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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pensions: Thatcher’s vision is coming to fruition

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Society is indeed a contract. It is a partnership…. not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”  Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France 1790

Pensions: Thatcher’s vision is coming to fruition by Prue Plumridge

At the end of last year the Institute for Public Policy Research published its ‘Future Proof report’. It painted a bleak picture for British citizens by 2030.  It suggested that, unless solutions were sought, an ageing population would place a huge and unsustainable burden on the public coffers.

In 2013, The Intergenerational Foundation published the results of a survey of 50 of the UK’s leading thinkers on economics which was entitled ‘Can the UK afford to pay Pensions?

The growing national debt and pension liabilities either to public sector pension schemes and the state pension were cited as reasons to seek solutions to the so called ‘demographic burden’ of an ageing baby boomer population.  The report suggested that these liabilities would be a considerable financial burden which future generations would have to pay off through their taxes.

In 2014, the Institute of Economic affairs also added its warning by claiming that future generations could be ‘short-changed’ and the public finances put in jeopardy unless the UK takes serious measures to reform the state pension system.  Clearly there is no shortage of organisations and politicians ready to pitch in to reinforce this message.  To that end, Sir John Cridland, former CBI Director General, is due to publish an interim report early this year aimed at ‘ensuring the state pension remains affordable’.

In response to these fears, changes to the pension retirement age are already in progress and, whilst it is currently set at 66, it has been suggested that the Department of Work and Pensions may have plans to increase it further to the age of 70.  Furthermore, the Chancellor Philip Hammond has hinted that after 2020 state pensions may no longer be ring-fenced from spending cuts.

Added to these messages of unaffordability there is also something far more insidious going on.  In Australia, a crossbench senator recently said that ‘taking the pension shouldn’t be something you aspire to, it should be something you try to avoid because it signifies you’re in a low-income group’.  He suggested that payments be viewed as welfare not an entitlement.  Right wing ideologies which promote the primacy of the individual over that of the well-being of a wider community have led to an emphasis on individual responsibility which has, in turn, led to the shaming of those who find themselves on the wrong end of the economic stick.  The inference is that if you’re poor, unemployed or sick then you only have yourself to blame.

The political discourse is making it clear now that pensioners are not only about to be added to this list but also perhaps even condemned for not having saved sufficiently to pay for a decent retirement.  Even the prospect of retiring is no longer sacrosanct.  The Tory peer, Baroness Altmann, tweeted last year that “private pension/health will drive retirement age” thus suggesting that unless you’ve got a big fat private pension or health insurance you can forget retiring on a state pension because it simply will not pay enough to cover your costs.  Clearly retirement is intended to become the privilege of the rich and well heeled.

Citizens face the prospect not only of a two-tier health and social care service but also a two-tier pension entitlement – one for those who can afford to save for one and one for those who can’t which may condemn people to working beyond retirement just to survive.

As Peter Fleming recently wrote in an article in the Guardian:

“We can trace the untimely demise of retirement to a number of assumptions about how society ought to be organised.  At no other time since its inception has the welfare state been so hated by the governing elite.  Social care.  Unemployment assistance.  Health.  Local councils and libraries.  Municipal parks.  Anything relating to what used to be called “the public good” is attacked at the roots.  Austerity redefines these things as fiscal liabilities or deficits rather than shared investments in common decency.  It was only a matter of time before pensions too were put on the chopping block”.

Of course, it might also be said that things are not looking favourable either for those who are paying into private pensions.  Not only have many defined benefit pension schemes been closed and replaced with pensions linked to the uncertainties of the stock and bond market but also in a new development the government has recently announced a consultation paper which could take thousands of pounds of income away from 11 million retirees.  This means basing annual increases on the consumer price index rather than the retail price index.  The paper also suggests that where a company is facing significant financial pressures it could suspend increases altogether.  In the heady days of market superiority private pensions might have been all the rage but in these cash strapped times and market uncertainty the gloss may be rubbing off.

Whilst clearly the mainstream and ideologically inspired experts view this demographic transition as a ticking time bomb of the financial kind, I want to investigate in this article how this view has arisen and show that, because we misunderstand how our money system actually works, the argument is far from an affordability issue.

