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Real Fiscal Responsibility: What Chris Hayes Said

7:18 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

I’m interrupting my series on US Government Real Fiscal Responsibility since the Carter Administration to write about something Chris Hayes said relating to Real Fiscal Responsibility. Back in February of 2014, he tweeted:

Recently, that tweet along with an image has been making the rounds on Facebook as an Alternet photo. The sound bite in the tweet looks great, after the manner of a logical truism.

But, logically, it doesn’t follow, because one can easily say that as long as the Government implicit in the statement isn’t a currency issuer, but a currency user who must acquire its funds by taxing or borrowing alone, that Government can involuntarily run out of funds. And it is conceivable that funds might be raised to fund a war, while that same Government might not have the funds available to take care of the people who fought for the nation, without defaulting on its obligations.

So, assuming that the Government is one that can involuntarily run out of money, the rich are saying that they think fighting a war using deficit spending is worthwhile and one’s patriotic duty; but that there are more important priorities than taking care of the people who fought it for their country. So, what are those priorities and what are the moral judgments in back of them? That is really the issue in a situation of limited Government financial resources!

The rich often believe, that lowering the risk of inflation which, they think, would cost them money, or avoiding taxes, which would also cost them money, are more important priorities than taking care of the people who fought the wars for us and them. They don’t think they owe them a thing. Or alternatively, they think that what is owed to them should come out of other people’s pockets, so that it should be “paid for” by increased taxes on the poor and the middle class, or perhaps by cutting Government programs that serve them.

This view is morally reprehensible, of course, and it is also despicable when you consider that they and theirs also make sure that they don’t have to fight the wars, so that burden too falls on the poor and the middle class. So, Chris’s statement makes political sense because it sounds like an undeniable moral proposition, a moral truism.

On the other hand, a Government like the US’s with the authority and capability to create unlimited currency if it needs to, can always afford to both deficit spend on a war, and also deficit spend to take care of those who fought it. So, in that situation, the US’s current one, it is a truism that the Government can afford to deficit spend to fight a war and also to take care of the people who fought it for us. But, here, there are no “ifs” about it.

We can do both. And we can also expand Social Security benefits, and deficit spend on new energy foundations, and deficit spend on an enhanced Medicare for All program. We can do all these things and more without running out of money, because, as the currency issuer, the Government can do all sorts of things and never run out of money.

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Real Fiscal Responsibility 5; Carter: Environmental Degradation

5:59 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Love Canal Emergency Declaration Area Plaque at site of 93rd Street School, the school had been knowingly built on top of Hooker’s toxic landfill.

This, the fifth post in a series evaluating the fiscal responsibility/irresponsibility of the Governments of the United States (mostly the Congress, the Executive Branch, and the Federal Reserve) by Administration periods, beginning in 1977 to 1981 with the Jimmy Carter period, will cover the performance of the Government on the environment and climate change aspect of “public purpose.” Posts One, Two, Three, and Four discussed some basic definitions and assumptions of the series and evaluated Government performance relating to economic stagnation, living wage full employment, price stability/inflation, implementing universal health care, and educational reform.

I’ve explained why fiscal responsibility is closely connected to the idea of public purpose, in this post prior to beginning the series. You’ll want to read it, if you want to know what I mean by “public purpose,” and see what else that pregnant term includes, apart from enhancing the environment.

In the first post, I also claimed that the Government of the United States has been fiscally irresponsible in every Administration period since 1977, because its fiscal policies have largely worked against key aspects of public purpose. The first 4 posts supported that claim across 5 aspects of public purpose, as will this one. Future posts in this series will attempt to document it across additional aspects of public purpose. Read the rest of this entry →

Real Fiscal Responsibility 4; Carter: Education Reform

6:41 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

If you’re reading this you’ve landed near but not at the beginning of my very lengthy series evaluating the fiscal responsibility/irresponsibility of the Governments of the United States (mostly the Congress, the Executive Branch, and the Federal Reserve) by Administration periods, beginning in 1977 – 1981 with the Jimmy Carter period. My first post explained why I chose to start my evaluation with the Carter period, and also laid out my related definitions of fiscal sustainability, and fiscal responsibility.

It explained why fiscal responsibility is closely connected to the idea of public purpose, which I laid out in this post prior to beginning the series. You may want to consult that post, if you want to know what I mean by “public purpose.” I also claimed that the Government of the United States has been fiscally irresponsible in every Administration period since 1977.

In my second post, I began by examining the problems of ending economic stagnation, and providing full employment at a living wage, and, I hope, by showing that the Government, during the Carter period, failed to solve either problem because of its commitment to deficit reduction, and budget balancing, in the service of hoped for inflation moderation. The third post in the series, examined how the US Government failed in its efforts to create and maintain price stability, and also failed to provide a solution to the problem of providing the right of receiving health care to every American in need. So, thus far in the first three posts in the series we’ve seen how the Government during the Carter period failed to 1) end economic stagnation; 2) failed to create and maintain full employment; 3) failed to maintain price stability; and 4) failed to maintain price stability. It did not fail however, to reduce the Federal deficit, which is not in itself an aspect of public purpose, but a presumed means of preserving government solvency, and avoiding inflation. So, I suppose congratulations are due the Government for solving a faux problem and failing to directly address the real ones.

So, from 1977 – 1981, the Government of the United States is thus far 0 for 4 when it comes to achieving real fiscal responsibility through fiscal policy in accordance with key aspects of public purpose. The remaining posts in this series will continue to document the claim that all the US Governments since 1977 have been fiscally irresponsible. In this, the fourth post in the series, I’ll evaluate the Government’s efforts at educational reform during the Carter period. Will the Government go 0 for 5? We’ll see! Read the rest of this entry →

Real Fiscal Responsibility 3; Carter: Inflation and Health Care

6:36 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Here’s the third post in my series evaluating the fiscal responsibility/irresponsibility of the Governments of the United States (mostly the Congress, the Executive Branch, and the Federal Reserve) by Administration periods beginning in 1977 with the Jimmy Carter period. My first post explained why I chose to start my evaluation with the Carter period, and also laid out my related definitions of fiscal sustainability, and fiscal responsibility.

It explained why fiscal responsibility is closely connected to the idea of public purpose, which I’ve laid out here. I also claimed that the Government of the United States has been fiscally irresponsible in every Administration period since 1977.

