Monthly Archives: July 2011


So the Telenovela trick worked: many good comments and questions, with no one destroying the plot line.
Let me briefly address them by grouping them into six general areas. And then on Monday we will give an answer to the question: why would anyone accept a sovereign currency? On the comments page I already addressed two questions so will not repeat my answers to those here.

  1. Can gold be money? No. Never. If gold could be money, why not silver? Copper? Coconuts? Fish? Domestic services? A fuller answer will have to wait. In my view, money can never be a “commodity”. For our economistic friends, recall the line from Clower: “goods buy money, money buys goods, but goods never buy goods.” If a commodity could be money, we have a case of “goods buying goods”. There is not, never has been, such a thing as a “commodity money”.
  2. Money is a “custom”, “law”, “norm”, “rule”. Ok, not specific enough for my taste. What is the nature of that custom, law, norm, rule? I do think that referring to “law” is on the right track. In my view, “custom”, “norm”, “rule” does not pin it down. This should be clear from the blogs I have posted the last two weeks. (Hint: why did I use the term “sovereignty”?) Veblen skewered the “leisure class” for its customs and norms—I love his explanation of the development of the custom of growing long fingernails (mostly, but not exclusively, on women—to prove that one is not and cannot be productive). These things are important. But they do not shed much light on money. Laws? Yes, you are getting hot (remember the game you played with your mum?–hide the thimble). But not legal tender laws—nothing but a “pious wish”, as Knapp put it.
  3. Why would those outside the US be willing to use dollars? Very good question. And, yes, it is related to a wish to “join the party” put on by the biggest economy in the world. But it really does beg the question, no? Certainly it must be related to willingness of Americans to accept dollars. But we do not want a “hot potato” or “infinite regress” argument (which Ramanan accuses us of, continuing to misstate the MMT position—her/his “MO”, unfortunately, and she/he does know better). So….why do Americans want dollars? Ah, yes, that is the question.
  4. Are all debts denominated in money, such as the schoolyard debts amongst children? No. For an excellent, and I mean really, truly excellent, book on debt broadly defined, please read Margaret Atwood’s “Payback: debt and the shadow side of wealth”. She documents that chimps keep careful records of debts and credits. If Chimp A helps defend me against an attack but I do not “payback” next time Chimp A is attacked, I cannot count on her when I need help. Yes, we are cousins of chimps, and yes we keep careful track of debts and credits. But many or most of these are not denominated in money terms. So far as we know, Chimps have never come up with the concept of a unit of account. But remember, if a chimp does you a favor, you’d better pay up.
  5. Does it have something to do with accounting systems of credits and debits, denominated in dollars? Bingo. We are onto something here. Credits and debits. Measured in a money of account. Keep that in mind for next week. Ponder this: if currency is related to the sovereign government, what debit/credit relation do we have with that sovereign? Remember the chimps. What do we owe our sovereign chimp?
  6. Soddy: the value of money is determined by the wealth given up when money is accepted. Except for some unfortunate terminology, we’ve again “struck gold”. The value of a currency depends on what we have to “give up” to get it. Be careful here—the value of the currency is not quite the same thing as willingness to accept it. Just because I am willing to accept a currency does not determine its value. “What am I willing to do to obtain it?” That is not the same as: “Why am I willing to accept it?” (Soddy was brilliant and came up with the Soddy principle: debts tend to grow faster than incomes due to compound interest, which is why we need the Year of Jubilee when all debts are forgiven. But we adopted the Roman view of time—abandoning the circular view of time that all previous societies accepted—so that we can never “go back”, debts can never be forgiven because property rights are sacrosanct, including the creditor’s right to squeeze blood out of an orange. So we have to have bankruptcy court, debtor’s prisons, and IMF sanctions. Ain’t Roman civilization grand?)  So I need dollars (why?) and am willing to “give up something” to get them (how much?). Those, as our Hamlet might say, are the key questions about money: why, and how much?

OK, so the suspense is killing you. Four long days to wait for the answer to be revealed. Plot spoilers: go ahead and do your damage.

Scott Sumner Agrees that MMT Policy Proposals Are Not Inflationary

By Scott Fullwiler
Scott Sumner sets out to debunk theories of the price level not based on a form of the quantity theory of money, and lumps MMT in with those approaches that “deny open market purchases are inflationary, because you are just exchanging one form of government debt for another.” While this is true, what’s interesting is that from within Sumner’s own paradigm, MMT-related proposals should not be inflationary. This is clear right off the bat when he lists his first “qualifier” or exception to the quantity theory:

  1. If the new base money is interest-bearing reserves, I fully agree that OMOs may not be inflationary.  That’s exchanging one type of debt for another.

And that is about all we need to hear. As we’ve said probably gazillions of times, you can’t have discretionary open market operations beyond that which is consistent with the Fed achieving its federal funds rate target unless an interest-bearing alternative to reserve balances is offered. Traditionally, this has been Treasury securities issued by the Treasury or sold by the Fed. The only way to leave all the reserve balances circulating and achieve a positive interest rate target at the same time would be to pay interest on reserve balances.
For instance, later, when Sumner writes, “Now suppose that in 2007 the US monetized the entire net debt, exchanging $6 trillion in non-interest bearing base money for T-securities,” hopefully he realizes that this is not operationally possible without paying interest at the target rate on the excess reserve balances created unless the Fed wanted to have a zero-rate target.

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Coin Seigniorage: A Legal Alternative and Maybe the President’s Duty

By Joe Firestone
(Cross-posted from

(Author’s Note; Many thanks to lambert strether, beowulf, and Yves Smith for their reviews of this post)

Well, the debt limit crisis is upon us. Treasury Secretary Geithner says the US Government will not be able to meet all its obligations on August 3, unless the debt ceiling is increased by Congress. The Secretary says he is out of moves to extend this date. I don’t think that’s true. I think he can use proof platinum coin seigniorage to supply all the money needed to spend Congressional Appropriations. I do not know if the Administration knows about this idea yet. It may, and it may simply have been unwilling to mention it for its own reasons. But just in case it doesn’t know, and also for the sake of the rest of us, I’m making another attempt to state the case for using coin seigniorage, so that as many people as possible know that the President has an alternative to the “shock doctrine,” make a deal approach to cutting essential spending and services including the social safety net, in return for getting $2.6 Trillion more in debt issuance authority.

The idea of using coin seigniorage to remove the need for issuing debt, and so to always stay under the debt ceiling is due to a commenter (and occasional blogger) on economics and politics blogs whose screen name is beowulf. He first presented the idea in comments and then posted the seminal blog on coin seigniorage.

Throughout the next six months, a number of other posts appeared at various sites (See here for links) with increasing frequency as the debt limit problem received more attention.

