Account (TGA) with enough money to cease issuing debt instruments, and even enough to pay off the existing debt. This option, originating with beowulf (Carlos Mucha) in its Trillion Dollar Coin (TDC) form has gotten a lot of attention. But a variation of it in its High Value Platinum Coin Seigniorage (HVPCS) form, requiring a coin with face value of $60 Trillion for example, has received much less attention, except in my own writing.

The difference in the TDC and HVPCS variations in their political implications are great. The TDC looks like a temporary expedient to get around debt ceiling problems, whose use can be repeated when needed. But, it doesn’t quickly remove the political problem of “the national debt” from consciousness as one of our most serious political problems. On the other hand, minting a $60 T coin would change the background of politics by providing for relatively rapid payoff of the debt subject to the limit without balanced budget-creating recessions.

There’s been much analysis about the legality of using platinum coins with high face values for seigniorage revenue. There’s no overwhelming consensus on the matter; but most commentators with a legal background including some prominent law school professors and a former Director of the U.S. Mint, who was co-author of the 1996 law seen as providing the authority for PCS believe that its perfectly legal; but there are also law school professors, and the other co-author of the law, on the other side who argue that PCS violates the intent of the law.

My view is that the consequences of applying both laws and constitutional amendments often go way beyond any reasonable construal of intent; and that the Courts usually weight the plain language of laws more heavily than arguments about intent in determining their legality. In the case of PCS, with one co-author of the enabling law (Philip Diehl) currently writing about his view that PCS is consistent with the intent of the law, and the other co-author (Mike Castle) taking the opposite view, I think the Courts will be disposed to rely on the plain language of the law rather than trying to divine the intent of both Houses of Congress in passing it.

I also think that, with Government fiscal default at issue if the Courts overturn PCS, and with precedents in place denying standing to individual members of the House and Senate to sue to overturn laws, that it’s very unlikely the Courts would even grant standing to only one House of Congress to sue to overturn the President’s use of PCS. In short, the Supreme Court would not touch this at all if the President used PCS. But, even if they did grant standing to the House, then the explicit language of the law, the bloc of four Democratic justices on the Court, and the threat of default and its probable consequences for the financial system and the world economy, all weigh against overturning any use use of PCS by the President.

Indeed, since I can’t see either Anthony Kennedy or John Roberts doing anything to rock the boat of the financial system, I think any Supreme Court action, if it gets by the standing problem would likely result in a 6-3 vote in favor of PCS. But there’s even a possibility that Alito would align with Roberts, due to his strong corporatist orientation, and that Scalia would also support PCS, due to his love for the Unitary Executive Doctrine, producing a low likelihood, but not completely surprising, final outcome of 8 -1 in favor of PCS.

4. Using the authority of the 14th Amendment to keep issuing conventional debt instruments subject to the debt limit in defiance of the debt ceiling, while declaring that the debt limit legislation was unconstitutional, because it violated the 14th Amendment in the context of Congressional appropriations passed after the debt ceiling mandating deficit spending. While the President mentioned the practical consequences of uncertainty over whether use of the 14th amendment would be declared unconstitutional he didn’t mention the most important point about this option.

That is, the President can’t validly claim that there’s a conflict between his duty to spend mandated appropriations, his duty to prevent default on US debts, and his duty to uphold the debt limit law, when he has what appear to be several legal options to enable him to spend those appropriations, but is refusing to implement any of them, and use his constitutional authority under the 14th amendment to avoid default, because he’s speculating that the Supreme Court might overturn one or more of the options he can use, if there’s a legal challenge to them. On the contrary, the President is obligated by the 14th amendment to exhaust those options, before he takes action on the basis that the debt ceiling law is preventing him from fulfilling his spending mandates. As long as those options exist and are untried by him; it is not.

So, the relationship of the 14th amendment option to the others is that it stands behind them in sequence priority, and cannot be invoked with validity unless and until they are exhausted. In addition, the 14th amendment binds the President to try these other options to comply with both his mandated spending obligations and his obligation to obey the debt ceiling law, before he tries to overturn it. So, the President has no free choice among all the options, but, from a legal point of view, must view the 14th amendment/debt ceiling nullification option as a last resort only after all other known options that have not been excluded by the Court have been tried.

5. Beowulf has offered yet a fifth option for getting around the debt ceiling by issuing consols. Consols are debt instruments that pay a fixed rate on interest in perpetuity, but never promise principal repayment at a maturity date. The debt ceiling law is written in such a way that what counts against the ceiling is the principal repayment guaranteed by the instrument. Since consols provide no principal repayment, one can have unlimited consol issuance without increasing the debt-subject-to-the-limit.

Consols seem to be a very clean alternative from a legal point of view. The Treasury is not explicitly restricted by law to issuing any particular type of debt instrument. Debt instruments with fixed maturity dates are the US instrument of choice. But, other debt instruments are not excluded from Congress’s grant of borrowing authority to Treasury. Of course, members of Congress can suit the Administration if it chooses to use consols. But, they would, once again, have a standing problem, and since the debt ceiling law is not an issue with consols it is hard to see what kind of argument would be used to challenge them. While consols do have face values, these values don’t constitute an obligation of the Government to ever repay. On the other hand, consols are callable by the issuing authority. So, if the Treasury wanted to buy them back at face value to avoid paying interest on them in perpetuity it could do so.

Update: At the European Tribune, my friend Chris Cook offers the following comment on my post:

Joe,

Credit to Beowulf for suggesting Consols recently, but the use of Consols to create a National Equity is something I’ve been publicly advocating for over 4 years in the UK (where of course they began, and still exist as an anachronism)

Debt Free or Date Free? What can we do with our National Debt?

Sovereign Equity can revolutionise financing of UK Assets

More recently in the context of solving Cyprus’s € problems

The Case for Cypriot National Equity

I advocate Obama’s Conversion, analogous to Goschen’s Conversion of 1888 when UK Chancellor George Joachim Goschen converted and consolidated existing fragmented classes of stock into a single class of perpetual Consolidated Stock (“Consols”).

A single class of US Consols could be issued and exchanged at a suitable price reflecting the tenor (date of redemption) and nominal rate of interest of all existing classes of US dated credit (mis-named as ‘debt’).

There would be a single market for a single instrument, and the question of default would disappear. The rate of return would literally depend upon the rate at which of taxation is collected by the US government. The market price would depend upon supply and demand.

Obama’s Conversion would literally be a debt/equity swap on a national scale, since undated ‘stock’ was the original form of funding which pre-dated a 300 year aberration into interest-bearing debt (Loan Stock) and distinctly inequitable equity (Common Stock).

The ethical dimension of such a 21st century debt jubilee, could also be thought of as a conversion in more than one way.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Read the rest of this entry →