by Joseph M. Firestone, New Economic Perspectives
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6 (this article). There is also a crowd sourced working paper covering this topic.
This series provides a framing document for Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS). In the five previous parts of the series, I pointed out that there are three classes of opponents of High Value Platinum Coin Seigniorage (HVPCS, $30 T and above). The first and largest group opposes all Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) of whatever type. The second, opposes HVPCS, but favors using the Trillion Dollar Coin (TDC) for the limited purpose of avoiding the debt ceiling. The third, opposes HVPCS, and doesn’t really favor using the TDC either, except, perhaps, as a last resort to avoid the debt ceiling. It favors an incremental approach to PCS beginning perhaps in the millions or billions in face value, and over a long period of time, after giving people years to adjust to Treasury using platinum coins with unusual, and unprecedented, face values, eventually building up to a TDC.
Parts two, three, four, five and this post (Part Six), considers further objections to HVPCS brought forward by people in one or more of these categories, and my replies to them. As you’re seeing, if you’re following the series, the opponents of HVPCS are throwing everything but the proverbial kitchen sink at it. In this concluding post, I’ll consider some further political/economic objections to PCS and HVPCS.
Destroys confidence in the dollar, here and abroad because it reveals the reality that our fiat money isn’t “backed” by anything
This one really makes me see red because it reflects 1) the arrogance of the complainer who thinks he or she is fit to know the reality of the fiat money and our present financial system, while the average citizen is not; 2) the attitude of the complainer that it is OK to maintain the platonic “noble lie” that the operation of our fiat money system is different from the way it really works; 3) the very questionable judgment that if everyone knew that US fiat money was just that, then that would destroy confidence in the dollar, even though it’s well-known that all the world’s currencies, including our own are fiat currencies; and 4) the attitudes of the globalizing elites that average citizens shouldn’t know what they’re about. In a word, the anti-democratic character of this objection to HVPCS really creeps me out.
But recognizing that this objection is profoundly anti-democratic also makes it very clear that HVPCS is very much about the larger process of turning back from the evolution toward global plutocracy we see all around us. And it is also about turning back towards both political and social democracy and a decent life for all.
Destroys budgetary discipline
This is another rich one. The idea here is that as long we think we are short of public money, then we will be more disciplined in our spending, and will make sure that the government deficit spending we do approve is only that spending that is necessary for public purpose. On the other hand, if we use HVPCS, then it will be clear that we can have as much money as we choose to have, and so we will lose our fiscal discipline and responsibility, and just spend willy-nilly on foolish things.
Too bad the world and our public spending habits aren’t as simple as this picture suggests. But, they’re just not.
We now have more than 35 years of experience with austerity politics in the sense that powerful groups in the political system have warned about our deficit and debt problems all that time, and have emphasized the importance of evaluating fiscal policy based on its impact on reducing deficits and balancing budgets, rather than the larger economic and social benefits and costs of those policies.
The record during this time shows that the US has increasingly suffered from a profound fiscal irresponsibility in the sense that we have failed to spend what was necessary to achieve larger public purposes like full employment, decreasing inequality, widely distributed gains in standard of living that keep up with productivity, developing a first class educational system, developing alternatives to fossil energy to serve as the new basis of our economy, developing programs to meet the challenges of environmental sustainability and climate change, increasing family integration, and providing first class universal health care to all Americans as a right. So, for more than 35 years now, our politicians have poor mouthed about not being able to afford expanding our domestic social safety net and discretionary programs, while proceeding to spend lavishly on defense industries, and insisting that we can afford that, all while our country more and more develops the social and economic characteristics of a third world nation.
In short, the last 35 years show that placing artificial constraints on the amount of public deficit spending we will do hasn’t worked to produce responsible fiscal policy that fulfills public purpose. I think that’s because when politicians and people focus on indicators like the debt and deficit to guide fiscal policy, instead of focusing on the real impacts of fiscal policy, that opens the way for well-funded elites to obscure issues about those real impacts and focus instead on narrow financial details that the elites understand, because they employ armies of analysts to understand them, while the public has no hope of understanding them, and so is in a very bad position to defend its interests.
