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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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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: Matthew Yglesias’s MMT

11:54 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Matthew Yglesias posting in Slate, also gave us a few words on Dylan Matthews’s post about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). He starts with this thought:

”Is the inflation of the 1970s a myth? I don’t think it was, but something Dylan Matthews’ excellent overview of Modern Monetary Theory illustrates is that some people think it was. That to me is a mistake, and people should try to separate the merits of heterodox macroeconomic theory (which I think are considerable) from a handful of incidental political commitments that its adherents have. The core point of MMT is that if you have a freely floating fiat currency then the sovereign can’t “run out of money” and the point of taxes is to regulate demand not to finance government activities. But even though this is a “heterodox” view, I think few mainstream people would actually deny it. Instead they think that talking in these terms will lead to dangerous inflation. I think that fear is overblown, but not as overblown as Jamie Galbraith thinks it is.”

The 1970s Inflation

Reading this, I had the definite feeling that the old aphorism about people who fight new paradigms and ridicule/marginalize their adherents, and often opine later that there is nothing new there, is all too true. Matty ought to give everyone a break and admit that the mainstream has been beating the drums of insolvency terrorism since shortly after the Obama Administration began and still is. So, mainstream people have been saying that there can be an insolvency problem in very large numbers, and if they are doing so less now, it’s only because any fool can plainly see that austerity is failing all over the world, as MMT predicted when the austerity craze started, and also because many more people are reading MMT blogs than was the case two years ago, and they are beginning to pick up some of the core insights.

To say that “. . . few mainstream people would actually deny it. Instead they think that talking in these terms will lead to dangerous inflation” is to to imply that most mainstream people are elitist liars who have been engaged in deficit terrorism because they thought it was a more effective political tactic than using the inflation bogeyman.

That may, in fact, be true. But I wonder what the mainstream would have to say about Matty’s implication, that its economists haven’t really been being ignorant and dumb; just elitist, dishonest, and manipulative.

I lived through the inflation of the 70s, and I can attest to its reality, and severity for some people, but relatively mild impact for others. I also think that the causes of that inflation were not simply increases in nominal unit labor costs, but increases in interest costs caused by the Federal Reserve’s policies, the actions of the oil cartel, and particularly the Saudis, the activity of speculators, the constraining regulations on Natural Gas production, and the failure of the Carter Administration to employ price controls and rationing due to its neoliberal biases.

The other factors I’ve mentioned were much more important in causing the inflation than rising nominal labor costs, which were primarily reactive to the cost-push inflation caused by the other factors. Government deficit spending had almost no role in the 1970s inflation, which was due much more to cost-push than to demand-pull factors.

Types of Inflation

Matty next quotes Galbraith from Matthews’s article pointing out that we haven’t seen a serious demand-driven inflation since WWI and that one occurred under very unique circumstances unlikely to happen again.

”I think this contains some insight. Unfortunately the standard concept of “inflation” runs together two very different scenarios. In one kind of “inflation”, China abandons Maoist economic policies, its population gets richer, as it gets richer they start eating more meat, and this pushes the worldwide price of meat, dairy, and grains upward. That’s a real thing and it hurts real people in their pocket books, but these kind of global commodity price fluctuations aren’t effectively addressed by demand regulators. And one story some people have about the seventies is that it was just a global commodities issue. OPEC pushed up the price of oil, so we got “inflation” but this is nothing like the World War One case where dodgy government financial practices eroded the value of money.”

To me, this was really an “off the wall” response to Galbraith’s view, since Galbraith was clearly talking about the likelihood of demand-pull inflation inflation occurring in the United States, and was also implying that the Weimar and other WWI aftermath inflations had nothing to do with that policy. Also, in referring to “dodgy government financial practices” in the last sentence, Matty seems to be saying that the Weimar Government was guilty of such practices, but given the size of their Versailles-imposed reparations to be repaid only in goldmarks or foreign exchange, what could the German Government have done to recover from the War, except try the money-printing strategy to try to get the foreign exchange needed? If anybody was guilty of “dodgy financial practices” it was the Versailles peacemakers who, in imposing a Roman peace on Germany, insisted on payment conditions that the Germans could not possibly meet, especially since the French and Belgians seized control of the Ruhr and with it much of Germany’s industrial capacity in 1923.

But, that aside, Matty glosses over the fact that demand regulators can’t very well control worldwide demand-pull inflation in the international economic system from a legislative foundation in a single country, as long as they’re committed to maintaining a free market in the commodities that are the object of such inflation. That is, the China example basically says that when people in many nations other than the US and the previously developed nations get wealthy enough to create greater effective demand on certain commodities in a relatively free market, and that demand outruns supply, then price increases that hurt people will result.

But why is this a criticism or reflection on the MMT view, or what Galbraith had to say? Galbraith and the MMTers have clearly been talking about regulating demand-pull inflation in the United States caused by excessive deficit spending.

