Founding Fathers Would Have Opposed A Balanced Budget Amendment – The Purpose of National Government Was to Borrow

Both official Washington and the chattering political classes have spent most of the past 12 months debating how to cut the government budget, reduce deficits, and limit debt.  Key groups, and perhaps the most vocal and strident groups in the debate, have been the self-described “constitutional conservatives” and Tea Party types. They have staked out the position that government deficits, debt, and indeed any taxation except the most minimal taxation is un-American and antithetical to “first principles” of the Founding Fathers.  They maintain a myth that the U.S. Constitution was created to limit the U.S. government’s ability to tax or run a deficit.  Unfortunately for them, history and the constitution itself tell a different tale.

Historian William Hogeland punctures the myth that the Founding Fathers would have agreed with today’s Tea Party types using an historian’s favorite tools – the facts. The following originally appeared at New Deal 2.0. Besides the applicability to today’s debates, it makes fascinating reading about the historical situation that led to the Constitution after the Revolution.  (emphasis below in bold are mine)

Why Debt Ceilings and Balanced-Budget Requirements Violate the Original Intent of the Constitution

So-called “constitutional conservatives” ignore the realpolitik of our nation’s origins.

In a critical and entertaining portrait of the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni presented Norquist as an absolutist obsessed with forcing modern political life to conform to ideas that Norquist associates with the American founders’ first principles.  Of course, Norquist is by no means alone in taking that position. That the Constitution came into existence to keep taxes low, the federal government small, and national debt at zero is an article of faith among many who, like Michele Bachmann, have taken to calling themselves “constitutional conservatives.” And faith is required to believe it, as the Norquist interview shows. To make his supposedly constitutional argument, Norquist cites the first amendment on freedom of religion and the second on the right to keep and bear arms, and then goes on to cite absolutely nothing, in either the articles or the amendments, that so much as hints at a constitutional requirement to balance the federal budget, avoid debt, tax no more than people like Norquist deem appropriate, and keep government small.

He can’t cite anything to that effect because while balancing budgets, restraining borrowing, and keeping taxes low and government small might be good goals, depending on what you mean by them, it is impossible to locate in the founding national law any requirement to accomplish them. Indeed, the reality of founding history leads to the reverse conclusion.

The Constitution came about precisely to enable a newly large government — a national one — to tax all Americans for the specific purpose of funding a large public debt. Neither Alexander Hamilton nor his mentor the financier Robert Morris made any bones about that purpose; James Madison was among their closest allies; and Edmund Randolph of Virginia opened the Constitutional Convention by charging the delegates to redress the country’s failure to fund — not pay off, fund — the public debt, by creating a national government.

Beginning during the War of Independence, and continuing throughout the 1780s, American nationalists committed themselves to a small class of upscale high financiers (largely identical with the American nationalists), who had bought bonds from the confederation Congress in hopes of earning regular, tax-free, 6% interest payments — not in the Congress’s crashing paper currency but in hard, cold metal or its equivalent, stable bills of exchange. Morris, Hamilton, Madison, and others believed that swelling the debt to immense proportions would make a coherent nation out of thirteen squabbling states and make that nation a player on the world economic stage. Their plan to do so depended partly on making military-officer pay a pension, thus turning the entire officer class into public bondholders — and giving Congress new power to tax all Americans to support that debt.

Hamilton is often reflexively presented as finding inventive ways to pay down the national debt. His real accomplishments were of course “funding and assumption” — absorbing the states’ war debts in the federal one and funding that huge obligation via nationally collected and nationally enforced taxes.

Hence the all-important provisions of the Constitution giving Congress very broad powers to tax and acquire debt. To 18th-century American nationalists across the political spectrum — to our founders and framers, that is, from Hamilton to Madison, from Morris to Randolph, from the financiers to the planters — national taxing and borrowing were ineluctably connected to the very purpose of national government.

Nobody has to like it. But the original intent of the Constitution involved sustaining and managing public debt via taxation.

Both the articles and the amendments do, of course, limit government and restrict its power. But no ratified amendment has ever qualified Congress’s power of the purse, which in the minds of the framers explicitly involved the power to take on debt and fund it. In their tweets and blogs, “constitutional conservatives” have been promoting a balanced-budget amendment with reference to the tired notion that since households and small businesses must balance their budgets (as if!), government must too. They link that economically useless prescription to the widespread fantasy that our Constitution was written, amended, and ratified for just such a purpose. The framers saw it just the other way.

