Dear Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer

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A letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer from Prue Plumridge

I feel I must write to you in response to your speech at the Conservative Conference in which you referred to the medium-term challenge of dealing with the public finances so as not to burden future generations.

Aside from the fact that your government has been promising to deal with the public finances for the past seven years whilst regularly moving the goal posts for achieving it, failed Tory promises show astonishing ignorance about how the state finances work in practice.

Or, is it, perhaps, that you do know but prefer to keep the public in the dark with fake messages about household budgets, living within our financial means, paying down our debts and saving for a rainy day.

You (and George Osborne before you) have abused the trust of the public with your myths and lies about maxing out the credit card and going broke.  Neither of which can happen in a sovereign currency issuing state.  I’m sure you know that really.  In truth, this has suited the pernicious ideology of the Tory government which claimed that Labour overspent and austerity was unavoidable.  Neither was true.  But, as a result, seven years of cuts to public spending have led to rising poverty and inequality through the redrawing of welfare provision and the decimation of public services not to mention the on-going attacks on employment rights and the rise of insecure working and the gig economy.

And, all the time, while you tell us that there is no money for those services upon which we all depend from the NHS, to public infrastructure and services and local government we are witnessing the ongoing transfer of wealth into ever fewer hands and public money being poured into corporate pockets.

Admit it, Chancellor, this exercise has never been about necessity.  It has always been about ideology which can be best expressed in the words of the former head of John Lewis who said recently ‘the only way to provide good public services is to ensure a vibrant business economy’ …… which is not only neoliberal bunkum trading on the lie of discredited ‘trickle down’ but shows how this false narrative dominates the mainstream and infects public understanding.  To quote Richard Murphy from Tax Research on the NHS  (and whilst he doesn’t mention it, public services too)

there is no reason why we should not have health care in thirty years’ time, whatever that care might be…… All we have to do is decide we want it. Then we can pay for it. It will not be a matter of not affording it. It’s just a matter of setting priorities. “

Moving on to your claim that borrowing takes money from the pockets of future tax payers is plain wrong to put it bluntly.

As the economist Professor Bill Mitchell notes “Each generation chooses its own tax rates and that means that the mix of public and private sector involvement in the economy is a political choice”

In this case yours.  Government spending in the form of deficits (assuming of course a government that takes seriously its responsibility for the well-being of the nation) can work on behalf of citizens to create a healthy economy and a fairer distribution of wealth.  This not only helps today’s citizens but also creates investment in public education, public health and other infrastructure which benefits both current and future generations.  Or, of course, it can, as in the case of the Tories and already noted, represent wealth transfer to the already rich and public money leaching into private corporate pockets.  And just to be clear as I can hear you whispering but what about the printing presses, inflation and Zimbabwe I am not suggesting that deficits don’t matter – they do but not in the way you tell us they do.  The fact is that whilst governments are never revenue constrained spending will always be limited by available productive capacity and resources.  And that is what has to be managed.  It should never be about balanced budgets rather it should be about creating a balanced economy.

So, Chancellor, in conclusion, I will finish by saying that a time is coming when you will no longer be able to fool the public into believing your household budget version of the state finances which has claimed that we can’t afford public services, the NHS and the welfare safety net.  They will then understand that you made a choice to deny them the public infrastructure that ensures a healthy economy and the well-being of their families.  They will understand that you played with their lives and their survival.

It is to be hoped that in the near future you will indeed have plenty of time as a shadow minister in her majesty’s government to reflect on where the Tory party went wrong but then again you probably won’t.

Regards

Prue Plumridge

EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT HOW OUR MONEY SYSTEM WORKS BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK

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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.

