On Wednesday night during the DNC speeches, it was something totally off the screen that made my night, a tweet from a college professor who was a Bernie Sanders economic adviser:
— Stephanie Kelton (@StephanieKelton) July 27, 2016
I had to tweet back to Dr. Kelton, joking that seeing this graph was going to give me nightmares about her Financial Analysis and Economy class she taught when I was an undergrad — and the huge piles of balance sheets we pored through.
But one thing, one absolutely necessary thing, was totally proven to me in this class — at a macroeconomic level, the balance sheets of all accounts in America (and our foreign trading partner’s surpluses or deficits) must balance. They don’t just have to come close (which there’s always going to be some margin, you cannot count ‘everything’). They actually balance if you took the time to tabulate the accounts.
Why is this?
Money is a balance sheet phenomenon, a statement of account, from the British tally-sticks to the Babylonian clay-pots. And for money to actually work in a society, it has to have one universal feature — that one person’s credits are another’s liabilities.
I’ve written about this a few times, and always somewhere in the dialog someone says something like, ‘I hold all my money as cash, I never put it into our risky banking system.’
I’ll ignore the second part of that statement, though money directly comes from that so-called ‘risky banking system.’ But even holding money as cash, there is still one ultimate party that must, in all circumstances, take it as payment — the U.S. federal government in payment for taxes (unless we’re talking about Civil War greenbacks which were specifically exempted from this — and failed largely because of this feature).
So, what happens if miraculously, the federal government builds its Scrooge McDuck-type money-bin, collects taxes, cuts spending, and holds all of its money for a rainy day.
For that, we have to look back into history, for one of the worst economic decisions ever made by a president to date.
Jackson Declares War on the Second Bank of the United States
Andrew Jackson campaigned on many stumps, but the public in general ate up his hatred for land speculators and banks. It wasn’t a mere disliking, but a pure hatred for banks and debt.
Through a landmark veto that Congress couldn’t undo, Jackson killed the Second Bank of the United States and began to deposit America’s funds into a series of privatized banks.
First bad idea.
By doing this, the government lost almost all of its monetary control over the economy. And while this was a relatively unused tool at this point in history, it was still employed at timely moments to avert disaster, even during the Founding Father’s era.
Then, to pay down the national debt, he essentially made an enormous balance sheet swap by selling federal lands for cash, in turn using the cash to pay the debts down to zero.
Second bad idea.
It might seem like a zero-sum game to the federal government, selling a part of a huge asset to pay down debts, but consider for a moment what happened in the whole economy. First, a drain in the overall accounts of private citizens to buy the land (trading a purely liquid asset for a much less liquid, but hopefully better producing asset). Second, the destruction of an income-producing asset, the debt itself. While this money was being transferred to the debt holders, it also had the net effect of destroying an asset that produced an income, for a non-interest bearing asset (cash). Third, at least some of this money went overseas to pay foreign banks holding America’s debt.
If you sit there and do all the balance sheet calculations, the net effect was one of liquidity first — the greater population was encouraged to become less liquid by holding land, while the wealthier class was forced to become more liquid by holding cash instead of interest-paying bonds.
If one thing is true about the wealthier class, they understand that holding cash is as good as losing money — so they had to find ways to make their money work for them, and in turn, ironically, many turned to land-speculation themselves, speeding up the impending bubble.
But now that the government had paid down the debt — what was Jackson to do with the surplus from taxes? He wasn’t just aiming for zero debt, but also encouraging government thrift.
Instead of just holding piles of cash, he deposited it with the various states, creating a catastrophe where the state banks were suddenly at war with each other over monetary policy, spending, and joining in the overheated land-speculation.
And the house of cards eventually all falls down, with one of the worst depressions America has ever faced — lasting six years and finally encouraging the government to start opening its wallet once again.
2016 and Beyond: Where Does the Economic Savior Need to Appear?
In March, I wrote an article on what it would take to actually pay off America’s debt.
It would be a massive undertaking, but that wasn’t the point of the article — that all schemes have two features. First, they’d never work. Second, it’s not desirable in the first place — no one would be happy with it.
But back to Dr. Kelton’s graph, and the Clinton Surplus of the 1990s.
It seemed that everyone was piling on debt during that time. Personally, I had bought 2 no-doc homes during those years, always had two car payments, credit cards run to the hilt, and seemingly every other debt I could think to take on — and yet the balls seemed to ‘magically’ stay in the air to make it work out.
It was a time of private spending on credit that I’m not sure we’ll ever see again — and to a degree, hopefully we won’t, because most people couldn’t handle the debt loads and bankruptcies spiked to the point where the federal government had to change the laws to ‘protect’ businesses.
In short, the drivers of the Clinton surplus (private debt) couldn’t be sustained and the result was not as desirable as advertised.
If we truly want an economic savior, we need to have one that is utilizing the ‘assets’ of America that aren’t being employed — and we’re definitely not talking about unemployed personal credit, returning to 1990s-style spending sprees.
We have huge stocks of unemployed and underemployed people, coupled with the outright enormous need for civil infrastructure programs that could be implemented.
If we must have an economic savior in 2016, let's hope it's one that focuses on using our underutilized economy.
When taking my children to the local parks, I always like looking at the dates on the buildings and shelters in the parks. In this area of the country, most were built during the WPA era, the government buying up unused labor and creating projects for current and future use. Some of these shelters and buildings are over 80 years old, but still providing an ‘economic good’ for the people in our community.
The nation’s infrastructure is crumbling, a reality that is inescapable at this point — too many of our bridges, roads, public buildings, etc. were built during the last great spending push, and are suffering the effects of age.
But it will take one thing to fix it — money and a political will to shed some of the debt paranoia that we’ve come to embrace.
Inflation always becomes a key argument — but how do you inflate an underutilized economy?
If we must have an economic savior in 2016, let’s hope it’s one that focuses on using our underutilized economy — providing real jobs to Americans that increases economic activity and productivity (especially when focusing on infrastructure) throughout the nation.
And this will take a lot more than hand-wringing and gut-reaction political rhetoric.
Therein lies the problem, it’s hard to implement programs like this on a massive scale.
It’s easier to state politically that we need a $15 minimum wage, rather than stating that we need to target full-employment — when in reality, it’s fully employing the nation’s resources that would do the most good.
And so we’re stuck in a cycle, believing in our economic saviors like a child’s belief in Santa Claus. But just like Santa only comes once a year, economic saviors only seem to arrive at election time — and soon after fade into the overwhelming realities of a massive problem with dozens, if not hundreds, of competing solutions.
Because in the end, we need to have a reality check on our political rhetoric — that we need real answers, not just the ones that pop up during election years.