The St Louis branch of the Federal Reserve Bank offers – FRED2 – which is an excellent repository of US statistics as well as a nifty graphical analysis tool. I use it regularly and even though it is just a collection of data available elsewhere it is very convenient. The same organisation also publishes what it calls its – PAGE ONE Economics Newsletter – (the so-called “back story on front page economics”) which is designed to be used by students as a means of educating them in economics. Any reasonable assessment of the material presented in these newsletter is that they are unadulterated nonsense. The most recent edition (published January 13, 2012) – “Choices Are Everywhere: Why Can’t We Just Have It All? – exemplifies how these major institutions choose to mislead those they seek to elucidate.
This jewel of indoctrination claims to be “(a)n informative and accessible economic essay with a classroom application”. In reality, it is a mish-mash of mainstream textbook notions that have very little if any application to the task of understanding how the system really works. In fact, it is really an ideological treatise, seeking to perpetuate the errant framework that mainstream undergraduate students are bombarded with daily by professors who are to set in their ways to see the folly of their enterprise.
To calm me down and put us in a better mood before I comment on the St Louis School of Propaganda offering, I thought this live performance of the band in 1973 in Brussels was worth listening to. It is exceptional because it features the best line-up of the band ever with the great Mick Taylor playing guitar and Bobby Keys the sax. Mick Taylor starts soloing at about 4 minutes. The best don’t always become the most successful. Bobby chimes in about 5:16.
So relax while I sharpen the knife.
The St Louis Newsletter begins like this:
The public debate about the best way to reduce the level of government debt highlights our difficult situation: Our wants greatly exceed our ability to pay for them. In the case of government, purchases require current revenue through taxation or borrowing; the fiscal cliff arose from a level of debt caused by wanting more (and purchasing more) than we can pay for.
If we wish to reduce debt, we must make difficult choices. One choice is to cut government spending on goods and services—but which spending priorities should be cut? The other choice is to raise taxes—but who should pay more?
I won’t mention the Trillion Dollar coin option, which was introduced by those sympathetic to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) – follow the trail from HERE. This option seems to have been kidnapped by others who are seeking to claim glory for the idea as well as others who are apoplectic about the idea (Austrian schoolers, New Monetarists, etc).
But that obvious option aside, the students would have been better introduced to the intrinsic nature of the fiat monetary system that operates in the US and then the institutional overlays that have been put over the basic monetary system.
An understanding of the former (without the institutional constraints) leads to the conclusion that the US government is never revenue constrained because it is the monopoly issuer of the currency.
For many reasons, none of which have any solid rationale in terms of contributing to the effectiveness of the government mission in advancing public purpose, the US legislators have chosen to place a series of voluntary constraints on their governments. The constraints create labyrinthine accounting structures which force the sovereign government to issue bits of paper (treasury bonds) to the private sector, which then lead to bank entries, that are subsequently reversed when the government spends.
The fact that the funds to purchase the bonds came from the government anyway via past deficits – meaning that the government is just borrowing back a portion of its own spending and then spending it again – seems to escape most commentators.
Further, in the recent period, the US federal reserve has been buying those bonds in huge quantities anyway (quantitative easing), which just goes to show how ridiculous the elaborate institutional machinery is.
Please read my blog – On voluntary constraints that undermine public purpose – for more discussion on these voluntary constraints.
A decomposition of the federal budget in those terms would have served to demystify the appearance of financial constraints and to reveal that they are voluntary in nature and mostly irrelevant hang-overs from when the US participated in the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates (the so-called “gold standard”). That monetary system was abandoned in August 1971, when the US suspended gold convertibility (with the US dollar).
The reason that these meaningless constraints – from a financial perspective – have remained is because they serve the ideological agenda of those who have been able to influence the design of public policy and administrative practice since then. If you go back through the documentation in various nations you will find references to “the need to impose fiscal discipline” etc.
The conservatives knew that by forcing these unnecessary constraints – in particular, by forcing governments to match their net spending positions (deficits) with bond-issuance ($-for-$) to the private sector, they would then be able to construct the fiscal position in terms of debt. The next devious step is to conflate public debt with private debt, and the household budget with the government budget.
That construction then means the conservatives can then trade in headlines – “debt blowouts” – “government is going to bust” – and the like which are more easily understood on an intuitive level by the general public, which them makes political manipulation of the anti-government position easier to manage.
The fact that this “intuition” is plain wrong – public debt for a sovereign government is nothing like private debt held by a financially-constrained household or company – doesn’t matter. People believe and act on all sorts of lives. The aim of the conservatives here is not truth or education but ease of manipulation to advance the ideological agenda.