 

Credits to:

https://era-blog.com/2016/12/05/paying-for-public-services-in-a-monetary-sovereign-state/

https://www.thepileus.com/economics/jeremy-corbyn-does-not-need-to-borrow-to-pay-for-his-policies/

https://www.thepileus.com/economics/labours-economic-alternative-to-neoliberalism/

http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=25961

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2015/feb/04/another-economic-crash-is-coming-how-did-this-happen-video

https://www.theguardian.com/money/2017/apr/08/consumer-debt-loans-credit-cards-bank-of-england

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neoliberal TINA Economics is Flat Earth thinking

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By Prue Plumridge

Belief in a flat Earth is found in the oldest writings and early Mesopotamian maps showed the world as a flat disk floating in the ocean.  Thankfully things have moved on since that time and we now accept the proof that it is indeed a sphere spinning in space.

It is not difficult to imagine the reaction to those who challenged this view, such as Christopher Columbus, and the scepticism with which such ideas would have initially been received.  After all, if you’ve been told that you’ll fall off the edge of the world if you go too far, questioning that notion would have led to shaking of heads.  Those disputing the prevailing set of ideas or beliefs on the basis of “what if” would have been ridiculed, insulted or even physically attacked as fear of the new set in.

We have reached such a time in history now.  The destructive neoliberal status quo of the last few decades is being shaken to its core and there is an opportunity at last for a conversation about where we go from here and how we can bring about change.  It won’t be easy but Jeremy Corbyn has started the ball rolling by offering a radical vision which not only restores the core values of the Labour party and responds to a changing world but also opens up an opportunity for dialogue on such issues as climate change, finite resources and sustainable living.  It is a positive start.

Of course, those who have the most to lose will not let their power go easily and we are seeing that already with attacks on Jeremy Corbyn by the Establishment and business leaders and worse still, from his own party.  Only this week, an article in the Telegraph was predicting that Jeremy Corbyn’s economic plans will turn us into Zimbabwe and lead us to calamity.   We must, however, stand strong against such attacks which stem from fear and forge our future together.

People are starting to see through the decades long political neoliberal consensus which favours the magic of free markets.  But there is still a way to go and it won’t be easy.  It is vital that we ask questions and, even when, like the flat earthers, we find the potential solutions out of our comfort zone because it questions the long-accepted paradigm, we must not turn away.

Most people (including me) shy away from discussion of economics.  Mathematical equations and economic models dance before the eyes and shut down the brain like no other subject.  And yet the decisions made by our elected politicians are based on economic ideas which can wreak havoc on our lives and the lives of our families and friends or can, alternatively, be used for a public purpose to benefit those same lives.  Indeed, we are seeing the damaging consequences of those decisions today.  Dismantling our social security system, selling our publically funded public services to the private sector, deregulation, the watering down of employment and trade union rights and driving down of wages in the name of competition.  TTIP, TISA and CETA added into this mix will prove to be the final nail in the coffin of democracy.  It is, therefore, time to engage in a conversation and challenge those who have deceived us for so long.  We must ask ourselves what if the world isn’t flat at all?

Maggie Thatcher’s line “There is no alternative” is the usual excuse for continuing with the free-market ideology and the claim that continued austerity, balanced budgets and surpluses are vital to a successful economy.  We will all remember Liam Byrne’s infamous note, when Labour left power, saying ‘There is no money’.  That one stupid remark has allowed the deficit/debt reduction argument to dominate the economic and political landscape of the last five years and been used by David Cameron and George Osborne in a deliberate distortion of reality to justify cuts, the creation of a small state and private sector domination.

It is unfortunate that even some of the Labour elites are using the same loaded language which says that we must continue with such policies. Yvette Cooper, who has a PPE from Baliol College at Oxford, said recently “I don’t think the answer is what Jeremy has proposed, which is basically printing money that we haven’t got to build things”.  Her comment is symptomatic of her lack of grasp of wider economic ideas and yet, she, like many, has been a victim of the way it has been taught for decades in educational institutions. One might think that the doctrine of balanced budgets was the only game in town.