So, when we look at the history of politics since Jimmy Carter decided we ought to try to balance the budget, and Alice Rivlin assumed a dominant position in DC thinking about fiscal policy, we can see that practicing artificial scarcity in fiat money creation hasn’t resulted in our becoming more fiscally responsible, but precisely the opposite. We have to acknowledge that we’ve been focusing on the wrong things, and we have to stop using them as a way of evaluating fiscal policy and government spending.
The national debt and reducing deficit spending should have no part in our evaluation of our fiscal responsibility. All that ought to matter is evaluating the real effects of Government spending on the economy, politics, society, culture, our resources, and the environment. That’s the sort of evaluation that should define budgetary discipline.
Budgetary discipline in that sense is unrelated to HVPCS. It has nothing to do with whether we have, or do not have $60 T in the TGA. It has to do instead, with whether we can mobilize ourselves to make Congress and the Executive accountable to our views about public purpose. Right now they are not.
Instead, they are using their austerity narrative as an excuse to weaken rather than strengthen the safety net. They are using it to refuse to legislate Medicare for All, even though polls have shown for many years that 2/3 of the population wants Medicare for All. They are using it to refuse to enable full employment, including a Job Guarantee for everyone who wants to work full time. They are using it to refuse to make available the funding we need to create a first class educational system. They are using it to refuse to fund sorely needed infrastructure repair and modernization. I can go on and on. But the main point is that the present system of funding Federal deficit spending isn’t working to fulfill our public purposes.
It’s time to change that system and to have the change reflect the truth that there can be no shortage of money in our system, only shortages of resources, labor, skills, know how, and well-being. The budgetary discipline we ought to pursue is the discipline of ending the real shortages we have, by using the money we can generate in whatever quantity we need to implement government programs that will help us end these other, real, shortages.
Causes the Government bureaucracy to expand and crowd out private sector activities
HVPCS is itself unrelated to the size of government compared to the size of the private sector. We can have HVPCS, use it to pay off the national debt, use it to cover deficits for many years to come, and still choose to have a lower percentage of economic activity performed by government rather than the private sector. Even if we run large deficits, covered by HVPCS, those deficits can be devoted to shoring up private sector growth rather than government growth. Whether we do this or not is our choice, and either shrinking the Government, or growing the Government is compatible with HVPCS.
Having said the above, that doesn’t mean that we should decrease the relative size of the government compared to the private economy. In recent years, we have shrunk the government bureaucracy substantially as a percentage of employment. That shrinkage has not led to good times or private sector growth. It has led to the opposite.
The privatization of a lot of government work since the 1970s hasn’t led to a reduction in the costs of funding the activities that used to be performed by civil servants. Instead, it’s clearly increased those costs. Contracting out was supposed to be cheaper, because the government would avoid expensive fringe benefits, including retirement costs, and supposedly would reduce the cost of services through competition. However, this theory has proven to be incorrect. Civil servants are cheaper than contractors, and they perform as well or better than contract workers, perhaps, because they have little incentive to drag out and prolong work to ensure that they will be employed in the future.
In addition, there is no correlation over time in the United States between prosperity, economic growth, and a smaller Federal government. If anything the correlation is negative. There were better times, lower unemployment, and faster growth from the end of WWII through 1980 when the Government’s percentage of the economy was higher than it has been during the period from 1981 to the present. So, maybe we could benefit from some more “crowding out” of the private sector by Government than we now have; but whether we would benefit from this or not, the issue of relative size of the government isn’t directly related to whether HVPCS is used or not.
Here are my conclusions based on this six part examination of HVPCS, including all the current objections I could find to the Executive Branch using it to fill the public purse.
- Using HVPCS would demonstrate to the public that: the Federal Government’s budget isn’t like their budget; the Federal Government can never run out of money if it doesn’t choose to; there is no need to cut either revenue or spending because we must reduce the deficit; we can use revenues from HVPCS to pay off the national debt as it falls due, and there isn’t any need to pursue the current agenda of austerity and “shared sacrifice.” There is just no need for austerity and we ought to quit wasting time and causing harm by either discussing it or implementing it. Take it off the table!
