A Counter Narrative to Peterson’s
The US is broke. Government deficits are de facto evidence of a government gone wild. We’re careening toward Greece. Entitlements are the root cause of our fiscal woes, and the Chinese are coming for our grandchildren. How many Americans believe this garbage? My guess? Most of them.
Pete Peterson has won and the American people have lost. There is no effective counter narrative, not even from the left. Nearly all “progressives” have accepted the fundamental premise that the federal government is like a great big household. That it faces the same kinds of constraints that you and I face. That it should spend only what it takes in and that deficits are morally and/or fiscally irresponsible. President Obama told the nation, “We’re out of money.” . . .
Stephanie knows that there is a counter-narrative out there to Peter Peterson’s take on fiscal responsibility, because she’s one of the people who best expresses it. But she thinks it can’t be called “effective,” because we’ve been unsuccessful so far in getting the fiscal responsibility counter-narrative developed by Modern Money Theory (MMT) economists communicated broadly enough to create a break in the Washington/New York political consensus, which insists that now our most urgent need is for austerity to bring the deficits and the public debt under control. I agree with Stephanie, of course. We’ve not been successful in persuading enough people yet.
So, in this Post, I’ll make yet another effort to counter the neoliberal austerian fiscal responsibility ideology by juxtaposing the primary claims underlying the narrative, with my construction of the MMT answers to them. The austerian claims below all link to MMT-based posts that critique them. And they are all juxtaposed against an MMT-based claim that refute them. The paragraphs following each pair of claims, summarize my version of MMT answers, and together provide a counter-narrative.
MMT answer: The Government cannot involuntarily run out of money
The US Government has the Constitutional Authority to create an unlimited amount of money provided Congress appropriates the spending, and places no constraints on spending, such as a need to issue debt instruments when the Government deficit spends, or debt ceiling limits. So, all constraints on spending appropriations are purely voluntary in the sense that they are due to Congressional mandates that Congress can repeal at any time, and not to financial limits inherent in the Government’s authority.
Having said that, the constraints mentioned are now in place, and, so, it’s important to emphasize that even with them, and without legislative changes, the Executive can always create enough money to pay for whatever spending Congress has appropriated and also repay debt, so that even with a Congress willfully maneuvering for default, or brandishing the threat of it, the Executive can still ensure that the Government doesn’t run out of money even without more taxing and borrowing, because the Executive can use the option of Proof Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PPCS) as one method of getting around the debt ceiling. Originally suggested by Beowulf some time ago, there are any number of PPCS options the President can use to generate coin seigniorage profits to use for a variety of purposes. I’ve outlined some of them here. Some PPCS options stop with $1/2 Trillion coins, some go over $1 Trillion up to $5 Trillion, and still others envision very high face value coins ranging to $60 Trillion and up.
For getting around the debt ceiling, coins with face-values up to $5 Trillion will certainly remove the need to issue further debt subject to the limit and break the debt ceiling. However, minting a platinum coin with a face-value of say, $60 Trillion is also a political game-changer, because it results in filling the Treasury General Account with enough in credits to make it obvious to the most concrete thinker that the Government has the capacity to pay all the debt subject to the limit, issue no more such debt if it so chooses, and also spend whatever Congress chooses to appropriate in the way of new programs to solve current problems.
So, issuing a $60T coin, removes the issue (excuse) of whether the Government of the United States can afford to pay for employment programs, educational programs, infrastructure, new energy foundations, a Medicare for All program, new R & D programs, or expansion of the social safety net from the political table. Issuing that coin can and would create a new political climate moving American politics much further to the left within the space of a few months. In short, it would dramatically illustrate the MMT counter to the austerian deficit hawks, namely that the US Government is not running out of money and cannot do so as long as it has the intention to use its authority to create more of it.
MMT answer: The Government can create money; so it can never involuntarily run out
The austerian claim is false. First, the Federal Reserve, a Government agency can create unlimited money “out of thin air,” as the saying goes, though not for purposes of deficit spending, or directly liquidating Treasury debt. But second, I’ve just pointed out that PPCS can be used in the present legal framework to create money other than by taxing or borrowing. And third, if Congress doesn’t want to use PPCS, it can authorize the Treasury to spend appropriations without issuing debt instruments any time it wants to take an afternoon off to get that done. So, plainly the Government can “raise money” without taxing or borrowing it by just creating the necessary money while spending.
MMT answer: We can if we want to. There’s no limit on the credit card except the one imposed arbitrarily by Congress.
