The “Big Lie” comes in various forms. It is stated as:
- Federal spending is funded by federal taxes.
- The federal debt will lead to insolvency.
- Cuts in federal spending are financially prudent.
- Federal finances are like state/local government finances.
- Federal spending causes inflation.
- The federal government should live within its means.
- The federal debt is a ticking time bomb.
- China will stop lending to us.
- Profligate federal spending reduces our ability to deal with financial crises.
- Federal debt reduces economic growth
- The “debt”/GDP ratio is too high
All are widely promulgated, even by some economists and virtually all politicians and media writers — and all are absolutely untrue. They all are facets of The Big Lie.
Consider the following article from Reason Magazine:
The Next Pandemic Will Be Caused by the National Debt. It Will Crater the Economy.
Debt held by the public equals about 100 percent of GDP. That’s hurting growth and will fuel a major crisis. By Nick Gillespie,7.2.2020
Nick Gillespie is an editor at large at Reason, the libertarian magazine of “Free Minds and Free Markets.”
When President Donald Trump said on March 6 that the coronavirus “came out of nowhere,” it wasn’t quite accurate.
Actually, it was 100% wrong:
- A pandemic is caused by germs, not by debt, and . . .
- Federal debt not cause a financial crisis (lack of federal debt causes financial crises), and . . .
- A pandemic has been anticipated by every administration of the past few decades.
The Obama administration compiled a detailed plan for dealing with a pandemic — a plan the Trump administration completely ignored, costing many thousands of lives.
So far, more than 125,000 Americans have died — most unnecessarily — and many more will follow. To say Trump’s statement was not “quite accurate” is like saying the Pacific Ocean is somewhat damp.
Now, move to another comment that is “not quite accurate,” another statement of “The Big Lie.”
There’s another totally predictable crisis that promises to be even more damaging to our way of life: The national debt—the amount of money the federal government owes—is already choking down economic growth, but in the future, it could lead to “sudden inflation,” and “a loss of confidence in the federal government’s ability or commitment to repay its debts in full.”
It must be extremely difficult to pack so much misinformation into one short paragraph, but Nick Gillespie has accomplished the seemingly impossible.
1. The misnamed “national debt” is not the amount of money the federal government owes. It is the amount of money deposited into Treasury Security Accounts at the Federal Reserve bank.
The government does not “owe” this money; the government does not even “have” this money. It is owned by, and controlled by, the depositors.
To invest in a T-security (T-bill, T-note, T-bond), you open a T-security account. Visualize a bank vault into which you put your money, jewels, deeds, etc.
The bank does not “owe” you the value of your deposits. It possess them but does not own them. It merely holds them for you, and gives them back to you upon your demand.
Similarly, the government does not owe you your deposit. The bank possesses your deposit, but does not own it. It simply keeps it for you, and whenever you want it back, the government returns your deposit to you, plus accumulated interest.
2. Your deposits (the so-called national “debt”) do not “choke down” anything. In fact quite the opposite. Until COVID-19, both the economy and the federal “debt” had been growing massively.
The federal “debt” is a reflection of federal deficit spending which stimulates economic growth. In fact, whenever the national debt has been reduced, America has suffered a depression or recession.
1804-1812: U. S. Federal Debt reduced 48%. Depression began 1807.
1817-1821: U. S. Federal Debt reduced 29%. Depression began 1819.
1823-1836: U. S. Federal Debt reduced 99%. Depression began 1837.
1852-1857: U. S. Federal Debt reduced 59%. Depression began 1857.
1867-1873: U. S. Federal Debt reduced 27%. Depression began 1873.
1880-1893: U. S. Federal Debt reduced 57%. Depression began 1893.
1920-1930: U. S. Federal Debt reduced 36%. Depression began 1929.
1997-2001: U. S. Federal Debt reduced 15%. Recession began 2001.
Even when the federal debt grows insufficiently, America suffers recessions.
The reason, quite simply, is that a growing economy requires a growing supply of money, so recessions are caused when the money supply does not increase sufficiently.
Gross Domestic Product = Federal Spending + Non-federal Spending + Net Exports
That also is why recessions are cured when the federal government pumps dollars into the economy via deficit spending.
3. Contrary to popular myth, federal debt does not cause inflation, much less “sudden inflation.”
All inflations in world history have been caused by shortages of vital goods or services, most often food or energy.
4. There never has been, and never will be a “loss of confidence” in the federal government’s ability to pay its debts.
All federal debt either is denominated in dollars or denominated in a currency that can be exchanged for dollars.
The federal government has the unlimited ability to create dollars — every knowledgeable economist knows this — so the federal government cannot run short of dollars with which to pay its debts.