Regretfully, these ideas have been cleverly used to also deceive ordinary people that there is no alternative.  That we must accept the pain and balance our budgets in true Micawber style. The idea that the state should deal with the deficit and reduce the national debt has become a part of the narrative which is firmly fixed in the collective psyche. The problem has been reinforced by our experience of our own household budget which has to be managed to ensure we don’t go into the red or get into debt.

The first step is to ask questions. Don’t rule anything in or out – the world is a complex place much more so than even this simple presentation.

Most of us will remember from our history lessons, the 1929 crash.  The UK government’s response at the time was to balance the budget and re-establish confidence in the pound.  Public sector wages and unemployment benefits were cut and by 1931 unemployment had risen to almost three million. The march to London by the men of Jarrow is a symbol of that economic disaster which left thousands of people destitute and hungry.

One of the people who challenged that view was John Maynard Keynes who was fiercely critical of the then Conservative-Liberal coalition government’s austerity budget and wrote:

‘Every person in this country of super-asinine propensities, everyone who hates social progress and loves deflation, feels that his hour has come and triumphantly announces how, by refraining from every sort of economic activity, we can become prosperous again.” 

 

It is ironic, that when the coalition came to power in 2010, they chose to repeat an economic policy that had so singularly failed in the 1920s and 30s, and the Conservatives are promising more of the same over the next five years.

‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results’   Albert Einstein is once said to have observed.  But then one could ask the question is it insanity or a deliberate strategy?

To return to Keynes, his argument was, essentially, that in order to support full employment governments must use their spending power to invest in the economy on the basis that spending equals income to someone which is, after all, what makes the world go round. So when governments reduce public spending the result can only be higher unemployment.  Indeed in the last week we have learned that for the financial year so far the deficit was down £7.3bn (23%) but in the three months to June there was a rise of 25000 in unemployment.  To make the connections if we stifle spending to reduce the deficit then this can only have a detrimental effect on the economy by reducing the amount of money available to the non-government sector.

So where, may you ask, will the money come from to deficit spend?  When Yvette Cooper suggested wrongly as it happens that we can’t print money that we haven’t got to build things she was forgetting that electronic monetary resources were created to rescue the banking system in the form of Quantitative Easing which no-one objected to then, even though, basically, it disappeared into a big banking black hole.

Jeremy Corbyn’s People’s QE is quite another kettle of fish and this time those money resources would be used for public purpose that is for the benefit and well-being of society as a whole and not just a small section of it.  To put that clearly in the words of Professor Bill Mitchell:

“People would soon see the benefits in the form of better schools, hospitals, public transport, green energy innovations, more jobs, more diverse cultural events”

The response to these ideas has been one of panic-stricken hysteria, as emotive language such as ‘debt mountain’ is used by politicians and the media to scare the general public, by reinforcing the household budget model of our state finances and economy.  Let’s not forget the irony here that George Osborne has managed to achieve a debt mountain all of his own!

Professor Bill Mitchell’s conclusion should reassure the public:

PQE is an excellent strategy for the British government to introduce. It exploits the currency-issuing capacity of the government directly and uses it to increase the potential of the economy to improve well-being.

It is astonishing to realise that contrary to common belief sovereign governments start the ball rolling by issuing money, tax revenues are not necessary for a government to spend and that our national debt is not a debt in the usual sense of the word.

So, I can hear you ask:  what then is the purpose of tax?  I’ve heard that ‘printing money’ is inflationary?  And say that again our national debt is not a debt at all?

We must start with the first principle which is that, since the abandonment of the gold standard, sovereign governments like ours can issue as much money as it needs. Remember the money issued comes first, and not taxes.  This is a key point.  Without money in our pockets we can’t pay taxes anyway.

Beardsley Rumi former Chairman of the Federal Reserve wrote as long ago as 1946:

… given control of a central banking system and an inconvertible currency, a sovereign national government is finally free of money worries and need no longer levy taxes for the purpose of providing itself with revenue. All taxation, therefore should be regarded from the point of view of social and economic consequences.

