Memo to Congress: Don’t Increase the Government’s Debt Limit!

In a piece written for CNN, Senator Evan Bayh rails against the growing federal government budget deficit. He warns that next month the Treasury will ask Congress to raise the debt limit from its current $12.1 trillion, and promises that he will vote “no”. It is time, he argues, for Congress to stand up for our nation’s future by creating a bi-partisan debt commission that would finally put an end to “unsustainable” deficit spending.

The Senator goes on:

When President George W. Bush took office in 2001, our public debt amounted to 33 percent of our economy. Today, it is 60 percent of our gross domestic product. If we do nothing, our debt is projected to swell to over 70 percent by 2019. To put those numbers in perspective: If you divided the debt equally among all Americans, every man, woman and child living in the United States today would owe more than $39,000.

I presume the Senator has got his math correct, but there is a glaring error in his English that can be corrected by substituting an “n” for an “e”: If you divided the debt equally among all Americans, every man, woman and child living in the United States today would own more than $39,000. Government debt is a private asset. You and I do not owe government debt, we own it. Indeed, the only source of net dollar-denominated financial wealth is federal government debt.

The good Senator continues, comparing his proposed debt commission with an earlier successful bi-partisan effort:

There is precedent to create this type of commission with real teeth. President Ronald Reagan created a commission, chaired by Alan Greenspan, to shore up Social Security in the early 1980s.

That commission hiked payroll taxes to transform Social Security from a “pay-as-you-go” system (payroll taxes collected were matched to current year spending) to an “advanced funded” system that accumulated “Trust Fund assets”. In truth the Trust Fund is nothing but an accounting gimmick in which one arm of government (the Treasury) owes another arm of government (Social Security), with workers and their firms saddled with payroll taxes that are a third larger than Social Security spending. Like almost everything else Alan Greenspan did, the Social Security commission was a monumental failure and its actions were completely unnecessary. All Social Security payments can be made as they come due whether the Trust Fund holds Treasury debt or not, and no matter how much “revenue” the payroll tax collects. Like the bowling alley that credits points when pins are knocked down, the Treasury cannot run out of “points” credited to the accounts of pensioners.

The anti-deficit mania in Washington is getting crazier by the day. So here is what I propose: let’s support Senator Bayh’s proposal to “just say no” to raising the debt ceiling. Once the federal debt reaches $12.1 trillion, the Treasury would be prohibited from selling any more bonds. Treasury would continue to spend by crediting bank accounts of recipients, and reserve accounts of their banks. Banks would offer excess reserves in overnight markets, but would find no takers—hence would have to be content holding reserves and earning whatever rate the Fed wants to pay. But as Chairman Bernanke told Congress, this is no problem because the Fed spends simply by crediting bank accounts.

This would allow Senator Bayh and other deficit warriors to stop worrying about Treasury debt and move on to something important like the loss of millions of jobs.

About L. Randall Wray 64 Articles

Affiliation: University of Missouri

L. Randall Wray, Ph.D. is Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Research Director with the Center for Full Employment and Price Stability and Senior Research Scholar at The Levy Economics Institute.

His research expertise is in: financial instability, macroeconomics, and full employment policy.

Visit: L. Randall Wray's Page

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