I must say, Amy, pretending to have intercourse with you has given me a great deal of satisfaction

December 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

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I’ll let you in on a secret: before this crisis, when I thought about the budget deficit I was like everyone else in that I paid no attention to how the government budget interacted with the private and trade sector balances. This is a big error. If you do that, you treat the government budget deficit in isolation, when the reality is that the government is an integral part of an open economy with households and businesses that trade domestically and abroad. When the government balance changes, the balances for those businesses and households change too. If you are talking about deficits then, you need to know how changes in the government balance affect the rest of the economy.

Here’s the thing: when we exchange goods and services with each other, from an accounting perspective, it’s a wash; if you buy my goods, I get money and you get goods of equivalent value. If you pay for those goods with an I.O.U., with a debt, your liability, your deficit in the year we made the transaction, is exactly equal to the asset on my balance sheet and my surplus for the year. I mean this is basic accounting, folks. There’s no hocus pocus. Any person’s, any household’s, any business’s, any group’s, any government’s debt is someone else’s asset. Any person’s, any household’s, any business’s, any group’s, any government’s deficit is someone else’s surplus. Again, it’s basic accounting.

Think of it like exchange traded options and the profit and losses on the exchange. People buy and sell oil futures or soybean futures. At the end of the option period, they either have a loss or a profit and that period’s deficit or surplus is exactly offset by the deficit or surplus of the counterparties. When you sum up these deficits and surpluses they net to zero. Again, no hocus pocus. That’s how accounting works.

The same is true for national accounts. At the end of any accounting period, then, the sum of the sectoral financial balances must net to zero. The government balance – the private balance – capital account balance = 0. The government balance = the private balance + the capital account balance. See my post Economics 101 on government budget deficits for the full write-up. I credit British economist Wynne Godley for making this identity relevant to macro economics.

What does all this mean then? Put simply, the financial sector balances framework means that when the government sector runs a deficit, the non-government sector runs a surplus of equivalent size. So, to move any sector balance in an open economy, you need to move the other two balances exactly opposite in equivalent measure. To reduce the government deficit in any period, the private balance and the capital balance must increase by the exact same amount in that period.

Thinking about government deficits this way opens a whole new understanding of what cutting deficits means for the economy. What it should mean to you is that deficits are the effect and not the cause. Budget deficits are the result of the ex-post accounting identity between the sectoral balances and should not be a primary goal of public policy.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Francesca Woodman

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