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Rationalization and Obligation, Part IV: Differences Among Options

7:05 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

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

7:34 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

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

Premium Bonds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sales of material and cultural assets to the Fed,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

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Trillion Dollar Coin: Posts on Legality and Constitutionality

9:58 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Enthusiasm for using Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) to produce a Trillion Dollar Coin, or coins totaling a few trillion dollars continues to increase. The twitterverse went mad two nights ago around #mintthecoin, a hashtag originated by MMT’s Stephanie Kelton, which by yesterday morning had become the 5th most highly trending topic on twitter.

Meanwhile, the blogosphere continued to produce more points of view on the Platinum Coin. The points of view divide into those that are very negative; either claiming that 1) using Platinum Coins would be illegal or unconstitutional, or 2) using them would be just ridiculous and financially irresponsible, and so should be avoided; and others that favor using PCS 3) either in a limited way to avoid the debt ceiling crisis, or 4) in a much more robust way, that would change the procedures underlying Federal spending, so that fiscal policies advocating austerity no longer have a political foundation in a visible and rising national debt that austerity advocates can constantly talk about fixing through “shared sacrifice.” In this post I’ll review new posts on legality and constitutionality.

Kevin Drum on legality

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones filed his second recent post claiming that the trillion dollar coin is illegal and will be subject to challenge in Court on grounds of intent. He repeats exactly the same reasoning he used in his first post. I’ve already critiqued that reasoning saying that the Courts generally don’t try to interpret laws based on theories about Congressional intent. The Justices aren’t collective psychologists who are expert at divining the intent of the Congress. They are expert, however, at interpreting what the text of a law says, and so that is what they stick to almost all the time. A challenge to PCS based on intent isn’t something any Court is likely to take up. Drum then adds:

There is, apparently, a widespread belief that courts will uphold a literal, hypertechnical reading of legislative language regardless of its obvious intent, but I’m quite certain this isn’t true. Courts are expected to rule based on the most sensible interpretation of a law, not its most tortured possible construction. I don’t think there’s even a remote chance that any court in the country would uphold a Treasury reading of this law that used it as a pretense for minting a $1 trillion coin.

I am, obviously, not a lawyer. So if someone with actual legal training in the appropriate area of the law says I’m wrong, then I guess I’m wrong.

Well,, the language of 31USC5112(k) doesn’t look very tortured or “hypertechnical” either to myself or many others who have looked at this including lawyers Jack Balkin and Carlos Mucha (beowulf); but seems very plain and unambiguous. Drum is entitled to his opinion, but as he keeps saying, he’s no lawyer, and his judgment about what the Courts will do based on the problem of intent isn’t very plausible.

What if a trillion dollar coin is used to avoid the debt ceiling, and this saves the United States from defaulting on its debts, and the world financial system from collapsing? Is it then likely that the Supreme Court will entertain any challenges to the plain language of the law based on an interpretation of intent, which would then place the Treasury in the position of having to return that trillion dollars in Fed credits, and again look default in the face? Can you see John Roberts ever voting for this? Please Kevin, give us a break!

John Carney on Unconstitutionality

John Carney believes that Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) and the Trillion Dollar Coin are unconstitutional. The core of his argument is:

There are limits to how far Congress can stretch its powers under the necessary and proper clause. Of particular interest to us here is the non-delegation doctrine, which holds that the Constitution’s requirement that laws be passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the government constrains the ability of Congress to delegate its lawmaking authority to other bodies. . . .

The Supreme Court . . . . went out of its way to affirm the basic principle of non-delegation . . .

Article I, Section 1, of the Constitution vests “[a]ll legislative Powers herein granted… in a Congress of the United States.” This text permits no delegation of those powers, and so we repeatedly have said that when Congress confers decision making authority upon agencies Congress must “lay down by legislative act an intelligible principle to which the person or body authorized to [act] is directed to conform.”

