Thursday, July 28, 2011

Dean Baker Endorses Ron Paul's "Surprising Lucid Solution" for Debt Crisis

I'll have to admit that the whole thing is bizarrely elegant. Here's Baker.

Representative Ron Paul has hit upon a remarkably creative way to deal with the impasse over the debt ceiling: have the Federal Reserve Board destroy the $1.6 trillion in government bonds it now holds. While at first blush this idea may seem crazy, on more careful thought it is actually a very reasonable way to deal with the crisis. Furthermore, it provides a way to have lasting savings to the budget.

The basic story is that the Fed has bought roughly $1.6 trillion in government bonds through its various quantitative easing programs over the last two and a half years. This money is part of the $14.3 trillion debt that is subject to the debt ceiling. However, the Fed is an agency of the government. Its assets are in fact assets of the government. Each year, the Fed refunds the interest earned on its assets in excess of the money needed to cover its operating expenses. Last year the Fed refunded almost $80 billion to the Treasury. In this sense, the bonds held by the Fed are literally money that the government owes to itself.

Unlike the debt held by Social Security, the debt held by the Fed is not tied to any specific obligations. The bonds held by the Fed are assets of the Fed. It has no obligations that it must use these assets to meet. There is no one who loses their retirement income if the Fed doesn’t have its bonds. In fact, there is no direct loss of income to anyone associated with the Fed’s destruction of its bonds. This means that if Congress told the Fed to burn the bonds, it would in effect just be destroying a liability that the government had to itself, but it would still reduce the debt subject to the debt ceiling by $1.6 trillion. This would buy the country considerable breathing room before the debt ceiling had to be raised again. President Obama and the Republican congressional leadership could have close to two years to talk about potential spending cuts or tax increases. Maybe they could even talk a little about jobs.

In addition, there’s a second reason why Representative Paul’s plan is such a good idea. As it stands now, the Fed plans to sell off its bond holdings over the next few years. This means that the interest paid on these bonds would go to banks, corporations, pension funds, and individual investors who purchase them from the Fed. In this case, the interest payments would be a burden to the Treasury since the Fed would no longer be collecting (and refunding) the interest...

...In short, Representative Paul has produced a very creative plan that has two enormously helpful outcomes. The first one is that the destruction of the Fed’s $1.6 trillion in bond holdings immediately gives us plenty of borrowing capacity under the current debt ceiling. The second benefit is that it will substantially reduce the government’s interest burden over the coming decades. This is a proposal that deserves serious consideration, even from people who may not like its source.

He's not wrong. Neither of them are wrong. It makes perfect sense and I can't fault the reasoning. Sure, the Fed would take a bit of a bath on this. So what? They're still the best equipped organization in America to do so. It wipes out a lot of debt in one go, and it means that there won't be the Mega Catfood Commission wiping out old people's Medicare and Social Security, at least not anytime soon.

In fact, it's such a logical solution that I'm really, really wondering why the hell nobody else has advocated it.

Edit: Noah Smith thinks that it could lead to "hyperinflation", as it would signify the end of Fed independence. Maybe. But I'm a bit skeptical about that. Inflation, yes, but "hyperinflation"? 

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