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The Small Ball Trillion Dollar Coin Seigniorage Exception

12:07 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

The exception to the general pattern focusing on the Trillion Dollar Coin (TDC) as the solution to the debt ceiling problem I outlined and critiqued in my last post, is in Joe Wiesenthal ‘s posts here and here. Wiesenthal alone criticizes, rather than ignores, other options than the TDC, namely the $16 T and $100 T options, on grounds that they are no more effective at meeting the debt ceiling crisis than the TDC. He says that the issue is not a lack money but the debt ceiling law, and also that if a coin that large were minted and used to pay back the debt, then the result would be inflation or hyperinflation because of the flow of the large quantity of reserves into the economy, and the ensuing great expansion in the money supply.

I think that Joe Wiesenthal is both showing his bias towards solving the smaller, more immediate (debt ceiling), rather than the larger (austerity) problem, and also that he’s dead wrong about the impact of a $100 T coin on inflation. On his bias: I can only say, that I don’t agree that “we” are talking about a legal problem rather than a money problem.

If all “we” are concerned with is the debt ceiling, then Wiesenthal is right; we need only consider the TDC option, which the President can use either once, or until the House gets tired of his minting TDCs, and raises the debt ceiling. But I think that most Americans, if they understood Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) and its possible meaning for fiscal politics would go beyond debt ceiling concerns to the issue of austerity. And they would also realize that the face value of the PCS option chosen by the Secretary of the Treasury is of enormous importance for removing any perceived need for austerity arising from the level of the national debt or the debt-to-GDP ratio.

Wiesenthal’s main additional stated objection to extremely high value PCS on the order of $50 – $100 Trillion is the inflationary impact he expects it to have. I’ve already analyzed the likely impact of a $60 T coin on inflation in a fair amount of detail in an earlier post, based on Scott Fullwiler’s comprehensive framework. My analysis shows that there would be no inflation due to the effect of $60 T PCS itself on the economy. I can summarize the argument this way.

The credits in the Treasury General Account (TGA) ultimately resulting from using $60 T PCS aren’t immediately spent. So, they don’t all enter the economy immediately, but over a very long period of time from 15 – 25 years in duration. So, to gauge the inflationary impact, you have to analyze when and how the credits would be entering the economy. At the end of the last fiscal year, $6.4 Trillion in debt subject to the limit was owed by the Treasury to other agencies and to the Fed itself. That debt could be redeemed in the same week after minting a $60 T coin. But the payments wouldn’t be inflationary because they would not enter the non-government economy. Nevertheless, these payments would cut back debt subject to the limit by close to 40%, because of the ridiculous quirk in the law that counts intra-governmental debt toward the debt ceiling.

Next, the 10 T or so of debt held by private corporations, individuals, and foreign governments would only be paid as it falls due. Much of it would be paid over the first three years. But as I’ve argued above, the additional reserves placed in the system by paying the debt, and not issuing new debt instruments would be less inflationary than bonds would be.

Also, their presence in the banking system, would clearly flood it with reserves and drive overnight interest rates down to zero, rather than raising them. For the Fed to hit any non-zero rate targets it would have to support them either paying IOR, or issuing debt instruments of its own to drain the excess reserves. In either case, there’s no inflationary impact from repaying debt instruments as they fall due by adding reserves to the banking system.

That leaves deficit spending. In the case of a $60 T coin, and a national debt of $16.4 Trillion, we’ll assume that $43.6 Trillion would be left in the TGA for future deficit spending. However, the fact that the credits are in the TGA doesn’t mean that the Treasury could spend them. In fact, it can only spend them if Congress appropriates deficit spending. So, the bottom line is that the $43.6 T doesn’t go into the economy until it’s appropriated. Then some portion of it can be inflationary if Congress deficit spends past the point of full employment; but if it doesn’t, then there won’t be demand-pull inflation. And, if it does, then the inflation will be due to unwise Congressional appropriations and not to using PCS.

In short, there’s no way that PCS in itself can have an inflationary impact, no matter how high the value of the platinum coin is. That’s because repayment of already held debt is less inflationary than continuous rollover of and gradual increase of debt, repayment of debt to government agencies including the Fed doesn’t enter the economy, and using PCS-generated funds to cover deficits is not in itself inflationary unless deficit spending is so large that it continues past full employment.

So, that’s the true narrative about PCS and inflation. Not, ZOMG “Weimar, Zimbabwe.” That’s nonsense! Let’s hope that Joe Wiesenthal, and other MSM bloggers who have jumped into the PCS pool in the past few weeks read it and cease to spread “the silly idea” that PCS, in whatever denomination greater than say a few Trillion Dollars may be used, is inherently inflationary. It is nothing of the kind! Inflation, due to Government spending, is always and everywhere, in the rare instances that it occurs, a Congressional phenomenon!

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Photo in the public domain.

Beyond Debt/Deficit Politics: The $60 Trillion Plan for Ending Federal Borrowing and Paying Off the National Debt

7:46 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Well, here we are again, House leaders have agreed on a compromise continuing spending resolution at the same level as before from October 2012 through January 2013. It’s likely now that the President(s?) will probably try to make the money available for deficit spending as of today, last through the time period of the continuing resolution so that one deal including both the budget and raising the debt limit can be made by March of 2013. According to the July 31, Daily Treasury Statement, there’s $499,424,000,000 left until the debt ceiling. That’s an average of $62,428,000,000 deficit spending per month for the next 8 months, ending March 31, 2013.

For the past 10 months, average deficit spending was at $114,802.3 Billion per month, and that amount was not enough stimulus for a full recovery. So, the likely 46% reduction in average deficit spending over the next 8 months is unlikely to be any more effective in pulling us out of the extended employment recession we are experiencing, than the deficits in the preceding 10 months were. On the contrary, deficit spending over the next 8 months is unlikely even to allow us to maintain the unemployment levels we have now. So, what ought to be done?

The most important thing that can be done is to change the fiscal context of politics from one of apparent scarcity “justifying” austerity to one where spending capacity is so plentiful, that Congress will be hard-pressed to impose austerity, because its justification in the form of apparent limitations on spending capacity will just seem silly. In the summer of 2011 I proposed a solution to the debt ceiling crisis calling for the minting of a $30 T platinum coin to overcome the problem and also improve the fiscal context for progressive legislation. Now, I want to update that post and apply it to the present political situation, where based on the above events, the next serious fiscal crisis is likely to happen in February and/or March of 2013. So, here’s the update.

The Law and Proof Platinum Coin Seigniorage

Congress provided the authority, in legislation passed in 1996, for the US Mint to create platinum bullion or proof platinum coins with arbitrary fiat face value having no relationship to the value of the platinum used in these coins. These coins are legal tender. So, when the Mint deposits them in its Public Enterprise Fund account at the Fed, the Fed must credit that account with the face value of these coins. This difference between the Mint’s costs in producing the coins and the credit provided by the Fed is the US Mint’s profit. The US code also provides for the Treasury to periodically “sweep” the Mint’s account at the Federal Reserve Bank for profits earned from these coins. Coin seigniorage is just the profits from these coins, which are then booked as miscellaneous receipts (revenue) to the Treasury and go into the Treasury General Account (TGA), narrowing or eliminating the revenue gap between spending and tax revenues. Platinum coins with huge face values, here $1, $2, and $3 Trillion coins have been mentioned, could close the revenue gap entirely in ant fiscal year, and, if used often enough, technically end deficit spending, while still retaining the gap between tax revenues and spending that can produce full employment in an economy like the US’s, with private sector savings and a current account deficit.

Proof Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PPCS) is now frequently and increasingly being mentioned on popular blogs as a possible solution to the debt ceiling crisis. It is one of the two solutions currently being suggested that requires no further legislation from Congress and also no challenge to either the debt ceiling law itself, or to the Congressional prohibition on the Fed extending credit to the Treasury.

However, PPCS is not only a solution to avoid a debt ceiling crisis. It also has the potential to take off the legislative/fiscal table the whole austerity mind set that bedevils our current budgetary process and provides it with a constraining conservative cast focused on narrow monetary costs considerations, rather than a broader progressive framework that weighs the real costs and benefits of proposed fiscal activities of the Federal Government.

PPCS can free the Government from narrow green eye shade concerns and force both Congress and the Executive to evaluate the substance of legislative proposals based on their likely direct impacts and side effects on the lives of Americans, rather than their impact on Federal deficits and surpluses.

Government deficits and surpluses are important in themselves when the supply of Treasury funds is restricted to the amount that can be taxed or borrowed; but they are not intrinsically important when, through using PPCS, the supply of Federal funds is limited only by the President’s or the Treasury Secretary’s orders to the US Mint to use PPCS to fill the public purse without either taxing or borrowing

The PPCS alternative comes in more than one flavor. It’s actually a class of alternatives. Here are some different coin seigniorage proposals.

PPCS Alternatives

First, mint a $1.6 Trillion coin and have Treasury use the profits from it to buy all the outstanding debt instruments held by the Fed. This would retire a substantial part of the national debt and immediately create $1.6 T in “headroom” relative to the debt ceiling. This alternative involves the least amount of change in current procedures. The coin, once deposited at the Fed, would remain in a Fed vault, and would not go into circulation.

The Government would then go right back to issuing debt in order to meet its debt obligations and spend previous Congressional appropriations. With this alternative it is hard for critics to raise the inflation issue, since the new credits created by the coin are never spent into the economy, but are only used to buy back the debt held by the Fed because that debt counts against the debt ceiling. Of course, this proposal is a solution to the debt ceiling problem alone. It would prevent a default crisis caused by anti-government tea party Republicans. But, it wouldn’t do very much to defeat the austerity/deficit hawk mind set in politics.

One objection made to coin seigniorage proposals is that the high face values of the coins would drive up the market price of platinum. However, the Mint is already scheduled to produce 15,000 platinum coins having relatively small arbitrary face value. There would be no conceivable need for more than enough material for 100 very high face value proof platinum coins, and at least one alternative PPCS proposal would require only two coins to implement. So there really is no platinum supply/market price issue.

Having said that, every time the Mint creates a high value coin for deposit at the Fed, it would have to create a duplicate coin, so that it had the means to swap with the Fed if it ever decided to redeem the coin for currency of equal value. This is not a likely event; but it is possible. So, it would be necessary to create duplicate coins. The Fed would place one of the coins in its vault after deposit and the Mint would place the other coin in one of its vaults.

A second proposal is to mint a $6.7 T coin to pay back all debt held by the Fed, and all Intra-governmental debt, including that owed to Social Security, Medicare, and a host of other other agencies. That would create $6.7 T in headroom relative to the debt ceiling, that’s more than enough to carry us through the 2014 elections without breaching the ceiling. Again, this wouldn’t result in any “money” immediately going into circulation, but over time SS and Medicare payments to individuals and organizations would be adding to bank reserves without any reserves being withdrawn from the private sector due to debt issuance. But this isn’t a change from the present situation so it would not add to inflation.

This alternative would render the debt ceiling problem a dead letter for some time to come, and it also might take some of the austerity pressure off. But it probably wouldn’t end the austerity drive, because the deficit hawks would still point to long-term problems in entitlements that would be projected as running up the public debt in future years.

Some might think this alternative would be inflationary, because they believe that net reserves added to the private sector are more inflationary than debt instruments added would be. However, there’s plenty of evidence that debt instruments provide much higher leverage than added reserves, and, in addition, they lead to greater interest payments than reserves do, even if the Fed decides it wants to pay interest on reserves, which it doesn’t always do.

A third proposal for applying coin seigniorage is to mint a coin with face value large enough to cover the $6.7 T intra-governmental and Fed debt repayment, plus all private debt coming to maturity, and all Congressional Appropriations expected to require deficit spending. I’ll estimate, roughly, that a $20 T coin is enough for that, including about $4.0 T to more than close the expected gap between tax revenues and Government spending through the 2014 elections, and the rest for paying down the national debt further. Issuing a coin that large, using the profits from seigniorage, and assuming that Congressional appropriations continue the pattern of the past 2 years or so, that would result in a remaining public debt outstanding of roughly a few trillion dollars in long term debt, which would please the bond markets except for the fact that the US wasn’t issuing any more debt instruments, which would probably make the bond vigilantes scream for those safe harbor debt instruments again.

