The Weekend Quiz – December 22-23, 2018 – answers and discussion

Here are the answers with discussion for this Weekend’s Quiz. The information provided should help you work out why you missed a question or three! If you haven’t already done the Quiz from yesterday then have a go at it before you read the answers. I hope this helps you develop an understanding of modern monetary theory (MMT) and its application to macroeconomic thinking. Comments as usual welcome, especially if I have made an error.

Question 1:

Higher levels of taxation permit the government to spend more.

The answer is True.

Clearly, I was tempting the reader to follow a logic such that – Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) shows that taxpayers do fund anything and sovereign governments are never revenue-constrained because they are the monopoly issuers of the currency in use.

Therefore, the government can spend whatever it likes irrespective of the level of taxation. Therefore the answer is false.

But, that logic while correct for the most part ignores the underlying role of taxation.

In a fiat monetary system the currency has no intrinsic worth. Further the government has no intrinsic financial constraint. Once we realise that government spending is not revenue-constrained then we have to analyse the functions of taxation in a different light. The starting point of this new understanding is that taxation functions to promote offers from private individuals to government of goods and services in return for the necessary funds to extinguish the tax liabilities.

In this way, it is clear that the imposition of taxes creates unemployment (people seeking paid work) in the non-government sector and allows a transfer of real goods and services from the non-government to the government sector, which in turn, facilitates the government’s economic and social program.

The crucial point is that the funds necessary to pay the tax liabilities are provided to the non-government sector by government spending. Accordingly, government spending provides the paid work which eliminates the unemployment created by the taxes.

This train of logic also explains why mass unemployment arises. It is the introduction of State Money (government taxing and spending) into a non-monetary economics that raises the spectre of involuntary unemployment. For aggregate output to be sold, total spending must equal total income (whether actual income generated in production is fully spent or not each period). Involuntary unemployment is idle labour offered for sale with no buyers at current prices (wages).

Unemployment occurs when the private sector, in aggregate, desires to earn the monetary unit of account, but doesn’t desire to spend all it earns, other things equal. As a result, involuntary inventory accumulation among sellers of goods and services translates into decreased output and employment. In this situation, nominal (or real) wage cuts per se do not clear the labour market, unless those cuts somehow eliminate the private sector desire to net save, and thereby increase spending.

The purpose of State Money is for the government to move real resources from private to public domain. It does so by first levying a tax, which creates a notional demand for its currency of issue. To obtain funds needed to pay taxes and net save, non-government agents offer real goods and services for sale in exchange for the needed units of the currency.

This includes, of-course, the offer of labour by the unemployed. The obvious conclusion is that unemployment occurs when net government spending is too low to accommodate the need to pay taxes and the desire to net save.

This analysis also sets the limits on government spending. It is clear that government spending has to be sufficient to allow taxes to be paid.

In addition, net government spending is required to meet the private desire to save (accumulate net financial assets). From the previous paragraph it is also clear that if the Government doesn’t spend enough to cover taxes and desire to save the manifestation of this deficiency will be unemployment.

Keynesians have used the term demand-deficient unemployment. In our conception, the basis of this deficiency is at all times inadequate net government spending, given the private spending decisions in force at any particular time.

Accordingly, the concept of fiscal sustainability does not entertain notions that the continuous deficits required to finance non-government net saving desires in the currency of issue will ultimately require high taxes.

Taxes in the future might be higher or lower or unchanged. These movements have nothing to do with “funding” government spending.

To understand how taxes are used to attenuate demand please read this blog – Functional finance and modern monetary theory.

So to make the point clear – the taxes do not fund the spending. They free up space for the spending to occur in a non-inflationary environment.

You might say that this only applies at full employment where there are no free resources and so taxation has to take those resources off the non-government sector in order for the government to spend more. That would also be a true statement.

But it doesn’t negate the overall truth of the main proposition.

Further, you might say that governments can spend whenever they like. That is also true but if it just kept spending the growth in nominal demand would outstrip real capacity and inflation would certainly result. So in that regard, this would not be a sensible strategy and is excluded as a reasonable proposition.

