EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT HOW OUR MONEY SYSTEM WORKS BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK
by Prue Plumridge
At a time of great political and economic uncertainty you may be scratching your head and asking what on earth has this article to do with you as you’ve enough trouble just keeping your job and your finances in order let alone worrying about getting the government deficit down and paying the national debt back! What a temptation it is to shake our heads and defer to the experts who, we believe, must know better. The subject of economics might seem a little tricky but the basic concepts are simpler to understand than you might think at first glance and, rather than being a dull and arcane subject, it has everything to do with your life and your well-being.
So let’s start with a short economics quiz. No cheating now just answer the following questions with a yes or no without peaking further down for the solutions.
- The state money system operates like our own household budgets
- Government spending relies on taxation and borrowing
- The government needs to reduce the deficit, balance the books and save for the future
- The government must learn to live within its means
- The government has to cut public services like the NHS, education or welfare because we can no longer afford to pay for them
If you answered YES to all of those questions you might be surprised to learn that you have fallen into the mainstream trap. This is what mainstream economists and politicians want YOU to believe. But what if everything you ever thought you knew about how the money system works wasn’t actually true but was being used to justify an ideology which includes austerity and cutting the public services we all rely on?
Well that’s exactly the case! YOU have been deceived.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
- The UK government issues the currency out of thin air via keystrokes on a computer – yes really! Banks create money out of thin air too when a customer takes out a loan but that debt must be repaid with interest.
- The UK government is not like a household or a business where its finances are concerned
- When the UK government spends it creates money by crediting the reserves of commercial banks held at the central bank – the Bank of England. A monetarily sovereign government like the UK can never run out of money and can always meet its liabilities as long as they are designated in the local currency, in this case our British pounds
- The government as the currency issuer spends money into existence and doesn’t need to tax or borrow on the markets to fund its expenditure. Think about it:
- What sense would it make for the government to borrow money it had issued in the first place?
- How can the government spend tax before it has received it? Your tax obligations can only be paid once the government has issued the money and it is deducted at source by the taxman from your salary. (And just to shock you a little bit more do you know what happens to your tax? It gets extinguished from existence.
So, tax is not funding government expenditure. We have just been conditioned to believe it does.
- Tax does, however, have a number of specific functions which include:
- Ensuring that the economy does not exceed its productive capacity and lead to inflation – taxing more if the economy starts to overheat and taxing less if it is slowing down.
- Enabling wealth to be distributed more equitably. So, yes, the rich SHOULD pay the tax they owe but not because it is funding healthcare, education or public services. It does not.
- If our expenditure exceeds our income we will be in debt and it may cause us financial concern. However, a government deficit is far from being the bogeyman it is presented as by experts and politicians. (Just to be clear a government deficit is difference between tax received and the amount government spends and the national debt is the accumulation of those deficits). Deficits are, in fact, normal and necessary. They represent YOUR income. The politicians won’t tell you this (perhaps they don’t know) but in historical terms governments have run fiscal deficits for most of the time and have hardly ever run balanced budgets. Indeed, when it has happened they have occurred just before economic downturns. Think about that. What conclusions might you draw?
- Budget surpluses are not the equivalent of saving to fund future government expenditure no matter what the politicians tell you. As the currency user you can save for that holiday you’ve always wanted but this does not apply to a sovereign government which is the currency issuer, cannot run out of money and can spend when it chooses. When a government chooses to pursue a public surplus what it actually means is removing wealth from the non-government sector -in other words you and me, the currency users. When that happens poverty and private debt increases instead. And that is exactly what has happened.
- When you borrow money from the bank you have to repay the debt with interest. If you don’t the debt collector will be round pretty sharpish. This does not apply to a monetary sovereign government which cannot go bankrupt so the debt collectors won’t be knocking on the door of the treasury ready to haul off its assets any time soon.
- Government funds public services like the NHS through creating money not by borrowing or taxing to pay for it.
But won’t ‘printing’ money create inflation I hear you gasp. After all you’ve heard about all about hyperinflation in Germany and Zimbabwe and politicians keep telling us all about the evils of ‘printing’ money and hyperinflation. As with everything there are caveats – nobody is suggesting for a moment that a government could carry on spending ad infinitum. Money may be infinite but resources are not.
The UK government may not be constrained financially but it is limited by availability of real resources – people, skills, technology, equipment, infrastructure, natural resources and ecological constraints. It is NEVER constrained by money.
We often hear journalists and politicians talk about a government’s financial credibility suggesting that an increase in the debt or deficit is an indicator that a government cannot be trusted to manage the economy effectively. However, this is the wrong measure of effectiveness. We should judge a government on the economic choices it made and whether it advanced public purpose. Did it create the necessary infrastructure to sustain a healthy economy? Did it invest in the health of the nation, in education, transport, food and farming security, renewable energy infrastructure or research and development? Did it ensure that citizens were protected in the event of illness, unemployment and disability or provide good pensions? Did it pursue full employment policies? Did it spend enough during economic downturns and offer a job guarantee for all those who wanted to work? And lastly did it use the available resources in the most effective way possible for the benefit of all?
If the answer to any of these questions is no then a government has failed to deliver in its primary purpose as a servant of the people. “The Government is us”.
Remember, a good government is one which:
- deficit spends enough in relation to the prevailing economic conditions.
- makes choices aimed at ensuring the well-being of the many and not just the few using the available resources as effectively and equitably as possible.
So, when people ask you as they invariably will ‘‘can we afford it’ the answer is yes. The government creates the money and when it spends it benefits the private, non-government sector. In economic parlance, a government deficit equals a private sector surplus.
In short, spending equals income to someone – you, me, public service employees, pensioners, sick and disabled people receiving benefits all of whom will spend that money in the local or national economy not to mention businesses who will invest if they are confident in the government’s handling of the economy.
While we focus on the question of whether we can afford it in money terms we are ignoring the more important question of what the consequences are for the health and economic well-being of the nation if governments don’t spend adequately. Austerity and cuts to public services have been presented as a financial necessity (however erroneous that argument is) and yet at the same time this government has had no problem at all with magicking up money from thin air to purchase weapons, fight wars, repair the Royal Estate, hand out tax breaks to the already wealthy or give public money to private corporations to run public services. It turns out the government is a real handy cash cow for the corporate sector.
Economic well-being depends not on money but governments making good choices which benefit us all and, given the record of the Conservatives over the last seven years, this is the question that should be on our lips not can we afford it.