‘Print the money’: Trump’s ‘reckless’ proposal echoes Franklin and Lincoln

“Print the money” has been called crazy talk, but it may be the only sane solution to a $19 trillion federal debt that has doubled in the last 10 years. The solution of Abraham Lincoln and the American colonists can still work today.

“Reckless,” “alarming,” “disastrous,” “swashbuckling,” “playing with fire,” “crazy talk,” “lost in a forest of nonsense”: these are a few of the labels applied by media commentators to Donald Trump’s latest proposal for dealing with the federal debt. On Monday, May 9th, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate said on CNN, “You print the money.

The remark was in response to a firestorm created the previous week, when Trump was asked if the US should pay its debt in full or possibly negotiate partial repayment. He replied, “I would borrow, knowing that if the economy crashed, you could make a deal.” Commentators took this to mean a default. On May 9, Trump countered that he was misquoted:

People said I want to go and buy debt and default on debt—these people are crazy. This is the United States government. First of all, you never have to default because you print the money, I hate to tell you, okay? So there’s never a default.

That remark wasn’t exactly crazy. It echoed one by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who said in 2011:

The United States can pay any debt it has because we can always print money to do that. So there is zero probability of default.

Paying the government’s debts by just issuing the money is as American as apple pie—if you go back far enough. Benjamin Franklin attributed the remarkable growth of the American colonies to this innovative funding solution. Abraham Lincoln revived the colonial system of government-issued money when he endorsed the printing of $450 million in US Notes or “greenbacks” during the Civil War. The greenbacks not only helped the Union win the war but triggered a period of robust national growth and saved the taxpayers about $14 billion in interest payments.

But back to Trump. He went on to explain:

I said if we can buy back government debt at a discount—in other words, if interest rates go up and we can buy bonds back at a discount—if we are liquid enough as a country we should do that.

Apparently he was referring to the fact that when interest rates go up, long-term bonds at the lower rate become available on the secondary market at a discount. Anyone who holds the bonds to maturity still gets full value, but many investors want to cash out early and are willing to take less. As explained on MorningStar.com:

If a bond with a 5% coupon and a ten-year maturity is sold on the secondary market today while newly issued ten-year bonds have a 6% coupon, then the 5% bond will sell for $92.56 (par value $100).

But critics still were not satisfied. In an article titled “Why Donald Trump’s Debt Proposal Is Reckless,” CNNMoney said:

[T]he federal government doesn’t have any money to buy debt back with. The U.S. already has $19 trillion in debt. Trump’s plan would require the U.S. Treasury to issue new debt to buy old debt.

Trump, however, was not talking about borrowing the money. He was talking about printing the money. CNNMoney’s response was:

That can cause inflation (or even hyperinflation), and send prices of everything from food to rent skyrocketing.

The hyperinflation that wasn’t

CNN was not alone in calling the notion of printing our way out of debt recklessly inflationary. But would it be? The Federal Reserve has already bought $4.5 trillion in assets, $2.7 trillion of which were federal securities, simply by “printing the money.”

When the Fed’s QE program was initiated, critics called it recklessly hyperinflationary. But it did not even create the modest 2% inflation the Fed was aiming for. QE was combined with ZIRP—zero interest rates for banks—encouraging borrowing for speculation, driving up the stock market and real estate. But the Consumer Price Index, productivity and jobs barely budged.

While the Fed has stopped its QE program for the time being, the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan have jumped in, buying back massive amounts of their own governments’ debts by simply issuing the money. There, too, the inflation needle has barely budged. As noted on CNBC in February:

Central banks have been pumping money into the global economy without a whole lot to show for it other than sharply higher stock prices, and even that has been on the downturn for the past year.

Growth remains anemic, and worries are escalating that the U.S. and the rest of the world are on the brink of a recession, despite bargain-basement interest rates and trillions in liquidity.

Helicopter money goes mainstream

European economists and central bankers are wringing their hands over what to do about a flagging economy despite radical austerity measures and increasingly unrepayable debt. One suggestion gaining traction is “helicopter money”—just issue money and drop it directly into the economy in some way. In QE as done today, the newly issued money makes it no further than the balance sheets of banks. It does not get into the producing economy or the pockets of consumers, where it would need to go in order to create the demand necessary to stimulate productivity. Helicopter money would create that demand. Proposed alternatives include a universal national dividend; zero or low interest loans to local governments; and “people’s QE” for infrastructure, job creation, student debt relief, etc.

Simply buying back federal securities with money issued by the central bank (or the U.S. Treasury) would also get money into the real economy, if Congress were allowed to increase its budget in tandem. As observed in The Economist on May 1, 2016:

Advocates of helicopter money do not really intend to throw money out of aircraft. Broadly speaking, they argue for fiscal stimulus—in the form of government spending, tax cuts or direct payments to citizens—financed with newly printed money rather than through borrowing or taxation. Quantitative easing (QE) qualifies, so long as the central bank buying the government bonds promises to hold them to maturity, with interest payments and principal remitted back to the government like most central-bank profits.

As Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, wrote in response to the debt ceiling crisis in November 2010:

There is no reason that the Fed can’t just buy this debt (as it is largely doing) and hold it indefinitely. If the Fed holds the debt, there is no interest burden for future taxpayers. The Fed refunds its interest earnings to the Treasury every year. Last year the Fed refunded almost $80 billion in interest to the Treasury, nearly 40 percent of the country’s net interest burden. And the Fed has other tools to ensure that the expansion of the monetary base required to purchase the debt does not lead to inflation.

