By Dan Kervick
The Unites States government operates a fiat currency system. The government is therefore the monopoly supplier of the final means of payment in our dollar-based economy, and is ultimately responsible, in one way or another, for any net increase in dollar-denominated financial assets in the private sector.
And yet, we continue to hear bipartisan expressions of fear and angst about the budget deficit and the national debt. Both major parties seemingly agree that we are “out of money”. They wrangle over various competing approaches to shrinking the gap between tax revenues and government spending. They appoint commissions to study the government budget and recommend some combination of slashed spending and higher taxes in order to close that budgetary gap. They warn us that we will transform ourselves into banana republic status if we do not urgently address our public debt problems.
This situation should be perplexing. Why does a government that is the issuer of the national currency have to borrow that currency back from the public to which the currency is issued? And how could such a government ever experience the kinds of budgetary squeezes and debt burdens that can pose severe problems for households and businesses?
I wish to make a radical suggestion: Public borrowing is an outdated practice, and we could dispense with it entirely. Borrowing by the public treasury and the accumulation of government debt obligations are legacies of the era that preceded the development of modern fiat currency, an era when governments were primarily users of traditional means of payment that lay outside their control, and not the producers and issuers of the primary means of payment. That pre-fiat era is now dead in the US, and the chief remaining role of government borrowing in our time is to bamboozle the public, and to obscure the true nature and effects of government fiscal and monetary operations under a bewildering maze of bookkeeping ink and financial legerdemain. Eliminating public borrowing, and replacing it with operations that are simpler, more direct and more transparent, would advance the cause of informed democratic debate over public spending and taxation. Above all, the change would eliminate needless obscurity and confusion and help us all understand exactly whose bread is being buttered by the budgetary decisions made by politicians.