In my second post, I began by examining the problems of ending economic stagnation, and providing full employment at a living wage, and, I hope, by showing that the Government, during the Carter period, failed to solve either problem because of its commitment to deficit reduction, and budget balancing, in the service of hoped for inflation moderation. The remaining posts in this series will continue to document the claim that all the US Governments since 1977 have been fiscally irresponsible. This, one, the third in the series, will examine how the US Government failed in its efforts to create and maintain price stability, and also failed to provide a solution to the problem of providing the right of receiving health care to every American in need.

Creating and Maintaining Price stability

The Carter Administration sought price stability, and was convinced, mistakenly, that reducing the deficit and eventually balancing the budget would also bring the cost-push inflation in oil prices under control. In the pursuit of price stability, the President used his veto power (p. 40) on a heavily Democratic Congress of supposed allies when he vetoed a public works bill providing for $5 Billion in water projects in 1978, because be thought it was inflationary and full of pork. In addition, he vetoed or pocket vetoed a number of other bills passed by the Democratic Congress in pursuit of smaller Federal deficits and Government frugality.

Not that the Government ran very large deficits in those days in light of current ideas about large deficit spending. In fact, Congress, the President, and the Federal Reserve combined to reduce deficits very quickly after the Ford Administration. After 8 quarters when the Federal Government deficit ranged from 2.88%* of GDP to 6.50%, with 7 quarters exceeding 3% of GDP, the deficit was reduced during the Carter Administration to under 3% of GDP in the first quarter of 1977 and remained in the 0% to less than 3% range, with a low of 0.47%, for the rest of President Carter’s term.

These small Federal deficits were accompanied by small trade deficits by contemporary standards, ranging from a high of 1.21% of GDP to a low of 0.10%. In addition, there were five quarters of small trade surpluses during the Carter Administration, as well. In spite of this generally favorable context, the Government could not achieve price stability because its leaders in all branches were ideologically biased against using the right methods to control the cost-push oil inflation being caused by the spike in oil prices due to Saudi policy during these years. In fact, the Government mostly executed a textbook case of what not to do.

Cost-push inflation cannot be eliminated without killing the economy if one relies on increased taxes, reduced Government spending and high interest rates, which is the deficit hawk prescription. All that will and did do is to move toward macroeconomic and microeconomic austerity. The way cost-push inflation has to be fixed is through bringing alternative sources of supply, wage and price controls, and rationing online.

We know these last two measures are hard to take for Americans and hard to enforce. But they worked during WWII (pp. 95 – 120) even in a time of full employment, and would have worked again if the Congress and the Carter Administration would have employed them sufficiently vigorously. But even though the Administration and Congress did implement wage and price “guidelines” in 1978, and then moved on to tighter controls later, implemented by a Council of Wage and Price Stability, the prices affected were limited in scope, amounting to about half the prices in the economy, and the enforcement of standards wasn’t thoroughgoing, in part because the regulatory staff implementing the program was only 10% of the size of a comparable staff during the Nixon Administration.

As for bringing new supplies online, that is the best cure for cost-push inflation, but the problem with it is that it can take a good deal of time to work. Ironically, Jimmy Carter did initiate this cure for Saudi-induced oil inflation during his Administration, when he de-regulated natural gas production. The problem was that the new supplies did not begin to have an impact for some time. Eventually they did, but only after President Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan, and only after the availability of more natural gas created an international oil glut, the primary reason for the fall of inflation in the Reagan Administration.

The secondary reason for the fall of inflation was Volcker backing off the Federal Funds rate. The Reagan recovery couldn’t have occurred without that; but, on the other hand, Volcker’s move wouldn’t have been effective if the oil price hadn’t already fallen.

So, the bottom line here, is that the Government did mostly fiscally irresponsible things in seeking price stability during the Carter Administration, while wrapping itself in the moral sanctimony of preaching the necessity for sacrifice. The one clearly good thing it did was to de-regulate natural gas. That eventually worked, and if Congress and the President had combined that with oil rationing and strict enforcement of price controls on domestic supplies, export controls on domestic oil, application of price controls on oil imports, and perhaps limited wage controls, then the economy could have survived without Paul Volcker’s Fed drying up the credit flow and producing a prolonged recession.

Implementing the right of health care for everyone

Carter promised passage of a national health insurance plan during his campaign, but when he was elected he backed off that idea as soon he was warned about the perceived likely inflationary impact of such legislation. This fear dogged his Administration and was a major factor in his inability to come to agreement with Teddy Kennedy and Russell Long on a bill that all three could support.

As his term passed, hesitation and delay resulted in his chance of passing a Medicare for All or other national health insurance bill slipping away, even though he had enormous Democratic majorities in both Houses during his first two years, and healthy majorities in his last two. His fear of inflation and concerns for fiscal responsibility as he defined it, prevented him from making a deal with Democrats supporting a single-payer system. He also insisted that any health reform bill had to safeguard a role for the private insurers.

At the time spending on health care amounted to 9% of GDP. Now that figure is at 18%. In retrospect, it is clear that the same beliefs about fiscal responsibility bothered him in this area as in the economic stagnation, full employment, and price stability issue areas. And also that his insistence on his mistaken fiscal responsibility notion, led to fiscally irresponsible policies, that, in turn, eventually led to the health care sector doubling the proportion of GDP it consumes on an annual basis, and also to many years of unnecessary fatalities, bankruptcies, foreclosures, and family breakups due to lack of universal health insurance.

In retrospect, this is one of areas of the Government’s biggest failures during the Carter Administration. The President was reluctant to make changes that excluded private interests, and to use the Government’s recently acquired greater policy space existing because the Government was now a sovereign fiat currency issuer to spend for the public purpose. His lack of faith in the ability of the Government to do things well, and his ideological faith in the superiority of the private sector to the Government as an agent of change, undermined his effectiveness in this as well as the other areas discussed thus far. It also has bestowed a very high cost on most Americans since 1981.

The Government, led by Carter during this period, could not even conceive of just letting the twin deficits (Trade and Budget) float, and accommodating the trade and import desires of the private sector. Had he been able to do so, he might have been been able to overcome stagflation, create prosperity, and produce low-cost universal health insurance for everyone.