In the last few days, as coin seigniorage itself climbed up the hierarchy of public awareness, Felix Salmon and Matt Yglesias, both well-respected, mainstream, and professional bloggers, have mentioned the proposal while taking issue with it for reasons I’ll analyze below. Before, I do that however, here’s what’s involved in proof platinum coin seigniorage,

Congress provided the authority, in legislation passed in 1996, for the US Mint to create platinum bullion or proof platinum coins with arbitrary fiat face value having no relationship to the value of the platinum used in these coins. These coins are legal tender. So, when the Mint deposits them in its Public Enterprise Fund account at the Fed, the Fed must credit that account with the face value of these coins. This difference between the Mint’s costs in producing the coins and the credit provided by the Fed is the US Mint’s profit. The US code also provides for the Treasury to periodically “sweep” the Mint’s account at the Federal Reserve Bank for profits earned from these coins. Coin seigniorage is just the profits from these coins, which are then booked as miscellaneous receipts (revenue) to the Treasury and go into the Treasury General Account (TGA), narrowing the revenue gap between spending and tax revenues. Platinum coins with huge face values e.g. $2 Trillion, could close the revenue gap entirely, and technically end deficit spending, while still retaining the gap between tax revenues and spending.

Recent Comments from the Mainstream

Here’s Felix Salmon’s treatment at Reuter’s:

Even if Treasury can still sell bonds, however, that doesn’t mean for a minute that breaching the debt ceiling is something which should be considered possible for the purposes of the current negotiation. Tools like the 14th Amendment or even crazier loopholes like coin seignorage would be signs of the utter failure of the US political system and civil society. And that alone could mean the loss of America’s status as a safe haven and a reserve currency. The present value of such a loss? Much bigger than $2 trillion. (Coin seignorage, if you’re wondering, is the right that Treasury has to mint a couple of one-ounce, $1 trillion coins and deposit those coins in its account at the New York Fed. It could then withdraw cash from that Fed account to make all the payments it wanted.)

Felix Salmon does give an acceptable one sentence overview of the proposal, but doesn’t make clear that there could be even a single coin (not a “couple of coins”) of arbitrary value produced by the US Mint. More importantly, he doesn’t make clear why using coin seigniorage would be a sign “. . . of the utter failure of the US political system and civil society,” or why using it would be “. . . breaching the debt ceiling.” He also doesn’t say why he lumps in a 14th Amendment challenge to the debt ceiling with coin seigniorage as crazy ideas.

Addressing these points one by one, first, it’s true that the Congress hasn’t been able to come to agreement on the debt ceiling, but it’s hard to see why this is a sign of “the utter failure” . . . “of civil society.” Even more, the US political system has provided the tool of coin seigniorage as a legal, if not customary, way of generating revenue in addition to taxing and borrowing. Why does this count as “crazier” idea or a failure of the political system? From my point of view the only failure here is the President’s in not using coin seigniorage, or perhaps not yet even knowing about it. But if this is a failure, I don’t see that it’s a systemic one as much as it is a failure of this Administration to look for alternative views that go beyond its own knowledge and imagination.

Second, it’s hard to see why using coin seigniorage would be “breaching the debt ceiling.” Certainly, challenging the Constitutionality of the debt ceiling and overturning the legislation mandating it might be described as “breaching” it. Also, just ignoring it on grounds that it is unconstitutional might be described in the same way. However, using proof platinum coin seigniorage with very high face value coins just spends Congressional appropriations, including paying down debt so that it’s way below the debt ceiling, or even completely eliminated, using perfectly legal means. It’s hard to see how this can be legitimately described as “breaching the debt ceiling.”

And, third, why does Felix Salmon think that using coin seigniorage “. . . could mean the loss of America’s status as a safe haven and a reserve currency. ” Why should a demonstration, using coin seigniorage, of the Treasury’s power to meet US obligations even when Congress is in deadlock, lead to a loss of confidence, making investment in the US look any more dangerous than it is at present, or disturbing the status of the US dollar as the reserve currency? Surely if Felix Salmon wants to make such a serious charge he should at least give readers his reasoning.

It is possible that if coin seigniorage were used on a continuing basis to close the gap between taxes and spending, then US Treasuries would no longer be a safe haven for investing USD reserves, simply because, if no more debt is issued, then no investment in Treasuries is possible. But even if that happened, a low level of interest paid by the Fed on USD reserves would still leave US dollar reserves as safe a haven for holding “risk-free” US financial assets as short-term Treasuries are right now.

It is also hard to see why coin seigniorage, if used, would interfere with the status of USD as the reserve currency. Why should it, since continuous use of seigniorage would result in gradually eliminating the national debt? And what other reserve currency would the world use? The UK pound? The Euro, with its great potential instability? The Yuan, which if it became the reserve currency would force China to give up its peg to the Dollar and to even acquire a bit of a disadvantage in trading with us? What about the Yen? Sounds OK to me, but the world seems convinced that Japan, with its 200% debt-to-GDP ratio might have runaway inflation anytime now. So, will the world take the Yen? Probably not.

What about a market basket of freely floating currencies? Well, that would be fine, but it’s hard to see how that would disadvantage us or cost us $2 Trillion. I also wonder where Felix Salmon got that estimate from. Also, is the $2Trillion an interest cost, a reduction in GDP? Is it over one year, or a decade? Isn’t it a fact, that being the reserve currency costs us exports and jobs? How does that get factored into Salmon’s $2 Trillion cost of not being the reserve currency?

Matt Yglesias is the second popular blogger mentioning coin seigniorage last week. Matt says:

This is an idea that’s circulating in Modern Monetary Theory circles, and I believe that it’s legally mistaken.

Perhaps it is. But don’t you owe it to readers to tell them why?

That said, conceptually it highlights a very accurate point. If you think of the United States government as a consolidated entity, it’s not possible for us to “run out of money” or “go bankrupt.” The government of Ireland owes euros, but it lacks the legal authority to create Euros. Governments of small developing countries often owe dollars, but lack the legal authority to create dollars. Under a gold standard, a government might owe gold and lack the physical capacity to create it. But the United States is owed dollars, and can create dollars, so it’s absurd to think that we might not be able to pay our bills.

Matt understands this very basic point of MMT, and that puts him miles ahead of most who pronounce on solvency. But it’s also important to emphasize that Governments like our own can become insolvent voluntarily. That is, if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling, or if, in the event they fail, the President fails to use coin seigniorage or another Treasury tool to create a positive balance in the Treasury General Account (TGA) at the Fed, then we can become voluntarily insolvent – a self-inflicted wound caused by a collective failure to understand our fiat currency and monetary system.

Now what might happen is that people lose willingness to lend us dollars in the future. We also might have inflation. Money was lent in the past on the assumption that dollars would be able to purchase real goods and services. Monetization of debt would reduce the real purchasing power of dollars, and might call into question the wisdom of agreeing to lend dollars in the future. But these are different issues.

First, if, as Matt recognizes, we can’t “run out of money” then why do we need people to lend us our own currency in the future? Why can’t we use coin seigniorage indefinitely for “deficit spending?” (From a technical point of view continuous use of proof platinum coin seigniorage would end deficit spending because it would close the gap between spending and taxes with miscellaneous receipts, a class of revenue. However, the gap between taxes and spending would remain and that “deficit” represents a surplus for the non-Government sector.) If we did that we’d avoid, as time went on, most spending on interest costs projected by CBO over the next 10 years. Indeed, if we project out to 15 years based on CBO 10-year numbers, we’d avoid nearly $12 Trillion in projected interest costs. Why borrow our own money back at all? The answer is we don’t need to. So, we don’t really have to care whether people want to lend us back our own money, or not.

