A subject and a verb walk into a bar. They have a disagreement. They walks out

November 8, 2013 § Leave a comment


To put things crudely, there are two ways to get the increase in total spending that we call “economic growth.” One way is for government to spend. The other is for banks to lend. Leaving aside short-term adjustments like increased net exports or financial innovation, that’s basically all there is. Governments and banks are the two entities with the power to create something from nothing. If total spending power is to grow, one or the other of these two great financial motors–public deficits or private loans–has to be in action.

For ordinary people, public budget deficits, despite their bad reputation, are much better than private loans. Deficits put money in private pockets. Private households get more cash. They own that cash free and clear, and they can spend it as they like. If they wish, they can also convert it into interest-earning government bonds or they can repay their debts. This is called an increase in “net financial wealth.” Ordinary people benefit, but there is nothing in it for banks.

And this, in the simplest terms, explains the deficit phobia of Wall Street, the corporate media and the right-wing economists. Bankers don’t like budget deficits because they compete with bank loans as a source of growth. When a bank makes a loan, cash balances in private hands also go up. But now the cash is not owned free and clear. There is a contractual obligation to pay interest and to repay principal. If the enterprise defaults, there may be an asset left over–a house or factory or company–that will then become the property of the bank. It’s easy to see why bankers love private credit but hate public deficits.

All of this should be painfully obvious, but it is deeply obscure. It is obscure because legions of Wall Streeters–led notably in our time by Peter Peterson and his front man, former comptroller general David Walker, and including the Robert Rubin wing of the Democratic Party and numerous “bipartisan” enterprises like the Concord Coalition and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget–have labored mightily to confuse the issues. These spirits never uttered a single word of warning about the financial crisis, which originated on Wall Street under the noses of their bag men. But they constantly warn, quite falsely, that the government is a “super subprime” “Ponzi scheme,” which it is not.

We also hear, from the same people, about the impending “bankruptcy” of Social Security, Medicare–even the United States itself. Or of the burden that public debts will “impose on our grandchildren.” Or about “unfunded liabilities” supposedly facing us all. All of this forms part of one of the great misinformation campaigns of all time.

The misinformation is rooted in what many consider to be plain common sense. It may seem like homely wisdom, especially, to say that “just like the family, the government can’t live beyond its means.” But it’s not. In these matters the public and private sectors differ on a very basic point. Your family needs income in order to pay its debts. Your government does not.

Private borrowers can and do default. They go bankrupt (a protection civilized societies afford them instead of debtors’ prisons). Or if they have a mortgage, in most states they can simply walk away from their house if they can no longer continue to make payments on it.

With government, the risk of nonpayment does not exist. Government spends money (and pays interest) simply by typing numbers into a computer. Unlike private debtors, government does not need to have cash on hand. As the inspired amateur economist Warren Mosler likes to say, the person who writes Social Security checks at the Treasury does not have the phone number of the tax collector at the IRS. If you choose to pay taxes in cash, the government will give you a receipt–and shred the bills. Since it is the source of money, government can’t run out.

It’s true that government can spend imprudently. Too much spending, net of taxes, may lead to inflation, often via currency depreciation–though with the world in recession, that’s not an immediate risk. Wasteful spending–on unnecessary military adventures, say–burns real resources. But no government can ever be forced to default on debts in a currency it controls. Public defaults happen only when governments don’t control the currency in which they owe debts–as Argentina owed dollars or as Greece now (it hasn’t defaulted yet) owes euros. But for true sovereigns, bankruptcy is an irrelevant concept. When Obama says, even offhand, that the United States is “out of money,” he’s talking nonsense–dangerous nonsense. One wonders if he believes it.

Nor is public debt a burden on future generations. It does not have to be repaid, and in practice it will never be repaid. Personal debts are generally settled during the lifetime of the debtor or at death, because one person cannot easily encumber another. But public debt does not ever have to be repaid. Governments do not die–except in war or revolution, and when that happens, their debts are generally moot anyway.

So the public debt simply increases from one year to the next. In the entire history of the United States it has done so, with budget deficits and increased public debt on all but about six very short occasions–with each surplus followed by a recession.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Michael Wolf

It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referrible either to accident or intuition — that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem

March 13, 2013 § Leave a comment


Modern money is is state money. Taxation today functions to create demand for state currencies in order for the money-issuing authority to purchase requisite goods and services from the private sector. Taxation, in a sense, is a vehicle for moving resources from the private to the public domain. Government spending in sovereign currency systems is not limited by the ability of the state to ‘raise’ revenue. In fact, as it will be explained below, sovereign governments face no operational financial constraints.

