An alternative to popular faith

Almost exactly five years ago, Professor Randall Wray asked me to speak at the UMKC. At the time, I predicted the current EU financial crisis. Recently, I thought to look back at that speech, to see what I might wish I had changed.

The Meteorology of Economics, Speech at the University of Missouri, KC by Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
June 5, 2005

[Because of the Euro, no euro nation can control its own money supply. The Euro is the worst economic idea since the recession-era, Smoot-Hawley Tariff. The economies of European nations are doomed by the euro.]

The title of this paper means economists act like meteorologists. I will explain what that means.

My name is Rodger Malcolm Mitchell and I am a businessman – specifically, a turnaround specialist. I enter failing companies, and make them successful.

The management, even of a failing company, always knows more about their company than I do. So I just come in, and ask questions, and through these questions, I help management see their company in new way.

Initially, I spend less time on financial report details, and more time trying to uncover the company’s big picture. I ask things like: “What’s your goal?” “What’s your plan?” “How are you unique?” “What’s your focus?”

Having seen many companies, I’ve learned to doubt the current wisdom. For example: Managers often tell me their goal is to diversify. They don’t want all their eggs in one basket.

“Diversify” is a beautiful word. The whole company agrees that’s a good goal. It’s the current wisdom. No one argues with it. Yet, “diversify” is the primary cause of small business failure. It is another way to say, “Lose focus.”

Positive word — Negative outcome. I call it “The tyranny of semantics.” I see it in business — I see it in economics.

Today, I’m going to revert to my favorite method. I’ll ask you questions – and perhaps my questions will help you to see economics in a different way. Here are two questions:

1) Why does the federal government borrow money?
And 2) – Why do we pay federal taxes?

While you let those questions percolate, let me ask you a couple of preliminary questions:

What causes the weather? The big picture answer is, “sunlight.” The Golden Rule of Meteorology is, “Warming weather needs a growing supply of sunlight.”

Second preliminary question: What causes the economy to grow? The big picture answer is, “money.” The Golden Rule of Economics is: “A growing economy requires a growing supply of money.” This is the absolute, positive truth of economics. “A growing economy requires a growing supply of money.”

But what is money? As you well know, it formerly was commodities like grain, silver and gold. Later, it became pieces of paper that could be exchanged for precious metals.

Those pieces of paper were debt instruments. The collateral for the debt was government-owned precious metals, which is what gave those debt instruments their value. You could go to a bank with your ten-dollar, silver certificate, and receive ten dollars worth of silver.

The government’s ability to create money was limited by its supply of collateral.

Even today, printed on a dollar bill are the words, “Federal Reserve Note.” The words, “bill” and “note” describe debt instruments, as in T-bill and T-note.

Today, paper dollars still are debt instruments, though now the government owes you a different collateral. This collateral is called full faith and credit. It’s all that gives paper money its value. Not the gold in Fort Knox. Not Yellowstone National Park. Not the Washington Monument. Just full faith and credit.

The government’s ability to create money still is limited by its supply of collateral. But, since the government has an unlimited supply of full faith and credit, it’s ability to create money is unlimited. In short, the federal government owns a giant, unlimited, money machine.

What forms of money are there? All you ever read about are the “M’s” — M1, M2 and M3. The “Ms” are completely arbitrary divisions, based on liquidity. Look in M3, and you’ll see things like checking accounts, savings accounts, travelers checks, large time deposits, money market funds, overnight loans.

Checking and savings accounts and large time deposits all are bank debt, expressed in dollars. Your bank owes you the dollars in your account. Money market accounts are debts of the money market, expressed in dollars. Overnight loans also are bank debt, expressed in dollars. And travelers checks are debt of American Express or whoever issued the checks — expressed in dollars.

Everything in M3 is some form of debt, expressed in dollars.

What about other forms of debt? Are they money, too? As I said, the definition of M3 is completely arbitrary and generally is based on liquidity. There are other forms of debt, that usually are less liquid than M3. For instance, a T-bill is not included in M3, because T-bills mature in anywhere from 1 year, all the way down to 1 day. Some might argue that a T-Bill maturing today is even more liquid than, for instance, a large time deposit, which is included in M3.

At one time T-bills were part of a money classification called “L,” though you don’t see that term any more. Yes, T-bills are money. They are debt, expressed in dollars.

