A RESPONSE TO STEVE CLARK, TOM CLARK AND SIGNE WALLER FOXWORTH ON THE DOLLAR AS THE WORLD’S RESERVE CURRENCY
| Dennis Torigoe |
First of all, thank you Steve, Tom, Signe and others for responding to my recent article, The Dollar as the World’s Reserve Currency. This discussion will help activists grasp the issue’s importance as well as deepen our understanding of this issue.
Under US capitalism, policies pushed by MMT can help with partial solutions to some of the country’s problems. However, in practice, the continual debt-driven printing of money drives economic polarization and the country down the wrong path to the future. Under what we call the US dollar regime, the rich are getting much richer while structural unemployment, as shown in the labor participation rate and deindustrialization, is worsening. While the prevailing narrative of unemployment is that the Chinese are taking our jobs away, this story is increasingly being contradicted by acknowledging that we can simply print money and get their manufacturing products. Why should we then bother to do the dirty work of investing and manufacturing at home in the first place?
Under the Fed’s huge printing of money the assets of the rich, like stocks and desirable real estate, have been skyrocketing. Wages and salaries for most workers are stagnant. While it shields the middle class, who own their homes in the right places and stocks in retirement funds, from the ravages of inflation, the super-rich are getting richer and the poor are getting a lot poorer. The paradox is that economic polarization gets worse as more money is printed. Alongside that, the US has always used its ability to print money — a de facto use of what is described in MMT — to fund wars of aggression and expand its military dominance around the world.
Printing money to fund spending on infrastructure and human needs makes sense because they are a direct investment in our postindustrial future. Large budgetary spending on programs such as early childhood education, cleantech, and communications make sense because they will propel us into a highly productive, more equal and democratic postindustrial future. Federal support of research and development — whether through universities, national labs or private enterprises engaging in activities such as semiconductor chip development — is decades behind and should be vastly increased. Printing money for use in these endeavors enhances the sciences and productivity and will be paid back in time. Even when a direct payback is absent, such as for Covid vaccination and climate adaptation in developing economies (provided these are offered free of conditions and imperialist designs), these types of expenditures are essential to further a just and fair society.
We are not against the dollar as a reserve currency in principle if it was a result of superior US productivity and innovation or the use of deficit spending by the government to carry out crucial infrastructure, for human needs and in developing human capital that will propel us into a highly productive, more equal and democratic postindustrial future. What we are against is the dollar as a reserve currency used as a weapon of the US to rip off other countries and vastly overfund the US military to carry out wars of aggression and threaten other countries with economic sanctions. We are against the use of the US dollar regime as a means to push the US into gutting its real industries, creating greater structural unemployment and extreme polarization in society.
Turn Swords into Plowshares
Military spending and adventures that serve and enrich a narrow part of US society and special interest groups, to further empower the US military industrial and intelligence complex, are the opposite of the positive expenditures enabled by printing money. They take away useful, value-added productivity and turn it into death, destruction, waste and decay.
Thus, as part of a progressive program, we call for swords to be beaten into plowshares.
All of us agree that spending money on wars of aggression and huge military budgets are wrong. We also agree that spending on domestic programs to increase productive activities that increase social wealth and equality are positives.
Here is where we disagree. We cannot do both: there has to be a choice between plowshares and swords. Swords have to be turned into plowshares. That’s an essential programmatic element for any progressive agenda. As Signe has said, there is a challenge to our view of economics and ethics.
By saying that we can do both, we are following the narrative of neoliberal US imperialism, which indeed, always attempts to do both guns and butter, of war, with reform and repression. But their neoliberal narrative does not acknowledge that spending at least 750 billion dollars every year on war and the military, with its hundreds of bases in foreign countries, is the amount not spent creating the conditions for postindustrial development.
Even from a perspective of national self- defense, should such an unlikely eventuality become a necessity, a vast and rigorous R&D culture and network with the aim to better humankind will form a strong scientific and technological basis for a new and innovative national defense.
Moreover, the cost of sustaining the current vast war machine is not just reflected in the annual Federal budget. It is reflected in the oppression of people in other countries who are victims of that war machine and US imperialism and the lost opportunities to implement real positive change in the conditions of the American people and the world.