So the question that is relevant for us here is whether or not the law that authorizes the creation of platinum coins by the U.S. Treasury lays down an “intelligible principle” to which the Treasury is directed to conform.

He then quotes the law authorizing PCS:

“The Secretary may mint and issue bullion and proof platinum coins in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time.”

You see the problem here, right? There’s no intelligible principle whatsoever. The law gives the Secretary complete discretion over everything having to do with the minting of platinum coins. This is very likely an unconstitutional delegation of the legislative power to coin money and regulate the value thereof.

Carney goes on to talk about issues of standing recognizing that standing may be very difficult to get from the Courts and that therefore it may not be possible to challenge the law. But he still thinks that the above argument is a decisive one and that the coin seigniorage law is unconstitutional. You see the problems here, right?
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New MSM Trillion Dollar Coin Wave Misses the Big Story: Drum and Yglesias

2:21 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In my last two posts I’ve been reviewing the new wave of mainstream posts and commentary on Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) by way of providing background for making the case that the MSM are missing “the big story” about PCS. Thus far I’ve reviewed recent posts by Pethokoukis, Wiesenthal, and Carney, and an MSNBC cable segment by Chris Hayes. All four 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 the commentaries by Kevin Drum and two from Matthew Yglesias here and here.

Kevin Drum

Drum presents his view of the theories that “. . . have been floating around. . . “ since last year’s debt ceiling crisis including: the constitutional 14th amendment option; the platinum coin, the priority of legislation (that Congress has approved deficit spending since passing the latest debt ceiling implying approval of an increase in the ceiling); and the “you and whose army” theory that even if the President breaches the debt ceiling, no one could do anything about it because they would have no standing to sue. Here’s what he says about the coin:

There’s an obscure statute that authorizes the Treasury to mint platinum coins “in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time.” Jack Balkin suggests that the secretary of the Treasury could simply mint a $1 trillion platinum coin, deposit it at the Federal Reserve, and then write checks on it. I don’t buy this one either. It’s just too outré. It’s the kind of thing that sounds cute to a blogger tapping away on his laptop, but there’s no way an actual president would ever try anything so obviously childish.

A bit unfair, I’d say. Labeling using “outré,” followed an ad hominem using “a blogger” to discredit a serious proposal without arguing against it. Apart from the fact that being “a blogger” says nothing about the quality of one’s argument in the first place, as long as Drum wants to appeal to authority rather than to reason, as a good “progressive” from Mother Jones should; Jack Balkin’s not just “a blogger tapping away.” He’s a Professor at Yale Law School; and the originator of the PCS idea, beowulf (Carlos Mucha), is an Attorney. In addition, the most frequent blogging advocate for the PCS idea, namely me, is a Ph.D. in political science and a former university professor, before pursuing a long career in Washington, primarily as a researcher and consultant. Seems to me all three of us are further away from being just “bloggers” than Kevin Drum himself, who seems to me to be the one just “tapping away on his laptop.”

As for outré, one person’s “outré,” is another person’s solid new idea, it’s not an argument against that idea. Drum got some pushback from readers about his treatment of PCS, and he then posted an update on it:

Several people have pushed back on my dismissal of the platinum coin ploy. I’m not a lawyer, but my sense is that this is so wildly contrary to the intent of the law, which was to allow the Treasury to issue commemorative and bullion coins, that a court probably would intervene if the president tried to pull this off. The other ploys are at at least minimally plausible, but this one is banana republic territory.

Drum can’t resist the labeling without justification, can he? The Banana Republic Law is the debt ceiling law, and its use to extort concessions from a safety net that more than 2/3 of the American people want proves it. On the other hand, according to a Yale Law professor and many others who have looked at it, PCS is authorized by legislation passed late in 1995. Any challenge to it on grounds of intent is highly dubious for two reasons.

First, the Courts generally don’t try to interpret laws based on theories about Congressional intent. The Justices aren’t collective psychologists who are expert at divining the intent of the Congress. They are expert, however, at interpreting what the text of a law says, and so that is what they stick to almost all the time. A challenge to PCS based on intent isn’t something any Court is likely to take up.

