The President’s Leverage: He Can Go Platinum

By Joe Firestone

Well, that’s over. The President had a chance to go “over the cliff,” bargain hard with the Republicans, get more of what he said he wanted at the price of perhaps some more days of crisis with extreme pressure building on the Republican caucus, and he blinked. I don’t much care that he blinked on tax rates for the top 2% and on inheritance taxes, because tax rate increases for purposes of deficit reduction simply aren’t needed for getting deficit spending needed to create jobs, as the rest of this post will show. Here’s what I care about:

— First, he claimed to be after extending the partial payroll tax holiday; but he didn’t get that, a $125 Billion would-be stimulus failure that is likely to cost at least a million jobs;

— Second, he claimed to be trying to get the debt ceiling issue off the table for at least two years, and he didn’t even get anything to deal with it in the bill;

— Third, he claimed to want to resolve the sequestration issue, but only got that can kicked down the road for two months;

So, in sum, he’s already achieved some unneeded austerity with this “negotiation” and, in addition, he’s set things up beautifully for a truly extreme episode of extortion by the Republican House over the next couple of months, as Congress faces the upcoming sequester, debt ceiling, and Continuing Resolution (CR) conflicts. Why did he insist on making his year-end deal, rather than allowing things to kick over to the new Congress and negotiating a better one?

There are different theories about that. One, is that he wanted, at all costs, to avoid Wall Street panicking and then tanking, even if, only temporarily. A second is that he has good “progressive” motives, but he’s just a lousy negotiator, who just can’t avoid first establishing firm positions and then showing the other side that he will always cave in if they, in turn, stand firm. A third theory, and the one I favor, is that since 2009 he’s been conducting a careful campaign to get Americans to accept austerity through forced deficit reduction including heavy cuts to the social safety net programs that Americans love so well.

During this campaign, he’s ignored the evidence from Europe and elsewhere that austerity doesn’t work and hurts most of the people, most of the time. He’s also ignored all the polling data showing how Americans feel about Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. And he has moved slowly, deliberately, persistently, and in concert with allies outside the Administration like Peter G. Peterson, high-level Wall Street Executives, and MSM media personalities and journalists to create a consensus around the idea that “entitlement reform” is both inevitable and necessary for long-term fiscal sustainability. Finally, he has “negotiated” with Republicans  during a series of “shock doctrine” crises to try to gradually implement austerity, while making sure that the Republicans, rather than his own party end up bearing the blame for the end result of austerity policies.

The results of the “cliff” negotiations have now set up a confluence of three events: the sequestration; the debt ceiling; and the CR; creating the occasion for the mother of all fiscal “shock doctrine” negotiations over the next three months. This confluence can be seen as an intentional emergence of the conflict between the Republicans and the “progressive” President Obama, or it can be seen as the result of a very long-term conservative campaign setting the stage for austerity, and a comprehensive attempt to weaken the social safety net.

I won’t try to make the case that the dangerous confluence we’re about to face is due to a deliberate staging by the President, even though I suspect that it is. Nor will I try to make the contrary case that the President has excellent motives, but stumbled into this mess due to incompetence at negotiating, and the Republican victories in the House in the past two elections, for which his supporters might say, he was blameless. What, I’ll do instead, is try to show that either way, the President has leverage to get what he wants.

If His Game Is Deliberate Austerity?

Then, of course, he’s maneuvered us into a situation where, he will claim, there either has to be a Government shutdown, frightening to most people, or concessions to Republican demands for cutting discretionary programs and entitlements. He will be in a very good position then, to regale all of us with horror stories about the consequences of shutting down the Government for weeks until the “crazy” Republicans capitulate; compared to the lesser evil of making “balanced” spending cuts among defense, discretionary, and entitlement programs, while he prepares to reluctantly give into the hostage takers to avoid disaster; while constantly letting us know that as the adult in the room he must arrive at a “compromise” settlement. So, if his game is deliberate austerity, then he will have plenty of leverage to get what he wants.

If His Game Is to Avoid Cuts That Will Hurt the Economy and the Safety Net?

Today, most people commenting on the fiscal cliff agreement are assuming that this is his game, and are saying that the President has given away his leverage for future deal-making. Their logic is that he’s already made deals on the tax rate cuts and on the inheritance tax rates, so that he has little left to offer the Republicans except painful cuts in programs most of the American like. This, however, isn’t true.