Moving to Matty’s example, MMT would certainly predict that when an economic system has no common currency, but a relatively free market in certain commodities, and also limited supply, then increasing demand might well result in inflation. As for the ’70s oil inflation, that wasn’t the result of either a free market or increasing worldwide demand for oil, but rather of the factors I called out above being called into play by the Oil Cartel’s control of the world supply of oil. So, that inflation was an instance of cost-push, not demand-pull inflation, and requires different measures to control.

I hesitate to say what MMT might recommend in the two cases of increasing world-wide demand, highlighted by Matty, because I’m not sure that all of us would say the same thing, nor am I one of the economists developing the MMT approach. But, speaking as someone who’s been researching MMT for some time, in the ’70s case, I would have placed domestic price and wage controls on commodities except on foreign sales to oil exporting countries, where prices of exports would have been pegged to increases in the prices of their oil exports. I would have also recommended de-regulating natural gas, and oil rationing to cut demand for the cartel-restricted supply. I would not have implemented higher interest rates as the Fed did. Until the very end, when the economic system was driven into recession, that only “fed” the inflation fire, while creating “stagflation.” I think such measures, consistent with MMT as I understand it, would have “choked off” the ’70s inflation in a much shorter time than the policies followed in the 1970s and the early 1980s.

As for the present increasing demand on the world’s food supply, that’s certainly not being caused by deficit spending by an International currency issuer, since there is none. And the only remotely similar entity to that is the ECB which is gradually choking off economic activity in the Eurozone to save its financial elites. I think commodity inflation must be fought by Governments legislating and enforcing existing laws against speculation, preventing cost-push inflation of the kind we saw in the 70s using the measures outlined, and by allowing commodity markets to adjust to the need for more supply, or producers to create substitutes for commodities in short supply. I also think control of speculation and market forces will probably suffice to relieve the pressure we’ve been seeing in commodities.

If that fails, however, then Governments whose economies can produce abundant supplies will have to place export controls on commodities necessary for their own populations in order to contain domestic inflation. That will not be popular. But we do still live in a nation state system, and the first responsibility of national governments still is to the general welfare of their own populations. Of course, such measures will result in other nations placing their own export controls on abundant commodities, and nations will have to negotiate bilateral agreements to serve their respective populations.

Unit Labor Costs

Matty Yglesias continues with his remarks about inflation:

”That’s why my favorite indicator of inflation is “unit labor costs”:

“Unit labor costs are basically wages divided by productivity. It’s not the price of labor, in other words, but the price of labor output. If productivity is rising faster than wages, then even if wages themselves are rising, unit labor costs are falling. Conversely, if wages rise faster than productivity than unit labor costs are going up. Clearly there’s nothing wrong with a little increase in unit labor costs here or there. But over the long term, growth in unit labor costs needs to be constrained or else it becomes impossible to employ anyone. And you can see that in the seventies it’s not just that gasoline got more expensive, we had an anomalous spate of high unit labor cost growth. That was inflation and it’s what led to the regime change that’s governed for the past thirty years.”

Now that way of putting things is strange. Not that the general point is wrong, but if real unit labor costs exceed real labor productivity over the long term, that would create survival pressures for business. But, if there was an anomalous rise in labor costs in the 1970s, there was also an initial anomalous rise in the cost of oil before that rise, and later there was an anomalous pattern of interest increases implemented by the Fed that hasn’t been seen before or since, as well as anomalous rises in commodity prices. To read the quote above, one would think that the rise in unit labor costs was itself inflation, rather than just an adjustment of the cost of labor to all the price increases going on around it.

The truth, again, is that the inflation of the ’70s was caused by a complex of inter-related phenomena and the rise in unit labor costs was only one of these. It may have been the one that neoliberals focused on in the ’80s to avoid pinning the blame for what happened on the Cartel, the failures of the Carter Administration and the Fed’s policies, and to claim that the inflation was due to demand-pull factors, but that doesn’t mean that their analysis was correct.

Today, we know that Paul Volcker and Jimmy Carter handled the 1970s inflation incompetently, and we also recognize that the behavior of the Cartel, and the excessive regulations on natural gas made this a cost-push and not a demand-pull inflation, and that the Fed policy of targeting the unit cost of labor as a trigger for raising interest rates for the next 30 years or so was part of its low inflation at the cost of high unemployment policy that it illegally engaged in, in violation of the Humphrey-Hawkins Act. In his post, critiquing Matty’s missive, Steve Randy Waldman (SRW), had the following to say:

“. . . Yglesias has fallen into a trap. Unit labor costs are not “basically wages divided [by] productivity”. That’s not the right definition at all. [See update.] Unit labor costs are nominal wages per unit of output. With a little bit of math [1], it’s easy to show that

UNIT_LABOR_COSTS = PRICE_LEVEL × LABOR_SHARE_OF_OUTPUT

An increase in unit labor costs can mean one of two things. It can reflect an increase in the price level — inflation — or it can reflect an increase in labor’s share of output. The Federal Reserve is properly in the business of restraining the price level. It has no business whatsoever tilting the scales in the division of income between labor and capital.

