• Home
  • Modern Monetary Theory: A Banana Republic with No Bananas

Modern Monetary Theory: A Banana Republic with No Bananas

William L. Kovacs

May 2021

Modern Monetary Theory: A Banana Republic with No Bananas

Part I of this series charted the massive increase in the debt of the U.S., by both political parties, over the last twenty years. Now with the Progressives in total control of the federal government, far-Left economists and socialist politicians like Bernie Sanders advance Modern Monetary Theory (“MMT”) as a justification to continue unlimited spending without any consequences to the nation. If the Progressives are correct, there is a free lunch for all, most of the time. If the Progressives are wrong, the U.S. becomes a “Banana Republic.”

While our Constitution does not mandate any specific economic system, it does specify how government acquires, values, and spends our money. Politicians should understand how MMT squares with our constitutional structure before promising unlimited free money without increasing taxes or interest rates.

The U.S. recently finished an election for president, the entire House of Representatives, and one-third of the Senate.  Not one candidate for federal office in 2020 made serious mention of our $28 trillion national debt. $24 trillion or 84% of our $28 trillion national debt has been created since the presidency of George W. Bush. On top of the current debt, President-elect Biden is proposing $11 trillion in new spending. Every president has an excuse for massive debt. Trump had the pandemic; Obama the 2009 financial crisis; George W. Bush had 9/11. Biden just wants to spend for any cause.

MMT argues government debt is irrelevant

MMT asserts when a nation has a sovereign currency, debt can be accumulated since it is owed to itself.  Money can be simply credited to another’s account (printed in old-fashioned terms) without having to sell bonds that require interest payments. This magic process involves keystrokes on a computer. New digits are created electronically on a balance sheet allowing government to spend whatever it needs.

The foundation for such MMT magic is the belief that government creates all wealth by spending money into existence. Government spends to incentivize citizens to want more of what government wants us to have. And by commanding that all taxes be paid in the currency controlled by the government, everyone needs to earn money to pay taxes for the government services they want.

MMT economists view money creation as a valuable economic tool that does not automatically devalue currency when used to address an underperforming economy. By creating new money, jobs are created, and productivity increases. According to Federal Reserve chairs, “…government can print all the money it needs, and nothing bad happens.” Simply, MMT economists posit that when an economy has unemployment, government is not spending enough money and can spend until full employment is reached.

Under MMT, inflation is the primary risk of spending more than needed to reach full employment. When inflation occurs, MMT recognizes it will need to raise taxes and interest rates to control inflation, yet proponents ignore the implications of such recognition. However, as long as the Federal Reserve keeps interest rates near zero, there is not a need to repay the debt since no interest is due. But is there a point where the accumulated debt is so great that it cannot reasonably be serviced if interest rates rise?

Our Constitution does not authorize free money by keystroke

Our constitution starts with the words “We the People of the United States”  have created a government with certain limited powers. As to currency, our government is authorized to coin money, and regulate its value and relation to foreign currency. Our government can borrow money on the credit of the United States however, money cannot be drawn from the treasury unless Appropriations are made by law and all expenditures accounted for. These limits impose constitutional accountability by limiting government action.

Since the currency of the United States is only as valuable as the credit of the government supporting it, there is no provision allowing government to magically create an unlimited money supply by a keystroke and then by another keystroke use the money for other purposes.

In the world of finance, MMT resembles a money-laundering scheme, i.e., concealing the origins of money, then passing it through a complex sequence of transfers to make the money appear legitimate. By illustration, the Federal Reserve creates money from” thin air” and transfers it to the Federal government through a series of transactions. It works like this – the Social Security Trust Fund collects more real money in taxes than it pays out. Social Security uses its excess money to purchase U.S. Treasuries from the federal government. This transaction immediately gives the federal government real money to spend. The Federal Reserve then buys the U.S. Treasuries from Social Security using the money it created out of thin air. The only real money is collected by Social Security and it goes to the Federal government which immediately spends it. The risk of this money laundering scheme is that Social Security, its pensioners, and the Fed own promises based on the creditworthiness of the U.S. which is constantly printing more money out of thin air and transferring it through the system.

As more dollars are made out of thin air, they become less valuable unless needed as a source of exchange in the U.S. Since the Constitution contemplates international commerce and a valuable currency supported by the credit of its government, MMT is far outside the Constitutional framework that requires a strong currency for trading with the nations of the world. In fact, MMT will force the U.S. to be an insular society to ensure its currency remains valuable to citizens.

It is easy to see why Progressives are so enthralled with MMT. They believe since government creates all wealth, it has the right to tax back all wealth, after all, it’s the federal government’s money. Citizens merely exist to do what the government wants them to do. Citizens merely buy the services government wants them to buy. Such a system could be termed communism but MMT is too misleading for such a serious term. A better description is that MMT promotes a Banana Republic without any bananas to back its currency.