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The debt ceiling limit is destructive, duplicative and dumb

Stephanie Kelton

In a previous issue of ERA Review we drew attention to the regular saga of the political games played by US major parties in relation to the debt ceiling, and it seems an appropriate time to revisit the issue. The debt ceiling is a legislative limit on the size of national debt that can be incurred by the US Treasury, thus limiting how much money the federal government may pay on the debt that it has already incurred. There can be no doubt that failure to raise this limit at the appropriate time would devastate the US economy – and by extension the rest of the world. [Ed]

If you’ve been reading or watching the news, then you will know that the US hit its self-imposed debt ceiling limit of $31.381 trillion on January 19.

It’s a pity it didn’t happen on February 2 (Groundhog Day) because it is pretty much the perfect way to mark the occasion. Here we go again!

On the day the limit occurred, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, like her predecessor Steve Mnuchin, wrote a letter to Congress, explaining that the US Treasury would begin taking “extraordinary measures” to make good on spending commitments that it previously authorized under the law. That’s what’s so frustrating about the debt ceiling limit. When the limit is reached, it forces Congress to reaffirm its willingness to spend what it is already legally obligated to spend.

Think About That

Imagine that you walk into a restaurant with a group of friends. You ask for a table for six, and you follow the hostess to a booth. Everyone studies the menu and then places an order. A draft beer and a bacon cheeseburger. Pinot Noir and a medium-rare steak. A glass of chardonnay and a red snapper. Mushroom risotto and a diet coke. An old-fashioned and the braised pork chops. Chicken Alfredo and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. The waiter takes the order to the kitchen, and the chefs begin to prepare the meals. By ordering the food and drinks, you have committed to pay the tab. Now suppose everyone gets up and walks out, stiffing the restaurant instead of paying the bill.

As I said recently in an interview with Ali Velshi, the House Republicans are threatening to stiff a bunch of people that the government has already promised to pay. If Congress stiffs bondholders, health care providers, military personnel, civilian employees etc., it’s not because the federal government “ran out of money” or “maxed out the national credit card.” Any person who speaks in these terms is either ill-informed, lazy, or opportunistic. For a currency-issuing government like USA there is no such limit on spending. As I said to Mehdi Hasan during an interview recently, the debt limit is nothing like the limit on personal credit cards.

Credit: original source [1]


Mastercard and American Express have determined the limit on the credit cards in my wallet. It’s a good thing they do, because as a currency user, I might be tempted to rack up more debt that I can afford to pay back. As lenders, companies like Visa and Mastercard impose credit limits to reduce the amount of bad debt they have to write off.

The federal government’s finances do not work like those of a household. As the issuer of the currency, the US government can never “run out of money,” nor can it face bills coming due (in USD) that it cannot afford to pay. The debt ceiling isn’t imposed by any lender. It’s imposed on the government by the government. There is no applicable analogy to a household budget.

The debt ceiling is destructive, duplicative and dumb

As former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan told Congress in 2003:

“[Y]ou may want to reconsider whether the statutory limit on the public debt is a useful device. As a matter of arithmetic, the debt ceiling is either redundant or inconsistent with the paths of revenues and outlays you specify when you legislate a budget.”

He’s not the only former Fed Chairman to suggest doing away with the debt ceiling. During his tenure, Ben Bernanke said, “It would be a good thing if we didn’t have it.”

At least four former Treasury Secretaries Bob Rubin, Larry Summers, Paul O’Neill, and Tim Geithner agree. And so does former Fed Chair and current Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who referred to the debt ceiling as “very destructive” and indicated that she supports abolishing it.

Who else agrees? Most economists (including many conservatives), budget experts at centrist think tanks, and the ratings agency Moody’s.

Today, the US is one of only two countries in the world with a debt ceiling.

The other is Denmark, but they don’t weaponize it the way that it is treated in the United States. And even if they did, a default on Danish government bonds wouldn’t wreak the kind of havoc on the global financial system that a default on the world’s most important financial instrument US Treasuries would bring.

The Treasury Department can apparently rely on “extraordinary measures” to avoid reneging on payments until sometime in early June. Beyond June, in order to avoid stiffing anyone, the Congress will need to raise (or suspend) the debt ceiling, or the Treasury Department will need to find a way to circumvent it.

Unfortunately, you can rule out a suspension of the debt ceiling limit. House Republicans want their pound of flesh in exchange for lifting not suspending the ceiling.

As Rep. James Comer (R-KY) recently explained, the House Republicans will only agree to lift the debt ceiling in exchange for federal spending cuts.

Otherwise, he says, his party “won’t budge”. Meanwhile, the White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre insists that the administration “will not be negotiating over the debt ceiling.” They want a clean vote to lift it. So it’s Groundhog Day. Again.

In Closing

Each time we do this, it feels like the risk of an outright default nudges higher. I think it’s fair to say that the current Congress is different. But I think it’s still extremely unlikely that we will see a voluntary default by the US government. One way or another, the US Congress will almost certainly do what it has always done in the past i.e. it will vote to raise the debt limit. But because there is at least some chance, however small, that Congress might refuse to act, legal scholars and others will continue to look for ways to avoid default by ending the Groundhog game once-and-for-all.

1. Source: The Lens, 22 Jan 2023

This article is reproduced with the author’s permission.

Prof Stephanie Kelton is one of the world’s leading proponents of MMT and is an ERA patron.

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