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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.)

Dear Dr. Krugman: Please Let Me Explain

8:35 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Paul Krugman looking downwards

Krugman misses his deficit hawk friends.

Paul Krugman can’t explain why the deficit issue has suddenly dropped off the agenda. He says:

. . . quite suddenly the whole thing has dropped off the agenda.

You could say that this reflects the dwindling of the deficit — but that’s old news; anyone doing the math saw this coming quite a while ago. Or you could mention the failure of the often-predicted financial crisis to arrive — but after so many years of being wrong, why should a few months more have caused the deficit scolds to disappear in a puff of smoke?

Why indeed are they so quiet? Could it be because the deficit hawks have succeeded in getting the short-term result they want, which is a likely deficit too small to sustain the private savings and import desires of most Americans, and also because the political climate is such right now that they cannot make progress on their longer term entitlement-cutting program until after the coming elections have resolved the issue of whether there will be strong resistance to such a campaign if they renew it? Let’s look at the budget outlook first.

Here’s CBO projecting deficits of 3.0% of GDP this fiscal year, followed by 2.6%, 2.8%, and 2.9% for fiscals 2015, 2016, and 2017. Those deficits are mostly smaller than Warren Buffett’s and the Eurozone’s favorite deficit target of 3.0%. They are the same too small deficit targets that have prevented the Eurozone’s PIIGS from responding effectively to the crash of 2008, and the prolonged depression and astronomical unemployment rates which have engulfed them since. When one considers that CBO’s projections are usually too conservative when it comes to projected deficits, so that the reality of these is likely to be smaller, as it has been regularly, for the past few years, then it’s even more apparent that Peter G. Peterson and his other austerian friends have gotten where they want to go for the time being.

Nor are there any other major influences in Washington, DC advocating higher deficits. Even “progressive” groups and politicians always talk about “pay fors” and offer 10 year deficit reduction plans that envision deficits averaging far less than the 3% target.

So, the deficit hawks have already gotten to their short – term goal. Their long – term goal of hollowing out the social safety net has met with increasing resistance over the past four years. And the resistance is strong enough that the Democrats have no stomach for bipartisan compromises cutting Medicare or Social Security for the present.

The deficit/debt hawks now need a breather. They needed to go into wait-and-see mode to see what the elections of 2014 produce.

If they produce the right mix of tea partiers, and Republican and Democratic debt hawks. They may be able to produce a new “Grand Bargain” early in 2015 before 2016 election pressures become intense, and the influence of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy on Democrats in Congress becomes too great. I say this not because I think that Clinton will necessarily oppose any such bargain in the long term; but because such a bargain would be risky for her candidacy and the Democrats in the run-up to the elections of 2016.

So, from my viewpoint I don’t think the time is propitious for the deficit/debt hawk forces to keep pressuring for entitlement reforms and a long-term solution to their favorite, and non-existent, financial problem of excessive public debts in fiat sovereign nations like the United States. And I think they know that.

Instead, it is a good time for them to regroup and plan their next attack on entitlements. That will come under cover of the Republicans’ next debt ceiling attack, which is a good possibility for March of 2015.

So, I see the Peterson forces beginning to beat the drums again towards the end of the year and build up the intensity of their appeals from January to March. I don’t see a strong move to cut entitlement spending in the lame duck session, since there will be no debt ceiling cover then to generate leverage heavy enough to get Democrats to accept part of the blame for cutting entitlements.

Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.

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The President’s Leverage: He Can Go Platinum

10:32 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Well, that’s over. The President had a chance to go “over the cliff,” bargain hard with the Republicans, get more of what he said he wanted at the price of perhaps some more days of crisis with extreme pressure building on the Republican caucus, and he blinked. I don’t much care that he blinked on tax rates for the top 2% and on inheritance taxes, because tax rate increases for purposes of deficit reduction simply aren’t needed for getting deficit spending needed to create jobs, as the rest of this post will show. Here’s what I care about:

– First, he claimed to be after extending the partial payroll tax holiday; but he didn’t get that, a $125 Billion would-be stimulus failure that is likely to cost at least a million jobs;

– Second, he claimed to be trying to get the debt ceiling issue off the table for at least two years, and he didn’t even get anything to deal with it in the bill;

– Third, he claimed to want to resolve the sequestration issue, but only got that can kicked down the road for two months;

So, in sum, he’s already achieved some unneeded austerity with this “negotiation” and, in addition, he’s set things up beautifully for a truly extreme episode of extortion by the Republican House over the next couple of months, as Congress faces the upcoming sequester, debt ceiling, and Continuing Resolution (CR) conflicts. Why did he insist on making his year-end deal, rather than allowing things to kick over to the new Congress and negotiating a better one?

There are different theories about that. One, is that he wanted, at all costs, to avoid Wall Street panicking and then tanking, even if, only temporarily. A second is that he has good “progressive” motives, but he’s just a lousy negotiator, who just can’t avoid first establishing firm positions and then showing the other side that he will always cave in if they, in turn, stand firm. A third theory, and the one I favor, is that since 2009 he’s been conducting a careful campaign to get Americans to accept austerity through forced deficit reduction including heavy cuts to the social safety net programs that Americans love so well.

During this campaign, he’s ignored the evidence from Europe and elsewhere that austerity doesn’t work and hurts most of the people, most of the time. He’s also ignored all the polling data showing how Americans feel about Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. And he has moved slowly, deliberately, persistently, and in concert with allies outside the Administration like Peter G. Peterson, high-level Wall Street Executives, and MSM media personalities and journalists to create a consensus around the idea that “entitlement reform” is both inevitable and necessary for long-term fiscal sustainability. Finally, he has “negotiated” with Republicans during a series of “shock doctrine” crises to try to gradually implement austerity, while making sure that the Republicans, rather than his own party end up bearing the blame for the end result of austerity policies.

The results of the “cliff” negotiations have now set up a confluence of three events: the sequestration; the debt ceiling; and the CR; creating the occasion for the mother of all fiscal “shock doctrine” negotiations over the next three months. This confluence can be seen as an intentional emergence of the conflict between the Republicans and the “progressive” President Obama, or it can be seen as the result of a very long-term conservative campaign setting the stage for austerity, and a comprehensive attempt to weaken the social safety net.

