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Still Not Over: CPC Update

8:11 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

The Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) recently issued its “Better Off Budget” document as an alternative to the White House/OMB document, and the coming House budget document, a Republican/conservative alternative. The “Better Off Budget” has received enthusiastic evaluations from writers affiliated with the DC progressive community. Richard Eskow’s recent treatment is typical and provides other reviews that are laudatory. These “progressives” clearly see the CPC budget as anything but an austerity budget. But is it, or is it not? Read the rest of this entry →

How to Restore the Good Name of Government

2:28 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

There are four very important things the president can do before the elections of 2014 that would help to restore some faith in Government and, as a by-product, at least tentative trust in the possibility that renewed Government deficit spending may help people.

Why is it that Washington village “progressives,” and their associates in other parts of the country who are nevertheless part of the Washington village culture, often ask useful questions, but, almost always deliver, underwhelming answers? Here’s an example from Richard Eskow, probably the best writer at Campaign for the American Future.

How do we restore the good name of government spending, which is especially important during periods of high unemployment and slow growth like these? First, by supporting those politicians who are unafraid to make the case. Second, by demanding that the reluctant ones take a bolder stand – without mixing their messages between spending and premature austerity. Third, by rejecting the insanity that today’s Republican Party represents. Some in the GOP are even opposing infrastructure spending – as America’s bridges, schools, highways and dams decay around us.

Underwhelming, right? Why? First, because there aren’t too many politicians who are unafraid to make the case. Second, because people who are reluctant aren’t likely to respond to only “demands” from people who fiercely desire more government spending. Third, because merely rejecting Republican insanity is very unlikely to cut it, since that is what Democrats have been doing and it seems to be having little or no effect. And fourth, because the only way to restore faith in Government spending is to take actions that have consequences that are highly visible and unambiguously good for the vast majority of people. In other words, those who want to restore faith in Government spending have to get the Government to take actions delivering things for people that they see as important. So, how can this be done?

At this juncture, little can be done that involves the Congress because Republicans and Democratic corporatists won’t let it happen. They won’t legislate anything useful before the election.

Nor will they legislate anything useful after it unless 1) Democrats get a majority in both Houses and 2) Democrats who constitute those majorities are willing to move away from corporatism and legislate in the interests of people. So, if something can be done in this area, it must be done by the President. There are four very important things he can do before the elections of 2014 that would help to restore some faith in Government and, as a by-product, at least tentative trust in the possibility that renewed Government deficit spending may help people.

1. The President can re-institute the rule of law in the area of national security and secrecy by ending mass surveillance of the US population immediately, ceasing all investigations and attempts at prosecutions of journalists who have been trying to tell the public about the overreach of our intelligence agencies, beginning investigations and prosecutions of intelligence operatives who have broken existing laws in gathering intelligence, ending current prosecutions of whistle blowers, and issuing pardons for those who already have been tried, convicted, and jailed.

2. The President can re-institute the rule of law in the area of FIRE sector control and mortgage frauds by beginning investigations and prosecutions of high level executives at too big to fail FIRE sector organizations who have committed fraud including those that caused the financial collapse of 2008, which, in turn, led to the Great Recession and the destruction of so much middle class wealth.

These first two initiatives are supremely important because they will deliver a very visible presidential message that the Government is re-instituting honest government and a single system of law, which, in turn, will give people some reason to believe that renewed spending by the Government will be carried out honestly for the benefit of people, and not for the benefit of FIRE, health care, energy and other elite corporations. Giving people this is an essential step in restoring faith in additional spending, since from their point of view, it looks like the financial power of Government has been used to save big corporations and Wall Street and see to it that they prosper, while leaving working people and home owners to twist slowly in the economic winds of “the long depression” (Eskow’s memorable phrase). How can they believe that renewed spending will help them if they believe that the Government promising good results from new spending is a corrupt government, in the pocket of the 1% or perhaps even the 0.001%?

3. The President can next do something that is very essential to developing widespread support for renewing spending, because it will make plain that the US Government has and always will have whatever amount of funds it will take to create full employment and to finally end the long depression. The President has to remove the perceived problem of the national debt from the consciousness of the public by paying off a large proportion of it WITHOUT running economy-destroying surpluses. There’s only one way that can be done by the President acting alone right now, in time to affect the campaign environment in the 2014 election by eliminating the debt as an issue backing continued austerity propaganda.