Congress has placed a debt ceiling on the Government, and it has also mandated debt issuance when the Government deficit spends, by prohibiting the Fed from lending the Treasury money. So, it’s only the self-imposed constraint of Congress that prevents the Government from continuing to add “debt to the national credit card.” There is nothing inherent in the international economic system, or our own Constitution that prevents us from adding debt as needed.
And even if current constraints on debt ceiling constraints remained in place, Treasury can still issue debt without breaching the debt ceiling. Beowulf, the blogger/commenter, who first proposed using high face-value PPCS to get by the debt ceiling, recently came up with a new option to avoid breaking the debt ceiling. That option follows:
Another way to sidestep the debt ceiling is to go the opposite extreme from one-day maturities, issue perpetual T-bonds with no maturity date (what the Brits call consols). Look at the debt ceiling law, the public debt adds up, for all outstanding debt, the face amount of the guaranteed principal. The future interest payments to be paid aren’t counted. (“The face amount of obligations issued under this chapter and the face amount of obligations whose principal and interest are guaranteed by the United States Government“).
If there’s no maturity date, then there’s no promise to repay principal and thus there’s nothing to add to the public debt total. Tsy could issue an unlimited amount of consols without tripping over the debt ceiling.”
Beowulf has more on consols here. But the possibility of consols is enough to show that the Treasury has an unlimited credit card under current legal arrangements, and can use it without breaching the debt ceiling, though of course, it can’t spend more than Congress has appropriated, and is also required to repay debt and interest that is coming due.
MMT answer: The bond markets don’t control US interest rates.
The Treasury can flood overnight bank reserves and float short-term debt to meet its targeted interest rates, however low they may be. The Government, if Congress would let it, can even stop issuing debt subject to the limit when it deficit spends (using PPCS or consols, or by Congress moving the Fed into Treasury where it belongs) in which case the bond market interest rates would become entirely irrelevant to the United States.
MMT answer: They’ll most probably buy it for the foreseeable future; but if they don’t we won’t be forced into solvency because we can always create the money we need to meet our obligations
Our creditors all want export-led economies. This means that they must accumulate dollars, because the US is where the consumption power is, and if they want to keep exporting they must keep the American consumers’ business. Their dollar surpluses can sit idle in their Federal Reserve accounts or be used in a way that makes them money. Buying our debt makes them some money, however little it may be at current interest rates. Buying our goods and services reduces their trade surpluses with us, and goes against their export-led policies. Selling our currency, weakens the value of the USD holdings they retain. In short, they have little choice other than to buy our debt, unless they want to gradually adjust trade balances with us over time.
Even more importantly, as I keep repeating, we don’t need to raise money by borrowing USD from them or anyone else. We can simply spend/create it ourselves if Congress repeals its constraints prohibiting the Fed from “monetizing” the debt, or if the President decides to use PPCS or consols. The result of no more debt issuance, along with use of these other methods, would be paying off the national debt over time, without austerity. So, if we care so much about the high debt levels, then why don’t we do that? Could it be that the austerians want austerity for political rather than economic reasons, and that the fiscal sustainability/responsibility justifications they give are just part of a complex fairy story they tell to avoid being candid about why they want austerity?
MMT answer: We’re obligated to pay all US debts as they come due. But since we have an unlimited credit card to incur new debt at interest rates of our choosing, or, alternatively can create all the money we need to pay off debt subject to the limit, without incurring any more debt, our national debt cannot be a burden for our grandchildren unless they wish to make it make it so by stupidly taxing more than they spend. So, let’s educate them well in MMT-based economics, so that they never make that mistake
No US generation except one has ever repaid the national debt by running budget surpluses. After the debt was paid off in 1835, that generation was rewarded with the depression of 1837. Moreover, each time the nation ran substantial surpluses for a period of time, the country fell into depression or recession, most recently the recession of 2001, following Clinton’s four years of running a surplus. It’s a bad idea to repay the national debt by running surpluses, because taxing more than a Government spends destroys net financial assets in the private sector, unless one also exports more than one imports.
So, provided we continue to run a trade deficit, our grandchildren won’t run surpluses. They may not issue debt subject to the limit while “deficit” spending. But that’s possible, only if the Congress repeals the mandate to issue debt when the Government deficit spends, or alternatively, the Government freely uses its PPCS power. In both cases the national debt can then be repaid without requiring that tax revenues match or exceed Government spending.