Second, why would coin seigniorage in itself cause inflation? Coin seigniorage creates money to spend Congressional appropriations. As long as those appropriations are not so great that they exceed the potential productive capacity of our economy — and right now our output gap is around 30%, and there is no sign of Congress deciding to spend enough to close that gap — there will be no demand-pull inflation.

Would there be cost-push inflation? Not from coin seigniorage. The coins would just go into a Fed vault forever, and again the spending will be only what Congress appropriates. Coin seignorage will add to aggregate demand whenever spending exceeds taxes; but it will not cause cost-push inflation. That is caused by suppliers or speculators who are distorting markets. And the remedy for that is criminal investigations, price controls, rationing, and a thoroughgoing belief that markets must be very closely regulated by independent adversarial enforcers if they are to remain free.

Third, “money was lent in the past on the assumption that dollars would be able to purchase goods and services in the future.” But, again, why should the simple fact of using coin seigniorage debase the currency? Matt needs to explain the transmission mechanism from using seigniorage to spend Congressional appropriations and pay down debt, to currency debasement. Saying that “we also might have inflation” is easy. But one really has to show that the likelihood of inflation is greater if we use coin seigniorage than it is if we issue more debt instead. My view is good luck with that, because there are very good reasons for thinking that coin seigniorage would actually be less inflationary than issuing debt to close the gap between taxes and spending would be.

Fourth, “monetization” is a term that is frequently thrown around whenever the Government wants to use its Constitutional power to deficit spend and create money in the process. But “monetization of debt” has a strict meaning in modern economies. It refers to the purchase of debt instruments by the Central Bank from the Treasury. That wouldn’t be happening here.

Here’s how coin seignorage works: Legal tender, money, in the form of proof platinum coins, not legally viewed as debt, is being exchanged for USD credits in the US Mint’s Public Enterprise Fund account. The money goes into the Fed vaults, the USD credits go into the Mint’s account. The profits from seigniorage go into the TGA. This is an asset swap, between the Fed and the US Mint, of money in the form of a coin, for money in the form of bank reserves. Both sides of the swap are money; so there is no “monetization of debt” involved.

[UPDATE] I now think this might be legal after all, provided the coin is made of palladium.

Palladium coins won’t do; we need coins that can be legally given an arbitrarily high face value. The palladium coins are specified by Congress at $25 in face value. The platinum coins being discussed in the coin seigniorage proposal are proof platinum coins. The face value of these coins is arbitrary and has nothing to with the value of the metal. Platinum proof coins are strictly fiat money, and they can have as a large a face value as the Mint likes. Just like the USD reserves the Fed creates for quantitative easing, or to increase the money supply.

So, after months of blogging, commenting, and tweeting about the coin seigniorage option, it seems that enough activity has been generated in the blogo- and twitter-spheres to have attracted at least the passing attention of well-respected bloggers such as Felix Salmon and Matt Yglesias. It’s pretty clear from my analysis, however, that both of them are offering conclusions about coin seigniorage that aren’t based on careful analysis of the literature that’s developed on the subject.

Put simply, they don’t seem to have thought things through, and they don’t seem to be in a position to guide their readers in learning about the coin seigniorage option. It’s good that they’ve recognized that coin seignorage is, at least, analytically sound enough to merit attempted refutation, and have opened the door to discussion of it in the wider discourse. Thanks to both of them for that, and especially to Matt for pointing out that involuntary solvency isn’t a problem for the US. Exposure for a policy proposal is always better than just continued burial in the non-visible portion of the blogosphere. Nevertheless, it would be so much better for all of us if well-known bloggers who take up a new proposal would investigate it with care before they pronounce a verdict on it.

What harm would have been done if Felix Salmon and Matt Yglesias had just mentioned coin seigniorage and admitted that they still had to research it before deciding on whether it would work, and that they were keeping an open mind pending that research? Certainly, the potential of coin seigniorage as a solution to our revenue problem merits that kind of consideration. How important is it?

The Importance of Coin Seigniorage to the President

I’ll end this post by showing how important it is through an examination of our present situation with respect to the debt ceiling and the potential obligation of the President to use coin seigniorage to cope with it.

1. Congress has appropriated Federal spending for FY 2011 which the Executive is mandated to spend.

2. These appropriations exceed the tax revenue the Government is collecting. This was expected at the time the appropriations were passed. So Congress appropriated deficit spending.

3. Congress has mandated that whenever the Government plans to deficit spend, it must first issue and sell debt instruments in an amount a least equal to the planned deficit spending. In this connection, the Treasury is prohibited from having an overdraft in its TGA at the Federal Reserve Bank.

4. Congress has mandated a debt limit such that the Administration must stop issuing debt when that limit is reached. (The limit was reached in early May). Given the Congressional requirement that deficit spending must be accompanied by debt issuance, the debt limit, in the absence of other countervailing factors puts a stop to deficit spending, until the limit is increased. There is a very important countervailing factor. But it is not recognized or used. So, for the moment, at least, the debt limit has stopped any further deficit spending

5. The 14th Amendment, section 4, requires that the validity of the “debts” (broadly construed) of the United States never be questioned, and since the President has sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution, he is obligated to do all he can to see to it that these “debts” are paid. In fact, he’s obligated to see to it that these debts aren’t even “questioned.” His suggestion that Social Security and other key payments won’t be made on August 3, isn’t living up to his obligations. Of course, he’s not alone in this, since many law makers have been warning about the likelihood of a default for many months now.

6. Congress has provided the authority, in legislation passed in 1996, for the US Mint to create platinum bullion or proof platinum coins with arbitrary fiat face value having no relationship to the value of the platinum used in these coins. The US code also provides for the Treasury periodically sweeping the Mint’s account at the Federal Reserve Bank for profits earned from coin seigniorage. These profits are then booked as miscellaneous receipts (revenue) to the Treasury and go into the TGA, narrowing the revenue gap between spending and tax revenues. Platinum coins with huge face values e.g. $2 Trillion, would close the revenue gap entirely, and technically end deficit spending, while still retaining the gap between tax revenues and spending.

7. If used routinely to close the revenue gap, such coin seigniorage would eventually reduce the national debt to zero, and remove it as an issue in US politics. In addition, the existence of platinum coin seigniorage as an option, removes the tension between the mandated debt ceiling and the 14th Amendment. It is the countervailing factor I mentioned earlier, because it provides a way to spend Congressional appropriations without issuing further debt.

8. The President has sworn to uphold both the Constitution, which prohibits a default, and also the laws of the United States including the mandates just mentioned.

9. These mandates, along with the platinum proof coin seigniorage authority, make using seigniorage, or another option like it that allows the Treasury to create revenue without either taxing or borrowing, the only viable options to: continue spending appropriations without violating the debt limit; fulfill all the other mandates, both legal and constitutional; and still be able to spend the money Congress has appropriated.

10. So, if no action by Congress raising the debt limit is forthcoming, it will be the President’s sworn DUTY AND OBLIGATION to either use platinum coin seigniorage, or some other revenue creating tool legislated by Congress in past years, to make the money necessary to avoid default, since his failure to use an available way of creating revenue for continuing to spend appropriations, which he is mandated to do, would be a violation of his oath of office.

