Debt-Ceiling: An Absurd, Unnecessary Law

The debt-ceiling circus in Washington continues as I write this.  The Republicans seem bound and determined to ruin the “full faith and credit” of the United States, while President Obama is frustrated that the Republicans won’t accept his deals to cut Social Security and Medicare.  None of this is necessary.  We don’t need a debt ceiling.  It’s absurd. It’s counterproductive.  It’s self-destructive.

James Surowiecki of The New Yorker writes (emphasis is mine):

The truth is that the United States doesn’t need, and shouldn’t have, a debt ceiling. Every other democratic country, with the exception of Denmark, does fine without one. There’s no debt limit in the Constitution. And, if Congress really wants to hold down government debt, it already has a way to do so that doesn’t risk economic chaos—namely, the annual budgeting process. The only reason we need to lift the debt ceiling, after all, is to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized. If the debt ceiling isn’t raised, we’ll face an absurd scenario in which Congress will have ordered the President to execute two laws that are flatly at odds with each other. If he obeys the debt ceiling, he cannot spend the money that Congress has told him to spend, which is why most government functions will be shut down. Yet if he spends the money as Congress has authorized him to he’ll end up violating the debt ceiling.

As it happens, the debt ceiling, which was adopted in 1917, did have a purpose once—it was a way for Congress to keep the President accountable. Congress used to exercise only loose control over the government budget, and the President was able to borrow money and spend money with little legislative oversight. But this hasn’t been the case since 1974; Congress now passes comprehensive budget resolutions that detail exactly how the government will tax and spend, and the Treasury Department borrows only the money that Congress allows it to. (It’s why TARP, for instance, required Congress to pass a law authorizing the Treasury to act.) This makes the debt ceiling an anachronism. These days, the debt limit actually makes the President less accountable to Congress, not more: if the ceiling isn’t raised, it’s President Obama who will be deciding which bills get paid and which don’t, with no say from Congress.

What happens if they don’t vote to raise the debt ceiling? Nobody knows.  There’s lots of scenarios.  It all depends on how crowds of people react and how those same crowds think the others in the crowd will react.  It’s unpredictable.  Interest rates might go up, they might go down, they might stay put.  Two things are for sure, though.  There will be lots of trading and uncertainty in financial markets with increased volatility.  And more important, if a default translates into the government actually spending significantly less money next month than now, then GDP is for sure going down.  Any government spending cut of greater than 10% immediately puts us back into recession – maybe even less.

So what’s really going on?  Well both the Republicans in Congress and President Obama are trying to accomplish non-budget goals that they can’t do by normal means.  Both are trying to radically scale back aspects of government that are too popular to do head-on.  They’re trying to cut Social Security, cut Medicare, raise the age on Medicare, change Obama’s healthcare plan, and other things that polls show are very popular.  So they’re trying to do it under cover of “having to for the debt”.  Except that they don’t have to do it.  The debt-ceiling law is totally unnecessary and contrived.

Government Bonds are Just Like Government Money

Government debt is not like private debt.  Government debt, government bonds, are really just another form of the government-issued fiat money obligations – just like paper money.  There really is little difference between government bonds and that paper money in your pocket – except that the bonds pay interest and are harder to cash at 7-11.  Yves Smith at NakedCapitalism points out what I’ve mentioned before:

what is the functional difference for the federal government between Treasury securities and bank notes? Both are liabilities of the federal government. But liabilities of what? The only obligation they enforce on the government is the promise to repay with more paper (or electronic bank credits, if you will). For all intents and purposes, bank notes, reserve deposits, and Treasury securities are fungible: they are obligations to be repaid in the same fiat currency.

I’m looking at a five dollar bill right now. It says “Federal Reserve Note” across the top. It has an oversized picture of Abraham Lincoln in the middle. It also says “this note is legal tender for all debt, public and private” in the lower left, signed “Anna Escobedo Cabral, Treasurer of the United States.” On the back, I see “The United States of America” up top and “In God We Trust” underneath with a picture of the Lincoln Memorial in the middle, labelled “Lincoln Memorial” for those who don’t know what it is. But, I’m trying to figure out why Geithner and the gang couldn’t just reel off a bunch of these and some Jacksons and Benjamins and pay people?

Now I’m looking at a Canadian Twenty. It sure is colourful. It has a bunch of French on it and a picture of the Queen. But, other than that, it’s really no different than the American fiver. “Ce billet a cours legal/ This note is legal tender.”

I have some Euros and Mexican pesos too. But these central banks don’t say anything about their obligations. Very dubious! At least they’re colourful like the Canadian money.

How ‘bout a British tenner? Dickens on the front, and the Queen on the back (she’s everywhere). A-ha. Here’s what I’m looking for. It says “Bank of England. I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds.”

I think that gets me to my point, actually. From the government’s perspective, there is no functional difference between any of its obligations like bank notes, electronic credits, or treasury bills and bonds. As the Ten pound note says, “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of [fill in the blank sum][fill in the blank fiat currency].”

So, the U.S. government could legitimately stop issuing bonds altogether if it wanted to. When people complain about the admittedly enormous government debt, they don’t think of the mechanics of the issue. As I see it, in a fiat money environment, the first function of the Treasury bonds is to serve as a vehicle to add or subtract reserves in the system to help the Federal Reserve hit a target Fed Funds rate. The second is to give holders of government obligations a return on their investment. After all, bank notes or bank reserves don’t pay much if anything.

If you’ve following, then you realize two things.  First the government* can always pay off it’s bonds.  Second, there’s no budget constraint that forces the government to “borrow in order to spend”.  Instead, the government chooses to borrow (issue bonds) to meet any difference between spending and tax collections.  It’s a political and policy choice.  The government could spend by issuing credits to bank accounts (electronic checks) which would create bank reserves. Or the government could just issue new paper currency to pay for it’s spending.  Either way, it’s essentially the same:  the government issues a paper (or electronic) obligation to pay in the future.

So what’s the difference?  Well there is one key difference.  (no, it doesn’t have to do with inflation).  Money or bank reserves issued doesn’t pay interest.  So people have limits on how much they want to hold.  So they then spend it and the money goes into circulation as people buy, sell, and trade things.  The real economy grows because the medium of exchange is more plentiful.  What happens when bonds are issued instead?  The holders of bonds earn interest.  That makes them comfortable just sitting on the bonds and collecting interest from the government at no risk.  There’s no exchanges, no trading, no buying, no selling.  No economic activity.  The political preference for borrowing over issuing money/credits means a subsidy to a narrow class of people to take their wealth out of circulation.