Since the post war settlement which led to the creation of social welfare provision including a state pension and free healthcare and education citizens have been bound together by a social contract based on mutual support across the generations.  That social contract is now under threat.  Young people quite rightly compare their impoverished lives with those of their post war parents and grandparents.  Lack of adequate, affordable housing, debt ridden higher education, poorer employment opportunities, low pay and lack of job security not to mention the prospect of working longer and a poverty stricken old age are all a cause for anxiety among young people who fear for their future prosperity.

Quite predictably it stirs up resentment as they perceive the older generation having very nice, comfortable lives thank you with their own homes and decent pensions!  These are advantages that the young can scarcely dream of unless they are lucky enough to have a helping financial hand from parents or grandparents. The inference is that the social contract is no longer sustainable because in the future there will not be enough young people generating tax receipts and income to fund all those things which we have come to rely on to make society decent and civilised.

At the Conservative Conference last October the current Chancellor, Philip Hammond, warned of the dangers of piling up debt for our children and grandchildren promising he would restore fiscal discipline and get Britain back to living within its means.  Georgia Gould, a Labour Councillor in North London, has even suggested that we may have to reconsider the principle of universal pension benefits in the light of the supposed financial ‘black hole’ they represent.

What should be the right ‘balance’ of public spending between the generations to ensure a fair distribution of wealth and resources is the mainstream question and is there even a future for state paid pensions?

The message that our pensions along with our social security system is too costly and unsustainable is constantly drummed into the public consciousness.  Austerity, cutting public spending and privatisation have been presented by all the main parties (until recently) as necessary to get our public finances ‘under control’.  And yet, despite the growing evidence that cutting government expenditure on public and social infrastructure has had catastrophic consequences for the nation’s overall economic well-being – fiscal discipline and paying down debt is the re-occurring mantra of mainstream economists and politicians (even if the timescale for such plans has slipped somewhat in the face of an uncertain economy).

We need urgently to challenge these claims.

It might first be worthwhile spending some time on explaining from where this narrative arose.  The Keynsian inspired post war consensus started to break down in the 1970s with the two oil shocks and resultant rising inflation and unemployment.  This also coincided with the infiltration of neoliberal/monetarist ideas into the political mindset which was to have increasingly destructive consequences on economic policy for the next 40 years.

This decade saw the death knell for post war Keynsian policies and initiated a shift away from full employment.  Labour eventually paid a high price for its management of the economic crisis and lost the election to the Tories in 1979.  Margaret Thatcher brought to the table an economic vision inspired by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman and her policies reflected her belief in the superiority of the market, less government involvement and the importance of the individual.  The idea implicit in this dogma was that the welfare state deprived people of the opportunity to make their own arrangements for pensions, health and housing.

As a result, the merits of home ownership were promoted and our stock of social housing sold off, along with the opening up of the market for private pensions in an attempt to weaken the state’s own pension provision, both of which continue today.  Treasury documents released last year revealed that Thatcher also supported a plan to dismantle the welfare state and introduce private health insurance to end the NHS.

By the time Labour finally returned to power, market driven ideology was firmly entrenched in the political narrative.  Under Tony Blair’s leadership the party, with its ‘third way’ credentials, rejected its socialist roots and fostered a laissez-faire capitalism of globalised markets and increasing corporate power.

Philip Bobbitt in his book ‘The Shield of Achilles’ published in 2002 suggested that power of the nation state would, over time, lose its authority to the ‘market state’.  The ‘nation state’ he said ‘derives its power through its promise to improve its citizen’s material wellbeing, while the market state is legitimised through its promise to maximise its citizens’ opportunities.’ To put it simply the centralised state has indeed been replaced by a market state orthodoxy which is fragmented and outsourced. In short, public money is being poured into the coffers of global companies to run public services for profit.  It is a place where, it would seem, the term ‘public purpose’ has its narrowest meaning.

Following the Global Financial Crash when Labour with some success flirted for a short period with Keynes, the Tories returned to power in 2010 to reinforce the corporate dominated, revolving door politics of the past decades.  And, on the basis of an incorrect accusation of Labour’s overspending, began their attack on public services, the NHS and social security peddling the cruel mantra of ‘we must live within our means’ in justification.

However, the increased poverty, inequality and insecurity can be attributed not to previous governments overspending or living beyond their financial means but rather a pernicious ideology which has put increasing the wealth of the few above the well-being of society and raised the status of the corporations to gods.