But really everybody, not just “constitutional conservatives,” buys into the fantasy now. History is rarely helpful politically. It’s hard to imagine liberals bringing to debt-ceiling and balanced-budget debates the painful realpolitik of our national origins, which show the Constitution existing, originally, to finance the investing class and yoke that class’s interest (in every sense) to national power. Thus the Times gives the Bruni piece a headline referring to Norquist’s “dangerous purity” — as if the danger in Norquist’s approach lies in a too-rigid insistence on basic principle. There’s nothing purist about Norquist. Whether his ideas may be proven right or proven wrong, they are anything but originalist. Like those of Bachmann and the rest of the anti-tax right, Norquist’s principles are novel, innovative, and weirdly postmodern, extra-constitutional at best.

Stark realism about the actual founding purposes of the Constitution will always have limited use in political debate. But it would be nice, at least — though unlikely — if we would argue these issues on their merits, and leave the Constitution alone.

William Hogeland is the author of the narrative histories Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion and a collection of essays, Inventing American History. He has spoken on unexpected connections between history and politics at the National Archives, the Kansas City Public Library, and various corporate and organization events. He blogs at http://www.williamhogeland.com.

The Misunderstood National Debt

A colleague asked for my thoughts on this article/column by Michael Manning in the State News, the Michigan State student newspaper, so I thought I’d post it for all.

Basically Mr. Manning reaches the right conclusions with a correct, but weak case. In looking at the issue of the size of the U.S. national debt and the panicked concerns many politicians are now expressing about the “urgent need to cut the deficit”, he concludes:

Republicans have decided to use this opportunity to further their party’s political agenda, feeding off of the public’s misunderstanding of national debt.

Although the debt is growing at an alarming rate, it does not mean the end of times or the end of American economic dominance. Public debt largely is misunderstood and used as a tool to scare everyday Americans.

He’s right. The debt is not the end of times nor will it end American economic prosperity (other policies may do that!).  And he’s absolutely right that public debt is largely misunderstood.

But the arguments for why it’s not a crisis and how it’s misunderstood are even stronger than he argues.  Essentially, Manning argues that most all of the debt is owed to “ourselves”, meaning either American citizens, American corporations/banks, or other units of government (Social Security program, The Federal Reserve, etc). That’s all true, but there are bigger reasons why the national debt doesn’t really matter.

He quotes Glenn Beck and then responds:

In the words of Glenn Beck, “China, some day, will want their payment, America. They will demand payment and they will receive their payment.

And if we can’t pay, they will do what any other bank would do, emotionlessly take the collateral that they now own. That will be our oil reserves, our land, our resources, our rare minerals, our coal, whatever it is.”

How much stake do these Chinese bankers actually have in America? They own a mere 7.5 percent, or about $1 trillion dollars of the national debt.

Yes, China only holds a small amount of the debt. But that’s not really why they won’t “repossess the collateral”.  The reason China won’t foreclose on the U.S. more complex. First, Glenn Beck is absolutely ignorant.  There is not “collateral” on government debt.  The only security for the loan is the “full faith of the U.S. government”.  In other words, if the U.S. didn’t want to pay, or if it wanted to payoff with new bonds, or if it wanted to payoff with newly created “money”, that’s their privilege. The lender knows that at the beginning.  There is no international court of claims where one country can foreclose on another for a bad debt.  What happens when a nation defaults on it’s debt?  Basically the lenders (usually banks in other countries) get really upset. They stamp their feet. They call serious meetings. Serious communiques are issued.  Foreign ministers get “concerned”.  Then they re-write the debt and the lenders take a loss. Nothing else.  Because it can’t!  The idea of China “emotionlessly” claiming our “oil reserves, land, our resources,” etc. is absurd.  How does Mr. Beck propose this happens?  China just pulls a couple ships up to Texas, kicks everybody out and tows the state of Texas home to China?  Or maybe China just moves in, digs up our coal and ships it home while everybody in West Virginia stands around? Or does Mr. Beck believe China will invade and forcibly take over (a nation with enough nuclear weapons to make dust of all us many times)?  It’s ludicrous.  I repeat.  The government is NOT like a household, and that means there’s no analogy between holders of US debt and a car loan or mortgage you took from the bank.