Watch for my next post on the Government’s failure to legislate enduring educational reform during the period 1977 – 1981.

*My thanks are due to Professors Scott Fullwiler and Stephanie Kelton for kindly providing me with their quarterly time series data on Sectoral Financial Balances which I’ve drawn upon for the deficit, and GDP numbers I’ve used in this post.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Real Fiscal Responsibility 2: Carter, Stagnation and Unemployment

11:30 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

The economy during the Carter period never operated at full capacity or near full capacity. Deficit and inflation reduction were emphasized above all other domestic concerns, and substantial output gaps were simply accepted as something that it was very difficult for Government to do anything about.

This post continues my series evaluating the fiscal responsibility/irresponsibility of the Governments of the United States (mostly the Congress, the Executive Branch, and the Federal Reserve) by Administration periods beginning in 1977 with the Jimmy Carter period. My first post explained why I chose to start my evaluation with the Carter period, and also laid out my related definitions of fiscal sustainability, and fiscal responsibility.

It explained why fiscal responsibility is closely connected to the idea of public purpose, which I’ve laid out here. I also claimed that the Government of the United States has been fiscally irresponsible in every Administration period since 1977. The remaining posts in this series, and they will be many, will document that claim with analysis.

In this second post, I begin my evaluation of the extent of fiscal responsibility or irresponsibility of the Federal Government during the Carter Administration by covering two of the primary problems reflecting public purpose, and what the Federal Government did or did not do about them with its fiscal and monetary policies. The two are: ending economic stagnation, and creating full employment at a living wage.

Replacing a stagnating economy with one operating at its full potential; closing the current output gap

The economy during the Carter period never operated at full capacity or near full capacity. Deficit and inflation reduction were emphasized above all other domestic concerns, and substantial output gaps were simply accepted as something that it was very difficult for Government to do anything about. This was true during a period in which the presidency and the Congress were both in Democratic hands with substantial majorities.

In addition, the President was able to appoint his choice to head the Federal Reserve on two occasions. During the early part of his Administration he was dealing with a Republican appointee, Arthur F. Burns, who was far from a fiscal hawk on inflation. When Burns resigned, Carter appointed G. William Miller to head the Federal Reserve. Miller was, if anything, more dovish on interest rates than Burns. But later when he moved Miller to Treasury, he appointed the fiscal hawk Paul Volcker as Federal Reserve Chairman, and in doing this shot both himself and the United States economy in the foot; condemning himself to defeat in 1980; and the economy to a multi-year recession with high levels of unemployment from 1980 – 1986.

In spite of his favorable political situation (at least until he appointed Volcker) for active deficit spending-based fiscal policy, President Carter and leaders in the other branches of Government chose to emphasize inflation moderation, rather than facilitating an economy that used its full productive capacity for the public purpose. The outcome of this orientation was characterized as “stagflation” in the popular press, and the term came to stigmatize the Carter period in Government and his Administration, in particular.

Why did the leaders of the Congress, the Executive and the Federal Reserve choose inflation moderation above other goals during the period 1977-1981? Partly because President Carter was very serious about attempting to reduce the Government’s deficit, and eventually balance the Federal budget by 1981, and he implemented a variety of Executive Branch cost-cutting measures across the Federal Government to try to reach his goal, while using the power and bully pulpit of the presidency to bring others along the path of “sacrificing for the public good.”.

Congress both collaborated with and sometimes opposed Carter’s cost-cutting proposals, when they related to infrastructure spending. But generally, they supported him in his broad-based deficit cutting activities, because they bought into the fiscal responsibility as deficit cutting and budget balancing notion, and also accepted that as political virtue in a time of uncertainty and stagflation.

Read the rest of this entry →

Real Fiscal Responsibility I: Preliminaries

6:25 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In 1976, Carter ran, in part, on a platform of “fiscal responsibility,” a virtuous “adult” behavior, while also promising to restore full employment. He did not, either during the campaign or afterward, state his policy using today’s neoliberal fiscal responsibility/austerity doctrine.

This is the first in a lengthy blog series that will evaluate the US Government’s record on RealFiscal Responsibility, Administration period by Administration period, since the Administration of Jimmy Carter in 1977. In evaluating the US Government’s record, it’s important to state clearly that I will be evaluating more than just each Administration and its activities.

The record of fiscal responsibility is not the product of the Executive Branch alone. It is the outcome of the interaction of the Executive with the two Houses of Congress and the Federal Reserve System, even on occasion the interaction of one or more of these with the Supreme Court. All bear joint, though not equal responsibility for the record of Government fiscal responsibility or fiscal irresponsibility, as the case may be, during each Administration period.

Why start this series with Jimmy Carter; since, after all, other Presidents before him have been concerned about balancing the budget and deficit reduction? Well, first, such concerns had justification before President Nixon closed the gold window in 1971, and left the United States with a non-convertible currency, with a floating exchange rate, and no debts payable in other currencies. But after that, and with the passage of enough time to give people a chance to understand and digest the significance of that change for increased policy space in the fiscal and monetary areas, it is reasonable to expect that orientations toward deficit spending and balanced budgets among the parts of the US Government should have changed with the change in the realities of the Government financing system.

How much time is enough time for this to happen? That is debatable, of course. But I will assume that given the pressures on them, it is probably too much to expect that the Nixon/Ford Administration could have come to a changed understanding of the newly existing space for fiscal policy. Also, neither of these Presidents appear to have established deficit reduction as a goal, essential in itself for good government, so much as an expedient concern to meet the dual challenges of high unemployment and OPEC-induced inflation. But with Jimmy Carter, we get something new in the post-WWII period.

In 1976, Carter ran, in part, on a platform of “fiscal responsibility,” a virtuous “adult” behavior, while also promising to restore full employment. He did not, either during the campaign or afterward, state his policy using today’s neoliberal fiscal responsibility/austerity doctrine, nor did he trouble to define what he meant by “fiscal responsibility”, and to provide a rationale for his definition, but he appeared to believe, in common with today’s austerians, that 1) achieving small deficits, or, even better, balanced budgets, would create full employment, and also 2) that the public debt-to-GDP ratio needed to be decreased over time to moderate inflation. So, because of this change in orientation and also the fact that he took office nearly 6 years after Nixon dispensed entirely with the gold standard, it seems to me right to view him as the first modern president who could reasonably have been expected to figure out that Real Fiscal Responsibility isn’t a matter of reducing deficits or balancing budgets, but rather of spending or taxing for the public purpose, and to have acted accordingly.