That way is to cause the US Mint to create and deposit a platinum coin with a face value high enough to repay the debt subject to the limit entirely as it falls due, and to cover deficit spending for a long period of time thereafter. If the President does that, and sees to it (as he has the power to do) that the Mint’s account, and ultimately the Treasury’s spending account are credited with reserves equal to the value of the seigniorage resulting from the Mint’s deposit at the Fed; and also, if he follows that up by immediately paying off a large percentage of the debt, then everyone will know that the seigniorage is being used to get rid of the debt quickly.

When people know this they will know two other things. One, that the Treasury is easily paying off the debt, and two, that it has and always can easily create whatever funds it needs to follow through on its promises to end the long depression without either cutting spending or raising taxes. This will be a revelation to people which the President and the Democratic Party must drive home.

4. The White House and the Democratic Party must then run a campaign advocating a list of programs people will immediately view as likely to solve their economic problems. These must promise full employment recovery within a year using full payroll tax cuts and a Job Guarantee program at a living wage with good fringe benefits, strengthening social security and other trust fund programs by guaranteeing their annual spending regardless of the size of their trust fund balances, and by greatly increasing the size of safety net benefits and the protections they afford in case of inflation, truly universal and comprehensive health care using enhanced Medicare for All, revenue sharing for states on a proportional basis by population, fixing US infrastructure over 5 years, fixing the Housing crisis with various specific measures redressing the injustices done to homeowners by the big banks since 2007, fixing the student loan crisis with a “debt jubilee” and a grant program covering post-secondary education, and, lastly, dealing with environmental, climate change, and sustainability issues with a massive 5 year transition away from fossils fuels and nuclear and to renewable energy.

Democrats must then meet the cynicism and ridicule greeting these campaign promises by guaranteeing that if people give them a victory, then they will get rid of the Senate filibuster and other impediments to rapid action, and will legislate their program within the two year period of the next Congress without fail. These guarantees must be backed with a further promise not to run for re-election if they break any of their promises. Only then will some of the cynicism greeting their promises be dispelled.

Finally, these Democratic promises will surely be met with a campaign emphasizing the bogeyman of hyperinflation. Democratic promises will be estimated in a primitive way totaling up what will they cost over the two year period. The assumption will be made that they won’t be countered by automatic stabilizers producing increasing fiscal drag as the US approaches full recovery.

Democrats will have to respond with their own projections estimating that drag. It will come from gradual and automatic re-imposition of payroll tax cuts calibrated to kick in gradually as unemployment decreases, and gradual shrinking in Government spending on the Job Guarantee (JG) program as the private sector responds to increased demand by hiring people from the JG rolls.

In addition, it will come from increasing private sector savings and increasing trade deficits as recovery moves forward. It will also come from the White House working with Congress to phase in some of the programs I’ve mentioned gradually and in response to increasing fiscal drag.

The bottom line is that if the Democrats are successful in winning the Congress in 2014, and in legislating these programs, then faith in Government will be restored. But, there will be a fly in the ointment, as there is always is in life. The debates over fiscal policy will shift to debates about the likelihood of inflation, and managing the economy to avoid inflation at full employment will become a prime concern. We will have traded increasing government illegitimacy, chronic unemployment, stagnation, and “long depression” problems for renewed faith in government, full employment, prosperity, and inflation concerns.

That’s a great trade-off for all of us, I think. And I will take it anytime over the current neoliberal evolution toward a feudal/fascistic order.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Photo by l’ennui d’ennui, used under Creative Commons license

The New Populism Needs to Get This Straight

11:12 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Let’s look again at the new populism through the lens provided by Robert Borosage in his recent attempt to tell us what it is about. He says:

The apostles of the new inequality have unrelenting sought to starve the public sector. President Reagan opened the offensive against domestic investments. Perhaps the hinge moment was in the final years of the Clinton administration when the budget went into surplus, and Clinton, the finest public educator of his time, pushed for paying down the national debt rather than making the case for public investment. He left the field open for George W. Bush to give the projected surpluses away in tax cuts skewed to the top end.