What this actually means is that tax, far from being a revenue raiser, is a mechanism for what we can call public purpose meaning, for example, redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor.  It also has the function of managing inflation by raising taxes to dampen demand, or reducing them to increase it.

Secondly, money issue by a sovereign state is not, in itself, inflationary. Politicians parading as prophets of doom are warning us that ‘printing money’ will cause inflation.  In an effort to scare people, we are reminded of Germany’s hyperinflation after the First World War or Zimbabwe’s in the 1990s.  In both cases, the truth of the matter is that these episodes could not be described in any way as normal – they were extreme events and not remotely like the situation in the UK or the US.  Of course in Germany’s case, the imposition of huge reparations in gold under the Versailles Treaty, the loss of 25% of its industrial capacity as a result of the war and then the occupation of the Ruhr when Germany defaulted forced them to increase the money supply which did not match its supply capacity.  So when exports then slowed and Germany could not continue to pay back its debts it led to the hyperinflation which was to have catastrophic consequences for the German nation both in the short and long term.

And herein lies the clue, if you keep on spending and can’t produce the goods to meet that spending, you’ll get inflation  Spending with no regard to whether there are enough resources to match it, is the cause of inflation not the money issue in itself.  So deficit spending is not the problem.  The issue is whether we have the resources to justify the spending and if we have, how we can use them effectively for the benefit of society as a whole.

We have almost two million people without jobs. People whose talents remain unused.  People who want to work despite the inference by government and irresponsible media that the unemployed are lazy and feckless which has become the prevalent myth, now accepted by the public as being true. The solution therefore is to invest in building new schools, hospitals, homes and green infrastructure as well as create real job opportunities so that people can make a positive contribution not only to their own well-being but that of their communities. Remember that spending equals income to someone, and so by using the resources we have, effectively and fairly, we can improve the lives of all. The deficit will only be a problem when all available resources are being used. And we are most certainly not in this position at the moment.

And this brings me, finally, to the notion of the national debt.  If, as is noted above, sovereign governments can issue money then it begs the question why do we have to borrow?  Well the reality is that we don’t.  Sovereign governments don’t need to issue debt. The real game is about corporate welfare as Treasuries and Bonds are sold to big investors who want a nice safe, risk free place to stash their money and get a guaranteed income flow.  Much like us when we transfer money from our current bank account to a savings account.   Where governments are the primary money issuers there is no reason why the national debt could not be scrapped. We wouldn’t have to worry about ‘paying it back’.  And, after all, how could you pay back the money supply?

The important thing for us to understand is that there is an alternative to the inertia of past decades.  We don’t have to accept it we have to challenge it.

The world is a complex place and full of uncertainty but we have been bewitched by a dogma that proposes freedom and everlasting growth on the backs of the people and the planet but which, in fact, is tying us in chains to the benefit of the few.  As Keynes observed in his book written in 1936:

The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.”

The Post War Consensus is long gone and the positive outcomes of that consensus, being dismantled as we speak.  The ascendency of individualism over cooperation and all that entails is almost complete.  As Ha-Joon Chang wrote:

‘Many believers in the individualist view would sacrifice political freedom to defend economic freedom”

It is clear that such unrestrained pursuit of self-interest through the belief in the magic of free markets has proved itself wanting and resulted in huge disparities of wealth, impoverishment, inequality and unequal access to opportunity.

Whilst we need wisdom too, knowledge is power and so the more we are informed, the easier it is to challenge the lies of politicians and their media lackeys. It is not necessary to immerse oneself in economic models and mathematical equations to understand the importance of economic policies and their effects on society but if we are to move forward we must show those who would lie to us that we cannot be fooled any longer.

