This article appeared in the June 1994 issue of the Progressive Review.
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.
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.