The same goes for the heavily Democratic post-Watergate Congress that served along with him, and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. All had enough time to figure the new reality out, all were responsible for not taking advantage of the new fiscal reality in which they live. But they didn’t take advantage of it; instead they acted with fiscal irresponsibility; as year after year, up to the present, has every succeeding President, Congress, and Federal Reserve. And in so doing, they have made themselves, every government of the United States since 1977, responsible for the decline of economic, social and political equality, and repeated episodes of economic stagnation the United States has had since that time.

fiscal sustainability is:

the extent to which patterns of Government spending do not undermine the capability of the Government to continue to spend to achieve its public purpose, and

fiscal responsibility is fiscal policy intended to achieve public purpose while also maintaining or increasing fiscal sustainability.

Proceeding from these definitions, and also a specification of public purpose you will find here, it may be fiscally responsible, in theory, to both implement fiscal policy based on its expected economic impact while also targeting managing the size of the deficit, the public debt, and the debt to GDP ratio; but, only in cases where an economic system is using a currency that it cannot issue in unlimited amounts to maintain its solvency. That includes all economic systems using currencies that are convertible to a commodity, or systems whose political authorities peg the value of its currency to the currency of another economic system, or systems whose political authorities have adopted a foreign currency. But it doesn’t include those systems whose political authorities (including central banks) can issue their own currency and reserves at will; more formally, systems with convertible fiat currencies, floating exchange rates, and no debts in currencies they do not have the authority to issue.

These last economic systems, fiat currency sovereigns such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, and Australia, to name several, have no need to target the levels of public debt or the debt to GDP ratio to maintain fiscal sustainability, and only need to be concerned about the deficit if it grows large enough in a single time period to impact an important component of public purpose such as the inflation rate. For these nations, in fact, it is irresponsible to target levels of public debt, and the debt-to-GDP ratio, and in any way to prioritize or trade-off changes in these levels over fiscal policy impacts on full employment, price stability, health and well-being, environmental sustainability, climate sustainability, energy foundations, educational attainment, public facilities, or any of the other components of public purpose, since no fiscal sustainability goal would be served by doing so.

Indeed, the opposite is the case, since the sustainability of the capability to freely issue fiat sovereign currency and reserves without undesirable effects such as hyperinflation, depends on the continuing productive capacity of the economic system whose political authorities are issuing such a currency. It is only when such systems have or can easily generate the goods and services needed to meet demand generated by Government deficit spending that the full freedom of such systems to spend in order to respond to economic cycles and to adapt to other problems can be realized. So, one of the most fiscally irresponsible things a Government can do is to target deficit reduction and budget balancing at the expense of maintaining and expanding productive capacity, including both the constructed capital providing that capacity and the competencies, skill, and knowledge, of the human beings who can use it to generate goods and services.

And yet, in pursuing Government austerity through policies targeting deficit reduction and budget balancing, that is what most Governments having fiat currency systems have done since shortly after the world followed the United States and went entirely off the gold standard in the 1970s. In particular, by almost never achieving full employment and by, instead, using an unemployed buffer stock as a hedge against inflation, they have frequently damaged and wasted skills, competencies, and knowledge of their own citizens who want to work, and have decreased real national wealth compared to what might have been created.

In this series, I’ll analyze and evaluate in detail each Administration period since 1977, from the viewpoint of fiscal responsibility I’ve defined above, and relative to the specification of public purpose I’ve outlined here, and will use in each blog. Readers may not agree with my specification of public purpose and so may disagree with my evaluation. But I think there is less room to disagree with the idea that Government taxing and spending in a democracy ought to align with some specification of public purpose, rather than aligning with mere private purposes of elites. So, it remains for those who will disagree to offer their own ideas of public purpose and then explain why these require the kinds of deficit reduction, budget balancing and austerity policies that each US Government, to lesser or greater degree, has pursued since 1977.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Avoiding A Debt Ceiling Election Sellout!

11:16 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Wonderful Scrollwork In Library Of Congress Jefferson Building

(photo: paul_houle/flickr)

During the past few months the results of polling suggest that Barack Obama will be re-elected. But they also show that his support is shallow and could be shaken easily by an economic downturn during the next 6 months.

A few more months of very small or negative job growth, a rise in the unemployment rate to 9%, a blizzard of super-Pac propaganda, a lot of schmoozing by Ann Romney, some press coverage of the Obama Administration’s coddling of the mortgage fraudsters, the usual distractions from the most serious issues facing the United States, and who knows? People may well decide that they can overlook the robotics, the Mormonism, and the blatant lying of “the Mittster,” and take a chance that he can get them those jobs, even at at the price of scaling back their social safety net including their access to health care for the sake of providing a few more hundreds of thousands or millions of bucks per year to his good ball club and race car-owning cronies.

But, what are the chances that there will be that economic downturn that will suddenly result in a new ball game for our ever-hopeful and persistent corporate acquisitions star pander-bear? Well they’ve gotten a little better lately, I think.

Straws in the Wind

First, the BLS reports that only 120,000 full time jobs were gained in March, perhaps 100,000 less than anticipated. The news is also worse than that, if you look carefully at the numbers.

Second, Federal Government spending this year is down $433 Billion compared to last year at this time. That’s about a 3% of GDP drop, discounting any fiscal multipliers that might have been generated by spending at the same level as last year, and is about half the amount of spending appropriated in the ARRA fiscal stimulus bill of 2009.

Third, Federal Government tax revenues are running $45 Billion ahead of least year. Adding that amount to the $433 Billion in spending reductions, the Federal Government’s net spending input into the non-Government sector is nearly $500 Billion less than it was at this time a year ago.

Now that is fiscal drag. It is going to be reflected in economic growth; and it is going to be reflected in declining levels of employment growth, and perhaps in a growing unemployment rate or faux shrinkage of the work force, caused by BLS definitions of the labor force defining people out of it.

Fourth, now, into this mess comes the expectation that the debt ceiling may once again be reached by this Fall, just before the election. The Administration won’t want a debt ceiling fight disturbing its re-election campaign and giving Romney the chance to charge the President with fiscal irresponsibility.