And if T-bills are money, why not T-notes, which are less liquid, but otherwise the same? T-notes are debt, expressed in dollars. And if T-notes are money, why not T-bonds, and state, local and federal notes and bonds, and corporate bonds, and consumer credit, and CDs, and mortgages?

They all are debt, expressed in dollars. They all are the same, except for liquidity. In fact, one could argue that any of these forms of debt, maturing today, are just as liquid as any of the debt in M3.

The government’s arbitrary definitions do not change one fact: There is no functional difference between your checking account, your T-note and your corporate bond. They all are forms of debt, expressed in dollars. They all are forms of money.

All money is debt. And all debt, that’s expressed in dollars, is money. To understand that, is to understand much of what is wrong in our economy. All debt, that’s expressed in dollars, is money.

The total money supply is not limited to M3. The total money supply is the total supply of debt, expressed in dollars. You already knew that all money is debt and that all debt expressed in dollars is money. But, the tyranny of semantics affects the public, the media and Congress. They think of debt as being this bad thing, while money is a good thing. So it’s hard for them to imagine that this bad thing really is a good thing.

People say to you, “Wait. You can spend money, but you can’t spend a corporate bond.” And of course you tell them, “To spend money, you transfer debt. When you write a check, you transfer the bank’s debt from you to the person receiving your check.

To spend a bond, you transfer it to another holder. Even when spending currency, which is a federal debt, you transfer it to another owner. You can spend a bond, just as you spend currency.

So, the Golden Rule of Economics can be restated as, “A growing economy needs a growing supply of debt.” And you’ve undoubtedly noted the strong correlation between total debt growth and GDP growth – which is how you all were able to predict the last recession and the current recovery.

The Clinton government ran a surplus and destroyed debt. That is, it destroyed money. It violated the Golden Rule. When that happened, you and I knew the economy would fail. Cleverly, we sold our stock, and watched the stock market sink. Then, when it became clear the government would run a large deficit — that is, create money — you and I bought stock, and made a bundle. Isn’t that right?

When the media, and Chairman Greenspan, say the federal debt is too high, you of course, write a letter saying, “To say the debt is too high is like saying there is too much money in our economy. It’s like saying the economy would be healthier if the government took money out of it.”

You tell them the facts: You tell them that all our depressions immediately were preceded by federal surpluses. You remind them of those recoveries that were generated by deficits – including this current one. Yes, you wrote letters, and yes, no one agreed. At least that’s my experience.

Getting back to my original questions, “Why does the government borrow money?” We already know that money is debt, and that a growing economy requires a growing supply of debt. And, we already know that the government owns a giant, unlimited, money machine.

So now I’m going to show you how to eliminate all federal debt.

But wait. If debt is money, why would I want to eliminate federal debt? The answer: To end the confusion and the economic paralysis that comes from the belief that federal debt should be minimized. I want to end this tyranny of semantics. I want to eliminate federal debt, but without eliminating money.

Visualize this: The government needs money to buy things. So it creates, out of thin air, a T-bill — which is a form of money — and sends that T-bill down to the economy.

To pay for the T-bill, the economy sends its money — for instance, a check — back up to the government.

Then the government sends its check back down to the economy, to pay for goods and services.

It’s a three-headed monster — money comes down, money goes up, money comes down. So my question is: Why three trips, when one will do? If the government wants to buy something, why doesn’t it simply write a check? Eventually it’s going to write that check to service the T-bill. So, why not eliminate the T-bill and write the check in the first place?

If you had a money machine in your basement, and legally could print all the money you wanted, how would you pay for goods and services? Would you create a note, sell me that note, then use my money to pay for goods and services, and then later, print money to redeem the note — all the while printing even more money to pay me interest on the note?

Or would you simply print the money you need, in one simple step?

The businessman in me says, that T-bill transaction is inefficient. Worse yet, it causes a huge misunderstanding, that hurts our economy: People call that note, “debt.” Though that debt is money, even smart people think debt is bad, and you’re not going to convince them otherwise.

If the government merely wrote checks, people wouldn’t call it “debt.” They’d call it by its correct name: Money creation.

What erroneously is called “the federal debt” now approaches 7 trillion dollars. What if you were to tell your friends and the media that within the next 16 years, by year 2020, that so-called “debt” will be 40 trillion dollars – 600% of what it is today. Would they predict inflation? The need for massive tax increases? Economic disaster?

