The underlying rationale for “a Grand Bargain” and the President’s deficit reduction budget including cuts to both Social Security (SS) and Medicare and many valuable discretionary programs, apart from the pragmatic justification, that he may be able to complete such a bargain with the Republicans and blue dog Democrats in Congress, is that the fiscal health of the United States requires that we can’t keep running annual deficits of the size we’ve been running. Why? Because that results in increases to our debt-to-GDP ratio, which in turn will cause the bond markets to drive up our interest rates higher and higher and eventually make interest on the Federal debt such a large share of the Federal Debt that we won’t have money for anything else. So, we have to implement a long-term deficit reduction plan to ensure the fiscal sustainability of the Federal Budget. To do anything else would be fiscally irresponsible.
I think that’s the essence of the President’s case for long – term deficit reduction. Then if one asks, well why make the burden fall on spending cuts rather than tax increases, the answer is that “tax increases” will never happen in today’s political climate. So, really the president has no choice, if he really wants to end this period of budgetary uncertainty, and also deal with the budget in a fiscally responsible way, then he must take the self-described “courageous” step of proposing cuts to the safety net including Social Security.
For the last few years, many of us have set forth various arguments against this case, especially with respect to safety net cuts. Some arguments are about its moral aspects showing that the “Grand Bargain” is unfair because the President’s idea of “shared sacrifice” takes no account of economic concentration of wealth over the past 40 years, or culpability for the financial/economic crash, that has created the so-called “budget crisis”. Others show that Social Security doesn’t and can’t add to the deficit. Others focus on the economic damage the spending cuts will do to the economy versus the lesser, or even little, damage that would be done by reducing the deficits through tax increases on higher incomes and wealth. Still others argue against the cuts, saying that they’re too heavily focused on domestic discretionary programs and the social safety net and are not focused on defense where we have such a large budget compared to every other nation.
All of these are good arguments and help with the pushback against the Grand Bargain. But none of them really show that the so-called problem underlying long-term deficit reduction, the eventual Federal solvency problem, is a false problem. Here’s what makes it a non-existent problem.
It’s false that If we keep running large deficits then we get increases to our debt-to-GDP ratio, which in turn will cause the bond markets to drive up our interest rates higher and higher, and eventually make interest on the Federal debt such a large share of the Federal Debt that we won’t have money for anything else.
First, running a deficit and using debt issuance to run it are not the same thing. The Congress could reorganize the Fed under the Treasury, and then the Secretary could order the Fed to create the reserves needed in the Treasury General (TGA) to deficit spend. Of course, this isn’t legal now and would require action by Congress, but it’s worth pointing out that the coupling of deficit spending to debt is due to Congressional fiscal arrangements, the rules of the game they legislated. It is not due to any immutable laws of economics, finance, or politics.
The Treasury has something else it can do to both pay down all the existing national debt, cease issuing debt instruments, and decouple continuing deficit spending from increasing debt. That option is High Value Platinum Coin Seigniorage (HVPCS).
Under authority provided by Congress in 1996 the Treasury can have the US Mint issue platinum coins with face values specified by the Secretary. So, for example, the Mint could issue a $60 Trillion coin; deposit it at the Fed, where the reserves credited to the Mint’s account for this legal tender would eventually wind up in the TGA. I’ve discussed the technicalities, history, economic, legal, and political aspects of Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) in my new e-book. But the main point here, is that if the President will use HVPCS, then
— debt issuance could be ended,
— all the old debt could be paid off,
— the debt–to-GDP ratio would eventually drop to zero, and
— any possible effect of the bond markets on the solvency of the United States would be gone for as long as we conducted our deficit spending with reserves created at the Fed resulting from HVPCS.
So, in short, it’s up to the President. If he really wants to remove any possible political problem related to solvency, and any possible insolvency-based justification for deficit reduction and for cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other necessary programs that ought to be expanded rather than cut, then all he has to do is #mintthecoin; the $60 T coin, that is, not the trivial band-aid Trillion Dollar Coin (TDC) that will only bring the same “austerity” problem back next year.
Second, even if the President weren’t able to #mintthecoin; the deficit reduction/austerity argument would still be false. That’s because the bond markets don’t control the interest rates paid by the government on debt. The central bank does. If the central bank sets the overnight rate for reserves near zero, which it can always do, and the Treasury Department issues nothing but short-term debt at 3 months and under, then the Treasury can offer securities at a rate near zero, and keep the rates there whatever the debt-to-GDP ratio is, and even if that ratio is growing faster than GDP. This isn’t just theory. Japan is the test case for it.
Its debt-to-GDP ratio is what, 220% right now? Increases in it have had no effect on interest rates, and interest costs are not eating their budget. When confronted with Japan, austerians say that it’s an exception because most of its debt is owned by Japanese. But they never say why this fact should serve to keep interest rates down. Are the bond investors in Japan immune from wanting a higher rate from the Government if they can get it? I doubt it.