Further, there is a vast difference between what erroneously is termed “the federal ‘debt'” and the federal government’s debts.
The federal “debt” is the total of deposits into T-security accounts, which the federal government pays off simply by returning the dollars in those accounts.
Federal government “debts” are dollars owed to creditors for goods and services purchased by the federal government.
These debts are paid off by the creation of new dollars.
The federal government accomplishes this by sending instructions to each creditor’s bank, telling the bank to increase the balance in the creditor’s checking account.
When the bank does as instructed, brand new dollars are created and added to the nation’s money supply. The federal government can do this endlessly
Mr. Gillespie’s scare-article continues:
“Such a crisis could spread globally” causing some “financial institutions to fail.”
That’s all according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which has been warning Americans about the long-term consequence of the ballooning debt for years.
Yes, the CBO and other organizations have issued the same warning for at least 80 years, and we still are waiting for that “loss of confidence in the federal government’s ability to pay.”
Since 1940, the growing federal debt has been called “a ticking time bomb.” After 80 years, it surely is the slowest “time bomb” in history.
But despite being wrong for 80+ years, the warnings continue.
Congress and presidents from both major parties have accepted Dick Cheney’s false maxim that “deficits don’t matter.”
Instead, they just keep spending more than we take in during good times and bad, even though being so deeply in hock will make us less able to deal with a future crisis.
Sadly, Mr. Gillespie does not understand the difference between the Monetarily Sovereign, U.S. government, and the monetarily non-sovereign state & local governments.
A Monetarily Sovereign government never can run short of its own sovereign currency. A monetarily non-sovereign entity (like you and me) has no sovereign currency, so can become insolvent.
The amount of money the government owed to the public was 79 percent of gross domestic product at the end of 2019, up from 31 percent in 2001.
The COVID-19 lockdowns and subsequent emergency spending will push the curve above 100 percent of GDP by the end of 2020, and it’s expected to keep rising.
Emergency spending and plunging tax revenues are making a bad situation worse.
CBO forecasts that the budget deficit this year will be 17.9 percent of GDP, meaning that the government is running much larger deficits, racking up significantly more debt, than it did even at the height of the financial crisis of 2007-2008.
Also, contrary to popular myth, the “debt”/GDP ratio is meaningless. GDP is a measure of spending in any one year. Federal “debt” measures the net amount of deposits into T-security accounts.
Two completely different measures and two completely time scales. The “debt”/GDP ratio isn’t just apples and oranges. It’s apples and adverbs — two measures that could not be more different.
Mr. Gillespie sounds the ominous warning about the ratio exceeding 100%. As of June 2019, the nation with the highest debt-to-GDP ratio is Japan with a ratio of 253%.
The next highest ratio is from Greece, which at 181.1%, lags significantly behind Japan.
Other nations with high debt-to-GDP ratios include: Cape Verde: 123.4%, Portugal: 121.5%, Congo: 117.7%, Singapore: 112.2%, Mozambique: 110.5%, Bhutan: 108.64%, United States: 105.4%, Jamaica: 103.3%, Cyprus: 102.5%, Belgium: 102%, Egypt: 101.2%
The nations with the lowest debt-to-GDP ratios include: Brunei: 2.4%, Afghanistan: 7.1%, Estonia: 8.4%, Swaziland: 9.95%, Russia: 13.5%, Burundi: 14.4%, Cayman Islands: 14.5%, Kuwait: 14.8%, Libya: 16.5%, Republic of the Congo: 17%, Kosovo: 17.12%, Palestine: 17.5%, Cuba: 18.2%, United Arab Emirates: 18.6%, Guinea: 18.66%
As you can see, there is zero relationship between the “debt”/GDP ratio and a nation’s ability to pay creditors.
It, very simply, is a meaningless ratio used by those who either wish to scare the public, or who are ignorant of economics.
Economists such as Nobel Prize-winner Paul Krugman and proponents of modern monetary theory (MMT) look at the absence of inflation and higher interest rates so far as justification for ever-more spending and borrowing.
While it’s true that the cost of paying interest on the debt is still dwarfed by other expenditures, that’s because historically low interest rates have made government borrowing cheap.
But there’s no reason to believe that interest rates won’t rise over time. According to conservative estimates from the CBO, as the total budget grows as a percentage of GDP, the cost of paying interest on the debt will increase faster until, by 2050, it accounts for about 24 cents of every dollar spent.
And these estimates don’t take into account emergency spending for COVID-19, which will make servicing the debt even more costly over time.
No, economists don’t “look at the absence of inflation and higher interest rates so far as justification for ever-more spending and borrowing.”
