Author Archives: J.D. Alt

An American Budget

By J.D. ALT

Let’s imagine pulling together a group of enlightened economic planners to create an American budget for, say, the years 2020-2024. What might they come up with? To begin with, how might they even go about thinking about how to create an American budget?

It’s not so obvious as, for example, the way the Congressional Budget Office might go about it. The CBO would begin by tallying up how much money America’s government will have to spend in the years 2020-2024. Then they’d allocate those projected dollars to various pots of spending—with some calculation about what the spending needs will be for each pot. In the middle of this exercise, they’ll discover that the spending needs for the pots far exceed the number of dollars they’ve projected America’s government will have to spend. So, they’ll tweak the tax revenue numbers, projecting that economic growth in this or that sector will generate more tax collections for the government, and they’ll search for a bevy of cost-savings the government can garner by eliminating “wasteful” spending. Then they’ll repeat the allocation exercise and discover the projected available spending dollars are still far short of what they’ve calculated the pots will demand. Thus they will next have to calculate how many dollars the American government will have to borrow to make up the short-fall—and will have to further calculate how much that borrowing will add to the “national debt,” and how many years (projected into a distant future using imagined numbers for economic growth and future tax-rates) will it take for America to repay the debt. Then they’d publish all these numbers and Congress would blanche and fall into chaos and confusion. The political party out of power would declare the party in power to be “fiscally irresponsible,” driving the nation to bankruptcy, and the arguing would begin over which pots should be reduced or eliminated. Another day in the life of American politics courtesy of the Congressional Budget Office.

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MMT’s Opening

By J.D. ALT

I recently read in the WSJ that Modern Monetary Theory is defined as the proposition that the federal government can borrow as much money as it needs so long as the interest rate it pays is less than the growth rate of the GDP. The short article, by Desmond Lachman, went on to argue why this was a dangerously false premise. Thus, MMT got shot with two bullets in one paragraph: first by defining it in a way that negates its most fundamental principle (that the federal government doesn’t need to “borrow” fiat currency in order to spend fiat currency), and second, by declaring MMT to be not only false, but dangerous.

It’s remarkable how stubbornly tenacious mainstream economic thinking is about misunderstanding and fearing MMT. The fundamental belief that refuses to be shaken is that for a sovereign government to spend, it must first claim—either through taxation or borrowing—some portion of the profits of private commerce. This immediately sets in motion complex calculations about what percentage of those profits can be claimed for government spending before the profit-making capabilities of private commerce, itself, are harmed (because the capital that would otherwise be used for expansion, is being appropriated for government spending). When that point is reached, the calculations insistently predict, private commerce will cease to grow—perhaps even shrink—which perversely will then reduce the amount of currency available for the government to claim a portion of; if, under those circumstances, the government continues nevertheless to increase its spending (by insistently increasing its taxing or borrowing), private commerce will be driven to shrink even further, setting in motion a disastrous downward spiral. The calculations, in other words, are structured to demonstrate that government spending per se strangles the goose that lays the eggs—and, therefore, it is rational to argue that government spending should be limited, and specifically that it should not exceed some calculated percentage of GDP (which, of course, in most calculations of this sort, it already does)!

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Macroeconomic System for Climate Change

Macroeconomic System for Climate Change

A U.S. Patent Application

Inventor:  J.D. ALT (acknowledging all advocates of modern fiat money)

Assignment:  To all citizens of democratic free societies

Abstract:

A macroeconomic system including the issuing of a fiat currency by a sovereign government; the establishment of a tax regime on the government’s citizens wherein the taxes levied can only be paid with the sovereign government’s fiat currency; the sovereign government’s debiting of its tax collection account to purchase goods and services from its citizens and their commerce; the sovereign government’s issuing of future fiat currency certificates—to be redefined as “treasury bonds”—which it trades, at a discount, for existing fiat currency held in private financial markets; the sovereign government then spending the traded-for existing fiat currency to purchase goods and services from its citizens and their commerce over and above what it is able to purchase by debiting its tax collection account; the management of the value of the said fiat currency relative to goods and services by the general means of draining the currency from circulation through the sovereign tax regime—and by the specific means of controlling the discount and time-to-maturity of the issued future fiat currency certificates (treasury bonds); and wherein the sovereign government’s spending is thereby enabled to be orders-of-magnitude greater than what the government collects in taxes—without encumbering the government with debt, and without devaluing the fiat currency with respect to the citizens’ commerce; said macroeconomic system thus enabling a sovereign government to spend whatever fiat currency is necessary to enable and assist its collective society to mitigate and adapt to climate-change. Continue reading

Let’s Rebuild Mexico Beach

By J.D. ALT

It’s telling that in the media coverage about the damage inflicted by Hurricane Michael, there are a lot of stories about how the citizens of Mexico Beach would like to rebuild their town, but no stories at all about how they might be enabled to do that. Only the opposite: why it’s going to be virtually impossible for Mexico Beach to ever be Mexico Beach again. Why is that?