Politicians aided by a self-interested press, corporations and the wealthy have convinced the public that the state finances are like their own household budgets and that the national debt and deficit are dirty words.  We have to cut expenditure to get our public finances in order to prevent burdening future generations with debt and higher taxes is an oft repeated message in the media.

So, is it true that by borrowing now we are burdening future generations?  The short answer is NO and is indeed illogical.  We should be challenging such a distortion and indeed presenting the real facts about how our money system works in practice.

The economist, Professor Bill Mitchell rightly points out that past and current policy decisions do affect young people today and will also affect future, yet to be born, generations.  However, as we have seen this has been presented by politicians and think tanks in terms of financial affordability – whether there is enough money in the public pot to continue paying for social security, the NHS, public services and education both now and in the future.

Deficits and public debt have become society’s bogeyman which has proved a very useful myth to justify continued public sector cuts and privatisation thus serving the pursuit of a political ideology rather than any sort of economic reality.

We are regaled endlessly with the message that fiscal discipline is vital if we are to maintain a healthy ‘bank’ balance, save for a rainy day or avoid bankruptcy.  Of course, that would be true if the State’s finances ran like our own household budgets where our expenditure is limited by our income.  However, this may come as a shock to some but in a post gold standard world government spending is not constrained by the taxes we pay.

For an explanation, we must look at how a sovereign, currency issuing government like ours actually operates.  As Professor Bill Mitchell points out:

“The fact is that the current government has as much ‘money’ now as it had yesterday and the same amount, it will have tomorrow.  That is, it has whatever it wants to spend.  It always has that.  It has no more or less capacity to spend today because there were surpluses in the past than it would have if there have been deficits in the past.“

“Borrowing” doesn’t take any money at all from the pockets of future taxpayers and baby boomers (like myself) have never been asked to pay back a single penny of the public ‘debt’ accumulated by their parents’ generation.  Indeed, those fiscal deficits created public assets and infrastructure from which we have all benefited. Those terms debt and borrowing are loaded words which fit very nicely with our understanding of how our personal finances operate in practice in a Wilkins Micawber sort of way.  However, in terms of a sovereign state issuing its own currency it bears no relationship to our own household budgets.  The funds that pay for bonds or what is called ‘borrowing’ began life in government spending.  So, when economic experts and politicians refer to debt clocks claiming that we are sinking under its weight and we cannot afford to burden future generations we need to take a step back and look at it rationally.

If the government is the currency issuer then as Professor Mitchell points out, it is in fact, only ‘borrowing’ its own spending back.  So how on earth can we be said to be ‘borrowing’ from the future?

As Paul Segal, a senior lecturer in economics noted, the debt is ‘the money the government owes us, not money that we owe to anyone else. […..] What is called the ‘national debt’ is our own savings, looked at the from other side of the balance sheet”.  And how does it get there?  We put our savings into banks and pension funds which are then invested by those same banks and pension funds when they buy interest bearing government bonds, which include premium bonds by the way,from which investors and retirees then enjoy a return as income which is either saved or spent into the economy. In short, if you’re worried about the national debt then you should do the decent thing and stop enjoying the proceeds of your investment savings.

Furthermore, and fundamentally, as Bill Mitchell highlights ‘Every generation chooses its own tax rates. That is, the mix of public and private sector involvement in the economy is a political choice’  The key word here is choice.  Governments make policy choices related to the particular politico/economic ideology they espouse and for the last forty years and more that choice across the political spectrum has been neoliberal and market driven.

The result has been more about redistribution of wealth upwards than ‘trickle down’ and this has been at the expense of ordinary working people.  As the economist, Ellis Winningham recently noted: ‘The rich have been robbing us’.

Oxfam reported in January that runaway inequality has created a world where 62 people own as much as the poorest half of the world’s population.

The idea that government policy should serve public purpose aims as it did during the post war years for the economic well-being of a nation has largely been abandoned in favourof the rise of a deregulated corporate driven state whose hallmark has been excessive greed.

When those on opposition benches take the government of the day to task for rising debt and increasing deficits as if these were signs of poor economic management, the public are quite understandably horrified at government’s apparent wastefulness – how that suits the orthodox agenda!  The debt and deficit are, however, largely misunderstood by the public, and politicians either take advantage of that confusion to be better able to justify ideological austerity, cuts and privatisation or simply don’t understand that their own knowledge is flawed.