I won’t try to make the case that the dangerous confluence we’re about to face is due to a deliberate staging by the President, even though I suspect that it is. Nor will I try to make the contrary case that the President has excellent motives, but stumbled into this mess due to incompetence at negotiating, and the Republican victories in the House in the past two elections, for which his supporters might say, he was blameless. What, I’ll do instead, is try to show that either way, the President has leverage to get what he wants.

If His Game Is Deliberate Austerity?

Then, of course, he’s maneuvered us into a situation where, he will claim, there either has to be a Government shutdown, frightening to most people, or concessions to Republican demands for cutting discretionary programs and entitlements. He will be in a very good position then, to regale all of us with horror stories about the consequences of shutting down the Government for weeks until the “crazy” Republicans capitulate; compared to the lesser evil of making “balanced” spending cuts among defense, discretionary, and entitlement programs, while he prepares to reluctantly give into the hostage takers to avoid disaster; while constantly letting us know that as the adult in the room he must arrive at a “compromise” settlement. So, if his game is deliberate austerity, then he will have plenty of leverage to get what he wants.

If His Game Is to Avoid Cuts That Will Hurt the Economy and the Safety Net?

Today, most people commenting on the fiscal cliff agreement are assuming that this is his game, and are saying that the President has given away his leverage for future deal-making. Their logic is that he’s already made deals on the tax rate cuts and on the inheritance tax rates, so that he has little left to offer the Republicans except painful cuts in programs most of the American like. This, however, isn’t true.

First, the President still has some leverage when it comes to defense cuts. Republicans don’t want those at all. So, if he’s willing to cut there; he can sincerely threaten cuts and then trade for their sparing popular programs from the ax.

But, second, the main thing being ignored by most of the strategists commenting on the morning after is the President’s ability to change the fiscal context of the coming negotiations from one of apparent scarcity “justifying” austerity to one where spending capacity is so plentiful, that Congress will be hard-pressed to impose austerity, because its justification in the form of apparent limitations on spending capacity will just seem silly. Now, that can translate into leverage in the negotiations!

How can it be done? Through the use of Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS).

PCS Variations

Here are some variations on PCS, an idea first proposed by beowulf. (Carlos Mucha).

First, mint a $1.6 Trillion coin and have Treasury use the profits from it to buy all the outstanding debt instruments held by the Fed. This would retire a substantial part of the national debt and immediately create $1.6 T in “headroom” relative to the debt ceiling. This alternative involves the least amount of change in current procedures. The coin, once deposited at the Fed, would remain in a Fed vault, and would not go into circulation.

The Government would then go right back to issuing debt in order to meet its debt obligations and spend previous Congressional appropriations. Of course, this proposal is a solution to the debt ceiling problem alone. It would prevent a default crisis caused by anti-government tea party Republicans. But, it wouldn’t do very much to defeat the austerity mind set in fiscal policy.

A second proposal is to mint a $6.7 T coin to pay back all debt held by the Fed, and all Intra-governmental debt, including that owed to Social Security, Medicare, and a host of other other agencies. That would create $6.7 T in headroom relative to the debt ceiling, that’s more than enough to carry us through the 2016 elections without breaching the ceiling. Again, this wouldn’t result in any “money” immediately going into circulation, but over time SS and Medicare payments to individuals and organizations would be adding to bank reserves without any reserves being withdrawn from the private sector due to debt issuance.

This alternative would render the debt ceiling problem a dead letter for some time to come, and it also might take some of the austerity pressure off. But it probably wouldn’t end the austerity drive, because the deficit hawks would still point to long-term problems in entitlements that would be projected as running up the public debt in future years.

A third proposal for applying PCS is to mint a coin with face value large enough to cover the $6.7 T intra-governmental and Fed debt repayment, plus all debt to the non-government sector coming to maturity during the next four years, and all Congressional Appropriations expected to require deficit spending through the 2016 elections. I’ll estimate, roughly, that a $20 T coin is enough for that, including about $6.2 T to more than close the expected gap between tax revenues and Government spending through the 2016 elections, and the rest for paying down the national debt. Issuing a coin that large, using the profits from seigniorage, and assuming that Congressional appropriations continue the pattern of the past 2 years or so, that would result in a remaining public debt outstanding of roughly a few trillion dollars in long term debt, which would please the bond markets except for the fact that the US wasn’t issuing any more debt instruments, which would probably make the bond vigilantes scream for those safe harbor debt instruments again.

A more important aspect of a coin this large is that it takes the deficit/debt issue very much off the table, since there would be no new debt issuance needed until after 2016, and because most of the seigniorage would be used to pay down debt the US would then have only about 15% of its current debt subject to the limit. In other words, it would take the austerity meme off the table completely over the next four years and even after that there would be a lot of room between the outstanding level of debt and the debt ceiling.

Much of the pressure now being applied to entitlement programs would also be gone. So, progressives could be much more expansive in supporting full employment programs, education, infrastructure, higher entitlement benefits, Medicare for All and other things the country needs.

If, also, Congress does the right kind of spending to bring full employment inside a year, then tax revenues will come back as they did during the Clinton Administration, and then there will be no need for all the profits from the platinum coin to be used completely for deficit spending between now and 2016. In fact, if the right jobs creating program is immediately enacted, as much as $3 T could be left, by the end of 2016. So, this is a much more progressive alternative than the first two. But in itself, it doesn’t provide a continuing ability for the Treasury to create reserves directly to support deficit spending. The nation could still slip back into the regressive money creation practices after 4 or 5 years, and the conservative, neoliberal bias of fiscal politics could be restored.

So far, I’ve discussed three alternative coin seigniorage proposals ranging in scale from a minimal proposal to handle the current crisis to one that would provide enough funds to both pay down debt, and support a gap between spending and taxes that might be sufficient to enable full employment. Now here’s a fourth, enough to handle even generous Congressional appropriations and deficit spending for at least 15 – 20 years, until 2032 and beyond.

Why not mint a $60 T coin?

I favor this fourth alternative above all, because it institutionalizes the idea that there is a distinction between appropriations, the Congressional mandate to spend particular amounts on particular goods and services, and the capability to spend the mandated accounts by having the funds (electronic credits) in the public purse (the TGA). In a fiat currency system, the capability always exists if the legislature provides for it under the Constitution, as it has under current platinum coin seigniorage legislation.