Pop!Tech 2008 - Juan Enriquez
The hinge moment wasn’t then. It was when he decided, either early in his first term, or even before he took office, to rely on deficit reduction coupled with low interest rates from Alan Greenspan, on the advice of Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, rather than on deficit spending on human capital investments as advocated by Robert Eisner and Robert Reich. Rubin’s victory in the internal debates within the Administration was well-known at the time (1993), and set the deficit reduction course that played along with the Fed’s bubbles to create the private sector debt-fueled “goldilocks” prosperity, and surpluses of his second term. By the time Clinton faced the choice Borosage refers to, the die had already been cast. It was very unlikely that Clinton would turn away from further Government austerity policy, and turn instead toward investments in infrastructure, public facilities and “human capital.” Read the rest of this entry →

Who Needs a Balanced Trade Policy?

3:12 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Do we need balanced trade?

It’s easy to recognize that after many years of trade deficits accompanying implementation of trade agreements beginning with NAFTA the US needs to change what it’s doing. Many, including Robert Borosage of the Campaign for the American Future (CAF), advocate for balanced trade and they contrast that with the so-called “free trade” policies we have now. The case for balance trade policy is summarized by Borosage this way during his discussion of the policies favored by the New Populism:

Our global trade policies have been defined by and for multinational banks and companies. They have shipped good jobs abroad and driven wages down at home, while racking up unprecedented and unsustainable trade deficits. Those imbalances, as the International Monetary Fund and former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke have noted, contributed directly to blowing up the global economy.

The new populists demand balanced trade policies. . . .

So, we need “a balanced trade policy” meaning one that reduces trade deficits because it will support lower unemployment by keeping “good jobs” here, drive wages up rather than down, be more sustainable, and won’t contribute to a collapse of the global economy. But, is that the only or the best way to get these outcomes?

I raise that question because there is an important truth of macroeconomics to take account of. That truth is that: “Exports are real costs; and Imports are real benefits.”

This notion is based on the distinction between real wealth measured in accumulated products and services and nominal wealth measured in accumulated financial credits. Exports add to real wealth being sent to other nations; in return for nominal wealth received from them (financial credits). Imports add to real wealth being received from other nations; in return for nominal wealth we send to them.

So, would we rather send fiat money to other nations and add to real wealth in return, or would we rather add to their real wealth to and get their fiat money or our old fiat money back in return? My answer is that other things being equal, we’d prefer the first alternative rather than the second, meaning that trade deficits are better than trade surpluses, at least in the short run.

The problem with this answer is that other things are not equal, in the sense that if the Government does nothing to compensate for their shorter and longer-term effects, then the problems highlighted above do result from continuous “free trade” policy supporting continuous trade deficits. On the other hand, these effects of trade deficits can be avoided without implementing balanced trade as a continuous policy. How?

First, trade deficits cause aggregate demand leakages, which is what causes higher unemployment and lower wages. But, we don’t have to accept that outcome. We can implement a Job Guarantee program, along with other Government spending such as State Revenue Sharing, infrastructure spending, and Social Security payroll tax holidays to replace the demand lost to trade deficits.

Of course, we’d have to pass those measures. But what’s better, from a progressive point of view, doing these things or preventing Americans from buying goods and services (acquiring real wealth) from other nations that they would like to buy?

What about the lost jobs themselves? If they were “good jobs” would the new jobs produced by Government spending and SS payroll tax cuts be “good jobs” too? That depends on how the Government implements its Job Guarantee (JG) program. If the JG pays a living wage and provides Medicare access and good fringe benefits to those in the JG, then private sector people will have to better what the JG offers to get employees, and the wage floor will be raised radically over current levels and that will raise wages all along the line.

So, from the standpoint of adequacy of pay, there will be many more “good jobs” then there are today. The quality of the jobs will also improve if the JG is implemented to allow local non-profits to define jobs that will produce socially valuable outcomes for people. The role of the Federal Government would be the funder of the JG program; but local non-profits, communities, and the JG participants themselves would define the jobs in the program, exerting pressure on the private sector to increase the quality of the jobs offered in that sector.

One way to look at the situation is that trade deficits and the demand leakage they create, also provide an opportunity for the Government to employ people on social entrepreneurial projects producing public good and commons improvements of significant value; filling needs that cannot be filled by the private profit-motivated market. The purpose of the JG jobs provided is to provide a transition for displaced former employees of dying industries.