One reason: These were modest structures in a modest town, paid for with modest, working-class incomes. They cannot be rebuilt as modest structures. If they are to be rebuilt at all, they will have to be elevated, heavier, stronger, laterally-braced and deeply rooted. Replacement costs will likely be on the order of $2 for every $1 of value they might have been insured for. That’s an expenditure few of the Mexico Beach citizenry can afford.

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FUTURE DOLLARS

By J.D. ALT

In recent essays I’ve made reference to a new framing of what is actually happening when the U.S. treasury issues a bond. It seems to me, this new framing goes to the heart of MMT and might well hold the key to a practical implementation of MMT principles in real world applications. The framing is this:

A U.S. treasury bond is a certificate of issuance of future dollars.

I will expand on this in a moment, but first it is important to say what this framing says a treasury bond is NOT:

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CHANGE THE SUBJECT

By J.D. ALT

So, I will now, once again, court blushing naivete….

In the middle of a contemplative walk—during which, I confess, I was imagining with enthusiasm how the Democrats might extract revenge should they win the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections (hearings and subpoenas relating to the FBI “investigation” of Brett Kavanaugh, subpoenas for Donald Trump’s tax returns, drawing up articles of impeachment, etc.)—I was suddenly struck by the realization of what a terrible mistake it would be to do any of that.

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Miscalculating Medicare-for-all

By J.D. ALT

A report from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University calculating the “cost” of Medicare-for-all has received much attention recently—first, because Bernie Sanders claimed the report concluded that Medicare-for-all would save the American people $2 trillion over a 10-year period. That claim was still warm when the report’s author, Charles Blahous, told the Washington Post that Bernie’s interpretation of the report’s conclusions were blatantly false. In fact, Blahous told the Post, he posited that savings scenario based on a set of assumptions which he subsequently proved were so highly unlikely as to be impossible.

The real conclusion of his report, Blahous said, was that Medicare-for-all will “raise government expenditures by $32.6 trillion” in the first decade—or, about $3.3 trillion per year. Blahous went on to say this: “For perspective on these figures, consider that doubling all currently projected federal individual and corporate income tax collections would be insufficient to finance the added federal costs of the plan.”

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How big does the fire need to be?

By J.D. ALT

I have written about this before, but it bears repeating now—and perhaps it bears repeating every week until somebody with more leverage than me picks the message up and carries it a step further: America (and the rest of the world, for that matter) has the resources needed to limit and mitigate the enormous damage and dislocations that climate-change is now beginning to impose. The “resources” I’m referring to are not dollars. They are materiel, labor, and human ingenuity. The only question is how and when we’ll stop simply raising warning flags and marshal those resources to take real action against the growing challenges.

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The Explicable Mystery of the National Debt

By J.D. ALT

America’s current “national debt” is tallied to be $21.5 trillion. When politicians and economic pundits talk (worry, fret, wring their hands, gnash their teeth) about this “debt” they implicitly assume—along with their listeners, readers, and potential voters—that this fantastic sum will eventually have to be paid back. That’s what happens with debts, right? Someone calls them due! Everyone also assumes the American tax-payer will have to do the paying. (Quick calculation to save you the trouble: Each one of us is in hock for $65,950!)

Depending on which political football is being tossed around, this “national debt” is either a crisis that must be addressed first (before anything else can be paid for!) or it’s something we can simply ignore for the time being—until the promised “economic growth” comes along that will somehow enable the federal government to collect that extra $65K from each of us. So long as we promise that Yes! someday we’ll pay it off, we can feel okay about going one more day, or month, or year without even starting to do so. In the meantime, of course, the “national debt” somehow keeps growing! At least that must stop, we declare! Our government must stop borrowing even more!

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The Five Stages of Money (and why we’re stuck at stage 4)

By J.D. ALT

Like everything else, money has evolved. It began in a primitive form and morphed into something more sophisticated, more successful. Then, probing and testing for an even better form, it morphed again. A simplified history of money’s evolution can be outlined in five stages:

STAGE 1: Money is a tangible thing of value—e.g. a gold coin.

At some point in the pre-history of humankind, the “invention” of money solved a time-gap problem in cooperative trade: I’ll give you my baby goat in exchange for your flint-knife—but you have not yet made the knife, so the exchange is stymied. To solve the impasse, you give me a token of gold to temporarily stand in place of the flint-knife, so you can take my baby goat. The gold token is a promise that the knife will be delivered, and that promise is secured by the fact that the gold itself is deemed equally valuable as the knife. In the meantime, I may find someone else with a flint-knife already made who will exchange it for the gold, thus completing the trade. The invention of this place-holder transformed the cooperative trade interactions of human society.

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