The Nature of Fiat Currency
We would like to address Tom’s point on fiat currency. All currency serves two basic purposes: first as a unit of account and as a store of value within a legal jurisdiction (normally within a country). Secondly, it is a medium of exchange. Gold and silver have often been used historically for these purposes. However due to the expansion of human production and civilization (roads, cities, productive tools, cultural products and services) both in scale and quality, there is no longer an adequate amount of these precious metals to perform these two functions.
Store of Value
However, to understand the US dollar regime, we must study a national currency used in more than one jurisdiction, that is, internationally. The rise of mercantile capitalism, colonialism and imperialism meant that a dominant currency was used in multiple jurisdictions. So a fiat currency of a particular nation, say in the case of the British Pound, particularly one that’s powerful militarily and, like the Bank of England, has a long tradition of honoring its currency and establishing its global value. It built trust in maintaining its currency’s value or for goods and services. The replacement of Great Britain by the US as the premier international power, allowed the US dollar to have a greater value as a fiat currency with global dominance.
Medium of Exchange
The other principal reason for the dominance of a currency is its value for the exchange of goods. The US dollar through its redeemability in gold and silver and even before OPEC became the ONLY currency permitted in buying oil. Since the value of the global oil trade at oil’s high points could constitute up to 60-70% of the total value of global trade, the US dollar became more valuable and desirable as a result of this linkage,( which by the way seems voluntary but is not. It’s decidedly by force or the threat of force). Almost all globally-traded commodities are priced in US dollars, including energy, precious metals, base metals, and agricultural commodities.
The US dollar is the dominant global currency. As such, it is used as a reserve currency by other countries. Today the US dollar is about 50-69% of all currencies kept by other countries for trading and other reserve purposes, though this has declined since the 1990s, before the US invasion of Iraq. To show the relative strength of the US dollar, only 2% of the world’s reserve currency is in China’s renminbi, even though it is a dominant trading nation. The Euro is in the ballpark with 20-30% while the Japanese Yen is about 10%.The US dollar is dominant not just in trade. It is also used as the basis for other pegged currencies such as the Hong Kong dollar and other currencies around the world including China which has printed its RMB from 1980 to the present, but particularly in the early years, based on the amount of US dollar they owned.
Why Has US Inflation Been So Low Since the 1990s?
The US became a world reserve currency and relatively free from inflation, even though a much larger amount is printed beyond its domestic economic needs, because a large amount of printed currency gets absorbed by other countries, free from US domestic circulation, which would be highly inflationary. MMT and some mainstream economists contend that we can print as much as we need since there is no inflation. For example, they set up a 2% inflation goal (which justifies printing 2% more US dollars as a neutral, non-inflationary act). Since this 2% US dollar inflation was never reached in recent years, they say that it shows that it’s okay to print even more.
What they didn’t say is that this is only a temporary phenomenon. Many formerly colonial and developing countries have embarked on economic development and created a lot of savings in the last two or three decades. Their savings were saved in US dollars due to the weakness of their own currencies. Absorption of this large pool of global savings enabled the US dollar to be printed without inflation.
But will this continue indefinitely? We don’t think so. There are no free lunches in the world. These developing world savings are finite and have been exhausted. There is no more coming. Furthermore, will manufacturing countries continue to accept the US dollar as good IOUs as the Federal Reserve engages in quantitative easing, again and again into infinity?
The recent commodity inflation (PPI) index has reached 10% and the consumer price (CPI) index over 5% indicating a pivotal change in inflation. Many mainstream leaders in finance such as Jamie Dimon and Larry Summers challenge the Federal Reserve’s view that inflation is only temporary. They both said that we will be surprised by the persistence of this inflation.