Again, would this coin seigniorage proposal be inflationary? Well, the intra-governmental and Fed debt repayments won’t be, for reasons already stated. Also, there’s no reason to believe that the repayment of further debt will be, unless one believes, that reserves swapped for bonds, and not swapped again for more bonds, is inflationary. But, other than the interest payments which certainly add to private sector assets somewhat, payback of debt instruments is just an asset swap, followed by destruction of securities. There’s no addition of Net Financial Assets (NFA) to the private sector.

How about the seigniorage profits of $4.0 T set aside for closing the gap between tax revenues and spending during the next two years? Will that be inflationary? Actually, I don’t know if Congress will appropriate a $4.0 T spending/tax revenue gap over the next two years or so, but if such a gap is needed to move towards full employment, and if it does, then the coin profits will cover it without new Federal borrowing. And as long as Congress does the right kind of spending and creates a large enough gap to add sufficiently to private sector assets to support full employment, their appropriations, backed by PPCS won’t be inflationary.

If, also, Congress does the right kind of spending to bring full employment inside a year, then tax revenues will come back as they did during the Clinton Administration, and then there will be no need for all the profits from the proof platinum coin to be used completely between now and 2014. In fact, if the right jobs creating program is immediately enacted, as much as $2T could be left before the President might want the US Mint to strike another proof platinum coin.

So far, I’ve discussed three alternative coin seigniorage proposals ranging in scale from a minimal proposal to handle the current crisis to one that would provide enough funds to both pay down debt, and support a gap between spending and taxes that might be sufficient to enable full employment. Now here’s a fourth, enough to handle even generous Congressional appropriations and deficit spending for at least 15 years, until 2025 and beyond.

Why not mint a $60 T coin and then another one in case the Fed gets obstreperous sometime down the road and presents the $60 T coin, that was deposited in the Mint PEF account, for redemption?

I favor this fourth alternative above all, because it institutionalizes the idea that there is a distinction between appropriations, the Congressional mandate to spend particular amounts on particular goods and services, and the capability to spend the mandated accounts by having the funds (electronic credits) in the public purse (the TGA). In a fiat currency system, the capability always exists if the legislature provides for it under the Constitution. But the value of the $60 T coin, and the profits derived from it, is that it is a concrete reminder of the Government’s continuing ability to buy whatever it needs to meet public purposes. It demonstrates very concretely that the Government cannot run out of money, and that the claim that it can is not a valid reason for rejecting spending that is in accordance with public purpose.

So, in reading what follows, please keep in mind the distinction between the capability to spend more than government collects in taxes, and the appropriations that mandate such spending. The capability is what’s in the public purse, and it is unlimited as long as the Government doesn’t constrain itself from creating credits in its own accounts. With coin seigniorage its capability could be and should be publicly demonstrated by minting the $60 T coin, and getting the profits from depositing it at the Fed transferred to the TGA.

On the other hand, Congressional appropriations, not the size or contents of the purse, but whether the purse strings are open or not, determines what will be spent and what will simply sit in the purse for use at a later time. So there is a very important distinction between the purse and the purse strings. The President can legally use coin seigniorage to fill the purse, but only Congress can open the purse strings through its appropriations.

This fourth alternative is the one that best solves both the debt ceiling problem and the problem of taking austerity, justified by “we’re running out of money,” off the table. The debt ceiling would no longer be an issue if the Treasury immediately paid off $6.7 T in Fed and intra-governmental debt, and was poised, with the money in its account, to pay off the rest of the debt subject to the limit as it falls due. Nor would there be any justification for austerity policies if the Treasury had a public purse with $44 T of unearmarked funds in it to cover future deficit spending.

At that point we’d be free to seriously debate: 1) full payroll tax cuts for both employers and employees until full employment is reached; 2) revenue sharing payments to the States of $1,000 per person to save and restore State government employment to pre-crisis levels; 3) creating a Federal Job Guarantee program which would guarantee a job offer at a living wage with full fringe benefits to anyone seeking full time work; 4) passing HR 676, John Conyers enhanced Medicare for All bill; 5) public education reforms to create a world class educational system open to all, from preschool to graduate school; 6) passing an infrastructure program re-creating the energy foundations of the United States and rapidly eliminating dependence on fossil fuels; 7) passing new legislation stopping human-created climate change; and passing a $3 Trillion infrastructure program for renewing the US’s infrastructure.

This brings us again to inflation. I’ve already pointed out that repaying the debt won’t be inflationary. So, the inflation issue then focuses on the $44 T in seigniorage profits in the TGA that would be used to cover gaps between Federal spending and tax revenues in the years following minting the $60 T coin. How much of that is spent ,and when, will depend on what Congress appropriates. To avoid demand-pull inflation, the kind caused by Government deficit spending, Congress must not spend more than is needed to create the aggregate demand necessary for full employment.

How much that is will depend on the savings and import desires of the American people. Right now, desired savings seems to be at the level of 6% of GDP, while import desires greater than export amounts seem to be at roughly 4% of GDP. So, roughly speaking that tells us that a full employment budget should involve a deficit of $1.6 T or 10% of GDP, give or take a few hundred billion depending on the fiscal multipliers associated with the specific government spending involved. As long as deficit spending is within those limits demand-pull inflation will not occur.

This doesn’t mean that cost-push inflation caused by supply problems, or monopolistic activities, or other supply bottlenecks won’t happen. But these won’t be caused by excessive government deficit spending, and can’t be cured by backing off such spending or by raising taxes. They have to be treated in other ways. The best discussion of the relationship between coin seigniorage and inflation has been provided by Scott Fullwiler.

The Speech

If the President decided to rise above the debt ceiling controversy, safeguard the social safety net, and do something really, really important from the perspective of history by using $60 T coin seigniorage to short circuit the upcoming fights over the debt ceiling and the budget, say in January, or better still during the lame duck, then there would be a spectacular uproar in the Congress and the Press over what he had done. All kinds of overblown and downright crazy claims would be made because the President’s action would shock people, everyone would have a tough time getting their minds around it, and the media would report on what was going on in a very sensationalist way using stereotypes created by the neo-liberal perspective that journalist at places like the WaPo, NYT, and CNN are superficially well-schooled in. Places like CNBC and Fox would be absolutely foaming at the mouth in response to something like this, and Timmy Geithner might very well resign over it, as might Ben Bernanke, since he’d be forced to have the Fed credit the coin.

There would also be an immediate move in Congress to repeal the 1996 law that enabled the President’s action. This would fail however, because even if it got through the Congress, the President would simply veto it. The opposition couldn’t possibly get the 2/3 vote necessary to override the veto. Even if by some miracle, repeal got through, however, it would be too late. The coin would have done its work and the $60 T would be in the TGA, a fait accompli, and a vivid demonstration that the government can create as much money as it wants, and can only run out of money by choice.

However, the President would then have to defend himself with a political campaign aimed at persuading the public that his move was a bold and liberating move and the first step in finally getting out of this protracted economic depression. And yes, he should use the D-word, whatever the Republicans and the so-called “fact-checkers” say about it in that campaign. And he should also begin the campaign by explaining to the public the issuance and deposit of the first $60 T coin in a high profile TV address, this way (the second coin just stays at the Mint for safekeeping. Its existence to be kept secret). Here’s the speech.

My Fellow Americans:

1) Until now the Treasury has been borrowing the money the Government created back from the private sector, in order to cover our deficit spending, so the national debt has been steadily growing.

2) That’s silly! According to the Constitution, this Government, of the people, by the people, and for the people, is the ultimate source of all US money. So why should we ever borrow US money back and pay interest on it, since we can create it any time by the authority of the Constitution and Congress?

3) Congress has also imposed a debt ceiling, so, if and when we reach it, we can’t borrow back our own money without Congressional approval, anyway, and lately Congress has been using the need to raise the debt ceiling as an excuse to extort cuts in safety net and discretionary programs that the majority of Americans oppose.

4) So, on my order, and in accordance with legislation passed by Congress in 1996, and with the US Code, the US Mint has issued $60 Trillion using a single 1 oz. platinum coin, and deposited it at the NY Fed. It’s legal tender, so the Fed credited the Mint’s Public Enterprise Fund (PEF) account with $60 Trillion in USD credits using its unlimited authority from Congress to create US Dollars.

5) This is not inflationary because the Fed will put our coin into its vault, and keep it there permanently out of circulation, and the Treasury will use the $60 T in USD credits only to pay back debt and to spend what Congress has already approved, which is only a small fraction of these credits and far from the amount needed to cause inflation.

6) My action ends any possibility of a debt ceiling crisis in February or March, because we have no further need to borrow our own money back in the markets, and that’s why we don’t need the tea party or other Republicans, or even my fellow Democrats to agree to raise the debt ceiling any more.

7) Now the Treasury, has plenty of money, much more than we need, in fact, to pay for all appropriations Congress has already approved for 2013, and may approve in March, including all deficit spending and, again, we won’t have to borrow our own money back, either to repay debts or to implement future deficit spending.

8) So we will pay all Government debts which will come due in 2012 and 2013. Treasury securities and all other debts included. We will also pay back all debts held by other agencies of Government and the Federal Reserve. When we do this we will lower the national debt by about $12 T, reducing the “debt burden” by about 75% by the end of 2013, and creating an actual Social Security trust fund with 2.7 T in cash reserves in it; and again, to do this we don’t have to borrow our own money back, and we will also reduce our interest costs on the outstanding national debt all through the remainder of 2012, continuing through 2013, 2014, and beyond until it is all paid off.

9) None of the $60 T in new credits created by our actions is “money” in the private sector economy until the Treasury spends it. For now it is just capability to spend awaiting the appropriations of Congress to mandate deficit spending, should it need to compensate for the reduction in demand, probably close to 10% of GDP right now, caused by your own desire to save (which we want to do our best to facilitate), and your desire to import goods from foreign nations.

10) We have created $60 Trillion in new credits even though we probably needed less than that to cover anticipated deficit spending and debt repayment until 2027. The reason for this, is that I wanted to have enough capability created in the Treasury account, so that the national debt could be completely paid off (except for a small amount in very long-term Treasury debt still not mature by 2027), and all projected Federal deficits covered over the next 15 years, even extraordinary deficit spending needed to be performed without further borrowing over this period.

11) Of course, we can always make new coins if our projections about future deficits turn out to be wrong; but I thought it would be best to ensure that all $16 T plus of the “debt burden” can be completely eliminated from our political concerns; and also to provide enough funds in our spending account at the Fed, so that it would be very clear to Congress and all newly elected Representatives and Senators, that even though they, as required by the Constitution, continue to control the purse strings, the national purse is very, very full, and that we would be able to cover from the Treasury Account whatever deficit spending for the public purpose, including for full employment, Medicare for All, infrastructure, education, and other things, that Congress, in its wisdom, chooses to appropriate now, before the next election, and for some elections to come.

Good night, my fellow Americans! Rest well knowing that our beloved country won’t be defaulting on any of its debts when the debt ceiling is reached in February or March, and that I’ve prevented this without going over the legal debt ceiling or borrowing any more, by providing money for spending mandated appropriations, in compliance with the laws authorizing coin seigniorage, while supporting the Constitution’s prohibition against our Government ever defaulting on its debts. I hope that in the future everyone will obey the 14th Amendment’s prohibition against questioning the validity of Federal Government debts, and think twice before they indulge themselves in loose talk about the possibility of the Federal Government defaulting on its obligations.

America will always pay its debts in US Dollars according to the terms of the contracts it has concluded, and in line with the pension payments and other obligations that it owes. Neither you, nor the rest of the world need ever doubt that again! Nor need you ever think that our Government is running out of money for the things we must do. We can never run short of money unless Congress refuses voluntarily, to use its unlimited constitutional authority to make more of it. But as long as it delegates to me the authority to create high value bullion and proof platinum coins to cover our needs, you can be sure that running out of US money will never happen!

(Cross-posted from Correntewire.com.

WaPo Covers MMT, But Does Its Usual Bad Job: Part Two, Inflation/Hyperinflation

10:06 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

This post continues the critical evaluation of Dylan Matthews’s, post published on Ezra Klein’s blog called “You know the deficit hawks. Now meet the deficit owls.”

The Inflation/Hyperinflation Bogeyman

“And while Modern Monetary Theory’s proponents take Keynes as their starting point and advocate aggressive deficit spending during recessions, they’re not that type of Keynesians. Even mainstream economists who argue for more deficit spending are reluctant to accept the central tenets of Modern Monetary Theory. Take Krugman, who regularly engages economists across the spectrum in spirited debate. He has argued that pursuing large budget deficits during boom times can lead to hyperinflation. Mankiw concedes the theory’s point that the government can never run out of money but doesn’t think this means what its proponents think it does.