An even cleaner solution would be to simply void out the debt held by the Fed. That was the 2011 proposal of then-presidential candidate Ron Paul for dealing with the debt ceiling crisis. As his proposal was explained in Time Magazine, today the Treasury pays interest on its securities to the Fed, which returns 90% of these payments to the Treasury. Despite this shell game of payments, the $1.7 trillion in US bonds owned by the Fed is still counted toward the debt ceiling. Paul’s plan:

Get the Fed and the Treasury to rip up that debt. It’s fake debt anyway. And the Fed is legally allowed to return the debt to the Treasury to be destroyed.

Congressman Alan Grayson, a Democrat, also endorsed this proposal.

Financial author Richard Duncan makes a strong case for going further than just monetizing existing debt. He argues that under current market conditions, the US could actually rebuild its collapsing infrastructure by just printing the money, without causing price inflation. Prices go up when demand (money) exceeds supply (goods and services); and with automation and the availability of cheap labor in vast global markets today, supply can keep up with demand for decades to come. Duncan observes:

The combination of fiat money and Globalization creates a unique moment in history where the governments of the developed economies can print money on an aggressive scale without causing inflation. They should take advantage of this once-in-history opportunity. . . .

Returning the power to create money to the people

The right of government to issue its own money was one of the principles for which the American Revolution was fought. Americans are increasingly waking up to the fact that the vast majority of the money supply is no longer issued by the government but is created by private banks when they make loans; and that with that power goes enormous power over the economy itself.

The issue that should be debated is one that dominated political discussion in the 19th century but that few candidates are even aware of today: should creation and control of the money supply be public or private? Donald Trump’s willingness to transgress the conservative taboo against public money creation is a welcome step in opening that debate.

Ellen Brown is an attorney, Founder of the Public Banking Institute, and author of twelve books, including the best-selling Web of Debt. Her latest book, The Public Bank Solution, explores successful public banking models historically and globally. Her 300+ blog articles are at EllenBrown.com. She can be heard biweekly on “It’s Our Money with Ellen Brown” on PRN.FM.

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4 Responses to ‘Print the money’: Trump’s ‘reckless’ proposal echoes Franklin and Lincoln

  1. The naysayers deride the notion of printing money because “that can cause inflation (or even hyperinflation), and send prices of everything from food to rent skyrocketing.” Have they been on another planet for the past few years? The price of rent, food, etc has been skyrocketing for quite some time. The only way QE works is for the money to be “eased” into the wallets of consumers. If the govt sent every citizen 18 and over just 10,000, you’d see a significant boost to the economy. Up that amount to 50k and watch great things happen.

  2. Give everyone $1,000,000 and see what happens to the world economy. We could give them $50,000 per year for four years then $800,000. So we have time to adjust. We don’t really know what would happen but it would be worth it. Most people working for minimum wage would not turn up for work so they could give the jobs to robots but that would take time but we’d have four years. A lot of people would travel so that would boost the world economy and if it worked in the US we could try it in Europe and everywhere else. The real problem would be it would disincentivize the work force, the goose that lays the golden egg, profit, but, businesses could become cooperatives where all the boring menial jobs could be done by technology and everyone would want to work just to have a social space, especially if conditions were humane and the work interesting. People would need to invest a share of their 800,000, in the co-op. So much of our society is about waste trying to maintain hierarchy, big show off products that make us feel better by making us appear richer than the next guy, in the new society we would foster attitudes where we looked for well being intrinsically rather than extrinsically, you know like we would feel nice inside cause we acted nice outside. We would all be politicians and vote on each issue using an app on our phones, so we could scrap all the money wasted on that. We could scrap the military and save money there. No welfare. Lets print our way out. Oh yeah!

  3. Jerry Lobdill

    This article was previously published on OpEdNews.com. It is worthwhile to read the comments posted there as well as here.

    Based on the flippant nature of Trump’s speeches, it seems that he doesn’t have his brain in gear before he speaks. He says some really nutty things. I have serious doubts that he knows what he is talking about on this topic, even though
    the statement, “You print the money.” happens to be not as crazy as it sounds. But his explanation is poor and unconvincing. He makes it sound obvious and simple.

    There is a reason why the QE solution (print the money) did not produce hyperinflation (or even inflation) in the response to the 2008 crash. To produce inflation that print the money case did not cause inflation is that inflation is an M1 effect. If the new money is not injected into M1 inflation will not occur. M1 is the high velocity money generated by activities that directly affect the GDP. M2 is that portion of the money supply that is in time deposits. It is not turned over as rapidly as M1. M3 is that part of the money supply that is invested in long term investments or hard assets. Inflation is primarily associated with the consumption of goods and services in everyday transactions.

    QE printed money was exchanged for toxic (worthless) assets. It was distributed to the crooks who brought on the crash, and they use it as bonuses to their executives. This money did not flood through to main street. It ended up in M3.

    To get newly printed money into M1 it must be used to purchase new infrastructure or some needed public utility or service so that it is spent into activities that require manpower. If it is instead used to pay down the public debt it will go principally into M3 and not help relieve unemployment and underemployment. It also is worth mentioning that a service based economy does not support a middle class.

    So…the question becomes “If the printed money is used to buy needed public infrastructure or service, can that reduce national debt?” And can we also “restructure “ the national debt through debt forgiveness?

    I don’t think Trump has thought through the implications of his flippant “Print the money” solution.

  4. Jerry Lobdill


    My sentence,”To produce inflation that print the money case did not cause inflation is that inflation is an M1 effect.” should have been reworded to read, “To produce inflation that QE money would have had to flow into M1.”