This article appeared in the June 1994 issue of the Progressive Review. Copyright Progressive Review.
Bob Blain – President Bill Clinton faces the same dilemma as every president since George Washington; how to fund needed projects without increasing the federal debt. The federal debt was $75 million when Washington became president and $82 million when he left office. To collect taxes to pay interest on the debt he sent federal troops into western Pennsylvania to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion. By 1836, Andrew Jackson had reduced the federal debt to $38 thousand, only to see the country plunge into a severe depression a year later.
By 1993 federal debt was $4.4 trillion. From 1790 to 1993, taxpayers were charged $3.2 trillion in interest on federal debt. The original debt of $75 million at 5.37 percent interest compounded annually for 204 years is $3.2 trillion. The original debt at 5.53 percent interest compounded for 204 years equals $4.4 trillion. The present federal debt is arguably the original debt enlarged by 204 years of compounding interest.
According to the Federal Reserve Bulletin, the total money supply (currency, travelers checks, demand deposits, and savings accounts) in the U.S. economy in March 1993 was $4 trillion. The total debt of the federal government, state and local governments, corporations, farmers, home buyers, and consumers was in excess of $15 trillion. If the total money supply is $4 trillion, where is the other $11 trillion of borrowed money?
Here is another curious fact. We have been told for years that government borrowing to cover hundreds of billions of dollars of deficits would drive interest rates through the roof. Instead, interest rates have fallen dramatically. In March, 1993 they were between 4.9 and 2.2 percent, far below what they were in the early 1980s when federal debt was a small fraction of what it is now.
The explanation for these anomalies is that the missing money never existed. We never borrowed it, in the normal sense that it was turned over to us and spent. Most debt is not the result of people borrowing money; it is the result of people not being able to repay what they owed at some earlier time. Instead of declaring them bankrupt, creditors just add more to their debt.
The privilege of creating and issuing money is not only the supreme prerogative of government, but is the government’s greatest creative opportunity. By the adoption of these principles, the taxpayers will be saved immense sums of interest. — Abraham Lincoln
The federal government has been adding interest to its debt for 204 years. James Jackson, Congressman from Georgia, predicted that this would happen in a speech he made to the First Congress on February 9, 1790. Jackson warned that passing Alexander Hamilton’s plan to base the country’s money supply on the existing federal debt of $75 million would “settle upon our posterity a burden which they can neither bear nor relieve themselves from.” He predicted: “In the course of a single century it would be multiplied to an extent we dare not think of,” He clearly saw that Hamilton’s plan would put in place an exponential process of debt growth. To support his warning he cited the experience of Florence, Genoa, Venice, Spain, France, and England.
Hamilton’s plan was for Congress to commit the country to pay interest on the debt until the debt was paid. In the meantime the debt certificates would circulate as money. He argued that this would turn a $75 million debt into a $75 million money supply. The problem was that interest payments would have come out of the money supply. This would reduce the quantity of money that remained in circulation — and cause recession — until new loans returned the interest money back into circulation. The history of federal government finance shows such periodic swings between debt reduction and recession to debt increase and recovery.
The power to deal with this problem that Congress has neglected all these years is the power “to coin money and regulate the value thereof.” It has overused its power “to borrow money on the credit of the United States.” According to the Federal Reserve, 98 percent of the U.S. money supply is borrowed. Only 2 percent is coined.
The First Congress set the wrong precedent. It should have created $75 million in money and paid off the debt. With a population of 4 million people and an economy starved for a medium of exchange, that would have increased the money supply by $18.75 per person.
Why did the First Congress borrow instead of coin money? Newspapers at the time accused members of Congress of acting to serve their own interests. They sent agents into the countryside to buy up debt certificates that the general public thought were worthless. They then passed the Funding Act knowing that it would give themselves and their heirs a source of income that would grow exponentially with the debt. For every debtor there is a creditor. What is a $4 trillion debt for debtors is $4 trillion in claims for creditors.
To get out of this trap Congress has a range of options:
First, it could stop paying interest on the debt. Interest is the fuel that is exploding the debt. Cut off the fuel; stop the explosion. Since 1790 over $3 trillion in interest has been added to the original $75 million. Cutting interest would immediately cut the annual deficit by about $300 billion. Experience shows that all other conventional actions, no matter how painful, do no more than slow slightly the rate of debt growth. Then Congress could begin the process of paying off the debt.
A political problem with stopping the payment of interest is that people with money control politics. And many of them would have their interest income stopped. Insurance companies and pension funds are invested in federal debt and foreign holders would also be upset. Economically, however, we cannot continue to add compounding interest to existing debt. The biggest debtor is not the federal government. It is business corporations. It is impossible for them to increase the physical production of goods and services in order to keep up with exponential debt growth that is limited by nothing but arithmetic. Unlike the debt, the physical economy has limits.
The question holders of federal debt must ask themselves is this: Do we want to insist on more interest that will add debt to existing debt until the only option is debt repudiation and we lose everything? Or are we willing to stop where we are while we may still be able to recover our original investment plus a reasonable profit?