The President’s campaign may well be able to manage that charge and turn it around on the Republicans. But the fight would be messy and risky, and if the President is ahead in the polls at the time it might well provide an opportunity for Romney to get level with him.

This President doesn’t seem like much of a risk taker to me. Others may disagree with that. But I think he likes to avoid uncertainty if he can, and that he will work hard to avoid a fight with the House Republicans until after the election.

In addition, as the debt ceiling approaches, the Administration may try to ensure that there is no messy fight over it by cutting back on Federal deficit spending to avoid reaching the debt ceiling before the election. In fact, it may have already started to cut back, which may be the explanation for Federal spending already lagging behind its pace of a year ago.

If this analysis is right, then we can expect Federal spending to lag behind last year over the coming months as well, with the results showing up in lower GDP and employment numbers. The Administration will probably play a game where it tries to balance Federal spending against economic results in such a way that after some time of letting the economy live with fiscal drag, it spends very fast to get it to build a head of steam in the last four months before the election, with a peak coming in September, but without breaching the debt ceiling. It may then try to make sure that the BLS results for October are available only after November 6th, at least if they don’t continue the downward unemployment trend planned for the four months just before October.

But what if games like this don’t work well for the Administration, what if it can’t balance things well enough, and spends too slowly to show that the economy is “moving in the right direction” near election day? Or what if it spends too fast and hits the debt ceiling on October 15th and there is a confrontation in the final weeks of the campaign?
The likely game the Administration will play may be successful in persuading the public that unemployment is improving, but it is, clearly, another risky course, which the President and his Party will want to avoid if they can. So, what will they do? Read the rest of this entry →

(MMT − JG) + Medicare for All ≠ MMT

10:24 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In my last post, I discussed the first part of Beowulf’s post entitled: “(MMT − JG) + Medicare for All = MMT,” and also some dialogues between Jamie Galbraith and both TomThumb and Beowulf related to the MMT Job Guarantee at one of FiredogLake’s Book Salon’s featuring Jamie’s new book Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis.

In Beowulf’s post, he highlights replies by Jamie to a question about the JG including this point:

“. . . the federal government handles *insurance* extremely well. Social Security and Medicare are functional, efficient programs. That is why they are so hated by some people – and prized by others.”

Beowulf then remarks:

“I rather agree with his last point. As I’ve suggested before, Congress should dump universal healthcare funding onto the Fed’s lap. This would have the side benefit of providing the Fed with a fiscal policy tool; they could periodically adjust the rebate’s ratio of seigniorage vs transaction fee revenue depending on economic conditions.”

Beowulf then follows with more details of one of his way out-of-box proposals illustrating an unequaled talent (and I mean this in the best possible way) for policy wonkery, that puts the likes of the unjustly celebrated Ezra Klein to shame. Before I get to these details however, I’ll note that the general idea would require Congressional legislation and also legislation that gives the undemocratic Fed more authority than it has now.

In my view it would reinforce the Fed’s position in the Government, and since I think that position both violates constitutional separation of powers and also provides the financial industry with undue influence over the operations and policies of the Central Bank, my first reaction to Beowulf’s proposal is that it incorporates a big negative to begin with.

Beo goes on with the details:

“To take a few minutes to unpack my last paragraph (you can punch out if you don’t want to go into the weeds)… While Obamacare was being debated in 2009, Anthony Weiner went on the Morning Joe show to make a ridiculously strong case for a single payer system (Part I, Part II). Congressman Weiner was promised a floor vote on a Medicare for All bill he drafted but Pelosi and/or the White House pressured him to drop it so people would pay less attention to how flawed Obamacare really was (but I digress). Unlike the HR 676 Medicare for All bill that you often see touted, Weiner’s bill was actually vetted by the CBO so its additional expenditures were matched by additional taxes… A LOT of new taxes (approx $1 trillion a year, that’s over and above current govt health spending that’d roll over into the new system). Raising taxes seems rather unnecessary since Congress could accrue this revenue without taxes or inflation simply by mandating the Fed deposit an equivalent amount in TGA every year.”

So, there’s the Congressional action necessary for universal health care. Congress has to legislate Medicare for All, and then has to mandate that the Fed deposit an equivalent amount without either taxing or borrowing. So, where would the money come from? Beo goes on:

“The Federal Reserve Act was amended in 1980 to give the Fed governors (and NOT the FOMC) the authority to levy and adjust bank transaction fees. Of course this is completely different from bank transaction taxes, after all, only Congress can levy taxes! In 2005, UW-Madison Econ professor Edgar Feige proposed to President Bush’s tax reform panel a bank transaction tax (of approx. half of one percent) that would generate $1.8T in revenue (in 2002 dollars). My reading of the FRA is that the Fed could enact Feige’s plan on its own (though Congress can always push them if they won’t jump). In perhaps the most wonderful example ever of “its a feature, not a bug”, economist Bruce Barlett complained of Feige’s plan,

“Since GDP equals the money supply times the turnover of money—what economists call velocity—a fully effective transactions tax will presumably reduce velocity. Consequently, it would be severely deflationary unless the Federal Reserve substantially increased the money supply to compensate. It also means that the tax base will shrink as soon as the tax is imposed.”

“So this is the plan, the unstoppable force of $1 trillion in inflationary Medicare spending would meet the immovable object of $1 trillion in deflationary transaction fees. Of course we only need spending and revenue to match at full employment (and even that assumes no trade deficit demand leakage). At other times, The Fed could use this as an adjustable fiscal policy tool (the Board of Governors can amend their fee schedule at any time). When the economy falls short of full employment with balanced trade, the Fed could fund Medicare by cutting transaction fees and filling the deficit by way of the Mint with coin seigniorage (I’ll just note in passing that ordering, say, a $1 billion platinum coin seems less wasteful than a billion $1 coins, reasonable minds can differ).”

So, Beo has advanced an ingenious proposal for passing Medicare for All with perpetually mandated Fed funding coming from 1) bank fee revenue collected by the Fed and then deposited in the TGA, and 2) US Mint coin seigniorage profits generated by high face-value platinum coins during those years when recessions make it desirable for the Fed to back off some portion of its fee revenue for covering Medicare for All spending. Funding health care this way would not come up against the debt ceiling problem, and it would likely save the non-Government sector at least $800 B per year, or $8 Trillion over a decade, which it could use for other things besides health insurance/out of pocket spending, by putting the private health care insurers out of business and by disciplining the providers through cost negotiations with the Government, now acting as the single-payer.