The Nature of the Federal Reserve’s Interest Rate Cycles
As Prof. Salas stated in his recent immigration forum, the Mexico border issue is not just a Mexico-US problem. It’s a North-South or developing world-US problem as a result of the US neoliberal imperialist system. US neoliberal imperialism is an economic-industrial-military political order which reaps world wide profit from the massive expansion of low-interest debt. As the US raises interest rates in due time, it bankrupts those that borrowed massively for economic development. This interest rate cycle, often depicted as a boom and bust cycle, or a Federal Reserve interest rate cycle are global and omnipotent. It sweeps the world first with hope and then certain despair. The finest assets such as Korea’s Samsung were once almost taken over (which would be like taking over a country without firing a shot) by the same group of hedge funds such as Elliot Management, the same group that attacked the Thai Baht, the Malaysian and HK dollars in the Asian Financial Crisis. The force of US-led global capital pushed Latin American countries and Russia into bankruptcies or debt traps like the Brady Bonds. This spreading of the fishing net and reaping by pulling it in is predictable in almost 10-12 year cycles.
The Federal Reserve’s Interest Rate Cycle is the US Dollar Regime
The key point is that the Federal Reserve’s MMT-like currency cycle is the US dollar regime. It doesn’t separate military spending from lending to poorer nations. If the set up does not guarantee “reaping,” that is, the ability to enforce measures on those who default on loans or the military capacity to enforce isolation of countries like Iran or Venezuela when they get out of line (which is the post World War II practice) they won’t lend their money until the country targeted capitulates or there is regime change. In the first place, the US dollar regime is a regime — an established system of monetary, political, military and organizational orders that doesn’t separate where the money goes. It prints because it’s set up. It is set up to reap.
When we say Keynesian spending on human capital and needs is good, we are not saying that as a part of that system. We are against the US dollar regime as a system. We are just saying there is nothing wrong to borrow through legitimate commercial channels or even by government spending but without military, SWIFT and hedge fund enforcement — the way it is done today.
The Counter-Cyclical Nature of Interest Rate Cycles of the Former Victims of the US Dollar Regime
The US Fed has lowered the interest rate to almost zero as Covid-19 hits. Now they are tapering and ready to raise the rate to reap. However, this time things may be different. Many countries learned this game and have raised their rate before the US raises its rate. They do so to be countercyclical to preempt US reaping by minimizing potential damage, by trying to get out of or lowering debt before the nets are pulled in. Countries from North to South, Turkey to Korea, China to Vietnam are all trying to raise interest rates and lighten their debt owed before it’s too late. This actually has forced Federal Reserve Chairman Powell to taper ahead of schedule! This is another reason that this round of US monetization of debt and QEs may not hurt others as much it hurts itself.
After the wakeup call from China reversing its buying of US Treasuries, this round of the interest rate cycle may be a reset for the US. The amount of US government debt of $29 trillion along with $5.6 trillion of Federal Reserve debt on its balance sheet is scaring the rest of the world and they are buying fewer US Treasuries fearing inflation. This is part of the counter-cyclical interest rate game to minimize their losses.
This makes the latest round of Fed Chairman Powell’s moves questionable. Inflation is widening from commodities to everyday consumer products, a rare global occurrence that may foreshadow the beginning of the end of the US dollar regime. Stanley Druckenmiller has stated that the US dollar regime could end in 15 years if we keep printing money like this. And, he says, that could be the end of the American way of life as we know it.
Massive Deficits a Burden?
Tom states: “As Godley showed, this accounting is a fact, not a theory, and decisively exposes the myth that the national debt is somehow a burden to our descendants, any more than the massive deficits from WWII were a burden to us.”
While it is not necessarily true that national debt is a burden, there are limits to a sovereign currency. One is that the fiat money supply (printing money) must not continually vastly outstrip the amount of goods produced, services available or savings or the currency will devalue. This devaluation most often will show itself as inflation, where prices paid in that currency rise on goods and services, which will lower people’s buying power and if it grows higher and uncontrolled will devastate the economy. This happened, for instance, in the 1970s in the US during and after the Vietnam War and in Latin America during the 1980s and early 90s and most infamously in Weimar Germany in the 1920s. In fact, Modern Monetary Theory recognizes that the limit of currency creation by a sovereign country is the ability to keep inflation at a tolerable level. Thus, sovereign currency debt creation is in fact not unlimited, but constrained by the real economic conditions in which it functions.