In short, deficits (i.e. the difference between what is received in taxation and actual government spending) are neither good nor bad in themselves – they are more of an economic indicator of whether a government is doing its job effectively or not.  Thus, the success or failure of an economy will depend on whether there is an appropriate level of government spending to ensure full and productive employment.  Historically, fiscal deficits have in fact been an enduring feature of post war economies and are, in the words of the economist Dr Steven Hail, ‘normal and necessary’.

Indeed in 1982 Gardner Ackley wrote:

“My own position on deficits has always been, and remains, that deficits, per se, are neither good nor bad.  There are times when they are not only appropriate but even highly desirable, and there are times when they are inappropriate and dangerous.  During a recession or a period of “stagflation”, deficits are nearly unavoidable, and are likely to be constructive rather than harmful.”

…It is not the government’s role to run deficits or surpluses. We want governments to make policy choices that will maximise the potential of the people to enjoy their lives and contribute the best they can, given their own circumstances to the well-being of society and the planet.

We might call this goal one of public purpose.  An essential element of that goal, given current cultural mores in most nations, will be to ensure that everyone who wants to work has a job and for those that are unable to work, for whatever reason, have adequate income support so they are not alienated and socially-excluded.

When Labour came to power after the second world war the aim of Clement Atlee’s government was to create a more stable, fair and less exploitative society than had been the case before the war.  Fiscal deficits were an enabling factor in achieving this.  Our parents and grandparents didn’t whisper in corners about government wasting money or talk about how governments should be fiscally sound they understood its role in making their lives better.  We have all benefited from that wisdom and foresight even if we have increasingly forgotten that, over the last few decades, as market and monetarist orthodoxy has replaced a public purpose vision which benefited citizens through access to publicly paid for health and education, decent housing, public services, social security (including pensions), redistribution of wealth and a focus on full employment.  We neither went bankrupt then creating a fairer society and nor can we do so today no matter what those that claim to know try to tell us.

The idea that we can no longer afford such a vision because we can’t afford it is one of the biggest inventions of our time and one that will continue to impoverish society if we let it.  So, in the same way as our parents and grandparents understood the importance of government’s role in investing in better lives for themselves and for their children we must embrace that same understanding and reject the paltry arguments of orthodox economists which has led to increasing poverty and inequality through a casualised labour market, wage suppression and attacks on trade unions all to support global trade, an emphasis on a largely unproductive finance sector and the politics of austerity.  There is an alternative to this miserable economic narrative which wants us to believe that governments are financially constrained and all it requires, is for us to challenge those who tell us there isn’t one.

Fundamentally a healthy economy is dependent on a healthy and educated population which is not driven by fear of want.  The social security system including state pensions, the NHS, public services and transport networks are all necessary to the good working of society and a nation cannot function properly without the vital infrastructure which underpins a strong economy.

So, if a sovereign state like ours which issues its own currency, is not constrained by taxation, cannot run out of money, go bankrupt or burden future generations, are there any real constraints to government spending?  There are certainly caveats which relate to resource availability whether that’s raw materials, goods, services or human labour.  Money is not finite but resources are whether they are human or otherwise.  To quote again Gardner Ackley:

“That goal is constrained by the availability of real resources that the nation commands – labour, capital, land, etc – but not by the financial capacity of the currency-issuing government.”

Whilst this generation cannot burden future generations with higher taxes or debt burden we have to recognise that there are limitations related to consumption of finite resources and that the resulting damage to the environment will diminish the prospects for our children’s children and beyond.  This is perhaps the most pressing problem of our times which we must reflect on urgently.  Therefore, the onus on this generation and its elected governments is to do two things: firstly to commit to investing in our young people over the long term to ensure that they can be employed in productive well paid jobs to serve the needs of future generations including the retired; and secondly but more importantly we have a responsibility to ensure that we actually have an environmentally sound planet to bequeath to our grandchildren and their children.

We should be clear that the current government has made an ideological choice instead to impoverish future generations by cutting spending and all for ideological reasons that have nothing to do with the well-being of society today or in the future.