Yet throughout the Great Moderation, increases in unit labor costs were the standard alarm bell cited by Fed policy makers as an event that would call for more restrictive policy. And all through the Great Moderation, except for a brief surge during the tech boom, labor’s share of output was in secular decline. (More recently, the Great Recession has been accompanied by a stunning collapse in labor share. Record corporate profits!)”

SRW continues his discussion in this vein pointing out the Fed’s hawkishness on unit labor costs has had a heavy constraining influence on the presidency because Presidents have wanted to be very careful about economic policies that might increase unit labor costs and cause the Fed to activate contractionary reactions. He says further:

“. . . . In this environment, the decline of labor unions and their shift in focus from wage growth to working conditions was understandable. If workers won on wages, they would lose when the recession put them out of work. As long as wages were contained, monetary policy was “accommodative”, and workers could supplement their purchasing power with borrowings and asset appreciation. During the Great Moderation, wage growth was rendered obsolete. A superior means of middle class prosperity had been invented. Or so it seemed, until we experienced the toxic after-effects in 2008. Now we have grown skeptical of debt-fueled pseudoprosperity. But the covert hostility to wage growth that underpinned Great Moderation monetary policy remains unchallenged.

“I imagine some readers saying to themselves, “But still. If the labor cost of ’stuff’ is allowed to grow, how can that not be inflationary? It’s common sense.” And that’s true, as far as it goes. But if the capital cost of stuff grows, that must also be inflationary. Suppose we define the complement to unit labor costs, unit capital costs. Unit capital costs might be defined as “business profits per unit of output”. Would it be politically tolerable in the United States to have a central bank that prevented expansions of business profit per unit sold? Is restraining profitability of investment a proper role for a central bank? If suppressing returns to capital would be improper, why on Earth do we tolerate a central bank that opposes returns to labor?”

Very good questions. Why have we allowed the Fed aided by presidents to implement policies that increase returns to capital, but suppress returns to labor? Is this what Americans think has been going on and what they approve, or has this been made possible only because of “the independence” of the Fed, its systematic lack of transparency to the public, and the unwillingness of Presidents to contest the power and “independence” of the Fed either legally or informally?

Time for a Change in Regimes?

Even though Matty Yglesias seems convinced of the importance of increases in nominal unit labor costs as a primary cause of inflation needing to be constrained in the long run, he, nevertheless agrees with SRW and I that the approach to constraining such costs that the US has followed for the past 30 years and more cannot be continued. He says:

”In the wake of the Great Recession, I think we need another change in regime. We can’t continue with an approach that always delivers on price stability but frequently leads to prolonged spells of mass unemployment. But I think to push for that regime change credibly, people need to acknowledge what went wrong in the past and need to explain why it won’t happen again. I would say, for example, that one of the great virtues of the more globalized economy of 2012 rather than 1972 is that the freer flow of goods across borders makes inflation much less likely.”

I agree that the approach we’ve been following won’t do, and with SRW’s notion that Fed policy should not be biased in favor of returns to capital and against returns to labor. It is very plain to me that the severe economic inequality that has developed in the United States, and that now threatens our democracy, is in great part due to the Fed’s policies in past decades and to its fixation on inflation control. But I also think that changing these policies to ones that would be more neutral won’t work to redress the inequality that has already been created. What needs to be done instead, is to positively bias Fed policy toward returns to labor for some time to come, as part of a more comprehensive policy to lessen the levels of economic inequality that beset the American social, economic and political systems.

I also agree with Matty Yglesias’s call for people to acknowledge what went wrong in the past and to explain why it won’t happen again. But as I said earlier, my thinking about what went wrong in the ’70s, and also MMT thinking about it are both very different from his. As a result, I think corresponding explanations of why it won’t happen again are likely to be very different also. Again, I don’t think what we have to acknowledge is that increases in unit labor costs caused the ’70s inflation.

In fact, I think that is a very partial, and therefore false narrative of what happened then. And I’m afraid I also think that Matty ought to take his own advice and acknowledge the roles of 1) the Cartel, 2) the Federal Reserve, and 3) the Carter Administration as all being much more important in the severity of that cost-push inflation then the rise in unit labor costs was.

And, I think an explanation of why that is unlikely to happen again, will have to be conditional on the wisdom of future Federal Reserve Governors and Presidents in providing the right responses to any reconstitution of the Cartel, or aggressive moves by the Saudis and oil speculators to drive prices up. If the ’70s are not to happen again, it will not be enough to rely on the more globalized economy of 2012, with its cross-border competition among workers, creating a race to the bottom in wages, and untoward returns to capital.

The Federal Government will have to be much more aggressive in implementing a response, recognizing that an inflation like that in the 70s would be cost-push and not demand-pull. And that to manage it, policies that choke off government deficit spending, and tighten credit, will be much more costly than policies involving trade retaliation, price controls, rationing, substitution of commodities subject to cost-push, and above all continuous and very substantial investments in government programs developing alternative energy sources.

(Cross-posted from Correntewire.com