Note also in the quote above the statement – “the fiscal cliff arose from a level of debt caused by wanting more (and purchasing more) than we can pay for”. I won’t go into a detailed analysis of the obvious – that the fiscal cliff was a politically manufactured farce of a non-problem. It is how an incompetent legislature creates a problem out of a non-problem.
It had nothing to do with the limits on the capacity of the US government to find resources for sale in US dollars that could be purchased.
What abomination of reality is it that a nation that according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics – Alternative measures of labor underutilization – has 14.4 per cent of its civilian labor force and marginally attached idle of which 12,206 thousand are official unemployed – could be said to be “wanting more that we can pay for”?
There is also a large amount of idle capital that might also be brought in to productive use if the US government chose to purchase the services of these idle souls and put them to work.
There is no sensible way in which one can argue that the US economy is living beyond its means. Could the US government purchase the services of these idle workers? The answer is that it could do so any day that it wanted to.
The “financial” constraint that is immediately in front of the government is artificial and could be altered by the legislature today if they had the will. But they prefer to leave massive amounts of productive capacity idle to massage their own sense of (perverted) ideological satisfaction.
Then they try to justify the obvious – how can it be sensible to waste the productive capacity of millions of your citizens and incur not only the immediate income losses but also the plethora of associated pathologies that accompany unemployment and societal alienation – by inventing false dichotomies.
For example, the UK government is now running a line that in Britain there are either strivers and shirkers, which is just a remake of the deserving and undeserving poor distinction, which pre-dated the introduction of more sophisticated approaches to the Welfare State.
In Australia, the conservatives like to talk about cruisers, job snobs and bludgers.
It is all part of the same vile approach to defending the indefensible and turning citizens against each other so that they don’t unite and turn against the government.
So that is just the first paragraph of the St Louis Newsletter. We are in for a long evening! But I will cut to the chase.
The next section is about “Personal and Household Spending” and there we receive a lesson from a mainstream microeconomic textbook about opportunity cost and scarcity. This helps the author explain the budget constraints that households and people face.
So the standard line – we have to make choices because we don’t have infinite cash available.
All of which is fine (although loaded away from asking questions about income distribution etc). But MMT embraces the notion that users of the fiat currency are financially constrained and have to earn income, run-down savings, sell assets; or borrow in order to spend. A private household can only deficit spend for a finite period by borrowing (after their savings and stock of assets) run out because the debt has to be paid back.
So a household might bring forth spending now in excess of their income – for example, to purchase a house – but that will mean they have less income in the future they will have “less income in the future to buy goods and services”. All true.
Then the sleight of hand enters as the St Louis Newsletter attempts to apply that micro private user of the currency analysis to the federal government.
In many ways, the government faces these same choices.
In no way does the government, which issues the currency face the same choices. I know people will say that the elaborate accounting structures are financial constraints and the Republicans are proving the debt ceiling matters. The answer is that neither retort is sensible.
A household cannot, at its discretion, alter the fact that it is financially constrained. That is intrinsic. A currency-issuing government can at any time there is the political will change the regulations within which it operates.
Even within these voluntary constraints, all sorts of ad hoc work-arounds occur when the politics dictate.
The Swedes changed rules during the crisis to allow its central bank to maintain liquidity. The ECB has flouted the spirit of the no-bailouts clause in the Lisbon Treaty by running a sequence of standing facilities and security purchase programs, all of which effectively allowed governments to spend.
The US federal reserve can facilitate government spending any time it likes and has been buying up massive quantities of federal debt under the masquerade of quantitative easing.
I could go on listing examples.
As to the US Republicans, well they have proved that they don’t have the bottle!
To advance its myth, the St Louis Newsletter tells the students that the government’s:
… ability to satisfy our society’s wants is constrained by the level of government income, which is generated primarily by taxing workers and companies. Just like individuals who make spending choices, when the government chooses, there is an opportunity cost. If more money is spent on national security, the result might be less spending on health care. It is possible to raise taxes to provide additional income for the government to allocate, but that imposes further budget constraints on workers and companies who pay taxes—so, this policy choice also has opportunity costs. Of course, the government’s spending is not limited to tax revenue. Just as families can, the government can use debt to pay for some of its goods and services.
The household-government budget fallacy is thus complete.
In reality, a household has two constraints – the financial noted above and the real – which pertains to the availability of real resources that are for sale.
Government spending is only, at the intrinsic level, constrained by the latter – what is available for purchase in the currency that it issues. Which means that the statement that if the government spends on X it cannot spend on Y is false. That is only the case in the world of these voluntary constraints where the government spends to a fixed budget.
