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Richard Eskow Asks: Which Side Are You On?

9:32 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Education Social Security

Education Social Security

Richard Eskow of the Center for the American Future, posted a very good one a couple of days ago. He used the old union meme “which side are you on” to beat up the President and Congress about Social Security being placed on the negotiating table. I thought his writing on it was striking. Here’s some of it:

“This is a moment of moral clarity. Right now there are only two sides in the Social Security debate: the side that says it’s acceptable to cut benefits – in a way that raises taxes for all income except the highest – and the side that says it isn’t.

“It’s time to ask our leaders – and ourselves – a simple question: Which side are you on?”

“Nancy Pelosi says she can convince most Congressional Democrats to “stick with the President” as he pursues his gratuitous and callous plan to cut Social Security benefits as part of a deficit deal – even though Social Security does not contribute to the deficit.”

I certainly hope that Nancy Pelosi cannot convince most Democrats to risk their seats and prepare the way for a Republican sweep in 2014 by voting to cut SS. The Republicans will respond to this by casting themselves as the protectors of SS, and while this is ridiculous, the Democrats will not be credible in claiming that they are its protectors, and they will lose their identity as the protectors of the safety net, a very high price to pay for the sake of raising taxes on the rich by an amount that is insignificant in the greater scheme of things. Eskow goes on:

“Excuse me: Stick with the President? What about sticking with our seniors and our veterans? What about sticking with our disabled fellow Americans? What What about sticking with the more than 4,000 children on Social Security who lost a parent in the Iraq War?

“If you want to “stick with” Americans on Social Security, it’s time to call everybody who represents you in Washington – your Representative, your Senator, your President – and tell them that they’ll lose your support if they do this deal.

“It’s time for an end to the Orwellian doublespeak. Cutting benefits won’t “strengthen” Social Security, as Nancy Pelosi claims. Cuts of 6.5 percent for a 75 year old and 9.2 percent for a 95 year old aren’t so small that “folks won’t even notice ‘em,” as President Obama claimed. They’re not a “technical” adjustment, as his press secretary argued, nor do “most economists believe … this about getting a proper measure of inflation.

“The smart economists know that even today’s cost of living formula isn’t enough. It undercounts the things older and disabled people use the most, like health care and public transportation. Some other people know the formula’s inadequate, too: Seniors. They live with the costs every day.

“So let’s stop all the double-talk and get down to the real question at hand: Which side are you on?”

The framing is “which side are you on”? Will you stick with the President and the people, who will do a deal at any costs, or will you stick with seniors and the American people. This reminds me of the frame Randy Wray recently used in one of his posts on re-framing MMT. That framing came from Bruce Springsteen: Read the rest of this entry →

New MSM Trillion Dollar Coin Wave: Here’s The Big Story

2:34 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone


The one thing that jumps out at you when reading the mainstream posts of the past week-and-a-half bringing Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) into the forefront of attention again, for the first time since last year’s debt ceiling crisis, is that every mainstream blogger or commentator is telling a story about minting a Trillion Dollar Coin (TDC), or a few trillion dollar coins as an option the President can either use or not to get around the debt ceiling. But no one is telling us the much bigger story of the enormously increased authority to cause the creation of fiat money, delegated to the Executive Branch by the Congress in the 1996 legislation enabling PCS. And no one is telling us what the possible implications of this change are for our political and economic systems.

I’ve reviewed these posts, as well as a cable segment, in the four earlier installments of this series. The installments, beginning with this one, are here. The posts and the cable segment are by: Pethokoukis, Wiesenthal, Carney, Drum, Yglesias, Yglesias, Harry Bradford, Brad Plumer. and Chris Hayes.

Background: Moving off the Gold Standard

This is reminiscent of the situation with the system of fiat currency itself in 1971, when President Nixon, took us off the gold standard for purposes of international trade. After Nixon’s action there were no good treatments in the Press, or by economists, about how the move to a non-convertible fiat currency with a floating exchange rate ,and no international debts denominated in any other currency, had changed the financial system by removing the possibility that the Government could become involuntarily insolvent (“run out of money” except through its own choice not to create more).