The other limit is that the government has to service debt created by deficit financing, for instance the servicing of bond interest. As the US government continues to deficit finance its budgets, it has to be able to pay bondholders the promised interest on the bonds. Right now, the US government allocates about 7.9% of its budget to interest payments ($325 billion) and the 2021 Federal Budget Proposal projects this by 2030 to become 10% of the budget, or $665 billion. The Congressional Budget Office projects that federal debt payments could reach 27% of GDP (GDP, not the Federal Budget !) by 2050 from around 8% in 2021. No amount of raising taxes could save the day. Moreover, any problem that arises from this debt servicing, such as the Tea Party Republicans threatening to default on US interest payments in 2011 and 2013, or like the Republicans in the Senate are doing today, will cause US treasuries interest rates to rise because of perceived risk, slows economic growth and weakens the dollar’s value, increasing import costs.
This growing federal debt service eating up more of the federal budget is also both a lost opportunity to fully fund more productive postindustrial programs and an increase to the inflationary threat. As more dollars are printed to cover this debt service, more dollars are released into the economy, causing inflationary pressure. It can also cause asset bubbles as investors chase higher returns than near 0% interest Treasuries, bubbles which burst and cripple the economy as happened in the 1970s, the dotcom stock market bust in the 1990s and the Great Recession in 2009-2014. Today, leading investors like Stanley Druckenmiller (who along with George Soros broke the Bank of England by shorting the English pound in support of the US dollar as the rising reserve currency) see that as a real risk in the next year or two. As stated before, he also predicted that the US dollar reserve regime may end in 15 years, fundamentally changing the American way of life as we know it.
On the question of the US’s massive deficits after WWII, I think we have to look at the global economic picture after the war. While the US was not invaded or devastated, the countries of Europe and Asia were. The fact is that the US won the war. The statement that the US didn’t feel the effects of its debt fails to take into account the widespread economic destruction in China, SE Asia, the Soviet Union and Europe. The outcome was that America felt it in lives lost in war but in fact profited economically. By taking the mantle of global superpower and imposing the post war international order on the non-socialist world, through means of the Marshall Plan, the reconstruction of Occupied Japan and the crushing of Communist-led rebellions in Greece, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaya, the US enriched itself by reconstruction contracts, the control of third world commodities, the domination of global trade and commerce producing major profits for its capitalist class. With the Bretton Woods dollar regime, the US lorded over the rest of the world economically and militarily.
In fact, North America enjoyed the longest rise in the standard of living in history during the post WWII period, until we hit Vietnam, Iraq and the Middle East. The Vietnam War ended in 1975 with 55,000 American lives lost but millions of lives lost in SE Asia. The war cost a little less than $1 trillion then. But combined with the rebellion pacification money of the Great Society and Urban Renewal (the last big printing of money by the US government) it was less than 20% of what we spent in wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Even then the Volcker recession drove the US economy way down in the 1980s (see The Myth of American Deindustrialization) until we revived it through the digital revolution that went from the mid 1980s until it went bust in the stock market’s internet debacle in 2000.
Is US Dollar Hegemony a Product of, or Integral to US Imperialism?
Tom states that the “dollar’s status as reserve currency is a result, not a cause, of US imperialism.” That is untrue. The key fact is that US dollar hegemony is an integral part of US imperialism, and is part and parcel of US domination of other countries. Iraq was invaded and Saddam Hussein was ousted mainly because of his attempt to decouple Iraqi oil from petrodollars (oil could only be bought and sold by using US dollars). This agreement was imposed by the US and OPEC. It was not only due to his invasion of Kuwait, as the US claimed.
The forging of the petrodollar and other US dollar-denominated commodities took arm-twisting, and were a huge part of what formed the post Vietnam War US-led world order in the first place. The agreement to back Saudi Arabia with US weapons and the stationing of troops there was in exchange for the Saudis and OPEC’s willingness to couple oil transactions with the US dollar to the exclusion of all other currencies.
