The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) recently issued its “Better Off Budget” document as an alternative to the White House/OMB document, and the coming House budget document, a Republican/conservative alternative. The “Better Off Budget” has received enthusiastic evaluations from writers affiliated with the DC progressive community. Richard Eskow’s recent treatment is typical and provides other reviews that are laudatory. These “progressives” clearly see the CPC budget as anything but an austerity budget. But is it, or is it not? Read the rest of this entry →
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I gotta love Bernie Sanders, because he seems so much like people I grew up with and like myself too, and he also seems to have that passion for equality and democracy that is so important for the future of America. Sometimes I think Bernie is one of the few champions of the people left in Congress. But I also think that along with other progressives he has constructed chains for himself that prevent him from being as effective a champion of the people as he otherwise might be.
His chains are the chains of either false beliefs or a decision not to speak the truth about fiscal matters for fear that the “very serious people” in the Washington village will marginalize him even more than they do right now. I can’t say which of these is true, but I think whichever reason is operative, his self-shackling hurts his effectiveness.
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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 →
Responding to a Post at Naked Capitalism by Michael Hudson with some additions by Yves Smith, a commenter, objecting to the criticism of the President’s Knox College speech, issued the challenge ”What would u have him do?” in connection with his promised effort to restore prosperity to the middle class and the poor. In this series I’m giving my answer to that question. In Part I, “Necessary First Moves,” I offered and described two of these. Ending the filibuster, and using High Value Platinum Coin Seigniorage (HVPCS) to fill the Treasury General Account (TGA) with $60 Trillion in reserves. Read the rest of this entry →
There were varying reactions to the President’s recent speech at Knox College this week. My reaction was that the speech was deeply dishonest in light of the President’s previous policies, actions, and results, and I intended to do a critique, but Michael Hudson and Yves Smith beat me to it. In a fine post at Naked Capitalism, entitled “Michael Hudson Shreds Obama’s Orwellian Speech On Middle Class Prosperity,” Michael Hudson, with occasional added comments from Yves, deconstructs the speech paragraph by paragraph, and sometimes line-by-line, pointing out disingenuous assertions and outright dishonesty. In her introduction Yves remarks on the context:
The worst is that Obama apparently plans a series of Big Lie speeches on his “vision for rebuilding an economy that puts the middle class — and those fighting to join it – front and center.” That’s at best an afterthought, since he’s given the economy over to an at best indifferent and at worst predatory elite that have no interest in giving it back.
The reaction to the post was vigorous with most of the discussion supporting and amplifying the views presented. However, there was one comment which said:
Have you mentioned the fact that he’s right on every issue mentioned?
Would you rather have a FDR, or Truman or Johnson as our president? These men, while great, are not that much different from the current President.
What would u have him do? Enact single-payer health care, small class sizes and the best teachers imaginable, a minimum wage at $21.00 an hour and an average wage at $40 (where it should be), and a lower private debt burden across the board with a wave of one of his “Hope and Change” wands?
I am proud to have voted for this man. He can’t do it alone. And going after him while offering no positive alternatives yourself to me is the height of contemptibility.
Of course, that persistent rationalization offered by the world’s Obamabots is my cue. What I want him to do falls into two major categories. First, there are necessary first moves he can probably get done which will facilitate passing all the other policies I propose. Second, there are the policies that will restore prosperity to poor and middle class over time. In this post I’ll cover the necessary first moves. In Parts ll and III I’ll offer and briefly describe the substantive policies I want him to implement.
Get rid of the filibuster
He can start by convening Congressional Democrats: House and Senate, and telling them that the middle class and American Democracy are simultaneously threatened and that he can’t save the situation and ensure a Democratic victory in 2014, unless, as a first step, the Democrats in the Senate agree to get rid of the filibuster entirely, and immediately, and accept majority rule in the Senate on all matters not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution.
Of course, the House Democrats have nothing formally to say about what the Senate does. But their presence is important for impressing upon the Senators the importance to the national party of doing this, and then going on offense against the Republicans, so that the Democrats can retain control of the Senate and enable them to once again get something to run on, so they can get a majority in the House. In saying this, I’m not saying that returning Democrats to power will get us to Democracy. Far from it. But I do think that it will slow the evolution toward plutocratic fascism, and create opportunities for enacting new and helpful policies provided the right Democrats are elected. I know, I know. That’s an awfully big qualification. But people certainly can work for that result.
And naturally, it would be much better if we could have a Green Party majority in the House in 2014, or a Democratic/Green party majority coalition than just electing a Democratic majority. But getting that outcome would be an even taller order, and is more unlikely to happen if we see a Democratic Party turn toward a Green New Deal.
Use High Value Platinum Coin Seigniorage (HVPCS) to Change the Political Environment and Remove Any Possible Rationale for Federal Government Austerity
Next, I would have the President use HVPCS. Under authority provided by Congress in 1996, the Treasury can have the US Mint issue platinum coins with face values specified by the Secretary. So, for example, the Mint should issue a $60 Trillion coin; deposit it at the Fed, where the reserves credited to the Mint’s account for this legal tender would eventually wind up in the Treasury General Account (TGA).
The immediate promise of HVPCS for America, of course, is the end of austerity politics, periodic debt ceiling crises, fiscal cliffs, sequesters, and budget crises. HVPCS directly ends debt ceiling crises, because the debt is no longer relevant except as a constantly shrinking obligation that will be paid off as it falls due.
As for fiscal cliffs, sequesters, and budget crises, their justification is primarily in the false claim that the US is running out of money, and must slow the growth of the national debt enough to allow the debt-to-GDP ratio to shrink, so that we can’t afford to implement the deficit spending that may be necessary to create full employment, pass Medicare for All, and do other things that a majority of the population supports heavily, but does not insist upon in the face of supposed budget problems. But it’s hard to make a credible claim that “we’re running out of money” when we 1) have between $50 Trillion and $60 Trillion in the TGA, and 2) when the President has just demonstrated that the Federal Government can create reserves to fill the public purse at will.