Well, back in 1980, that same question could have been asked. The federal debt was less than 1 trillion dollars. Only 16 years later it approached 6 trillion dollars — that same 600%. Was the result inflation? Massive tax increases? Economic disaster? No, much of that came later, when the surplus began.

If we eliminated government borrowing, we’d eliminate all the misconceptions about “debt,” “deficits,” “surpluses” and “borrowing.” No more borrowing. No more perceived debt. It would all be known as money creation – and of course, money creation is a good thing.

To buy something from you, the government would write a check. You’d deposit that check into your bank account. The bank’s deposit account would receive an automatic credit, for the amount of the check. No federal borrowing needed.

Just to keep track of things, the federal government would maintain a bookkeeping account called “money created,” and we’d all be happy.

I should mention that your bank doesn’t call your bank account a debt, though the bank owes you the money. No, the bank calls that debt a “deposit.” And banks boast about the size of their deposits. One bank says, “We have a billion dollars on deposit.” A competitor gloats, “We have two billion on deposit.” What they’re really saying is, “We’re in debt, big time. We owe our customers billions of dollars.”

Unlike the government, banks don’t own that unlimited money machine. But no one demands that banks reduce the size of their debt.

Just think: If we could have changed one word in the English language, our economy would be much different. If, instead of referring to federal debt, we called it federal deposits, the way the banks do, there never again would be a recession or a depression, and there would be no fears about the future of Social Security, Medicare, education, the infrastructure and all other federal programs. Isn’t it amazing what one word can do?

I wonder, is government borrowing just an unfortunate legacy from the time when governments were tied to gold and silver, and did not have the power to produce all the money they needed?

In summary, the person with the money machine does not need to borrow money.

My other question was, why do we pay federal taxes? Years ago, kings had no other way to get silver and gold, than by taxing. Finally, President Nixon, in the second greatest act of his presidency – the first being to resign – finally and completely divorced money from gold.

This gave the federal government the power to produce all the money it wanted. But we’re still paying taxes!

Visualize this: The government creates money, in that strange, three-step method we just talked about, and sends the money into the economy. Then what does the government do? It asks for some of the money back! That’s called taxation.

And what does the government do with the tax money you send back? It uses it to redeem its securities. In the world of finance, “to redeem” a note means “to destroy” it. The government uses taxation to destroy money. When you pay taxes, you are sending your money to a giant, money-shredder.

If you had a money-printing machine in your basement, and you sent money out into the economy, to buy goods and services, would you ask the economy to send you some of the money back, so you could shred it? Does that make any sense at all?

And if that weren’t strange enough, what does the government do after it shreds the money? Right. It prints more money and starts the cycle all over again.

It seems to me that printing money, then asking for some of it back so you can destroy it, and then printing more of it, is terribly inefficient. What if we simply ended taxation?

How would this make you feel: No more endless, wasted, unproductive hours working on federal tax returns. No more expensive IRS, no more claims, lawsuits, tax accountants. Think of what your bank account would look like if you didn’t have to pay taxes.

Sending tax money up to the federal government is like shipping oil to Saudi Arabia. What’s the purpose? The person with the money machine does not need to ask you for money.

Some say that taxes are necessary to control government spending. Taxes force the politicians to go before the people and ask for money, which puts a brake on spending.

In the first place, taxes don’t seem to put a brake on spending, as that 6 trillion dollars in 16 years proves.

In the second place, Congress doesn’t seem reluctant to ask for taxes. The Democrats are all over the media, demanding tax increases. Why? They know tax increases would reduce the money supply, kill the economy and prevent President Bush’s re-election. They are willing to destroy the economy, just to get elected.

In the third place, why use an expensive, inefficient, inherently unfair tax system to put a brake on spending? Why not just put that brake at whatever level we wish?

If a spending limit is needed — which is a question in itself — just set a limit. Why create a complex, costly, inefficient tax system that doesn’t work, to do what a simple limit would do?

But, you might ask, if we didn’t have taxes, wouldn’t we have too much money?

Is it possible to be too rich? I’ve heard the opinion that if there were too much money, production could not keep up with demand, and we’d have inflation — too many dollars chasing too few goods.