 

Resources and credits:

Steven Hail

Governments do not need the savings of the rich or their taxes 

Corbyn should stop saying he will eliminate the deficit

Zimbabwe for hyperventilators

PQE is sound economics but is not in the QE family

Correcting political ignorance and misconceptions

Printing Money does not cause inflation

Summer of Unrest: The Debt Delusion Mehdi Hasan

Economics: The User’s Guide  Ha-Joon-Chang

The Angry Birds Approach to understanding deficits in the Modern Economy

http://ineteconomics.org/ideas-papers/interviews-talks/demystifying-modern-monetary-theory

 

The “Angry Birds” Approach to Understanding Deficits in the Modern Economy

 

Additional links:

Austerity is a Political Choice not a Economic Necessity

Like heterodox economists, Semmelweiss was ignored…

The riddle of the deficit or (deficits for Dummies)

The motives behind Corbynomics

Austerity is a Political Choice not Economic Necessity

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By Prue Plumridge

Last week Matthew Lyn (a columnist for Bloomberg) wrote in an article published in Money Week that, “the policies on offer under Corbynomics would quickly ruin the economy”. This was followed shortly afterwards with another written by no less than a Labour councillor and published on Labour List which assured us that Cutting the deficit, healthy public finances, running a budget surplus, fiscal responsibility, and prudence [..] are not Tory ideological dictums but sound economic strategies that had served Labour well in the past. Embracing these goals and persuading Britain that we can be trusted on economy is a key to winning power.”

However, if were to take the trouble to understand how our economic and money systems actually work we would soon learn that such statements are either born of economic illiteracy or wilful deceit in order to pursue specific political agendas. This can largely be attributed to the decades of ‘conditioning’ which has done its job and led to the belief amongst the general population that there is no alternative to austerity, that we have to live within our means, and pay back our debts in the best Micawber tradition. You would think listening to politicians, many mainstream economists and the media that there is only one economic model in town – the household budget one.

Jeremy Corbyn has set out a clear and achievable plan for the future, and yet, Lyn believes that his proposals are a recipe for disaster. In fact he calls it delusional and complains bitterly that the success of the Greens and the SNP is based on a crazy idea that we can wave away our economic problems by recklessly printing money, getting into more debt and increasing state intervention.  Matthew then exposes his ignorance on economic matters by confusing deficit with debt when he writes “by any historical standards the UK is running a huge budget deficit”. The reality is that whilst George Osborne has reduced the deficit he has also increased the debt significantly* so by any standards, if you accept the household model of state budget accounting and that the debt is debt in traditionally accepted terms, the Chancellor hasn’t been doing that well given that he promised to balance the books by 2015.  To  he is now promising a £23bn surplus by 2020 that he says will not only eliminate the deficit, allow us to pay back some of our debt but also reduce our taxes.

*2015         £1.36 trillion (forecast)

2014          £1.26 trillion

2013          £1.10 trillion

2012          £1.10 trillion

2011          £0.91 trillion

2010          £0.76 trillion

2009          £0.62 trillion

2008          £0.53 trillion

Most people readily understand the word budget in terms of their own income believing, quite rightly, that they go into the red when their spending exceeds their income and that saving is spending less than they earn. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that our economy and money system works in the same fashion.  The on-line UK national debt clock which is ticking at a mind-boggling speed is a good example of how we have been conditioned to believe that we have been profligate and it is time to get control of our expenditure, balance our books and pay down our debt. Our understanding is, in fact, back to front. Deficits in state terms represent our savings i.e money that is issued by a sovereign government and spent into the economy to increase the financial assets available to the private sector i.e. to make the economy go round. On the other hand, achieving a surplus, as economically ignorant politicians are promising with some pride, will simply have the opposite effect by removing those said assets from circulation and putting the private sector into deficit.   One man’s surplus is another man’s deficit as it were. And, furthermore, the idea that a government can ‘save’ money is simply wrong as Professor Bill Mitchell, the respected Australian economist explains:

“People get very confused about the concept of national saving. They assume that saving is spending less than you earn and then apply that to budget surpluses and conclude that the surpluses add to national saving. But this view is erroneous. A sovereign government does not save. What sense does it make to say that the government is saving in the currency that it issues? Households save to increase their capacity to spend in the future. How can this apply to the issuer of the currency who can spend at any time it chooses?”