I’ve discussed the technicalities, history, economic, legal, and political aspects of HVPCS, and the many objections to it, in my recent e-book, and will leave the details for you to read there. But it’s very important to emphasize the essential role of the President in getting over the initial hysterical reaction that would ensue if he uses HVPCS. After using it and getting immediate credit for the face value of the platinum coin from the Federal Reserve, he must then make a crisis speech informing the country about the action he’s taken to fill the public purse and why he found it necessary to do that and change the American of debt repayment and deficit spending.
Following that crisis speech he must go on tour, carrying his message to the people and emphasizing the new freedom of the Government to pay down and eventually pay off the public debt, while, at the same time being able to “pay for” any deficit spending Congress might choose to enact for a long time to come. He needs to explain that using HVPCS is fiscal responsibility since it ends the Government’s borrowing back its own currency and eliminates any possible justification for “austerity” as long as we have less than a full employment economy. He also needs to emphasize that HVPCS will not cause any more inflation than present policies and why he thinks that is true.
In conveying this message, repetition and mobilization of all Administration resources is essential. He must not give any ground to austerians and Republicans who, while constantly complaining about the public debt, will hate the HVPCS solution to the problem. In other words he must not compromise on this at all, but must implement HVPCS, make filling the public purse a fait accompli, and then go on with the more positive politics of using the policy space created by a full TGA to decrease inequality in the US and create the greater prosperity for the middle class and the poor that he says he wants.
Remember, there would be no fiscal cliffs, sequesters, or budget crises, without the claim that there is a Government Budget Constraint (GBC). Once we dispel that claim with HVPCS, these things will be gone with the wind, and the policy space will be there for the President and others in Congress to propose a range of policies to restore middle class prosperity without the inevitable objections that such policies will either increase the debt, or lead to higher taxes.
The House won’t want to pass these policies. But House members who want to vote against them won’t be able to plead Federal Government poverty, or “fiscal responsibility,” not with between $50 Trillion and $60 Trillion in the Treasury’s bank account at the time of the new policy proposals. So, when they employ obstructionism without any perceived good reason for it, they will open the way for Democrats to retain the Senate and regain the House, which, without the filibuster, will cut the legs off obstructionism, and make it possible to pass the policies I want the President to propose, anyway. Again, Parts II and III of this series will offer and briefly discuss each of my proposals.
(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)
One of the most important parts of the collective effort to spread the good news about the Modern Money Theory approach to macroeconomics is popularization of MMT views. We need short simply-stated cultural artifacts that tell people what MMT has to say and what some of its policy implications are for fiscal policy that can deliver a greater measure of economic and social justice to people.
The newest effort to popularize MMT has now begun. It is a series of Kindle e-books, really e-pamphlets, written by an occasional blogger and international businesswoman using the web handle Arliss Bunny. Yeah, I know, I know. Please contain your enthusiasm for silly jokes about the handle. Just remember how you felt the first time you ran across a Dummies book.
Arliss is very serious about communicating key insights to people who need to know about MMT, and she is doing that using humor, a vigorous style, simple assertive statements, and utter contempt for those who want to keep people in thrall to false narratives about the macroeconomy and Government fiscal policy. Her first e-book in the series, The Smart Bunny’s Guide To Debt, Deficit, and Austerity, is now available at the link. It’s cheap (2.99 USD) and you’ll get some good laughs out of it, effective sound bites, and some new ways of putting MMT propositions you haven’t seen before.
The Smart Bunny’s Guide To Debt, Deficit, and Austerity covers: the nature of fiat money; how households are different from Government, Government debt as a constraint, debt and deficit terrorism, the job of the Government in the economy, how government spending works, the relation between Federal debt and private sector financial assets, lies about debt and who benefits from them, gold standard thinking, the Fed as the representative of private interests, an inflation reality check, differences between the US, the Eurozone nations and a basket case like Zimbabwe, deficit spending, austerity, the fall of the Reinhart and Rogoff debt cliff hypothesis, austerity: cause or effect?, the role of business confidence, and what to do about austerity.
Here’s Arliss’s own blurb from Amazon:
”The Smart Bunny’s Guide to Debt, Deficit and Austerity” assumes that you have a real life (meaning you aren’t a wonk or a blogger) and that you have a half hour or less to figure out why all this stuff everyone is saying about debt, deficit and austerity is starting to smell like a five day-old fish. Author, Arliss Bunny, suspects that, unlike politicians and pundits, you might have actual brain activity. Melissa Irwin’s hilarious illustrations may annoy Arliss but you will be entertained. “The Smart Bunny’s Guide” is short, simple and truly brings the funny. What more could you ask from a book about economic policy? Seriously, how often has Paul Krugman made you laugh? Exactly. Read this book.”
Yes, it’s edgy; and pretty cool. I like edgy and cool myself. How about you?
(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)
In October 2011 Marc Lavoie, a post-keynesian economist, very friendly to Modern Money Theory (MMT) wrote a paper presenting a friendly critical look at MMT. In his conclusion, Lavoie states that “. . . the neo-chartalist analysis is essentially correct . . . “ affirming his substantial agreement with MMT’s analysis of banking operations and fiscal realities in nations with non-convertible fiat currencies, with floating exchange rates and no debts in currencies they do not issue, as well as MMT’s analysis of Eurozone viability. But he goes on to say (p. 25):
“There is nothing or very little to be gained in arguing that government can spend by simply crediting a bank account; That government expenditures must precede tax collection; that the creation of high powered money requires government deficits in the long run; that central bank advances can be assimilated to a government expenditure; or that taxes and issues of securities do not finance government expenditures.”
So, Lavoie questions the wisdom of MMT economists and writers making certain counter-intuitive statements he perceives as certainly questionable, perhaps untrue, and also confusing to people, economists and decision makers trying to understand MMT writings. He considers these statements an important barrier to understanding, and he wants this ‘baggage’ to be discarded because he thinks it hurts MMT and post-keynesian efforts to get important new approaches to economics accepted.