But the national debt is more misunderstood than just this false household analogy.  Indeed, it’s even misunderstood by many economists.  The issue has to do with money. The U.S. government, being (1) a sovereign nation that creates it’s own money . that (2) borrows in it’s own currency and (3) has a fiat currency with floating exchange rate, means the government (federal) cannot go broke or ever not be able to pay back bonds and interest when they are due.  This is because the government creates and is the source of the underlying “base money”.  It can always create more money to pay the bonds when due.  Now I know many folks, including many economists who haven’t updated their understanding of the monetary system since the 1971, will say “but, but, but that’s printing money and that creates inflation.”.  No it isn’t. And no it doesn’t.  The government doesn’t pay it’s bills or payoff bonds with “money”.  They send checks drawn on The Federal Reserve Bank.  Those checks are accepted by your local bank when you deposit them. When your local bank gives the check to The Fed, The Fed provides the bank with bank reserves.  Bank reserves are not money.  Bank reserves do not circulate. And, since 1971 at least, bank reserves do not limit or really influence how much money is in circulation.  How much your local bank loans out creates money.  And The Fed creates reserves to match what’s needed. (for a more in-depth explanations, see Bill Mitchell’s blog BillyBlog or the UMKC Economic Perspectives or this blog and search on “MMT”).

Now some, including many economists, claim that creating new bank reserves is inflationary.  But this is based entirely on an outdated theory called the quantity theory of money which hasn’t proven useful, accurate, or valid for over 40 years, largely because it’s based on having a gold standard or fixed exchange rates (both of which Nixon abolished).  Inflation happens when the nominal economy grows too fast and the central bank controls that through interest rates, not quantities of bank reserves or money.  I realize that some of this may sound counter to what folks may find in a lot of econ 101 textbooks, but that’s because the textbooks really haven’t been updated to reflect modern monetary theory or modern central banking operations in the way they work since the end of fixed exchange rates and gold standard.  In economics we have a problem with zombie ideas refusing to die.

Finally, there’s another very important reason the Chinese or anybody else that holds U.S. debt in large amounts don’t have a problem with the size of our debt.  That’s because the “debt” itself, the bonds, really shouldn’t be thought of as “debt”.  Government debt is really more like “paper money that pays interest”.  Again this is sovereign national debt – see above conditions.  If you are a state government or a nation like Greece or Ireland that foolishly gave away control of their currency to some foreign central bank, it’s different.  That debt is really debt.  But national, sovereign, floating exchange rate, government “debt”, the kind the U.S., Japan, Australia, U.K., Canada, and a host of other nations have isn’t really “debt”.  It’s a form of interest-paying risk-free cash.  It’s used by pension funds, banks, and investors as a risk-free asset. Indeed, at one point in the previous decade when Australia was actually paying down it’s debt and not issuing new bonds, the banking community persuaded the government to borrow anyway just so the bonds would exist.

So, Mr. Manning is correct, but he’s even more correct than he argued.  The national debt is misunderstood. And a false crisis is being created in order to push an alternative agenda.

More re: National Debt

Just after I finished my Background Info on National  Debt post, I ran across this from James Galbraith at New Deal 2.0. He does a nice job of pointing out some of the errors of the “oh-my-god-the-deficit-is-going-to-destroy-us-if-we-don’t-cut-grandma’s-social-security” crowd. For  those not aware, Pete Peterson is a billionaire that has spent millions trying to frighten people with the deficit and persuade people to cut government spending benefits to people less fortunate than him. He paid for a substantial portion of the Obama Bi-Partisan Commission on Fiscal Responsibility – the ones who recommended cutting Social Security, a sound healthy program. He has also contracted with Columbia Univ. Teachers College to produce propaganda “educational materials” for elementary school children about the national debt, or at least as Peterson understands the debt. Of course, as we learn from Galbraith, Peterson and his foundation don’t really understand it very well:

Economist James K. Galbraith goes behind the scenes at a Pete Peterson gathering of deficit hawks to see what they have to say.The Fiscal Solutions Tour is the latest Peter G. Peterson Foundation effort to rouse the public against deficits and the national debt — and in particular (though they manage to avoid saying so) to win support for measures that would impose drastic cuts on Social Security and Medicare. It features Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition, former Comptroller General David Walker and the veteran economist Alice Rivlin, whose recent distinctions include serving on the Bowles-Simpson commission. They came to Austin on February 9 and (partly because Rivlin is an old friend) I went.