“Technically it’s true, he says, that the government could print streams of money and never default. The risk is that it could trigger a very high rate of inflation. This would “bankrupt much of the banking system,” he says. “Default, painful as it would be, might be a better option.”

Well, Krugman has argued there is a danger of hyperinflation where deficit spending lasts for many years, but in a really balanced piece, the counter-arguments of MMT economists to his conjecture would at least be mentioned. Dylan doesn’t say what these counter-arguments are.

And as for Dylan’s reference to Mankiw, it’s easy to wave off MMT by saying there is a risk of inflation in using deficit spending to create full employment, but it is entirely another matter to say what the level of risk is, and to provide compelling arguments about why that risk is appreciable, and more costly than the effects of chronic unemployment in a stagnating economy. This Mankiw doesn’t begin to do. I think Dylan should have pointed this out, rather than just mentioning Mankiw’s opinion. Who cares about his opinion? It’s his arguments, his theories, for expecting inflation that we care about. So, why doesn’t Dylan outline what these are and critically evaluate them?

When Mankiw tells us that default might be a better option than risking inflation by printing money, he is going way beyond his claimed area of expertise in economics. The 14th Amendment to the US constitution prohibits even questioning Government debt, much less defaulting on it. Mankiw in his capacity as an economist is unqualified to say whether a violation of the US constitution is a better option than taking the risk of triggering hyperinflation by “printing money.”

“Mankiw’s critique goes to the heart of the debate about Modern Monetary Theory — and about how, when and even whether to eliminate our current deficits.

“When the government deficit spends, it issues bonds to be bought on the open market. If its debt load grows too large, mainstream economists say, bond purchasers will demand higher interest rates, and the government will have to pay more in interest payments, which in turn adds to the debt load.”

Well, this is what the mainstream says. But what do MMT economists say in return? Why doesn’t Dylan mention that?

What MMT replies is that bond issuance isn’t an inevitability, but a result of choices made by the US Congress and the Executive Branch of Government. The Congress could place the Fed under the authority of the Treasury Secretary in the Executive Branch, and then no debt would have to be issued to deficit spend, since the Fed could just mark up the Treasury General Account (TGA) under orders from the Secretary.

MMT also points out that the Fed controls the Federal Funds Rate which, in turn, heavily influences all bond rates. If the Fed targets a near zero FFR, and the Treasury issues no bonds longer than say, three months in duration, then bond interest rates can be kept near zero no matter how much debt is issued. Japan has proved this is the case since its debt-to-GDP ratio is now in excess of 200% while its interest rates are very near zero on short-term debt instruments.

Finally, Mankiw seems not to know that even if neither of these alternatives is pursued, the Executive Branch still has options to avoid further borrowing and paying higher interest rates and ro repay debt without either cutting spending or raising taxes. Here, I refer to Proof Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PPCS).

As I’ve outlined in numerous posts including this one, the President at his option could require the Treasury and the US Mint to create a coin of arbitrary face value and deposit it at the Fed. The coin’s value is limited only by the President’s specification. For example, a $60 T coin might be minted. The Fed must provide $60 T in electronic credits in return for the US Mint deposit of the coin in its Public Enterprise Fund (PEF) account. The Treasury can then “sweep” the PEF for the difference between the Mint’s cost in producing the coin and its face value, and place that difference in the Treasury General Account (TGA). Treasury could then use this “seigniorage” to repay all US debts as they fall due, and to implement all spending in excess of tax revenues appropriated by Congress. Using the PPCS option would require no new legislation. The President can use it at will to fill the public purse awaiting Congress’s appropriations providing authority to spend the electronic credits already in it to secure goods and services from the non-Government sector. Of course, there’s no possible inflationary effect of purse filling as long as Congress’s appropriations and the ensuing deficit spending aren’t inflationary.

Next, Dylan says:

“To get out of this cycle, the Fed — which manages the nation’s money supply and credit and sits at the center of its financial system — could buy the bonds at lower rates, bypassing the private market. The Fed is prohibited from buying bonds directly from the Treasury — a legal rather than economic constraint. But the Fed would buy the bonds with money it prints, which means the money supply would increase. With it, inflation would rise, and so would the prospects of hyperinflation.”

Again, Dylan only tells the mainstream side of the story and not the MMT reply to it. If the Fed buys bonds with money it prints, this will increase reserves in the private sector, but it won’t increase Net Financial Assets (NFA), because buying the bonds is just an asset swap. So with no new NFA being added to the private sector by the Government, this sort of Fed operation won’t be inflationary, as its massive QE programs have just demonstrated empirically. In fact, by removing the payment of interest on bonds from the private sector, and given that most of the Fed profits are returned to the Treasury, some MMT economists say that the end result of such operations may well be deflationary.

Dylan continues:

“Economists in the Modern Monetary camp concede that deficits can sometimes lead to inflation. But they argue that this can only happen when the economy is at full employment — when all who are able and willing to work are employed and no resources (labor, capital, etc.) are idle. No modern example of this problem comes to mind, Galbraith says.

“The last time we had what could be plausibly called a demand-driven, serious inflation problem was probably World War I,” Galbraith says. “It’s been a long time since this hypothetical possibility has actually been observed, and it was observed only under conditions that will never be repeated.”

Note, that Jamie refers to demand-driven inflation above. He doesn’t say that cost-push inflation can’t happen as the economy approaches full employment. MMT economists recognize this possibility, and consider that the 1970s inflation was of this type, but point out that cost-push inflation has little to do with Government deficit spending per se, and must be combated with anti-speculation law enforcement, price controls, targeted taxation, and sometimes even de-regulation (See: [01:03:29] and [01:03:47]) in the effected or related sectors, rather than by raising taxes or cutting spending.

(Cross-posted from Correntewire.com

Bernie: YOU Stop Caving to Peterson/Obama/#supercommittee

11:42 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Dear Bernie,

Today, you told the “Democrats stop caving in . . . ” to the interests of corporations, the tea party, wealthy individuals, and the Republicans in Congress. The only problem with your fiery statement is that you began it by “caving in” to them yourself. You did this by immediately legitimizing their frame of reference by saying:

“Here is something we all can agree on: Federal deficits are a serious problem.”

I’m sorry Bernie, we can’t all agree on that, because it’s just not true, and it’s what the Republicans, the Blue Dogs, most Democrats and the Administration are all using to try to bully you and us into agreeing to spending cuts in key discretionary programs and programs like Social Security and Medicare, and also into not moving for more spending on jobs, better entitlement programs, including Medicare for All, and better discretionary programs we need to solve our many national problems.

The idea that Federal deficit spending is a serious problem is the idea, that along with the belief that the Federal debt is getting to be some kind of irresolvable problem, is in back of the whole anti-deficit/debt thrust of the deficit terrorists like Pete Peterson, David Walker, Alice Rivlin, and all the others in Washington including the President. In turn, this thrust has led to the Bowles-Simpson Catfood Commission, and the current so-called supercommittee that you’ve been fighting so hard ‘lo these past months, and the constant drum beat that “There Is No Alternative” (TINA) to deficit cutting.

So, when are you going to learn that the only way for you and us to end this fight and to win it, is to deny their basic premises and particularly their foundational idea that the United States of America, the issuer of its own non-convertible floating fiat currency, with no external debt payable in anyone else’s currency, and the ultimate source of all US Dollars existing in the world, can run out of the money needed to continue to deficit spend, and to pay all its bills including the principal and interest on all its debts, as well as all Congressional appropriations you and your colleagues may choose to legislate?

You say that the deficit is a serious problem. But I think it’s not a real problem at all for at least three reasons that refute TINA.

– First, because nothing bad needs to happen if we continue to run deficits, as long as we don’t do so after our economy is operating at full capacity. But we are very far from that state right now with between 25 – 30 million people wanting full time employment and not being able to get it. So, we can’t have demand-pull inflation now. It’s impossible.

– Second, because it’s the Congress that is constraining the Government from generating money for its debt repayment, or appropriated deficit spending using means other than taxing or borrowing, because Congress prohibits the Treasury from freely issuing Treasury Notes and also requires that it issue debt before it deficit spends, while at the same time imposing debt ceilings that interfere with borrowing to spend appropriations Congress has already made. So, there is no real problem because the constraints were made by Congress and can be lifted by it in a single afternoon, if it wants to.

There Is An Alternative (TIAA). And it is for Congress to stop requiring the Treasury to issue debt when it deficit spends, and to allow it instead to “mark up” its own accounts at the Fed when it needs to spend an already legislated Congressional appropriation, or to repay past debt and interest.

You should be making the truth of TIAA clear to the American people, Bernie, so that everyone knows that any shortage of money to spend is Congress’s own fault, and that there is no debt/deficit problem in the sense of an inability to pay, or a need for China, Japan, or the bankers to lend the Government back the money the Government created in the first place, or a need to cut spending, or a need to raise taxes on anyone, or both, to avoid impending or future solvency.

But instead you’re reinforcing their message that there is a serious deficit problem. Now that’s what I call “loser liberalism,” Bernie.

– And Third, there is no problem because even under current law, with its constraints on the Treasury’s ability to spend what’s required to repay debt or spend Congressional appropriations, it has been legal since 1996 for the Executive Branch to issue 1 oz. proof platinum coins having arbitrary face value in the amount of many Trillions of Dollars, deposit those coins at the Fed, and force the Fed to use its money-creating authority to credit Mint and Treasury Accounts with electronic credits equal to the value of the coin. The money placed in Treasury’s accounts as a result of this action need not be spent. In fact, if the Executive minted a $60 T coin, then it could not all be spent because the authority for spending by the Treasury would not extend further than repayment of debt subject to the ceiling as it falls due, and payment implementing Congressional appropriations approved up to now.

So, even if such a coin were issued, spending by the end of the year would be limited to repayment of all intra-governmental debt, including all debt held by the Fed itself, and the Federal spending appropriated by Congress for the remainder of this calendar year. Most of the $60 Trillion would still remain unspent to be used for future debt repayment as the securities fall due, and payment for future Congressional appropriations that would not be covered by tax revenues.

As long as those appropriations don’t outrun tax revenues more than is necessary to enable a full employment, full capacity utilization economy, no one has to worry about demand-pull inflation resulting from excessive Government spending. It won’t happen. And if there is any inflation from other causes, which is possible, and even probable, if we don’t prevent excessive commodity speculation through appropriate laws and their faithful enforcement, any cost-push inflation, won’t have anything to do with Government spending.

You can find a more detailed explanation of this coin seigniorage idea and its implications here, here, here, and here. Without going into detail in this open letter, I’ll just say that if the President uses coin seigniorage in the way I’ve outlined, he can fill the public purse with such a large volume of USD electronic credits that no one will be able to say, ever again, that the US has a deficit/debt problem because it is running out of money. And, additionally, in a very few years, the Treasury’s payment of the Government’s debts as they fall due, without any further debt issuance, to spend Congressional appropriations not covered by tax revenues or other sales, will result in most of the debt subject to the ceiling, except for long-term debt, being paid. There will be very low levels of debt subject to the ceiling and eventually no debt of this kind at all.

So, to summarize, it is not true that “. . . Federal deficits are a serious problem.” And it is not true that we have to do anything to reduce deficits defined as a gap between Federal spending and Federal tax revenues. The whole exercise in deficit reduction that the president and the other deficit terrorists have put this country through has been an immensely wasteful distraction.

As you say in your HuffPo piece:

“This is a pivotal moment in American history. The rich and large corporations are doing phenomenally well while the middle class is collapsing and poverty is increasing. Now is the time to answer the question that the Woody Guthrie song poignantly asked, “Which side are you on?” The Democrats must answer boldly that they are on the side of working families and the middle class and that they will fight to protect their interests.”

And you, Bernie, must also answer boldly with the truth. People who are on the side of working families and the middle class, like yourself, cannot continue to say that “we can all agree that there is a serious deficit problem”, because that has been the continuing most important element in the case the deficit terrorists are making.

To defend our ground, and the 99%, we need to deny and defeat that false framing. We cannot reinforce it! We need an alternative framing.