Recently, Lavoie’s work was used in a very vigorous and important discussion at Rodger Malcolm Mitchell’s Monetary Sovereignty web site by a commenter named “Tom,” questioning some of Rodger’s formulations and the statements of other commenters who defended the MMT and MS positions. I participated in the discussion, but also concluded that it would be more useful to write a more formal reply to answer Lavoie’s question of what is gained by taking some of the positions MMT and MS writers often take. This is my reply.
The Consolidated Government Assumption
Well, let’s set the parameters of this discussion. When MMT writers refer to the Government, they don’t mean just the Executive Branch or the Treasury. They include in “the Government,” the whole central government including the Congress, the Supreme Court, and the so-called “independent agencies” including the Federal Reserve — the Central Bank of the United States. Now, there is wide disagreement about whether the Fed, comprised of its Board of Governors, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), and the Regional Fed Banks are a Government agency. I won’t try to resolve those disagreements in this post. I’ll just assume for purposes of this discussion that the system comprised of these institutions and their interaction as created by the Congress, is part of the Federal Government under the full authority of the Congress to regulate.
Whether this is right or not is disputable, and I’m sure some of my friends among the commenters will dispute it. But, what is not open to dispute is that when MMT writers make the claims attributed to them by Lavoie, this is what they are assuming. So, if one wants to refute these claims he or she must argue against the basic assumption, or failing that one must critique the MMT claims by first stipulating to that key MMT assumption, for the sake of argument.
Lavoie disagrees with the MMT assumption that it is useful to see the Government, especially the Treasury and the central bank, from a consolidated point of view for purposes viewing the reality of fiscal operations. He does not dispute this by claiming that the central bank isn’t part of the Government, and in my view he presents no compelling argument why the MMT conceptual consolidation of the Government and the central bank is incorrect; but, in spite of this he opts to view the Government and the central bank as separate entities because he finds that view more illuminating for his own analytical purposes.
He’s entitled to do this, of course. But, in evaluating his view that MMT gains little or nothing from various statements it makes, I think one needs to keep in mind that what is gained may look different if one accepts the consolidated Government point of view than if one doesn’t. Now, let’s get to each of the MMT claims Lavoie questions and try to answer his question about what is gained by asserting them.
I think MMT economists and writers point this out because it is true, provided that all parts of the Governmental spending system are aligned. That is, if spending is appropriated by the Congress and the Federal Reserve banking agent of the Treasury places the reserves in the Treasury General Account, then the Government can, and most often currently does, spend by crediting private sector bank accounts. So, the question now becomes what is gained by simplifying the above explanation into the short claim above?
And the answer is that MMT wants people to know that their Government, as a whole, can spend freely if it wants to, because if MMT can convey that message to people, then they will be in a position to deny the claims of the austerity-mongers that the Government just doesn’t have the money and cannot get it, because it must either tax or borrow, and then face inescapable “funding” constraints on both options. If we could get to the point of public recognition that such a claim is false, then that would be a great, enabling, political gain in the fight for MMT-based policies.
Looked at in other words, MMT writers see the power of the austerity position on fical policy in its claim that “There Is No Alternative” (TINA). The idea that the Consolidated Government spends by simply marking up accounts creating its fiat money in the private sector is a powerful one in beginning to make the case that “There Are Good Alternatives” (TAGA) to austerian fiscal policy.
MMT doesn’t exactly say that. What it says, as Lavoie recognizes in his detailed analysis in the paper, is that from a logical point of view there has to have been government spending of the currency unit of choice allowing people to accumulate that currency, before it can be used to pay government tax obligations. That doesn’t mean that MMT is saying that government spending must precede tax collections on any given month, or given day, or given year. As Stephanie Kelton puts it in her account of the way in which deficit spending creates net financial assets:
“As we in the MMT tradition consistently insist, spending must, as a matter of logic, precede taxation in the first instance (for it would be impossible to collect dollars from the private sector unless they had first been spent into existence by the public sector). But in the real world, the Treasury receives tax payments on a daily basis, and government checks are clearing bank accounts on a daily basis as well. So there is really no objective beginning point or ending point. You can begin with spending if you prefer. But it will not alter the result.”
So, I think Lavoie has overstated this MMT claim. If he doubts the validity of the claim made as a point of logic then I think it’s up to him to explain how people can have the currency needed to pay taxes without the Government, in the MMT meaning of that term, spending in the first place to originate the process of establishing the legitimacy and value of the currency.
“. . . the creation of high powered money requires government deficits in the long run; . . . “
High-powered money includes cash money and reserves emanating from the Government, including the Federal Reserve. If there’s no deficit spending the Government is destroying as much money through taxation as it is spending/creating. And so, it is not doing any net high powered money creation. MMT writers simplify a bit when they they say “the creation of high powered money” rather than “the net creation of high powered money” but I think it’s easy to excuse the simplification since the word “net” tends to make people’s eyes glaze over, and much MMT writing is an attempt to communicate with the broader public, rather than just other economists.
Lavoie seems to think that net high powered money creation isn’t necessary for an economy, even if it is good to have. He says:
“While I would certainly agree that government deficits in a growing environment are appropriate, as it provides the private sector with safe assets, which can grow in line with private, presumably less safe, assets, it is an entirely different matter that government deficits are needed because there is a need for cash. Even if the government keeps running balanced budgets, central bank money can be provided whenever the central bank makes advances to the private sector.”
Of course, it’s true that the central bank can provide money to the private sector through lending and asset swaps; but this kind of money creation is not net money asset creation unmatched by a corresponding liability. So, all it can do in the long run is to produce unsustainable credit bubbles that will periodically crash the economy, rather than net money asset creation, which can support the continuous creation of real wealth.