The U.S. federal government does not borrow. Unlike state/local governments, the federal government has the unlimited ability to create dollars, so why would it borrow?
That is what the Fed means when it says “the government is not dependent on credit markets.”
T-securities not represent borrowing. They represent the acceptance of dollar deposits for safe-keeping.
And low interest rates are meaningless for a government that has the unlimited ability to create dollars.
High interest rates actually have a stimulative component. The higher the rate, the more interest dollars — i.e. growth dollars — the federal government pumps into the economy.
The justification for ever-more spending is quite simple: Federal spending not only grows the economy, but federal spending buys valuable goods and services for the American people.
It is federal spending that brings us roads, bridges, dams, healthcare, the military, scientific research & development, education, farming, courts, a government — the list goes on and on.
And now, Mr. Gillespie reveals either ignorance or perfidy:
Like a monthly credit card payment that eats into a household budget, federal debt means less money to buy other things.
He equates federal finances with personal finances. Either he doesn’t understand the difference, or he hopes you don’t understand the difference.
The U.S. federal government neither has nor needs anything resembling a “credit card.” It creates unlimited dollars at the touch of a computer key. The government does not borrow, and it pays creditors simply by issuing instructions to banks.
And when governments run large, persistent deficits, it also has a devastating impact on economic growth over time.
Our current debt levels could reduce GDP by about one-quarter over 23 years, according to research by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff.
It’s a case of what French economist Frédéric Bastiat referred to as “the unseen” because we’ll never get to experience how much wealthier we otherwise would have been had the federal government practiced fiscal prudence.
Anemic growth will impact the poorest Americans most of all, causing their material progress to slow considerably. It means less leisure time, smaller homes, older cars, and less health care.
Could it be that Mr. Gillespie doesn’t realize the Reinhart and Rogoff conclusions have been debunked, not only for mathematical errors, but perhaps more importantly, because Reinhardt and Rogoff did not differentiate between Monetarily Sovereign governments and monetarily non-sovereign governments.
The former do not borrow and cannot run short of money. The latter do borrow and can run short of money. Quite a difference to overlook.
Remember that equation: GDP = Federal Spending + Non-federal Spending + Net Exports. There is absolutely no mechanism by which a reduction in federal spending can increase GDP.
Mr. Gillespie may be one of the last remaining economic writers who still believes austerity can grow an economy, though he never explains how that works.
In the short-term, there’s no question that the government can and will be able to borrow massively, and interest rates are likely to stay low for the time being as the world shifts into recession.
The federal government does not borrow. Interest rates will stay low if that is what the Federal Reserve wants. The Fed has absolute control over the interest the federal government will pay on T-security deposits.
And now we move from the merely wrong to the outright ridiculous:
But there’s also the specter of investors here and abroad refusing to buy U.S.-issued debt as our economy flattens, China flexes its economic and political might, and alternative instruments such as bitcoin and gold offer safe refuge.
The federal government doesn’t need China or anyone else to buy its “debt.” The Federal Reserve itself has the unlimited ability to buy T-securities, which it does, every day.
The government “lends” to itself in an endless circle of finance.
And, bitcoin offers “safe refuge”?? Is this a joke?
Gold, which has only minimal intrinsic value, pays no interest or dividends, costs money for storage and shipping, and the value of which is not guaranteed by anything or anyone — that is “safe refuge”?
Many nations have suffered depressions while on gold standards.
And it keeps getting worse and worse and worse:
Even the most hubristic economist or president would have to admit that there will come a time when the U.S. dollar is no longer the world’s reserve currency.
That change won’t necessarily be as dramatic as when German paper marks became worthless after World War I, but it will massively reduce purchasing power even as it increases the cost of everything.
Mr. Gillespie wrongly believes that “reserve currency” endows the U.S. dollar with some valuable status.
A “reserve currency,” of which there are many, depending on the bank, is nothing more than a currency a bank keeps in reserve to facilitate foreign exchange and trade.
The U.S. dollar, the euro, the British pound, the Mexican peso, the Chinese yuan, the Brazilian real, all are reserve currencies for various banks.
The value of these currencies does not rely on being held in reserve by banks. It’s just a currency exchange convenience.
And then Mr. Gillespie tosses in the inevitable reference to German hyperinflation, which had nothing to do with reserve currencies or with over-spending or with anything else pertinent to the discussion.
The German hyperinflation, like all hyperinflations, was caused by shortages of life’s necessities — food, clothing, housing, energy — the result of onerous financial conditions placed on Germany by the Allies after WWI.
Germany simply ran out of money to pay for goods and services, so these items became scarce, and when a needed item is scarce, the price goes up. Period.
