Stop the Kabuki: It’s About “the Great Betrayal”

By Joe Firestone

MSNBC continues on with its campaign to cast the Tea Party Republicans in the role of principal villains in the imminent Government budget/ government shutdown crisis and the likely coming debt ceiling crisis. The teabots, you see, are using the Republican majority in the House to demand more austerity in government and defunding of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). They’re using their bloc of votes in the House, along with the Hastert rule requiring a majority of the majority Republican caucus to veto any possible compromise vote of the whole House on a budget or a continuing resolution that would get bipartisan majority support keeping the government open past October 1.

Speaker Boehner is coming in for his share of the blame, being called feckless, spineless, weak, a failed leader, and unpatriotic for his decision to respect the Hastert rule, give into teabot “lunacy,” and help them pass a budget implementing further budget cuts and defunding the ACA. MSNBC’s thrust is clearly to call the Republicans bad names while painting the Democrats and the Administration as the adults in the room, willing to compromise to keep the Government running and prevent a default which could crash the world economy. The Washington Post is also reflecting this Party line in its wonkblog Posts with Ezra Klein leading the charge supporting the Administration’s adulthood and the Republicans perfidy at both the Post and MSNBC.

I think this campaign is hiding the real story here, as it is designed to do. Let’s stipulate, to begin with, that the tea party Republicans are mean, evil, stupid, and crazy dudes and gals funded by Ayn Randian billionaires whose primary interest is to replace society with a state of nature in which life is nasty, brutish, and short for those of us who don’t have private armies. It’s still true that they do not bear the sole blame for this crisis, because it is simply not the case that there is nothing the Administration can do to both short circuit the crisis and defuse its impact. It has a number of options it can pursue to completely defuse the debt ceiling crisis and at least a few to create even more pressure on the Republicans to avoid a Government shutdown.

TINA does not apply in this case, and the President’s choices are not limited to just refusing to negotiate or giving in to defunding Obamacare. By framing things in this way, the media are echoing the Administration’s framing of the situation and absolving the President of his share of the blame for the crisis. They are also preparing the way for a compromise, that if it doesn’t defund Obamacare, will, almost certainly, result in hurtful cuts to Government spending including renewed consideration of the Great Betrayal, also known as the Grand Bargain, and probably passage of the chained CPI cuts to Social Security over the objections of a large majority of the American people.

In my last post, I mentioned the following five options the Administration can use to lessen the impact of the Republican thrust:

1. A selective default strategy by the Executive, prioritizing not paying for things that Congress needed, and perhaps not paying debt to the Fed when it falls due and working with the Fed to get the $2.05* Trillion in bonds that it was holding canceled;

2. An exploding option involving selling a 90-day option to the Fed for purchasing some Federal property for $ 2 Trillion. Then when Congress lifts the debt ceiling, the Treasury could buy back the option for one dollar, or the Fed could simply let the option expire;

3. Using the authority of a 1996 law to mint proof platinum coins with arbitrary face values in the trillions of dollars to fill the Treasury General Account (TGA) with enough money to cease issuing debt instruments, and even enough to pay off the existing debt; and

4. Using the authority of the 14th Amendment to keep issuing debt in defiance of the debt ceiling, while declaring that the debt ceiling legislation was unconstitutional because it violated the 14th Amendment in the context of Congressional appropriations passed after the debt ceiling mandating deficit spending.

5. Beowulf has offered yet a fifth option for getting around the debt ceiling by issuing consols. Consols are debt instruments that pay a fixed rate on interest in perpetuity, but never promise principal repayment at a maturity date. The debt ceiling law is written in such a way that what counts against the ceiling is the principal repayment guaranteed by the instrument. Since consols provide no principal repayment, one can have unlimited consol issuance without increasing the debt-subject-to-the-limit.

Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism used the list in this recent post to make the point:

“. . . the larger point is that this budgetary Battle of the Titans is a phony war. Obama can finesse the Republicans if he needs to. . . .

So hang tight for way too much unnecessary melodrama over the next month. It’s another round of watching the two parties play chicken, with each posturing that it won’t be the one to steer out of the impending crash. The fact is that Obama really wants his Grand Bargain. All of this high drama is necessary for him to pretend to his base that he was forced to do what he’s been trying to do for years: sacrifice old people since he perversely believes that “reforming” Social Security and Medicare will get him brownie points in the presidential legacy ledger. . . .

