Ending Austerity: Getting Free of Debt Subject To the Limit
It's hard to listen to the doomsday rhetoric of Austerians like Paul Ryan and intermittently the less hysterical, but equally mythical narratives of the President when he talks about deficit/debt reduction, when you know better; when you know that both are talking about a bogeyman that doesn't exist. Here's Ryan, the Republican wunderkind:
“We face a crushing burden of debt. The debt will soon eclipse our entire economy, and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead.”
”The next generation will inherit a stagnant economy and a diminished country.”
Why? Because the burden of public debt payback will too heavy for the next generation to bear. This is ridiculous, of course, because we can always roll over previous debt and pay interest on it as it comes due. In fact, during the past 11 years as Ben Strubel shows, we've rolled over $437 Trillions in debt. And as Mike Norman says, we've rolled over $32 Trillions thus far in Fiscal 2012 alone.
We’ll always be able to roll over our public debt if that's what we choose to do because a debt instrument is the functional equivalent of a savings account, and frequently those who hold USD including foreign nations have the effective choice of keeping their USD in a reserve account or buying a debt instrument. They’d rather buy the debt instruments because they earn interest. However, low the rate of interest is, it’s better than the rate they’ll get if they keep their USD in their reserve account, unless the Fed decides to pay Interest-On-Reserves (IOR).
Can our national debt increase indefinitely? The short answer is: yes it can. The reason is that a Government like the United States with a fiat non-convertible currency, a floating exchange rate, and no debts in any other nation”s currency, has no solvency risk because it can always create money to pay its obligations. Its debt instruments therefore are nearly risk-free. They’re a safe harbor for investors who’d rather earn a return on the USD they hold, then content themselves with keeping it in a reserve account, that typically earns no interest.
The real problem with the debt subject to the limit is political
Even though there's no real fiscal sustainability problem with the public debt, good luck trying to persuade the public that there is none, by using an argument like the one I just offered. The view that the Federal Government is like a giant household has been drummed into people for years. Also, everyone knows that local and State governments, as well as even very large corporations have real debt constraints (so long as the Government doesn't bail them out). So, to persuade people that the Federal Government is different than other institutions isn't easy, especially when the economic mainstream still contends that the Government has fiscal sustainability problems.
Proponents of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) like myself often point out that Congress can always allow deficit spending without issuing debt instruments if it wants to, and has always had that power. Since it doesn't do that it follows that the very existence of the “national debt” is Congress's fault in the sense that the Government has issued debt instruments to close the gap between spending and tax revenues only because of the voluntary constraints Congress has placed on the Executive Branch.
This argument is also correct. But the prescription that the problem should be solved by getting Congress to get rid of these constraints and allow “pure” deficit spending with no debt issuance requires convincing Congress to do this. In the near term that's not a practical prescription. Republicans and most Democrats have a vested interest in not recognizing that the debt is Congress's fault, because they want to claim the mantle of “fiscal responsibility” by advocating for balanced budgets or long-term debt reduction, or reduced spending on the programs they don't like.
So, neither Party will support “pure” deficit spending without a radical change in political understanding of what is possible for the Government brought about by a demonstration,within the limits of the current legal structure, that we can get free of the public debt subject to the limit any time the President wants to, without a by-your-leave from Congress.
The easiest way to get free of debt subject to the limit
The easiest way under current law to get to the point where there are no debt instruments outstanding is to persuade The President, or his successor, to use Proof Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PPCS), provided for under existing law, to generate the revenue needed to pay off the debt. Any other course to remove current constraints on “pure” deficit spending, will need Congress's approval, which probably means it will also require overcoming the filibuster. The filibuster can be overcome for certain things, but not for major changes like the moving the Fed to the Treasury, or explicitly allowing “pure” deficit spending when it appropriates. In fact, to enact such a major change, it may be easier to get rid of the filibuster itself, since that requires only 50 + 1 votes, on the way to getting the major change.
So, from a political point of view, it is much easier to do PPCS for awhile than to get other alternatives done to overcome the “political debt problem.” Also, in effect, PPCS would subordinate the Fed to the Treasury anyway, since allowing the gap between tax revenues and spending to be closed through seigniorage would dictate the Fed's actions in using IOR to hit its target interest rates.