The point is that the statement is never false.

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

Question 2:

For nations facing strong terms of trade (such as Australia), if the net exports boom is strong enough to push the fiscal balance into surplus and the economy to full employment then it is sensible for the government to accumulate the surpluses in a sovereign fund to create more space for non-inflationary spending in the future.

The answer is False.

The public finances of a country such as Australia – which issues its own currency and floats it on foreign exchange markets are not reliant at all on the dynamics of our industrial structure. To think otherwise reveals a basis misundertanding which is sourced in the notion that such a government has to raise revenue before it can spend.

So it is often considered that a mining boom which drives strong growth in national income and generates considerable growth in tax revenue is a boost for the government and provides them with “savings” that can be stored away and used for the future when economic growth was not strong. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The fundamental principles that arise in a fiat monetary system are as follows:

  • The central bank sets the short-term interest rate based on its policy aspirations.
  • Government spending capacity is independent of taxation revenue. The non-government sector cannot pay taxes until the government has spent.
  • Government spending capacity is independent of borrowing which the latter best thought of as coming after spending.
  • Government spending provides the net financial assets (bank reserves) which ultimately represent the funds used by the non-government agents to purchase the debt.
  • Budget deficits put downward pressure on interest rates contrary to the myths that appear in macroeconomic textbooks about “crowding out”.
  • The “penalty for not borrowing” is that the interest rate will fall to the bottom of the “corridor” prevailing in the country which may be zero if the central bank does not offer a return on reserves.
  • Government debt-issuance is a “monetary policy” operation rather than being intrinsic to fiscal policy, although in a modern monetary paradigm the distinctions between monetary and fiscal policy as traditionally defined are moot.

These principles apply to all sovereign, currency-issuing governments irrespective of industry structure. Industry structure is important for some things (crucially so) but not in delineating “public finance regimes”.

The mistake lies in thinking that such a government is revenue-constrained and that a booming mining sector delivers more revenue and thus gives the government more spending capacity.

Nothing could be further from the truth irrespective of the rhetoric that politicians use to relate their fiscal decisions to us and/or the institutional arrangements that they have put in place which make it look as if they are raising money to re-spend it!

These things are veils to disguise the true capacity of a sovereign government in a fiat monetary system.

In the midst of the nonsensical intergenerational (ageing population) debate, which is being used by conservatives all around the world as a political tool to justify moving to fiscal surpluses, the notion arises that governments will not be able to honour their liabilities to pensions, health etc unless drastic action is taken.

Hence the hype and spin moved into overdrive to tell us how the establishment of sovereign funds.

The financial markets love the creation of sovereign funds because they know there will be more largesse for them to speculate with at the expense of public spending.

Corporate welfare is always attractive to the top end of town while they draft reports and lobby governments to get rid of the Welfare state, by which they mean the pitiful amounts we provide to sustain at minimal levels the most disadvantaged among us.

Anyway, the claim is that the creation of these sovereign funds create the fiscal room to fund the so-called future liabilities.

Clearly this is nonsense.

A sovereign government’s ability to make timely payment of its own currency is never numerically constrained. So it would always be able to fund the pension liabilities, for example, when they arose without compromising its other spending ambitions.

The creation of sovereign funds basically involve the government becoming a financial asset speculator. So national governments start gambling in the World’s bourses usually at the same time as millions of their citizens do not have enough work.

The logic surrounding sovereign funds is also blurred. If one was to challenge a government which was building a sovereign fund but still had unmet social need (and perhaps persistent labour underutilisation) the conservative reaction would be that there was no fiscal room to do any more than they are doing. Yet when they create the sovereign fund the government spends in the form of purchases of financial assets.

So we have a situation where the elected national government prefers to buy financial assets instead of buying all the labour that is left idle by the private market.

They prefer to hold bits of paper than putting all this labour to work to develop communities and restore our natural environment.

An understanding of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) will tell you that all the efforts to create sovereign funds are totally unnecessary. Whether the fund gained or lost makes no fundamental difference to the underlying capacity of the national government to fund all of its future liabilities.