Does that really happen? President Roosevelt ran that experiment by pumping huge amounts of money into the economy. President Reagan ran the same experiment. The results? Prosperity. Pumping money into our economy increases production at the same rate as demand.

Money creation does not in itself cause inflation. O.K., what about Germany? Who can forget those people with wheelbarrows of money, trying to buy bread. Wasn’t that too much money chasing too few goods?

I don’t think so. Those wheelbarrows were filled with worthless paper. Having loads of paper, doesn’t mean you have lots of money. Massive printing of currency is the result, not the cause, of hyperinflation.

So, what does cause inflation? The answer: Lack of demand for money. Money is an investment. The greater the demand, the higher the price. I once built a commodity brokerage, and I learned that demand for money relates to risk and reward.

Risk means loss of value, and reward means interest rates. In short, inflation occurs when: 1) People don’t trust their money — and 2) When interest rates are too low, compared to the return on other investments.

Inflation always can be prevented by keeping interest rates high enough to attract investors, and by letting the world know you always will do so.

I mentioned Germany. They are in trouble, again. Their economy is stagnant. They want to increase their supply of money by cutting taxes. But, because of the Euro, no euro nation can control its own money supply. The Euro is the worst economic idea since the recession-era, Smoot-Hawley Tariff. The economies of European nations are doomed by the euro.

Anyway, the false notion that taxes help pay for federal spending leads to the equally false notion that you, as taxpayers, somehow owe the federal debt. I’ve seen so-called debt clocks showing that every man, woman and child owes a share of the federal debt. Ridiculous!

If you didn’t borrow it, why would you owe it? The government is the debtor. You’re not the government. In fact, if you own a government bond, you’re one of the creditors.

You’ll never pay a debt you don’t owe. Never. What you do pay are taxes, because some economists think this circular “create the money, then shred the money, then create more money” is a prudent way to run a country.

I even heard a theory that money has value only because the government requires us to pay taxes with it. The idea is, without the shredder, no one would want to own money.

Not true. You want money because all money can be exchanged for currency, and the government says currency is “legal tender for all debts.”

You can pay your bills with money. You can buy things with money. Sure, you pay taxes with money, but if there were no taxes, you still could buy all the other stuff. It’s not the shredder that gives money its value. You want money because the law says currency is legal tender.

What happens to Social Security if the government ends all federal taxes and all borrowing? The government owns the money machine, so obviously IT can’t go bankrupt. No federal check ever has, or ever will, bounce. So, no federal agency can go bankrupt — not Congress, not the Supreme Court, not the Pentagon, nor the White House, the FBI, the CIA – and not Social Security or Medicare. They are federal agencies, and despite all the scare headlines, they cannot go bankrupt. Period.

The irrational fear about the future of Social Security and Medicare leads grown men to come up with truly foolish ideas, like privatizing Social Security. If Clinton’s money-shredder recession did one good thing, it demonstrated how dangerous and self-defeating privatizing would be.

Anyway, as you know, there is no Social Security fund. It’s an accounting fiction. Federal money all comes out of one big pot. Remember President Clinton’s battle about the debt ceiling? Treasury Secretary Rubin magically paid bills belonging to one agency, from money supposedly owned by another agency He proved that all federal payments come out of that one big pot.

O.K., so we eliminate taxes and we eliminate federal borrowing, and we maintain the value of money by raising interest rates, when necessary. But wait. Don’t high interest rates make corporate borrowing more expensive. Doesn’t this slow production and hiring, and doesn’t this slow the economy? That’s Chairman Greenspan’s theory.

The facts? Periods with low interest rates don’t have better growth than periods with high interest rates. When Chairman Greenspan instituted rate cut after rate cut, I repeatedly wrote that this would not stimulate the economy. I was proved right. He was proved wrong. Only increased money can end a recession – which of course, is what now has happened.

Several years ago, Chairman Greenspan raised interest rates to cure inflation. He then lowered interest rates to cure the recession. Yet, inflation is not the opposite of recession. Chairman Greenspan uses the same tool, to cure two completely unrelated problems. Why? It’s the only tool he knows. To a hammer, every problem is a nail.

The next time we have a stagflation — the combination of stagnation and inflation — Chairman Greenspan and his interest rate hammer, will be completely helpless. He won’t know whether to raise rates to fight inflation or lower rates to fight stagnation. Frightening, isn’t it?