Before Nixon’s big change, the amount of US currency and reserves was limited by the amount of our gold reserves, because it was possible for other nations to demand payment in gold in return for the dollars they held in their accounts at the Federal Reserve. In fact, Nixon closed the gold convertibility window, because France had started what looked like might be a multinational run on the gold reserves of the United States, jeopardizing the stability of the dollar in international trade, and threatening its role as the reserve currency in the middle of the Vietnam War.

After the window was closed however, other nations followed the United States in leaving the gold standard, with the result that now we have a world of nations with fiat currencies, though many nations aren’t “sovereign” in their own currencies because they’ve incurred debts in other currencies, or have pegged their currencies to the dollar, or, in the case of the Eurozone nations have, like the American States, given up their power to issue currency, and become currency users of the Euro (or the dollar, as the case may be).

Nixon’s ending of the gold standard was enormously significant because it removed the gold supply solvency constraint on the United States. And it restored the powers of the Government given it by the Constitution to issue money as needed to provide for the common defense and the general welfare (today we might say fulfill the public purpose).

The Gold Standard Hangover and Progressive Fiscal Policy

But the full significance of this event wasn’t understood by most government officials or the public, both here and in other nations. Constraints on spending that were appropriate for a gold standard-based financial system were never repealed. They persist to this very day in our institutions, in our minds, in our economic systems, and in our politics.

These included: 1) Congress dividing the financial functions of the Government between the Federal Reserve and the Treasury; 2) Congress prohibiting the Fed from directly buying Treasury-issued debt; 3) Congress’s ceiling on debt subject to the limit; 4) Congress’s prohibiting the Fed from issuing credits directly to the Treasury to implement deficit spending, forcing it to issue debt and making the terms deficit and debt close to synonymous in the public’s mind; 5) Congress’s delegating its currency power primarily to the Fed; while leaving its delegation of the power to coin money with the Treasury; and 6) Congress leaving the Fed, the Central Bank, independent of the Executive Branch and the Treasury, but, at the same time closely associated with the Banking and Wall Street interests that own the regional banks, and sit on the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC).

These constraints have divided the sovereign currency power of the Government and weakened the President’s power to implement spending appropriated by Congress, when that spending involves deficits, even though that deficit spending was previously approved by Congress in its appropriations process. They have also perpetuated the previous gold standard-based understanding of deficit spending as closely associated with the national debt and the further understanding of the debt as a threat to government solvency, the international credit of the United States, “our grandchildren,” our standing with “the bond vigilantes,” fiscal sustainability, and fiscal responsibility.

So, these constraints have mired us down in the deficit/debt cluster of issues, self-imposed chains that prevent us from using Federal fiscal policy to meet our many problems. They have been the worst enemy of economic progressivism over the past 40 or so years, and have prevented us from responding strongly enough to the crash of 2008 to create a robust, full employment economy.

And, perhaps worse, the thinking that arises out of them now rationalizes the policies of austerity and deficit reduction that threaten to destroy the social safety net and bring our economy down again into recession or depression, or at least into a decade or more of future stagnation. These austerity policies will ruin the economic lives and prospects of a generation of Americans, and will place increasing burdens driving more and more older people into poverty, for the sake of false gold-standard based theories about how to run fiscal policy in what has become a sovereign fiat currency-based financial system.

PCS Creates a Great Crack in Gold Standard Constraints and Austerity Justifications
Read the rest of this entry →

New MSM Trillion Dollar Coin Wave Misses the Big Story: Bradford and Plumer

9:19 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In my last three posts, I’ve critiqued the new wave of mainstream posts and commentary on Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) on my way to making the case that the MSM are missing “the big story” about PCS. These include posts by Pethokoukis, Wiesenthal, Carney, Drum, Yglesias, Yglesias, and an MSNBC cable segment by Chris Hayes. All of these have looked at PCS in terms of the Trillion Dollar Coin (TDC) and its possible impact on the impending debt ceiling shakedown. None have viewed it from a broader point of view. Let’s now look at commentaries by Harry Bradford, and Brad Plumer.