The German hyperinflation was cured when Germany issued a new currency and used it to purchase needed goods additionally to buying the greatest war machine the world had ever known.
German government war spending actually cured the hyperinflation by curing the shortages.
Finally, Gillespie argues against his own proposition:
Between 1940 and 1945, federal spending increased tenfold from $10 billion to over $100 billion to pay for the war effort.
But when victory was won, the government immediately cut military spending.
That cut in federal spending led to the recession of 1945.
Our out-of-control spending has been driven by the persistent rise in the cost of entitlements like Medicare and Social Security.
Mr. Gillespie, as a stout libertarian, hates “entitlements,” (aka, benefits to the public). He would prefer a government that does not provide Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, Social Security, roads, bridges, dams, education, a military, courts, Congress, national parks, scientific research & development, food & drug inspection, weather reports, and the myriad of other benefits the public receives from the government.
To a libertarian, any government is bad government, and any government spending should be reduced or eliminated.
When the debt crisis materializes and our options are severely limited because of decades of profligate spending, politicians sitting in the Oval Office and Congress will claim that it all just came out of nowhere, like that crazy virus back in 2020.
But nothing could be further from the truth: Budget wonks are already sounding the alarm. We need to heed these warnings now or suffer an economic lockdown later from which there may be no escape.
Back in 1940, the federal “debt” was about $40 billion. Today it is over $20 trillion, and our options are no more limited now than they were then. (Actually, our options are less limited, because federal money creation no longer is hampered by a gold standard.)
The “Big Lie” reflects ignorance of Monetary Sovereignty, which is the single biggest problem facing America’s and the world’s economies.
Rodger Malcolm Mitchell
Monetary Sovereignty Twitter: @rodgermitchell Search #monetarysovereignty Facebook: Rodger Malcolm Mitchell …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
THE SOLE PURPOSE OF GOVERNMENT IS TO IMPROVE AND PROTECT THE LIVES OF THE PEOPLE.
The most important problems in economics involve:
- Monetary Sovereignty describes money creation and destruction.
- Gap Psychology describes the common desire to distance oneself from those “below” in any socio-economic ranking, and to come nearer those “above.” The socio-economic distance is referred to as “The Gap.”
Wide Gaps negatively affect poverty, health and longevity, education, housing, law and crime, war, leadership, ownership, bigotry, supply and demand, taxation, GDP, international relations, scientific advancement, the environment, human motivation and well-being, and virtually every other issue in economics. Implementation of Monetary Sovereignty and The Ten Steps To Prosperity can grow the economy and narrow the Gaps:
Ten Steps To Prosperity:
2. Federally funded Medicare — parts A, B & D, plus long-term care — for everyone
3. Social Security for all or a reverse income tax
4. Free education (including post-grad) for everyone
5. Salary for attending school
6. Eliminate federal taxes on business
7. Increase the standard income tax deduction, annually.
8. Tax the very rich (the “.1%”) more, with higher progressive tax rates on all forms of income.
9. Federal ownership of all banks
10.Increase federal spending on the myriad initiatives that benefit America’s 99.9%
The Ten Steps will grow the economy and narrow the income/wealth/power Gap between the rich and the rest.
6 thoughts on “Once again, Reason Magazine promulgates the Big Lie to stifle the economy.”
I hear you Rodger.
The reason there’s this endless fear-mongering on “federal debt” is that for every single budgetary year, the Treasury Department issues bonds to cover the deficits.
That process is meant to satisfy the accounting gods.
So, unless we put an end to that routine, Gillispie and the usual suspects will forever believe we do indeed borrow to finance our spending.
I agree, though the T-securities do have functions.
1. They help the Fed set and control interest rates
2. They provide the safest place to park unused dollars, which helps stabilize the dollar
3. And, as you note, they help fool the public into believing the government needs to borrow, which dissuades the public from asking for benefits.
The first two are helpful.
I read your blog every day.
Question: in today’s blog entry, the third chart down, blue line, shows consumer price index since 1945. If inflation is caused by shortages, can you please identify exactly what was in short supply during each uptick in inflation? For example, it appears that the 1973 “oil crisis” may have triggered inflation for the following year. It should be possible to correlate each rise and fall of inflation with a shortage vs a glut, respectively. Can you direct me to such an analysis? Thanks.
After WWII, U.S. inflations generally have been caused by oil shortages. See: https://mythfighter.com/2010/04/06/more-thoughts-on-inflation/. The U.S. has been fortunate in not having the kind of significant food shortages that other nations have had. Zimbabwe is a prime example.
Rodger, prior to your well done, ample response I had read the article. Thank you for putting your voice to the demonstrated errors. Over all, too, your work is very appreciated.