The reason low rates don’t stimulate the economy is, for every borrower there is a lender. For every payer of interest, there is a receiver. It’s a perfect balance. Ask all the people with bonds and CDs how the current, low interest rates affect them.

On balance, low rates actually may hurt the economy, because the federal government pays less interest on its bonds, sending less money into the economy.

Chairman Greenspan, with his repeated rate cuts, reminds me of a child in the back seat of a car, turning his toy steering wheel. When the car finally turns, the child thinks he steered the car.
Now that the economy is recovering, Chairman Greenspan will claim he did the steering, but he was just a child, sitting in the back seat, along for the ride. Congress steered the economy, first into the recession, then out, with its tax and spending policies.

In summary, I ask you to think about this three-point plan:
1) Eliminate federal taxes.
2) Eliminate federal borrowing.
3) Establish a national, money-supply goal. Include in it all the things currently called “debt.”

Do you dare suggest that we eliminate federal taxing and federal borrowing? Is that too extreme? Flying was extreme before the Wright brothers. Relativity was extreme. Walking on the moon, organ transplants, Martin Luther King – all were extreme. Don’t turn away from extreme. Extreme is the only thing that moves the world to change.

Here’s a great job for economists. Each year, estimate how much federal money-creation would be necessary, for the nation to achieve a prosperity goal. How high would that prosperity goal be? We could start with a GDP growth rate of say, 12%. That would put us in the ballpark of previous successful economies. We could work our way up from there.

Some years, to reach our prosperity goal, the federal government would need to create a great deal of money. In other years, it would create less. Much would depend on the quantity of money produced by the private sector.

Just think: Not to pay taxes. No federal borrowing to argue about. Having a money-creation goal and a prosperity goal that assures we never again will have a recession or depression.

Oh yes, I can think of a dozen reasons why it won’t work. It’s never been done. Smart people would have thought of it. It’s too big a change. Etc., etc. You can think of a dozen more.

But does the current system work? If you started from scratch, would you really design a system in which the government creates money, then destroys the money, then creates more money? Would you really invent our current tax system? Would you really invent Chairman Greenspan and his all-purpose, interest rate hammer?

If economics were a religion, the failure of cause and effect would not lead to doubt. Pray today. If it doesn’t work, pray again tomorrow — and tomorrow — and tomorrow. No matter how often your prayers fail, your belief remains the same. That is the essence of religion.

But economics is a science — a search for cause and effect. Scientists learn from failure. When Chairman Greenspan cut interest rates, and nothing happened, he cut them again and again and again. To him, economics is a religion. Despite repeated failures, neither his belief, nor the belief of his disciples, ever wavered.

He just knows that debt is bad, surpluses are good and rate cuts stimulate the economy. He just knows it with his soul.

Those who support our current system of federal taxing and federal borrowing, are not moved by repeated failures. To them, economics is a religion, divided into denominations: The Keynes, the Friedmans, the Laffers, each stoutly defended by their worshipers. But you won’t change the world by praying for the economy, no matter how strong your belief.

Pity the meteorologists – all they can do is talk about the weather. But you have a greater power. You can do something about the weather.

Our economic system is a convoluted, uncontrolled mess. Recession, depression, inflation, poverty, taxes, unemployment. These things don’t just happen like the weather. People create them. We can’t claim recessions were due to circumstances beyond our control. We control the circumstances.

The system is broken. Recessions prove it. Unemployment proves it. If we don’t learn from our failures — if we don’t create a better way — every economic failure is our own fault. So don’t be meteorologists, just talking about the weather. Do something about it.

The big picture is:

A healthy, growing economy needs a growing supply of money.
Taxes destroy money.
Federal borrowing is unnecessary and harmful, because it confuses the issue of debt vs. money.
This is your message: End taxes and federal borrowing. End taxes. End federal borrowing. Create money.

Given sufficient money, there would never again be a recession or depression. No more worries about Social Security, Medicare, education, the military, the ecology.

End taxes. End federal borrowing. Create money. Learn from yesterday’s mistakes. Take a new path. You have the power to control America’s economy. You have the knowledge. You have the credibility. You can change the weather. You can change the world.
Do it.

Still looks pretty good. The euro nations are dying, just as predicted, and I stand by the suggestions.

Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
http://www.rodgermitchell.com