First, the President still has some leverage when it comes to defense cuts. Republicans don’t want those at all. So, if he’s willing to cut there; he can sincerely threaten cuts and then trade for their sparing popular programs from the ax.

But, second, the main thing being ignored by most of the strategists commenting on the morning after is the President’s ability to change the fiscal context of the coming negotiations from one of apparent scarcity “justifying” austerity to one where spending capacity is so plentiful, that Congress will be hard-pressed to impose austerity, because its justification in the form of apparent limitations on spending capacity will just seem silly. Now, that can translate into leverage in the negotiations!

How can it be done? Through the use of Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS).

PCS Variations

Here are some variations on PCS, an idea first proposed by beowulf. (Carlos Mucha).

First, mint a $1.6 Trillion coin and have Treasury use the profits from it to buy all the outstanding debt instruments held by the Fed. This would retire a substantial part of the national debt and immediately create $1.6 T in “headroom” relative to the debt ceiling. This alternative involves the least amount of change in current procedures. The coin, once deposited at the Fed, would remain in a Fed vault, and would not go into circulation.

The Government would then go right back to issuing debt in order to meet its debt obligations and spend previous Congressional appropriations. Of course, this proposal is a solution to the debt ceiling problem alone. It would prevent a default crisis caused by anti-government tea party Republicans. But, it wouldn’t do very much to defeat the austerity mind set in fiscal policy.

A second proposal is to mint a $6.7 T coin to pay back all debt held by the Fed, and  all Intra-governmental debt, including that owed to Social Security, Medicare, and a host of other other agencies. That would create $6.7 T in headroom relative to the debt ceiling, that’s more than enough to carry us through the 2016 elections without breaching the ceiling. Again, this wouldn’t result in any “money” immediately going into circulation, but over time SS and Medicare payments to individuals and organizations would be adding to bank reserves without any reserves being withdrawn from the private sector due to debt issuance.

This alternative would render the debt ceiling problem a dead letter for some time to come, and it also might take some of the austerity pressure off. But it probably wouldn’t end the austerity drive, because the deficit hawks would still point to long-term problems in entitlements that would be projected as running up the public debt in future years.

A third proposal for applying PCS is to mint a coin with face value large enough to cover the $6.7 T intra-governmental and Fed debt repayment, plus all debt to the non-government sector coming to maturity during the next four years, and all Congressional Appropriations expected to require deficit spending through the 2016 elections. I’ll estimate, roughly, that a $20 T coin is enough for that, including about $6.2 T to more than close the expected gap between tax revenues and Government spending  through the 2016 elections, and the rest for paying down the national debt. Issuing a coin that large, using the profits from seigniorage, and assuming that Congressional appropriations continue the pattern of the past 2 years or so, that would result in a remaining public debt outstanding of roughly a few trillion dollars in long term debt, which would please the bond markets except for the fact that the US wasn’t issuing any more debt instruments, which would probably make the bond vigilantes scream for those safe harbor debt instruments again.

A more important aspect of a coin this large is that it takes the deficit/debt issue very much off the table, since there would be no new debt issuance needed until after 2016, and because most of the seigniorage would be used to pay down debt the US would then have only about 15% of its current debt subject to the limit. In other words, it would take the austerity meme off the table completely over the next four years and even after that there would be a lot of room between the outstanding level of debt and the debt ceiling.

Much of the pressure now being applied to entitlement programs would also be gone. So, progressives could be much more expansive in supporting full employment programs, education, infrastructure, higher entitlement benefits, Medicare for All and other things the country needs.

If, also, Congress does the right kind of spending to bring full employment inside a year, then tax revenues will come back as they did during the Clinton Administration, and then there will be no need for all the profits from the platinum coin to be used completely for deficit spending  between now and 2016. In fact, if the right jobs creating program is immediately enacted, as much as $3 T could be left, by the end of 2016. So, this is a much more progressive alternative than the first two. But in itself, it doesn’t provide a continuing ability for the Treasury to create reserves directly to support deficit spending. The nation could still slip back into the regressive money creation practices after 4 or 5 years, and the conservative, neoliberal bias of fiscal politics could be restored.

So far, I’ve discussed three alternative coin seigniorage proposals ranging in scale from a minimal proposal to handle the current crisis to one that would provide enough funds to both pay down debt, and support a gap between spending and taxes that might be sufficient to enable full employment. Now here’s a fourth, enough to handle even generous Congressional appropriations and deficit spending for at least 15 – 20 years, until 2032 and beyond.