In any event, our grandchildren will not have the burden of repaying the national debt, if they are wise enough not to run surpluses. But if we are silly enough to attempt to pay it down, or pay it off, by running surpluses and practicing austerity, then they will have the burden of growing up in poor families, attending very poor schools, living in mal-integrated communities where they’ll be subject to crime and violence, and living in a class-ridden nation run by a kleptocratic elite that monopolizes both the artificially constricted supply of financial wealth, and the increasingly scarce real wealth produced by a stagnant, broken economy. That’s not what any of us want; but that’s what the austerian/deficit hawk policies are producing.
I can’t emphasize this last point enough. Austerity isn’t moral. It’s immoral! It kills, and it eventually impoverishes most people including our grandchildren, both those who are now living and growing up in difficult economic circumstances, and those yet unborn, who will be born and will grow up in a stagnant economy crippled by attempts to reduce the national debt, at the expense of full employment, and lost output for years on end.
MMT answer: All together now, there is no such problem. Since the US Government has no limits other than self-imposed ones on spending or borrowing, the level of the national debt, or the debt-to-GDP ratio don’t affect the Government’s capacity to spend Congressional Appropriations at all.
These numbers aren’t related to fiscal sustainability or responsibility in nations like the US with a non-convertible fiat currency, a floating exchange rate, and no debts denominated in a currency it doesn’t issue. Such nations can’t become involuntarily insolvent because they always create more currency to pay debts denominated in that currency.
If the debt-to-GDP ratio were 300% and there were no other changes in current policy, the US would still have the same ability to deficit spend it has now. Conversely, if the debt-to-GDP ratio were 10%, the same would apply. To put this simply, the size of the public debt subject to the limit, and the size of the debt-to-GDP ratio have no impact at all on our capability to deficit spend, because we can always make the money we need, if need be, through PPCS. So there is no need for a long-term deficit reduction plan to lower the debt-to-GDP ratio. There is also no need to run surpluses to decrease the size of the debt, since we can always use profits from PPCS to do that without either borrowing more or raising taxes.
Even though neither the level of the national debt, nor the level of the debt-to-GDP ratio creates a sustainability problem for the US, depending on conditions, the deficit itself can be “too high.” But the question of when a deficit is too high isn’t an issue of fiscal sustainability in the sense that we can run out of money, but instead is an issue of the negative consequences of an excessively high deficit. The most important of these consequences is demand-pull inflation, and when that is observed, Federal spending should be reduced to control or eliminate it. However, there are two questions arising here. First, which spending, if cut, will produce the most overall benefit. And second, what’s the impact of cutting spending vs. the impact of doing nothing, vs. the impact of raising taxes.
MMT answer: No, the Federal Government is not like a household! Households can’t make their own currency and require that people use that currency to pay taxes.
Households can’t make their own currency and require that people use that currency to pay taxes. Households can run out of money; but the US can’t ever run out of money as long as Congress decides to appropriate spending and gives the Executive the authority to implement that spending. So, the Federal Government doesn’t have to sacrifice to live within its means, since its “means” to create new currency is limited only by its own decisions and not by any factors external to it. Put simply, Federal spending including deficit spending doesn’t cost anything in the doing. The only relevant question is its real effects on the economy.
MMT answer: Social Security has no fiscal problems. The SS crisis is a phoney one. So, no solution to this nonexistent fiscal crisis, bipartisan or partisan is needed. What is needed is a solution to the political problem of getting SS’s funding guaranteed in perpetuity
Again, this austerian claim assumes that Social Security funding is a fiscal problem and that the program needs to be strengthened by making the program “fiscally sustainable.” But that claim is at issue. Apart from the fact, that it isn’t obvious that a bi-partisan solution to a fiscal problem would produce a real solution, it’s also true that this is a fake fiscal problem.
Social Security should be strengthened alright. But the way to strengthen it is to guarantee its funding in perpetuity, and to greatly increase benefits for many seniors whose current benefits leave them scraping the poverty line. Try doubling SS benefits while providing full payroll tax cuts. That will strengthen SS and the economy as well.
MMT answer: This is total nonsense, because federal spending is costless to the Government
If the debt subject to the limit bothers the neoliberal austerians so much, they ought to be supporting full payoff of the debt using PPCS profits. Doing that won’t harm the economy, and it won’t cause inflation either, since the bonds retired are more inflationary then the money paid to redeem them.
MMT answer: Greece and Ireland are users of the Euro, not issuers of it. So, their supply is always limited and that’s why they can run out of Euros. The US is the issuer of Dollars; so it’s supply of dollars is limited only by its desire to create them, and that’s why it can’t become Greece, Ireland, or any other Eurozone nation.