References

http://www.ippr.org/publications/future-proof- britain-in- the-2020s

http://www.if.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Can- the-UK- Afford-to- Pay-

Pensions.pdf

https://iea.org.uk/publications/research/the-government- debt-iceberg

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/john-cridland- cbe-launches- consultation-on-

the-state- pension-age

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b086t0mb

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/24/young-bear- burden-of-

pensioner-prosperity

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-01- 02/david-leyonhjelm- calls-to- restrict-pension-

assets-test/8157924

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/14/wealthy-retire- austerity-

pensioners-work

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/03/philip-hammond- budget-surplus-

conservative-conference- live/

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2017/02/goodbye-liberal- era

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2009/may/19/philip-bobbitt- kissinger-cuba

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

http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=28597

https://alittleecon.wordpress.com/2014/08/06/government-debt- is-not- a-burden- on-

future-generations/

http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=3891

http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=23673

It’s all a game of Monopoly really

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It’s all a game of Monopoly really by Prue Plumridge

When Labour left office in 2010, Liam Byrne left a very unfortunate message saying there was no money left. The Tories have dined out on this lie ever since. We were compared to Greece and next in line to be affected by a sovereign debt crisis, and in 2010 Osborne claimed that the Tories had taken the country back from the brink of bankruptcy. The Tories have used the household budget narrative of deficit reduction, balanced books and surplus to justify the need for austerity when, in fact, it is not just the wrong recipe to return our economy to health but also a deliberate deception about how our state finances and economy actually work.

This deception has allowed the Tories to funnel more and more money into ever fewer hands and make the claim that we cannot afford public services or the NHS. The mantra of ‘there is no money’ has been used to justify the dismantlement of the safety net for when we are at our most vulnerable, and worse still the selling off of every aspect of our publicly provided services to the private sector. This government is making a political choice and people across the country are paying the price for it.

Most of us will identify with Dicken’s character Micawber in David Copperfield who wrote:

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

So it is easy to understand how we buy into the idea that we have to pay our national debt down and balance our books. However, one cannot, in any way whatsoever, compare our own household budgets with the state money system.

And this is why:

A sovereign government:

  • Issues fiat money which is not backed by gold or anything else. (The gold standard ended in 1971 with the oil crisis)

 

  • Is not like a household. It doesn’t have to balance its budget (even though George Osborne says we do). In fact, reducing the deficit or going into surplus will remove money from the non-government/private sector.

 

  • Doesn’t tax first then spend later which means it doesn’t have to rely on raising taxes to spend. It doesn’t save its tax revenue – it destroys it.

 

To explain this strange concept think of a game of monopoly. You appoint a banker but he doesn’t collect taxes to get the game going because no-one has any money yet. The banker has to issue the money before it can collect anything back or the game can’t even begin. The issuing of the currency comes first. The bank can never go broke. If it runs out of money it can issue as much as is needed to keep the game going. So, you move about the board and you draw a card from the Community Chest or Chance – so you pay £50 – there goes a leakage. You play another hand and tax is due. The game will end very quickly if there isn’t a replacement for the money that is leaking out. Which is why every time you pass GO you collect £200. This keeps the game going. The banker always has to spend out more than he collects otherwise the game will quickly come to an end.  Which is to say that in this instance if the banker aka government is not deficit spending the game will end much sooner. (From Angry Birds by Dr Stephanie Kelton)

So to be clear taxes are not paying for anything not even your pensions!

However, they do have a function to:

control inflation or otherwise by raising or lowering taxes

redistribute wealth and income through progressive taxation

express public policy by subsidising or penalising certain industries or economic groups – for example railways for the first and polluting industries for the second.

To continue, a sovereign government:

  • Doesn’t spend money like we do – it isn’t the user of the currency. It is an issuer of the currency and creates money as it needs it.

 

  • Can’t ever run out of money and it definitely can’t go bankrupt. (Unless it is a European government and a member of the Eurozone. In that case a country becomes a user of the Euro and not the issuer. Then it is perfectly possible for it to go bankrupt as it is using what is, in effect, a foreign currency).

 

  • Can’t borrow its own money through selling bonds or treasuries to fund deficits and doesn’t’ ever have to worry about selling bonds to do so. When such bonds or treasuries are issued it is not about financing government spending it is a mechanism for controlling the interbank lending rate and the money supply. These treasuries/bonds are a bit like our bank accounts where we have a current account and a deposit/savings account where we park spare money we don’t need to get some interest. This is what the private sector does – pension funds for example – stash their money in a risk free place to earn some interest. Some call this corporate welfare and it is completely unnecessary. To follow the logic to its natural conclusion. If a government can issue the money it needs, it doesn’t have to borrow a bean from anyone at all. Indeed, why would it borrow money it had issued in the first place?
  • Can’t save up its own currency for a rainy day. Last year George Osborne announced that he would attempt to bind future governments to maintain a budget surplus when the economy is growing saying ‘we must act now to fix the roof while the sun is shining’. Budget surpluses do not represent ‘public saving’ which can be used to fund future public expenditure or a cache of money that can be spent later. A budget surplus only exists because private income or wealth is reduced so when there is a budget surplus private wealth is destroyed.