The gain in using formulations like the one Lavoie critiques is that these and related expressions provide a counter to the conditioning of people to the idea that deficits are somehow a negative state that ought to be avoided as much as possible. Lavoie is certainly no opponent of deficit spending, but I think perhaps, he’s not giving deserved recognition to the difficulties MMT economists have been having in fighting the world view of austerity that looks at deficits as overwhelmingly negative states that ought to be minimized and eventually avoided. A negative view of deficits as immoral is fundamental to the austerity posture in fiscal politics. If we can get people to agree that deficits are necessary for nominal wealth accumulation in the longer run, then we will greatly weaken the negative view of deficits that is so important to austerians.
I’m not sure what Lavoie has in mind here. It’s not clear to me what he means from the analysis in his paper, and I’ve never seen an MMT writer say anything like the above statement.
Lavoie wonders what is gained by a statement like this after he has shown through an analysis using T-accounts that the Treasury borrows from the private sector when it needs to deficit spend. Then he says (p. 18):
“The purpose of this whole exercise is to show that there is no point in making the counter-intuitive claim that securities and taxes do not finance the expenditures of central governments with a sovereign currency. Even in the case of the US federal government, securities need to be issued when the government deficit-spends, and these securities initially need to be purchased by the private financial sector. It seems to me that the consolidation argument – the consolidation of the central bank with the government – cannot counter the fact that the US government needs to borrow from the private sector under existing rules.”
However, it’s just not true that the Consolidated Government needs to borrow from the private sector to deficit spend under existing rules. Here are four reasons why this is not so.
First, “existing rules” include the Constitution of the United States which states the most fundamental rules of all for the Consolidated Government. Article One of the Constitution provides Congress with the authority to create money without limit and to appropriate spending with or without borrowing. That authority is a fact. And it is important for people to recognize that any constraints on the authority to create money without issuing debt instruments that may exist in current practices are, as MMT says, self-imposed constraints.
Second, apart from existing constitutional authority to delegate authority to the Treasury to spend without borrowing, there is also the fact that in addition to those rules that appear to constrain the Treasury component of the consolidated Government to only taxing and borrowing to deficit spend, there is also legislation that allows the Treasury to coin money, deposit it at the Fed, force the Fed to provide reserves in return for that deposit, and proceed to have the seigniorage revenue resulting from this process “swept” into the Treasury General Account (TGA), the spending vehicle of the Federal Government.
Seigniorage has always been a relatively minor source of reserves for Treasury. However, an act passed in 1996 provides the authority to mint platinum coins of arbitrary face value to use in the process of gaining seigniorage. Face values on these coins can be in the many trillions of dollars and can fill the public purse to arbitrarily high levels. These reserves can only be spent on Congressional appropriations and repaying Federal debts and interest due, so this capability doesn’t take away the purse strings from the Congress. But it does make Lavoie’s claim that the consolidated Government needs to borrow from the private sector to deficit spend under existing rules untrue; even overlooking the constitutional authority of Congress to amend current constraints on the Treasury’s ability to generate reserves “out of thin air.”
Third, there is the issue of whether the Treasury is really borrowing money, when it issues debt instruments in return for the Consolidated Government’s own fiat. MMT economists often point out that when the Government “borrows” money it is not like you or I borrowing money. Yes, the Government must repay in both cases, and in both cases the term ‘debt’ is used. But, a) the Government’s debt is more like the liability of a bank to its depositors, than it is like the liability you or I might have to the bank.
The Government, in selling its debt, is functionally providing the equivalent of a time deposit opportunity to depositors, rather than borrowing money from people who are incurring a risk that they won’t be repaid. In fact, the Government’s “time deposit” carries the same risk with it that a “time deposit” placed in a bank does, since it is the Government that insures such deposits.
And b) what sort of ‘debt’ is it that provides no burden at all on the borrower and pays a return to the lender without exposing that lender to risk? It certainly isn’t like a ‘debt’ that you and I or any user of a currency incurs. The reason is that the power and authority of the consolidated Government to create reserves is unlimited, so no matter how circuitous the process of generating those reserves may be, the issue is never in doubt. The Government can always create the reserves it needs to repay its debts. And under the 14th Amendment, to the US Constitution, section four, the US cannot default on its ‘debts.’
Fourth, “the counter-intuitive claim that securities and taxes do not finance the expenditures of central governments with a sovereign currency” is true if one considers carefully the term “finance.” When you or I have to “finance” our spending we must do it from money we acquire from others through our economic activity including our lending. But, the Consolidated Federal Government in the end creates money from the Fed’s power to generate reserves, and the Treasury’s (US Mint’s) power to generate currency (ordered by the Fed) and coins.
The Treasury may tax and borrow as an important part of its spending operations, but that doesn’t mean that it is the Consolidated Government that ultimately “finances” these spending operations through these measures. The Treasury may use these measures plus seigniorage to generate the reserves that end up in the TGA; but the Consolidated Government, viewed as whole, ultimately enables and facilitates the Treasury’s spending through exercising its collective authority to create reserves by fiat in the TGA in response to Treasury’s tax, debt instrument sales, and seigniorage-producing activities. It does not “finance” its spending in the manner we normally associate with the term “finance.”
So, what do MMT writers gain by claiming that the Consolidated Government doesn’t ”finance” deficit spending by “taxing” or “borrowing?” I think the answer is that we continue to underline the central point that governments sovereign in their own currency have no solvency concerns, because they have an unlimited capability to generate nominal wealth. This point is very central to both MMT and MS, because it implies that austerity is an untenable position in fiscal policy, and that the whole litany of neoliberal concerns about the sky falling someday because the Government is running out of money is just a fairy tale.
This point is where the action is politically, and much of the effort of MMT and MS writers is devoted to demonstrating it in various ways, and underlining it again and again in order to overthrow the neoliberal paradigm of economic thought. I think that overthrow is our main messaging objective, and that objective is served by the various counter-intuitive statements that Lavoie views as “baggage” MMT ought to get rid of.