A second option is for Congress to create the money necessary to fund public works. As a sovereign government, Congress’ power is unique. It can create money debt-free and interest-free. Congress needs to stop thinking of itself as the same as other organizations that must take money in before they can spend it. Money does not grow on trees. It must be created. The only choice is whether to have it created as loans at interest from private banks or to have it created by Congress debt-free and interest-free.
How can Congress create money without causing inflation? Congress must regulate its value. The power to create money includes this regulatory power.
A good way for Congress to regulate the value of money is by funding projects at the current national price level. The current national price level can be calculated by dividing the most recent gross domestic product by the number of hours of work that produced it. For example, in 1991 the total gross domestic product was $5.6 trillion. The employed labor force produced it with 237 billion hours of work. So the GDP was produced at the rate of $23.95 per hour of work. By now the price level per hour is probably $25.00. So let Congress fund projects at $25 per hour. How this amount is allocated among labor, land, and capital can be negotiated.
How much money should Congress create? How about enough to reach full employment? We have about 9.5 million people actively looking for work. That includes a million managers and professionals; two and a quarter million technical, sales, and clerical people; a million and a quarter precision production, craft and repair people; over two million operators, fabricators and laborers; and 305,000 framers, foresters and fishermen. That’s a skilled labor force as big as many nations — all now idle. Employed at an average $25 per hour, ($50,000 per year), they would add $475 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product and reduce spending for unemployment compensation. The pie would grow as unemployment went down. Congress could start by creating, say, $50 billion, or $200 per person, in debt-free interest-free money, then fund $50 billion worth of works projects, monitor the results, and make adjustments as needed. Meanwhile the Fed could raise bank reserve rates, not interest rates, to make checking accounts more secure.
A third more conservative option is being proposed by an organization called Sovereignty, which believes that a country that borrows money loses its sovereignty to its creditors. Their proposal is intended to restore U.S. sovereignty by reducing our dependence on borrowed money.
The Guernsey experience. . .
Guernsey is an island state located among the British Channel Islands about 75 miles south of Great Britain. In 1816 its sea walls were crumbling, its roads were muddy and only 4 1/2 feet wide. Guernsey’s debt was 19,000 pounds. The island’s annual income was 3,000 pounds of which 2,400 had to be used to pay interest on its debt. Not surprisingly, people were leaving Guernsey and there was little employment.
Then the government created and loaned new, interest-free state notes worth 6,000 pounds. Some 4,000 pounds were used to start the repairs of the sea walls. In 1820, another 4,500 pounds was issued, again interest-free. In 1821, another 10,000; 1824, 5,000; 1826, 20,000. By 1837, 50,000 pounds had been issued interest free for the primary use of projects like sea walls, roads, the marketplace, churches, and colleges. This sum more than doubled the island’s money supply during this thirteen year period, but there was no inflation. In the year 1914, as the British restricted the expansion of their money supply due to World War I, the people of Guernsey commenced to issue another 142,000 pounds over the next four years and never looked back. By 1958, over 542,000 pounds had been issued, all without inflation.
In 1990 there was $13 million in interest-free state issued notes. A visitor to the island that year later wrote:
“I returned from Guernsey last weekend. It is a fascinating little island. There are about 60,000 permanent residents on the island. The average family owns 3.3 cars, their unemployment rate is zero and their standard of living is very high. There is no public debt. There is a surplus of public funds which earn interest. The Guernsey Treasury increased the Ml of the island by 40 percent in the last three-year period, and this increase did not do anything to inflation. The price for a gallon of gasoline in England translates to about $5US whereas, the price in Guernsey is about $2US. Contrary to the teachings of current economics in all higher institutions, inflation is not related to the volume of money but rather to the size of the commercial debt.”
Sovereignty proposes that Congress create money and lend it interest-free on a per capita formula to tax-supported bodies for capital projects and to convert existing debt to non-interest-bearing debt. Since first proposed in January 1989, the Sovereignty loan plan has been endorsed by over 1,814 city, town, and county governments and school boards, as well as by the U.S. conference of Mayors, the Michigan state legislature and the Community Bankers Association of Illinois, which represents 515 banks.
As loans, the money would be repaid, so money injected into communities would fund projects, then be removed. Of the three methods for putting money into circulation available to Congress, giving, paying, and lending, lending is the most cautious.
Benjamin Franklin attributed the economic success of the colonies to their creation of all the money they needed. He said that the root cause of the Revolution was the act of Parliament that prohibited the colonies from continuing to issue their own money. The moneylenders of England thought it more profitable that the colonies borrow their money.
We hear from Washington that we need to sacrifice to bring the deficits under control — cut consumption, save, and invest. When that slows the economy, we will be told to spend more to stimulate the economy. We have heard it all before. Neither method works. We need debt-free interest-free money to fund the work that needs to be done. It’s not sacrifice we need; it’s productive employment. Let Congress use its unique power to coin money and regulate its value to fund that employment.
Money is no more than an accounting device, a system of notes certifying that the bearer has done a share of the work and deserves a share of the wealth. Money’s backing is the goods and services produced by the labor force. By creating money Congress can activate the idle productive power of our people. And what they produce will add real wealth to the U.S. Treasury and add nothing to the federal debt.
Bob Blain, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. His research on the history of U.S. public and private has been published in the International Social Science Journal of UNESCO, Paris.