But the value of the $60 T coin, and the profits derived from it, is that it is a concrete reminder of the Government’s continuing ability to buy whatever it needs to meet public purposes, and its continuing ability to harness the authority of the Central Bank to create reserves to support the needs of fiscal policy. It demonstrates very clearly that the Government cannot run out of money, and that the claim that it can is not a valid reason for rejecting spending that is in accordance with public purpose.

So, please keep in mind the distinction between the capability to spend more than government collects in taxes, and the appropriations that mandate such spending. The capability is what’s in the public purse, and it is unlimited as long as the Government doesn’t constrain itself from creating credits in its own accounts. With PCS, its capability could be and should be publicly demonstrated by minting the $60 T coin, and getting the profits from depositing it at the Fed transferred to the Treasury General Account (TGA).

On the other hand, Congressional appropriations, not the size or contents of the purse, but whether the purse strings are open or not, determines what will be spent, and what will simply sit in the purse for use at a later time. So there is a very important distinction between the purse and the purse strings. The President can legally use coin seigniorage to fill the purse, but only Congress can open the purse strings through its appropriations.

This fourth alternative is the one that best solves both the debt ceiling problem and the problem of taking austerity, justified by “we’re running out of money,” off the table. The debt ceiling would no longer be an issue if the Treasury immediately paid off $6.7 T in Fed and intra-governmental debt, and was poised, with the money in its account, to pay off the rest of the debt subject to the limit as it falls due. Nor would there be any justification for austerity policies if the Treasury had a public purse with $44 T of unearmarked funds in it to cover future deficit spending. So, this is the progressive alternative, the one that changes the political context of fiscal policy debates for the foreseeable future. It also gives progressive enough time to fight a major political battle that ought to and must occur; the battle to free the Fed from control by Wall Street and banking interests and to make it accountable to the people by placing it under the authority of the Treasury Department, and our nationally elected executive, the President.

What about inflation? Well using PCS isn’t intrinsically inflationary. For the reasons why, see my previous post. I outline how to justify it politically in the next and final section.

The Speech

If the President wanted to emulate the great Democratic Presidents of the past, end austerity and decide to rise above the debt ceiling controversy, safeguard the social safety net, and do something really, really important from the perspective of history by using $60 T coin seigniorage to short circuit the upcoming fights over the debt ceiling and the budget, then there would be a spectacular uproar in the Congress and the Press over what he had done. All kinds of overblown and downright crazy claims would be made because the President’s action would shock people, everyone would have a tough time getting their minds around it, and the media would report on what was going on in a very sensationalist way using stereotypes created by the neo-liberal perspective that journalists at places like the WaPo, NYT, WSJ, and CNN are superficially well-schooled in. Places like CNBC and Fox would be absolutely foaming at the mouth in response to something like this, and Geithner might very well resign over it, as might Ben Bernanke, since he’d be forced to have the Fed credit the coin.

There would also be an immediate move in Congress to repeal the 1996 law that enabled the President’s action. This would fail however, because even if it got through the Congress, the President would simply veto it. The opposition couldn’t possibly get the 2/3 vote necessary to override the veto. Even if by some miracle, repeal got through, however, it would be too late. The coin would have done its work and the $60 T would be in the Treasury General Account, a fait accompli, and a vivid demonstration that the government can create as much money as it wants, and can only run out of money by choice.

However, the President would then have to defend himself with a political campaign aimed at persuading the public that his move was a bold and liberating move and the first step in finally getting out of this protracted economic depression. And yes, he should use the D-word, whatever the Republicans, and the so-called “fact-checkers” say about it. And he should also begin the campaign by explaining the issuance and deposit of the first $60 T coin in a high profile TV address to the public, the following way.

My Fellow Americans:

1) Until now the Treasury has been borrowing the money the Government created back from the private sector, in order to cover our deficit spending, so the national debt has been steadily growing.

2) That’s silly! According to the Constitution, this Government, of the people, by the people, and for the people, is the ultimate source of all US money. So why should we ever borrow US money back and pay interest on it, since we can create it any time by the authority of the Constitution and Congress?

3) Congress has also imposed a debt ceiling, so, if and when we reach it, we can’t borrow back our own money without Congressional approval, anyway, and lately Congress has been using the need to raise the debt ceiling as an excuse to extort cuts in safety net and discretionary programs that the majority of Americans support.

4) So, on my order, and in accordance with legislation passed by Congress in 1996, and with the US Code, the US Mint has issued $60 Trillion using a single 1 oz. platinum coin, and deposited it at the NY Fed. It’s legal tender, so the Fed credited the Mint’s Public Enterprise Fund (PEF) account with $60 Trillion in US Dollar credits using its unlimited authority from Congress to create them.

5) This is not inflationary because the Fed will put our coin into its vault, and keep it there permanently out of circulation, and the Treasury will use the $60 T in USD credits only to pay back the national debt and to spend what Congress has already approved, which is only a small fraction of these credits and far from the amount needed to cause inflation.

6) My action ends any possibility of a debt ceiling crisis in February or March, because we have no further need to borrow our own money back in the markets, and that’s why we don’t need the tea party or other Republicans, or even my fellow Democrats to agree to raise the debt ceiling any more.

7) Now the Treasury, has plenty of money, much more than we need, in fact, to pay for all appropriations Congress has already approved for 2013, and may approve in March, including all deficit spending and, again, we won’t have to borrow our own money back, either to repay debts or to implement future deficit spending.

8) So, we will pay all Government debts which will come due in 2013 and 2014. Treasury securities and all other debts included. We will also pay back all debts held by other agencies of Government and the Federal Reserve. When we do this we will lower the national debt by about $12 T, reducing the “debt burden” by about 75% by the end of 2014, and creating an actual Social Security trust fund with 2.7 T in cash reserves in it; and again, to do this we don’t have to borrow any of our own money back, and we will also reduce our interest costs on the outstanding national debt all through the remainder of 2013, 2014, and beyond until it is all paid off.

9) None of the $60 T in new credits created by our actions is “money” in the private sector economy until the Treasury spends it. For now it is just capability to spend awaiting the appropriations of Congress to mandate deficit spending, should it need to compensate for the reduction in demand, probably close to 10% of GDP right now, caused by your own desire to save (which we want to do our best to facilitate), and your desire to import goods from foreign nations.

10) We have created $60 Trillion in new credits even though we probably needed less than that to cover anticipated deficit spending and debt repayment until at least 2028. The reason for this, is that I wanted to have enough capability created in the Treasury account, so that the national debt could be completely paid off (except for a small amount in very long-term Treasury debt still not mature by 2028), and all projected Federal deficits covered over the next 15 years, even extraordinary deficit spending needed to be performed without further borrowing over this period.