Yves and I agree on that. The Administration is raising the zombie Grand Bargain, Great Betrayal again. In addition, she thinks:

Of all the items on the list, option 1 looks far and away the most likely, although an Administration with more guts might try a bit of option 2 along with it. Unlike a platinum coin, which just sounds too weird to people who haven’t heard about the idea (and the Administration would need to be selling it hard now to see if it could legitimate it in the court of public opinion), options are something the public hears about regularly and sounds less gimmicky.

This is a brief analysis of the relative likelihood of the various options. Let it serve as an introduction to this more detailed analysis.

Option 1: I agree that this is a pretty likely option. It allows the Administration to prevent default for a time with both skillful management of cash flow from tax collections and some risk (increasing over time), and to pressure Congress with partial government shutdowns. It also keeps the risk of default in front of people, and is consistent with the President’s likely goal of getting that Grand Bargain through, at last. The first part of Option 1 is classic shock doctrine, so it’s likely the President will select it. However, I don’t think the parts of this option relating to the Fed allowing the Treasury to default temporarily by not paying back the debt it owns when it falls due, or the Fed canceling part of the Treasury debt it owns, will work.

First, the Fed is prohibited by law from giving the Treasury any appreciable credit facilities, and letting Treasury be late in their bond principal and interest payments would be extending it credit. That’s what prevents the Fed from buying Treasury securities directly from Treasury in the first place.

Second, nor can the Fed just cancel the debts the Treasury owes it. The reason why not is that the actual debt instruments are owned by the Fed regional banks, which, in turn, are privately owned. The Treasury bonds are assets of the Fed regional banks. If they just canceled those assets, then they would be violating their fiduciary duty to their stockholders.

Option 2: I think this is less likely than Option 1. I don’t agree that it is less “gimmicky” from a person in the street point of view. People have heard of “options,” of course, but relatively few people could explain what an option is, or how one works, or have ever used an option. And the idea of options generating Trillions in reserves for the Treasury would sound at least as “gimmicky” to the lay public as minting a platinum coin will.

Just from a personal point of view, the idea of the Government minting a platinum coin with a particular value is very familiar to someone like myself who has worked widely in political science, and the social sciences and more recently in economics. I can easily understand the idea applied to a coin with a $60 Trillion face value, as long as I think that minting such a coin is legal.

So, to me the coin idea is not “weird,” so long as it can be shown that it is legal. I think that “it’s the law,” even though it has never been used before is the sound bite that has to be endlessly repeated to the public to get it legitimacy. And I think the President can make that claim and explain his authority to have it minted under the law in a speech announcing that one has been minted. If people get mad about it, then the proper answer is “This is a democracy, repeal the law if you don’t like it.”

Second, I also think Option 2 may be legally more questionable than Option 3. After all, the Fed is prohibited by law from simply creating money and giving it to Treasury without due consideration. But what is a $2 Trillion option redeemable by the Treasury for $1.00 other than a gift of $2 Trillion to it? Certainly, substance over form governs here, and such an effective grant of $2 Trillion to the Treasury would be considered a violation of the law, and certainly a financial manipulation “gimmick” by the Fed and the Treasury.

Option 3: As people who read my posts know, I’m very much in favor of Option 3. But I wouldn’t say it’s the favorite Modern Money Theory (MMT) option. I think MMT economists, by and large, would rather the current crisis were resolved by repealing the debt ceiling law, or getting rid of it by exercising the 14th Amendment option. It’s true that many MMT writers have mentioned the platinum coin in the past in a favorable context, but MMT views reserves, currency, cash, and government securities as all debts of the Government, so the general opinion is that if the platinum coin has any special value over other expedients for facilitating deficit spending, that value is political, rather than economic or financial.

Also even though Option 3 is the one I favor. I agree with Yves that it is not very likely the Administration will use it. However, I don’t think its “weirdness” is the main problem with it from an Administration point of view. Instead, I think their problem with it is that if they use it, it will be very hard for them to explain thereafter what they mean by saying that “we need a Grand Bargain” or long-term deficit reduction, because “we’re running out of money.”

In any event, I’ve discussed the pros and cons of Option 3 voluminously in my e-book Fixing the Debt Without Breaking America, including the issue of “weirdness.” So anyone interested can read about the pros and cons there.