And that framing is, the Federal Government needs no money from anyone to pay its debts and to spend what Congress has appropriated. We are a fully sovereign nation, and as long at we retain that full sovereignty, including its fiscal aspects, the Government can spend/create any money it needs in accordance with the authority given to it by the Constitution of the United States. It is up to the Congress and to the Executive to use that authority as necessary to create and maintain full employment AND price stability, as well as all other aspects of the Public Purpose, as that purpose is defined and specified by the people of the United States of America.

Best,

Joseph M. Firestone, Ph.D.
(Letsgetitdone)

An Open Letter to Michelle Obama

12:44 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

"Writing to reach you" by Wim Mulder on flickr

"Writing to reach you" by Wim Mulder on flickr

Like many of us, every once in awhile I get an e-mail from Michelle Obama asking for a contribution in return for a chance at having an up close and personal dinner with her husband. Here’s how I replied.

Dear Mrs. Obama

My wife and I will not contribute to your husband’s campaign this time around unless he immediately

1) Abandons his ridiculous and harmful deficit reduction campaign;

2) Stops talking about the US running out of money;

3) PROVES that is not the case by using his authority under legislation passed in 1996 and minting a 1 oz. Proof Platinum $60 Trillion face-value coin, depositing it at the Federal Reserve, and the using the Mint’s seigniorage profits to fill the Treasury General Account (TGA) with approximately $60 Trillion in electronic credits;

4) Uses the proceeds to immediately pay off that part of the national debt that is owed to Federal trust funds, agencies, and the Federal Reserve, and pays off all Federal debt to other creditors as it comes due; without rolling it over by issuing new debt;

5) Makes a major speech telling everyone that he has solved the problem of the national debt through 3) and 4) and proven that there is no debt reduction and entitlement problem and that, in due course, there will be no national debt to burden anyone’s grandchildren;

6) Immediately proposes a Federal Job Guarantee bill providing full employment for all who want to work at a regionally cost-adjusted wage of $10 per hour, plus access to Medicare and a full range of standard fringe benefits including two weeks annual vacation and all paid Federal holidays; and Read the rest of this entry →

Filling the Public Purse and Getting the Public Spending We Need

5:05 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

There’s a distinction between Congressional appropriations, the mandate to spend particular amounts on particular goods and services, and the capability to spend those mandated amounts. The capability is the amount of electronic credits in the public purse, whether any of it has been appropriated for spending by the Congress or not. Congressional appropriations, not the size or contents of the purse, determines what will be spent and what will simply sit in the purse for use at a later time. So, there is a very important distinction between the USD level in the purse and whether any of it can be spent.

It may be the case that “the purse,” the Treasury General Account (TGA), contains far more credits than the funds needed to repay Federal debt and spend Congressional appropriations in any fiscal year. Or, the normal situation, until now, is that it won’t contain enough credits to cover debt repayment and Congressional appropriations, and will be credited throughout the year in amounts corresponding to tax payments, bond sales, sales of other assets and profits from coin seigniorage.

So, in this situation, the Treasury implements appropriations mainly through taxing and borrowing first, and then spending, since Congress prohibits the Fed from lending money to the Treasury. The need to fill the public purse continuously, and through borrowing in order to implement appropriated deficit spending has created a conservative bias in fiscal politics, since any spending proposals aren’t evaluated primarily on the basis of expected impacts, but on the basis of how they will be “funded.”

Will they be funded by issuing debt? Will they be funded by raising taxes? Will they be funded by “paying for them” with cuts in other spending programs? These fiscal issues become the main ones. The likely impacts of the programs, (or even the obvious need for them) take a back seat in debates. Instead, even though Congress has the constitutional authority to create unlimited amounts of money; it’s all about “We Can’t Afford This Because We’re Running Out of Money.”

In past months, we’ve seen Congressional debates over whether the debt ceiling ought to be extended to accommodate deficit spending previously agreed to; or whether existing programs should be cut to “pay for” the debt ceiling extension. Right now, there’s a disagreement over a Continuing Resolution to keep the government operating. Republicans will vote for such a resolution; but only if Democrats will vote for cuts in existing programs to “pay for” disaster relief to the victims of natural disasters.

The new Congressional “Super-Committee,” an outcome of the unnecessary agreement to extend the debt ceiling, is deliberating now on a plan to cut spending to achieve long-term deficit reduction, which is thought to be necessary because “we are running out of money” and therefore must slow the rise of the debt-to-GDP ratio. There will be big fights in the Committee and in Congress over proposed entitlement cuts, defense cuts, and cuts in other programs that are important to working people and the middle class; and with the political consensus that there is, in fact, a deficit problem, it’s likely that there will be substantial cuts in Federal programs, whether working people want them or not.

It’s likely that in 2012, this same pattern of legislative conflict over filling the purse and the price to be paid in needed Federal programs will continue. The Republicans certainly won’t give the President any program successes to run on in 2012. And Democrats will be increasingly unlikely to give in on further cuts in programs for their constituencies in an election year.

This ruinous dynamic will leave the US in an increasingly sad place as time goes on, and will lay waste to our country. We will not meet our real problems. We will not generate enough aggregate demand through deficit spending to create full employment. We will stay in recession or sink deeper into depression and growing inequality will bring the US closer and closer to the model of a banana republic. There will be no help for this from the political system until the ideology of economic austerity is beaten politically, and is weakened in both parties.

To avoid the fate of austerity-induced double- and even triple-dips, the most important thing that can be done is to remove the conservative bias in Federal fiscal policy. The opportunity for fights over the debt ceiling, the level of debt and the debt-to-GDP ratio must be removed from politics; along with the objection to needed spending, claiming that we are running out of money. If we can get rid of those two things, then progressive fiscal measures can be debated on their merits and pressure on the conservative House will build to pass them in the absence of the debt-related excuses the conservatives now rely on for spending cuts.

The good news is that we can get rid of both debt ceiling fights and the debt/deficit issues that paralyze Congress now, and that the President can make that happen without the concurrence of Congress or any other agency outside the Executive Branch, by filling the public purse to an extreme level, using the new money to pay off the national debt, and to spend Congressional appropriations, and then letting the rest of the extreme funding sit there in the TGA, providing a backdrop for conflicts over appropriations, and concrete proof that the Government has plenty of money to spend in worthwhile ways.

I’ve explained in detail how the President can do this in previous posts here, here, and here. The main point is that in legislation passed in 1996, the Mint was given the authority to create 1 oz. proof platinum coins with arbitrarily high face values having no relation to the cost of producing the coin or coins involved. The President can cause the Mint to create a coin of arbitrary face value, for example, $60 Trillion. The coin is legal tender and would be deposited in the Mint’s Public Enterprise Fund (PEF) account at the Fed. The Fed would have no option but to credit the deposit to the PEF since 1) the coin is legal tender, and 2) in disputes between the Fed and the Treasury over interpretations of the law; the opinion of the Treasury Secretary is controlling. The Treasury can then “sweep” the seigniorage profits (the difference between the cost of producing the coin and its face value) in the PEF into the TGA, filling the public purse with $60 Trillion.

The President can spend part of the money in the filled pubic purse to pay down, and eventually pay off, the national debt, and also to spend Congressional appropriation amounts exceeding tax revenues, so that no more debt issuance would be necessary. It’s likely that $60 T would cover the national debt and also all appropriations exceeding tax revenues between now and at least 2030, perhaps longer if the economy returns to full employment, which it could be made to do if a Federal Job Guarantee program were passed. The first round of debt payments could be made almost immediately, and by the end of the year would leave us with a national debt down to $7.1 T or so, down from the present 14.7 T.

So the initial paydown of the national debt over the next three months would remove debt and deficit considerations from the national debate over funding for jobs, infrastructure, education, innovation, further health care reform, new energy foundations, and any other proposed spending where appropriations would exceed tax revenues. Entitlement “reform” interpreted as cuts necessary for long-term deficit reduction would disappear as an issue, to be replaced by discussions about whether Medicare and SS benefits should be extended. In short, almost overnight, the conservative bias in national fiscal policy would be removed and the way would be clear to reconstruct America on thoroughgoing progressive economic lines.

We badly need the public purse filled with a $60 Trillion or greater face value proof platinum coin, in order to end our economic troubles.

This is not a necessity from the viewpoint of economics. If our people and their representatives understood the operations of our fiat monetary system, there would be no need to end austerity by getting rid of debt issuance and removing concerns about the national debt and deficits that threaten our solvency. Everyone would recognize that the debt and growing debt-to-GDP ratios do not affect the ability of the Federal Government to spend. So, make no mistake, I am not proposing the $60 T Proof Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PPCS) solution because it is the best measure we can take to get us out of economic troubles. There are lots of ways for Congress to reform our Federal fiscal structure to ensure that we are not hamstrung by rules that maintain the conservative fiscal policy bias. I am calling for it to be done through PPCS because the President has the authority to implement high value PPCS, and because an overfilled Federal purse will remove the conservative bias in fiscal policy and allow the United States to serve most of its people again, rather than only a miniscule elite.

Next, I’m very well aware that commenters will object to this post on grounds that it will cause inflation or hyper-inflation. Others and myself have considered the possibility of inflation very seriously. Here, here, here, here, and here, are some pieces on the inflation issue for people who want to use that dog-whistle in reply to this post.

If, after reading these posts you still want to advance the inflation objection, then please do so by making very explicit the causal transmission mechanisms that you think will cause inflation when the TGA money is just sitting there in the TGA reserve account, and is not being spent. And please also explain how the repayment of debt can be inflationary, because without such explanations of why you think inflation will occur, you are just making noise, and not providing serious objections.

Finally, returning to my main point, to understand how important it is to remove the conservative fiscal bias by issuing the $60 T coin;

– please try to imagine whether there would have been any debt ceiling negotiations earlier this year if there had been $52 T remaining in the TGA at the time after repayment of roughly 50% of the national debt.

– Also, try to imagine if the Republicans would dare to insist on “paying for” disaster relief aid by cutting other programs in passing a continuing resolution.

– Then try to imagine if they would dare to oppose a jobs bill to create full employment against the same TGA backdrop later this year, or in the election of year of 2012. In thinking this through they can no longer talk about fiscal solvency, fiscal responsibility, or fiscal sustainability. Those slogans would be gone.

Instead, they’d have to start stoking fears of inflation. But people won’t buy that with 9 – 10% unemployment and 17% under-employment, unless there really is demand-pull inflation caused by spending that exceeds tax revenues. Rest assured however, that’s not going to happen. There will be no such inflation.

There may be inflation caused by speculation in commodities. But if the Administration starts prosecuting and jailing people who try to control markets through speculation, then it can short-circuit that kind of inflation easily enough.

In short, it’s time for the President to act. He needs to create the $60 Trillion coin to change politics and get Congress working for the American people again. Will he do it, or will he go right on failing us by letting the losing political dialogue continue undisturbed?

(Cross-posted from Correntewire.com.

What If a Debt Limit Extension is Voted Down?

10:14 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

(Thanks to DailyKos commenter 2laneIA for suggesting this post and the title)

It’s only a few days now until August 2nd. Perhaps a compromise on lifting the debt ceiling will be reached before then. Perhaps none will be reached. Perhaps the President will veto a compromise if it doesn’t extend the ceiling sufficiently to support deficit spending until after the 2012 elections. If a debt ceiling extension is voted down, or if the President vetos an unacceptably small extension, then what is to be done? I’ve now run into six primary options the President can select among to avoid default. The six are:

– Challenging the debt ceiling based on the 14th Amendment Section 4
– Selective default
– Proof Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PPCS)
– Running an overdraft at the Fed
– The Fed burning its Treasury Bonds
– The “exploding option” plan

Let’s look at them in more detail.

1. The 14th Amendment option

This option is the most well-known one right now, having been discussed on the web at least since last Fall.

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution says in part:

“Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. . . . ”

People, including myself, have claimed that the debt ceiling is in conflict with the 14th Amendment and is therefore unconstitutional, and have called for the President to go ahead and issue more debt and wait for a legal challenge. That challenge may never come, because the House of Representatives alone will lack standing in the Supreme Court. In an article appearing today, at CNN, Jack Balkin offers an argument interweaving legal and political considerations, points out that the President would first have prioritize repayment of debt to conform to the Amendment, which might cause an inability to make Social Security payments fully and on time, creating great political pressure on Congress to pass a clean extension of the debt ceiling.