The Brady Bond Debt Trap
Another example is the imposing of the Brady Bond solution to the massive debt crisis in Latin America of the 1970s and 1980s that became shackles on many Latin American countries. The Latin American debt crisis was in large part due to the large loans to third world countries by US and European banks when interest rates were low, and this became a crisis caused by the increased debt service on loans because of the huge increase in oil prices in the 1970s and 1980s. Because all oil had to be paid for in dollars, those countries had to further borrow huge amounts of US dollars from US and European banks (who were getting petrodollars invested from OPEC) to pay for imported oil. Latin American countries, beginning with Mexico in 1982 started to default on US dollar loans. The results were catastrophic. According to Wikipedia, “A massive process of capital outflow, particularly to the United States, served to depreciate the exchange rates, thereby raising the real interest rate. Real GDP growth rate for the region was only 2.3 percent between 1980 and 1985, but in per capita terms Latin America experienced negative growth of almost 9 percent. Between 1982 and 1985, Latin America paid back US$108 billion.”
The Brady Bonds were a way to restructure the Latin American loans to make it easier for them to be repaid, but also to recover as much as possible for US and European banks and investors, rather than lose all in defaults. Even then, defaults occurred in Brady Bonds. Ecuador, for instance, defaulted on interest payments and faced immediate repayment demands. It ended up cut off from the world financial markets and suffered through years of deprivation, social and political unrest.
The US Dollar Regime is the Most Effective Part of US Imperialism
The use of sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela, Russia and Iran, were direct acts of imperialism through the control of the dollar regime. The US SWIFT sanctions became in fact far more effective than the US military, as US military ventures often stalled and became ineffective, costly and unpopular in the US. There are no protests against US economic sanctions since there are no American soldiers brought home in body-bags by such acts.
In fact, today US dollar hegemony is the most effective part of US imperialism. It allows the US to conquer and dominate countries without firing a shot. The US dollar regime is the highest development of Western imperialism, and represents the furthest development of Lenin’s thesis of imperialism and the export of capital.
Weakening of the SWIFT system Weakens the US Dollar Regime
The excessive use of economic sanctions by the US against Iran, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and many others and even European countries that use the SWIFT currency settlement information system forced many countries into developing alternative currency systems such as the Chinese Union Pay or the European Interdex systems. Some stopped using the US dollar as a reserve currency, period — like Russia. Furthermore China has signed a 25- year agreement with Iran in trade and economic cooperation to bypass the US dollar based SWIFT system.
The development of sovereign digital currencies that don’t require SWIFT or any settlement systems at all also weaken the US dollar as the required reserve currency. MMT accepts the logic of the US dollar as a reserve currency. But this logic is failing.
The money printing policies of the US dollar regime is an integral part of modern US imperialism. On the domestic front, it can partially finance needed postindustrial development and necessary social needs, but as practiced in the US over the last decades, overall it has caused deindustrialization and devastating economic polarization.
Internationally, the policies call for indiscriminate printing of money and lending it out at low interest rates around the globe as the beginning of the “seeding” cycle. For the US to reap the maximum profits from the world, they must inject or “seed” the largest amount of capital to the most vulnerable or greedy developing countries, who most need economic development. This first cycle is justified by MMT. Then interest rates are gradually raised and liquidity is withdrawn around the world. This reaping process leads to destruction of the seeded and a profit festival for the global banks and hedge funds. This repeated seeding and reaping process, along with economic sanctions, the use of military force and the control through the SWIFT system is the reign of neoliberal imperialism.
In order for the US dollar regime to survive it must keep on reaping profits either through outright military victories or continuous reaping from other countries. The actual human toll of the US dollar regime’s repeated seedings and reapings around the world can be seen in deforestation, waves of refugees, overcrowding of urban centers and the gutting of American industries and urban decay. We now have the unprecedented divergence of extreme wealth and hopeless poverty driven by extreme financial crises like the Asian Financial Crisis in the 1990s and the Great Recession, sparked by the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008.
In response, we must work to end this destructive, imperialist US dollar regime. We must turn swords into plowshares, resist US imperialist wars and economic aggression while fighting for the desperate need of the American people to build a highly productive, more equal and just postindustrial future for the nation and the world.