Option 4: My view of the 14th amendment option, is that a decision to continue issuing debt appealing to the 14th amendment, may very well work because the Supreme Court refuses to grant standing to the House to challenge it. However, if the Court does allow a challenge then I think it will find that the debt ceiling isn’t unconstitutional as long as Congress allows PCS and consols, because those can be used to get credits to pay off securities as they fall due.

I also think that using the 14th amendment option is a more likely move from the Administration, then using the coin, or the exploding option, because the balance of advantages and disadvantages will appeal to the President’s constitutional lawyer side. The 14th amendment option has the following advantages. 1) It makes the President look strong by standing up to the Republicans; 2) It continues current practices, so no one will say it’s “weird,” just illegal; 3) It maintains the air of crisis the President would like to have to go after the Grand Bargain, but also decreases economic risk by putting the debt limit problem on the back burner; 4) It has a good chance of surviving a Court suit through a denial of standing to the House; and 5) It carries with it the chance of getting the debt ceiling law invalidated by the Supreme Court.

Its disadvantages are a few. Unless the Court actually declares the debt ceiling unconstitutional, the House will probably impeach the President, claiming he acted illegally; so this option is risky. If something unexpected happens on the surveillance state front, the risk might unexpectedly increase through a sudden alliance of the left and right against the President.

Of course, the risk of impeachment increases even more if the Court both grants standing and upholds the debt ceiling law. All that said, I think the likelihood of the disadvantages happening is low, and it may be the kind of risk the President is willing to take because, as a lawyer, he will assess its likelihood as low.

Option 5: The advantage of Option 5 is that it would be quick, clean, and easy to implement. There is precedent in other nations for it as well. The UK has issued consols from time-to-time in its history.

The disadvantages are a few. First, it takes the pressure off people to come to the Grand Bargain. Second, the interest on consols will likely have to be higher than the interest on standard debt instruments. Third, this option is a bit “gimmicky,” but not a really strange idea, and only slightly “clever” as a way of getting out of a debt ceiling impasse.

On balance, I’d say this option is very likely if the Administration knows about it, especially after an initial use of Option 1 and possible strong resistance to compromise from Republicans. In that case, as the Administration sees increasing cash flow difficulties in coping with the debt limit, it may ease the way by using consols, and once their use becomes commonplace, then proceed further with a negotiation to get rid of the debt ceiling, since it will have been shown to be of little use anyway.

So, from the likelihood point of view, I think the most likely option is the first half of Option 1, followed by Option 5 (consols); then Option 4 (the 14th); then Option 3 (the coin); and last Option 2 (the exploding option), which I don’t think can withstand a legal analysis.

The option I prefer is Option 3, because, especially in the case of High Value Platinum Coin Seigniorage (HVPCS), it has the most positive effects relative to public purpose, including educating people about fiat money and MMT, and in addition, its political/economic impact over time is likely to be, by far the most favorable of all the options,because the size the reserves in the TGA and gradual repayment of the debt will be a source of constant political pressure on Congress to seriously consider solving our mounting problems regardless of whether the policies required will involve deficit spending.

And, finally, whatever the options one thinks are likely or one prefers, I think it’s very important that the blogosphere start debating the options once again, as it did in 2011 and during the fiscal cliff/sequester periods, so the President will find it more difficult to plead TINA when he wants to slip through his Grand Bargain. The TINA/kabuki game he is playing is the enemy of the economy, the safety net, and the public purpose.

In addition, the Grand Bargain, along with the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TAFTA) are three more nails in the coffin of the middle class. We must not let him, the corporate partisans in both parties, and the cable networks drive the first of these nails home by getting people to accept their narrative about the issues involved here.

To stop it from coming about, the first thing we must do is unmask (as Yves and I have been trying to do) the news networks, the cable media, and the village progressives like Ezra Klein, as actively attempting to constrain debate by ignoring the options the President has, apart from a simple “I will not negotiate, or I must cave stance.” Let us make them come to grips with the alternatives and, in doing so, spread the news that there are a number available, and that whatever unpalatable compromises the President proposes, are his choices and his fault; not necessary expedients, he is being forced into because he has no effective weapons to use in countering the Republicans using the debt limit law to take hostages.

*Previous versions of this item on the list of options used the figure $1.6 Trillion in Treasury securities owned by the Federal. The revised $2.05 Trillion total is current as of close of business 09/18/13.

30 responses to “Stop the Kabuki: It’s About “the Great Betrayal”

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