I’m not sure this analysis is entirely correct, since it may be possible for the Social Security Trustees to go to the Treasury with its Bonds, demanding payment for them so that Social Security payments can be made. Since the bonds are debt, and actually count against the debt ceiling, the President may not be able to hold up the payments. In any event, Professor Balkin continue his argument with:

Assume, however, that even a prolonged government shutdown does not move Congress to act. Eventually paying only interest and vested obligations will prove unsustainable — first because tax revenues will decrease as the economy sours, and second, because holders of government debt will conclude that a government that cannot act in a crisis is not trustworthy.

If the President reasonably believes that the public debt will be put in question for either reason, Section 4 comes into play once again. His predicament is caused by the combination of statutes that authorize and limit what he can do: He must pay appropriated monies, but he may not print new currency and he may not float new debt. If this combination of contradictory commands would cause him to violate Section 4, then he has a constitutional duty to treat at least one of the laws as unconstitutional as applied to the current circumstances.

This would be like a statute that ordered the president to hire 50 new employees provided that none of them is a woman. The second requirement violates the Constitution, so the president can hire the 50 employees and ignore the discriminatory provision.

Here the president would argue that existing appropriations plus the debt ceiling create an unconstitutional combination of commands. Therefore he chooses to obey the appropriations bill — which was passed later in time anyway — and ignores the debt ceiling. He orders the secretary of the Treasury to issue new debt sufficient to pay the government’s bills as they come due.

I’m not at all sure that the President will have to wait for a prolonged Government shutdown, to invoke the 14th Amendment: but whether he waits or invokes it on August 3rd, I think Balkin’s argument is too narrow in focusing only on the possibility that the President may invoke the 14th against the debt ceiling. Perhaps, for example, as my friend Beowulf suggests (in e-mail corrspondence), he could make “a flanking attack” on the Congressional limitation of $300,000,000 on Treasury printing US Notes? This limitation is older than either the debt ceiling legislation, or the current appropriations bill, and if he did challenge it successfully, then the Treasury would have its unrestricted power to create currency restored, a very powerful hedge against debt ceiling legislation, and an enabler for ceasing to issue debt at all.

2. Selective Default

The second option, is the Treasury declaring a selective default only on Federal Reserve-owned debt instruments in order to wipe these off the books, and create headroom relative to the debt ceiling. This is clearly an extra-legal procedure. The Federal Reserve Board of Governors is a Government agency; but those bonds are owned by the Fed Regional Banks, which in our system, are not Government agencies, but rather privately owned “Federal instrumentalities.” Here’s wikipedia:

“The Federal Reserve Banks have an intermediate legal status, with some features of private corporations and some features of public federal agencies. The United States has an interest in the Federal Reserve Banks as tax-exempt federally-created instrumentalities whose profits belong to the federal government, but this interest is not proprietary.[74] In Lewis v. United States,[75] the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stated that: “The Reserve Banks are not federal instrumentalities for purposes of the FTCA [the Federal Tort Claims Act], but are independent, privately owned and locally controlled corporations.” The opinion went on to say, however, that: “The Reserve Banks have properly been held to be federal instrumentalities for some purposes.” Another relevant decision is Scott v. Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City,[74] in which the distinction is made between Federal Reserve Banks, which are federally-created instrumentalities, and the Board of Governors, which is a federal agency.”

Since the Bonds held by the Fed are held by the regional banks, this second option would involve a major hit to the assets of these banks and also an operating loss. It would involve not just questioning, but also denying a debt of the United States, and would therefore violate the 14th Amendment.

3. Proof Platinum Coin Seigniorage

Congress provided the authority, in legislation passed in October 1996, for the US Mint to create platinum bullion or proof platinum coins with arbitrary fiat face value having no relationship to the value of the platinum used in these coins. These coins are legal tender. So, when the Mint deposits them in its Public Enterprise Fund account at the Fed, the Fed must credit that account with the face value of these coins. This difference between the Mint’s costs in producing the coins and the credit provided by the Fed is the US Mint’s profit. The US code also provides for the Treasury to periodically “sweep” the Mint’s account at the Federal Reserve Bank for profits earned from these coins. Coin seigniorage is just the profits from these coins, which are then booked as miscellaneous receipts (revenue) to the Treasury and go into the Treasury General Account (TGA), narrowing the revenue gap between spending and tax revenues. Platinum coins with huge face values, $1, $1.6, $2, $3, $6.2, $15, and $30 Trillion coins have been mentioned, could close the revenue gap entirely, and, if used often enough, technically end deficit spending, while still retaining the gap between tax revenues and spending.

4. Running an Overdraft at the Fed

This option suddenly got some press this week as people begin to cast about for a solution. John Carney at CNBC says that overdrafts are more like “gifts” from the Fed than they are the kind of debt instruments the Fed is prohibited from buying from the Treasury, and that’s the gist of his argument. The problem with this argument, also quickly echoed by Felix Salmon is outlined by my friend Marshall Auerback in correspondence this way:

In the past, Treasury had access to both a cash and securities draw authority (hat tip, Cullen Roche of “Pragmatic Capitalism”). Intermittently between 1942 and 1981, Treasury was able to directly sell (and purchase) certain short-term obligations to (and from) the Federal Reserve in exchange for cash. Congress first granted this cash draw authority temporarily in 1942:

1. allowed it to lapse several times, and extended it 22 times until 1979, when it modified some of the terms and added controls.

2. In 1979, Congress also authorized a securities draw authority, which permitted Treasury to borrow securities from the Federal Reserve, sell them, and then repurchase the securities in the open market and return the securities to the Federal Reserve within a specified period.

3. The securities draw authority was never used. After Congress authorized Treasury to earn interest on its Treasury Tax & Loan (TT&L) account balances in 1977,

Congress allowed both draw authorities to expire in 1981.

That Congress allowed them to lapse would imply that it’s no longer operative . . .

In short, in 1981, Congress ended the Treasury’s drawing authority by allowing it to expire.

5. The Fed “Burning” its Treasury Bonds to Get Them off the Books

Ron Paul suggested this one. If the Fed agreed to the proposal, it would create at lead $1.6 Trillion in headroom between debt subject to the limit, and the debt limit. The proposal hasn’t been met with notable enthusiasm. In fact, I don’t think the Chairman has even dignified it with a reply. However, the objection to it is similar to the objection to Treasury declaring a default on its Fed-owned debt. The result would be a big whole in the Assets of the Fed Banks owning the debt instruments. They’re unlikely to support this proposal.

6. The “Exploding Option”

Jack Balkin presents the “exploding option” idea this way:

The government can also raise money through sales: For example, it could sell the Federal Reserve an option to purchase government property for $2 trillion. The Fed would then credit the proceeds to the government’s checking account. Once Congress lifts the debt ceiling, the president could buy back the option for a dollar, or the option could simply expire in 90 days. And there are probably other ways that the Fed could achieve a similar result, by analogy to its actions during the 2008 financial crisis, when it made huge loans and purchases to bail out the financial sector.

As near as I can make out, the idea here is for the Fed to pay for an option on the property, that it would not then exercise by some date certain. When the option expires, the Government, having an increase in the debt ceiling by then, would pay back the Fed, give it a small profit, and keep the property.

Presumably, this could be done indefinitely, if Congress has still failed to raise the debt ceiling by the end of the option period, or the option period could be made long enough that it is very improbable that the debt ceiling would not be raised. The “exploding option” idea is undoubtedly ingenious; but:

– I wonder whether the option isn’t functionally a debt instrument, and also whether
– the option isn’t being “monetized” by the Fed in complete analogy to the monetization of debt instruments that is expressly prohibited by Congress?

Comparison of the Options

From my point of view, selective default and the fed burning its bonds are both far out options. I just don’t think the accounting rules governing the Fed would allow it to approve procedures that resulted in huge losses for the Fed regional banks. The Fed would never agree to such alternatives.

The overdraft and “exploding option” alternatives are likely to be much more acceptable to the Fed than options that destroy the financial assets of regional banks. However, both of these options are a bit legally questionable. As I said above, the overdraft procedure appears to have been ended by Congress in 1981, when it had every opportunity to renew the Fed’s drawing authority.

Felix Salmon is taken with the Fed allowing overdrafts. He thinks this solution is a realy elegant one because it would allow Treasury to keep on spending until it could arrive at a new debt ceiling. He also thinks that the Fed would have to honor Treasury checks by allowing an overdraft because if it didn’t do so, that would “trigger a massive recession” and violate the Fed’s full employment mandate.

I find this unconvincing because the Fed has been violating its full employment mandate since passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins during the 1970s. It has always taken its price stabilization mandate much more seriously than its full employment mandate. So, I think that the Fed may not honor Government overdrafts, because Government special drawing authority was ended in 1981.

The “exploding option” alternative is certainly inventive. However, if I understand it correctly, it’s a transparent artifice for allowing monetization of the functional equivalent of federal debt instruments. So, I think it’s legality is questionable, and that the President should be careful before he resorts to it.

In fact, the first four options being compared all propose procedures of questionable legality. All might turn out to be politically feasible, because the House Republicans may not be able to get standing to challenge the President. Nevertheless, if many representatives feel that the President’s solution to the debt ceiling problem is of questionable legality, and they also find themselves unable to get standing in Court, they may well feel justified in pursuing impeachment. They won’t get far, because the Senate will never sustain them; but nevertheless another impeachment circus is likely to be very costly for an Administration that wants somehow to improve the jobless rate before the elections of 2012.

This brings us to the Constitutional option. This is a legally fascinating option especially since the President might challenge the debt ceiling or other legislation such as the limits on Treasury printing money, or the legislation withdrawing the Treasury’s overdraft authority; It’s also a politically attractive option, because it makes the President look strong, relative to the House Republicans. It’s also interesting because if he issues a constitutional challenge and goes on issuing debt, it’s very doubtful that the House Republicans will have a practical legal route to contest what he’s done. On the other hand, as with some of the other options, their very inability to get redress from the law may goad them into attempting to impeach the President, and I suspect that the Administration would want to avoid that outcome, with all its distractions.

Coin seigniorage isn’t some crazy or radical idea, even though some who want to be considered Very Serious People (VSP) have had that kind of reaction to the idea. Instead, it is a legal instrument that the President may, depending on how things work out, have to use in a bit more than two weeks to comply with his oath of office. It may be the only way for him to avoid breaching one of the laws which he is supposed to enforce. As such, it has to be taken seriously, and treated with more than just a few dismissive conclusions, accompanied by a lack of explanation.

Many writers on the current debt ceiling crisis have been taking the view that the 14th Amendment constitutional challenge route is the best thing for the President to do if there is no agreement on the debt ceiling. But, a constitutional challenge requires violating the debt ceiling, or some other legislation, claiming that the chosen law is unconstitutional, and relying heavily on the House’s inability to have standing to take the President to Court in order to sustain the President’s action. The President may get away with this, but it is radical in the sense that it claims the Executive’s right to make a unilateral judgment of constitutionality in opposition to clearly written legislation, without getting a by your leave from the Supreme Court. Surely we can all see how dangerously radical this kind of practice is for the rule of law in the United States?

In other posts, I’ve made the case that the debt ceiling isn’t in violation of the 14th Amendment as long as PPCS is an option for the President. Also in an e-mail communication, beowulf, the blogger who wrote the seminal blog on coin seigniorage, offered the following opinion on why a 14th amendment-based challenge will not work, given the existence of PPCS.

. . . No federal judge — Supreme Court justices included — will take the extraordinary step of enjoining an Act of Congress if the President who asks them to had an opportunity to sidestep the constitutional issue lawfully but neglected to do so. . . . .

. . . The moral of the story is if the Court thinks there is no alternative to breaching the debt ceiling, it probably would find it unconstitutional (or rather, it would decline to hear the case on Standing grounds, leaving the President’s decision to ignore the debt ceiling in place). On the other hand, if the Court thinks the President had a lawful alternative– like coin seigniorage– but neglected to use it, they’re not going to bail him out.

This argument is compelling to me given the history of the Court. The Court defers to the legislature if it possibly can, and prefers the President to avoid constitutional challenges if he has a means of doing so. In this case, he does, and the means is proof platinum coin seigniorage.

(Cross-posted from Correntewire.com.