Harry Bradford

Harry Bradford posted on the possibility of minting two $1 T platinum coins. He does the journo thing of citing a bunch of people saying this or that about aspects of the TDC proposal while doing very little evaluation and analysis. More or less, his post is just a モhe said, she saidヤ treatment.

Bradford begins by citing Chris Krueger’s Guggenheim report, and cites Krueger’s opinion that using the coin option might be inflationary, and might trigger a wave of law suits, Of course, I’ve already indicated above that neither of these things are likely to happen and that Krueger offers no reason for thinking these two effects would come to pass. But Bradford takes Krueger’s view at face value.

He then quotes one economist as telling the Washington Post that “A government shutdown is much more straightforward” than using PCS. In reply to which one might ask: more straightforward for who? The journalists who have to write about it and won’t have to research PCS beyond the TDC meme, or the millions of people who will suffer economic hardship for at least some period of time because the President decided to engage in that kind of brinksmanship, rather than just mint a platinum coin with a high enough face value to take the debt ceiling off the table as a negotiating tactic supporting the strategy of “shock doctrine” designed to emasculate the social safety net?

Bradford then cites Pethokoukis as saying that using the coin might cause inflation, a point I examined here, indicating that Pethokoukis was following Krueger’s opinion and that Krueger’s opinion, was just that, a statement supported by no argument at all.

Then Bradford points out that others incuding WaPo’s Brad Plumer, don’t believe it would cause inflation since the money from the coin would not be directly spent into the economy. And he ends by indicating that in July 2011 Felix Salmon wrote that if the coin were used, then investor confidence in the US might be damaged; but that I debated that view in a post at Naked Capitalism.

Bradford neither tells us why Salmon thought investor confidence might be lost, nor why I disagreed with him. As it happens, Salmon thought that using the platinum coin would cause the US to lose reserve currency status. I argued against that point by questioning why that would happen as long as we were paying our debts with the seigniorage. I also pointed out that it would be very difficult to find a substitute for USD, and went over the difficulties, on a case-by-case basis, involved in shifting the reserve currency to another nation.

Brad Plumer

Brad Plumer’s post “Could two platinum coins solve the debt-ceiling crisis?” touches the various bases already reviewed above, including calling the coin and other options for getting around the Congressional prohibition, “wacky,” while quoting the Peterson Institute for International Economics’s Joseph Gagnon to the effect that using the the two coins would not be inflationary, because the Government would just be using the proceeds to spend at existing levels. This part is correct, of course.

Then Plumer adds something new to the discussion:

This strategy is hardly risk-free. Opponents could plausibly argue that the original law was intended to set rules around commemorative coins, not to finance the operations of the government. And, of course, the political blowback would be fierce.

Indeed, even Balkin now says that he thinks the platinum-coin option is too risky. If Congress can’t or won’t lift the debt ceiling, then most likely the Obama administration would have to start shutting down parts of government so that it doesn’t default on its debt. That, in theory, would prod Congress to act.

“All those other ideas [like the platinum coin option] are very uncertain, and they could lead to complicated litigation,” says Balkin. “A government shutdown is much more straightforward.”

Plumer is right that the political blowback would be fierce if the President used the PCS option. That’s why I think it’s best for the President to use it in a way that introduces definitive changes in the Treasury’s authority to spend Congressional appropriations without borrowing, and in the political context of fiscal politics by creating the wherewithal to pay off the current debt. I favor minting a $60 T proof platinum coin to do that, to which the political blowback would be still more fierce. But, if one is going to get fierce political blowback in the first place then one may as well get it for changing something fundamental, rather than for using a band-aid over a short-term problem (the debt ceiling). For reasons I’ve outlined in this post and this one, I think minting a $60 T coin, would be a political game-changer for progressives and can build enough popular support for the President to survive any political blowback.