This opportunity is a good thing provided the Government takes advantage of it, because it provides not only transition jobs for individuals, but also a transition period for the private sector to develop new industries and new jobs based on new technologies while the potential labor force continues working at other jobs having social value.

Of course, the US Government hasn’t been doing that, preferring instead to leave people in an unemployed buffer stock that depresses wages and increases inequality. But the truly progressive remedy for that is to implement the Job Guarantee and other Government deficit spending and middle class tax cut programs, not to pursue a policy of balanced trade.

Second, it’s very popular today to say that x, or y, or z is “unsustainable” without saying what they mean by that term. From my point of view, policy unsustainability means that a policy cannot be followed forever without undermining the capacity to follow that policy sooner or later. The important thing here is to notice that the Government’s policy isn’t to run trade deficits forever. But just to allow trade to flow freely and let the trade deficit float. So, the issue here is whether that policy is sustainable. With exceptions to be noted below, I think it is.

The reason why it is sustainable, is that it is, in the end, self-correcting. Eventually, other nations will tire of selling the real wealth they produce in return for our nominal wealth, the electronic bits of information that eventually end up in their accounts at our Federal Reserve Banks and they will sell them instead to their own consumers. At that time, the Government’s policy of letting the trade balance float will produce smaller trade deficits or even surpluses, if the US Dollar becomes sufficiently unattractive. Until that time however, having trade deficits resulting from a trade policy that allows the trade balance to float is perfectly sustainable with some exceptions I’ll now consider.

Third, Robert Borosage refers to the view of the IMF and Ben Bernanke that continuous trade deficits of the United States contributed to the Great Crash. The chain of causation, according to Bernanke, is that the accumulation of US Dollar credits by Asian nations led to their investing in US and mortgage-based securities, causing a bubble in MBSs which then, in the crash of 2008 spread the US financial crisis around the world contributing a potent feedback loop to the crash. The general idea is that continuing trade deficits would, over time, concentrate the dollar assets of foreign nations in risky securities vulnerable to financial downward spirals.

This mechanism may or may not be a factor whose importance is great enough to render running continuous deficits unsustainable. But, if it is, then the remedy is easy. Pass legislation banning speculation in financial instruments that carry any systemic risk by entities with large dollar holdings. End of story and of this possible factor in promoting unsustainability.

Fourth, the remaining problem with letting trade happen and allowing the trade balance to float is that there may be industries or areas of endeavor that are vital to the defense of the United States, and/or its further economic development. Free trade in these areas cannot be allowed, since it risks destroying vital US skills and capabilities or potential for innovations. We need a US industrial policy to identify these areas, to decide how to subsidize them, and to ensure that they are maintained or developed. Once we have that, along with the other policies mentioned earlier, a policy of letting the trade balance float, even if it results in continuous trade deficits will be sustainable without causing unemployment, reduced wages, financial crashes, or making the United States dangerously dependent on other nations for political and economic sustainability.

Finally, let’s review the bidding again. The new populists and writers like Borosage think that progressive trade policy is balanced trade. In contrast, I think that a policy of unrestricted trade, taking advantage of the willingness of other nations to send their real wealth to the US is better for us and also seems be what our trading partners want right now.

However, to make that work for the US, we need full employment policies including a Job Guarantee program at a living wage with full fringe benefits, as well as other policies designed to compensate for demand leakages from trade deficits and private sector savings. In addition, we need to prevent investment of dollar savings in risky financial instruments such as Mortgage-Backed Securities (MBSs) and derivatives, and lastly, we need an industrial policy.

So, which is more “progressive” and also “populist”: balanced trade policy, or unrestricted trade, modified by full employment at a living wage, strict regulation of investments in financial instruments, and industrial, policies? I think it’s the second alternative and that progressives and populists ought to forget balanced trade and embrace it.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Read the rest of this entry →

Bernie Sanders: Self-shackled Champion of the People

1:48 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

I gotta love Bernie Sanders, because he seems so much like people I grew up with and like myself too, and he also seems to have that passion for equality and democracy that is so important for the future of America. Sometimes I think Bernie is one of the few champions of the people left in Congress. But I also think that along with other progressives he has constructed chains for himself that prevent him from being as effective a champion of the people as he otherwise might be.