So, coin seigniorage isn’t some crazy idea. Instead, it is a legal instrument that the President may, depending on how things work out, have to use in a bit more than two weeks to comply with his oath of office. It may be the only way for him to avoid breaching one of the laws which he is supposed to enforce. As such, it has to be taken seriously, and treated with more than just a few dismissive conclusions, accompanied by a lack of explanation.

Many writers on the current debt ceiling crisis have been taking the view that the 14th Amendment constitutional challenge route is the best thing for the President to do if there is no agreement on the debt ceiling. In e-mail communication yesterday, beowulf offered the following opinion on why this will not work, given the existence of coin seigniorage.

. . . No federal judge — Supreme Court justices included — will take the extraordinary step of enjoining an Act of Congress if the President who asks them to had an opportunity to sidestep the constitutional issue lawfully but neglected to do so. . . . .

. . . The moral of the story is if the Court thinks there is no alternative to breaching the debt ceiling, it probably would find it unconstitutional (or rather, it would decline to hear the case on Standing grounds, leaving the President’s decision to ignore the debt ceiling in place). On the other hand, if the Court thinks the President had a lawful alternative– like coin seigniorage– but neglected to use it, they’re not going to bail him out.

This argument is compelling to me given the history of the Court. The Court defers to the legislature if it possibly can, and prefers the President to avoid constitutional challenges if he has a means of doing so. In this case, he does, and the means is platinum coin seigniorage.

Appendix: The Coin Seigniorage Idea in the Blogosphere

The idea of using coin seigniorage, the profits made from minting proof platinum coins, depositing them at the Fed, and receiving electronic credits in return, to remove the need for issuing debt, and so to always stay under the debt ceiling is due to a commenter (and occasional blogger) on economics and politics blogs whose screen name is beowulf. The first comment of beowulf’s I noticed on coin seigniorage was at New Deal 2.0 and I mentioned his proposal in a post I did on a possible Government shutdown due to the debt ceiling a couple of weeks later.

Beowulf continued his work on the coin seigniorage proposal as the weeks went by in various comments made at blog sites such as this one at FDL. We also began to exchange messages on coin seigniorage. On January 3, 2011, he posted the seminal blog on coin seigniorage. I followed two days later, raising the question of whether President Obama would use it to forestall an attempt to use the debt ceiling to extract cuts in the social safety net or not.

These posts were noticed by Warren Mosler, one of the originators of the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) approach to economics, who sponsored what turned out to be a wide-ranging and very high quality discussion of the coin seigniorage option at his site. Beowulf contributed extensively and very creatively to this discussion, which remains one of the most important resources on the coin seigniorage option.

Throughout the next six months, I pushed coin seigniorage in blog posts at Correntewire, FDL, and DailyKos from time-to-time and in comments at various sites. Then, in late June and July a spate of posts on seigniorage appeared beginning, I think, with wigwam’s at FDL and DailyKos. He’s followed up since with a number of other posts including this one with a variation on how coin seigniorage might be applied by buying $2 Trillion in debt from the Fed to create “head room” relative to the debt limit. Other important posts have appeared this month by Mahilena, DC Blogger, Cullen Roche, Scott Fullwiler, and Trader’s Crucible. Accompanying the last two are extensive discussions of coin seigniorage and constitutionality of the debt ceiling with contributions from beowulf. Scott’s post also received extensive discussion with beowulf contributing at Cullen’s site. In addition, I’ve added two of my own posts, another on the President’s obligation, if no agreement on the debt ceiling is forthcoming.

So, the proposal to use coin seigniorage to both comply with the debt ceiling and still spend Congressional appropriations has by now enjoyed the support of a growing number of bloggers. It has also received a great deal of discussion; receiving 246 comments at Warren Mosler’s site; 206 comments spread over two post’s at Cullen Roche’s site, and 89 comments at Naked Capitalism. Readers checking out these discussions can see that the coin seignorage proposal has stood up very well to some very aggressive and forthright criticism.

(Cross-posted from

Council of Economic Advisors’ Annual Reports 2005-2007: No Crisis Here

By William K. Black
* Cross-posted from Benziga

I decided to look at what President Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) were saying in their annual reports for 2005-2007 about the massive real estate bubble, epidemic of accounting control fraud and mortgage fraud, the resultant rapidly developing financial crisis, and the great increase in economic inequality.  Here’s what I found on these topics.
CEA Annual Report for 2005
N. Gregory Mankiw chaired the CEA.

Home ownership reached a record 69%.  Home prices were surging.  No discussion of the developing bubble.  The CEA was enthused by the housing sector. 

No mention of subprime or nonprime loans (or any variants, e.g., stated income).

There was no discussion of financial institutions’ risk.

There was no mention of Fannie or Freddie.

No mention of the FBI’s September 2004 warning that there was an “epidemic” of mortgage fraud or the FBI’s prediction that the fraud would cause a financial “crisis” if it were not stopped.  No mention of mortgage fraud.

The report contained an extensive discussion of Internet frauds.

No use of the term “inequality,” but discussion of some of the factors increasing inequality.  It does not discuss the perverse incentives arising from executive compensation tied to short-term reported firm income.  

CEA Annual Report for 2006
No CEA chair listed because no replacement was in place after Bernanke’s resignation when he was appointed as the Fed’s Chair.

“During the past five years, home prices have risen at an annual rate of 9.2 percent.”  The report argues that this was driven by increased demand and lower financing costs.  It does not use the word “bubble,” but it argues that there is no bubble.

No mention of subprime or nonprime loans (or variants).

Chapter 9 of the report is devoted to financial institutions.  The CEA argues that the U.S. has a “comparative advantage” in financial services.  It premises its analysis of financial institutions on information asymmetries.  It has a glaring false tone at the start of this discussion when it asks: “why do [banks] ask for so much information before making a loan….?  By early 2006, of course, the striking change was how little information banks verified.  The CEA explains the concepts of adverse selection, moral hazard.  The explanation is critically flawed in that it ignores fraud despite the fact that adverse selection and moral hazard are exceptionally criminogenic.  Again, the CEA ignores the FBI’s warnings of the growing mortgage fraud epidemic and ignores the risk of accounting control fraud by financial institutions and their agents.  It notes that banks can take steps that are known to minimize adverse selection and moral hazard, but ignores the vital fact that the officers that controlled the nonprime lenders typically refused to take such steps (even though any honest businessman would do so) and that nonprime lending was vast and growing rapidly. 

The CEA’s discussion of these topics is bizarre – it fails to recognize or address the implications of the fact that nonprime lenders are acting in a manner directly contrary to the economy theory the CEA argues explains why financial intermediaries exist.  Under the CEA’s theories, the actions of the nonprime lenders are rational only for accounting control frauds.  In conjunction with the FBI’s 2004 warnings that the growing fraud epidemic would cause a financial crisis this should have caused the CEA to issue a stark warning.  Instead, the discussion is triumphal.  The CEA even sees the tremendous increase in GDP devoted to the financial sector as desirable – proof that the U.S. has a “comparative advantage” in finance over the rest of the world.  The CEA then claims that this advantage leads to exceptional U.S. growth and stability, helping to produce the “Great Moderation.”  Deregulation and the rise of financial derivatives explain our comparative advantage in finance, the Great Moderation, and our superior economic growth.  This self-congratulatory dementia achieves self-parody when the CEA lauds “cash-out-mortgage refinancing” for purportedly having “moderate[d] economic fluctuations.”  The CEA’s discussion of “safety and soundness” regulation is overwhelmingly a highly generalized description of Basel I and II.          