Mr. Bixby began by describing the public debt as “the defining issue of our time.” It is, he said, a question of “how big a debt we can have and what can we afford?” He did not explain why this is so. He did not, for instance, attempt to compare the debt to the financial crisis, to joblessness or foreclosures, nor to energy or climate change. Oddly none of those issues were actually mentioned by anyone, all evening long.

A notable feature of Bixby’s presentation were his charts. One of them showed clearly how the public deficit soared at the precise moment that the financial crisis struck in late 2008. The chart also shows how the Clinton surpluses had started to disappear in the recession of 2000. But Mr. Bixby seemed not to have noticed either event. Flashing this chart, he merely commented that “Congress took care” of the budget surplus. Still, the charts did show the facts — and in this respect they were the intellectual highpoint of the occasion.

federal-spending-v-reveunes-chart-500

A David Walker speech is always worth listening to with care, for Mr. Walker is a reliable and thorough enumerator of popular deficit-scare themes. Three of these in particular caught my attention on Friday.

To my surprise, Walker began on a disarming note: he acknowledged that the level of our national debt is not actually high. In relation to GDP, it is only a bit over half of what it was in 1946. And to give more credit, the number Walker used, 63 percent, refers to debt held by the public, which is the correct construct — not the 90+ percent figure for gross debt, commonly seen in press reports and in comparisons with other countries. The relevant number is today below where it was in the mid-1950s, and comparable to the early 1990s.

But Mr. Walker countered that fact with another, which I’d never heard mentioned before: in real terms he said — that is, after adjusting for inflation — per capita national debt is now twice what it was back then.

The problem is that real per capita national debt is a concept with no economic meaning or importance. (No government agency reports it, either.) Even in the private sector, debt levels matter only in relation to income and wealth: richer people can (and do) take on more debt. Real per capita national income is well over three times higher today than it was in 1946 — so how could it possibly matter that the “real per capita national debt” is twice as high?

Next, Mr. Walker made a comparison between the United States and Greece, with the implication being that this country might, some day soon, face that country’s interest costs. But of course this is nonsense. Greece is a small nation that has to borrow in a currency it cannot control. The United States is a large nation that pays up in a money it can print. There is no chance the markets will mistake the US for Greece, and of course they have not done so.

Finally, Mr. Walker warned that “foreign lenders… can’t dump their debt but can curb their appetite” for new US Treasury bonds. This was an oblique reference to the yellow peril. The idea, when you think about it, is that the Chinese central bank will acquire dollars — which it does when China runs an export surplus — and then fail to convert them into Treasury bonds, thereby choosing, voluntarily, to hold dollars in cash, which earns no interest, instead of as Treasury bills, which do. Mr. Walker did not try to explain why this would appeal to the Chinese.

Walker closed by calling for action tied to an increase in the debt ceiling; specifically for a hard cap on the debt-to-GDP ratio with “enforcement mechanisms,” which could include pro rata cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits and tax surcharges. He did not specify whether the cap should apply to gross federal debt or only to that part of the debt held by the public (a number which the Federal Reserve can change, any time it wants, by buying or selling public debt). When pressed, in the question period, he would not even say what he thought the cap should be.

I waited for Ms. Rivlin to add something sensible. But she did not. Apart from some platitudes — she favors “serious tax reform” and “restructuring Medicare” — her interesting contribution was to restate Mr. Walker’s comment about “foreign lenders,” who might say “we’re not going to lend you any more money.” That this would amount to saying “we’re not going to sell you any more goods” seems — from a question-and-answer and brief exchange afterward — genuinely not to have crossed her mind.

The Fiscal Solutions Tour comes with a nice brochure, and even (in my case) with a flash drive containing Mr. Bixby’s powerpoints. But does Mr. Peterson think he’s getting his money’s worth? The President, in his State of the Union, mostly ignored him. The Bowles-Simpson effort (which he paid for in part) and the closely allied Rivlin-Domenici plan are fading from view. And as the House Republicans forge their own course, demanding radical spending cuts right now — for political rather than economic reasons, which they don’t even bother to explain — the tired and shabby arguments of these old deficit-worriers hardly seem connected, any more, to the battles at hand.

