By Joe Firestone, Ph.D., Managing Director, CEO of the Knowledge Management Consortium International (KMCI), and Director of KMCI’s CKIM Certificate program. He taught political science as the graduate and undergraduate level and blogs regularly at Corrente, Firedoglake and New Economic Perspectives. Originally published at New Economic Perspectives
Right now the US fulfills the three essential conditions for monetary sovereignty: 1) it issues its own non-convertible currency, 2) which it allows to float on international currency markets; and 3) it owes no debts in any currency other than dollars. Because it is monetarily sovereign, and can always meet its obligations the US can never be forced into insolvency.
It can become insolvent due to Congressional decisions such as failing to raise or repeal the debt ceiling, or Executive decisions such as failing to use its platinum coin minting authority to fill the public purse and then pay its bills once it has reached the debt ceiling. But again, it cannot be forced into solvency by external financial or economic factors that are beyond the control of the Federal Government (including the Congress).
Monetary sovereignty is of tremendous value to us. As long as the United States retains it, then for example, we can never become Greece, or for that matter, Weimar Germany, since the latter’s hyperinflation was in large part caused by the fact that it owed its war reparation debts in goldmarks, or in currencies convertible to gold, and could not repay them in its own non-convertible currency, the Mark, which it could freely issue.
It also means, that the US has greater policy space for deficit spending and debt issuance than nations that have given up their currency, have fixed exchange rates, and owe debts in foreign currencies whose price in international markets it cannot control. Given all the current problems of the US, that may require deficit spending to solve, giving up monetary sovereignty is a monumentally risky thing to do, and exhibits the casual and foolish thoughtlessness of the President proposing it and the Congress seriously considering the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement.
Passing the TPP would compromise the monetary sovereignty of the United States and subject us to the influence of currency markets on the prices we may have to pay for foreign currency under a plausible scenario allowed by the Agreement. Specifically, I don’t see anything in the TPP investment chapter requiring that damages be awarded by the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) tribunals in the sovereign currency of nations incurring damage awards for lost profits, but only that they be awarded in a “freely usable currency” as specified by the IMF. So, complainants in these tribunals could ask for and win damages payable in foreign currencies, rather than US dollars, which the US would then owe in that foreign currency.
So, it flows from these considerations that passing the TPP would create the conditions for ending US monetary sovereignty for the first time since the international gold window was closed in 1971. The seriousness of this compromise of monetary sovereignty would depend upon the frequency and magnitude of judgments against the United States Government. So, how bad can it get?
No one knows. But we do know that “ . . . the TPP would empower another 25,000 foreign corporations to use the investor state tribunals, against the United States . . . an expansion many times the US’s current level of exposure.
We also know that Ecuador is currently facing a judgment against it awarded to Occidental Petroleum in the amount of $2.3 Billion for Ecuador’s lawful termination of a contract for drilling rights. For Educador, a judgment of that size is comparable to one of $340 Billion against the United States, denominated in a foreign currency it cannot issue. (The Dollar is Ecuador’s unit of account and official currency right now, but, of course, it is a currency Ecuador cannot issue.)
If you think this possibility is far-fetched, consider that ISDS actions are a business for multinational corporations experiencing rapidly accelerating and perhaps exponential growth. They and the ISDS Courts, staffed by lawyers who play the roles of judges for those Courts one day, and representatives of the potential plaintiffs in these Courts the next, have little incentive not to expand this line of business to the maximum the traffic can bear. Here’s what Elizabeth Warren thinks about this issue:
ISDS advocates point out that, so far, this process hasn’t harmed the United States. And our negotiators, who refuse to share the text of the TPP publicly, assure us that it will include a bigger, better version of ISDS that will protect our ability to regulate in the public interest. But with the number of ISDS cases exploding and more and more multinational corporations headquartered abroad, it is only a matter of time before such a challenge does serious damage here. Replacing the U.S. legal system with a complex and unnecessary alternative — on the assumption that nothing could possibly go wrong — seems like a really bad idea.
The deficit terrorists among us worry needlessly all the time about the bond vigilantes driving bond interest rates beyond what is fiscally sustainable for the United States, and use this argument to call for crippling deficit reduction and austerity, even though they must know by now that the result is economic stagnation and growing inequality. But they are strangely silent about what the TPP’s attack on US monetary sovereignty, making us subject to market-determined prices of foreign currencies, would do to fiscal sustainability, and equally silent about the issue of whether the compromising of our monetary sovereignty is fiscally responsible or not. It looks like they don’t care about fiscal responsibility and fiscal sustainability when it comes to a choice between these things and the possible frustration of the “expectations of profits” of multinational corporations.
Which brings us back to our erstwhile Representatives and Senators in Washington. How they can even consider Fast Track Authority for the President without extensively considering and debating the sovereignty-infringing aspects of the TPP is beyond me. Its potential infringement on Monetary Sovereignty is only one of these. There are many others, as well. And it is hard to understand how people who swear fealty to the United States can justify their apparent complete lack of concern for these issues when they make trade agreements.