The subject of the national debt is also one where there is public misunderstanding.  Television is awash with programmes which picture debt collectors carting away the assets of someone who has got into arrears with a loan or following the lives of people whose financial situations are so dire that they are forced into bankruptcy.  Most of us quite erroneously, think this applies to the State too.  Who wouldn’t when prominent politicians say things like ‘We have taken our country back from the brink of bankruptcy’ (George Osborne October 2010). We were told then that if the country didn’t rein in its expenditure the debt collectors would be knocking on the door of the Treasury demanding payment or threatening bankruptcy if it didn’t pay up.  A simplistic picture yes but one which would chime with many people’s personal experience these days.  Worse still, we were compared to Greece and next in line to be affected by a sovereign debt crisis. Both lies and about as far away from the truth as it could get.

Here is how Paul Segal described the reality in an article published in the Guardian in 2010:

“Cameron argues that within five years the national debt will rise to “some £22,000 for every man, woman and child in the country”. This may be true, but what he doesn’t tell us is that it is money the government owes to us – not money that we owe to anyone else. That’s right: 80% of our government debt is owed to the British people. What is called “national debt” is our own savings, looked at from the other side of the balance sheet.”

It seems extraordinary that the economic model advocated by mainstream, neoliberal economists is one that is promoted as if there had never been another and also denies the accounting realities which are the basis for how the economy and money system actually works. It’s as if Wynne Godley, Hyman Minsky, Abba Lerner, Michal Kalecki, and of course Keynes and Marx to mention a few, never existed.

So if the money system doesn’t work as we’ve been led to believe by deceitful or economically illiterate politicians and media hacks, how DOES it actually work? Quite simply:

“A sovereign, currency-issuing government is NOTHING like a currency-using household or firm. The sovereign government cannot become insolvent in its own currency; it can always make all payments as they come due in its own currency because it is the ISSUER of the currency, not simply the USER (as a household or private business is). This issuing capacity means that the government does not face the same kinds of constraints as a private sector user of money, which in turn exposes the fallacy of the household analogy, so beloved in popular economics discourse.

Indeed, if government spends currency into existence, it clearly does not need tax revenue before it can spend. Further, if taxpayers pay their taxes using currency, then government must first spend before taxes can be paid. Again, all of this was obvious two hundred years ago when kings literally stamped coins in order to spend, and then received their own coins in tax payment.

Another shocking truth is that a sovereign government does not need to “borrow” its own currency in order to spend. Indeed, it cannot borrow currency that it has not already spent!”

It is astonishing to learn that whilst most of us think that government has to raise money from the capital markets to finance the deficit and refinance maturing debt this is not how it works at all.  It is simply a convenient smokescreen behind which neoliberal politicians (Conservative and Labour alike) hide in their justification for pursuing austerity and public sector cuts. In fact, as Professor Mitchell points out “the continued issuance of public debt is a form of corporate welfare which makes the task of making profits through trading financial assets in private capital markets that much easier…… the Treasury [issues] securities not because it needs cash, but because market participants need securities.” 

The truth of the matter is that in 1971 when the Bretton Woods system collapsed (which tied currency to a gold standard) and fiat currencies were introduced governments were freed from those revenue constraints.  We have been led to believe that raising cash from the market is to fund government spending when tax revenue is insufficient.  But in a fiat monetary system even tax revenue is unnecessary.  The constraints on government spending are not financial but those linked to productivity and available resources and this is what puts the brakes on government spending not being in debt.

So how can we make sense of the motivation of our politicians to justify austerity and cuts on the back of what is not only plainly untrue but has also proved so destructive during the last five years? Jeremy Seabrook wrote in the Guardian in 2010.