His chains are the chains of either false beliefs or a decision not to speak the truth about fiscal matters for fear that the “very serious people” in the Washington village will marginalize him even more than they do right now. I can’t say which of these is true, but I think whichever reason is operative, his self-shackling hurts his effectiveness.
Read the rest of this entry →

Dick Durbin Insults Everyone Else’s Intelligence About Social Security

3:33 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Yesterday on Fox, Senator Dick Durbin said:

WALLACE: I’m going to talk about ObamaCare on a second, but you’re not answering my question. Why does taxes — why do taxes have to be on the table? Why can’t you just make a deal, short-term spending for long-term entitlement reform — which, Senator, you support and President Obama support. You have supported the idea of some entitlement reform.

DURBIN: That’s right. I do, and I’ll tell you why — because Social Security is going to run out of money in 20 years. I want to fix it now, before we reach that cliff.

Medicare may run out of money in 10 years, let’s fix it now. And that means addressing the skyrocketing cost of health care. That’s what ObamaCare is focused on, and yet, the Republicans want nothing to do with it.

If we don’t focus on the health care and dealing with the entitlements, the baby boom generation is going to blow away our future. We don’t want to see that happen. We want to make sure that Social Security and Medicare are solid.

The “. . . may run out of money. . . . ” and “. . . dealing with entitlements. . . “ memes, in reply to Chris Wallace’s question suggests that a deal trading increased revenues for Social Security and other entitlement cuts is acceptable to him. So, Durbin’s argument is that because Social Security Trustee and CBO projections, based on very pessimistic economic growth projections for the whole period, show a shortfall in the Social Security “Trust Fund” in 20 years, it is acceptable to make entitlement cuts now if the Democrats can get increased revenue from higher taxes, as if entitlement “reform” were the only way to meet the perceived Social Security solvency problem. But who would it be acceptable to? Read the rest of this entry →

Off the Debt Limit Hook for at Least the Next Four Months

10:21 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

(photo: L. Marie)

Provided that the Senate and House follow through on the scenario now on the table, it looks like the game of chicken worked for the Democrats this time. We’re off the hook on default and Government shutdown for now, and Washington village pundits are in full-throated cries of celebration.

Congress is off the hook too. They don’t have to offer any solutions to real, rather than manufactured, problems.

The President is also off the hook, he won’t, for now, need to exercise any of the options, like minting the coin, using consols, or premium bonds, or asset sales to the Fed, or others available to him to render the debt limit legislation impotent. So, he gets to preserve debt limit threats from the Republicans as a negotiating tool they can use to “force” him into entitlements cuts later on.

In fact, as I write Jay Carney is already talking about the President taking “a balanced approach” to future negotiations of fiscal policy so that the burdens of sacrifice will fall on everybody fairly. And, a bit later, there’s Nancy Pelosi echoing the Administration line on future negotiations. That, of course is also the Pete Peterson, Bowles-Simpson, catfood line for justifying further victimization of food stamp recipients, seniors, children, and the people who have paid the price for the Crash of 2008 and the neoliberal period in American fiscal policy beginning in 1977.

However, the deal that looks like it will happen isn’t a solution, but just kicking the can down the road including built-in pretty good possibilities for future Government shutdown and debt ceiling crises in just three – four months, if Congresspeople have the guts to subject the American people to this nonsense again in an election year.

Here’s Annie Rose-Strasser’s outline and analysis of the deal at Think Progress:

– Government funded through January 15 at sequestration levels

– Debt limit extended until February 7, subject to vote of Congressional disapproval, which Obama can veto

– A budget conference established to come up with long-term spending plans by December 13

– Income verification for recipients of subsidies under Obamacare’s newly-established exchanges

– Backpay for furloughed workers

Also, notably, here are some of the demands that Republicans have made in the last few days, but that are NOT in the bill:

No repeal of the “extraordinary measures” provision that allows the Treasury to do accounting tricks to avoid default

No ‘Vitter Amendment‘ that would have taken away employer contributions from the health plans of Congressional staff

No provisions related to birth control access

No flexibility in how government agencies make budget cuts to their programs, as they are required to under sequestration

No repeal or delay of the medical device tax

No repeal or delay of the reinsurance tax

No repeal, replacement, or delay of any aspects of Obamacare’s exchanges or individual mandate

It might look like this is overall a good deal for Democrats given the number of things that Republicans aren’t getting. It is good: It reopens the government and lifts the debt ceiling without doing any major additional damage to existing programs.