Why not mint a $60 T coin?

I favor this fourth alternative above all, because it institutionalizes the idea that there is a distinction between appropriations, the Congressional mandate to spend particular amounts on particular goods and services, and the capability to spend the mandated accounts by having the funds (electronic credits) in the public purse (the TGA). In a fiat currency system, the capability always exists if the legislature provides for it under the Constitution, as it has under current platinum coin seigniorage legislation.

But the value of the $60 T coin, and the profits derived from it, is that it is a concrete reminder of the Government’s continuing ability to buy whatever it needs to meet public purposes, and its continuing ability to harness the authority of the Central Bank to create reserves to support the needs of fiscal policy. It demonstrates very clearly that the Government cannot run out of money, and that the claim that it can is not a valid reason for rejecting spending that is in accordance with public purpose.

So, please keep in mind the distinction between the capability to spend more than government collects in taxes, and the appropriations that mandate such spending. The capability is what’s in the public purse, and it is unlimited as long as the Government doesn’t constrain itself from creating credits in its own accounts. With PCS, its capability could be and should be publicly demonstrated by minting the $60 T coin, and getting the profits from depositing it at the Fed transferred to the Treasury General Account (TGA).

On the other hand, Congressional appropriations, not the size or contents of the purse, but whether the purse strings are open or not, determines what will be spent, and what will simply sit in the purse for use at a later time. So there is a very important distinction between the purse and the purse strings. The President can legally use coin seigniorage to fill the purse, but only Congress can open the purse strings through its appropriations.

This fourth alternative is the one that best solves both the debt ceiling problem and the problem of taking austerity, justified by “we’re running out of money,” off the table. The debt ceiling would no longer be an issue if the Treasury immediately paid off $6.7 T in Fed and intra-governmental debt, and was poised, with the money in its account, to pay off the rest of the debt subject to the limit as it falls due. Nor would there be any justification for austerity policies if the Treasury had a public purse with $44 T of unearmarked funds in it to cover future deficit spending. So, this is the progressive alternative, the one that changes the political context of fiscal policy debates for the foreseeable future. It also gives progressive enough time to fight a major political battle that ought to and must occur; the battle to free the Fed from control by Wall Street and banking interests and to make it accountable to the people by placing it under the authority of the Treasury Department, and our nationally elected executive, the President.

What about inflation? Well using PCS isn’t intrinsically inflationary. For the reasons why, see my previous post. I outline how to justify it politically in the next and final section.

The Speech

If the President wanted to emulate the great Democratic Presidents of the past, end austerity and decide to rise above the debt ceiling controversy, safeguard the social safety net, and do something really, really important from the perspective of history by using $60 T coin seigniorage to short circuit the upcoming fights over the debt ceiling and the budget, then there would be a spectacular uproar in the Congress and the Press over what he had done. All kinds of overblown and downright crazy claims would be made because the President’s action would shock people, everyone would have a tough time getting their minds around it, and the media would report on what was going on in a very sensationalist way using stereotypes created by the neo-liberal perspective that journalists at places like the WaPo, NYT, WSJ, and CNN are superficially well-schooled in. Places like CNBC and Fox would be absolutely foaming at the mouth in response to something like this, and Geithner might very well resign over it, as might Ben Bernanke, since he’d be forced to have the Fed credit the coin.

There would also be an  immediate move in Congress to repeal the 1996 law that enabled the President’s action. This would fail however, because even if it got through the Congress, the President would simply veto it. The opposition couldn’t possibly get the 2/3 vote necessary to override the veto. Even if by some miracle, repeal got through, however, it would be  too late. The coin would have done its work and the $60 T would be in the Treasury General Account, a fait accompli, and a vivid demonstration that the government can create as much money as it wants, and can only run out of money by choice.

However, the President would then have to defend himself with a political campaign aimed at persuading the public that his move was a bold and liberating move and the first step in finally getting out of this protracted economic depression. And yes, he should use the D-word, whatever the Republicans, and the so-called “fact-checkers” say about it. And he should also begin the campaign by explaining the issuance and deposit of the first $60 T coin in a high profile TV address to the public, the following way.

My Fellow Americans:

1) Until now the Treasury has been borrowing the money the Government created back from the private sector, in order to cover our deficit spending, so the national debt has been steadily growing.

2) That’s silly! According to the Constitution, this Government, of the people, by the people, and for the people, is the ultimate source of all US money. So why should we ever borrow US money back and pay interest on it, since we can create it any time by the authority of the Constitution and Congress?