The austerians also say that if the Fed keeps the rates down, then one day US foreign creditors will demand higher returns. Well, they may demand them. But their choices are to buy the bonds, accept the lower interest rate the Fed pays on reserves in reserve accounts, invest in the US, or stop trading so much with us, so that our balance of trade improves and domestic labor markets can begin to come back with returning industries. Well, as they say, it’s all good for us. The choice they will not have is to get higher returns on Treasury Securities unless the Fed and the Treasury want them too. (Btw, this raises a question about the President’s budget. They have interest rates on 90 day Treasury Bills rising from 0.1% to 3.7% over the 10 year projection period. Their interest paid and deficit projections are based on that. But that won’t happen unless the Fed and Treasury allow it.)
So, for these two reasons, there are no legitimate solvency concerns for a nation like the US that has control over its currency including an unlimited ability to issue reserves. Since the whole case for austerity and long-term deficit reduction is that there is such a problem, then it seems like messaging against sequesters, debt ceiling crises, budgetary crises, austerity, and safety net cuts should lead with attempts to educate everyone to the fact that this is a false problem, and that the damage and suffering arising from austerity efforts both here and around the world is all in vain, unnecessary, and also immoral for that reason.
The Ultimate Pushback
My own anger at the “Grand Bargain” and other austerity measures is all the more acute because I know it is all unnecessary. So, I believe that to deliver the ultimate pushback, we need to persuade the majority of Americans that the President and other austerity partisans are in the process of inflicting needless damage on most Americans — on the young, the old, the under- and unemployed, the students, the foreclosed upon, the bankrupt, the sick, the poor, the middle class, and, in fact, on most everyone who will be victimized by unnecessary economic decline and stagnation in the once proud “land of opportunity.”
I think that the best way to persuade people that this is true is to tell the story of HVPCS and its ability to allow us to pay back the public debt and stop issuing any more, and then to describe the full implications of that. I’ve outlined what those implications are in my book linked to earlier. What’s important to emphasize here is that to the extent we can broadcast the HVPCS story from the rooftops over the next few months, the case justifying the “Grand Bargain” can be undermined at its core, because people will come to understand that it is the President’s choice to do the bargain, when a much less damaging course for all concerned is his to embrace.
Also, to the extent we can spread the message about HVPCS and the non-existent solvency problem, we can also strengthen ourselves for the next round in this fight. I don’t know whether the President can get his Grand Bargain; but I do know he’s been pushing for it since January 2010, at least. So, it’s pretty clear that he will keep pushing towards it in the future as the silly austerians have done in Europe, and as they are doing in most of the world. As we begin to widen the sphere of people questioning the need for long-term deficit reduction, we will see the anger against it grow, and we will develop the political support we need to end the “Grand Bargain” and other forms of austerity.
The President’s new budget (Table S-2 in the budget) projects no savings (costs to SS recipients) during 2013 and 2014. In 2015 the bite is $3 Billion relative to the current CPI; and in 2016, it is $8 Billion. So, we can get a new Congress to repeal the chained CPI, if we can elect one in 2014, and I’m sure the same is true for the “health savings” cuts, as well. We can make these repeals important goals for 2014, along with substantial increases to SS and the safety net, including Medicare for All. With HVPCS, the Government of the United States can afford all of this and much more.
In addition, to possibly blocking the Grand Bargain before it can be passed, or also repealing it and replacing it with a much stronger safety net, we can also make more and more people recognize; that President Obama’s “Grand Bargain” is no “legacy”, for which he ought to be fondly remembered, but the beginning of a curse on the rest of us for which he should live in infamy even greater than Herbert Hoover’s. For, at least we can say of President Hoover, that he was a caring man who knew no better than what he did to try to cope with the Great Depression.
But, in Mr. Obama’s case, he had the example of FDR and the period of largely Keynesian economic policy and low unemployment until the early 1970s to instruct him. And even though we are beyond Keynes now with Modern Money Theory (MMT), we can fairly say that our early Keynesian experiences should have taught him that austerity doesn’t produce jobs and end “long depressions” (h/t Richard Eskow), and that only very major and targeted job-creating deficit spending will do that.
All of which is to say that the ultimate pushback against the Grand Bargain is to use HVPCS to ruin Mr. Obama’s “legacy” by blocking it, or repealing it, and then making it well understood that it was not a legacy inspired by courage at all; but a curse inspired by ignorance and the cowardice of a man who would not choose a course open to him that would save the 99% unnecessary pain, because he was afraid of the noise and fury it would cause among those whose plans to weaken and eventually end the safety net were thwarted.