But as Plumer says, Jack Balkin now thinks that the platinum coin option is too risky to use, not only for political reasons; but also because he thinks it would spawn complicated litigation. It may spawn litigation challenging the President’s action based on the intent of the law. But as I argued above, suing and winning based on the question of Congressional intent is very difficult and tests the expertise of justices who like to stick to the text of legislation, and also there is the question of standing.

Balkin thinks that it’s more “straightforward” for the President, in case of Republican intransigence, to end the debt ceiling crisis by prioritizing spending with bond holders first on the priority list, and with gradual shut downs of portions of the Government as revenue shortages require. I agree with Balkin that this way of handling the situation will eventually work for the President politically and the Republicans will be blamed as they were in 1995 for the shutdown.

However, many people will suffer the effects of the shutdown; so for them this is not a “straightforward” course; but one that introduces many more complications into their lives than the President minting a $60 T platinum coin and then braving political blowback and litigation, and perhaps attempts at impeachment by the House.

It’s worth noting that Jack Balkin has just posted an excellent argument at the Atlantic for his preferred strategy of pursuing the government shutdown course, and a version at his own blog that refers to PCS.

In the one on his blog he says:

Still others have begun discussing alternatives like trillion dollar platinum coins and the sale of exploding options, which I discussed during the 2011 debt ceiling crisis. These two ideas are quite interesting theoretically, but they are practically irrelevant.

Why? He doesn’t make that clear except to go on to explain why the government shut down strategy will work. And later on in the post he says:

In fact, if the president ignored the debt ceiling and issued his own bonds, or if he publicly announced that he would mint trillion dollar coins or sell an exploding option to the Federal Reserve, he might lose the high ground in the standoff and actually be politically weakened. First, Republicans would feel no obligation to raise the debt ceiling because Obama would have taken all the pressure off them, and government functions would continue normally. Second, any of these strategies would give Republicans the opportunity to go on the attack. They would insist that Obama was acting illegally, go to court to stop him, and possibly even try to impeach him.

I agree with this, but only if Obama were to chose one of the low trillion dollar platinum coin options. Those are no good, because they leave the fundamental fantasy of fiscal scarcity intact. We can see that it is this kind of option Balkin is thinking about because even when PCS is used he still sees raising the debt ceiling as an issue that needs to be settled. But if a $60 T coin option were used, then the debt subject to the limit would be paid off and the debt ceiling would never be an issue, at least for the foreseeable future. In my next post, I’ll get to the Big Story about PCS, the MSM commentators missed.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

New MSM Trillion Dollar Coin Wave Misses the Big Story: Pethokoukis and Wiesenthal

4:12 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In this post I said I would blog about the likely expected relationship between the different PCS options and inflation using the framework laid out by Scott Fullwiler! But, after reconsidering, I thought I’d hold off until later, and, instead, first provide a discussion of the “new wave” of MSM-based blog posts on the Trillion Dollar Coin (TDC) “solution” to the upcoming debt ceiling conflict. As it turns out that will take a number of posts in itself

This new wave may have started with a post by Bruce Bartlett (h/t Lambert Strether) in the New York Times saying that the real fiscal cliff behind the anxiety many people are feeling is the debt ceiling crisis. Bartlett didn’t write about the coin. But, I think he got mainstreamers off the fiscal cliff, and focusing on the debt ceiling as “the real crisis,” where a bipartisan compromise could result in serious damage to the social safety net most Americans want to see maintained and even extended.