There is sense to the budgeting process as long as the aim of the net spending contribution (positive or negative) is such that the economy achieves full employment. At that point, the notion of an opportunity cost for the government binds (which is just another way of saying there are real constraints on government spending).
At full employment, if the governments wants to command a larger proportion of real GDP than it currently is commanding, then it has to squeeze non-government spending, principally via taxation.
But if there are idle resources, like 12 million unemployed, then the opportunity cost of deploying those productive resources in the public sector is next to zero and doing so doesn’t reduce the capacity to spend on health care, pensions or “national security” for that matter.
The St Louis Newsletter then asked the students to consider:
What is the downside of government debt? Using debt to buy goods and services today means the government is borrowing future income (that is, tax revenue)—which means less income in the future for buying goods and services then. In addition, there is a limit to how much credit lenders￼(or investors) will extend to a country; they will avoid lending beyond the government’s ability or willingness to repay the loan or will do so only at very high interest rates.
A private currency user has to forego current consumption to pay back debts (once their saving and/or other wealth stocks are exhausted or stable). A currency-issuing government never had to operate by that inter-temporal constraint.
There is a sense that such a government pays back debts but never pays them back. The first sense, is that debt instruments are maturing all the time and the holders of the debt redeem the funds on maturity. From the government’s perspective this is just shifting some numbers from one account (debt) to another account (reserves) in the central banking system.
In the second sense, the government can continuously roll its debt over at its desire (notwithstanding political gymnastics from time to time – such as debt ceilings).
Further, if the private bond markets decided they didn’t want to enjoy the corporate welfare (which is effectively what public debt provides – a risk-free, interest earning asset, which can be used to benchmark the pricing of other riskier assets) then what would happen?
Not a lot is the answer. The spending would still occur and the central bank and treasury would cook up a way to get around any voluntary constraints and clean up the accounting. For example, while it is often thought the Bank of Japan cannot directly “fund” Ministry of Finance spending, the reality is that deep down in the regulations the capacity exists (because that capacity is intrinsic to the fiat monetary system it operates).
Finally, the scare of “very high interest rates” would prompt any thinking student, who hadn’t been dulled by the years of mainstream macroeconomic indoctrination to ask the lecturer – “Could you please explain the Japanese experience for us? Haven’t they had the higher debt to GDP ratios and relatively large deficits and virtually zero interest rates and deflation to boot?”
Yes, if you ever have the unfortunate experience to be having dinner or drink with a neo-liberal (I assiduously avoid it) then have some fun watching them squirm when they try to explain Japan.
The reality is that the central bank and treasury can control the yields that accompany the debt the government issues to the private bond markets any time they so desire. It is all tied up in liquidity management and bond issuing practices.
But the even greater reality – which the trillion dollar coin fiasco is revealing – is that the government never has to issue debt to the private markets in a non-convertible fiat currency system.
The reason that reality is obscured by the the likes of the St Louis Newsletter and its ilk, is because the private bond markets like being on the public teat. They hate the most disadvantaged citizens receiving even the modicum of income support. But for themselves they love it and that is why the government is in charge.
Please read my blog – Who is in charge? – for more discussion on this point.
Finally, in its glossary, the St Louis Newsletter defines “Government debt” as the “sum of accumulated budget deficits”. It might have been better to have started there and explain how positive net public spending (deficits) add to the wealth of the private sector and that the stock of wealth held in the form of the public debt (and the related income flows) would not be available if the government had have avoided deficits.
But then they would have to engage in a detailed analysis of the damaging impact of budget surpluses when the non-government sector is intent on running a surplus itself – that is, the government fiscal position cannot be determined independently of the spending impacts of the external and private domestic sector.
At times, a budget surplus might be sensible. That will rarely be the case and cannot be the case for all nations given that some will have to run external deficits so that others can run external surpluses.
The St Louis Newsletter concludes by saying that:
An understanding of scarcity and opportunity cost is crucial to making good economic decisions. Remember that scarcity describes the condition in which our wants exceed the resources necessary to satisfy those wants. Scarcity requires us to make choices and choosing involves an opportunity cost—the value of the item given up when a choice is made. So, making wise (and sometimes difficult) choices requires considering the opportunity costs.
Note the confusion about resources. Are we talking about financial or real resources? Which sector?
A sovereign government has no scarcity of capacity to issue its currency. That is not to say that it should expand deficits in an infinite direction.
How much the government should net spend is determined by how much the non-government spending is short of that required to ensure all the productive resources are productively engaged.
Financial resource scarcity in this context has no meaning for a currency-issuing government
This document should be electronically pulped as soon as possible so the Martians don’t get wind of it and realise we are more stupid than they originally thought – their initial assessments are that we are very stupid!
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2013 Bill Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.