This one is a real laugher. Greece and Ireland can run out of Euros. California can run out of dollars. But the United States can’t run out of Dollars. Japan can’t run out of Yen. The UK can’t run out of Pounds, and Canada and Australia can’t run out of Canadian or Australian Dollars. So, governments like California, Michigan, Wisconsin, etc. can become the next Greece or Ireland if the Federal Government allows that to happen by refusing to bailout States if they need it, but the US can’t become the next Greece or Ireland, because it can always bail itself out if it chooses to do so.
The real danger for the US is in becoming the next Japan and losing a decade of economic progress by following neoliberal deficit reduction doctrines. The US is now four years into the decade we are losing. Why are we losing it? Because, as Warren Mosler is fond of saying: “. . . we fear becoming the next Greece, we continue to turn ourselves into the next Japan.” That is, we’re making ourselves a stagnant economy by imposing fiscal austerity, rather than creating/spending the money we need to solve our increasingly serious national problems.
MMT answer: No! REAL Fiscal Responsibility is fiscal policy intended to achieve public purposes while also maintaining or increasing fiscal sustainability viewed as the extent to which patterns of Government spending do not undermine the capability of the Government to continue to spend to achieve its public purposes.
So, the REAL Government fiscal responsibility problem is not the problem of everyone “sucking it up” and responsibly accepting austerity. It is not targeting the debt-to-GDP ratio and managing Government spending to try to stabilize it. Instead, it is the problem of people facing up to the need to use fiscal policy to stop our out of control economy from ruining the lives of any more Americans.
This means that the REAL solution to the REAL fiscal responsibility problem is for our leaders in Congress and the Executive Branch, to remove fiscal constraints and use the fiscal powers of the Federal Government to fund solutions to the many national problems we face, starting with creating full employment, and a real universal health care system in which no one is shut out, or forced into foreclosure or bankruptcy by medical bills, and then all the other serious problems we face, but now will not handle because we claim a non-existent fiscal incapacity of the Federal Government. There is no incapacity! We have not run out of money! We have only run out of smarts, morals, will, and courage! We need to get those back, and do what must be done to reclaim the future for working Americans.
MMT answer: Right! Show us one case where austerity is working
Well, let’s see. We’ve got austerity now in Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Baltics, and, of course, Greece, among nations in the Eurozone, and also in the UK. Is it creating jobs anywhere? Is there even one case, in which the “austerity will create jobs” theory isn’t being refuted by events? Some may think that Latvia is beginning to recover because it’s unemployment rate has now fallen to 15%; but that’s because 200,000 Latvians (10% of the population) have chosen to emigrate, a particularly effective way of both leaving the labor force, and lowering the rate of unemployment. Bet we could lower unemployment here too, if we first ran the economy down by 30%, drove U-3 up to the 20% level, and then had 31,000,000 people leave the United States for parts unknown. Oh austerity, will thy wonders never cease?
Conclusion: Saying No to Neoliberal Austerity
So, the importance of continuing to counter austerian propaganda coming out of the Peterson Foundation and the organizations it allies with, and funds, remains. We must continue to try to break through the screen of the Petersonian closed system, the Washington/New York consensus. One of the popular slogans for the austerians this year is “Debate the Debt.” There’s a petition web site urging politicians to debate the debt. There was even a proposal demanding that the presidential candidates devote a whole presidential debate to the debt and deficit issues.
But, what is it the austerians want us to debate? They want us to debate how we should reduce deficits over the medium and long-term by spending less and taxing more. But they most emphatically don’t want to debate whether the debt, deficit, and debt-to-GDP ratio, represent real problems relating to fiscal sustainability or fiscal responsibility. Put simply, they don’t want us to debate whether their deficit/debt “problem” is really a problem either for our capacity to spend in the future, or for government solvency, or for our grandchildren.
They say there’s a government solvency problem and that all of us must and should suffer to solve it. MMT says that there is no solvency problem and there’s no reason for people to suffer any more than they have already due to the crash of 2008. That’s the debate about the debt we badly need right now, When they say debate the debt, they mean debate how we should all suffer to get rid of it. When I say “debate the debt,” I mean debate whether the public debt subject to the limit is a real problem, or a just a massive distraction from coming to grips with our real problems. I think that my debate question is clearly prior to the austerians’ because it doesn’t assume what it should prove, namely that there is a problem and that focusing on it isn’t a distraction.
But, I think it is a massive distraction; and the President can prove it! Just mint that $60 T platinum coin and the debt problem will go away. Then the Peterson Foundation and other agents of the emerging plutocratic elite, will need to invent a new fairy tale to distract us with; or maybe they’ll do all of us a favor and just go out of business, so we can re-build our country without having to deal with their insolvency fantasy first!
(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)