 

  • Can’t live beyond its means. Wait I hear you say won’t the magic money tree lead to inflation like it did in Germany or Zimbawe? Whilst it is the issuer of the currency that doesn’t mean that it can carry on spending ad infinitum as this would be inflationary. The only thing that will restrict government spending is access to resources. So, assuming there are idle physical resources including labour a government can continue to spend without concern for inflationary pressures.

Just before I go a word about that scary national debt. The online debt clock is designed to have us shaking in our boots at our financial recklessness! The national debt, however, is not like a mortgage or a car loan that has to be repaid. Paul Segal in an article describes it thus:

‘It is the money the government owes to us – not money we owe to anyone else. That’s right 80% of our government debt is owed to the British people. What is called the national debt is our own savings looked at from the other side of the balance sheet.’

Banks, businesses, people or countries may choose to invest their money in bonds as they earn some interest – they are in effect non-risk places to park money. This is our ‘National Debt’. To explain: you have a current account receiving no interest at all. So you put some of the money you don’t need into a deposit account like a Bond for example. The bank debits your current account and credits your new savings account. When it matures the bank debits your bond account and credits your current account with a little bit of interest to boot. You are always in the same financial position plus you get a little bit of interest. Nobody ever says that the bank is ‘in debt’ because you moved money from your current account to your savings account. So saying that the UK government is ‘in debt’ because people, institutions or corporations have exchanged their pounds for government bonds is just as misleading. Government bonds are basically £ equivalents and the government creates them both from thin air.

The “National Debt” is not by any measure a debt, but a measure of saved pounds.

And since that pile of saved £ never gets any smaller, you can consider those £ to be “retired.” Government bonds, in a net sense, don’t ever get cashed in and spent (although they could). They just sit there, unused, and once in a while a small bit of interest is added to the pile. And that pile has no discernable effect on the economy.

So there you have it – we are not in debt up to our ears – George Osborne and the media just want you to think we are.

Finally, on the subject of the burden of debt on future generations. Only today, the Chancellor shamelessly used yet another scare tactic in response to his plans for more public spending cuts by saying “We need to act today now so we don’t pay later”.

To quote the economist Professor Bill Mitchell:

“The fact is that a government has as much ‘money’ now as it had yesterday and the same amount it will have tomorrow. That is, it has whatever it wants to spend. It has no more or less capacity to spend today because there were surpluses in the past than it would have if there have been deficits in the past. The idea that fiscal surpluses (as indicated above) provide more spending capacity in the future or lower tax rates is just plain false. Every generation will choose its own tax rates. That is, a mix of public and private sector involvement in the economy is a political choice. Currency issuing governments do not draw down on the savings provided by previous government’s surpluses. It is a nonsensical notion to think that a sovereign government would ‘save’ in its own currency.”

However, this is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about the direction in which the country is travelling in. Reducing the deficit and aiming for surplus simply removes money from the private sector which means that people have to take on debt. There has, over the last few decades, been a huge increase in private debt and the trade deficit (that is the difference between our exports and imports) is at worrying levels. But that’s another story.

 

Links and credits:

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

https://petermartin2001.wordpress.com/2014/01/27/the-earth-is-not-flat/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTZGU9s0idM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d57M6ATPZIE

https://alittleecon.wordpress.com/2014/08/06/government-debt-is-not-a-burden-on-future-generations/

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

http://theaimn.com/its-all-just-numbers-in-a-computer/

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

http://www.3spoken.co.uk/2015/07/taxes-for-revenue-are-obsolete-precis.html

http://hubpages.com/politics/The-US-National-Debt-explained-MMT-style

 

Note: These articles whilst written for largely for a US and Australian audience you just need to replace $ for £. It’s all the same!

 

Deficit Fetish: Just say “No!”