To fully grasp the logic of sovereign financing, one must make the analytic distinction between the government and non-government sectors. For the private sector, spending is indeed restricted by its capacity to earn revenue or to borrow. This is not the case for the public sector, which ‘finances’ its expenditures in its own money. This is a reflection of its single supplier (monopoly) status. For example, in the USA, the dollar is not a ‘limited resource of the government’. Rather it is a tax credit to the population which is confronted with a dollar-denominated tax liability. Thus government spending provides to the population that which is necessary to pay taxes (dollars). The government need not collect taxes in order to spend; rather it is the private sector, which must earn dollars to settle its tax debt. The consolidated government (including the Treasury and the central bank) is never revenue constrained in its own currency.

If the purpose of taxation is to create demand for state money, then logically and operationally, tax collections cannot occur before the government has provided that which it demands for payment of taxes. In other words, spending comes first and taxation follows later. Another way of seeing this causality is to say that government spending ‘finances’ private sector ‘tax payments’ and not vice versa. Several other implications follow.

Deficits and surpluses
Government spending supplies high-powered money to the population. If the private sector wishes to hoard some of it – a normal condition of the system – deficits necessarily result as a matter of accounting logic. Furthermore, the government cannot collect more in taxes than it has previously spent; thus balanced budgets are the theoretical minimum that can be achieved. But the private sector’s desire to net save ensures that deficits are generated. The market demand for currency, therefore, determines the size of the deficit.

In a given year, of course, surpluses are possible, but they are always limited by the amount of deficit spending in previous years. If during the accounting period government spending falls short of tax collections, private sector holdings of net financial assets necessarily decline. The implication is that surpluses always reduce private sector net savings, while deficits replenish them. It should also be noted that, when governments run surpluses, they do not ‘get’ anything because tax collections ‘destroy’ high-powered money.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Hans-Peter Feldmann

You know, kids were very different then. They didn’t have their heads filled with all this Cartesian dualism

December 28, 2012 § Leave a comment


Why on earth would Washington deliberately throw the US into yet another recession when we haven’t even recovered from the last one? They are doing so because of the so called long-term costs of the debt. They (both the Democrats and Republicans, albeit to different degrees) believe that unless we reduce the debt and deficit now, we will pay a price in the years to come, a price that outweighs the higher unemployment their actions will cause today. They are, however, dead wrong. Not only are their fears either completely unfounded or irrelevant given current circumstances, but trying to cut the deficit now would actually leave us in a situation where we would need an even larger one to extricate ourselves from the deep economic slump it will create.

To explain this, let me briefly review the long-run costs typically used to support the current efforts at deficit/debt reduction and show how each is much ado about nothing:

1. Higher debt levels raise the possibility of US default
Let’s get this one off the table right away. The US cannot possibly be forced to default on debt denominated in its own currency. This is a cold, hard fact, not a theory or conjecture. This should not be any part of the discussion whatsoever.

2. Debt burdens future generations
Not true. Government debt is a private sector asset and government deficits create private sector surpluses. Think about it this way: if there were only two people in the economy and one spent more than she earned, giving her a deficit, what must be true about the other? He must have earned more than he spent and thus has a surplus. Now replace “she” with “federal government” and “he” with “private sector” and you’ll see. Nor is there a day of reckoning when federal government debt must be reduced to zero. Thus, it will NOT be necessary to tax future generations in order to finance today’s deficit. Reducing the budget deficit reduces the private sector surplus and reducing debt destroys private sector assets.

3. Debt makes us slaves to foreign interests
First, see point 1. We cannot be forced to default. Second, when a country has net debt with respect to another nation, it’s because of a trade deficit not a budget deficit. Note further that if China does not buy our financial assets, they will no longer have a trade surplus because they will not have provided the credit necessary for us to buy more than we sold. It is therefore in their best interests to do so. And, to reiterate, debt to foreign nations has nothing to do with the budget deficit. Lowering the latter will not lower the former.  read more


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

December 12, 2012 § Leave a comment


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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