For my part, I think these statements are both true and also important in creating our alternative paradigm. Paradigms advance by creating cognitive dissonance in those who accept the old paradigm or who are neutral in relation to that paradigm. That is, I think, exactly what we are doing.
And out of that dissonance we are beginning to see change. Let us hope that we will see that change accelerate over the next few years so that the world and its various nations will be able to end the global move toward plutocracy, and a new feudalism that is gradually impoverishing the middle class and ending the hope brought by freedom and democracy everywhere this new feudalism advances.
(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)
For years now, economists using the ideas of Modern Money Theory (MMT) have been telling us that the so-called long-term “funding” problems of Social Security (SS) and Medicare emphasized incessantly by supporters of austerity are faux problems. The MMT economists believe this because the US is a currency issuer of a non-convertible fiat currency, has a floating exchange rate, and incurs no debts in any currency except US dollars. So, the US Government can issue whatever financial resources it needs to carry out its obligations without raising any solvency issues. The only problems involved in carrying out these obligations are problems of political will, not problems of financial incapacity, which is why, from an economic point of view, they are faux problems.
There are other economists who also believe these are faux problems, even though they don’t subscribe to the view that the government can’t become insolvent. They also view them as problems of political will because they think that the SS long term “solvency” issue can be easily solved by Congress just by lifting the payroll tax cap on income; while the problem of rising health costs threatening long term Medicare “solvency” is easily solved by passing a Medicare for All bill such as HR 676, which creates a single-payer for most health care services and puts the private insurers out of business, while holding down provider costs through negotiations.
Still other economists and fiscal policy analysts, believe, or say they believe, that the Federal Government does have fiscal limits, that the Government can only fund activities through taxing or borrowing, that deficit spending must be avoided or kept to a low level because it corresponds to growth in public debt, which will eventually create spiraling interest rates in the bond markets leading to financial insolvency for the United States, or at least to very damaging periods in which the US must impose extreme austerity on its citizens and forgo economic growth, because it must, at all costs, reduce its public debt substantially, and in short order.
These “austerians” suggest that this last fate be avoided by cutting deficits now, and, even more, by implementing long term deficit reduction plans that cut entitlements. Since the passage of the stimulus bill in 2009, the counsel of austerians of varying degree has dominated the US Government leading to conflicts among some who want to lower deficit spending to extreme levels and others who want to lower deficits more gradually and to levels a bit higher than their “starve the beast” opponents. Despite conflicts among them, the austerians have, through a few rounds of “debt ceiling,” fiscal cliff,” and “sequester” conflicts managed to implement considerable deficit reduction with serious costs to the economy and efforts to decrease unemployment substantially.
This conflict has created the present situation where the sequester and recent increases in Social Security taxes have set the stage for a “grand bargain” that would begin deep cuts in entitlements by implementing the Administration’s “chained CPI” proposal. But, a number of things have now happened to slow down the austerity train and even threaten its derailment.
Reality, the Austerian Retreat, and Entitlements
The first of these things has been the record of austerian deficit reduction efforts from 2010 to the present. The impact of austerity on economies the world over has been abysmal. Unemployment in many economies, including many of the Eurozone nations is now at levels not seen since the Great Depression, and in is even higher in some nations, especially among younger workers. In addition, in many nations brutal cuts in government spending have only increased deficits and debts while creating greater unemployment.
Nations like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the US, which haven’t implemented extreme austerity after initial stimulative reactions to the crash of 2008, but also have put in place efforts at deficit reduction in response to increasing influence of the austerians, haven’t suffered as much as other nations that have implemented full bore austerity. But they have suffered losses in employment and economic slowdowns as a cost of lowering deficits. The UK, which like the US, could have chosen to be less aggressive about deficit reduction, instead elected a Conservative-Liberal coalition that bought into the dogma of “expansionary austerity” and created a declining economy suffering periodic dips after the initial recession.
Second, the intellectual underpinnings of austerity have recently taken a big hit from academic studies showing spreadsheet errors, and various other errors in analysis, in the major academic studies supporting the idea that public debt-to-GDP ratios cause slower GDP growth. More and more analysts and observers now seem to believe that it is likely that low growth causes high public debt, rather than the opposite belief, which had fueled the austerity efforts of politicians and government officials.
Third, in the United States, the deficit reduction outcomes of Congressional/ Executive conflicts, while reducing actual deficits somewhat, have reduced projections of future deficits even more, and are perceived as both having reduced actual deficits and as holding back economic recovery. So, political sentiment has been gradually building against additional austerity efforts. There is now much opposition to further deficit reduction including opposition to proposals providing for entitlement cuts. And there are claims from progressives that “austerity is dead,” and advocacy that we should no longer make deficit reduction the centerpiece of fiscal policy but should immediately shift to an emphasis on creating jobs.
This past week saw a recent important defection from the ranks of advocates for austerity. The Center for American Progress (CAP) published a report by Michael Linden which concludes:
What does it mean to reset the debate? First, it means starting from the understanding that there is no longer a looming fiscal crisis—if there ever even was one. . . . .
Second, resetting the debate means discarding other fiscal theories that have fared poorly over the past several years. . . .
Third, we must recognize that there are costs to elevating deficit reduction above all other concerns. . . .
. . . . we can no longer afford to pretend as if the benefits of deficit reduction always, in all circumstances, outweigh the costs. And we cannot allow the continued perception of a deficit-reduction imperative to prevent us from fixing the sequester and avoiding more economic damage.
It is time to reset the entire budget debate. No more pretending that the sky is falling. No more rash actions to cut the deficit without regard for real-world impacts. No more calls for an ever-elusive grand bargain. No more super special committees or draconian automatic punishments intended to force action. Improving our national finances is still an important goal—that has not changed. But so much else has, and the debate must change too.
It is good to see this beginning of wisdom, and even implied opposition to entitlement cuts, in a report from an organization with direct lines to the White House. But it’s important not to mistake this report, with its fine rhetoric, for actual opposition to the Federal Government continuing to pursue an inadequate level of deficit spending to simultaneously contain the growth of debt while somehow creating substantially lower levels of unemployment than we have now.
