Submitted by Marshall Auerback, an investment manager who also writes at New Deal 2.0:
Republicans and Democrats alike embraced legislation last week that would make California IOUs acceptable payment for all taxes, fees and other payments owed to the state – an action that effectively would mean that California is entering the currency business. Some commentators, notably Lex of the FT, have suggested that the proposed California “IOUs” “would create a vicious circle for the cash-strapped state, forcing issuance of even more IOUs.”
Quite the contrary: In fact, California’s innovative IOU proposal represents a way of alleviating the state’s fiscal crisis, not exacerbating it.
While it might appear that the new law seems merely to allow California to deficit spend just like the Federal Government – in actuality, the effect is far more profound than that. Allowing the IOUs to become an acceptable payment method for state taxes, instantly imparts value to them – in effect, what you have is a state of the union creating a parallel currency right under the noses of the Treasury, alleviating its fiscal straitjacket in the process.
So why are so objections being raised? The confusion seems to arise because of a mistaken understanding of the nature of modern money. Modern money has no intrinsic value in the absence of state sanction. In the words of economist Abba Lerner:
The modern state can make anything it chooses generally acceptable as money…It is true that a simple declaration that such and such is money will not do, even if backed by the most convincing constitutional evidence of the state’s absolute sovereignty. But if the state is willing to accept the proposed money in payment of taxes and other obligations to itself the trick is done.
The modern state, then, imposes and enforces a tax liability on its citizens and chooses that which is necessary to pay taxes. The unit of account has no real value if not ultimately sanctioned by use from the State. By extension, the state is never revenue constrained because it alone determines what is money. The tax is what gives the currency its value insofar as it functions to create the notional demand for federal expenditures of fiat money, not to raise revenue per se. Value has been given to the money by requiring it to be used to fulfill a tax obligation, but the money is already in existence, not “created” by the revenue.
It is in this context that one has to look at the California IOU proposal. It is important to note that the IOU would not replace the dollar, but operate in parallel to extinguish state liabilities. And if the IOU becomes functionally like a currency, then California’s bankruptcy problems are over. By imparting a value to these IOUs (i.e. letting them be used to settle state tax) this will ensure a demand for the state’s IOUs. Each individual vendor, contractor, or even state employee will accept the state’s new warrants up to the individual’s expected tax liability. Eventually the warrants will also be accepted by retail establishments and others, including banks, which also have liabilities to the state of California—meaning that the state could (eventually) issue a number of warrants equal to the total of all such obligations owed to the state, on an annual basis.
There are other historic examples of local currencies operating in parallel with national ones. As economist L. Randall Wray has noted, in Argentina as the financial crisis deepened after 2000, local governments began to issue “Patacones” (bonds with interest) as local currencies, paying workers and suppliers, and accepting them in tax payment. Utility companies began to accept them—knowing they could pay part of their taxes with them–and acceptance spread even to international corporations such as McDonald’s. (http://wallstreetpit.com/8333-berkshares-buckaroos-and-bear-dollars-what-makes-a-local-currency-tick)
It is true that this legislation represents a profound break from all federal laws. But this is another instance where Obama’s obliviousness to the ramifications of the states’ respective fiscal crises has come back to haunt him. He and his advisors keep thinking that if they provide “liquidity” to banks, the banks will go out and lend. They don’t seem to understand that credit is not a “flow” but a two-way contract between lender and borrower: Incomes have to improve first before credit conditions can improve. Rising incomes create improved credit worthiness and ultimately improving asset values, thereby enhancing lending activity.
Of course, if the Federal government truly finds California’s proposals far too radical, then there is a simpler solution at hand: a payroll tax holiday and revenue sharing with the states will go a long way toward alleviating the states’ respective fiscal crises and almost instantaneously improve private sector incomes and aggregate demand.