Budget Collapse: Too Much Free Money

It's past time for Congress to "tear up" the U.S. Treasury's credit cards.

The super-committee of Congress is the latest group to confess abject defeat by the Treasury budget deficit. Who can be surprised by this total failure? During the past generation Congress has made as many as fifteen legislative attempts to control government spending -- aimed ultimately at a balanced budget. The most notable efforts were those sponsored by the all-time budget hawk, Senator Phil Gramm of Texas. But every administrative and legislative effort by the authorities, no matter how well-intentioned, has collapsed. Why is this so?

Nobel economist Milton Friedman believed the solution to the budget deficit problem was to deny Congress tax revenues. So he advised Congressmen and Presidents to oppose all tax increases -- thereby denying bloated government the funds with which to increase spending. But Friedman's advice has failed, too. We know this because marginal tax rates have been reduced from as high as 70% in 1964 to 15-20-39% in 2011 -- depending on the type of income. But congressional spending has nevertheless increased every year -- such that, today, only 60% of the Federal budget is financed by taxes, the remainder by Treasury debt. Total direct Federal debt is now about equal to total U.S. output.

The intractable budget deficit and the inexorable rise of government spending has a simpler explanation. Congress and the Treasury are in possession of several open-ended charge accounts -- "permanent credit card financing" -- with no limits. With its charge cards the Treasury can borrow new credit (money) from the banking system -- much of what it needs every year to finance the ever-rising budget deficit.

A look at the current Federal Reserve Balance Sheet shows that the Fed has created about $1.7 trillion of new credit (money) with which to purchase Treasury debt. Foreign central banks have created about $2.7 trillion of new credit to purchase U.S. Treasury bonds. This global, electronic, money-printing exercise has financed almost 30% of the total direct debt of the U.S. Treasury. In 2002, Ben Bernanke, now Chairman of the Fed, did not mince words to describe this process:

[U]nder a fiat (that is, paper) money system, a government (in practice, the central bank in cooperation with other agencies) should always be able to generate increased nominal spending and inflation, even when the short-term nominal interest rate is at zero…. [T]he U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press (or, today, its electronic equivalent), that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at essentially no cost.

He might have added that these "no cost" dollars, printed by the Fed, are the enablers of the perennial U.S. budget deficit.

But the Fed is not the only credit card used by the Treasury to finance the budget deficit. Because the dollar is the world's reserve currency, foreign central banks also finance U.S. budget deficits (as the custody account of the Fed balance sheet shows). Domestic and foreign commercial banks, too, supply vast amounts of new credit to the U.S. Treasury because domestic, foreign, and international bank regulators, such as the Basel authorities, define U.S. sovereign bonds as high quality assets for which bank reserves are not necessary. Therefore financial institutions can qualify their overleveraged balance sheets by loading up on Treasury Securities. Indeed, only 10-20% of the total direct debt of the U.S. Treasury is now owned by the non-bank, non-government private market. In a word, given the reserve currency role of the dollar, the Federal Reserve and foreign central banks have been given every institutional incentive to finance the U.S. budget deficit. Beginning with World War I, every monetary discipline has been removed by domestic and international authorities, such that runaway government spending everywhere relies on the ultimate credit card -- newly created money in the banking system.

The simplest solution to the government spending problem in Congress is "to tear up" its credit cards. The way to do this is not with ad hoc and unavailing administrative patchworks, all of which are nullified by world banking system credit made available to the U.S. Treasury. Instead, the effective democratic solution is authorized by the U.S. Constitution -- in Article I, Sections 8 and 10: -- whereby the control of the supply of dollars is entrusted to the hands of the people -- where it stayed for most of American history, especially from 1792 to 1914. This was America's longest period of rapid, non-inflationary, economic growth -- almost 4% annually, with the budget under control except wartime.

Congress need only mobilize its unique, Article I, constitutional power "to coin money and regulate the value thereof." From 1792 to 1971 Congress defined by law the gold value of the currency such that paper dollars and bank demand deposits were convertible to their gold equivalent -- by the people (1792-1914) and/or by governments (1933-1971). Congress should exercise this constitutional power to restore dollar-gold convertibility, because of the proven budgetary and economic growth benefits of a dollar as good as gold.

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Reprinted by The Cobden Centre