11) Of course, we can always make new coins if our projections about future deficits turn out to be wrong; but I thought it would be best to ensure that all $16.4 T plus of the “debt burden” can be completely eliminated from our political concerns; and also to provide enough funds in our spending account at the Fed, so that it would be very clear to Congress and all newly elected Representatives and Senators, that even though they, as required by the Constitution, continue to control the purse strings, the national purse is very, very full, and that we would be able to cover from the Treasury General Account whatever deficit spending for the public purpose, including for full employment, Medicare for All, infrastructure, education, and other things, that Congress, in its wisdom, chooses to appropriate now, before the next election, and for some elections to come.

Good night, my fellow Americans! Rest well knowing that our beloved country won’t be defaulting on any of its debts when the debt ceiling is reached, and that I’ve prevented this without going over the legal debt ceiling, or borrowing any more, by providing money for spending mandated appropriations, in compliance with the laws authorizing Platinum Coin Seigniorage, while supporting the Constitution’s prohibition against our Government ever defaulting on its debts. I hope that, in the future, everyone in Congress will obey the 14th Amendment’s prohibition against questioning the validity of Federal Government debts, and think twice before they indulge themselves in loose talk about the possibility of the Federal Government defaulting on its obligations.

America will always pay its debts in US Dollars according to the terms of the contracts it has concluded, and in line with the pension payments and other obligations that it owes. Neither you, nor the rest of the world need ever doubt that again! Nor need you ever think that our Government is running out of money for the things we must do. We can never run short of money unless Congress refuses voluntarily, to use its unlimited constitutional authority to make more of it. But as long as it delegates to me the authority to create high value platinum coins to cover our needs, you can be sure that running out of US money will never happen!

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Government Financial Asset Addition = “Deficit”; Government Financial Asset Destruction = “Surplus”

12:50 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

The word “deficit,” when applied to the Government financial accounting of a monetarily sovereign nation, that is, one that issues a non-convertible fiat currency, with a floating exchange rate, and no debts in a currency it doesn’t issue, is a problem, because the label “deficit” when applied to such a Government doesn’t mean what most people think it means. As Michel Hoexter points out:

. . . The word “deficit” is a hold-over from conventional accounting and the era of the gold-standard when currencies were supposed to be fixed in their quantity by convertibility of the currency into a fixed quantity of precious metal. Deficit means primarily a “lack”, an “absence” and in conventional accounting it means being “in the red”, not having taken in enough income to cover expenditures. . . .

Euros on a monopoly board.

Maybe to fix the 'deficit' we must redefine our terms.

The term “deficit” in this sense can be properly applied to households, corporations, other private and inter-governmental organizations, and states and nations that aren’t monetarily sovereign such as the US States and the members of the Eurozone. In all these instances the governments involved can run out of money, and the more deficits they run, the more the risk that they will become insolvent increases. But when that term is applied to monetarily sovereign nations, then the “deficit” notion is profoundly misleading because neither the size of the “deficit,” nor its accumulation over time when it is accompanied by selling debt instruments, makes a bit of difference when it comes to solvency, because monetarily sovereign governments always have unlimited power to issue currency, if they decide to remove all self-imposed constraints on currency issuance and use that power.

There’s a corresponding problem with the term “surplus” as applied to monetarily sovereign Government accounting. Surpluses are supposed to represent the situation where tax revenues exceed spending and the gap between them is described as net “savings” increasing the financial assets of the Government running the surplus. A surplus over a particular time period is viewed as being “in the black” for that time period, as a good thing for the Government doing it, and as reducing the “debt” of that government giving it an increased financial capability to spend in the future.

The term “surplus” in this sense can be properly applied to households, corporations, other private and inter-governmental organizations, and states and nations that aren’t monetarily sovereign such as the US States and the members of the Eurozone. In all these instances the governments involved can accumulate surpluses as financial assets, and the more surpluses they run, the more the risk that they will become insolvent decreases. But when that term is applied to monetarily sovereign nations, then the “surplus” notion is also profoundly misleading because neither the size of the “surplus” during a time period, nor its accumulation over time, makes a bit of difference when it comes to solvency, or adding to the government’s capability to spend in its own currency either currently or in the future.

So, from the viewpoint of Modern Money Theory (MMT), both the terms “deficit” and “surplus,” and also the term “national debt” are misleading when applied to monetarily sovereign nations. Recognizing this, some of us have been kicking around the idea of using new terminology for talking about national financial accounting. In the recent post by Michael Hoexter I referred to earlier he proposes:

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Stop Using Obama for America Against the People!

8:57 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Obama for America, the campaign apparatus with the very large e-mailing list and great segmentation techniques that exploited Romney’s weaknesses to help the President to eke out (yes, I know the electoral vote involved no “eking out,” but the popular vote was something else again) his re-election victory, is now trying to mobilize people who voted for the President to work against their own interests by supporting his deficit/debt cutting activities. So, I couldn’t resist the following commentary on their mobilization e-mail.

From the graphic:

Right now, President Obama is working with leaders of both parties in Washington to reduce the deficit in a balanced way so we can lay the foundation for long-term middle-class job growth and prevent your taxes from going up.

This is just one sentence. But it has more errors in it than a whole book written by some economists. First, it assumes that we should “reduce the deficit.” But:

– It’s fiscally irresponsible to frame and follow a long – term deficit reduction plan (limited austerity) when, as now, both a trade deficit and an output gap between the economy’s potential and its actual results exist. Such a plan is one that must remove more net financial assets, specifically reserves, from the private sector than would otherwise be the case, every year the plan is pursued. Banks can compensate for these reserves by creating new ones when they make loans. But, loans create both assets and liabilities in equal measure and no new net financial assets.

So eventually, if deficit reduction is pursued for long enough, a declining rate of addition to private net financial assets will exacerbate the output gap by lowering aggregate demand and causing both labor and capital to deteriorate. This will eventually dig the US’s economic grave by reducing the productive capacity of the economy, and the Government’s ability to sustain greater levels of deficit spending, producing outputs of real social value, without triggering inflation. Oh, well, President Obama, Timothy Geithner, Jack Lew, Erskine Bowles, Alan Simpson, Alice Rivlin, Pete Peterson, and the rest of us will be able to find consolation by reminding ourselves that our collective trip to the poorhouse was in the service of the neoliberal notion that fiscal responsibility is all about containing the rise of the debt-to-GDP ratio.