Chapter 9 discusses the need to combat identity fraud as one of its prime (and rare) examples of desirable forms of consumer protection, but it primarily emphasizes the dangers of consumer protection regulation and attacks the (repealed) Glass-Steagall Act. 

Chapter 9 discusses Fannie and Freddie and their systemic risk.  More precisely, it assumes that the systemic risk arises from prepayment risk – not credit risk.  Accordingly, it explains that the administration wants Fannie and Freddie to expand their securitization of lower credit quality home loans (“for a wider range of mortgages”) while decreasing the number of home loans Fannie and Freddie hold in portfolio so that they can reduce their prepayment risk.   

The report uses the term “inequality” and ascribes the growing inequality overwhelmingly to the distribution of skills.  It does not discuss the perverse incentives arising from executive compensation tied to short-term reported firm income.   
CEA Annual Report for 2007
Edward P. Lazear, CEA Chair.

The report does not mention the word “bubble” and continues to argue that the price increases in housing are due to rising demand for housing and lower financing costs.  The CEA claims that the growth in home prices during the decade was “modest” in most metropolitan areas.  The growth in most metropolitan areas was materially faster than GDP and population growth.  The report admits that all housing indices fell sharply in 2006, but stresses that unemployment is falling and claims that the fall in housing may increase growth in other sectors by reducing “crowding out” effects in private investment.  
The report does not mention mortgage fraud or accounting control fraud by lenders and their agents.  It mentions fraud in two contexts.  First, it states that it is possible that regulation could reduce fraud with respect to disaster insurance.  Second, it notes that fraudulent papers can make it difficult for employers to avoid hiring undocumented immigrants.

No mention of subprime or nonprime loans (or variants).

The report does not mention Fannie or Freddie.

The report uses the term “inequality” and ascribes the growing inequality overwhelmingly to the distribution of skills.  It does not discuss the perverse incentives arising from executive compensation tied to short-term reported firm income.  
During the key period 2005-2007 when the epidemic of mortgage fraud driven by the accounting control frauds hyper-inflated the bubble and set the stage for the Great Recession the President’s Council of Economic Advisors were oblivious to the developing fraud epidemics, bubble, and the grave financial crisis they made inevitable absent urgent intervention by the regulators and prosecutors.  President Bush’s economists in this era were blind to the factors that were making the financial environment so criminogenic (e.g., deregulation, desupervision, and de facto decriminalization plus grotesquely perverse executive and professional compensation).  They typically did not make any relevant policy advice and when they did it was the worst possible advice warning of the grave dangers of regulations designed to reduce adverse selection.  They were so blind that they did not even find it worthy of reporting that there were over a million “liar’s” loans being made annually.

The only CEA report that even attempted to address financial regulation discussed a theoclassical fantasy world that bore increasingly little relationship to the reality of nonprime mortgage lending.  The tragedy is that “adverse selection” and lemon’s markets are superb building blocks for analyzing the frauds that drove the crisis and for understanding why only liars make a business out of making liar’s loans in the mortgage context.  The CEA did not warn of any credit risk at Fannie and Freddie.  Indeed, it urged them to make more loans to weaker credit risks as long as they securitized the loans.  Securitization would not have reduced Fannie and Freddie’s credit risk.


Last week we introduced the concept of a sovereign currency. When I first started teaching, most students thought the US Dollar had gold backing—that it was valuable because Fort Knox was filled with gold, and if they drove to the Fort with a stash of cash, they could load up their car trunks with gold. (They were shocked to find out there had not been any gold backing since they were babies.) Today, very few students entertain such beliefs—they have all learned that our currency is “fiat”—it has “nothing” backing it up. Well, maybe “something”—but we don’t necessarily want to see what is behind Alan Greenspan’s “curtain”:

So, this week, let us take a peek behind the currency. Is there anything there, other than the Fed Chairman’s—how shall we put it—family jewels?

What “backs up” domestic currency? There is, and historically has been, some confusion surrounding sovereign currency. For example, many policy makers and economists have had trouble understanding why the private sector would accept currency issued by government as it makes purchases.

Some have argued that it is necessary to “back up” a currency with a precious metal in order to ensure acceptance in payment. Historically, governments have sometimes maintained a reserve of gold or silver (or both) against domestic currency. It was thought that if the population could always return currency to the government to obtain precious metal instead, then currency would be accepted because it would be thought to be “as good as gold”. Sometimes the currency, itself, would contain precious metal—as in the case of gold coins. In the US, the Treasury did maintain gold reserves, in an amount equal to 25% of the value of the issued currency, through the 1960s (interestingly, American citizens were not allowed to trade currency for gold; only foreign holders of US currency could do so).

However, the US and most nations have long since abandoned this practice. And even with no gold backing, the US currency is still in high demand all over the world, so the view that currency needs precious metal backing is erroneous. We have moved on to what is called “fiat currency”—one that is not backed by reserves of precious metals. While some countries do explicitly back their currencies with reserves of a foreign currency (for example, a currency board arrangement in which the domestic currency is converted on demand at a specified exchange rate for US Dollars or some other currency), most governments issue a currency that is not “backed by” foreign currencies. In any case, we need to explain why a currency like the US Dollar can circulate without such “backing”.

Legal tender laws. One explanation that has been offered to explain acceptability of government “fiat” currency (that has no explicit promise to convert to gold or foreign currency) is legal tender laws. Historically, sovereign governments have enacted legislation requiring their currencies to be accepted in domestic payments. Indeed, paper currency issued in the US proclaims “this note is legal tender for all debts, public and private”; Canadian notes say “this note is legal tender”; and Australian paper currency reads “This Australian note is legal tender throughout Australia and its territories.” By contrast, the paper currency of the UK simply says “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of five pounds” (in the case of the five pound note). And the Euro paper currency makes no promises and has no legal tender laws requiring its use.

Further, throughout history there are many examples of governments that passed legal tender laws, but still could not create a demand for their currencies—which were not accepted in private payments, and sometimes even rejected in payment to government. (In some cases, the penalty for refusing to accept a king’s coin included the burning of a red hot coin into the forehead of the recalcitrant—indicating that without such extraordinary compulsion, the population refused to accept the sovereign’s currency.) Hence, there are currencies that readily circulate without any legal tender laws (such as the Euro) as well as currencies that were shunned even with legal tender laws. Further, as we know, the US Dollar circulates in a large number of countries in which it is not legal tender (and even in countries where its use is discouraged and perhaps even outlawed by the authorities). We conclude that legal tender laws, alone, cannot explain this.

If “modern money” is mostly not backed by foreign currency, and if it is accepted even without legal tender laws mandating its use, why is it accepted? It seems to be quite a puzzle. The typical answer provided in textbooks is that you will accept your national currency because you know others will accept it. In other words, it is accepted because it is accepted. The typical explanation thus relies on an “infinite regress”: John accepts it because he thinks Mary will accept it, and she accepts it because she thinks Walmart will probably take it. What a thin reed on which to hang monetary theory!