An elegant proposal, right? But there are a few problems with it.

First, it makes the Fed always very subject to bank influence in the position of deciding what the bank fees will be. No doubt the banks will continuously push for reductions in the fee revenue and more reliance on seigniorage for Medicare funding.

Second, as indicated earlier, it increases the authority of an undemocratic institution that is already too powerful.

Third, why would Congress agree to mandate the Fed to go this way? The fees involved will be viewed as taxes by the banks, whatever they are called, so they will oppose them and will require their allies in both parties to defeat such a proposal.

Fourth, isn’t the fiscal tool given to the Fed in the proposal relatively ineffective and also unnecessarily generous to the financial sector in hard times? That is, backing off the transaction fee revenue will feed bank gross profits which will be transmitted disproportionately to wealthy executives and stockholders. So, isn’t the fiscal multiplier associated with backing off fee revenue and using coin seigniorage to fund Medicare for All likely to be relatively ineffective since we know that multiplier is likely to be similar to the one associated with tax cuts for the wealthy, which is roughly 30 cents on every dollar cut?

Fifth, isn’t this proposal unnecessarily complex from a political point of view? That is, if Proof Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PPCS) (the method of getting around the debt ceiling originally suggested by Beo some time ago) is going to be used anyway, and the Executive is going to be brought into the picture, then why start with the Congress to try to get this done?

Why not do what I suggested in this recent post and earlier? Namely let the President start with a $60 T coin, pay down all the intra-governmental debt within a week, have the executive pay off all the debt subject to the limit held by the non-Government sector as it comes due, and then have roughly $45 Trillion in unappropriated funds sitting in the TGA, waiting for Congress to target them at specific programs.

The $45 T sitting there would serve as a very visible reminder that the Government has the money to do whatever it needs to do to help solve America’s many problems; and certainly much more than enough needed to fund the full cost of Medicare for All for many years to come, in addition to State revenue sharing, payroll tax holidays, and a Job Guarantee program to entirely end the Great Recession and enable full employment at a living wage. I think this plan is much simpler than Beowulf’s new proposal, and it has the advantage that it can generate unremitting pressure on the Congress to create Medicare for All, which it could no longer easily turn aside by pleading that the US is running out of money with $45 T sitting in the bank, and the capability to generate still more money at will if needed. No one would be able to tell the lie that the US was running out of money ever again.

Finally, it should be obvious that “(MMT − JG) + Medicare for All = MMT” is false, because even if PPCS is used for Medicare for All, its substitution for the JG still falls short of MMT objectives. Adding Medicare for All to other MMT initiatives, without implementing the JG will bring the economy closer to FE, than would have been the case without Medicare for All, but that wouldn’t change the fact that we would still be relying on a buffer stock of unemployed persons to contain inflation. That’s not an MMT prescription, because it is less in conformance with public purpose than relying on a buffer stock of employed persons for a host of reasons reviewed in many posts here.

But, in addition, and just as important, the JG program in its MMT context makes real for the first time FDR’s proposed economic right to a job for all who are willing and physically and/or mentally able to work. I think that right is an essential aspect of the idea of public purpose, and that’s why the JG program ought to be, and is, so closely tied to MMT.

In short, (MMT − JG) + Medicare for All ≠ MMT, and the only way someone can believe that it does, is if they either don’t believe that the goal of economic policy in a democracy is to fulfill public purpose; or alternatively, if their ideas about public purpose don’t include the right to a job offer at a living wage. Do all who call themselves MMTers believe in this right? I don’t know.

But I do think that in the future, as more people in economics come to recognize that there are no value-free economic systems, and that MMT cannot be free of values and normative commitments, MMTers will come to recognize that they can’t avoid making their normative commitments explicit. And when that day arrives, I think most MMT supporters and practitioners will decide that the normative commitments to real Full employment and FDR’s right to full-time work are part and parcel of MMT, as is the JG itself, because it is the best method yet devised for fulfilling these aspects of public purpose.

And also because if MMT is anything at all, then it is surely the Economics for the Public Purpose that John Kenneth Galbraith wrote about in the 1970s. MMT is the modern embodiment of the tradition named by Galbraith in that fine book. Many of us still, and will always, revere the vision expressed in that book. To those who feel this way, Economics for the Public Purpose is the only economics we will practice, because it is the only economics worthy of the name.

(Cross-posted from

Dialogues with Jamie Galbraith and the MMT Job Guarantee

10:40 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

A few days ago my friend Beowulf decided to exercise his wry sense of humor with this title of a post he offered for our consideration: “(MMT − JG) + Medicare for All = MMT.” Beo then goes on to talk about some details of a comment exchange with Jamie Galbraith at one of FiredogLake’s Book Salon’s featuring Jamie’s new book Inequality and Instability: A Study of the World Economy Just Before the Great Crisis.

Dialogue 1, Jamie Galbraith/TomThumb

Beo points out that Jamie has been closely associated with the approach to economics called Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), most recently in a pretty good Washington Post article by Dylan Matthews, someone who clearly has little familiarity with who’s who in MMT world. After setting the stage by pointing out that association, Beo goes on to quote part of Jamie’s comment giving his reply to a previous question about what he thinks of the MMT Job Guarantee (JG) proposal.

Here’s that reply:

“. . . To come back to the job-guarantee approach, I think asking the government to create jobs directly is not a robust solution. The problem is that the program goes right into the budget firing line, where it will get chopped up. That was the experience with CETA, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, back in the 1970s.

“So I prefer to think in terms of how to get decentralized institutions doing useful things, with their own funding streams, so that you can create jobs that endure. Education, health care, social services, home care, neighborhood conservation.”

Later FDL commenter TomThumb replied this way to Jamie:

“I worked under CETA as a Social Worker Assistant and then went right to Social Work graduate school when that ended in 1977. CETA works!

“Seems like you are giving up without a fight.”

To which Jamie replied:

“Good for you. I was on the congressional staff at that time so I still have some scars from the previous fight.

“But I think there are ways to get jobs funded — you just have to put a few degrees of separation between the program and the budget-cutters.”

