How the Fed feeds big government and debt

Donald Trump recently caused controversy by commenting that the federal government would never have to default on the national debt because the Fed can just print more money. Of course, since an increase in the money supply devalues the money, relying on the Fed to monetize the debt is a backdoor way for the government to underpay those who bought federal debt.

The fact that the government relies on the Federal Reserve to monetize debt is one of those open secrets that everyone knows, but few talk about. 

Paul-Martin Foss, writing at the Misses Institute, provides an interesting examination of how the Federal Reserve facilitates government spending. Paul-Martin's piece was inspired by University of Iowa Professor Patrick Baron's talk at the Mises Institute's Austrian Scholar conference:

Sound money, to Dr. Barron, is the most important check on government spending. If money is sound, meaning that the government cannot inflate the money supply at will, then government spending will be limited. Remember that governments can fund their operations through three methods: 1.) Taxation; 2.) Bonds, or borrowing; 3.) Inflation.

Taxation is self-limiting because at higher tax rates there will be massive tax avoidance and tax revenues will fall, or the government might be voted out or overthrown if people are angry enough. Bonds have to be repaid, which comes from future taxation, so we are back to the self-limiting aspect of tax funding. Bonds also require interest payments, and if a government isn’t creditworthy then the interest payments may make borrowing money prohibitively expensive.

This leads us to the third and preferred method, inflation. By creating more money, the government decreases the value of each monetary unit. But it normally does so in a slow enough manner as to be barely perceptible to the average person. And where does this newly-created money go? Why, to the government’s coffers, of course. There it gets spent on wars, welfare, and other boondoggles. In the meantime, the newly-created money causes the prices of goods to increase, driving up the cost of living for the average person. In this way, inflation is a stealth tax. Its effects are just as insidious as direct taxation in that it takes money from citizens and deposits it into government coffers, but it does so in such an imperceptible way that very few people realize that they are being fleeced. That allows governments to spend far more money than they otherwise would be able to by relying on taxes and borrowing alone, which is why governments prefer it.

But in order for inflation to work effectively as a government policy, governments have to exercise control over the monetary system. They have to have the ability to debase money, devaluing each unit of currency. If people can use money that is outside the government’s control then the government’s schemes are thwarted. That is why governments throughout history have tried to monopolize the issuance of money. Reining in government spending will require breaking up that monopoly, eliminating the government’s control over the monetary system, and ensuring that people have sound money and alternative currencies to use when the government tries to use inflation as a policy tool. Inflation and increased government spending are two sides of the same coin. If people are really serious about reining in government spending, they need to jump on the sound money bandwagon.

Read the whole piece here.

Campaign for Liberty Chairman Ron Paul has been an outspoken critic of the monetization of debt throughout his career. For example, he addressed the issue in this 2013 column on the Federal Budget:

Federal spending once again dominated the debate in Washington last week, as House Republicans and Senate Democrats began work on their ten-year budget plans. Contrary to claims, neither party’s budget reduces spending. While the Republican plan increases spending a little less than the Democrat plan, it would still spend $5 trillion in 2023, an almost two trillion dollar increase over this year’s budget.

Of course, these projections of future budgets are meaningless, as a current Congress cannot bind a future one. Therefore, the projected spending for next year is the only part of the budget with any significance. So is there a great gulf between the two parties’ budgets for next year? No. For fiscal year 2014, the Democrat budget proposes spending $3.7 trillion, while the “radical” Republican budget spends $3.5 trillion!

While the two parties bicker over minor differences in spending, the stock market, which many in Washington predicted would crash unless the parties reached a “grand bargain” on taxes and spending, seems unaffected by the various manufactured budget crises. Unfortunately, the market’s indifference to Washington spending games is based on the fallacy that the deficit does not matter as long as the Federal Reserve is willing to monetize the federal debt.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is certainly doing all he can to facilitate deficit spending. The Federal Reserve’s desire to monetize the federal debt is a main reason for the aggressive program of buying federal debt via the continuous quantitative easing. Under Chairman Bernanke, the Federal Reserve is pumping as much as $85 billion a month into the American economy. This out-of-control monetary policy is largely conducted behind closed doors, yet it has much more effect on the do day-to-day lives of Americans than Congress’s phony budget debates. The Federal Reserve’s polices erode the value of the dollar, causing prices to rise, which in turn diminishes people’s standard of living. This inflation tax may be the most hideous tax of all because it is both hidden and regressive.

Of course, the Federal Reserve can only keep this up for so long before doing serious damage to the economy. The Austrian school of economics teaches that the Federal Reserve is responsible for the boom-and-bust cycles that plague modern economies. The Federal Reserve’s aggressive money pumping runs the risk of creating hyperinflation — especially once banks stop hoarding their reserves and began flooding the economy with Fed-created fiat currency.

Even though the economic crisis of 2008 proved the Austrians correct, there are still too many in D.C. and on Wall Street who believe the Keynesian fallacy that government and the Federal Reserve can spend-and-inflate our way to prosperity. But, as is the case with the narcotics addict, the longer the Federal Reserve enables Congress’s habit of deficit spending, the more painful will be the withdrawal when Congress is finally forced to kick the habit.

The role of the Federal Reserve in facilitating deficit spending by the US—and even foreign governments—means it is a mistake to segregate monetary and fiscal policy. Our nation will never get its fiscal house in order until we reform monetary policy. The first step is letting the American people know the real facts about the Federal Reserve’s actions.

The debate over the federal budget and even the battle over the Federal Reserve are ultimately arguments over symptoms rather than the cause. The root of the fiscal crisis is the belief that the federal government is qualified to manage the economy, provide for the people’s needs, and spread democracy throughout the world through either by foreign aid or by force of arms. Neither party in Washington questions the welfare-warfare state.

Until Congress begins debating questions such as whether or not we really need thousands of military facilities around the world, whether or not we should shut down the Education Department and return control to local communities and parents, and whether we should allow young people to completely op-out of the entitlement programs, the so-called debates in Washington, D.C. will continue to amount to nothing but sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Learning the full truth about how the need to monetize the federal debt influences Federal Reserve's monetary policy is one of the many reasons Campaign for Liberty is working to pass the Audit the Fed bill. Please support our efforts.

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