The Trillion Dollar Coin Is A Conservative Meme
December 9, 2012 - 5:06pm ET
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The Trillion Dollar Coin (TDC) is, first, an oversimplified meme, because there's not one TDC solution, but lots of Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) variations on that idea with differing implications for politics. Some just kick the can down the road, until the next debt ceiling crisis, or set up another trade between the Administration of something relatively valuable for something less valuable. Others would really change the political game.
Progressives should want that game changed and the conservative, FIRE sector, neoliberal bias of American politics shifted to a progressive problem solving bias. Conservatives, even if they favor using a TDC to avoid a debt ceiling crisis, will want to retain the political game they are now playing and use it only for getting around the debt ceiling. Otherwise they will want to retain the present system of funding deficits through debt issuance, so they can continue to talk about the US “not being able to afford x, y, or z, because we're running out of money.” Or being subject to the “bond vigilantes, if our national debt grows too much.” Or having to worry about leaving huge debts to our grandchildren.
Let's now look at some variations on the PCS meme, other than the $1 T coin, and their political implications.
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/deficit hawk 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 coin seigniorage 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.
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 coin seigniorage 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.
In my next post, I'll blog about the likely expected relationship between the different PCS options and inflation using the framework laid out by Scott Fullwiler!
(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)
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