So, on 12/05 at 10:04 AM, the platinum coin, or at least the TDC became mainstream News again, James Pethokoukis at AEI posted “How could Washington avoid a debt ceiling default? Mint a few trillion dollar platinum coins. Seriously.” His was quickly followed by posts from Joe Wiesenthal at Business Insider (12/05 at 10:24 AM); Chris Hayes at MSNBC substituting as host on the Rachel Maddow show (12/05 at 9:20 PM); John Carney at CNBC (12/06 at 11:54 AM); Kevin Drum at Mother Jones (12/06 at 3:01 PM); Matthew Yglesias at Slate (12/06 at 4:15 PM); Matthew Yglesias at Slate (12/07 at 11:07 AM); Harry Bradford at The Huffington Post (11:15 AM); and Brad Plumer at the Washington Post (12/07 at 12:37 PM) Let’s review Pethokoukis and Wiesenthal in this post, and hold reviews of the others for future ones.

Pethokoukis

This post raises the issue of the debt ceiling and how to cope with a lack of settlement. Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) as a possible solution to the likely upcoming “crisis” is presented in the form of a long quote from Chris Krueger an analyst at Guggenheim Securities’s Washington Research Group. Krueger postulates that a handful of trillion dollar coins would be minted and would result in augmenting the Treasury’s account at the Fed by the amount of the handful. Krueger then opines that the Treasury would pay its bills removing the threat of default, and he adds:

”. . . The effects on the currency market and inflation are unclear, to say the least. You would also likely trigger a wave of lawsuits similar to the Constitutional Option and create two tranches of treasuries. Both this option and the Constitutional Option are VERY low probability options.”

Actually, if the Treasury uses the handful of trillions to repay its intra-governmental debt, then the effects on inflation are very clear. The money repaid will not be spent; but held in “Trust” accounts at the Fed. Since they will not enter the economy, they can’t possibly increase demand, because there is no plausible mechanism which they could work through to cause inflation. This should be clear with a moment’s thought and it indicates that Krueger’s speculation about inflation and the currency is irresponsible, and the product of lack of thought about how the money is likely to be used.

Next, it’s true law suits might occur, if someone could be found who would plausibly have standing to sue. But, since the money produced by the Fed in return for the coins won’t be used for anything except repayment of intra-governmental debt, who would be damaged by such a course of action?

Not the Government agencies that had the Treasury debt repaid, who operate under the authority of the President in any case. And they’re the only parties involved in this, other than the Fed.

And even if the Fed had doubts about the validity of the law providing for PCS, it can’t sue because the law governing the Federal Reserve states that in cases of disagreement between the Treasury Secretary and the Fed Chairman, the view of the Secretary will prevail. So, it seems that no one would have standing to sue if Treasury used PCS.

Krueger says that both PCS and constitutional options are “low probability options.” Well, it goes without saying that they ARE low probability options, since out of all the times the debt ceiling has been extended there has never been a President who used either option. Even if the President were to use one of them; it would still be a low probability option the next time a ned to raise the debt ceiling arose.

However, low probability options are not necessarily low likelihood options. The question is whether the hypothesis that the President will use PCS to avoid the debt ceiling has a higher or lower likelihood of being true than competing hypotheses about what the President will do about the debt ceiling problem. It is not whether it has a higher or lower probability than they do.

That likelihood will depend on the circumstances of the negotiation with the Republicans and the outcomes of the crisis that the President and members of Congress find acceptable. We don’t know those circumstances right now. But we do know that the Republicans are likely to demand a high price for lifting the ceiling, and that the President has said he won’t play debt ceiling games. So, if the Republicans insist on a very high price how will he avoid doing that?

There are only four options if he can’t deal with them on acceptable terms both to himself and Democrats in Congress: first, he can shut down the Government, prioritize debt repayment, and spending, and bring public pressure to bear on the Republicans to give in. I agree with those who say that this course would be very effective eventually in forcing the Republicans to lift the ceiling; but also less or more damaging to the economy, and to many, many people, depending on how long it takes to force the Republicans to deal on acceptable terms. So, this option is very costly in real terms.

Second, he can use PCS. And this isn’t a single option, it’s a family of options, ranging from $500 Billion to as much as $1 quadrillion.