Personally, I’d be embarrassed to write that in my own textbook, or to try to convince a sceptical student that the only thing backing money is the “greater fool” or “hot potato” theory of money: I accept a dollar bill because I think I can pass it along to some dupe or dope.

Now, that is certainly true of counterfeit currency: I would take it only on the expectation that I could surreptitiously pass it along.

But I’m certainly not going to try to convince readers of this Primer of such a silly theory. Next week: a more convincing argument. See if you can anticipate the answer.

Like a good Mexican soap opera, we need to leave you hanging. I know many readers already know the answer, and you’ve got your hands high in the air, saying “call on me, I know the Butler did it”.

But remember that this is a Primer and not all of your classmates know the answer (yet). So, please don’t give away the plot line. In the comments, let us stick to the “gold standard” vs “fiat money” or “legal tender” and “hot potato” theories of money. I am sure we’ve got at least a few “goldbugs” out there. You probably cheered when Ron Paul asked Bernanke whether gold was money. Is gold money? Can it be money? If gold no longer backs money, why does the Fed hold it? Could a currency be backed by nothing more than “trust”—the expectation that someone, somewhere, will take it?

Have fun pondering.

We Can Still Do Big Things

By Mitch Green

President Obama is fond of reminding us that, as Americans, we can still do “big things.” Indeed we can do big things, but will we? At a passing glance, in a moment’s earshot, the President’s sentiment seems encouraging. That is, until you appreciate the extent to which he has committed himself to applying that rhetorical device to the task of large-scale deficit reduction. To those left sane after watching the debt ceiling theatrics, or those lucky few immune to the mind numbing aspects of it all are scratching their heads wondering why on earth the President has chosen this task as his “big thing,” rest assured you are not alone. Perhaps the President has read Fight Club too many times and believes that pushing the US economy to the brink of self-destruction is a good thing. While it’s a good book, and far from Palahniuk’s best work, I’d remind the president that it wasn’t supposed to be taken literally. Whatever his reasons, I think there are better “big things” out there that we might set out to achieve. Other things that actually improve the conditions of our lives, not roll them back.

Continue reading


Thanks for comments. As you may have noticed, I kept the blog shorter this week so that we could focus on a smaller range of topics. That seems to have helped—the comments this week are also well-focused. I think I can hit the main concerns by addressing three topics.

  1. Relation between the sovereign currency and the medium of exchange: We first introduced the money of account: the Dollar in the US and the Pound in the UK. This is a unit of account, a measuring unit like the “inch”, “foot” and “yard”. It does not exist even as an electronic entry; not even a bloodhound could sniff it out. It is representational, something only a human could imagine. Next we introduced the concept of “money things”—denominated in the money of account. (Similarly, our unit used to measure length cannot be sniffed by dog, but it does have physical things that can be sniffed and measured: the inch worm is an inch in length, my foot is a foot—more or less, and the football field is 100 times the distance from Henry the first’s nose to thumb. Probably more, actually, as we know those kings exaggerated the size of their anatomical features, like rap stars today.) This can include paper, notes, and electronic entries. We’ll say a lot more about the nature of those things that get measured by the money of account. This week we introduced the sovereign currency—the national money of account adopted by a sovereign government. While a money of account could—in theory—be created and adopted by private entities, the sovereign currency is adopted by the sovereign government; and the sovereign currency is usually at least the primary money of account if not the only money of account used within a sovereign nation.

    The word “currency” is frequently used to designate not only the money of account adopted by sovereign government, but also to designate a money thing issued by the sovereign government and denominated in the money of account. In the US it is the coin issued by the Treasury and the note issued by the Fed. In other words, we use the term “Dollar” to indicate both the sovereign currency (money of account) and the money thing (paper note or coin) issued by the US government. We have not yet got to the “medium of exchange”. Most textbooks begin with the medium of exchange (Crusoe and Friday look about for handy sea shells to function as convenient media of exchange). I reject that story and purposely wait to introduce the concept. But to jump ahead a bit, yes the “money thing” currency issued by government generally functions as a medium of exchange. Other privately issued money things also frequently function as media of exchange. That is a function of money things, and really does not help us to understand much about the nature of money. When you walk into a relatively new diner or any other “mom and pop” firm, there usually is a frame hanging on the wall, with a Dollar bill and some sort of statement like “the first dollar we ever earned”. Here, money functions as a memento—reflecting the pride of the owner of the establishment. Two decades ago, there were lots of stories of Wall Street traders using hundred Dollar bills functioning as cocaine delivery devices. I don’t think it is useful to put undue emphasis on the various functions of money. Let us at least first try to understand its nature.

  2. That leads us to the question about “bank money”. Again, we will get into this in detail in coming weeks. However, to break the suspense, banks (and other institutions as well as individuals) can issue IOUs denominated in the money of account. We do not call these “currency”. They are not issued by sovereign government. They are “money things”. Yes, some are more “special” than others: the IOU of the Bank of America (a private bank—not Uncle Sam’s bank) is more “special” than the IOU that you issue. Yes, it can function as a medium of exchange. The reasons for the “specialness” will be examined later. But an obvious one is that to some degree Uncle Sam stands behind BofA—for example, he guarantees demand deposits (your checking account).

    So, yes I do understand the worry that Uncle Sam has essentially licensed BofA to “counterfeit” Dollars—if the bank goes bust, Uncle Sam will pay out nice new Dollar bills to depositors. This raises many issues of concern, and some of those are directly relevant to the global financial crisis we are going through—in which Uncle Sam has effectively done just that. But for right now, that really would take us too far afield. Please be patient.

  3. Currencies and balances. Recall that we have discussed (briefly) unsold inventories. Suppose it is the end of the year 1974 and we are Ford motor company and we produce 1000 Ford Pintos (remember those—the ones with exploding gas tanks?) that we cannot sell. Unsold inventory gets counted as investment. Ford carries the inventory at its market price—let us say, the average price of Pintos that it actually did sell in 1974. Assume it cannot sell them in 1975, either (deep recession, bad publicity about the tanks, and so on). How to value them? All things equal, Ford would prefer not to book a loss of value—it carries them at original value, otherwise, the value of its inventory declines impacting 1975 profits and net worth. Now in 2011 it is still carrying those Pintos in inventory. You see the problem. We have to assign a dollar value to them.

    Now let’s address the problem of dual currencies. Suppose Ford produces cars in America but sells them in America and Japan. It imports all the electronic components from Japan. It can keep two sets of books—one for Dollars and one for Yen. It has income and outgo in each currency. Clearly it could run a deficit in one and a surplus in the other (or surpluses in both, or deficits in both, etc—you get the picture). All other firms, households, and levels of government can do the same in Dollars and Yen. Adding up all the sectors, we get to our three balances in each of the currencies. But Ford’s shareholders do not want to know that it has a surplus in Dollars of 1 billion and a deficit in Yen of 1 trillion—it wants the overall balance for Ford’s income. Just as we have to convert Pintos to Dollars, we have to convert those Yen to Dollars. We need an exchange rate. Yen and Dollars float—changing every day in relative value. It is going to make a huge difference what exchange rate we use.

