Recent Posts From Matt Wittlief
Cue En Vouge:
Never gonna get it,
Never gonna get it,
Never gonna get it,
Never gonna get it,
Never gonna get it,
Never gonna get it,
Never gonna get it,
Woo, woo, woo, woo!
That is my message to all of you out there who supported the Republicans this last election and thought they would make a material change to reduce the federal deficit. You’re never gonna get it!
All references to 90’s R&B groups aside, let’s take a serious look at this. We are about ready to have a showdown on the debt ceiling. As of yesterday, January 6, 2010, the federal debt subject to the debt ceiling was just shy of $14T. The current ceiling is $14.294T and we will reach that figure sometime between March and May this year. The date cannot be exactly determined because day-to-day receipts and expenditures are not fixed - just like your own budget. (See this entry from 2009 to get a little more detail on short-term Treasury securities.) But, the showdown is coming; there is no doubt about that.
Now, many fiscal conservatives want to see material cuts in the budget. I’d also venture to guess your average Tea Party Republican is squarely opposed to raising the debt ceiling. These GOP supporters are going to be very disappointed when their House leadership (not to mention, and I’m guessing here, all but a handful of GOP Senators) votes to raise the debt ceiling. It is inevitable and what we’ll hear is a bunch of lip service that they’ve made some sort of grand compromise to get us on the right track.
In a shocking turn of events, the federal government has voted to maintain the status quo. That is, of course, sarcasm as the feds have an amazing track record of kicking the can. The “irresponsible” Bush tax cuts have been extended based on a deal cut by the Obama administration with the Congressional Republicans. In addition, unemployment benefits have been extended yet again.
This debate has been somewhat of a false debate. The Bush tax cuts were passed in 2001 with a provision to expire at the end of 2010. Rates would then return to the levels which prevailed during the Clinton administration. The debate and rhetoric on this issue have allowed Washington to shine at its finest.
Of course Republicans don’t want to tax the job creators, because that will bring revenue down… Ah, your answer is that spending money drives the economy, and I don’t think that’s right. It’s the creation of jobs that drives the economy. The truth is, that the unemployed will spend as little of that money as they possibly can… Do we want… to continue to ignore the issue of jobs and increase taxes?
They say that money doesn’t grow on trees. That’s true. It grows in banks.
I’m not talking about compounding interest either. I’m talking about creation of money right out of thin air. It is well known and understood that the Federal Reserve (and other central banks) print money at will. What’s not so well understood is that regular commercial banks essentially do the same thing. To understand this, we have to explore the nature of money, credit, and the modern banking system.
Money can be described in several ways and has a variety of characteristics.We should begin with the Merriam Webster definition: “something generally accepted as a medium of exchange, a measure of value, or a means of payment.” In early simple economies, barter was the principle means of exchange. This ultimately evolved to commodity money. Items which had a useful value on their own, are easily transportable, do not lose value or deteriorate, and are reasonably commonplace would serve as commodity money. Over the centuries, metal coins evolved out of being simple commodity money into serving as government issued currency. Generally, the metal coins face value as issued would be equivalent to the metal’s value independently. Of course, governments were notorious for devaluing the coins in a variety of ways.
Chances are that you’ve never heard of chartalism (unless you arrived here because you Googled the word). I’ve been reading an increasing number of articles which argue certain points which are central to the economic theory of chartalism. This theory is centrally focused on characteristics of a fiat currency regime. The basic assumptions and conclusions are sounds although I have not studied it enough to have a fully informed opinion. Further, I disagree on principle with some conclusions on the surface level.
So what is it all about? Basically, the chartalists suggest that the state issues fiat currency via government spending and recoups (destroys) the money via taxation. Thus, fiat issue is no more than printing money and, if the government did not do so, there would be no money for citizens. This extends to a conclusion that the private sector cannot save money unless the government runs a deficit. This is further shown by using simple algebra with the formula for GDP. This reinforces the argument of the adherents.
I see a few basic flaws in this theory. First, if there were no fiat money, that would not destroy economic activity. There would be, at a minimum, barter activity. Second, it seems to ignore debt (or at least under-appreciate its role like most all schools of economic thought). Since private banks issue credit, the state is not the only entity which can issue currency (depending on one’s definition).
I’ll admit that my vocabulary did not contain the word “trilemma” until a few weeks ago. It’s a natural extension of the commonplace “dilemma” where we have three options. Then, in a span of no more than days, I was exposed to two interesting trilemmas.
