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We Aren't Greece -- But We Could Be Japan if Flawed Logic Persists

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Influential journalists are making persuasive cases that austerity is the wrong approach in fragile economies. That's good news. But discussions still get muddled in ways that can have perverse effects.

Take the case of Japan. Last week Bill Mitchell wrote an excellent blog post discussing Martin Wolf's article on Japan's fiscal position following the earthquake. Wolf suggested that the "national insolvency" threat allegedly posed by the earthquake was vastly overstated. He argued that the sums involved were too small to matter. Mitchell agreed, but went further, challenging Wolf's implicit suggestion that the Japanese government faced a solvency risk of any kind:

The reality is that the Japanese government has no solvency risk at all in relation to its net spending position and the debt issuance that matches it (nearly). It is grossly misleading to leave the impression that it is just because the reconstruction sums are small that there is no insolvency risk.

As Mitchell put it, Wolf's assessment was so close to comprehension, and yet so far.

I had a similar sensation reading Paul Krugman's latest challenge to the prevailing fiscal austerity mania now gripping most of today's leading policy makers in the global economy. Krugman rightly exposes the central flaw inherent in the deficit reduction hysteria:

Why not slash deficits immediately? Because tax increases and cuts in government spending would depress economies further, worsening unemployment. And cutting spending in a deeply depressed economy is largely self-defeating even in purely fiscal terms: any savings achieved at the front end are partly offset by lower revenue, as the economy shrinks.The article moves along swimmingly until Professor Krugman invokes the dreaded example of Greece:

But couldn't America still end up like Greece? Yes, of course. If investors decide that we're a banana republic whose politicians can't or won't come to grips with long-term problems, they will indeed stop buying our debt. But that's not a prospect that hinges, one way or another, on whether we punish ourselves with short-run spending cuts.

No, no, no! There is no debt crisis in sovereign nations such as the U.S., Japan, the U.K., or Canada. Barring a decision by Congress to give up the dollar and adopt, say, the Mexican peso, we can never end up like Greece. Nor will Japan, which does not need to "dip into its rainy day fund," as Carmen and Vince Reinhart wrongly suggested last week. To clarify, the nations of the European Monetary Union have given up their monetary sovereignty by giving up their national currencies and adopting a supranational one, the euro. By divorcing fiscal and monetary authorities, they have relinquished their public sector's capacity to provide high levels of employment and output. Non-sovereign countries are limited in their ability to spend by taxation and bond revenues, and this applies perfectly well to Greece, Portugal, and even countries like Germany, which continues to champion the cause of fiscal austerity under the respectable sounding guise of "sound finances."

This distinction is key, but it gets lost in our economic debates. Happily, Dean Baker gets it, but for the most part our inability (whether through misunderstanding or ideology) to distinguish between issuers and users of currency continues to provoke perverse policy responses, notably in the countries that remain sovereign in regard to their monetary/fiscal operations, such as the U.S. As my friend Warren Mosler always likes to say, "Because we believe we can be the next Greece, we continue to work to turn ourselves into the next Japan."

The only public debt problems that have emerged in the current crisis have been in non-sovereign countries. Even then, with appropriate "fiscal support," those crises were managed largely through the expedient of the ECB's ongoing purchases of PIIGS' debt in the secondary bond markets -- which amounts to a fiscal act within a flawed monetary system.

But blurring the distinction between sovereign and non-sovereign nations is the starting gate for this muddled discussion that persists when we invoke Greece as an example of what we could become.

Those of us who make the key distinction between a non-sovereign country like Greece and a sovereign one like the U.S. accept that the prevailing concern about Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain (PIIGS) and even other Euro nations is justified. But using PIIGS countries as analogues to the U.S. is a result of the failure of deficit critics to understand the differences between the monetary arrangements of sovereign and non-sovereign nations. Greece is a user of the euro. It is not an issuer. In that respect, it is more like California or even New York City, which are users of the U.S. federal government's dollar.

The hysteria, which Paul Krugman rightly decries, comes from a flawed understanding of how the monetary system works. It also partly explains why even in sovereign monetary/fiscal systems, conservatives continue to impose arbitrary constraints on our government's ability to provide policies that generate full employment. Which is precisely what we need right now.

Sovereign governments have been led to believe that they need to issue bonds and collect taxes to finance government spending and that good policies should be judged by their ability to enforce fiscal austerity. The guardians of the status quo know that the fear of rising public debt can be politically manipulated and demonized, and they do this to put a brake on government spending.

But there is no operational necessity to issue debt in a fiat monetary system. In fact, in the case of sovereign nations, it is a logical impossibility for households and nonbank firms to finance the budget deficit by paying taxes and buying government bonds. The private sector cannot create money (and bank-created money is not a net financial asset for the private sector, as the private deposit holders cancel out the private borrowers). The domestic private sector has to first earn the money by net selling goods and services (to the federal government) and net selling assets (to the central bank) before it is in a position to pay taxes or buy government bonds.

Mainstream economics has guided policymakers into imposing artificial constraints on fiscal policy and government finances, such as issuing bonds when running deficits, debt ceilings, forbidding the central bank from directly buying treasury debt, allowing the markets to set interest rates on government bonds, etc. This is a huge conceptual flaw that is currently paralyzing the Governor of the Bank of Japan, even as his country reels from its greatest disaster since World War II. It is also destroying the U.K. economy, as both Krugman and John Cassidy have recently highlighted.

All these constraints, sadly, are self-imposed and voluntary. As my colleague Randy Wray has put it, it is as if someone would tie his/her feet together and then complain about the inability to walk. It may seem petty to criticize otherwise strong critiques of the current thrust of self-styled deficit hawks. But we have to be on guard against conceptual confusion that can hamper our ability to act decisively to do what it is certainly in our power to do: namely to stop choking our economy and put Americans back to work.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.