TT quickly shot back:

“No. I disagree. I enjoyed it when you used to call for a direct frontal attack on their weasel words about creating jobs. Anything else is caving. In my opinion. Call them out for being do nothings. That is better than watching people get hurt every day and not making any changes.”

To which Jamie replied:

“Point taken. It’s a tactical issue and there are mornings when I agree with you.”

This exchange with TomThumb shows that Jamie is of two minds about direct Government job creation, and suggests the possibility that he might well prefer it if a Job Guarantee program could be structured as “. . . . a robust solution.”

I think it can be, but that discussion will have to wait for later in the post.

Dialogue 2, Jamie Galbraith/Beowulf

At this point Beowulf entered the discussion asking Jamie what he meant by the idea of getting jobs funded by putting “. . . a few degrees of separation between the program and the budget-cutters.”

To which Jamie replied:

“Well, I like the non-profit sector in this country a lot. Health care, education — these are useful things. Paul Samuelson once said to me “Health care is 15 percent of GDP, and it’s the best 15 percent of GDP.

“The thing about these sectors is, they have multiple funding streams. Higher ed has state money, federal money, tuition, philanthropy… This buffers the institution from cuts.

“If you go to (say) France, and look at what happens when you rely entirely on state funding for universities, you’ll see what I mean.

“That said, the federal government handles *insurance* extremely well. Social Security and Medicare are functional, efficient programs. That is why they are so hated by some people – and prized by others.”

To which Beo replies:

“That’s an interesting point, from a political standpoint, multiple sources of funding makes it more difficult to starve the beast (to say nothing of the politically powerful stakeholders in education and healthcare who won’t take losing their funding lightly).”

This dialogue is really interesting from an MMT point of view. Here’s Jamie Galbraith and Beowulf, both of whom have more than a passing familiarity with MMT, talking about job creation in the non-profit sector through funding that doesn’t derive from Government deficit spending.

Now, that kind of job creation isn’t impossible provided the fiscal multiplier trades involved are favorable, but both Jamie and Beowulf know very well that, assuming multiplier trade-offs are equal, without deficit spending by the Government sector, or the non-Government sector decreasing its total savings and perhaps increasing its debt, raising funding for non-profit sector jobs is likely to cost jobs elsewhere in the non-Government sector. They also both know that from a purely economic/fiscal point of view there’s no problem in funding a JG program. The problem with it is political. Namely, that in the current political climate a JG program, however structured, is very difficult to legislate (a point all three of us agree on).

Apart from that shared judgment of political difficulty, Jamie and Beowulf appear to diverge. Jamie says that not proposing a JG program is the best tactical choice right now. But Beowulf, who now favors the Modern Monetary Realism (MMR) approach, is opposed to the JG on strategic grounds because the MMR position is that the JG will not work as advertised by MMT, specifically, MMR believes that it will not produce full employment at a living wage with price stability, even if implemented as part of a broader MMT-like program including full payroll tax holidays and State revenue sharing.

The Upshot of the Dialogues

So, the upshot of these two contrasting dialogues is that both Jamie and Beowulf are talking outside of the MMT paradigm. And they are not acknowledging, or evaluating the implied MMT view that more “robust” job creation done in the non-profit sector without Federal deficit spending backing it, will in the end, either not be robust at all, or, alternatively will decrease the robustness of other non-Government sector employment.

Put another way, the lack of robustness critique of the JG policy idea based on the notion that JG funding will always be in the line of fire from deficit hawks and Republicans applies equally well to funding job creation in the non-profit sector, because ultimately that funding too, just like JG funding, can only be based on Federal deficit spending if it is to create new jobs, at least if we assume that imports will exceed exports, and that the non-Government sector will want to increase total savings during the period when new jobs are to be created.

Also, it looks like TomThumb, has it right. Jamie is giving up on the Job Guarantee idea too fast, because his view of its ultimate political fragility applies equally well to his proposal that the non-profit sector ought to do the job creation with non-Federal deficit funding. So, where do we go from here with the Job Guarantee proposal for direct job creation? Here are a few comments that contrast with Jamie’s doubts and his views on the lack of robustness of JG job creation.

First, from my point of view, none of the MMT recovery proposals are likely to be accepted in today’s political climate. So, the political feasibility criticism of MMT’s JG proposal isn’t any more weighty right now than similar criticisms of its payroll tax cut, and State revenue sharing proposals.

If any of them are to be passed, it will be necessary to overcome the ideology of austerity and get people in Washington to accept the fact that the American Government can’t have solvency problems. Doing that is job no. 1.

When and if that is done, and people really believe that the Federal Government can afford the social safety net and all sorts of other spending too, then we can consider whether the whole MMT program including the JG is politically feasible or not. My last post outlines some things the President can do to take austerity off the table and bring the day when we can do this with a real feel for feasibility closer.

But these are not to the point here. The point, instead, is that when it is off the table, then there will be no compelling reason why permanent automatic annual Federal funding of FDR’s right to a full-time job offer at a living wage, for every person if she/he wants to work, could not be funded through Federal spending, whether deficit or otherwise.

Second, Jamie says he prefers that the non-profit sector create the new jobs. However, the current MMT JG proposals are formulated so that even though the Government is the funder JG jobs, the work itself is actually defined, structured and supervised by the non-profit sector with the participation of local stakeholders who would define jobs that produce societally valued outcomes. Pavlina Tcherneva has been doing a lot of writing about this lately, (See also recent posts) as has Randy Wray. (See posts 38, 42-45 and also the response posts following each one.)

So, even though, the funding for an MMT JG program would come from the Federal Government, the non-profit sector would be heavily involved in specifying the jobs for the JG program. The result should be a program incorporating many of Jamie’s ideas about non-profit capabilities, based on Federal funding that might have no robustness problems at all, provided that the ideology of fiscal austerity is politically defeated by the time the MMT program, including the JG passed.

Third, Golfer1John, a commenter on one of Randy Wray’s recent JG posts suggested that the JG be renamed as The “Employment Insurance” program. I think this is a good name for it, because it describes what it offers to individuals who have been caught up by economic forces beyond their control, and it can also be marketed as part of an economic bill of rights.