Second, Drum gives the “you and whose army” theory with a fair amount of conviction, saying it is the strongest theory of all. But that theory applies in spades to PCS, if we consider that the possibility of using it is written into the law, and the only one with standing to challenge it is the Congress itself, which won’t, because the Democrats have a majority in the Senate, and won’t challenge the President. Again, the PCS option is stronger than the constitutional option from this point of view; because as long as the PCS and consol options are legal, the debt ceiling legislation isn’t unconstitutional.

In another update, Kevin Drum agrees with the idea that the best option is to shut the Government down in chunks because the Republicans “would cave before long.” I suspect they would, but I think this option would still result in real damage to real people; while the PCS option avoid that damage. Perhaps Kevin, doesn’t see this because he thinks a TDC wouldn’t make any difference in the political situation in the longer run. However, if he thinks that, it may be because he, like the other mainstream bloggers, hasn’t given any thought to variations of PCS that might change the political situation and move it in a new direction entirely. Drum is another MSM blogger who’s supposed to be “progressive.” If that’s true then why isn’t he discussing how the PCS authority can be used to further broader progressive aims, rather than simply solve the debt ceiling crisis?

Matthew Yglesias

In his post on 12/06 Yglesias just refers to the TDC idea and to one his posts on it in 2011.

But resetting into a no concessions mindset, the White House has a lot of tools. Not only can he argue that the 14th Amendment obviates the debt ceiling (which I would if I were him) or have the Mint create a couple of $1 trillion platinum coins (which is weird, but on a sounder legal basis) he can use his control over the executive branch to make the lapse of borrowing authority as painful to Republicans as possible.

He says he prefers a 14th Amendment challenge to it; but then calls it both “weird” and on a sounder legal basis, which makes one wonder why it’s “weird”? Why do many MSM bloggers seem to feel obligated to characterize PCS in negative terms, even as they grant that it is a legal option? Do they need to do this to keep their credentials as among the Very Serious People (VSP)?

In his post on 12/07, he says:

Why did Congress draft a statute that doesn’t specify what denominations the platinum coin may be? I have no idea. But it’s a gaping loophole in the basic monetary framework of the United States, and pretty clearly allows Secretary Geithner to at least temporarily evade the debt ceiling by financing the government through seigniorage. The administration officials to whom I’ve raised this point generally respond by chuckling. Kevin Drum offers what amounts to an incredulous stare argument that this is undoable, “no way an actual president would ever try anything so obviously childish . . . so wildly contrary to the intent of the law . . . banana republic territory.”

Maybe so. But such is the stuff of which great leaders are made. And there is precedent for it. In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt essentially broke the back of the Great Depression by taking the United States off the gold standard. As a matter of substantive policy that was much more radical than evading the debt ceiling. And as a procedural matter it was tricky. Did Roosevelt have the authority to do that?

Sort of! He issued Executive Order 6102 under the terms of the World War I Trading With the Enemy Act. Is that what congress intended? Clearly not. FDR’s Depression-era gold policy had nothing whatsoever to do with World War I or any other war. But it was on the books.

So Yglesias’s attitude toward PCS is different from the other bloggers. He recognizes that it’s legal and that a great President will use any law on the books that will help him do what’s necessary at a particular time. And about PCS specifically, he says later:

I don’t think it would be a good idea for the government to be routinely financed by coin gimmicks, but it’s a much better option than the alternative of default or endless debt ceiling crises. Putting the platinum coin on the table is a good way of clarifying that whatever House Republicans say or do, default is not an option and no concessions will be made so they ought to save face and embrace the McConnell Principle.

So, Matthew Yglesias wants to have the President tell Congress that whatever the Republicans do, he has the coin alternative to use to avoid the debt ceiling, and then rather than use it, negotiate something like the McConnell principle to avoid debt ceiling controversies in the future. But, why does he propose this? There are so many other alternatives, and this is such a trivial think to get in return for the PCS power, which is after all, the Ace of Trumps in this game.