– REAL fiscal responsibility is a pattern of fiscal policy intended to achieve public purposes (such as full employment, price stability, a first class educational system, Medicare for All, etc.), while also maintaining or increasing fiscal sustainability, viewed as the extent to which patterns of Government spending do not undermine the capability of the Government to continue to spend to achieve our public purposes. Read the rest of this entry →

Trigger Mechanisms To Avoid the Fiscal Cliff? You’re Kidding, Right?

5:15 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Robert Reich has been writing a series on “the Grand Bargain” and the “fiscal cliff.” In this post, I’ll do a commentary on his “The President’s Opening Bid on a Grand Bargain (II): Put a Trigger Mechanism in the Legislation”, because I think it’s a good example of self-defeating progressivism or “loser liberalism. Take your choice of epithet.

Reich begins:

When he meets with Congressional leaders this Friday to begin discussions about avoiding the upcoming “fiscal cliff,” the President should make crystal clear that America faces two big economic challenges ahead: getting the economy back on track, and getting the budget deficit under control. But the two require opposite strategies. We get the economy back on track by boosting demand through low taxes on the middle class and more government spending. We get the budget deficit under control by raising taxes and reducing government spending. (Taxes can be raised on the wealthy in the short term without harming the economy because the wealthy already spend as much as they want – that’s what it means to be rich.)

So, the good “progressive” defines the problem pretty much the same way as the rest of the Washington mainstream does. And he just assumes everyone agrees on that, especially on the idea that the budget deficit is out of control and that we need to reduce deficits by raising taxes and reducing government spending. So he gives away half the game by agreeing on essentials with the deficit hawks. But why does he agree that the deficit has to be brought “under control,” implying that the deficit is a problem? Why are WE just expected to accept that? Why isn’t there an explanation? When are we going to make these “progressives” explain exactly why the deficit, debt, debt-to-GDP ratio is such a problem for them?

After all, Robert Reich has been around long enough to know that the Government of the United States is a currency issuer and that no deficit it may incur is beyond its power just to make more money? So why do they think it’s a problem? Let’s go on and see if we get a hint of what the explanation for Reich’s concern with “the deficit problem” comes from.

But before we do that, let’s briefly note that Reich’s easy comment that taxing the rich more won’t harm the economy, isn’t quite true since since for every dollar taxed away GDP does decline by about $.30. Of course, that can easily be fixed by spending an equivalent amount to the amount taxed on something more productive than tax cuts for the rich. But since we can easily spend that amount of money on that more productive thing if we want to, anyway, there’s no reason to tax the rich more arising out of any imagined shortage of dollars. Of course, there are many more reasons to tax them, like justice, fairness, the desire to make them pay for ill-gotten gains, etc. But the need for money in order for the Government to spend on other things is just not one of them.

It all boils down to timing and sequencing: First, get the economy back on track. Then tackle the budget deficit.

Get the economy back on track, indeed. But, again, why is the deficit something that has to be “tackled”?

If we do too much deficit reduction too soon, we’re in trouble. That’s why the fiscal cliff is so dangerous. The Congressional Budget Office and most independent economists say it will suck so much demand out of the economy that it will push us back into recession. That’s the austerity trap of low growth, high unemployment, and falling government revenues Europe finds itself in. We don’t want to go there.

We certainly don’t want to go where Europe has been going lately. They’re a great example of how NOT to manage your way out of a Great Financial Crash. But what makes Reich and other progressives think they can avoid the fate of the Eurozone nations by planning for deficit reduction later ,or at all? The assumption here is that there must and will be a time when we can reduce the deficit without harming the economy. But what if there’s no such time? What if any substantial deficit reduction to under 4% of GDP, a figure envisioned in most of the deficit reduction plans being offered, means making the private sector poorer in the aggregate?

That’s not just a theoretical question. Right now, the US imports more than it exports in an amount greater than 4% of GDP. If we continue to do so, and the Government deficit is forced down to a number below 4% of GDP, then a private sector surplus in the aggregate will be literally impossible to attain, and, if we continue with such a policy, year after year, the private sector will lose more and more of its net financial assets as the Government eats the private economy in a fit of fiscal irresponsibility, that since it’s now way past 1984, the austerity advocates label fiscal responsibility.

Although the U.S. economy is picking up and unemployment trending downward, we’re still not out of the woods. So in the foreseeable future — the next six months to a year, at least — the government has to continue to spend, and the vast middle class has to keep spending as well, unimpeded by any tax increase.

Of course, that’s true, but the “vast middle class” can be impeded from consuming by cuts in discretionary Government spending and in social safety net spending equally effectively, and deficit reduction, without raising taxes on the middle class, is likely to involve a good bit of those kinds of cuts, if there’s any compromise at all with the deficit hawks on the budget.

But waiting too long to reduce the deficit will also harm the economy – spooking creditors and causing interest rates to rise.

Now we’re getting an inkling of what Reich’s problem is. He’s afraid of the “bond vigilantes” and their supposed power to raise interest rates and leave us with a great big interest bill that will further increase the deficit. So, all this concern over a “deficit problem” is due to fear of the markets and, perhaps, Reich would have no problem with running continuous deficits if he thought that the Fed, along with the Treasury, control interest rate targets, and that the bond markets are powerless to impose their will on Mr. Bernanke and the Treasury Secretary if they want to keep rates near zero, or at any other level of interest they would like the US to pay? Well, if that’s true, then let me assure Professor Reich that the bond markets and the ratings agencies are powerless to drive up interest rates against the combined determination of the Fed and the Treasury to keep them low.

We can see this if we imagine what would happen if the Fed continues to target overnight rates at close to zero, and the Treasury issued mostly 3 month debt. We know that short-term debt tends strongly to the overnight rate, and that there’s nothing the markets can do about that. So, if the Fed targets that rate at say 0.25%, and if the Treasury issues only short-term debt, the result will be that the markets cannot drive the rates much higher than that even if Moody’s is follish enough to downgrade US debt to below Japan’s rating.

This is why any “grand bargain” to avert the fiscal cliff should contain a starting trigger that begins spending cuts and any middle-class tax increases only when the economy is strong enough. I’d make that trigger two consecutive quarters of 6 percent unemployment and 3 percent economic growth.