James K. Galbraith is a Vice President of Americans for Democratic Action. He is General Editor of “Galbraith: The Affluent Society and Other Writings, 1952-1967,” just published by Library of America. He teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.

Background Info on U.S. National Debt

This is another post in response to a student request.  Here are some links that provide background information about the U.S. national debt.

First, the definitive sources:

  • for the exact amount of debt by year:  U.S Treasury Direct – Reports: http://www.treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/pd/histdebt/histdebt.htm
    • this site also has links, graphs, charts on the makeup of the debt by maturities, interest rates, types of bonds, etc.  Even has detailed info on U.S. Savings Bonds
  • for the official story of how the debt happened, how it was managed throughout U.S. history: U.S. Bureau of Public Debt http://www.publicdebt.treas.gov/history/history.htm – a series of 6 pages, covering the whole history.
  • for some more facts, graphs, and some analysis: see Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_public_debt
    • Be warned, however, the Wikipedia article repeats a lot of commonly believed, but factually incorrect statements such as “spending must be financed by borrowing” and that “entitlement spending such as Social Security” pose a “risk” – see below.
  • for a decent, factually correct analysis, albeit a politically biased toward progressive policies analysis see:  Z Facts – http://zfacts.com/p/1195.html – several other links and pages explaining some misconceptions

Overall, anybody researching or thinking about the U.S. national debt, should keep in mind that there’s a LOT of nonsense circulating about U.S. government debt. To correct these misconceptions, keep in mind the following:

  • Debt is the accumulation of past deficits, if those deficits were “financed” with borrowing. Deficits are the difference between government money-in and money-out. Money-in is Taxes. Money-out is GovSpending + GovTransfers. If money-out exceeds money-in, you have a deficit.
  • Deficits do not necessarily have to be “financed” by borrowing, but the U.S. government has long voluntarily followed a policy of borrowing each year to cover the deficit, although it doesn’t necessarily do so month-by-month. The alternative to borrowing to “finance” a deficit in a modern system is to issue checks to pay for spending and let the central bank (Federal Reserve) create bank reserves when the checks are cashed.
  • Any analogy between a household’s finances and the national government is false. There is no such valid comparison.
  • As long as a national government issues it’s own currency, that currency is not fixed in value (convertible) to anything else (other currency or gold), and the government borrows in it’s own currency, then it cannot default or go “bankrupt” or “insolvent” unless it voluntarily chooses to do so to screw the bondholders. This applies to US, Australia, Japan, UK, Canada, etc, but not to countries inside the “eurozone” – they don’t have their own currency.
  • National deficits, and hence debt, almost always goes up during a war. Vietnam war was a bit of exception.
  • When comparing debt levels between different years/eras, it is critical to adjust for:
    • inflation – use “real dollars” or “constant x year dollars” if looking at the debt in dollars
    • size of population and the economy. –  The best measure of the relative size of the debt is: debt-to-GDP ratio.
  • Three things that really balloon the size of deficits and hence debt levels:
    • War
    • Depression or recession – since tax receipts are generally based on economic activity (income tax), anything that slows the economy slows tax collection and raises the deficit.
    • Major income tax cut programs when combined with major new spending intiatives.  This was rare in early US history, but big in Reagan years and Bush II years.
  • One thing that really reduces deficits and hence, slows the growth of debt:
    • a growing economy, especially as it nears full employment (explains Clinton years)
  • Government bonds/debt is NOT a “burden” on children or grandchildren.  It does not have to be paid back. If the borrowed money is spent on things that improve or stimulate econonic growth, then the “children” and “grandchildren” inherit a larger, more productive economy that can pay for the debt interest.
  • Government bonds are not really like household debt or corporate debt, or even state-government debt. The best way to think about government bonds is that they are just like currency except they pay interest.
  • It is possible to have too little national debt. Banks in particular need to have a certain amount of government bonds among their “assets” because they provide a liquid asset.  In recent years, the Australian government, when running a series of surpluses was asked by the banking community to issue new bonds anyway.

I have more on the national debt and those promoting the idea that the debt is the number one problem in U.S., on tax cuts, deficits, and debt, and on how the U.S. cannot go “bankrupt”.