The first trilemma that I would like to introduce is the so-called “Impossible Trinity”. This hypothesis states that a national economy can only achieve two of the following three characteristics: a fixed exchange rate, free capital movement, independent monetary policy. A nation with a fixed exchange rate is able to maintain a stable currency as it relates to the rest of the global economy. China, for example, maintains a fixed exchange rate by pegging its currency to the U.S. Dollar. Nations with free capital movement allow goods and services to be (relatively) freely traded by private citizens across borders without significant taxes or other restrictions. This is a common feature of globalization. Finally, independent monetary policy implies that a nation’s banking system (usually via the central bank) can set interest rates and manage the supply of money without outside interference.
There has been much ado over bailouts and socialism, Wall Street and Main Street, greedy bankers and noble capitalists, and a myriad of other related catchphrases and ideological positions when it comes to a discussion of the state of our financial system over the last year and a half. The debate rages on as today former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker testified before the Senate Banking Committee and with Barack Obama’s recent call for a new tax on banks. Volcker has suggested a ban on proprietary trading for certain banks. This is a modified reinstatement of Glass-Steagall which served to separate standard commercial banking from hedge fund like behavior.
Lately, the conservative mainstream has taken to siding against such reforms. Typical free market rhetoric has led the way. It’s been suggested that a ban on prop trading would over-regulate the banks and inhibit growth. We also hear the usual arguments against corporate taxes which state that it such policies only hurt the end consumer. I’d like to offer an alternative point of view on this subject that I think libertarians (and Libertarians) should consider supporting. I’ll present my logic one point at a time.
1. Our System Encourages “Too Big To Fail”
The President “did something unusual” today as he engaged the opposition at the Republican GOP House Issues Conference. I caught bits and pieces on the radio and television, and I plan to record and watch the event in its entirety over the weekend. I have to admit that I’m a bit impressed with Obama on what I’ve seen/heard thus far.
The House Republican Conference invited Obama for a Q&A today in Baltimore, MD, and the cameras were rolling. In what became an American version of Prime Minister’s Questions (of which I am a big fan), Obama took questions from GOP House members. A bit of political wrangling mixed with solid debate led to a few honest answers from Barack Obama which put his intelligence and oratory on display without a teleprompter.
From what I’ve been able to dissect thus far, both sides scored some points. But, to me, while Obama toed the line between playing politics and denouncing politics, he scored some big points tonight. This is the Obama that I favored over John McCain. This is the Obama I wished we would have seen more of in the last year.
Let’s be clear. I’m no huge fan of many of Obama’s policies. Admittedly, I’ve always had an open ear to his anti-Washington populist message. Let’s also be clear that I’m not so naive that I’d immediately assume that he has changed. However, his change of tone since the election of Scott Brown opens the door for a second chance.
The Supreme Court issued a significant ruling this week on the subject of campaign financing. It is a complex subject and the opinions authored by the Court illustrate this complexity checking in at 183 pages (read here if you dare). I have read most of them and will offer my thoughts.
In the 2008 election cycle, a group called Citizens United produced a film called Hillary: The Movie which was apparently quite an unfavorable depiction of the Presidential hopeful. Citizens United intended to distribute the film as an on-demand pay-per-view on DirecTV. The commercials which supported the film were deemed an “electioneering communication” by the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia and the film was not shown. Citizen United is a non-profit 501(c)4 corporation which has special non-profit status in that, unlike standard non-profit 501(c)3 charitable corporations, they can participate in the political process via lobbying and and campaigns. If this sounds complicated already, then welcome to the world of campaign finance in the United States.
I suppose I wouldn’t be much a of a political blogger if I didn’t comment on the Scott Brown election. It’s certainly the hottest topic in politics today and will have implications on policy and action in Washington until November. In order to take a closer look at the real story behind the election, I’ll turn to the data. Rasmussen Reports conducted exit polling last night and I’ve broken down some of the results in the table below.
Source: Rasmussen Reports
I recently read an article written by former Fed economist Richard Alford over at Naked Capitalism. He focused his criticism on the zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) currently deployed by the Fed under the watch of Chairman Ben Bernanke. There has been increasing noise surrounding ZIRP and more mainstream suggestions that interest rates were too low for too long between 2001 and 2006.
Alford’s article gets into quite a bit of detail, but it is worth a read if you enjoy geeky economics stuff. Mainstream macroeconomists believe that the economy can be explained and managed with mathematical formulas. In fact, the formulas are really quite simple and do not capture the dynamics of the millions of “irrational” actors therein. One favorite is the Taylor rule which suggests a target for the Fed funds rate - the key interest rate set by the central bank. Alford points to a Taylor op-ed which states that rates were too low from 2002-2005.
Bernanke has suggested that rates necessarily had to be low (and must stay low) to fend off the threat of deflation. When analyzing Bernanke’s definition of deflation, however, Alford suggests deflation was never a threat. Thus, interest rates were lower than they “should have been” for no good reason.