Progressives and Centrists like CAP still don’t understand that austerity is destroying private sector net financial assets by cutting government spending and/or raising taxes in such a way that Government additions of net financial assets to the non-government portions of the economy (government deficits) fall to a level low enough that they are less than the size of the trade balance, whether in deficit or in surplus. Right now the trade deficit is 3.5% of GDP. That means Government deficits must be at least 3.5% of GDP to prevent contraction in net private sector financial assets. That’s a roughly a $560 B deficit in 2013, just to remain in place. CBO’s latest projections are for a deficit of $642 Billion this year, a bit higher than break even; but not by very much. The deficit could well be smaller than that, however, since it’s dropping fast.
If the economy recovers further, it’s likely that the trade deficit will grow larger as a proportion of GDP. If the Government deficit isn’t allowed to grow, then the result will mean declining net financial assets and greater inequality since the scramble for declining net financial assets will favor the economically well-positioned over most of the rest of us.
The question is: will the progressives and centrists who have had enough of austerity be ready to run deficits large enough to both compensate for the trade deficit and also allow enough saving of net financial assets to fuel renewed aggregate demand and the growing consumption needed for an expanding economy? Since deficits large enough to do both might range anywhere from 6 – 10% of GDP or more, I doubt that they will be up for that, because despite their protestations about leaving austerity behind, their de-emphasis on deficit reduction doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned their fear of increasing debt-to-GDP ratios, or their belief that high debt-to-GDP ratios are hurtful to economies.
In fact, a recent “austerity is dead” post at Think Progress (a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund) in advocating for Michael Linden’s recommendations to repeal the sequester at least for the next few years, and invest $82 Billion (roughly 1/2 of 1 percent of GDP) on “pro-growth investments” to create jobs, cites the CBO projection favorably that shows the deficit falling sharply right now, and falling below 3% annually in 2014 and staying below that level until 2019.
But that projection is actual government austerity from now until 2019, barring a substantial decrease in our trade deficit over that period. Also, if there’s no private credit bubble during this time, it’s very likely that the economy will do nothing but stagnate until 2019 and beyond. We are looking at a Japanese “lost decade” scenario for the US economy.
And most “progressives” don’t see it because while they joyously proclaim that “austerity is dead,” they also, with equal joy, plan for austerity-level deficits of 3% or less for the foreseeable future. Now hear this CAP, Campaign for America’s Future, and other “village” DC/New York progressive organizations: Warren Buffett’s 3% deficits are the very essence of austerity, as the Eurozone well knows.
Make no mistake about that. So, when you tell us that “austerity is dead,” please don’t tell us at the same time that you’re planning to maintain deficits at the 3% level or below, and with them austerity for the indefinite future.
And how about the more determined austerians? What do they think about the death of austerity? Well, generally, they don’t believe it. They still hold that high debt-to-GDP ratios are problematic for growth. And while they’re now willing to grant that it may be wise to back off deficit reduction somewhat in order to emphasize job creation a bit; austerians like the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, and the Washington Post editorial writers, are still persuaded that now is the time to pursue arrangements for long term spending reductions in Social Security and Medicare entitlements. So, for them, and for the White House, pursuit of a “grand bargain” is still not off the table that the President has so persistently set, since at least the beginning of 2010.
In brief, the hard-core austerians still believe that deficits and the GDP ratio are very important and must be reduced even at the cost of considerable economic pain for those who aren’t wealthy. Given their view, it’s unwise for people who really think that austerity is, or should be, dead to relax now, because it’s a good bet that if the austerians can make a deal with the Republican right to reduce entitlement spending, then they will do just that, and also spring their deal on Congress suddenly and at the last moment.
The No Debt/No Inflation Platinum Coin Solution to the “Long Term Entitlement Solvency Problem”
So, let’s address a solution to the long-term entitlement spending solvency problem that really kills austerity for entitlements dead. Of course, it’s a faux problem in the sense that there is no economic or financial solvency problem, since the Federal Government can never involuntarily run out of money to pay Social Security and Medicare obligations, as long as Congress is willing to provide the authority to meet those obligations. But there is a real political problem in that Congress may decide not to do that because spending on entitlements in future years may exceed FICA tax revenues year after year until “the trust funds” cannot “cover” the deficit between annual tax revenues and annual spending.
The austerians want to solve this political problem by cutting back on entitlement benefits. “Progressives” want to solve it by eliminating the income cap on FICA taxation. The advantages and disadvantages of both solutions are very well-known so I won’t repeat them, but will just point out that both will subtract net financial assets from the economy, and offer a third solution that doesn’t have that problem.
That solution is for the Executive Branch to use its Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) authority under 31 USC 5112(k) and 31 USC 5136 to mint a single proof platinum coin each year to cover any shortfall between FICA revenues and spending on Social Security and Medicare. If that were done annually in advance, based on projections, then there would be no further depletion of the “trust fund” credits, and no further political issue of Social Security and Medicare insolvency.
This solution also has at least the following other advantages.
– It requires no Congressional action to implement. The necessary authority is there already;
– It will not increase spending, beyond that already scheduled for Social Security and Medicare, so it won’t add any inflation beyond that already built into the system;
– It will not increase the public debt subject to the limit, so that worry needn’t trouble people;
– It will educate people about the fact that the Government can spend without having to tax or borrow if it needs to do that;
– It will educate people about PCS as an alternative to taxing and borrowing;
– It will educate people to the idea that neither the Treasury nor the Government can become insolvent because it can always mint coins;
– It will educate people about the fact that the US Government need not ever borrow back its own previously issued currency from anyone else, unless it wants to;
– It will educate people to the idea that their grandchildren won’t have a burden of public debt that they can’t always easily pay back by using PCS;
– It requires neither an increase in taxes nor cuts in Social Security or Medicare benefits.