– The President could tell Congress that he has the coin alternative and insist that they repeal the debt ceiling legislation entirely or he will use it.

– Or he could tell them nothing, and just use the coin power to mint a coin sufficiently large to buy all the Fed debt and to redeem all the Intra-governmental debts creating accounts at the Fed for the Trust funds. That would lower the debt subject to the limit to something like $9.5 T, making the debt ceiling issue a dead letter for at least a few years.

– Or he could do something really radical like mint a $60 T coin, and immediately start repaying the intra-governmental and Fed debts and all the other debt instruments, while leaving nearly $44 T still available to cover future deficit spending for 15 – 20 years.

Why wouldn’t real progressives such as Matthew Yglesias claims to be, favor an alternative like that, since it changes the political context by removing the memes of “we’re running out of money,” “SS and Medicare are fiscally unsustainable,” and “our grandchildren will bear the horrible burden of our enormous national debt,” from the political debate?

It’s a puzzle isn’t it?

Looking at the posts of Pethokoukis, Wiesenthal, Carney, Drum, and Yglesias, we’re seeing certain common elements. None goes beyond discussion of PCS in the low trillions, and generally there’s a focus on the TDC meme and its relationship to the debt ceiling.

Also, none is concerned with how the existence of PCS is related to the option of challenging the debt ceiling legislation by using the 14th Amendment. Chris Hayes’s cable segment follows the same pattern.

An emerging recommendation from some of these posts is for the President to use the TDC option as a threat in the background of his negotiations with the Republicans and then settle with them on some arrangement that makes it much more difficult for debt ceiling crises to occur in the future. This is a very conservative and unimaginative approach to the present situation, and there’s not a lot of difference of opinion among the MSM commentators. TDC is “weird” or “outre.” It’s probably legal. But it’s bizarre. Use it as a threat to defuse the present situation. But, once there’s a deal with the Republicans then put it back on the shelf, and go on with politics as before. Is that all we want to get out of the legislative authority for the Treasury to create seigniorage revenues by using the Fed’s authority to create reserves in unlimited quantity?

The next one will discuss the Bradford and Plumer posts!

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

The WaPo MMT Post Explosion: Kevin Drum’s Take on MMT

11:44 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Kevin Drum, posting in Mother Jones, also threw his hat into the ring of discussion about Dylan Matthews’s post about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Kevin begins by characterizing MMT as “. . . . an economic model that, roughly speaking, says government deficits are always good unless there’s a risk of runaway inflation.” He then favorably quotes Jared Bernstein’s post, which I recently evaluated, coming out against the idea that deficit reduction is “pure virtue,” and also coming out for the view we need to use Government’s ability “. . . to run large deficits in times of market failure” to replace lost aggregate demand. But Kevin doesn’t get why Jared says this is MMT’s greatest contribution. Kevin wonders why this is any different from what “ Old Keynesianism. And post-Keynesianism. And New Keynesianism” say, and he asks: “If that’s really MMT’s most important contribution, who needs it?” And then replies:

The more important side of MMT is its insistence that we should run substantial deficits even when the economy is in good shape. Only when inflation appears ready to run out of control should we use budget surpluses to rein things in.

And then through quoting Matthews and Jamie Galbraith as quoted by Matthews, Kevin makes the point that we haven’t seen a serious case of demand-driven inflation since World War I and that involved, as Jamie said: “. . . conditions that will never be repeated.” And then Kevin goes on:

In some sense, this all comes down to a question of how scared we should be of inflation. Mainstream economic opinion says that a strong focus on full employment will inevitably risk high inflation, just as our current obsession with low inflation produces generally high unemployment. If we were focused on, say, a target unemployment rate of 4%, we’d see some periods where unemployment fell below that rate and some where it rose above it. But as the chart on the right shows, that’s not what we’ve had over the past few decades. Instead, because our economic policy has been focused strongly on low inflation, we see only a couple of brief periods in which unemployment barely got close to 4%, followed immediately by a recession that kicked it back above 6%.

