(Week 11 - Saturday, Oct. 25)
As I listen to the rhetoric of the Presidential candidates, the "big two" in particular, concerning the current "debt" crisis, I hear essentially only one proposed response. There are variations of detail that are put forward with great emphasis to be sure, and buttressed by their supposedly contrasting ideological dispositions, but I find them to be distinctions with hardly any difference. Their common answer goes something like this:
"We as a nation have failed to exercise ethical fiscal discipline, both with respect to the private financial sector, and to government taxing-and-spending. Now we have run up this enormous debt that will have to be paid down by instituting the proper constraints and oversight provisions in the private sector, and reigning in out-of-control government spending. Hopefully, we can avoid the abuses of the past, and ultimately pay this deficit down so our children will not have to."
This response is, in my view, hopelessly unrealistic. If the private sector and/or the government for any reason steps down in their ability and/or willingness to borrow, that means that less money will enter into circulation. Private participants in the economy will find themselves increasingly in the position of being unable to pay their bills as the money supply shrinks. That will put greater pressure on the public sector to do the borrowing needed.
Government will at first experience this pressure in the form of having to cover social needs that are no longer being met in the private sector when people are losing their jobs, health insurance, pensions, homes through foreclosure, ability to meet business payroll, and so forth. The levels of government below the Federal will increasingly look to Washington to help out with their mounting budgetary shortfalls caused by increasing social need and falling tax revenues. The Federal government itself will be saddled with the additional problem of keeping the monetary system going by seeing that the monetary pool on which all phases of the economy depend does not run dry. Like it or not, under the present system that means more borrowing.
Faced with these imperatives, I would ask the Presidential candidates how they expect that this mounting national "debt" crisis is going to be redeemed by reigning in "out-of-control spending." Any attempts to "balance the budget" will be futile given the "debt"-based principle on which the monetary system is founded, and under present circumstances could only result in a catastrophic contraction of the money supply, thereby sending the economy into an imploding spiral.
Politicians have for decades virtually always asserted that the "debt" crisis of the moment can only be brought under control through fiscal restraint, but they have virtually always in the exigencies of the moment felt the need to act in a precisely opposite way.
The "conservative" Reagan and Bush I administrations lifted the economy out of the doldrums of the Carter era by running up record deficits, thereby pumping enough money into the economy to restore "confidence".
This allowed President Clinton to claim credit for bringing down the deficit as the ample supply of circulating medium induced private persons to borrow record amounts of money themselves in a euphoria of "economic expansion", and the government could for a time step down as the borrower of last resort; notwithstanding that the country as a whole, public and private combined, continued to slip into "debt" at an undiminished rate.
By the time the second Bush presidency came along, the ability and willingness of private parties to go into still more "debt" was running out, and another source of credit had to be found. The great engine of "debt-money" creation since then has been the Iraq and Afghan wars.
With the decline of the housing market, the biggest source of private "debt" creation (home mortgages) has contracted to the point where even borrowing to finance the current wars is not sufficient as a generator of new money creation, so earlier this year the government felt obliged to borrow even more money and simply pass it out in the form of "tax rebate" checks (as if there were a surfeit of Federal tax receipts).
Confidence in the system has continued to plummet anyway, and now even bankers are so shaken that they are reluctant to lend. Consequently, our national leaders have been at a loss concerning to how to arrest the collapse of the whole monetary order, except to mount a hurry-up effort to borrow the staggering sum of $700 billion and inject it into the speculative financial industry on the basis of vague assurances from the experts (who guided the ship of finance into this storm) that this desperate measure will somehow redeem the situation for the sake of all the people.
The ink has hardly had time to dry on that bill, and already our representatives in Washington are talking about borrowing yet more money to fund a new "stimulus package". Through all of this the public is assured that the abuses will be stopped because there will be some unspecified details written into these "financial packages" that will assure greater scrutiny and control, plus the taxpayers will get their money back out of the "future profits" of these already failed "investments" that the government will buying up. I don't know what is in the minds of the current Presidential candidates, but surely, given their years of experience in government in which they have seen from the inside the futility of trying to wrestle the "debt" dragon into submission through budgetary variables, they cannot possibly have confidence in what they are saying. What is going on here? I will pick up on that question in the next column.
The complete set of columns from this series is posted at the following websites.