The President’s Address on the Debt Ceiling: An Exercise in Fantasy

7:24 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Many people have been, deservedly, very quick to jump on John Boehner for the lies he told in answering the President’s Address; but they have been a lot less anxious to lay out the lies or at least falsehoods told or implied by the President, himself. I don’t intend to excuse the Speaker’s lies or the Speaker, by showing that the President doesn’t have clean hands. I don’t intend to say that lying is alright because everybody does it. All I want to do is show that the President was feeding us fantasy too, because I believe, strongly, that we won’t solve our national problems if we don’t firmly reject fantasy, whoever may be its author. So, let’s look at some quotations from the President’s speech, and see where the fantasy is.

“For the last decade, we’ve spent more money than we take in. In the year 2000, the government had a budget surplus. But instead of using it to pay off our debt, the money was spent on trillions of dollars in new tax cuts, while two wars and an expensive prescription drug program were simply added to our nation’s credit card.”

No. Mr. President, during the years the Government had a budget surplus, the Government simply borrowed less than it did in other years, and also less than it paid back when its debt instruments came due. So, the Government did use its surpluses to “pay back” part of the debt during the years of surplus, and no money was saved for future years when it was then spent on new tax cuts, new wars, and the drug prescription program.

As for the “our nation’s credit card” business, the Government’s “credit card” situation is very different from our own. First, the limit on the Government’s ability to issue debt is not based on the Government’s ability to borrow, or on the Government’s ability to generate financial assets, which, aside from Congressional constraints, is constitutionally unlimited. Nor is the limit imposed by any creditor, as it is with us.

Instead, the limit on what the Government can borrow is determined by the Government itself. Specifically, it is determined by Congress which imposes the debt ceiling, now causing a fiscal crisis. Without that ceiling, that self-imposed constraint, the limit on what the Government can borrow in US Dollars is indeterminate, if it exists at all.

Second, you and I can’t keep adding debt to our credit cards, not only because we have a limit, but long before we reach such limits, we may well want to stop adding debt, because our ability to maintain and pay off our debt burden, may be running out. That ability is limited because we can’t produce financial resources at will.

The Government is different however. It is not like a household or even the largest corporation. It is not the user of our national currency. It is the creator of it. All of our dollars come from the authority of the Government to spend, and, in the act of spending to create dollars.

If the Government has debt, it can always pay that debt simply by marking up the accounts of its creditors. Also, unlike your household or mine, it doesn’t matter how much is on the Government’s credit card, it can always repay its debts whenever they come due, unless Congress does something stupid to stop it from doing so.

In fact, its own constraints aside for a moment, the Government has precisely the same ability to repay its debts, however high those debts are, and however high its debt-to-GDP ratio is, so long as those debts are owed in the currency (USD) it has the authority to create. It doesn’t matter whether the Government owes $14.3 Trillion, or $30 Trillion, or only $50,000. Its ability to pay, self-constraints aside, is exactly the same. It doesn’t matter if its debt-to-GDP ratio is 10% or 100% or 300%, it’s ability to meet its debt obligations is exactly the same, if it only decides to shed its self-constraints.

So, when President Obama says or implies that we can’t keep putting debt on our national credit card what is he really talking about? He’s not talking about the Government’s intrinsic ability to pay or not. What he’s talking about is that Congress has 1) placed a debt ceiling on the Executive Branch’s ability to borrow, and 2) passed a mandate requiring the Government to issue debt when it deficit spends. These are Congress’s constraints on the Treasury and they are causing our current so-called fiscal crisis, assuming the President’s continued unwillingness to raise revenue for deficit spending other than by issuing more debt.

The austerity mavens, including the President are telling us that we, the people, have spent too much and run up debts that are too large on our national credit card when Congress has a) required us to use our credit card and, as a result, maintain and increase our national debt, and then b) given us a ceiling of debt which they raise from time-to-time, which has nothing to do with our Government’s ability to pay. How unjust is it to create this Catch-22, claim there is an objective problem with a national debt that only exists due to their own restraints, and then say to us, after they’ve just finished extending the Bush Tax Cuts for the rich and providing an estate tax giveaway, that this phony fiscal crisis requires that everyone (except the rich, of course) accept “shared sacrifice”?

It is not true that we can’t keep placing debt on our national credit card, so long as Congress removes its arbitrary and unnecessary debt ceiling. If it does that we can keep placing debt on that credit card if we want to without threatening our solvency as a nation.

It is also not true that we must keep issuing debt instruments and keep increasing the national debt when we want to deficit spend, because of some intrinsic feature of the economic system. As I’ve written in many recent posts, we can generate all the revenue we need by using proof platinum coin seigniorage, including the revenue we need to pay the national debt entirely, as US debt instruments fall due.

In connection with his reconstruction of how the nation came to this pass Mr. Obama said that as a result of the tax cuts, wars, and the prescription drug plan:

“. . . . the deficit was on track to top $1 trillion the year I took office.”

But this anticipated deficit was not due simply to these factors. Most of the anticipated $1 Trillion deficit was due to the loss of tax revenues accompanying the Crash of 2008. If not for the recession, the tax cuts, wars, and prescription drug costs would not have produced a deficit of this size.

“To make matters worse, the recession meant that there was less money coming in, and it required us to spend even more -– on tax cuts for middle-class families to spur the economy; on unemployment insurance; on aid to states so we could prevent more teachers and firefighters and police officers from being laid off. These emergency steps also added to the deficit.”

They did, but what is misleading in this account is that the President fails to tell us is that his grossly inadequate stimulus left too many people unemployed, and provided so little assistance to the States, that while it stabilized the unemployment rate, it did so at a very high level ensuring that Federal tax revenues would remain low and that the deficit would still be very high; but without the benefit of having enabled full employment.

“Now, every family knows that a little credit card debt is manageable. But if we stay on the current path, our growing debt could cost us jobs and do serious damage to the economy. More of our tax dollars will go toward paying off the interest on our loans. Businesses will be less likely to open up shop and hire workers in a country that can’t balance its books. Interest rates could climb for everyone who borrows money -– the homeowner with a mortgage, the student with a college loan, the corner store that wants to expand. And we won’t have enough money to make job-creating investments in things like education and infrastructure, or pay for vital programs like Medicare and Medicaid.”

And later he says:

“For the first time in history, our country’s AAA credit rating would be downgraded, leaving investors around the world to wonder whether the United States is still a good bet. Interest rates would skyrocket on credit cards, on mortgages and on car loans, which amounts to a huge tax hike on the American people. We would risk sparking a deep economic crisis -– this one caused almost entirely by Washington.”

The falsehood here is assuming that the bond market actually controls the interest rates that Governments like the United States must pay. Sure, they can determine interest rates if the Government and the Fed sit idly by, and lets them do so. However, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury, can target bond interest rates and set these for the bond markets by manipulating overnight bank reserves. Specifically, one way to do this, is that the Treasury can cease issuing long-term bonds, and sell only three-month bonds. Three-month bond interest rates are generally controlled by overnight rates for bank reserves, and overnight rates can be driven down to near zero by flooding the banks with excess reserves. That’s basically how the Japanese keep their bond interest near zero, even with a debt to GDP ratio of nearly 200%, and that’s how we can do the same.

Alternatively, the Fed ihas driven down interest rates through its policy of Quantitative easing (QE). QE currently involves providing banks with cash reserves in return for non-cash bank assets including Treasury Bonds. QE results in an increase in cash reserves, which drives down overnight interest rates for borrowing such reserves. Low rates in the reserve market again, drives down bond market interest rates on three month Treasuries, and exerts downward pressure on bond market interest rates across the board.

Yet another move we can make to remove the effects of the bond markets and the ratings agencies upon public finances, is for the Treasury to stop issuing debt for every dollar it deficit spends. It can do this by using coin seigniorage to generate additional revenue, and by borrowing only for a portion of its deficit spending. If Treasury did this, interest rates in the bond market would be driven down because of the shortage of treasury bonds in the marketplace.

Of course, if Congress allowed the Executive to deficit spend without issuing debt, or the Executive decided to deficit spend only after raising revenue through coin seigniorage, then the Executive Branch could choose to issue no more debt, and then bond market interest rates wouldn’t be an issue at all. So none of the effects described by the President just above would happen, all the problems he points to are due to more debt causing higher interest rates through the bond markets. If increasing debt can’t cause that, because of interventions outlined above, then the bond market/interest rate scare is “off the table.”

In short, the bond markets aren’t in control of US public finances. They are not in a position to influence what our taxing or spending policies ought to be, or whether we will default on our obligations.

“This balanced approach asks everyone to give a little without requiring anyone to sacrifice too much. It would reduce the deficit by around $4 trillion and put us on a path to pay down our debt. And the cuts wouldn’t happen so abruptly that they’d be a drag on our economy, or prevent us from helping small businesses and middle-class families get back on their feet right now.”

Calling his plan “balanced” is just propaganda. First, it assumes that there is a deficit/debt problem; but this assumption is based on the idea that the US Government can become insolvent or is otherwise constrained in its spending by economic necessity. It also assumes that we’ve borrowed too much, and that this requires us to slow down deficit spending over time. However, these assumptions are just false. As the currency issuer, the US can’t ever run out of money, and the only real world constraint it has on its spending is demand-pull inflation, which we needn’t worry about until we’ve reached full employment.

Second, $4 Trillion over 10 years in spending cuts and/or increased taxes, averages out to $400 billion per year less money either going into the private economy from the Government sector, or being taken back by the Government. If the spending is high fiscal multiplier spending, as much of it appears to be, then we may be looking at as much as $1 Trillion per year in reduced GDP. Anyway you slice it friends, that will cost jobs, careers, family hardship, and lower economic growth, and it is unlikely to reduce deficits very much or at all, simply because the effects of the economy’s automatic stabilizers will ensure that more government spending and less taxes will result from these cuts.

Third, this $400 Billion per year of “shared sacrifice” which is supposed to ensure that no one suffers too much is, to use a popular phrase of yesteryear, “lipstick on a pig.” We know that the impact of the spending cuts contemplated will fall disproportionately on the poor and the middle class. They will be “sacrificing” income, jobs, and services that are very important to them, but any “sacrifices” made by the wealthy and large corporations will be largely symbolic and will not cut to the bone.

Fourth, the President says that the cuts wouldn’t happen so abruptly that they’d hurt the economy. But this assumes that current Government deficits are large enough to compensate for savings desires and imports, and that the economy has already received enough of a boost that it will fully recover by the time the full impact of austerity is felt. If they are not large enough, and the economy doe not recover; then what? Do we then follow this inflexible austerity plan and go ahead withdrawing net financial assets from the private sector at the rate of $400 Billion per year, in the expectation that this will lower the debt-to-GDP ratio?

“So the debate right now isn’t about whether we need to make tough choices. Democrats and Republicans agree on the amount of deficit reduction we need.”

Democrats and Republicans do not agree on the amount of deficit reduction we need. Nor do they agree on how deficit reduction should be achieved. There are even many Democrats, though, perhaps not in Congress, who believe that there is no debt or deficit problem at all, and that the President’s whole exercise in austerity is motivated by a false economic ideology, and by a desire to show “the independents” that he is a responsible “bipartisan” grown-up who deserves their support in 2012. Here he is using the left-right frame, viewing the independents as people in the middle who are relatively homogeneous and ideologically disillusioned with the right and the left.

So, he thinks he can pick up these folks “en bloc” by showing that he has made both progressives and conservatives angry at him. In this, I think he is ignoring the possibility that there are independents from all parts of the left-right spectrum, who have become independent because the two parties represent their interests very badly, preferring to see to it that the wealthy and the corporations are represented at the expense of their constituents. In any event, President Obama’s attempt to appeal to independents may fail, because they really have no interest in his independence relative to the bases of the legacy parties; but care much more about his actions in supporting the big banks, a corrupt financial system, continued globalization of the economy, and failure to produce jobs, and viable health care reform for everyone.

“That’s not right. It’s not fair. We all want a government that lives within its means, but there are still things we need to pay for as a country -– things like new roads and bridges; weather satellites and food inspection; services to veterans and medical research.”

We do have to live within our means; but a phrase like this is meaningless, when it comes to the Government’s ability to generate new net financial assets in the private sector. That capacity is unlimited. And while we do have to worry about demand-pull inflation under certain conditions. The US never has worry about running out of money as do, for example, the members of the Eurozone or other nations that aren’t sovereign in their own fiat currency system. What “our means” really refers to is our real resources and our capacity to produce further real resources in a sustainable way. It does not refer to financial sustainability, or to fiscal sustainability in the meaning of that term spread by Peter G. Person, and Barack “Hoover” Obama.