Third, he can use the constitutional option asserting that the debt ceiling legislation is unconstitutional because it conflicts with Section 4 of the 14th Amendment.

And fourth, he can use a little known debt instrument called a consol. Consols pay interest forever, but the Government never has to repay the principal on them. For this reason, they would not count against the debt subject to the limit, which is what counts for violating the debt ceiling law.

Among the above, the most harmful choice for the economy and people is to shut the Government down for more than a few days. Of the three other options, the constitutional option is a worse choice than PCS or consols, because, the President has the choice of using one or the other, or a combination of both, to comply with the law and not breach the debt ceiling, so, he can’t very well say that the debt ceiling prevents him from complying with the dictates of the 14th amendment. He will lose that one in Court, if it gets there. It might not get there, however, because of the standing question. You’d need both Houses of Congress to contest the issue, and the Democratic Senate is very unlikely to go along.

The choices that are least painful to the economy, and also least likely to get challenged in Court with any likelihood of success, because they are consistent with the wording of legislation, are the PCS and consol options. So, even though those options have never been used before, the hypothesis that either one or both may be used is not low likelihood, compared to the other reasonable possibilities. Since these are good options from the viewpoint of legality, if the President is really unwilling to play debt ceiling games, is pushed too far, and doesn’t want to take the substantial risk of damaging the economy at all through a government shutdown, then they are also likely ones.

After quoting Krueger, Pethokoukis ends his post by saying that he agrees with Krueger about the possible effects of using PCS on the currency market and inflation. In other words, he’s afraid of the possible effects, but has no specifiable reasons for his fear. So, this fear is just speculation, irrational and without foundation. It’s not something we ought to take seriously.

Joe Wiesenthal

Joe Wiesenthal’s main point seems to be that it’s amazing that we’re talking about the constitutional and PCS options. On the PCS option he quotes Krueger approvingly in the same way Pethokoukis did. About PCS specifically he says:

The other possibility that was probably even more mind-bending was the Trillion Dollar Coin Idea, which originated with a reader of Cullen Roche’s blog. The gist is that the Treasury is allowed to unilaterally mint platinum coins. It could create a $1 trillion coin, and deposit it at its account at The Federal Reserve.

It sounds completely crazy, but … it’s even crazier to think that the U.S. would default arbitrarily just because of a dumb law.

So if the choice is between default and a trillion dollar platinum coin, we endorse the coin all the way.

So, Wiesenthal seems to like the coin option; but doesn’t tell us why he likes it better than the constitutional option. Also, he focuses only on the TDC platinum coin option, and mentions no other variations on PCS. He even says that if the choice is between the TDC, and default then he prefers the coin. In addition, he doesn’t point out that the coin option conflicts with the constitutional option, in the sense that as long as it and consols are options, the constitutional option doesn’t work from a legal point of view.

Finally, Wiesenthal says that the Trillion Dollar coin originated with a reader of Cullen Roche’s blog. This is certainly true. But the “reader,” beowulf (Carlos Mucha), 1) was a reader and commmenter on many blogs at the time (July 7, 2011) apart from Cullen Roche’s and 2) originated the platinum coin idea in a comment at New Deal 2.0, 8 months before Cullen Roche’s post on PCS that beowulf commented on, and then blogged about it at FireDogLake and Correntewire on January 3, 2011, more than 6 months before Cullen Roche blogged on the subject. So, though Wiesenthal’s statement on the origin of the PCS idea is strictly true, it is a misleading distortion of the actual provenance and development of the idea, which you’ll find here.