    So, yes I am sympathetic to “Tobinesque’s” comments. The cleanest way is to keep the accounts separate and there will be sectoral balances in each currency that do balance. But, yes, a government as well as a firm needs a budget in one currency (generally it is going to be the domestic currency) and so if income and outgo occur in more than one, exchange rates must be used to get everything into that currency of denomination. This is true even if the government/firm/household actually has bank accounts denominated in the foreign currency. This complicates matters because now the sectoral balances will not balance (exactly) unless everyone uses the same exchange rate all the time—which would happen if we pegged.

    This issue has come up before—there are variations in estimates of the three balances. One reader pointed out that one of the graphs I used showing—say—the private deficit during the Clinton years differed a bit from a later one I showed here on the MMP. The reason was due to updated data and different sources (the older one came from Wynne Godley and the later one from Scott Fullwiler). As they say, economics is not an exact science!

    More seriously, you should not think that aggregate economic data like GDP or the CPI (consumer price index), or the sectoral balance are measured precisely. These are estimates, using data that is constructed. What is important is consistency. I know this always shocks students the first time they hear it. But the CPI does not come from heaven. It is constructed, it is revised, and it is subject to great debate among wonky people with thick glasses. And believe it or not, it does matter exactly how these data are constructed. But do not get misled by that. Certainly at the level of logic, the three balances do balance. If we could measure things exactly, they would balance in practice. Knowing that they should balance, the statistician who puts them together ensures they do balance—by construction. This is not easy; a “statistical discrepancy” is added to ensure they do—and if you need a big one of those, that is not good. And, yes, dealing with valuing those inventories is a big headache—I can remember when Wynne Godley used to fret over that, and I didn’t understand why. Now I do.

Pinch-Hitting For Peterson, Responses

By L. Randall Wray
It is perhaps a bit unseemly for the protagonist to be the first to answer Stephanie Kelton’s call for responses. However, I wanted to address two comments received to the series.
First, from GLH there was a question about the term “beltway progressive”. Fair enough. Comes from “inside the beltway” of Washington DC. Many “think tanks” (a misnomer as few think tanks actually do any thinking—most simply push an ideological agenda) locate within the beltway to have easy access to politicians, policy-makers, lobbyists, media, and funding. Most of these are center-right, or crazy right, but there are a few progressive think tanks slugging it out. I did not use the term in a derogatory manner, although I did criticize the “group think” on debts and deficits that emerges from within the beltway.
Locating within the beltway does provide many advantages. When media types are working on a story, they want to go where the action is—and that is usually Washington. The media loves to report on politics—as opposed to, say, economics—because everyone has an opinion and all opinions are seemingly more-or-less equal. It is easy to get a debate about the significance of the most insignificant political poll; it is easy to get some instant expert weighing in on what “the American people” want, and what any particular election “really means”. Occasionally they will cover economics, usually some proposed legislation that will benefit really rich people. Think tanks offer a veil of respectability that registered lobbyists cannot provide. It is hard for a policy-maker to directly affirm that he’s supporting a piece of legislation that benefits—let us say—some blood-sucking vampire squid because that firm’s lobbyists have promised campaign contributions. So it is much better to turn to a think tank that takes vampire squid money to produce “research” reports advocating policy that will benefit vampire squids. So that is the main role of beltway think tanks.
And that is, to me, what is so problematic about beltway progressives adopting the Pete Peterson approach to deficits, debt ratios, unfunded entitlements, and fiscal responsibility. As I have argued, that adoption is probably a “coincidence” in the sense that progressives in Washington are merely sucking the same air. It is “within the beltway” thinking. And within that beltway there is no longer any room for disagreement about “unsustainable” deficits and debt.
I know this from personal experience. It is much harder to influence policy from Kansas City or from upstate NY (the Levy Economics Institute). Yes, reporters occasionally decide: “hey maybe we should get an economist who is not connected to the beltway think tanks; maybe one of those farm country hillbillies in the Midwest. How about Kansas?” (UMKC, by the way, is in Missouri, and we are quite a distance from the Ozarks–but the confusion about Midwest geography probably helps us.) So we get our airtime. Occasionally I venture inside the beltway and meet with policymakers, politicians, heads of civil rights or labor groups, and so on. When I say that government solvency is not at issue, they look at me like I’ve just sprouted two horns. They call for the guards to escort me out. They warn me not to come back until I’ve got a letter signed by Joe Blow from XYZ progressive think-tank from within the beltway endorsing my proposal. I am not kidding, but I won’t name names. (Sometimes it is even worse—they’ll say: “Oh you are one of those economists that Paul Krugman attacked because you claim deficits never matter. Don’t come back.”) Therefore, not only is the endorsement by beltway progressives of the Peterson view limiting the range of debate within the beltway, it also closes off the beltway to any progressive alternative outside the beltway.
Second, for Craig Austin. Yes, I know we are terrible writers and promoters and don’t know a thing about PR. And yet, you are here, along with 2500+ readers every day to read what we write. A half dozen of us created the MMT that you now love dearly—those of us here at UMKC plus Warren Mosler, Bill Mitchell, and Scott Fullwiler. So we are not complete failures. We want you and others to take up the fight. If you are better at marketing, great, do it. If you want to self-promote your own blog, go for it.
But if you are here to get funding from us, you are delusional. There is no money.
Let me explain how things work at NEP. It was Stephanie Kelton’s brainchild; she bought a URL out of her pocket change, roped a couple of UMKC profs to donate time, got some of our associates to donate their time (Marshall, Scott), and started the blog. Frankly, I was skeptical. I barely even knew what a blog was (I knew Bill Mitchell had one but wasn’t quite sure if it was a disease or other affliction). She learned how to set up the blog, and then got some volunteer techie assistance from our grad students. There is no revenue; if there are expenses, Stephanie covers them out of pocket. And she and her techie grad students post every blog that is put up because the rest of us are too damned incompetent to learn how to do it. We can barely distinguish a URL from a URINAL.
So if you want money out of UMKC, here is what you need to do. Apply to our PhD program; get accepted; and if you are among the top applicants you might be awarded a stipend. For the princely sum of $10,000 per year, you attend lectures and study for 40+ hours a week. You also must work as a slave (whoops, we now call them GTAs—graduate teaching assistants) assigned to a prof for 20 hours per week, grading papers, leading discussions, holding office hours, and later teaching your own class. And then if we discover you know anything about computers, you get to donate your time at night to helping on the NEP.
So if you wonder why we do not have a PR firm, it is because we have not yet found one to work for free.

Barack Obama: America’s First Tea Party President

By Marshall Auerback

For all his talk of the importance of averting a debt default, Barack increasingly signaling that major deficit reduction has become more than just a bargaining chip to bring Republicans aboard on a debt deal. He actually believes that cutting entitlements and reducing the deficit are laudable goals, which would mark “transformational” moments in his President. Let’s face it: the man is not a progressive in any sense of the word; he’s a Tea Party President through and through.

To be sure, it’s tough to make the case that the Tea Party has anything like a genuinely coherent political platform. They hate entitlements, but one of their leading voices in the Senate, Rand Paul, conspicuously avoided any talk of cutting Medicare during his campaign (unsurprising, given how much of his income as an ophthalmologist involved treating Medicare patients). They also have a Presidential candidate, Michelle Bachmann, pledging never to raise the debt ceiling, yet proposing to slash the federal corporate income tax and eliminate the capital gains and estate taxes.