Triggers are a really bad idea, and I’d hate to be among those 6% on the U-3 measure of unemployment, or the likely 12% on the U-6 measure, when the spending cuts and tax increases specified in the trigger mechanism occur, because those levels aren’t ones associated with a booming economy or one that is anywhere prosperous enough to stand against years of reduced Government spending at a deficit level below that necessary to compensate for the loss of aggregate demand due to our trade deficit. A trigger like this would take an already fragile economy, operating at way less than full employment, and would make unemployment higher, while it reduces private sector net financial assets during the years of deficit reduction triggered by such a plan. Depending on the details of the trigger, and assuming there’s no private sector credit bubble putting off the day of reckoning, a recession is a sure thing within an unpredictable, but relatively short space of time.

And keep in mind please, that this notion of Reich’s is a proposal for Obama’s opening bid, which presumably is open to compromise. So, perhaps Reich would be willing to set the deficit reduction at a compromise level of 7% U-3 unemployment? What a “loser liberal”!

But the real mistake here is in having any “trigger” at all. The whole idea is really dumb from an economic point of view. Fiscal policy needs to be guided by our expectations about its likely effects on real outcomes; not by some scheme that assumes that deficits are “bad” and must be minimized. We no longer live under the gold standard Professor Reich! A deficit is nothing more than the amount that Government spending exceeds tax revenue. It’s just a number!

To assess its appropriateness we have to place it in the context of what the private sector wants to save, and how much it wants to import, assuming the willingness of other nations to export to the US. The best fiscal policy is one that spends what the US needs to spend to solve its serious problems and achieve public purposes, and at the same time lets the deficit float as it will given such spending.

Of course, too much deficit spending can cause demand-pull inflation. But the proper remedy for that is to raise specific taxes and lower specific spending in such a way that price stability and full employment, as well as other good outcome result from fiscal policy. The size of the deficit or surplus is not a proxy for such real outcomes, and responsible fiscal policy should not be attempting to maximize, minimize or optimize either deficits or surpluses, rather than the real outcomes of government fiscal policy. In other words, run fiscal policy in accordance with expected real outcomes, and forget about deficits and surpluses per se. They should be treated as insignificant side effects, not as as centerpieces for fiscal responsibility, as they were under the gold standard.

To make sure this doesn’t become a means of avoiding deficit reduction altogether, that trigger should be built right into any “grand bargain” legislation – irrevocable unless two-thirds of the House and Senate agree, and the President signs on.

Please, no more foolish legislation that tries to constrain the freedom of action of future Congresses! The context of fiscal policy is always changing, and the Government must be adaptive to changing conditions. Future governments have to take into account things that have gone or are likely to go wrong. We should not, and really cannot bind them to “triggers” that can’t take into account the future conditions that may present themselves.

The fiscal cliff is itself an example of this principle. The “cliff”, after all, results from the sequestration trigger. And now, after agreeing to it, how’s that working for Congress and the rest of us? It’s made Congress look really, really stupid, and has only made it more obvious that the only crisis is what Congress has manufactured, and now refuses to fix in any way that won’t hurt the economy. And it has put the nation in a bind and subjected Congress to an immediate high pressure situation and the people to more “shock doctrine.” The agreement producing it was the last thing we needed. But we’ve got it, because people resorted to a “trigger.”

Now Reich wants to turn to another kind of trigger. But what we need instead is a return to real fiscal responsibility, and some education about what it means to have a non-convertible fiat currency, a floating exchange rate, and no debts in a currency not our own.

The trigger would reassure creditors we’re serious about getting our fiscal house in order. And it would allow us to achieve our two goals in the right sequence – getting the economy back on track, and then getting the budget deficit under control. It’s sensible and do-able. But will Congress and the President do it?

If the main reason for the trigger is to stop the creditors from reacting badly to attempts to create an economy that produces full employment at a living wage and prosperity for all Americans, as well as a modern economy that fulfills our health care, educational, infrastructure, education, energy, climate change, and environmental needs, then I say let’s stop issuing debt and get the bond markets out of the Treasuries business entirely. That will certainly stop our interest costs from getting out of control and also render the bond vigilantes irrelevant to the finances of the US. Then neither Professor Reich, nor anyone else will have to give a moment’s thought to what “our creditors” think about our deficits, our national debt, or anything else we do.

Last time I looked, comparatively few of the bond market investors were actual American voters. So, why should they have any influence over what we choose to do anyway?

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

The Fiscal “Cliff” and the Real Problem

7:02 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

so-called cliff

Like many others, I’m not worried about the so-called fiscal “cliff,” and the ravages to the economy that are likely to occur if Congress doesn’t do something about it before the end of the year. That’s because a lot of the impact can be cushioned in the short run by Executive Branch manipulations while negotiations continue to go on. But if measures aren’t taken to reverse the contractionary effect of the sequestration-induced changes, we’re looking at deficit cuts of $487 Billion over 9 months of the fiscal year.

By comparison, the American Recovery and Reinvestment (ARRA) of 2009 produced only $350 B in stimulus during its first year. And, if the full sequestration were allowed to proceed unmodified, then it would result in a “claw-back” of about 60% of the total ARRA stimulus.

Fortunately, if we do go over the “cliff” heavy pressure will then be on both parties to reintroduce the middle class tax cuts, and make them retroactive, and to restore some of the other cuts as well, so it may be possible to mitigate much, if not most, of the damage, if the Democrats are aggressive enough in pushing the negotiation advantages they appear to have now. So, the real danger of the manufactured “fiscal cliff” is more long-term.

That danger is the constant bleating from both deficit hawks and “progressives” that we have to do something long-term about the deficit/debt problem. So, they put up these long-term plans to delay deficit cutting for a year or two and then want to cut even more down the road to ‘stabilize’ the debt-to-GDP ratio. This is a non-existent problem, and any plan providing for deliberate polices to force deficit reduction by constraining Government spending to some arbitrary level is bound to damage the economy seriously when the prescribed spending cuts and increased taxes for lowering deficits take effect.