Let’s wind this first Big Story Missing post up! There are two points that stand out for me from the first two blog posts in the new wave on PCS. First, the story they focus on is the debt ceiling and the TDC, or low trillions variations on PCS, And second, they don’t treat interactions among the options the President has for getting past the debt ceiling crisis. In particular, they don’t assess the legal impact of some of the other options on the constitutional option. So, have they focused on something other than the big story here? That’s the question I’d like readers to keep in mind as we review other new wave commentaries in future posts.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

The Trillion Dollar Coin Is A Conservative Meme

12:55 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

The Trillion Dollar Coin (TDC) is, first, an oversimplified meme, because there’s not one TDC solution, but lots of Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) variations on that idea with differing implications for politics. Some just kick the can down the road, until the next debt ceiling crisis, or set up another trade between the Administration of something relatively valuable for something less valuable. Others would really change the political game.

Progressives should want that game changed and the conservative, FIRE sector, neoliberal bias of American politics shifted to a progressive problem solving bias. Conservatives, even if they favor using a TDC to avoid a debt ceiling crisis, will want to retain the political game they are now playing and use it only for getting around the debt ceiling. Otherwise they will want to retain the present system of funding deficits through debt issuance, so they can continue to talk about the US “not being able to afford x, y, or z, because we’re running out of money.” Or being subject to the “bond vigilantes, if our national debt grows too much.” Or having to worry about leaving huge debts to our grandchildren.

Let’s now look at some variations on the PCS meme, other than the $1 T coin, and their political implications.

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/deficit hawk 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 coin seigniorage 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 coin seigniorage 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.

In my next post, I’ll blog about the likely expected relationship between the different PCS options and inflation using the framework laid out by Scott Fullwiler!

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

More Austerity Advice From the Very Rich: Buffett On Deficits!

9:10 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett’s recent op-ed in the New York Times is making a stir because it calls for a minimum tax on high incomes above $One million annually. But I was much more interested in some deficit targeting he proposes which exposes his ignorance about the sectoral financial balances model of macro-economics, and reveals him as a deficit hawk whose advice, if followed would be unsustainable and lead the United States into another deep recession. I’ll comment on a couple of paragraphs in Buffett’s op-ed.

Our government’s goal should be to bring in revenues of 18.5 percent of G.D.P. and spend about 21 percent of G.D.P. — levels that have been attained over extended periods in the past and can clearly be reached again. As the math makes clear, this won’t stem our budget deficits; in fact, it will continue them. But assuming even conservative projections about inflation and economic growth, this ratio of revenue to spending will keep America’s debt stable in relation to the country’s economic output.

So, our goal ought to be running deficits of 2.5% and this is Warren Buffett’s idea of fiscal responsibility. Now here’s an accounting identity from macroeconomics, called the Sectoral Financial Balances (SFB) model in which the economy is divided into three sectors, and in all the balances are financial flows over a period of time:

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

There’s plenty of empirical evidence showing that the real world interpretation of this identity works. But, there’s NO negative evidence refuting it.

Now, let’s say that the income of the private sector exceeds the amount it pays to the other two sectors by 6% of GDP, so that the private sector has a surplus. And let’s say that the income of the foreign sector in dollars exceeds what it spends on US goods and services by 4% of US GDP, leaving it with a surplus, and the US with a current account (trade) deficit, then what does the formula say MUST happen to the Government balance?

Government spending will have to exceed its income from taxation by 10%. That is, it will have to run a deficit of 10% to support the foreign surplus and the domestic savings. i.e. 6% + 4% + (-10%) = 0.

Now, what happens if we refuse to let the deficit be 10% of GDP, and that we either cut Gov spending or raise taxes to make that happen? Let’s say we want to hit Warren Buffett’s target, so that we try to force that -10% to become Buffett’s – 2.5% of GDP. Then we have choices.

We can force a zero trade balance, by refusing to import more than we export. But that still leaves us with the need to DECREASE the private balance surplus from 6% to 2.5% of GDP to get the Federal budget to a deficit 2.5%. This is a decline of 3.5% of GDP in savings the private sector might have had, if Mr. Buffett’s deficit target was, say, – 6% of GDP.

There are other options here of course. We could leave the foreign sector balance where it is at 4% of GDP, and decrease the private sector balance to -1.5%, of GDP, actually increasing the private sector’s debt by 1.5% of GDP. But, do we really want to do either of these first two options or anything in between?