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Balancing Budgets: The Austerity Dogma

By John Weeks, previously published here on Piera

Twitter: @johnweeks41

Austerity NO

The Austerity dogma of George Osborne asserts that a negative balance between public revenue and overall public spending (deficit) is a problem requiring immediate policy measures to eliminate it.  He has gone further, asserting that the fiscal balance should be positive (surplus) when the economy is at or near its capacity.  His invariant form of “correction” is expenditure reduction (aka “austerity”).

He and his supporters give three justifications for this dogma.  There is the reductionist argument that compares public sector budgeting to households, so obvious to the austerity-advocates that it requires no explanation  Households must balance their books (“cannot spend more than their incomes”), and the same applies (or should apply) to governments.

Anyone who believes that households must spend no more than current income has never bought a house, sent an offspring to university or found her/himself between jobs (due to redundancy, firing or voluntary employment shift).

Statistics refute the like-households argument. Households across the income distribution spend more than their incomes, early and often.  That is why PwC projects average UK household debt to reach £10,000 at the end of 2016 excluding mortgages.  The very limited truth in the false comparison comes at the bottom of the income distribution, where households have no choice but to engage in desperation borrowing (see study by Johanna Montgomerie).

The more fundamental falsifier of the household-equals-government argument is that the UK government can borrow from itself and a household cannot. The government of a country that has a national currency is not constrained in its spending by revenue flow alone.  However, macroeconomic conditions can impose binding constraints to public spending, which I discuss at a later point.

Superficially more serious is the argument that public sector deficits put upward pressure on market interest rates.  Government bond sales compete with private borrowing, interest rates rise and private debt become more expensive and investment declines (“crowded out”).  Whether this represents an important macroeconomic interaction in general remains subject of empirical debate.

At the moment it is obviously irrelevant because the Bank of England rate is below one percent and money market rates hardly higher.  Indeed, a rise in interest rates could bring benefits, such as higher returns to pension funds.  Were the UK government concerned about “crowding out” it has an obvious way to avoid it, borrowing directly from the Bank of England (“monetizing” the deficit).

Another frequently encountered assertion is that the Chancellor should avoid public sector deficits because they generate inflationary pressures.  There exist concrete circumstances when this would happen, but at the moment the overall rate of inflation in the UK is slightly negative, and the “core inflation rate” is barely over one percent.

Finally, the deficit has been falling (albeit slowly), and for fiscal year 2014/15 was less than £60 billion (below 5% of GDP compared to over 10% in mid-2012).  With inflation at zero, government borrowing falling, and no empirical or theoretical basis for the dangers of deficits, further budget cuts would qualify as gratuitous and ideological.

Balancing Budgets: Anti-Austerity Variations

Among critics of Chancellor Osborne’s policies appear two counter proposals for fiscal policy guidelines, 1) borrow only for investment, and 2) balance the budget “over the economic cycle”.  Close inspection of these suggests that they are variations on the austerity argument rather than refutations.

The first would maintain balance or a surplus for current expenditure, and fund public investment through borrowing by sale of government bonds in the financial market or borrowing from the Bank of England.  In mainstream economics the former has no impact on the supply of money, while the latter increases it by the amount of the borrowing.  The qualifier “in mainstream economics” is necessary because a considerable portion of the economics profession rejects the implicit assumption that the supply of money is independent of the level of output.

We need not wade into the money supply argument to see that the “borrow only to invest” position accepts that deficits are a problem, though limiting the problematic role to the current budget, total revenue flows less non-investment expenditure.  In practice the distinction between current and capital (investment) expenditure is far from black and white.

By usual definition investment includes all expenditures that increase the capacity of the economy, now or in the future.  There should be no argument that much of education and health spending does exactly this, which explains the origin of the term “human capital”.  However, all but the building and equipment component of health and education fall into current expenditure.  This arbitrary definition treats activities of doctors, nurses and teachers analogously to those who repair and maintain capital equipment rather than improve human health and skills.

Finally the borrow-only-to-invest policy encounters a serious problem.  When economic contraction causes public revenue to fall below current expenditure, should a government cuts in public services and social support?  If so, this policy becomes a variant on the Chancellor’s austerity dogma.  And not making cuts implies that the policy cannot be implemented.

The second approach also considers deficits as problems needing correction, over the economic cycle rather than continuously.  The concrete guideline is that the fiscal balance can be negative when the economy falls into recession, then moves into surplus as it recovers.