So should we focus instead on a genuine target of 4% unemployment, reining in budget deficits only when we fall well below that? That depends a lot on what you think the productive capacity of the country really is, and the mainstream estimate of NAIRU, the highest unemployment rate consistent with stable inflation, is around 5.5% right now. If that’s the right estimate, then you could argue that we’ve been doing OK for the past few decades. But if full employment is really more consistent with an unemployment rate of 4%, then we’ve been wasting an awful lot of productive capacity for nothing.

It is about our fear of inflation and our assessment of the risk of it. But it’s also about how we prioritize the risk of inflation against the reality of unemployment other than a “frictional” rate due to job transitions of 1 – 2%. Even 4% Unemployment measured by the U6 would still leave about 7.2 million Americans unemployed after a vigorous post-Keynesian expansion.

Those people would pay the price for the rest of us who are more concerned with containing inflation than with employing them. How serious is this price? Martin Watts and Bill Mitchell (one of the earliest and still leading developers of MMT) offer us a very good idea of how high this price is for those selected to pay the price of a 4% U6 target, much less a 4% U3 target which is what I suspect Kevin is referring to.

Kevin Drum refers to the NAIRU, as if he and all economists agree that there must be a trade-off between inflation and unemployment at a to be determined NAIRU level. But, I wonder if he knows that MMT economists view the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment, as both “a crock” and as closely tied to the neoliberal economic paradigm that MMT opposes, and specifically to its acceptance of the idea that there must be an unemployed “buffer stock” of people who want to work, but must stay unemployed, in order to contain inflation?

Bill Mitchell points out that MMT argues against such a buffer stock and the NAIRU by:

“. . . proposing a way to achieve full employment with price stability. As Randy Wray noted in the speech referred to earlier MMT, in part, “turned the Phillips Curve on its head: unemployment and inflation do not represent a trade-off, rather, full employment and price stability go hand in hand”. . . . .

“And the way MMT does that is intrinsic to the theoretical framework and logically consistent with it. It is crucial to understand that notions of price stability all have some buffer stock underpinning them. . . . the mainstream NAIRU theories deploy a buffer stock of unemployment to control price inflation. . . .

“ . . . the theoretical offering that MMT provides . . . is that if we are concerned about efficiency and price stability then there is a superior buffer stock available to a public currency issuing monopoly.

“That is, if we really understand the way the currency works and the way the labour market works then we can have both full employment and price stability by using an employment buffer stock rather than an unemployed buffer stock.

“Then you have a direct route into the current policy debate. The governments think that large deficits are bad so they spend on a quantity rule – that is, allocate $x billiion – which they think is politically acceptable. It may not bear any relation to what is required to address the existing spending gap.”

It may help to note at this point that this is exactly what President Obama did in passing the ARA in 2009. He received advice providing stimulus estimates as high as $1.8 Trillion in deficit spending achieved through either tax cuts or government spending for ending the recession, but he evidently wanted that bill to come in at around $900 Billion and to have some bipartisan support. So, he did the thing that seemed politically expedient using an arbitrary quantity rule, even though he knew, based on the advice he received, that it was unlikely to end the recession and bring the economy to full employment.

Bill goes on analyzing the MMT proposal to offer a Job Guarantee (JG) to any unemployed person who wants a job, and Full Employment with Price Stability:

“MMT shows you how it is far better to conduct fiscal policy by spending on a price rule. That is, the government just has to fix the price and “buy” whatever is available at that price to ensure price stability. But what is the price the government would be fixing?

“Answer: the price it offers labour to enter the employment buffer stock – that is, the JG wage. . . .

“In the face of wage-price pressures, the JG approach maintains inflation control by choking aggregate demand and inducing slack in the non-buffer stock sector. The slack does not reveal itself as unemployment, and in that sense the JG may be referred to as a “loose” full employment. . . .

