Should Central Banks Simply Cancel Government Debt?
Ron Paul's Foray Into Monetary Education
Readers may recall that Ron Paul once surprised everyone with a seemingly very elegant proposal to bring the debt ceiling wrangle to a close. If you're all so worried about the federal deficit and the debt ceiling, so Paul asked, then why doesn't the treasury simply cancel the treasury bonds held by the Fed? After all, the Fed is a government organization as well, so it could well be argued that the government literally owes the money to itself. He even introduced a bill which if adopted, would have led to the cancellation of $1.6 trillion in federal debt held by the Fed.
Paul argued that given the fact that the Fed had simply created the money to buy the bonds from thin air, no-one would be hurt by this selective default. Moreover, he reckoned that this would likely neuter the Fed and make it less likely to manipulate the money supply in the future – if it could no longer rely on the treasury honoring its debt, there would be no point in buying more of it. He also considered the Fed's 'exit' talk to be spurious: the inflation of the money supply its bond buying had inaugurated would likely never be reversed anyway (we agree on this point).
Of course the proposal was not really meant to be taken serious: rather, it was meant to highlight the absurdities of the modern-day monetary system. Paul himself pointed out in subsequent interviews that the proposal would naturally never be adopted. In short, it was essentially an educational foray on his part - he wanted to encourage people to think. Ron Paul has always been an exception among politicians – he regarded educating people about monetary policy matters as part of his remit.
We live in an age where a pure credit money is used – a fiat money, that has been created by stripping money substitutes of their backing by money proper and imposing 'legal tender' laws. This means that certain conventions have to be followed by the official engines of inflation, the central banks, if they want to be successful in their vain (and dangerous) endeavor to create what they term a 'stable money' (in reality, 'stability' is held to be an arbitrarily chosen decline in money's purchasing power of 2% per year. This neither represents 'stability', nor is it even possible to realize such a plan. The purchasing power of money certainly exists, but it cannot be measured).
These conventions need to be adhered to in order to hold 'inflation expectations' in check. As long as a critical mass of individual actors in the economy remains convinced that the central bank is indeed capable of guaranteeing a fairly 'stable value of money', it is unlikely that they will react to inflationary policy by trying to quickly get rid of their cash balances in the expectation that its purchasing power will rapidly decline. As a rule, it takes a long time for people to abandon this misguided faith, but when they finally do, we often get to observe a discontinuous, sudden change in the money relation.
Anyway, it is one thing for Ron Paul to employ the idea of canceling the Fed's bond holdings as a means of educating people, it is quite another when modern day mainstream economic observers and even policymakers begin to discuss the possibility in earnest.
The Financial Times Latches on to the Topic
Sometimes the bien-pensants that regularly supply us with their plans to rescue the economy come up with strikingly bizarre ideas. The Financial Times is a well-known staging area for armchair monetary quackery, led by its chief economics commentator Martin Wolf, whose in our opinion absurd notions we have occasionally addressed in the past. At least Mr. Wolf is fairly straightforward – instead of hiding behind technocratic babble and euphemisms, he gives his articles titles that tell one right away where he is coming from (consider for example: “Why it is right for central banks to keep printing”). What might be considered the 'piece de resistance' in this context has recently been covered in the pages of the FT in an article by Gavyn Davies entitled: “Will central banks cancel government debt?”.
The article discusses the very proposal Ron Paul has more or less made in jest (and as a means to educate people) as a policy step that is receiving serious consideration. To his credit, Mr. Davies informs us that he is actually not supportive of the idea. He merely reports that it is an option that a number of people have begun to earnestly debate and lays out the effects as he sees them (we differ with him on a number of points regarding 'QE as it is currently practiced', see below).
In a way, we would actually not necessarily be entirely inimical to the idea, for similar reasons Ron Paul had in mind: it would no doubt speed up the inevitable demise of the fiat money system. Although we fear that the current fiat money system would then simply be replaced by another one, this is still the only reasonable chance we see for the conditions that could enable a return to a sound market-based monetary system to come about. It should be clear that today's political class and the banking cartels led by the central banks would never consider the adoption of a sound market-based money voluntarily. Too many 'free lunches' would be at stake for those profiting from the system. An enormous shift in economic and political power would result. Governments would have to shrink dramatically and central economic planners and their myriad advisers and intellectual handmaidens would all be out of a job. Banks would find credit expansion more risky and difficult. In short, from the point of view of today's bureaucratic and intellectual elites, the idea of voluntarily adopting a sound market-based money is ruled out completely. To them it is undoubtedly the most toxic subject imaginable.
This is also why the system as such is very rarely questioned in the mainstream press or by mainstream economists. It is a topic that is not even up for debate – everybody proceeds as though it were perfectly normal that money and interest rates are subject to central planning. The only debates revolve around how to 'improve on the plan', not on whether it might actually be better to abandon the plan altogether. If a mainstream economist were to suggest that central banks and fiat money should be abolished, it would be akin to farting in church.
So in this sense, Davies' article may be regarded as one of those 'how the inflationary policy might be improved' missives (even though he is personally not in favor of the proposal). It calmly discusses the possibility that central banks might indeed agree to cancel the government debt they hold in order to 'ease fiscal pressures' and 'boost the economy'. We will look at a few excerpts from the article in below and add our comments.
Should Central Banks Cancel Government Debt?
The article begins as follows:
“As the IMF meetings close in Tokyo this weekend, it is obvious that governments are struggling to find the correct balance between controlling public debt, which now exceeds 110 per cent of GDP for the advanced economies, and boosting the rate of economic growth. The former objective requires more budgetary tightening, while the latter requires the opposite. Is there any way around this?”
We already have a problem with the very first paragraph. Davies asserts what we regard as a misguided premise: namely that 'loose fiscal policy' (read: deficit spending) is required to create economic growth.
The government does not possess resources of its own – every cent it spends must be taken from the private sector in one way or another. The government can not add one iota of new wealth to the economy – it can only dispose of already existing wealth by taking it from the private sector. It matters not if this is done by means of taxation or borrowing – the latter method is merely a means of deferring the former (we will discuss inflation further below).
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