In an environment where austerity has been defeated and the government is revealed as being able to fund anything that isn’t so expansive that it will cause inflation, it ought to be no problem to justify both an employment insurance program to guarantee a job offer to people who want to work, and also a universal health care program based on the idea of Medicare for All. So, we can have recovery, Job Guarantees, Universal Health Care, and Reconstruction of our severely damaged economy and society without having to worry about “running of of money.”

Beowulf’s Proposal

After highlighting Jamie’s view on the JG, but failing to review Jamie’s exchange with TomThumb, Beowulf goes on to offer a proposal of his own about Medicare for All, playing off Jamie’s remark that the Federal Government “handles ‘insurance’ very well. I’ll discuss that brilliant, but ultimately undesirable, proposal in a future post. And that’s when we’ll get into the humor reflected in the title: “(MMT − JG) + Medicare for All = MMT.”

(Cross-posted from

John Carney Doesn’t Believe That Government Spending Can Achieve Public Purpose

10:10 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

John Carney commented on a post by David Brooks and a follow-up by Randy Wray. Brooks says that a tax credit is essentially the same as Government spending and used an example from David Bradford, a Princeton economist, of the Pentagon wanting to acquire a new plane and paying for it with a tax credit.

Randy comments on the idea this way:

“What is a sovereign currency? It is (mostly) a keystroke that results in an electronic entry on a bank’s balance sheet. (Yes it can also be shiny coins, paper notes, and watermarked checks—but those are increasingly less important.) To be more accurate, it is two entries: an entry in the deposit account of the fighter plane’s producer and a reserve credit at the central bank for the producer’s bank.

“In the case of a modern “fiat” sovereign currency, what does the government promise? To “redeem” its currency in tax payment. When the fighter plane producer pays taxes, the keystrokes are reversed: the deposit is debited and the bank’s reserves at the Fed are debited. Presto-change-O the sovereign currency disappears in redemption.

“The fighter plane ends up at the government. That, of course, was the whole purpose of the keystrokes.

“Now let’s take Bradford’s example. Instead of keystroking a deposit, the government issues a “tax credit” to be used later in redemption of its tax liability. When tax time comes, the tax credit is sent on to the Treasury (presumably, it will be an electronic entry so little electrons pulse their way to Washington). Presto-change-O the tax credit is gone.

“Yep, Brooks has that part right. It is exactly the same thing. The fighter plane is moved to the government.

“After all, that’s what it is all about, right? From inception, the purpose of the monetary system is to move resources to the public sphere.

“And then the private sector gets all sorts of bright ideas about other uses for the monetary system, such as making subprime mortgage loans to those with no income, no jobs, no assets, packaging the trash into still trashier MBSs that get tranched and re-packaged into CDOs, which are further tranched to produce CDOs squared and cubed. And off we are to a GFC that the Fed then tries to resolve through keystroking $29 trillion of bail-out funds to save the banksters.

“But that’s a story for another time. Let’s congratulate David Brooks for (finally!) getting one thing right.”

Jon Carney comments:

”What Brooks gets and Wray misses, however, is that government spending priorities are economically damaging. When resources are moved “to the public sphere” they are utilized to realize political ends rather than “public” ends. That is, they are used to satisfy the demands of special interests who influence lawmakers and regulators.

“Like overgrown weeds, the tangle of tax breaks distorts behavior, clogs the economy and deprives the government of revenue,” Brooks explains.

“Forget about the revenue part. Otherwise, this is exactly right.

“It’s a shame that a guy as brilliant as Wray doesn’t quite understand that the “public sphere” is nearly always code for private interests expressed through political power.”

Now, that’s not economics at all. It’s a statement about politics and Government, and I have to wonder what John Carney’s special expertise is in these areas, or what reason we have to believe any bald assertions he makes about them that aren’t accompanied by good theory, good data, and tight arguments.

His statement above is also about as bald a statement of anti-government, and anti-progressive ideology as one can imagine, and also reflects a cynical political theory about politics and government which is a) demonstrably false as a generalization, and b) where positive instances consistent with the theory do occur, it is often in political systems where that false theory is itself broadly popular among citizens who are disillusioned with democracy, and who create their own self-fulfilling prophecy that it must and will be subverted by special interests.

Places like Germany, Italy, and Austria in the 1920s and France and Eastern Europe in the whole inter-war period. And places like the United States is becoming now, where no one believes in the legitimacy or possibilities of government anymore, nor in anything else except their own private advancement, and a neo-spencerian struggle for survival.

Do we really need to ask why we ought to believe that “. . . government spending priorities are economically damaging”? Can Carney show us empirical evidence that the actual, non-monetary, costs of government spending exceed the non-monetary benefits of that spending so that we can observe the economic damage he assumes? Or is he just blowing smoke?

Just as important, can he show us empirical evidence that the actual, non-monetary benefits of private sector spending exceed the non-monetary costs of that spending, so that we can observe the economic progress, healing, and prosperity that I suspect he wants us to believe would be the impact of a heavier emphasis on private rather than government spending?

Somehow I doubt that John can do either of those things. And I think that what he’s doing in this column is just giving us his variant of neo-Hayekian/Austrian/libertarian theology in place of a real economic argument that Government spending can’t or won’t work for achieving public purpose, assuming a political sphere that wants to make it work.

I also think that the issue he raises comes down to whether we can point to times and places where political interests expressed through politics and government were largely in accord with the public purpose, and whether that can happen again if people can once again make their government representative and responsive. We can point to such times and places. They don’t come often. The progressive period. The New Deal. The Second World War, and the post-War period up to about 1966.

After a long 15 year period of transition to neo-liberalism, the present period of corrupt Government subverted by special interests began in 1980 and is still continuing. What John Carney and David Brooks both miss, but what Randy Wray gets, is that the success of public purpose economics, including MMT, is going to depend on changes that free the political system from the burden of the financial and other special interests that now control it. But just, maybe the American people, and people in Europe too, are close to having had it with neoliberalism, and change may be coming.

It’s going to require ending accounting control frauds and kleptocracy by prosecuting and convicting the kleptocrats who have destroyed so much middle class wealth and looted and continue to loot the public treasury. If we can do that, then Government spending can again serve the public purpose. If not, if Brooks and Carney are right about Government spending, then we will either continue with lemon socialism or move even further along the true road to serfdom. We will, in other words, lose the very soul and character of America for good.

(Cross-posted from