Today’s detestation of “big government” stems from this same source, and the affection of Cameron and his colleagues for the “big society” is a euphemism for the reduction of public funds in assisting the poor: rolling back the state, leaving the market to distribute its rewards in accordance with the natural order of things … the market mechanism is as flawless a creation as the earth, and should remain untouched by the hand of meddlers, whose only effect is to upset its power to enrich us all … Once more, the state shrinkers, the advocates of vanishing government, the cutters of red tape and regulation, the liberators of a humanity constricted by statist straitjackets, believe they have a mandate for freedom. But it is freedom under the law of an imagined jungle; by a savage irony, at a time when the smoke from the stumps of felled trees in the real jungle darken the horizon of a used-up future.”

We are not as neoliberal politicians want us to believe  ‘living beyond our means’ and the austerity drive which manifests itself as the necessity for draconian cuts in the public sector and the privatisation of publically funded services is really about reducing the size of government and restoring the ‘primacy of the market” as Professor Mitchell has remarked.

Deficits and debt are, in truth, the biggest red herrings of all in this debate.  In fact as Lord Macaulay wrote in ‘The History of England’ published in 1849:

‘At every stage in the growth of that (national) debt it has been seriously asserted by wise men that bankruptcy and ruin were at hand. Yet still the debt kept on growing; and still bankruptcy and ruin were as remote as ever’

The real issue is how we plan for the future.  How productive can we be, will there be sufficient resources at our disposal to meet demand? These questions have to be debated in the context of climate change and the devastation which we are seeing all around us, both human and in nature, whose roots lie in the capitalist desire for untrammelled growth and the search for profit.  Equally we are not the ‘machine men’ of Charlie Chaplin’s speech in The Dictator and as such we need to give those that want it and are able the dignity of employment which meets their financial and physical needs.

It is time to reassess the capitalist pursuit of profit through the downward spiral of a low paid economy and the maintenance of unemployment as a neoliberal necessity. It is time to challenge the neoliberal agenda which successive governments have embraced over decades. Such blind adherence or maybe not so blind has led to increasing inequality, a wealth gap of extraordinary proportions, an unstoppable drive for unsustainable growth and a situation where corporate power is replacing the democratic framework as it subverts democracy through politicians and trade deals.

So what sort of society do we want to live in and how might we achieve it? The entry of Jeremy Corbyn into the leadership race has revitalised that political debate in a very public way.  Do we want to continue with a political framework where there is not much to tell between the parties and a status quo future or do we strike out for a completely new paradigm? That debate must be held in terms of an economic model that will best deliver our aims.  Professor Bill Mitchell has set out some broad principles which could serve as the basis for that discussion.

 

1. The Government is Us!

2. The government is our agent and like all agents we cede resources and discretion to it because we trust that it can create benefits for all of us that each one of us individually cannot achieve. We understand scale.

3.  Governments invest in our immediate well-being by providing essential services without the need for profit.

4.  Governments invest in the next generation’s well-being through building productive infrastructure that delivers services for decades.

5.  We empower governments with unique characteristics so that it can pursue our interests without the constraints we face ourselves.

6.  We understand that a deficit for us means we have to find funds to cover it, whereas a deficit for our agent, the currency-issuing government means it is funding our spending and saving choices.

7.  A government deficit enhances our freedom because it boosts our income and allows us more options.

What next?  The choice is most definitely ours.

 

Sources:

http://ineteconomics.org/ideas-papers/interviews-talks/demystifying-modern-monetary-theory

How to discuss Modern Monetary Theory: Bill Mitchell.

http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=25961

Deficits are our savings: Bill Mitchell http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=10384

Budget Surpluses are not savings: Bill Mitchell http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=961

The National Debt is money the government owes us Paul Segal

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/jun/17/fiscal-deficit-threat

Market participants need public debt: Bill Mitchell http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=10404

Jeremy Seabrook: The specter of laissez faire haunts Britain.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/jun/20/spectre-laissez-faire-haunts-britain

The Debt Delusion: Exposing Ten Tory Myths about Debts, Deficits and Spending Cuts: Mehdi Hasan.