The Guardian - April 17, 2020
Only a month ago, a stimulus bill of $2tn would have been unthinkable. Indignant deficit scolds would have asked how one planned to pay for it, and complained about burdening our grandchildren with debt and bankrupting our country. Bernie Sanders bent over backwards to explain how he was going to pay for a Green New Deal or Medicare for All. These programs don’t seem as expensive any more. Suddenly the government is planning “helicopter drops” of cash. Larry Kudlow, who relentlessly attacked the Obama stimulus during the global financial crisis, is touting the current stimulus as “the single largest Main Street assistance program in the history of the United States”.
Nobody is seriously asking how we are going to pay for this stimulus – and they shouldn’t. It took a global pandemic to explode the myth that federal government spending has to be “paid for”.
The Covid-19 crisis has clearly demonstrated what should have been obvious already: provisioning society – whether with food, disinfecting wipes, toilet paper or medical supplies – is not a financial issue. If we can’t produce enough masks, ventilators or food, finance will not help. Society’s capacity to produce real output is what limits its ability to provision itself. And this is precisely what the virus threatens, as workers stay home, supply chains break down and businesses shut their doors.
On the financial side, a sovereign government can always afford to buy what is for sale in its currency, as Modern Money Theorists have long explained. It cannot run out of money because it simply credits bank accounts when it spends. This is not a prescription, but merely a description of what actually happens. In the United States, Congress passes the budget, while the Treasury, in cooperation with its fiscal agent, the Federal Reserve, makes the necessary payments. This happens through the thick and thin of the business cycle, crisis or not. If the US government wants to buy more ventilators or masks, finance cannot be an impediment.
But what happens when ventilators and masks are not available for sale even as companies are operating 24/7? More money may not solve the problem, but the government still has a role to play. During the second world war, the US quickly became “the arsenal of democracy” by repurposing its productive capacity to meet the needs of the war. Through diligent planning “[l]ipstick cases became bomb cases, beer cans went to hand grenades, adding machines to automatic pistols, and vacuum cleaners to gas mask parts”. We were able to cut “production time for Liberty Ships down from 365 days to 92, 62, and, finally, to one day”. We can mobilize our resources once again to build temporary hospitals, and to ensure a sufficient supply of medical equipment and whatever else is necessary to overcome the crisis.
Buying into the deficit myth, for generations we have been living below our means – paralyzed by the belief that finance is the constraint. Prolonged periods of slack and jobless recoveries have disincentivized investment and hurt our productive capacity and labor productivity. Even in good times our economy leaves millions unemployed or underemployed and a significant amount of our capacity idle (before the epidemic, our factories were only operating at three-quarters of capacity). We have underinvested in public healthcare, education and infrastructure and imposed extreme limitations on social assistance programs. As of this writing, the administration still plans to go through with its plan to kick 700,000 Americans off the food stamps program to save a measly $4.2bn over five years. We have been living in “poverty in the midst of plenty”, as John Maynard Keynes aptly noted in the Great Depression. ...
Read full report at The Guardian