A sovereign government’s ability to make timely payment of its own currency is never numerically constrained by revenues from taxing and/or borrowing.

Therefore the creation of a sovereign fund in no way enhances the government’s ability to meet future obligations.

In fact, the entire concept of government pre-funding an unfunded liability in its currency of issue has no application whatsoever in the context of a flexible exchange rate and the modern monetary system.

The misconception that “public saving” is required to fund future public expenditure is often rehearsed in the financial media.

First, running fiscal surpluses does not create national savings. There is no meaning that can be applied to a sovereign government “saving its own currency”. It is one of those whacko mainstream macroeconomics ideas that appear to be intuitive but have no application to a fiat currency system.

In rejecting the notion that public surpluses create a cache of money that can be spent later we note that governments spend by crediting bank accounts. There is no revenue constraint. Government cheques don’t bounce! Additionally, taxation consists of debiting an account at an RBA member bank. The funds debited are “accounted for” but don’t actually “go anywhere” and “accumulate”.

The concept of pre-funding future liabilities does apply to fixed exchange rate regimes, as sufficient reserves must be held to facilitate guaranteed conversion features of the currency. It also applies to non-government users of a currency. Their ability to spend is a function of their revenues and reserves of that currency.

So at the heart of all this nonsense is the false analogy neo-liberals draw between private household budgets and the government fiscal position. Households, the users of the currency, must finance their spending prior to the fact.

However, government, as the issuer of the currency, must spend first (credit private bank accounts) before it can subsequently tax (debit private accounts). Government spending is the source of the funds the private sector requires to pay its taxes and to net save and is not inherently revenue constrained.

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

Question 3:

The reason estimates of structural fiscal deficits are to be treated with suspicion relates to the fact that typically the associated estimates of potential GDP are too optimistic.

The answer is False.

The correct statement is the implicit estimates of potential GDP that are produced by central banks, treasuries and other bodies are too pessimistic.

The reason is that they typically use the NAIRU to compute the “full capacity” or potential level of output which is then used as a benchmark to compare actual output against. The reason? To determine whether there is a positive output gap (actual output below potential output) or a negative output gap (actual output above potential output).

These measurements are then used to decompose the actual fiscal outcome at any point in time into structural and cyclical fiscal balances. The fiscal components are adjusted to what they would be at the potential or full capacity level of output.

So if the economy is operating below capacity then tax revenue would be below its potential level and welfare spending would be above. In other words, the fiscal balance would be smaller at potential output relative to its current value if the economy was operating below full capacity. The adjustments would work in reverse should the economy be operating above full capacity.

If the fiscal outcome is in deficit when computed at the “full employment” or potential output level, then we call this a structural deficit and it means that the overall impact of discretionary fiscal policy is expansionary irrespective of what the actual fiscal outcome is presently. If it is in surplus, then we have a structural surplus and it means that the overall impact of discretionary fiscal policy is contractionary irrespective of what the actual fiscal outcome is presently.

So you could have a downturn which drives the fiscal outcome into a deficit but the underlying structural position could be contractionary (that is, a surplus). And vice versa.

The difference between the actual fiscal outcome and the structural component is then considered to be the cyclical fiscal outcome and it arises because the economy is deviating from its potential.

As you can see, the estimation of the benchmark is thus a crucial component in the decomposition of the fiscal outcome and the interpretation we place on the fiscal policy stance.

If the benchmark (potential output) is estimated to be below what it truly is, then a sluggish economy will be closer to potential than if you used the true full employment level of output. Under these circumstances, one would conclude that the fiscal stance was more expansionary than it truly was.

This is very important because the political pressures may then lead to discretionary cut backs to “reign in the structural deficit” even though it is highly possible that at that point in time, the structural component is actually in surplus and therefore constraining growth.

The mainstream methodology involved in estimating potential output almost always uses some notion of a NAIRU which itself is unobserved. The NAIRU estimates produced by various agencies (OECD, IMF etc) always inflate the true full employment unemployment rate and completely ignore underemployment, which has risen sharply over the last 20 years.