In practice this policy framework flounders on several empirical and analytical flaws.  First, defining the length of the period over which the sum of deficits and surpluses sum to zero defies consensus.  Without clear definitions of the beginning and end of a cycle this framework cannot be implemented without arbitrary guidelines.

Both approaches offered as a counter to austerity suffer from the same fallacy as the dogma itself.  Any rule requiring a fiscal balance must apply arbitrary assumptions and definitions in order to define when the outcome conforms to the rule.  Supporters of budget cuts have attacked critics of austerity as “deficit deniers”.

The meaning of this accusatory term remains elusive, but it carries the implication that opponents of expenditure cuts “do not care” about the deficit and/or do not consider it a problem.

The counter proposals might be seen as being “semi-denials”.  Those advocating balancing the current budget deny the need for revenue to cover public investment.  The cyclical balancers deny any necessary to correct deficits in the short run.  Arriving at sensible and rational fiscal rules requires abandoning budget balancing as a goal and converting it into an outcome derivative from effectively achieving macroeconomic stability and high levels of employment.

The Role of Taxation

The various versions of deficits-are-a-problem might be epitomised in the cliché, “governments must live within their means”, with disagreement arising as to whether “their means” refers to the current or overall budget and/or the relevant time period.

Aversion to deficits comes from an analytical confusion, the commonsense generalization that the purpose of taxation is to fund public expenditure.  For the government of a country that is part of a currency union (e.g., the euro zone) or a regional or local government the generalization is valid.  These governments do not control the monetary system in which they operate their fiscal policy.  The generalization is not true for a government of a country with a national currency over which it has control either directly or via the central bank.  I call the former shared currency countries (SCC) and the latter national currency countries (NCC).

A SCC government has two methods of funding expenditure, taxation and selling bonds to the private sector (typically to banks and other financial institutions).  The SCC government must pay the debt service, interest and principle, to private bond holders from taxation for the life of the bond.  For SCC governments borrowing is similar to what households and businesses do.  The cliché “living within means” could be applied, meaning precisely that the combination of current outlays and debt service must be consistent with revenue flows.

NCC governments operate within quite different fiscal constraints, possessing an additional funding option and a quite different goal for fiscal policy.  The core purpose of fiscal policy for an SCC government is to provide necessary and discretional public goods, and fund these in a sustainable manner.  The core purposes of fiscal policy for the NCC government are to maintain macroeconomic stability and increase productive capacity for the medium and long term.  The NCC government uses current expenditure to achieve stability and capital expenditure to enhance capacity.  Any expenditure by an NCC government, current or capital, obtains its funding from taxation, bonds sales to the private sector, and/or borrowing directly from the country’s central bank (“monetization”).

The defining characteristic of borrowing from the central bank is that in practice the debt need never be repaid;  for example, the Treasury could sell the Bank of England 100 year bonds (though in practice the maturity period is much shorter), or “roll over” the bonds (issue new ones to replace those that reach their redemption date).  The Bank of England holds about 25% of UK public debt.

The short run goal of macroeconomic stability determines the mix of these three funding alternatives.  If the economy falls into recession with deflationary price pressures the NCC government increases expenditure to compensate for the fall in private demand, covering the increased outlays through monetization.  As the economy approaches full capacity with inflationary pressures, monetization ends.  Rising tax revenue from the expanding economy replaces bond sales.

Whether the public budget is in balance should be of no concern for the NCC government.  If economic activity is declining or stagnant, public borrowing should increase.  Whether this results in a deficit on current expenditure is little importance, for the policy purpose is recovery not hitting a fiscal target.  An overheating economy calls for increased taxation, perhaps generating an overall surplus.

Balancing Policy rather than Budgets

For the British government, and all other NCC governments, expenditures and taxation have different policy functions and motivations.  Current expenditure delivers public goods and services to the population, and regulates the short term stability of the aggregate economy.  Simultaneously achieving those two goals represents the main challenge of a rational fiscal policy.

The capital budget, public investment, enhances capacity and only in extreme circumstances such as the threat of high inflation would be adjusted for short term policy goals.  How our government funds any part of public expenditure is derivative from the overall goals of short term stability and long term capacity enhancement.

The rational approach to fiscal decisions is to balance policy not budgets.  The fiscal balance in itself is neither a target nor an indicator of successful policy.  Whether the fiscal balance is positive, zero or negative reflects the outcome of this rational approach.  This is not deficit denial.  It is rejection of deficit fetish.