Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Catfish Slyly Promotes Big Government Debt

In a rambling piece on the Trillion Dollar Platinum coin, Felix Salmon sneaks in two major pro-big government propaganda points as though they are facts that need no discussion.

The Catfish writes:
This is the real problem with the main argument for minting a coin, which is that “yes, it’s a stupid gimmick, but so is the debt ceiling, and the debt ceiling is a lot more harmful than a coin would be”
Got that? As limited of a speed bump to government spending that Congressional control over the debt ceiling has become, the Catfish thinks even this is too much to deal with. Let's just completely allow unchecked government spending, says the Catfish. (Note: When Bernanke has to monetize even more debt, consider the Catfish among those who was cheering on greater debt.)

From there, the Catfish disses a policy proposal that Murray Rothbard loved, that the government should default on its debt. Here's the Fish on that:
Yes, the legislature is behaving like a bunch of utter morons if they think that driving the US government into default is a good idea.
There it is. According to the CatFish, you  are a moron if you favor government default---which would be a negative only for those who have supported growing government by buying government debt.

There are two problems here with CatFish's charge. First, no one in Congress, sadly, is going to allow the government to go into default. Didn't the Fish notice that the fiscal cliff was all about raising taxes, to increase revenue for the government, so that some pressure was relieved on the debt?

Second, the logic of the value of a government default may be beyond the grasp of a catfish, though not likely a dolphin, but for us humans, Murray Rothbard made the case in exquisite fashion and presented it to us, one might say, on a filleted fish platter:
In a free-market economy that respects property rights, the volume of private debt is self-policed by the necessity to repay the creditor, since no Papa Government is letting you off the hook. In addition, the interest rate a debtor must pay depends not only on the general rate of time preference but on the degree of risk he as a debtor poses to the creditor. A good credit risk will be a "prime borrower," who will pay relatively low interest; on the other hand, an improvident person or a transient who has been bankrupt before, will have to pay a much higher interest rate, commensurate with the degree of risk on the loan.

Most people, unfortunately, apply the same analysis to public debt as they do to private. If sanctity of contracts should rule in the world of private debt, shouldn't they be equally as sacrosanct in public debt? Shouldn't public debt be governed by the same principles as private? The answer is no, even though such an answer may shock the sensibilities of most people. The reason is that the two forms of debt-transaction are totally different. If I borrow money from a mortgage bank, I have made a contract to transfer my money to a creditor at a future date; in a deep sense, he is the true owner of the money at that point, and if I don't pay I am robbing him of his just property. But when government borrows money, it does not pledge its own money; its own resources are not liable. Government commits not its own life, fortune, and sacred honor to repay the debt, but ours. This is a horse, and a transaction, of a very different color.

For unlike the rest of us, government sells no productive good or service and therefore earns nothing. It can only get money by looting our resources through taxes, or through the hidden tax of legalized counterfeiting known as "inflation." There are some exceptions, of course, such as when the government sells stamps to collectors or carries our mail with gross inefficiency, but the overwhelming bulk of government revenues is acquired through taxation or its monetary equivalent.[...]

The public debt transaction, then, is very different from private debt. Instead of a low-time-preference creditor exchanging money for an IOU from a high-time-preference debtor, the government now receives money from creditors, both parties realizing that the money will be paid back not out of the pockets or the hides of the politicians and bureaucrats, but out of the looted wallets and purses of the hapless taxpayers, the subjects of the state. The government gets the money by tax-coercion; and the public creditors, far from being innocents, know full well that their proceeds will come out of that selfsame coercion. In short, public creditors are willing to hand over money to the government now in order to receive a share of tax loot in the future. This is the opposite of a free market, or a genuinely voluntary transaction. Both parties are immorally contracting to participate in the violation of the property rights of citizens in the future. Both parties, therefore, are making agreements about other people's property, and both deserve the back of our hand. The public credit transaction is not a genuine contract that need be considered sacrosanct, any more than robbers parceling out their shares of loot in advance should be treated as some sort of sanctified contract.

Any melding of public debt into a private transaction must rest on the common but absurd notion that taxation is really "voluntary," and that whenever the government does anything, "we" are willingly doing it. This convenient myth was wittily and trenchantly disposed of by the great economist Joseph Schumpeter: "The theory which construes taxes on the analogy of club dues or of the purchases of, say, a doctor only proves how far removed this part of the social sciences is from scientific habits of mind."[...]

The annual government deficit, plus the annual interest payment that keeps rising as the total debt accumulates, increasingly channels scarce and precious private savings into wasteful government boondoggles, which "crowd out" productive investments. Establishment economists, including Reaganomists, cleverly fudge the issue by arbitrarily labeling virtually all government spending as "investments," making it sound as if everything is fine and dandy because savings are being productively "invested." In reality, however, government spending only qualifies as "investment" in an Orwellian sense; government actually spends on behalf of the "consumer goods" and desires of bureaucrats, politicians, and their dependent client groups. Government spending, therefore, rather than being "investment," is consumer spending of a peculiarly wasteful and unproductive sort, since it is indulged not by producers but by a parasitic class that is living off, and increasingly weakening, the productive private sector.[...]