Some might ask why would we assume that 2 per cent unemployment rate is a true full employment level? We know that unemployment will always be non-zero because of frictions – people leaving jobs and reconnecting with other employers. This component is somewhere around 2 per cent. The other components of unemployment which economists define are seasonal, structural and demand-deficient. Seasonal unemployment is tied up with frictional and likely to be small.

The concept of structural unemployment is vexed. I actually don’t think it exists because ultimately comes down to demand-deficiency.

The concept is biased towards a view that only private market employment are real jobs and so if the market doesn’t want a particular skill group or does not choose to provide work in a particular geographic area then the mis-match unemployment is structural.

The problem is that often there are unemployed workers in areas where employers claim there are skills shortages. The firms will not employ these workers and offer them training opportunities within the paid work environment because they exercise discrimination. So what is actually considered structural is just a reflection of employer prejudice and an unwillingness to extend training opportunities to some cohorts of workers.

Also, the government can always generate enough demand to provide jobs to all in every area should it choose. So ultimately, any unemployment that looks like it is “structural” is in fact due to a lack of demand.

So there is no reason why any economy cannot get their unemployment rate down to 2 per cent.

Given that, the NAIRU estimates not only inflate the true full employment unemployment rate but also completely ignore the underemployment, which has risen sharply over the last 20 years.

The following blogs may be of further interest to you:

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2018 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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    5 Responses to The Weekend Quiz – December 22-23, 2018 – answers and discussion

    1. Nicholas Haines says:

      I thought the wording of the first statement was a trap.

      If it had been: “Higher levels of taxation permit the government to spend more in a non-inflationary manner.”

      then it would have been obviously true to me.

      The lack of a mention of inflation or price stability made me think that the statement was merely about increasing nominal spending. A currency issuer can increase its nominal spending whenever it likes – it need not raise taxes to do so. Inflation might result, but a bit of inflation might not be a bad thing if the context is that the economy has been undergoing a deflationary episode.

      But I understand the logic of the answer.

    2. Jerry Brown says:

      Well I’m not sure what the process is in all countries, but current events in the US clearly show that the statement “Higher levels of taxation permit the government to spend more” is not true. So the US federal government has just ‘shut down’ once again. Not that that means completely shut down, just that for at least the next four days federal government spending will be curtailed to a certain extent, (somewhere around 25% I think). Which has nothing at all to do with the level of taxation and everything to do with the lack of legislation that allows the US Federal Government to spend as much as had been expected in US Dollars. Which fact indicates the only thing that allows or determines how much the US federal government can spend in its own currency is legislation passed into law by the US Congress. The only correct answer for the statement as actually written in question 1 is ‘False’- at least as far as US Federal government is concerned.

    3. Kingsley Lewis says:

      Q2 :”Government spending capacity is independent of borrowing” ????!!!
      During WW2 the UK government was able to spend far more than its own resources could have produced thanks largely to borrowing and aid from the USA.

    4. Nicholas says:

      Kingsley, I think that statement was about a monetarily sovereign government issuing debt instruments in its own currency. It’s unnecessary for such a government to do this.

      You are talking about a government that needed to borrow foreign currencies to be able to buy imports.

    5. Kingsley Lewis says:

      Insofar I can ascertain, there were no loans by the USA to the UK during or after WW2 which were repayable in dollars or any other foreign currency. All the loans were repayable in kind or in sterling.
      It was equipment, not money, which was loaned under the 1941 Lend-Lease Act . Any equipment which survived the war would be to be returned the US. In practice very little equipment was in usable shape for peacetime uses. Of course the new equipment had a dollar cost to the US, but there was no obligation for the UK to pay back in dollars.
      Later, under the 1946 Anglo-American loan agreement, surviving U.S. Lend-Lease items retained by the UK were sold to Britain at 10% of nominal value, giving an initial loan value of £1.075 billion for the Lend-Lease portion of post-war loans.

      The final payment under the agreements was in December 2006 when the UK sent £42.4 million sterling to the US via electronic payment.

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