“So in a fiat monetary system, price stability is maximised using employment buffers rather than unemployment buffers.

“There are those who might consider that the MMT proposal that national governments should first bolt down the nominal anchor via an employment buffer stock amounts to a disagreement with Post Keynesian policies of public infrastructure investment . . .

“Some might even think that the proposal to introduce an employment buffer stock amounts to a preference for “small government” in the Hayekian tradition.

“None of these views would be correct.

“What we argue is that to turn the Phillips curve on its head – and thus thwart the use of unemployment to control inflation – you need a different nominal anchor. Generalised expansion does not provide that.

“Once you have that anchor in place then your ideological preferences will determine what other public spending you might entertain within the capacity of the economy to embrace further nominal demand expansion.

“As I have said in the past I favour strong public sectors with lots of investment in first-class infrastructure to advance the prosperity and well-being of the citizens. Others, who consider MMT to be a valuable contribution (that is, get it) may have different preferences.

“My JG pool would be small (but sufficient for the purpose as a nominal anchor) others might have a larger JG pool and less public sector spending elsewhere.

But the essential point is that independent of our preferences with respect to the size of government we would maintain an effective and highly liquid employment buffer.”

In short, if MMT policies are adopted, including the JG proposal, then there would be no unemployment buffer stock, no one paying the price for one, and no estimates at all of the fictional NAIRU suggesting targets of 4% UE. But there would be Full Employment WITH Price Stability. So, Kevin, and other newly interested writers who are writing about MMT after the WaPo article; please note that the basics include no UE targets, just Full Employment. And no deficits and surplus targets either, just responses to demand-pull and cost-push inflation, and private sector cutbacks in employment, through automatic safety net and taxation stabilizers, and other responses to such effects.

MMT is always about policy, mostly fiscal, not monetary, that will enable certain economic, social, cultural, environmental, and political outcomes, and disable other outcomes in each of these categories. It is never about running deficits or surpluses as targets for their own sakes. Whether deficits, or surpluses occur are byproducts of MMT policy impacts, and are largely endogenous to the economy. In themselves they mean nothing. Only the economic policies and outcomes that drive them are important.

(Cross-posted from Correntewire.com

Watch Out for Those Health Care Reform Polls

11:52 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

The AP recently released poll results on how people feel about the health care reform bill. Commenting on it, Kevin Drum says:

Atrios links to a Dave Dayen post that links to a report that says, "A new AP poll finds that Americans who think the law should have done more outnumber those who think the government should stay out of health care by 2-to-1." And the poll does say that. However, it doesn’t say what "done more" means, and the actual numbers suggest that a more liberal law wouldn’t have been any more popular than what we got. Here are the basic results from the AP poll: 30% favor the healthcare reform law, 40% oppose, and 30% aren’t sure. Then they asked the 70% who were opposers and not surers a second question:

HC1A. Which of the following best expresses your view of the health care law that Congress passed last March?

I oppose most or all of the changes made by the law 28

I oppose a few of the changes made by the law 20

I favor most or all of the changes made by the law, but I think that law doesn’t do enough to improve the health care system 23

I oppose the law because I think the federal government should not be involved in health care at all 28

Refused 1

So 23% of that 70% thought the law didn’t do enough. That’s 16%. Add that to the 30% who favor the law and you get 46%.

Kevin goes on:

That leaves 54% who oppose all or most of the law. So you’re still at 54%-46% opposed, and this is the best case since it’s possible that making the law more liberal might also have turned some of the favorers into opposers. . . .

I don’t think this argument holds up as support for Kevin’s point which, again is:

. . . the actual numbers suggest that a more liberal law wouldn’t have been any more popular than what we got.

Let’s look at some other findings from the AP survey:

[ASK IF HC1 = FAVOR STRONGLY, FAVOR SOMEWHAT OR NEITHER FAVOR NOR OPPOSE]

HC1B. Do you think that the health care law passed last March by Congress should have done more to change the health care system, or do you not think that?

