Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Federal Budget Should Never Balance

Honest ... the deficits are OK. The sovereign government has a critical role in economic stabilization and prosperity.

The household analogy is a very durable one: the idea that, since taxpayers and households need to balance their budgets, that the government should as well. Politicians across the spectrum enunciate this mantra / analogy as though it were self-evident. The irony is that although liberal politicians may speak such lines with less formal conviction, it is Republican office-holders who have shown time and again over recent decades the most willingness to throw such balance out the window, in pursuit of tax cuts, with their ensuing deficits. Nothing personal, of course, just class war as usual!

The recent British debacle of liberalism kowtowing to a Tory narrative of austerity and budget-cutting is one more example of the false consciousness that is damaging particularly to liberalism, but also to everyone else who participates in modern economies. Because, in truth, the federal budget should never balance. Its imbalance is the most powerful tool we have to keep the economy stable and growing.

For households, and for dependent government entities like cities and states, the budget constraint is absolute ... there is no free money, and no use to a deficit. They may have capital accounts, with bonded debt for capital needs, like houses and roads. But every such debt has to be paid off eventually. Banks occupy a special place in this system, since they can create money, via the loans they fund. But every cent of these deposits (though not the interest ... where does that come from?) is matched by the loan note on the bank's books. Banks also have a zero-sum balance sheet.

A federal government with a sovereign, floating currency is an entirely different beast. It is the entity that creates the (high-powered) money that everyone else uses. It is not constrained by a zero-sum balance sheet. Therefore the propaganda of a federal government "running out of money" or being broke, or having to live within its means ... are all meaningless. The federal treasury (in combination with the central bank) can spend money at will on whatever it likes. The idea that it has to issue bonds to "fund" spending not matched by tax receipts (i.e. deficits) is an economic fiction. Such policies are legal fossils from another age, where money was not printed by fiat, but was backed by gold / silver. The fact of the matter is that federal spending provides the money to those who buy such bonds, and the bonds do little but replace one form of low-risk saving with another, rather than altering the buyer's behavior, affecting inflation, etc. Plus give a stream of income to the wealthy.

But obviously, there is a constraint on federal spending and money creation. That is the overall level of economic growth and monetary inflation. Since the government is free to create money, it assumes the risk of fostering inflation and the responsibility to manage monetary growth to keep pace with the various forms of economic growth: population growth, productivity growth, and trade deficits, if any. Additionally, economics has found that modest inflation, on the order of 2%, is beneficial to encourage productive investment over inert savings (such as gold). Add all these categories of monetary growth together, and you get a virtually constant need for federal deficits. This is why, as a matter of fact, we in the US do have perpetual deficits, why making the federal budget go into surplus creates highly unstable economic conditions, and why politicians seeking to balance the federal budget are charlatans.

Taxation is part of this scheme as well, of course. While deficits may be required in perpetuity, they are not typically enough on their own to fund the whole government. Additionally, the central role of the fiat currency has to be established at the outset. Taxation fills both roles, creating a need for the "legal tender for all debts, public and private" which is demanded by the government for taxes, and which it uses to commandeer a large share of the private economy, above and beyond the annual growth it funds with new money.

So much for normal economic times and methods. It is in crisis when the powers of the federal monetary system become most important and evident. Where in the old gold standard days, a government could do nothing during the frequent business collapses, busts, depressions, etc., a modern federal government can spend exactly as much as is needed to make up for the evaporation of bank credit and the money that bank credit represents. The government can resolve deflation in a matter of a few pen strokes. Properly handled, there is no need for economic slowdown or unemployment at all, since the full gap of private credit-based money (which characterizes a depression) can be made up as needed by federal spending of new money.

Note, however, that such a gap can not be made up by the central bank alone. As currently constituted, central banks can lower short-term interest rates and can lower long-term rates by way of "quantitative easing", but they can not inject money directly into the economy. If banks do not want to lend, or borrowers do not want to borrow, no interest rate is going to induce them to do so. And they will be particularly shy of lending after having just lost their shirts in a credit-destroying debacle. Thus it is critical for the rest of the government to not sit on its hands, but spend as needed to cover the monetary shortfall created by declining economic conditions, or a credit crisis in the private banking system.

Of course, it isn't all spending and free money. When boom times come, (as measured by very low unemployment and rising inflation), the federal government needs to have the discipline to take away the punch bowl, using its tools of fiscal retrenchment, taxation, and higher interest rates to restrict inflation. Past governments have shown some laxity in this department, as is tempting and unfortunate. We spent the seventies perplexed by the connection between high government spending and inflation, before Paul Volker pulled the plug with a high interest rate-induced recession. But the fact is that the current atmosphere permeating central banking and conservative politics is far too scared of inflation, fighting a war that was won decades ago. The focus on austerity and budget constraints is not really about inflation anymore, but about keeping workers powerless and underpaid in a perpetually under-performing and under-employing economy.

Tom Tomorrow, on markets.
  • For more on MMT & Keynesian economics, see a blog by Bill Mitchell.
  • Brad Delong on Fed structure, mandate, and policy.
  • Surowiecky on Stieglitz and inequality. 
  • Krugman/Thoma on Keynesian policy.
  • Robert Schiller on the idiocy of conservative economics: "But adhering to an approach that overlooks these factors is akin to doing away with fire departments, on the grounds that without them people would be more careful – and so there would then be no fires."
  • Why do governments love banks so much?
  • The bureaucrats knew a thing or two about Vietnam.
  • What lack of competition and regulation is costing us in internet service.
  • Buying the feudal political system you want ...
  •  ... Leads to weakness in the Western (and antipodean) political class.
  • The curse of year-around plenty in the tropics.
  • Is complexity in scientific data opening the door to obfuscation and worse?
  • Economic graph of the week ... median income:

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