“Understand –- raising the debt ceiling does not allow Congress to spend more money. It simply gives our country the ability to pay the bills that Congress has already racked up. In the past, raising the debt ceiling was routine. Since the 1950s, Congress has always passed it, and every President has signed it. President Reagan did it 18 times. George W. Bush did it seven times. And we have to do it by next Tuesday, August 2nd, or else we won’t be able to pay all of our bills.”

This is one of the biggest falsehoods told by the President. Let’s say there is no agreement, then, is it true that we won’t be able to pay our bills? Only if the President fails in his own constitutional duty and doesn’t take the measures he is able to take to make it possible for Treasury to spend appropriations. Yves Smith, in a recent interview with Paul Jay of the Real News Network, points to three alternatives the President can use: 1) the constitutional challenge; 2) selective default; and 3) Proof Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PPCS).

Yves characterized PPCS as the most “radical” of the three alternatives. Depending on the coin seigniorage option selected, that may be true; but I think that from the legal point of view, at least, PPCS is the least radical of the alternatives. I think that’s true because it’s the only one of the three that is completely within the law as currently written and interpreted.

The first option, the constitutional challenge, requires violating the debt ceiling, and then claiming that the law is unconstitutional and relying on the House’s inability to have standing to take the President to Court in order to sustain the President’s action. The President may get away with this, but it is radical in the sense that it claims the Executive’s right to make a unilateral judgment of constitutionality in opposition to clearly written legislation, without getting a by your leave from the Supreme Court. Surely we can all see how dangerously radical this kind of practice is for the rule of law in the United States?

The second option, is the Treasury declaring a selective default only on Federal Reserve-owned debt instruments in order to wipe these off the books, and create headroom relative to the debt ceiling. This is clearly an extra-legal procedure. The Federal Reserve Board of Governors is a Government agency; but those bonds are owned by the Fed Regional Banks, which in our system, are not Government agencies, but rather privately owned “Federal instrumentalities.” Here’s wikipedia:

“The Federal Reserve Banks have an intermediate legal status, with some features of private corporations and some features of public federal agencies. The United States has an interest in the Federal Reserve Banks as tax-exempt federally-created instrumentalities whose profits belong to the federal government, but this interest is not proprietary.[74] In Lewis v. United States,[75] the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stated that: “The Reserve Banks are not federal instrumentalities for purposes of the FTCA [the Federal Tort Claims Act], but are independent, privately owned and locally controlled corporations.” The opinion went on to say, however, that: “The Reserve Banks have properly been held to be federal instrumentalities for some purposes.” Another relevant decision is Scott v. Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City,[74] in which the distinction is made between Federal Reserve Banks, which are federally-created instrumentalities, and the Board of Governors, which is a federal agency.”

Since the Bonds held by the Fed are held by the regional banks, this second option would involve a major hit to the assets of these banks and also an operating loss. It would involve not just questioning, but also denying a debt of the United States, and would therefore violate the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. From a legal point of view I think the Treasury unilaterally deciding to inflict a substantial loss on privately owned banks, whether Federal Instrumentalities or not. and also violating the 14th Amendment, is a very radical option.

Getting to the third option of Coin seigniorage, the authority to do this was legislated by Congress in 1996. If the President uses PPCS, he 1) won’t exceed the debt ceiling; 2) won’t be challenging the constitutionality of the debt ceiling; 3) will be able to spend all Congressional Appropriations; and 4) will be able to uphold his constitutional obligation to see that all US debts are paid. In other words, there are no legal downsides to this course of action, even if it may involve a very different way of raising revenue than issuing debt instruments.

On the positive side, if the Administration were to use PPCS, it wouldn’t have to make a deal with the Republicans about the debt ceiling at all. It wouldn’t have to create hurtful cuts in the safety net or in discretionary programs, because it would not need a deal at all. I’ve argued elsewhere, that in case there is no agreement on extending the debt ceiling, that it becomes the President’s constitutionality duty to use one of a number of PPCS options to avoid default, since only they are unambiguously legal. In that case, some form of PPCS, would no longer be a choice, but a mandate, which the President would have to fulfill.

So, it’s not true that we won’t be able to pay our bills on August 3rd, if the debt ceiling isn’t extended, unless the President fails in his constitutional duty. The Congress may be acting stupidly in not extending the ceiling; but in doing so, it would not be forcing the US into default. It would, instead be placing a constitutional burden on the President. It is he who would force the US into default if he fails to shoulder this burden and do his duty.

(Cross-posted from Correntewire.com.

Beyond the Debt Ceiling: The $30 Trillion Plan for Ending Borrowing and the National Debt

9:30 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Congress provided the authority, in legislation passed in 1996, for the US Mint to create platinum bullion or proof platinum coins with arbitrary fiat face value having no relationship to the value of the platinum used in these coins. These coins are legal tender. So, when the Mint deposits them in its Public Enterprise Fund account at the Fed, the Fed must credit that account with the face value of these coins. This difference between the Mint’s costs in producing the coins and the credit provided by the Fed is the US Mint’s profit. The US code also provides for the Treasury to periodically “sweep” the Mint’s account at the Federal Reserve Bank for profits earned from these coins. Coin seigniorage is just the profits from these coins, which are then booked as miscellaneous receipts (revenue) to the Treasury and go into the Treasury General Account (TGA), narrowing the revenue gap between spending and tax revenues. Platinum coins with huge face values, $1, $2, and $3 Trillion coins have been mentioned, could close the revenue gap entirely, and, if used often enough, technically end deficit spending, while still retaining the gap between tax revenues and spending.

Coin seigniorage is now being mentioned increasingly on popular blogs as a possible solution to the debt ceiling crisis. It is the only solution currently being suggested that requires no agreement in Congress and also no challenge to the debt ceiling law itself. If Congress fails to increase the debt ceiling by August 2nd, it may even become the constitutional duty of the President to use coin seigniorage to avoid default.

But the proof platinum coin seigniorage alternative comes in more than one flavor. It’s actually a class of alternatives. Here are some different con seigniorage proposals.

First, mint a $1.6 Trillion coin and have Treasury use the profits from it to buy all the outstanding debt instruments held by the Fed. This would retire a substantial part of the national debt and immediately create $1.6 T in “headroom” relative to the debt ceiling. This alternative involves the least amount of change in current procedures. The coin, once deposited at the Fed, would remain in a Fed vault, and would not go into circulation. The Government would then go right back to issuing debt in order to meet its debt obligations and spend previous Congressional appropriations. With this alternative it is hard for critics to raise the inflation issue, since the new credits created by the coin are never spent into the economy, but are only used to reduce buy back the debt held by the Fed because that debt counts against the debt ceiling.

One objection made to coin seigniorage proposals is that the high face values of the coins would drive up the market price of platinum. However, the Mint is already scheduled to produce 15,000 platinum coins having relatively small arbitrary face value. There would be no conceivable need for more than enough material for 100 very high face value proof platinum coins. So there really is no supply issue.

Having said that, every time the Mint creates a high value coin for deposit at the Fed, it would have to create a duplicate coin, so that it had the means to swap with the Fed if it ever decided to redeem the coin for currency of equal value. This is not a likely event; but it is possible. So, it would be necessary to create duplicate coins and place them in a vault at the Mint.

A second proposal is to mint a $6.2 T coin to pay back all debt held by the Fed, and all Intra-governmental debt, including that owed to Social Security, Medicare, and a host of other other agencies. That would create $6.2 T in headroom, more than enough to carry us through the 2014 elections. Again, this wouldn’t result in any “money” immediately going into circulation, but over time SS and Medicare payments would be adding to bank reserves without any reserves being withdrawn from the system due to debt issuance. Some might think this would be inflationary, because they believe that net reserves added to the private sector are more inflationary than debt instruments added would have been. However, there’s evidence that debt instruments provide much higher leverage than added reserves, and, in addition, they lead to greater interest payments than reserves do, even if the Fed decides it wants to pay interest on reserves, which it doesn’t always do.

A third proposal for applying coin seigniorage is to mint a coin with face value large enough to cover the $6.2 T intra-governmental and Fed debt repayment, plus all private debt coming to maturity, and all Congressional Appropriations expected to require deficit spending. I’ll estimate, roughly, that a $15 T coin is enough for that, including about $4.5 T to close the expected gap between tax revenues and Government spending through the 2014 elections, and the rest for paying down the national debt further. Issuing a coin that large, using the profits from seigniorage, and assuming that Congressional appropriations continue the pattern of the past year or so, that would result in a remaining public debt outstanding of roughly $4.6 T, which would please the bond markets except for the fact that the Us wasn’t issuing any more debt instruments.

Again would this coin seigniorage proposal be inflationary? Well, the intra-governmental and Fed debt repayments won’t be, for reasons already stated. Also, there’s no reason to believe that the repayment of further debt will be, unless one believes, again, that reserves swapped for bonds, and not swapped again for more bonds, is inflationary. But, other than the interest payments which certainly add to private sector assets somewhat, payback of debt instruments is just an asset swap, followed by destruction of securities. There’s no addition of net financial assets to the private sector.

How about the profits of $4.5 T set aside for closing the gap between tax revenues and spending? Will that be inflationary? Actually, I don’t know if Congress will appropriate a $4.5 T spending/tax revenue gap over three years, but if such a gap is needed, and if it does, then the coin will cover it without new Federal borrowing. And as long as Congress doesn’t do the right kind of spending and creates a large enough gap to add sufficiently to private sector assets to support full employment, their appropriations, backed by coin seigniorage won’t be inflationary.

If, on the other hand, they do the right kind of spending to bring full employment inside a year, then tax revenues will come back as they did during the Clinton Administration, and then there’ll be no need for the profits from the proof platinum coin to be used completely between now and 2014. In fact, if the right jobs creating program is immediately enacted, as much as $3T could be left before the President might want the Mint to strike another proof platinum coin.

So far, I’ve discussed three alternative coin seigniorage proposals ranging in scale from a minimal proposal to handle the current crisis to one that would provide enough funds to both pay down debt, and support a gap between spending and taxes that might be sufficient to enable full employment. Now here’s a fourth, enough to handle Congressional appropriations for a decade.

Why not mint a $30 T coin and then another one in case the Fed gets obstreperous sometime down the road and presents the 30T coin, that was deposited in the Mint PEF account, for redemption?

I favor this fourth alternative above all, because it institutionalizes the idea that there is a distinction between appropriations, the mandate to spend particular amounts on particular goods and services, and the capability to spend the mandated accounts. In a fiat currency system, the capability always exists if the legislature provides for it under the Constitution. But the value of the 30T coin, and the profits derived from it, is that it is a concrete reminder of the Government’s continuing ability to buy whatever it needs to meet public purposes. It demonstrates very concretely that the Government cannot run out of money and that the claim that it can is not a valid reason for rejecting spending that is in accordance with the Public purpose.

So, in reading what follows, please keep in mind the distinction between the capability to spend more than government collects in taxes, and the appropriations that mandate such spending. The capability is what’s in the public purse, and it is unlimited as long as the Government doesn’t constrain itself from creating currency. With coin seigniorage its capability could be and should be publicly demonstrated by minting the $30 T coin, and getting the profits from depositing it at the Fed.

On the other hand, Congressional appropriations, not the size or contents of the purse, but whether the purse strings are open or not, determines what will be spent and what will simply sit in the purse for use at a later time. So there is a very important distinction between the purse and the purse strings. The President can legally use coin seigniorage to fill the purse, but only Congress can open the purse strings through its appropriations.

If the President decided to rise above the debt ceiling controversy, safeguard the social safety net, and do something really, really important from the perspective of history by using $30 T coin seigniorage, then he could explain the deposit of the first $30T coin to the public in a high profile TV address, this way (the second coin just stays at the Mint for safekeeping. Its existence to be kept secret):

My Fellow Americans:

1) Until now we’ve been borrowing the money the Government created back from the private sector, in order to cover our deficit spending, so the national debt has been steadily growing.

2) That’s silly! According to the Constitution, this Government, of the people, by the people, and for the people, is the ultimate source of all US money. So why should we ever borrow US money back and pay interest on it, since we can create it any time by the authority of the Constitution and Congress?

3) Congress has also imposed a debt ceiling, which, as you know, we’ve now reached, so we can’t borrow back our own money, anyway.

4) So, on my order, and in accordance with legislation passed by Congress in 1996, and with the US Code, the US Mint has issued $30 Trillion in a single platinum coin, and deposited it at the NY Fed. It’s legal tender, so the Fed credited the PEF with about $30 Trillion in USD credits using its unlimited authority from Congress to create US Dollars.