3) Congress has also imposed a debt ceiling, so, if and when we reach it, we can’t borrow back our own money without Congressional approval, anyway, and lately Congress has been using the need to raise the debt ceiling as an excuse to extort cuts in safety net and discretionary programs that the majority of Americans support.

4) So, on my order, and in accordance with legislation passed by Congress in 1996, and with the US Code, the US Mint has issued $60 Trillion using a single 1 oz. platinum coin, and deposited it at the NY Fed. It’s legal tender, so the Fed credited the Mint’s Public Enterprise Fund (PEF) account with $60 Trillion in US Dollar credits using its unlimited authority from Congress to create them.

5) This is not inflationary because the Fed will put our coin into its vault, and keep it there permanently out of circulation, and the Treasury will use the $60 T in USD credits only to pay back the national debt and to spend what Congress has already approved, which is only a small fraction of these credits and far from the amount needed to cause inflation.

6) My action ends any possibility of a debt ceiling crisis in February or March, because we have no further need to borrow our own money back in the markets, and that’s why we don’t need the tea party or other Republicans, or even my fellow Democrats to agree to raise the debt ceiling any more.

7) Now the Treasury, has plenty of money, much more than we need, in fact, to pay for all appropriations Congress has already approved for 2013, and may approve in March, including all deficit spending and, again, we won’t have to borrow our own money back, either to repay debts or to implement future deficit spending.

8) So, we will pay all Government debts which will come due in 2013 and 2014. Treasury securities and all other debts included. We will also pay back all debts held by other agencies of Government and the Federal Reserve. When we do this we will lower the national debt by about $12 T, reducing the “debt burden” by about 75% by the end of 2014, and creating an actual Social Security trust fund with 2.7 T in cash reserves in it; and again, to do this we don’t have to borrow any of our own money back, and we will also reduce our interest costs on the outstanding national debt all through the remainder of 2013, 2014, and beyond until it is all paid off.

9) None of the $60 T in new credits created by our actions is “money” in the private sector economy until the Treasury spends it. For now it is just capability to spend awaiting the appropriations of Congress to mandate deficit spending, should it need to compensate for the reduction in demand, probably close to 10% of GDP right now, caused by your own desire to save (which we want to do our best to facilitate), and your desire to import goods from foreign nations.

10) We have created $60 Trillion in new credits even though we probably needed less than that to cover anticipated deficit spending and debt repayment until at least 2028. The reason for this, is that I wanted to have enough capability created in the Treasury account, so that the national debt could be completely paid off (except for a small amount in very long-term Treasury debt still not mature by 2028), and all projected Federal deficits covered over the next 15 years, even extraordinary deficit spending needed to be performed without further borrowing over this period.

11) Of course, we can always make new coins if our projections about future deficits turn out to be wrong; but I thought it would be best to ensure that all $16.4 T plus of the “debt burden” can be completely eliminated from our political concerns; and also to provide enough funds in our spending account at the Fed, so that it would be very clear to Congress and all newly elected Representatives and Senators, that even though they, as required by the Constitution, continue to control the purse strings, the national purse is very, very full, and that we would be able to cover from the Treasury General Account whatever deficit spending for the public purpose, including for full employment,  Medicare for All, infrastructure, education, and other things, that Congress, in its wisdom, chooses to appropriate now, before the next election, and for some elections to come.

Good night, my fellow Americans! Rest well knowing that our beloved country won’t be defaulting on any of its debts when the debt ceiling is reached, and that I’ve prevented this without going over the legal debt ceiling, or borrowing any more, by providing money for spending mandated appropriations, in compliance with the laws authorizing Platinum Coin Seigniorage, while supporting the Constitution’s prohibition against our Government ever defaulting on its debts. I hope that, in the future, everyone in Congress will obey the 14th Amendment’s prohibition against questioning the validity of Federal Government debts, and think twice before they indulge themselves in  loose talk about the possibility of the Federal Government defaulting on its obligations.

America will always pay its debts in US Dollars according to the terms of the contracts it has concluded, and in line with the pension payments and other obligations that it owes. Neither you, nor the rest of the world need ever doubt that again! Nor need you ever think that our Government is running out of money for the things we must do. We can never run short of money unless Congress refuses voluntarily, to use its unlimited constitutional authority to make more of it. But as long as it delegates to me the authority to create high value platinum coins to cover our needs, you can be sure that running out of US money will never happen!