But for the most part, a common thread amongst the Tea Party is a visceral dislike of “excessive” government spending. Virtually all buy into the notion that the federal debt levels are “unsustainable” and that entitlements, really need to be “reformed” (i.e. cut back). In that regard, their aspirations appear to be more in line with the President, than their ostensible GOP allies, one of whom is, Senator Mitch McConnell. The Senate Minority Leader has proposed giving President Obama the power to raise the debt limit on his own through the end of his first term, but to force Democrats to take a series of votes on the debt limit in the months leading up to the election. This would stave off the threat of defaulting on national obligations, but would make the President politically responsible for all subsequent spending cuts and/or tax increases.

On the surface, this would seem to be a great deal for President Obama. He could in theory simply take up Senator McConnell’s offer, raise the debt ceiling and avoid the self-inflicted insanity of draining $4 trillion of aggregate demand from an economy still reeling from massive underemployment and wasted resources. Or the President could, as we and others have suggested in the past, simply invoke the 14th amendment and refuse to enforce a statute that he believes violates the Constitution.

Professor Scott Fullwiler has suggested an even more creative way around the debt ceiling: Fullwiler notes that Fed is the monopoly supplier of reserve balances, but that the US Constitution bestows upon the US Treasury the authority to mint coins (particularly platinum coins). Future deficit spending by the federal government could thereby continue to be carried out by minting coins and depositing them in the Treasury’s account at the Fed (for more details see here). Curiously, the President won’t pursue any of these options. What’s the problem?

If, for example, the President genuinely believes that the 14th Amendment does not give him the right to ignore the debt ceiling, he has been loath to give any reasoning for this publicly. Why not? He is, after all, a constitutional law professor. Yet, much like the single payer option during the health care debate, the President refuses to put the legal argument on the table, even as a negotiating posture. Is it caution, or does the President genuinely believe this guff about the deficit?

By the same token, the President might well dismiss Scott Fullwiler’s idea as nothing more than a “gimmick”. But if the alternative is something which (in the words of Mr Geithner), could create “catastrophic damage across the American economy and across the global economy”, then why not deploy this “gimmick” to avert a default?

After all, as Bill Mitchell has pointed out:

“[T]he whole edifice surrounding government spending and bond-issuance is also ‘just an accounting gimmick’. The mainstream make much of what they call the government budget constraint as if it is an a priori financial constraint when in fact it is just an accounting statement of the monetary operations surrounding government spending and taxation and debt-issuance.

There are political gimmicks too that lead to the US government issuing debt to match their net public spending. These just hide the fact that in terms of the intrinsic characteristics of the monetary system the US government is never revenue constrained because it is the monopoly issuer of the currency. Which makes the whole debt ceiling debate a political and accounting gimmick.”

The fact is that when a President really wants to spend money, he can almost always find a way to do so. During the Clinton Administration, Treasury Secretary Rubin and Deputy Treasury Secretary Summers did an end-around Congress (which was seeking to prevent the use of government money as support for a bailout of Mexico – or more accurately, a bailout for Wall Street banks which had foolishly lost money investing in Mexico) through the deployment of the little known “Exchange Stabilization Fund”.

Until then, the ESF had been an obscure entity, the Treasury’s own honey pot, established by a long-forgotten provision in the Gold Reserve Act of January 31, 1934 for the purpose of stabilizing the exchange value of the dollar. The ESF was certainly not created simply to help the President go around the backs of Congress. Yet the President did it and in effect called the GOP’s bluff (and, for the record, the Republicans never went to the courts to challenge the decision; they waited for the far more important event of the President having sexual relations in the White House with Monica Lewinsky before going the legal route).

To be sure, one can argue that Mr. Clinton was serving his patrons on Wall Street, when he performed this action. But whatever the motivations underlying the use of the ESF, it made clear that Bill Clinton wanted to spend government money and got his Administration to find ways around the opposition of Congress. Call it a gimmick, but however questionable the motives underlying the action, it showed a President prepared to fight for what he thought was an important objective. Clinton certainly didn’t try to jump ahead of Congress on this issue. He fought them. Arguably, it set the stage for the more aggressive fight to keep the US from defaulting in 1995, during which the Gingrich-led Congress sought to shut down the government by initially refusing to sanction an increase in the debt ceiling.

By contrast, this President has apparently fallen in love with the idea of being the biggest deficit hawk in Washington, DC. In fact, last Sunday, the White House chief of staff, William M. Daley, said on “This Week” on ABC that Mr. Obama would continue to push for a major deal to reduce the deficit. “Everyone agrees that a number around $4 trillion is the number that will make a serious dent in our deficit,” Mr. Daley said. “He didn’t come to this town to do little things. He came to do big things.”

“Big things” – like destroying the New Deal and what’s left of The Great Society. Who knew this is what Obama meant when he said he wanted to be a “transformational President” like Ronald Reagan? He’s gone a lot further than Reagan dared to contemplate on the issue of entitlement cuts. President Obama actually believes this poisonous nonsense about the US on the verge of becoming “the next Greece”. This was confirmed yesterday by Press Secretary Jay Carney, who said of McConnell’s proposal that it was not the President’s “preferred option.”  McConnell’s proposal for avoiding debt default — to transfer full power to raise the debt ceiling to the White House for the remainder of Obama’s current term, cutting Congress out of the process — does nothing to address deficit reduction, Carney said. And Obama is set on making sizable cuts.

Yet again, the President shows profound confusion on the issue of the deficit. He fails to understand that if private spending is lagging then public spending has to fill the gap. Otherwise output and employment growth will be sluggish if not negative. To cut into the huge pool of unemployed and underemployed labor, employment growth has to be faster than labor force growth, which means that real GDP growth has to be faster than the sum of labor force and labor productivity growth.

These facts are very simple and indisputable. Cutting public spending at this juncture is the last thing the US government should be doing. Yet this President is pushing for the largest possible cuts that he can on the Federal government debt. He is out-Hoovering the GOP on this issue. He is providing “leadership” of the sort which is infuriating his base, but should endear him to the Tea Party. This is “the big thing” for Barack Obama, as opposed to maximizing the potential of his fellow Americans by seeking to eliminate the scourge of unemployment. Instead, his big idea is to become the president who did what George Bush could not, or did not, dare to do: cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. What more could the Tea Party possibly want?

An Open Invitation to Beltway Progressives

By Stephanie Kelton

Today’s post by Randy Wray was the second in a two-part series criticizing Washington progressives for failing to take an aggressive position against the deficit hysteria that is gridlocking our nation. While Washington fusses and fights over debt limits, supposedly unsustainable debts and deficit, and fears of fiscal crisis, the prospects of a double-dip are ever more dangerous. More than 14 million Americans have lost their jobs. It is time for progressives to recognize that our sovereign government has the fiscal capacity to deal with the crisis and that deficit hyperventilators like Pete Peterson can be defeated with MMT. We are offering to publish here at NEP responses by beltway progressives to the “Pinch-Hitting for Peterson” series. We look forward to their responses and to what we hope will be a lively debate.