People have to come to accept reality, which is: if we want to import more than we export; and also want the private sector as a whole to save money (i.e. bank savings, pensions, other savings) then there is no alternative to having the Government deficit spend. Further, how much the deficit ought to be, without incurring the penalty of demand-pull inflation is dictated by how much we want the private sector to save, and how much of a trade deficit we want to continue to run. If we want to have a trade deficit at 4% of GDP, and we want to save 7% of GDP, then we must allow the Government to run a deficit of approximately 11% of GDP. And we must do that year after year after year, for as long as we want to save that much and import that much.

Do I need to point out that our deficits are not now anywhere near 11%? And that as a result we not only have high unemployment, an output gap of more than $3 Trillion annually in GDP, but also less in both savings (financial wealth being accumulated) and imports (real wealth being accumulated) then we otherwise would have? What will happen if even the “liberal” Center On Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) hits the economy with its proposed total of $3.7 Trillion (the $1.7 Trillion already agreed to last year and the additional $2 Trillion it is proposing) in deficit reduction? That is an average of $370 Billion per year in enforced deficit reduction which will come right out of savings and imports. That, in the absence of credit bubbles creating unsustainable demand, will condemn us to a stagnant economy as far as the eye can see.

We don’t have to run those 11% of GDP deficits, and also have them drive 11% of GDP further debt accumulation. Deficits and debt accumulation are not the same things, and can be decoupled. We can have the deficits and use Proof Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PPCS) to underwrite the deficit spending; or we can change the rules preventing the Fed from monetizing deficit spending by just creating the necessary credits for spending Congressional deficit appropriations and placing them in the Treasury General Account (TGA) when needed. So having the increased debt along with the continuing deficits isn’t necessary. And if we don’t like the debt, then we can get rid of it.

But, again, if we want the imports and if we want the savings, then we must have the deficits, and we must never have deficit reduction unless we also have savings reduction and/or trade deficit reduction. So the bottom line here is: We need to have the “loser liberal” message we’re hearing from Bernie Sanders, Robert Reich, The Center On Budget and Policy Priorities, and various “progressive” pundits and organizations, just stop!

Keynes’s idea that a fiscally responsible nation incurs deficit/debt in bad times, and pays it back in good times with surpluses, is wrong in the context of fiat currency nations. The gold standard’s been gone since 1971. Nations have much more fiscal space. Some nations want to run trade surpluses all the time, and accumulate nominal financial wealth, and others want to accommodate them and accumulate the real wealth of their imports instead.

So, this makes it impossible for those others to have both aggregate private sector savings and full employment, without Government deficits compensating for the demand leakages. The accommodating nations need to run permanent deficits to serve their own populations. And, if other nations, object to that, then they need simply to stop having export-led economies.

We have no national debt, or debt-to-GDP ratio problem, because we are a nation with a non-convertible fiat currency, a floating exchange rate, and debts in currencies not our own. This means we can always generate new currency to pay our obligations using the methods I just mentioned. And it also means that 1) our levels of debt and debt-to-GDP ratio have no impact on the fiscal sustainability of our fiscal policy; and 2) fiscal responsibility can’t mean targeting fiscal policy at particular levels of the national debt, or the debt-to-GDP ratio.

Nor can the bond markets create rising interest rates on US public debt because “we,” that is the Fed and the Treasury together, control those rates and can keep them as low as they want to even if every ratings agencies downgrades US paper to its lowest rating. Put simply, our creditors have zero power over our interest rates. Reich’s talk about persuading our creditors that we’re serious about getting our fiscal house in order is just errant nonsense. What we really need to do about them is to use PPCS to fill the public purse, repay our debt instruments as they come due, and take their bond market in USD away from them entirely. It’s only a source of “welfare” payments to rich people and foreign nations anyway. What do we need it for, anyway?

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)


Photo by tbennett under Creative Commons license.

An MMT Fiscal Responsibility Narrative: Some Truths After A Second Crowd Sourcing Revision

4:28 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

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

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

More comments, criticisms, recasting in more effective form, are all welcome. But this will be my last round of crowd-sourced revision. I hope all readers will feel free to use this version as they think is best to spread the MMT message about fiscal responsibility. To boil that message down: fiscal responsibility is about the impact of fiscal policy on people; it’s not about the old time religion of its impact on a supposedly limited supply of gold standard-based money.

The Narrative

The first four points in the narrative offer some conclusions

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

– It is fiscally irresponsible to frame and follow a long – term deficit reduction plan (limited austerity) when both a trade deficit and an output gap exists, because by definition, such a plan is one that must remove more money from the economy than would otherwise be the case every year the plan is pursued. Eventually, if pursued for long enough, a declining rate of addition to financial assets will exacerbate the output gap by lowering aggregate demand and causing both labor and capital to deteriorate, thus reducing the productive capacity of the economy, and the Government’s ability to sustain greater levels of deficit spending producing outputs of real social value without triggering inflation.

– REAL fiscal responsibility is a pattern of fiscal policy intended to achieve public purposes (such as full employment, price stability, a first class educational system, Medicare for All, etc.), while also maintaining or increasing fiscal sustainability, viewed as the extent to which patterns of Government spending do not undermine the capability of the Government to continue to spend to achieve its public purposes.

– REAL fiscally responsible policy, if it works generally as expected, creates greater real benefits than real costs for people! It has nothing to do with conforming to some standard simple measure like an acceptable debt-to-GDP ratio that has only a questionable theoretical connection to the actual well-being of people. It is political malpractice to give greater priority to that kind of abstraction than to full employment, price stability, a strong social safety net, and Government programs that will help us solve the many outstanding problems of our nation. Let’s put an end to the domination of Washington by that kind of malpractice. Let’s put an end to the current misguided fiscally irresponsible campaign to promote a “Grand Bargain” that is sure to do nothing but destroy more private sector money and jobs than would be the case if we either did nothing or increased the deficit and created a full employment budget.

– Social Security has no solvency or “running out of money” problems. The SS crisis is a phoney one. No solution to this “fiscal crisis,” bipartisan or partisan, is needed. What is needed is a solution to the political problem of getting SS’s funding guaranteed in perpetuity by Congress, just the way it guarantees funding for Medicare Parts B and D.

– The same applies to the so-called Medicare crisis. It too is phoney, and can be solved easily by Congress guaranteeing funding in perpetuity to Medicare Parts A and C.

– More generally, there is no entitlement funding crisis in the United States, except a political crisis where US politicians are determined to ignore their constituents and cut back on an already inadequate safety net either because they believe in, or want others to believe in false ideas about fiscal responsibility and nature of the Government as a giant household.