– Also, if benefits were increased in the future there wouldn’t need to be any tax increases to “fund” them.
– It would be a great political success for any President who did this, because it would have the effect of safeguarding the major components of the safety net for good, and that President would be remembered by a grateful populace for having done that.
There are, of course, some disadvantages to this third solution, too.
– The opposition to the President will attack she or he for using PCS, claiming that it is the dreaded “printing money,” practiced, so infamously, by the Weimar Republic and Zimbabwe. This may be an effective attack in holding down the President’s approval rating for a limited period of time; but once people observe that no inflation results from using PCS, this attack will fade away; it’s effectiveness destroyed by experience and reality;
– To make PCS effective, the President may have to force the Federal Reserve Chairman to create reserves in exchange for Treasury’s platinum coins. This may create a firestorm politically if the Fed Chairman resigns in protest. However, eventually, the President will find a successor who will credit the Mint’s Public Enterprise Fund (PEF) account for platinum coins with very high face value, because the law is clear that in cases of disagreement between the Fed and the Secretary on matters of interpretation, the opinion of the Secretary is to prevail.
– The opposition may attack the President for “grabbing more power.” This may make a few headlines; but since the President’s action would halt any further depletion of the Social Security and Medicare “trust funds” it is hard to see the public either disapproving of the action, or getting motivated by any perceived power grab.
– The opposition to the President in Congress may become enraged by the loss of leverage against entitlement spending they experience as a result of the Administration using PCS to stop depletion of the “trust funds.” However, I can’t see this anger going anywhere unless it somehow gets extended to the country at large. But, then again, the only reason why most people would get angry at this is if inflation were somehow triggered using PCS. Since this is a very unlikely prospect, the anger in Congress will just go to ground in the sweep of events.
Two weeks after the minting each year, there will be other issues to fight about. After a few years of use, PCS will be institutionalized as the way to ensure the sustainability of Social Security and Medicare regardless of fluctuations in the economy and in tax revenues.
So, that’s it. Using PCS to cover the shortfall between entitlement spending and FICA revenues is a quick and relatively easy solution to the political problem of ensuring that the Social Security and Medicare “trust funds” are sustainable, provided that a president will use it. When will this, or the next, or the next president make this happen and really kill “austerity” politics targeting the entitlements that most Americans love so well? When will this or some future president hear the voice of the people?
(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)
It makes a good headline; but it’s dangerous to say “austerity is dead,” just because new budget projections indicate that the deficit has already been cut by $200 Billion more than in previous projections, and because the Reinhart-Rogoff study has been debunked successfully, and, hopefully, irretrievably. Austerity will only be dead when legislators, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Central Bankers, and international lending organizations stop trying to implement it, whether or not they stop because deficits have already been cut.
Of course, those claiming austerity is dead, mean by their claim that deficit cutting efforts have already been successful enough in the United States that future projections in all the mainstream budget plans now show only “moderate” deficits (See the Table which now includes CBO revised budget projections.) These don’t signal a debt crisis, and instead suggest that we can now turn to the really serious economic, health, and environmental challenges we face.
In addition, deficit reduction efforts in the rest of the world seem to clearly show that austerity efforts have been unsuccessful nearly always and everywhere in that their costs in economic damage have been far greater than any gains that have been made by nations purposefully pursuing these efforts. In cases, such as Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Portugal, and Spain, deficit reduction efforts have actually made debt problems worse than they were before harsh austerity measures cutting government spending were taken, because their negative effects on national economies and employment have also reduced tax revenues by more than the savings achieved from cutting government programs.
But Everybody’s Still Doing It
On May 9, 2013, The Republican House passed H.R. 807 the Full Faith and Credit Act. The Bill says in part:
(a) In General- In the event that the debt of the United States Government, as defined in section 3101 of title 31, United States Code, reaches the statutory limit, the Secretary of the Treasury shall, in addition to any other authority provided by law, issue obligations under chapter 31 of title 31, United States Code, to pay with legal tender, and solely for the purpose of paying, the principal and interest on obligations of the United States described in subsection (b) after the date of the enactment of this Act.
(b) Obligations Described- For purposes of this subsection, obligations described in this subsection are obligations which are–
(1) held by the public, or
(2) held by the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund and Disability Insurance Trust Fund.
So, in brief, the Bill provides for the Treasury, even when it is about to reach the debt ceiling, to issue additional debt to pay principal and interest on debt instruments issued to the public including foreign nations, and to pay principal and interest on Social Security (SS) “trust fund bonds” in the course of paying SS recipients.
Reactions to the Act immediately fell into two categories. Some hailed it as a move toward fiscal responsibility, while others saw it as another demonstration of Republican fiscal irresponsibility paving the way for US default on some obligations not prioritized by the bill, while making sure that bond market interests and “China” would get paid what they were owed, while the American people would be stiffed, unless Democrats gave the Republicans what they wanted in the upcoming debt ceiling crisis now projected for this October. Here are some typical reactions of the two types.
From John Avlon at the Daily Beast we have:
But even Speaker John Boehner realizes that the 50 or so radicals on the far right of his own party—the Bachmann, Broun, Gohmert and King crew—are the greatest impediment to responsible self-government right now.
That’s why the new responsible Republican proposal, which passed the House Thursday by a vote of 221-207, could be the best way to defuse the debt ceiling from its most destructive impact. . . .
So the Full Faith and Credit Act should be a no-brainer. But the Obama administration is opposing the measure, releasing a Statement of Administration from the Office of Management and Budget that stated H.R. 807 would “result in Congress refusing to pay obligations it has already agreed to … this bill would threaten the full faith and credit of the United States … this legislation is unwise, unworkable, and unacceptably risky.”
And here’s one from Travis Waldron at Think Progress:
But such a plan makes it clear that the U.S. will meet only some of its obligations, leaving many Americans, including troops, veterans, and the elderly, out in the cold. . . .