It should have done more 61

Do not think that 36

Refused 3

Since the “favors “and “not surers” total 60%, we see that 37% of the total responding to the survey considering these categories alone think that the HCR bill should have done more, which suggests they would have favored “a more liberal law.” Unfortunately, the survey didn’t include the “opposers” of the bill when asking HC1B. They just assumed that people opposing the bill don’t oppose it because they favor something more liberal. I don’t know how large this group is, but I belong to it myself, and many of the Medicare for All advocates I know also oppose the HCR bill, and were opposed to it when it passed. How big is this sub-group of opposers?

What we know from the AP survey responses to HC1A, is that 48% of the 70% in the oppose/not sure total, or 34% of the total were either in the “I oppose most or all of the changes made by the law,” or the “I oppose a few of the changes made by the law.” Possible additions to the 37% group that would favor a more liberal law are most likely to come from this 34%, since respondents in the “I favor most or all of the changes made by the law, but I think that law doesn’t do enough to improve the health care system,” are much more likely to come from the “not surers” and to already be part of the 37% of the total, than they are to be part of the 34% in the above two categories who explicitly oppose the bill.

So, how much of the 34% is “progressive” opposition to the HCR bill? If we assume that it is 50%, that would bring the total of those favoring a more liberal bill up to 52%. But what if it were 80%? Then the total favoring “a more liberal law” climbs to 64%, Is this possibility far-fetched?

Well, first, note that HC1A responses also include the category “I oppose the law because I think the federal government should not be involved in health care at all.” Almost 20% of the sample selected this category. Meaning that 80% of respondents do not reject a federal role in the health care system, and that 80%, of course, must include the possible 64% favoring “a more liberal law.” However, from the responses to HC1B, we also know that those in the “favor”/”not sure” segment who don’t think the HCR bill should have “done more” total almost 22%, leaving 58% of respondents who might favor “a more liberal law.”

So, it looks like Kevin Drum’s conclusion that a maximum of 46% would have a favored a more liberal HCR bill is much too conservative. On the results of this particular survey the numbers may be as high as 58%, and there is reason to think that 58% is much closer to the truth than 46%. Here are the reasons. First, this survey was incompetently designed. Why weren’t people asked, very simply, whether they would have preferred: 1) no change at all; 2) a bill that made fewer changes; 3) the bill that was passed; 4) a bill with a public option everyone was eligible to participate in; 5) a bill providing for Medicare for All; and 6) a bill providing for National Health Care. The responses to that would have settled the question of whether the public wanted “a more liberal bill,” or not. As it is, the questions deliver ambiguous and vague responses, and don’t focus in on policy alternatives people know at least a little bit about. It’s very hard to tell where opposition to the HCR bill comes from. Second, why decide to restrict HC1A to only part of the sample? Can one really assume that all the opposers would oppose a more liberal bill?

Next, Kevin’s interpretation of the results of this survey is inconsistent with previous surveys on health care reform which show, roughly, that almost 2/3 of the public favor Medicare for All in health care reform. Previous survey evidence is reviewed by Kip Sullivan in this series. Kip’s results are pretty unambiguous. The AP survey itself, is not necessarily inconsistent with his findings, provided the HC1B responses showing 61% favoring the idea that the Congress should have “done more,” can be projected across the rest of the sample. But the survey design made it difficult to evaluate that.

Finally, the AP survey is another example of one whose design is heavily biased towards the narrative that America is a center-right nation. The possibility that, at least on health reform, the American public is favorably oriented to Medicare for All, or other Government-based solutions couldn’t be tested in this survey because of its bias. Designers bias surveys in their selection and construction of question, even more than they do in their reporting of their results. So, all HCR surveys need to be read with a very critical eye.

(Cross-posted at All Life Is Problem Solving and Fiscal Sustainability).