- So, HVPCS-based elimination of debt can end the whole austerity mind set that provides our current budgetary process with its constraining conservative cast, focused on narrow monetary cost considerations, rather than on a broader progressive framework that weighs the realcosts and benefits of proposed fiscal activities of the Federal Government. Congress and the Executive would then 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. Then the issues will be about what people need, and what improvements we can make by working together through the Federal Government. That would be the fulcrum of a new, game-changing politics, not debt, deficits, and debt-to-GDP ratios.
- HVPCS strikes at the domination of the global financial and political system by Wall Street and the big banks. They will do everything they can to remove the power to use it from the President and the Treasury. That is why HVPCS must be used by the President ASAP! He has the main chance to bring change now. He should take it!
- Progressives need to fight for retaining the Executive’s capability to use PCS, because that is the quickest road to ending austerity politics and preparing the way for Modern Money Theory-based policies to deliver sustainable economic prosperity, full employment, low inflation, and fiscal policy devoted to the public purpose.
- High Value Platinum Coin Seigniorage using coins having $30 Trillion or greater value is most probably a legal alternative for the Treasury to use to fill the public purse. I say most probably, because no one can tell what will happen in response to a Court challenge. However, the likelihood is that the court will not grant standing to any challenger. Even it does, the odds are with the Executive Branch due to the clear language of the coin seigniorage legislation, the relationships between the Fed and the Treasury specified in the Federal Reserve Act, and the unitary executive doctrine.
- There are a host of other economic, political, institutional, and political/economic objections to using HVPCS, they range from dismissing it as “weird,” “crazy,” etc. scary to most people, characterizing it as “printing money” and “inflationary,” projecting a political firestorm and projecting political paralysis in Congress if PCS is used at all, worrying about letting the Republicans off the hook for their irresponsible behavior in causing repeated fiscal crises, worrying about appearing to act like a “banana republic,” worrying about the possibility that HVPCS will elicit “black swans” with terrible unanticipated consequences, warning that using HVPCS will violate “a social norm,” projecting a collapse of investor confidence in the US and its currency and loss of reserve currency status, projecting rising interest rates from the bond traders, warning that HVPCS shouldn’t be used because of the maxim “first do no harm,” warning that minting a platinum coin is the first cousin of defaulting on the debt, because the act will convince financial markets that we can’t manage our affairs, warning that using HVPCS will compromise the independence of the Federal Reserve, and the related objection that it would destroy the institutional structure of the financial system. warning that it would destroy confidence in the dollar because it will reveal the reality that our money is “unbacked” fiat, warning that it would destroy budgetary discipline, and that it would cause “crowding out” of the private sector by the government bureaucracy. Looking at this list of objections and the replies I’ve offered in this series, I suggest that every one them, with the possible exception of the inflation objection is insignificant compared to the likely benefits of using HVPCS in place of debt issuance to pay off old debt and perform deficit spending without issuing any new debt instruments.Even the relatively light austerity being practiced thus far is costing the United States $3.4 Trillion per year in GDP and is leaving more than 30 million dis-employed. If the coming round of austerity from the Congress and the President materializes in the next few months, and we experience another recession, we may end up losing another $1 Trillion off GDP, along with another few million dis-employed.So, lifting the burden of austerity politics on the 99%, and ending debt ceiling crises, sequesters, and ideological budgetary conflicts, and their attendant effects on economic activity and unemployment, far outweighs the likely negative consequences of any or all of the rest of the objections against HVPCS, apart from demand-pull inflation, which, I’ve argued, is a very unlikely outcome of HVPCS.In this series, I’ve tried to show that there isn’t a good reason in the world not to use HVPCS. Of course, one can’t prove a negative, so I really haven’t shown that. But I hope I’ve shown that it’s costing far too much to continue down the road of debt issuance, in the context of the many objections I’ve reviewed.
The important cost of doing what we have been doing, is not really the interest on the debt itself; that’s only fiat currency which the Government can always make. it’s the political consequences of debt, which is bipartisan action to practice austerity and “shared sacrifice.” We need to get rid of this before it destroys everything we hold dear. The way to do that is to use HVPCS to get of rid of debt and cover government deficits for many years. HVPCS is a way out of the trap we’ve built for ourselves. We need to get on with it, now!
(Author’s Note: h/t to Jack Foster for proposing a framing document for HVPCS. This is the sixth and concluding part of that document. I’ll make available the whole document shortly.)