In a remarkably rambling article, minor Beltway pundit and dabbler in economics, Bruce Bartlett (M.A. History, Rutgers University) has taken to listing and trying to smear real scholars in economics who do not share his hysterical government default-phobia. Well, I have another eminent economist who may be a candidate for his hit list.
Ohio State economist J. Huston McCulloch actually challenges the conventional wisdom that the U.S. government has never, ever defaulted on its debts. McCulloch points out that the U.S. did indeed default on its debt in 1861 and again in 1933. In 1861, the U.S. Treasury issued “United States Notes” to aid in financing the Civil War. These Treasury notes, known colloquially as “Greenbacks,” promised to pay the bearer in “lawful money,” gold or silver at the government’s discretion, on demand. At the end of 1861, however, the government renounced its promise and suspended redemption as of January 1, 1862, putting it technically in default until 1879 when the notes were again made redeemable in gold. In 1933, President Roosevelt reneged on the promise to pay the interest and principal on Treasury bonds in gold at the rate of $20.67 per ounce, which once again put the government in technical default. In 1935, the right to redeem the bonds in gold was restored to foreign bondholders only, but at the depreciated rate of $35.00 per ounce, an option which was never offered to U.S. bondholders.
More important, the whole notion that an honest and explicit debt default by the U.S. government is an unprecedented event and the worst possible outcome in the current situation is ludicrous given that the U.S. has been continually and surreptitiously defaulting on its debt since World War 2 via inflationary finance. As McCulloch argues:
Governments often effectively default on their debts through inflation. Under a fiat money regime, they can always print enough legal tender money to pay off their debts. The only catch is that the money will not be worth as much as it was before. If it tries to cover too much deficit spending in this manner, more than a few percent of GDP, the inevitable result is hyperinflation in which money quickly becomes virtually worthless.
Disastrous though an explicit Treasury default would be, bringing down the entire economy with a hyperinflation or even a partial inflationary default would be even worse. But if we keep charging current deficits to future taxpayers at our current rate, the inevitable result will be a revolt in which they either explicitly repudiate all or part of the debt, or, worse yet, inflate it away.
Bruce, are you paying attention to this economics lesson?