I really don’t think so. Do you? Why would we want a policy that would impoverish the private sector over time, or minimize its accumulation of nominal wealth? Is this really consistent with the public purpose?

Read the rest of this entry →

Let’s Defend Social Security and Other Entitlements With the Second Bill Of Rights

2:05 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

The favorite defense of Social Security by progressives harkens back to Franklin Roosevelt <a who famously said:

”I guess you’re right on the economics. They are politics all the way through. We put those pay roll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program. Those taxes aren’t a matter of economics, they’re straight politics.”

So, today progressives echo this even though the SS Tax is a regressive tax, and anything but progressive in its impact on the economy. With the development of the MMT approach to economics, and its emphasis on the government’s ability to spend without a solvency constraint on the Federal Budget, it’s now clear that SS doesn’t need to be funded by a regressive payroll tax; but can be funded out of general revenues and also guaranteed by a provision in law providing for automatic annual funding. Some government “trust funds” are funded this way, including parts of Social Security and Medicare, so there’s no economic reason why the primary funding for both programs couldn’t be provided for these programs.

But a friend, in an echo of FDR’s view, recently said to me in correspondence:

“It seems to me that it is a lot easier to make the case that people are entitled to a government benefit if they have been paying a dedicated tax for 45 years that is described as funding that benefit.”

And I replied in the following way.

It is easier; but it’s still not easy as we now see; and, on the downside, to defend it that way we have to:

1) support the view that people are entitled to government payments only when they pay for them;

2) then defend against the attack that the entitlement payout greatly exceeds the amount paid in, and has no relationship to what is paid in;

3) accept the idea that SS and Medicare must be self-funding like any business, while also ensuring that they are “solvent” as much as 50 years out unlike any business (that is people are upset now because questionable long term fiscal projections show that full coverage of SS spending can only be projected out for 21 years to 2033, so they are calling for fixes to extend that projected “full solvency” period out to 2075 or 2080);

4) always have a very hard time justifying any increases to entitlements for current recipients, because those oppose entitlements always cry out that the Government is running out of money, and would have to raise SS taxes to pay for it;

5) never bring into the argument the fact that things are very different now than they were when SS was first passed, because we now have a fiat money system which makes many things possible now that weren’t possible back then, because THERE IS NO SOLVENCY PROBLEM; and

6) ignore the great argument that our entitlements are the embodiment of an economic bill of rights that ought to apply to all Americans which, of course was outlined by the same FDR in 1944.

In my view, the protestant ethic defense that we’re entitled to SS, because we worked for it isn’t worth the candle. It makes things easier in the short-run, but it reinforces a skin-flintism which is wholly inappropriate to our modern economy, with its monetarily sovereign fiat currency system, and is largely responsible for the rapidly increasing inequality we’ve been experiencing over the years, which has now reached a ridiculous and anti-democratic pass.

We can’t look at SS and our other entitlements in isolation. We have to fight and win the battle for FDR’s economic bill of rights, and for an expansion of all the entitlements in the American social safety net; now the stingiest, most inadequate safety net among modern industrial nations!

FDR’s strategy for justifying SS was great for the 1930s, when we were still on the gold standard. But nearly 80 years later it’s time to move on to his economic bill of rights as our justification for entitlements, and stop reinforcing the idea that it’s only an entitlement if one pays for it. It’s time to stand on the over-riding moral argument! It’s time to say that when a nation like the United States can afford to implement these rights, as the United States has been able to do at least since 1971, they then are human rights that must be implemented as part of the public purpose. Let us have a Green New Deal with a much stronger social safety net including greatly increased payments for SS and Medicare for All, and a Federal Job Guarantee emphasizing Green Jobs!

Let’s fight for that and implement it economically using Modern Money Theory (MMT)-based fiscal policies!

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Photo by Mr. T in DC under Creative Commons license.

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.