When billionaires pledge a billion dollars to educate people to the evils of something, it is always good to peer closely at what they are up to. Hedge fund magnate Peter G. Peterson was formerly Chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations and head of the New York Federal Reserve. He is now senior chairman of Blackstone Group, which is in charge of dispersing government funds in the controversial AIG bailout, widely criticized as a government giveaway to banks. Peterson is also founder of the Peter Peterson Foundation, which has adopted the cause of imposing "fiscal responsibility" on Congress. He hired David M. Walker, former head of the Government Accounting Office, to spearhead a massive campaign to reduce the runaway federal debt, which the Peterson/Walker team blames on reckless government and consumer spending. The Foundation funded the movie "I.O.U.S.A." to amass popular support for their cause, which largely revolves around dismantling Social Security and Medicare benefits as a way to cut costs and return to "fiscal responsibility."
The Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform has pushed heavily for action to stem the federal debt. Bills for a budget task force were sponsored in both houses of Congress. The Senate bill was narrowly defeated, and the House bill was tabled; but that was not the end of it. In Obama's State of the Union speech on January 27, he said he would be creating a presidential budget task force by executive order to address the federal government's deficit and debt crisis, and that the task force would be modeled on the bills Congress had failed to pass. If Congress would not impose "fiscal responsibility" on the nation, the President would. "It keeps me awake at night, looking at all that red ink," he said. The Executive Order was signed on February 17.
What the President seems to have missed is that all of our money except coins now comes into the world as "red ink," or debt. It is all created on the books of private banks and lent into the economy. If there is no debt, there is no money; and private debt has collapsed. This year to date, U.S. lending has been contracting at the fastest rate in recorded history. A credit freeze has struck globally; and when credit shrinks, the money supply shrinks with it. That means there is insufficient money to buy goods, so workers get laid off and factories get shut down, perpetuating a vicious spiral of economic collapse and depression. To reverse that cycle, credit needs to be restored; and when the banks can't do it, the government needs to step in and start "monetizing" debt itself, or turning debt into dollars.
Although lending remains far below earlier levels, banks say they are making as many loans as they are allowed to make under existing banking rules. The real bottleneck is with the "shadow lenders" those investors who, until late 2007, bought massive amounts of bank loans bundled up as "securities," taking those loans off the banks' books, making room for yet more loans to be originated out of the banks' capital and deposit bases. Because of the surging defaults on subprime mortgages, investors have now shied away from buying the loans, forcing banks and Wall Street firms to hold them on their books and take the losses. In the boom years, the shadow lending market was estimated at $10 trillion. That market has now collapsed, leaving a massive crater in the money supply. That hole needs to be filled, and only the government is in a position to do it. Paying down the federal debt when money is already scarce just makes matters worse. When the deficit has been reduced historically, the money supply has been reduced along with it, throwing the economy into recession.
Another Look at the Budget Reform Agenda
That raises the question, are the advocates of "fiscal responsibility" merely misguided? Or are they up to something more devious? The President's Executive Order is vague about the sorts of budget decisions being entertained, but we can get a sense of what is on the table by looking at the earlier agenda of Peterson's Commission on Budget Reform. The Peterson/Walker plan would have slashed social security entitlements, at a time when Wall Street has destroyed the home equity and private retirement accounts of potential retirees. Worse, it would have increased the social security tax, disguised as a "mandatory savings tax." This added tax would be automatically withdrawn from your paycheck and deposited to a "Guaranteed Retirement Account" managed by the Social Security Administration. Since the savings would be "mandatory," you could not withdraw your money without stiff penalties; and rather than enjoying an earlier retirement paid out of your increased savings, a later retirement date was being called for. In the meantime, your "mandatory savings" would just be fattening the investment pool of the Wall Street bankers managing the funds.
And that may be what really underlies the big push to educate the public to the dangers of the federal debt. Political analyst Jim Capo discusses a slide show presentation given by David M. Walker after the "I.O.U.S.A." premier, in which a mandatory savings plan was proposed that would be modeled on the Federal Thrift Savings Plan (FSP). Capo comments:
"The FSP, available for federal employees like congressional staff workers, has over $200 billion of assets (on paper anyway). About half these assets are in special non-negotiable US Treasury notes issued especially for the FSP scheme. The other half are invested in stocks, bonds and other securities. . . . The nearly $100 billion in [this] half of the plan is managed by Blackrock Financial. And, yes, shock, Blackrock Financial is a creation of Mr. Peterson's Blackstone Group. In fact, the FSP and Blackstone were birthed almost as a matched set. It's tough to fail when you form an investment management company at the same time you can gain the contract that directs a percentage of the Federal government payroll into your hands."
What "Fiscal Responsibility" Really Means
All of this puts "fiscal responsibility" in a different light. Rather than saving the future for our grandchildren, as the President himself seems to think it means, it appears to be a code word for delivering public monies into private hands and raising taxes on the already-squeezed middle class. In the parlance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), these are called "austerity measures," and they are the sorts of things that people are taking to the streets in Greece, Iceland and Latvia to protest. Americans are not taking to the streets only because nobody has told us that is what is being planned.
We have been deluded into thinking that "fiscal responsibility" (read "austerity") is something for our benefit, something we actually need in order to save the country from bankruptcy. In the massive campaign to educate us to the perils of the federal debt, we have been repeatedly warned that the debt is disastrously large; that when foreign lenders decide to pull the plug on it, the U.S. will have to declare bankruptcy; and that all this is the fault of the citizenry for borrowing and spending too much. We are admonished to tighten our belts and save more; and since we can't seem to impose that discipline on ourselves, the government will have to do it for us with a "mandatory savings" plan. The American people, who are already suffering massive unemployment and cutbacks in government services, will have to sacrifice more and pay the piper more, just as in those debt-strapped countries forced into austerity measures by the IMF.
Fortunately for us, however, there is a major difference between our debt and the debts of Greece, Latvia and Iceland. Our debt is owed in our own currency U.S. dollars. Our government has the power to fix its solvency problems itself, by simply issuing the money it needs to pay off or refinance its debt. That time-tested solution goes back to the colonial scrip of the American colonists and the "Greenbacks" issued by Abraham Lincoln to avoid paying 24-36% interest rates.
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).