Deficits and a mounting debt, therefore, are a growing and intolerable burden on the society and economy, both because they raise the tax burden and increasingly drain resources from the productive to the parasitic, counterproductive, "public" sector. Moreover, whenever deficits are financed by expanding bank credit – in other words, by creating new money – matters become still worse, since credit inflation creates permanent and rising price inflation as well as waves of boom-bust "business cycles."

It is for all these reasons that the Jeffersonians and Jacksonians (who, contrary to the myths of historians, were extraordinarily knowledgeable in economic and monetary theory) hated and reviled the public debt. Indeed, the national debt was paid off twice in American history, the first time by Thomas Jefferson and the second, and undoubtedly the last time, by Andrew Jackson.

Unfortunately, paying off a national debt that will soon reach $4 trillion would quickly bankrupt the entire country. Think about the consequences of imposing new taxes of $4 trillion in the United States next year! Another way, and almost as devastating, a way to pay off the public debt would be to print $4 trillion of new money – either in paper dollars or by creating new bank credit. This method would be extraordinarily inflationary, and prices would quickly skyrocket, ruining all groups whose earnings did not increase to the same extent, and destroying the value of the dollar. But in essence this is what happens in countries that hyper-inflate, as Germany did in 1923, and in countless countries since, particularly the Third World. If a country inflates the currency to pay off its debt, prices will rise so that the dollars or marks or pesos the creditor receives are worth a lot less than the dollars or pesos they originally lent out. When an American purchased a 10,000 mark German bond in 1914, it was worth several thousand dollars; those 10,000 marks by late 1923 would not have been worth more than a stick of bubble gum. Inflation, then, is an underhanded and terribly destructive way of indirectly repudiating the "public debt"; destructive because it ruins the currency unit, which individuals and businesses depend upon for calculating all their economic decisions.[...]

I propose, then, a seemingly drastic but actually far less destructive way of paying off the public debt at a single blow: outright debt repudiation.[...]

Although largely forgotten by historians and by the public, repudiation of public debt is a solid part of the American tradition. The first wave of repudiation of state debt came during the 1840s, after the panics of 1837 and 1839. Those panics were the consequence of a massive inflationary boom fueled by the Whig-run Second Bank of the United States. Riding the wave of inflationary credit, numerous state governments, largely those run by the Whigs, floated an enormous amount of debt, most of which went into wasteful public works (euphemistically called "internal improvements"), and into the creation of inflationary banks. Outstanding public debt by state governments rose from $26 million to $170 million during the decade of the 1830s. Most of these securities were financed by British and Dutch investors.[...]

During the deflationary 1840s succeeding the panics, state governments faced repayment of their debt in dollars that were now more valuable than the ones they had borrowed. Many states, now largely in Democratic hands, met the crisis by repudiating these debts, either totally or partially by scaling down the amount in "readjustments." Specifically, of the 28 American states in the 1840s, 9 were in the glorious position of having no public debt, and 1 (Missouri's) was negligible; of the 18 remaining, 9 paid the interest on their public debt without interruption, while another 9 (Maryland, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida) repudiated part or all of their liabilities. Of these states, four defaulted for several years in their interest payments, whereas the other five (Michigan, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Florida) totally and permanently repudiated their entire outstanding public debt. As in every debt repudiation, the result was to lift a great burden from the backs of the taxpayers in the defaulting and repudiating states.

Apart from the moral, or sanctity-of-contract argument against repudiation that we have already discussed, the standard economic argument is that such repudiation is disastrous, because who, in his right mind, would lend again to a repudiating government? But the effective counterargument has rarely been considered: why should more private capital be poured down government rat holes? It is precisely the drying up of future public credit that constitutes one of the main arguments for repudiation, for it means beneficially drying up a major channel for the wasteful destruction of the savings of the public. What we want is abundant savings and investment in private enterprises, and a lean, austere, low-budget, minimal government. The people and the economy can only wax fat and prosperous when their government is starved and puny.


  1. His argument for repudiation of debt is sound, but wouldn't it apply equally to all government spending, since all of the money is raised through taxes and legalized counterfeiting? So why just focus on debt? The only answer I can think of: It would be easier to get away with repudiating debt than payments for entitlements and "defense."

    1. Cuts to those areas would become necessary, since no debt could be sold (because gov't may default again!) and only so much price inflation and/or taxation would be tolerated.

    2. Yes, it does apply to spending. But even if you cut spending to 0 right now, there's still the debt.

  2. "The people and the economy can only wax fat and prosperous when their government is starved and puny."

    Ahhh, Rothbard, your genius is a ray of sunshine.

  3. Ahhh, a $4 trillion debt. Those were the days......

  4. It's pretty depressing to think that what was once the entire accumulated debt of America is quickly approaching the totals for the yearly deficits. I don't know how much longer this pyramid scheme can last, but the correction is going to be horrific.

  5. thanks for posting this. No one is talking about repudiation. We need to change that. It would be a populist cause and we get to screw the banksters.