In this post, I proposed minting a $30 Trillion proof platinum coin to accomplish getting rid of debt instruments and filling the public purse sufficiently to change the fiscal background so no one could use the argument that we don't have the funds to spend on x, or y, or z, if these fulfilled aspects of public purpose. I also argued that minting that coin wouldn't be inflationary in itself. Scott Fullwiler amplified that argument very thoroughly in a later post.
Later, I changed my proposal to minting a $60 T coin to increase the time horizon we would have to change public understanding, bring the Fed inside Treasury, and end the charade that the Government can't create as much money as it needs to solve problems. That was done in three posts here, here, and here. There were also other posts in the same time frame using the $60 T assumption.
That level of PPCS hasn't been met with great enthusiasm from my MMT compatriots. I suspect it's because most think that the $30 T and $60 T proposals makes us sound crazy. Well, maybe it does, but that part of it is about messaging, and I think an eloquent President could sell it as a stop gap to get us out of our self-imposed fiscal constraints until Congress sees the wisdom of moving the Fed inside Treasury. The President could begin selling the $60 T coin with a speech like the one envisioned here.
Many people would be heartened and persuaded by a speech like that; but the President involved would certainly get charged with insanity for using PPCS in the way I've proposed. Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, and much of the mainstream press would probably join them along with other organs echoing the outrage of Peter G. Peterson's deficit hawk/"fiscal responsibility" minions. But I think most of the firestorm would be ended within a week, if the President retires all the Intra-governmental debt, including debt held by the Fed within that time.
A news conference held immediately after that could announce that the debt subject to the limit was reduced by 40% in a week. Then at the end of every quarter the President could announce further reductions. The posts linked to above by Ben Strubel and Mike Norman suggest that over 4 quarters the President could report elimination of nearly all the debt subject to the limit other than a relatively small amount exceeding one year in duration. I haven't tried to locate the precise number involved, but say it's $2T. Then after a year, the President would be able to report that most (about 87%) of the public debt was gone, and he could also provide a schedule for fully paying the rest of it off, without either cutting spending or raising taxes.
If Scott Fullwiler and I are right and that no inflation would result from using PPCS, then no one would call he/she crazy because they used PPCS after that year of payback. It will have been demonstrated that the debt subject to the limit is a faux problem that can always be solved at will, and that the Government's capacity to deficit spend with no solvency concerns is unlimited.
Deficit hawkism justified by solvency fears would be dead by demonstration, and a new era of deficit hawkism justified by a new round of inflation hysteria would dawn. We would be swamped by Weimar and Zimbabwe cautionary, Calvinist fairy stories told by the defenders of the 1%. This, however, is an improvement over their present insolvency fairy tales, because fiscal policy could be guided by actual, observable measures of impact, rather than by indicators that have only a tenuous connection to inflation or hyper-inflation at best.
So, summing up. I think progressives, including MMT economists, ought to support use of massive PPCS by the Executive Branch to pay off the debt, and change the political situation. We must fight to persuade the White House.
We can say that “the perfect” policy to get rid of the debt is to change the law and bring the Fed under the Treasury; but failing that, a “good” policy is to end any talk of fiscal solvency problems caused by the faux debt subject to the limit, by using massive PPCS. Since the President knows that “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” perhaps he'll appreciate our practicality in being willing to accept PPCS in place of “the perfect.”
But regardless of whether he does so or not, at least we will be making the clear point to the White House and to everyone, that any “debt” problem we have from then on, will be, and for that matter is now, due only to the President's unwillingness to use his legal powers to solve it. So, if everyone is as concerned about the debt, as they purport to be -- concerned enough that they prioritize it above the social safety net for the poor, the middle class, working people who have lost their jobs and homes due to speculation by our feckless and fraud-committing financiers, the elderly, and the ill, and also prioritize it ahead of education for the young, reconstruction of the energy and infrastructure foundations of this country, and growing climate-change crisis, then why don't they direct their concerns and place their blame where they both belong -- namely at a President who will not use the powers Congress has given him to get rid of that public debt that is evidently so noxious to them? And, in the process, to take this silly faux issue, that has harmed so many people for so long, off the political table forever.