The word “additional” is the key here, since enormous damage has already been done to people and programs due to the various compromises made to avoid shutdown and debt ceiling threats since August 2011. These deals have placed increasing fiscal drags on the American economy and, increasing Government austerity that is preventing full recovery from the Great Recession. The current “deal” already involved a pre-surrender by Democrats to Republican proposed CR spending levels. Annie Rose – Strasser recognizes this.

But it’s important to remember that the baseline for negotiations wasn’t exactly even: Democrats accepted the major budget cuts of sequestration (slated only to get worse on January 15, the same day their budget deal expires), and their only demand was actually the status quo: Keeping the government running and having the country fulfill its financial obligations. They didn’t request to restore the funding sequestration took away, they didn’t demand any new programs or initiatives that Democrats support. And if the previous budget conference is any indication, the one established under this deal has the potential to blow up in Democrats’ faces, leading to more cuts instead of an actual, long-term budget. In that sense, while it is the best, cleanest deal we can get, the Democratic party has been pulled slightly from center to right, not from left to center.

Meanwhile, Republicans threw everything but the kitchen sink into their negotiations. It’s no surprise they’re taking a lot of losses.

Yes, we will have the Government open and the debt ceiling temporarily raised to get us through a few months, and the President is saved from going outside his comfort zone and giving the teahadists an excuse to try to impeach him, but the fundamental problem of the gradual imposition of increasing levels of government austerity creating economic stagnation is not being addressed, and, in addition, the even more serious problem of having laws in place that give a small minority in Congress the possibility of holding both the US and world economies hostage to their ideology is also neither being addressed nor solved.

So this is no victory, and no cause for celebration. The conditions are still there supporting a Great Betrayal, and another slide into recession, along with the possibility of another Global Crash due to financial manipulations in the mortgage international derivative markets.

Meanwhile, what can we look forward to? A brief respite from budget battles and then a rush through a manipulated membership budget conference designed to produce a Bowles-Simpson austerity “solution” to be completed by December 13, to be voted up or down, and with a good likelihood that this Conference will either fail to come up with a result, or that its results will be rejected by teahadists or fellow travellers who will never accept tax increases, and by progressives who will be unwilling to vote for entitlement cuts in the face of upcoming elections.

Meanwhile, the drag on the economy and the unhappiness of the 99% will continue with no real relief in sight because no in either party has the courage to repudiate the dogma that a sovereign fiat currency nation like the United States can have a long-term debt problem requiring a long-term deficit reduction solution. Truly, everyone in Congress needs to be replaced by people who understand the Modern Money Theory (MMT) approach to economics and who are willing to explain it to their constituents and to advocate for fiscal policies based on it.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives)

Photo by L. Marie under Creative Commons license

Rationalization and Obligation, Part VI: What He Ought to Do, What He Probably Will Do

6:46 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

This is Part V of a six part series replying to a claim by the President at his recent White House News Conference. Part I covered the News Conference and the first two (the selective default, and the exploding option) of seven options the President might use to try save the US from defaulting in the face of continued deadlock in the Congress on raising the debt limit or repealing the law enabling it in its entirety. Part II discussed Platinum Coin Seigniorage, invoking the 14th amendment to justify continuing to issue conventional Treasury debt instruments, and consols. Part III discussed premium bonds, and Treasury sales of the Government’s material and cultural assets to the Federal Reserve. Part IV, then evaluated all seven options in light of variations among them in likely degree of legal difficulties they might face, and also the likely impact of each on confidence in the bond markets, if used. Read the rest of this entry →

Rationalization and Obligation, Part V: Differences Are Everything

7:38 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

This is Part V of a six part series replying to a claim by the President at his recent White House News Conference. Part I covered the News Conference and the first two (the selective default, and the exploding option) of seven options the President might use to try save the US from defaulting in the face of continued deadlock in the Congress on raising the debt limit or repealing the law enabling it in its entirety. Part II discussed Platinum Coin Seigniorage, invoking the 14th amendment to justify continuing to issue conventional Treasury debt instruments, and consols. Part III discussed premium bonds, and Treasury sales of the Government’s material and cultural assets to the Federal Reserve. Part IV, then evaluated all seven options in light of variations among them in likely degree of legal difficulties they might face, and also the likely impact of each on confidence in the bond markets, if used. Read the rest of this entry →

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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