Worse yet, the Republican plan doesn’t allow the nation to avoid default. If the U.S. services its debt payments but still misses others, it is still defaulting on payments it is required to make. Since the bill only allows Treasury to make payments as it receives revenues, and the bulk of its payments are made at the beginning of the month even though revenues don’t come in until later, it would almost certainly be unable to meet at least some of its obligations.
When the GOP has considered similar plans before, Treasury officials have called it “unworkable.” Bipartisan analysts said it was “essentially impossible.” Failing to fulfill spending obligations would be “the first step to becoming a banana republic,” a Bush-era Treasury official said. Instead of inspiring confidence among investors, bondholders, and the American people, the legislation would zap it.
Far from preventing default, the Full Faith and Credit Act would essentially ensure it. That wouldn’t just put paying China ahead of senior citizens and members of the military — it would also hammer economic growth both in the United States and across the world. (HTHuffington Post)
Calling this a “responsible” bill as the Daily Beast did is outrageous, and, of course, Waldron is quite right to point out that the bill is fundamentally irresponsible because if it were to pass and nothing more was done it would still not avoid a default inflicted by Republicans who refuse to raise the debt ceiling for the sake of hostage-taking. Nevertheless, even though I agree with Waldron and the President that the bill is irresponsible, I also think that the Democratic Senate should jump on the opportunity provided by the Republicans and pass it forthwith without Amendment, and that the President should sign it immediately, as part of a larger plan to take the debt ceiling off the table in all future negotiations. Here’s the plan.
Budget projections show that if the Bill is passed, then the Treasury would have the authority it needs to meet the majority of its projected deficit obligations and would lack only about $170 Billion in Fiscal 2014 to meet them all. Let’s look at CBO’s budget projection.
Total Revenues for the Treasury in 2014 are projected at $3.0 Trillion. Total Outlays are expected to be $3.6 Trillion. That’s a deficit of roughly $.6 Trillion, or $600 Billion. CBO projects net interest on debt owned by the public of $243 Billion, and I’ve estimated OASDI interest at about $225 Billion. Summing the two we see that the Full Faith and Credit Act would allow debt financing of $468 Billion, leaving a gap of about $130 Billion which Treasury can’t cover with debt instruments.
So, what can Treasury and the President do to meet its remaining obligations? The answer is that it can use Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS), an approach the Administration rejected in January of 2013 before the latest compromise with the Republicans allowing debt financing while temporarily suspending the debt ceiling. In January, the dominant proposal making the rounds in the blogosphere was that the Administration use a few Trillion Dollar Coins to defuse the crisis. I didn’t favor that, but preferred and still prefer a “shock and awe” $60 Trillion PCS strategy that would end austerity politics forever, if the President had the desire and the will to do that.
The President doesn’t have the desire and the will, or he would already have filled the public purse in this way. Assuming he still feels that he doesn’t want to end austerity politics, with its terrible effects on poor people and the middle class; but does want to avoid debt ceiling crises in the future, provided the Full Faith and Credit Act is passed without amendment, he can then:
– First, beginning at the start of fiscal 2014, mint platinum coins having face values of $20 Billion per month until the Federal Government is no longer in danger of failing to meet all its obligations. This is about twice the average amount of projected shortfall of $10.8 Billion per month corresponding to the $130 Billion annual shortfall projected. That amount should be enough to cover variations from the average, and also errors in the projection caused by possible recessionary effects due to the sequester and the FICA tax increase in January.
– Second the Government can keep doing this until Congress fully restores the capability of the Treasury to issue debt instruments alongside deficit spending Congress has appropriated. How long this will go on, depends on the Republicans, of course. But even over a year’s time, the amount minted would come nowhere near the Trillion Dollar Coin values the Administration found unpalatable a few months ago. In fact, if the debt ceiling crisis is resolved by year’s end, the amount minted wouldn’t exceed $60 Billion, hardly great enough to roil the international or bond markets, or most people, given the amount of Quantitative Easing (QE) the Fed has already done. If the debt ceiling crisis lasts any longer than that and the financial world gets roiled by the practice, then a) it will certainly prefer the minting of those coins to the alternative of default; and b) they’ll know which party to come down hard on in blaming someone for the continuing crisis.
– Third, at some point in this process, the Republicans will be willing to increase the debt ceiling, but since PCS is being used to avoid shutting down the government or defaulting, their leverage to extract concessions will make the debt ceiling negotiations much easier than they are today. I recommend that the Administration give away nothing to get the debt ceiling raised. It should simply insist on a no-strings attached permanent elimination of the ceiling; while pointing out that the Full Faith and Credit Act, coupled with PCS provides enough flexibility for the Treasury to continue spending appropriations and meet all the nation’s obligations, even if the debt ceiling is never raised.
This may seem to be a very hard line. But in passing the Full Faith and Credit Act, the House has given the Democrats the opportunity to use debt instruments to cover most of the deficit anyway. And PCS gives the Administration the power to cover the rest. So, the Republicans would have a choice of getting rid of the debt ceiling permanently, or allowing the minting of $20 Billion platinum coins at the beginning of every month. If that’s their choice, then I think they’ll get rid of the debt limit, before the President decides to mint a $60 Trillion Dollar coin, don’t you?
Update: CBO just released revisions to its projections for 2013 – 2023. Total Revenues for the Treasury in 2014 are now projected at $3.042 Trillion. Total Outlays are expected to be $3.602 Trillion. That’s a deficit of roughly $.56 Trillion, or $560 Billion. CBO projects net interest on debt owned by the public of $237 Billion, and I’ve estimated OASDI interest at about $225 Billion. Summing the two we see that the Full Faith and Credit Act would allow debt financing of $462 Billion, leaving a gap of about $98 Billion which Treasury can’t cover with debt instruments.
The smaller gap means that it may not be necessary to use $20 Billion platinum coins every month; but only $15 Billion coins to handle variations from the new average shortfall of about $8.2 Billion per month. Of course, if deficits accumulate faster than expected, it would be easy to simply begin minting $20 Billion coins.
(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)