And the rest of it provides the reasoning underlying them.

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

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

– In addition to taxing and borrowing money, the Government (including the combined activities of the Congress, the Treasury, and the Federal Reserve) has an unlimited capacity to create it. When it taxes and borrows, the Government removes money from the private sector, and destroys it. When it creates money, it adds it to the private sector. A deficit is the net amount of money creation minus the amount of destruction due to taxation. A surplus is the net amount of money destruction minus the amount of creation due to Government spending. (h/t Golfer1john)

– Since this is the case, it’s clear that present proposals to reduce the deficit by an average of $400 Billion/year over the next 10 years are sure to remove money or Treasury securities (assuming deficit spending is accompanied by issuing debt) from the private sector that otherwise would have been created there in the absence of deficit reduction.

– The Government of the United States offers the functional equivalent of interest-bearing savings accounts to investors, usually wealthy individuals, large corporations, and foreign nations. The savings accounts are usually called US Treasury securities, and the sum of their face values is called the debt-subject-to-the-limit; or more colloquially, the national debt, even though comparable savings accounts in banks, are for some reason, not called bank debt. (h/t PG)

– The Treasury can keep accepting deposits (“borrowing money”) and issuing securities if we want it to. There’s no limit on this Government “credit card,” just as there is no limit to the deposits a bank can accept, except the one imposed arbitrarily by Congress in the form of the amount of debt-subject-to-the-limit, otherwise known as the debt ceiling. So, if the US does run out of money, due to a failure to raise the debt ceiling between now and March 31, 2013, it will clearly be the fault of the Congress for refusing to grant further authority to the Treasury to elicit and accept further deposits, also known as refusing to raise the debt ceiling!

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

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

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

– The US is obligated by the 14th Amendment to pay all its debts as they come due. Nevertheless, our national debt cannot be a burden on our grandchildren; unless they wish to make it so by stupidly taxing more than they spend. This is true because, assuming the debt ceiling is raised when needed, or repealed, we have an unlimited credit card to incur new debt at interest rates of our choosing. So, we can “roll over” our national debt indefinitely. Or, alternatively, we can create all the money we need to pay off the debt-subject-to-the-limit, without ever incurring any more debt. One way to do this is through Proof Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PPCS). A second way is through subordinating the Fed to Treasury and then using the Fed’s ability to create money out of thin air to pay back all debt instruments (“savings account balance”) when they fall due. The first way is legal now. The second is constitutional, but would require politically unlikely action by Congress to authorize it.

– A fiscal policy that measures its success or failure in reducing deficits, rather than by its impacts on public purpose, is fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable. The deficit is a meaningless measure because the US Government has no limits on its authority to create/spend money other than self-imposed ones, so neither the level of the national debt, nor the debt-to-GDP ratio can affect the Government’s capacity to spend Congressional Appropriations at all. Also, a deficit/debt oriented fiscal policy ignores real outcomes relating to employment, price stability, economic growth, environmental impact, crime rates, etc. which actually can affect fiscal sustainability by strengthening or weakening the underlying economy, and, with it the legitimacy of the Government and its fiat currency. In short, responsible fiscal policy is not about its impact on Government debt. It’s about its impact on people!

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

An MMT Fiscal Responsibility Narrative: Some Truths After Crowd Sourcing Revision

4:20 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

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

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

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

The Narrative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Photo by Evan-Amos under Creative Commons license.

An MMT Fiscal Responsibility Narrative: Some Truths

7:58 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Many MMT posts and other writings on fiscal responsibility, including my own, focus on the myths of neoliberalism, pointing out why they are myths and developing an alternative MMT perspective in some detail. Off hand, and I may have forgotten something, I couldn’t think of a brief positive MMT narrative containing primarily the truths, rather than the myths. So, here’s my version. Comments, criticisms, recasting in more effective form, are all welcome.

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

– In addition to taxing and borrowing money and, most importantly, the Government has an unlimited capacity to create it. When it taxes and borrows, it removes it from the private sector. When it creates it, over and above what it taxes or borrows, it adds it to the private sector.

–The Treasury can keep borrowing money if we want it to. There’s no limit on the Government credit card except the one imposed arbitrarily by Congress.

– Bond markets don’t control US interest rates; the Federal Reserve Bank does by exercising its authority to meet its target interest rates. Bond vigilantes have no power against the Fed. If they fight against its interest rate targets; then they “die.”

– The bond markets will most probably buy US debt for the foreseeable future; but if they don’t, then the US won’t be forced into insolvency; because the Government can always create the money needed to meet US obligations.

– We’re obligated to pay all US debts as they come due. Nevertheless, our national debt cannot be a burden for our grandchildren; since we have an unlimited credit card to incur new debt at interest rates of our choosing, or, alternatively can create all the money we need to pay off debt subject to the limit, without incurring any more debt; unless they wish to make it so by stupidly taxing more than they spend.

– Since the US Government has no limits on its authority to create/spend money other than self-imposed ones, neither the level of the national debt, nor the debt-to-GDP ratio can affect the Government’s capacity to spend Congressional Appropriations at all. That’s why a fiscal policy that measures its success, not by its policy impacts, but by its success or failure in reducing deficits isn’t fiscally responsible, or likely to be sustainable.

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

– Social Security has no solvency or “running out of money” problems. The SS crisis is a phoney one. So, no solution to this “fiscal crisis,” bipartisan or partisan is needed. What is needed is a solution to the political problem of getting SS’s funding guaranteed in perpetuity by Congress, just the way it guarantees funding for Medicare Parts B and D.

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

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

– Austerity cannot work in the United States economy because budget surpluses, defined as tax revenue exceeding spending, destroy net financial assets in the private sector. Unless, these financial assets are replaced through revenues acquired by running a trade surplus; the continuous loss in net financial assets by the private sector is unsustainable, eventually leading to credit bubbles, recession or depression, and the return of deficit spending. For a Government and economy like the US, with both a trade deficit and a substantial output gap, evidenced by high unemployment and under-employment, a policy of deficit reduction aiming toward budget surpluses (austerity) is destructive and will only push the economy further into recession or depression.

– REAL Fiscal Responsibility is a pattern of fiscal policy intended to achieve public purposes, while also maintaining or increasing fiscal sustainability viewed as the extent to which patterns of Government spending do not undermine the capability of the Government to continue to spend to achieve its public purposes.

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

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

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

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)