5) This is not inflationary because the Fed will put our coin into its vault, and keep it there permanently out of circulation, and we will use the $30 T in USD credits only to pay back debt and to spend what Congress has already approved, which is only a fraction of these credits and far from the amount needed to cause inflation.

6) My action ends the debt ceiling crisis, because we have no further need to borrow our own money back in the markets, so we don’t need the tea party or other Republicans, or even my fellow Democrats to agree to raise the debt ceiling.

7) Now the Treasury, has plenty of money, much more than we need, in fact, to pay for all appropriations Congress has already approved for 2011, and, again, we won’t have to borrow our own money back.

8) So we will pay all Government debts which will come due in 2011. Treasury securities and all other debts included. We will also pay back all debts held by other agencies of Government and the Federal Reserve. When we do this we will lower the national debt by about $7.5 T, reducing the “debt burden” by about half this year, and creating an actual Social Security trust fund with 2.6 T in cash reserves in it; and again, to do this we don’t have to borrow our own money back, and we will also reduce our interest costs on the outstanding national debt.

9) None of the $30 T in new credits created by our actions is “money” in the economy until the Treasury spends it. For now it is just capability to spend awaiting the appropriations of Congress to mandate deficit spending, should it need to compensate for the reduction in demand, probably close to 10% of GDP right now, caused by your own desire to save (which we want to do our best to facilitate), and your desire to import goods from foreign nations.

10) We have created $30 Trillion in new credits even though we needed only a fraction of that to cover anticipated deficit spending and debt repayment until 2021. The reason for this, is that I wanted to have enough capability created in the Treasury account, so that the national debt could be completely paid off (except for a small amount in very long-term Treasury debt still not mature by 2021), and all projected Federal deficits covered over the next 10 years.

11) Of course we can always make new coins if our projections turn out to be wrong; but I thought it would be best to ensure that all $14.3 T of the “debt burden” can be completely eliminated from our political concerns; and also to provide enough funds in our spending account at the Fed so that it would be very clear to Congress and all newly elected Representatives and Senators, that even though they, according to the Constitution, continue to control the purse strings, the national purse is very, very full, and that we will be able to afford whatever deficit spending for the public purpose, including for full employment and Medicare for All, that Congress, in its wisdom, chooses to appropriate now and before the election of 2012.

Good night, my fellow Americans and Sweet dreams! Rest well knowing that our beloved country won’t be defaulting on any of its debts, and that I’ve prevented this without going over the legal debt ceiling, by providing money for spending mandated appropriations, in compliance with the laws authorizing coin seigniorage, while supporting the Constitution’s prohibition against our Government ever defaulting on its debts. I hope that in the future everyone will obey the 14th Amendment’s prohibition against questioning the validity of Federal Government debts, and think twice before they indulge themselves in such loose talk. America will always pay its debts in US Dollars according to the terms of the contracts it has concluded, and in line with the pension payments and other obligations that it owes. Neither you nor the rest of the world need ever doubt that again!

(Cross-posted from Correntewire.com.

Scott Fullwiler: QE3, Treasury Style—Go Around, Not Over the Debt Ceiling Limit

9:55 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

By

Scott Fullwiler

(Editor’s Note: This post is being re-published with the permission of the author, Scott Fullwiler)

Cullen Roche’s excellent post at Pragmatic Capitalism explains—via comments from frequent MMT commentator Beowulf and several previous posts by fellow MMT blogger Joe Firestone (see the links at the end of Cullen’s post and also here)—that the debt ceiling debate could be ended right now given that the US Constitution bestows upon the US Treasury the authority to mint coins. Further, this simple change would lift the veil on how current monetary operations work and thereby demonstrate clearly that a currency-issuing government under flexible exchange rates cannot be forced into default against its will and is not beholden to “vigilante” bond markets. As Beowulf explains in a later comment, “The anomaly it addresses is that the US Govt has a debt limit yet an agency of the US Govt (the Federal Reserve) does not have a debt limit. Clearly this is a structural defect.”

The following is a description of how the process would work and the implications for monetary operations:

1. The Treasury mints a $1 trillion coin, or whatever amount is desired.

2. The Treasury deposits the coin into the Treasury’s account at the Fed. The Fed’s assets (coin) and liabilities (Treasury’s account) increase by the same amount. As Beowulf notes later in a comment to the same post from Cullen, were the Fed to resist, the Federal Reserve Act clearly states that “wherever any power vested by this Act in the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System or the Federal reserve agent appears to conflict with the powers of the Secretary of the Treasury, such powers shall be exercised subject to the supervision and control of the Secretary.” The Fed is legally an agency operating at the pleasure of the government, not vice versa. Regardless, the actions I describe here and below by the Treasury in no way interfere with the normal operations of monetary policy (explained in various places below).

3. The Treasury buys back bonds (thereby retiring them) until total market value purchased is equal to the dollar value of the newly minted coin. The result is a decrease in the Treasury’s account at Fed and an increase in bank reserve balances held at the Fed.

4. Total debt service for the Treasury falls, too, as higher interest earning bonds are replaced with reserve balances earning 0.25%. Effective debt service on purchased bonds now is 0.25% since interest on reserve balances reduces the Fed’s profits that are returned to Treasury each year.

5. The retirement of bonds is an asset swap, no different from QE2, except that the Treasury has purchased the bonds instead of the Fed. But since the Treasury’s account is on the Fed’s balance sheet, there is no operational difference. That is, this is effectively “QE3, Treasury Style.” As with QE2, no net financial assets have been created for the non-government sector. The net effect, like QE2, is to reduce the term structure of US debt held by private investors, as bonds have been replaced with reserve balances.

6. The increase in reserve balances is not inflationary, as Credit Easing 1.0, QE 1.0, and QE 2.0 already have shown. Banks can’t “do” anything with all the extra reserve balances. Loans create deposits—reserve balances don’t finance lending or add any “fuel” to the economy. Banks don’t lend reserve balances except in the federal funds market, and in that case the Fed always provides sufficient quantities to keep the federal funds rate at its target—that’s what it means to set an interest rate target. Widespread belief that reserve balances add “fuel” to bank lending is flawed, as I explained here over two years ago.

7. Non-bank sellers of the bonds purchased by the Treasury now have deposits earning essentially 0%. Again, this is not inflationary. There are three points to make in explaining why.

First, sellers of bonds were always able to sell their securities for deposits with or without the Treasury’s intervention given that there are around 20 dealers posting bids at all times. Anyone holding a treasury security and desiring to sell it in order to spend more out of current income can do so easily; holders of Treasury securities are never constrained in spending by the fact that they hold the security instead of a deposit. Further, dealers finance purchases of securities from both the private sector and the Treasury by borrowing in the repo market—that is, via credit creation using securities as collateral. This means there is no “taking money from one person to give it to another” zero sum game when bonds are issued (banks can similarly purchase securities by taking an overdraft in reserve accounts and clearing it at the end of the day in the federal funds market), as what in fact happens is that the existence of the security actually enables more credit creation and are known to regularly facilitate credit creation in money markets that are a multiple of face value. Removing the security from circulation eliminates the ability for it to be leveraged many times over in money markets.

Second, the seller of the security now holding a deposit is earning less interest can convert the deposit to an interest earning balance. Just as one holding a Treasury can easily sell, one holding a deposit can easily find interest earning alternatives. Some make the argument that the security can decline in value and so this is not the same as holding a deposit, but this unwittingly supports my point here that holders of deposits aren’t necessarily doing so to spend. Deposits don’t spend themselves, after all.

Third, these operations by the Treasury create no new net financial assets for the non-government sector (and can in fact reduce its net saving by reducing interest paid on the national debt as bonds are replaced by reserve balances earning 0.25%). Any increase in aggregate spending would thereby require the private sector to spend more out of existing income or dissaving, as opposed to additional spending out of additional income. The commonly held view that “more money” necessarily creates spending confuses “more money” with “more income.” QE—whether “Fed style” or “Treasury style”—creates the former via an asset swap; on the other hand, a true helicopter drop would create the latter as it raises the net financial assets of the private sector. Again, “money” doesn’t spend itself. Further, by definition, spending more out of existing income is a re-leveraging of private sector balance sheets. This is highly unlikely in the current balance-sheet recession and is aside from the fact that QE again does nothing to facilitate more spending or credit creation beyond what is already possible without QE. The exception is that QE may reduce interest rates, particularly if the Fed or (in this case) the Treasury sets a fixed bid and offers to purchase all bonds offered for sale at that price—though this again may not lead to more credit creation in a balance-sheet recession and has the negative effect of reducing the net interest income of the private sector. (As an aside, a key difficulty neoclassical economists are having at the moment is they do not recognize the difference between a balance-sheet recession and their own flawed understanding of Keynes’s liquidity trap.)

8. The debt ceiling crisis is averted, as US debt outstanding has been reduced by the dollar value of the minted coin, and can continue to be reduced as desired. This simple asset swap demonstrates that the self-imposed constraints of the debt-ceiling, counting Treasury securities held by the Fed against the debt ceiling, and forbidding the Fed from “lending” to the Treasury directly are just that—self-imposed—and are not operational constraints at all. The only constraint is in the flawed understanding of the monetary system that is standard today among the macroeconomists writing textbooks and advising policymakers, or acting as policymakers themselves. From points 6 and 7 above, this asset swap is not inflationary—spending without issuing bonds is not any more inflationary than spending with bond sales, as I explained here and here.

9. Fed is the monopoly supplier of reserve balances, the Treasury is the monopoly supplier of coins. Future deficit spending by the federal government could thereby continue to be carried out by minting coins and depositing them in the Treasury’s account at the Fed. It then would be clear to everyone that the Treasury’s spending is not operationally constrained by revenues or its ability to sell bonds. It would be obvious that the Treasury spends by crediting the reserve accounts of banks, who in turn credit the deposit accounts of the spending recipients. Deficits would increase the quantity of reserve balances circulating and currently earning 0.25%. As MMT’ers have explained for years (even decades), the operational purpose of the Treasury’s sale of a bond is merely to aid the Fed’s ability to achieve its overnight target by draining reserve balances created by a deficit. But even selling bonds isn’t operationally necessary if the Fed pays interest on reserve balances at a rate equal to its target rate. On the other hand, if the Fed set the rate on reserve balances below its target and the Treasury no issuing bonds, the Fed could issue its own time deposits (with Congress’ blessing) to drain reserve balances created by a deficit. Whether the Fed’s target rate were set above the rate paid on reserve balances or equal to it, effective interest on the national debt clearly would be a monetary policy variable (as interest paid on reserve balances or on time deposits by the Fed reduces the Fed’s profits returned to the Treasury), as it at the very worst can be even under current operating procedures (see here and here).

10. This approach to dealing with the debt ceiling is far better than the recent proposal by Ron Paul, as again it lifts the veil on current monetary operations and recognizes the currency-issuing status of the US federal government. Instead, Paul proposes that the Fed destroy its holdings of Treasury securities. What’s strange about the proposal is that it shows that Paul either doesn’t understand monetary operations or is trying to have it both ways. Destroying the securities requires reducing the Fed’s capital by the same amount. Given the Fed’s miniscule level of capital (because, again, it has virtually no retained earnings after transferring them all to the Treasury each year), its capital would be way into negative territory. This isn’t a problem operationally, given that the Fed is the monopoly supplier of reserve balances. But recall that Paul was one of those protesting Credit Easing and QE1 the loudest, claiming that these would surely destroy the Fed’s capital and leave it insolvent. (Again, this is only relevant operationally under a gold standard or similar monetary arrangement—Paul and others like him want to analyze the US national debt and the Fed as if a gold standard existed, and then claim that a going on the gold standard is the solution to all of our problems, but I digress.) So, effectively Paul’s proposal would leave the Fed in a state of (in his view) “insolvency”—perhaps he does know what he’s doing and his debt ceiling proposal is just part of his grand plan to “end the Fed.” Otherwise, it would have been simpler to simply propose exempting the Treasury securities held by the Fed from counting toward the debt ceiling.

Lastly, giving credit where it is due, I want to again recognize the efforts of both Joe Firestone and Beowulf in researching and explaining the legal basis for and operational implications of the Treasury’s Constitutional authority to mint its own coin(s). This post benefits significantly from their important, original work.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.