Why the deficit myth is a useful deception

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Why the deficit myth is a useful deception

It is often difficult to understand the economic-speak into which so many expert-explanations seem to lapse.  I imagine that I am not alone so I will share a version of the explanations that make sense to me.  Unfortunately, I no longer remember everyone that I should credit.. apologies.

The deficit is the putative shortfall in government tax receipts or ‘income’ relative to its ‘spending’.   The words ‘income’ and ‘spending’ are deliberately put into inverted commas because George Osborne and his ilk would have us believe that the UK budget is like our own individual household income and spending. (To be fair so do most mainstream economists.)

This generates an extremely useful word confusion because we all know the consequences of households getting into more debt than they can afford.   In the absence of a real analogy, ordinary people are easily persuaded that government must cut ‘spending’ which of course is the ultimate ideological goal of the tea-party Tory neofeudalists.

However, government ‘spending’ and ‘income’ are nothing like household spending and income.  Furthermore, the word ‘deficit’ itself consciously, and unconsciously, invites the belief that it is a ‘bad thing’ that must be ‘sorted out’.   Again for emphasis – the term ‘deficit’ in this context does not mean the same as it would in a household.  Bill Mitchell proposes that all ambiguous macroeconomic terms have to be reframed so as to undermine the ideological metaphors of the neoclassical consensus.  He proposes that all statements be qualified as in, for example, ‘The government deficit rose and generated higher levels of wealth for households and firms.’

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2JwUKEUdPY#t=302

The deception that arises from the deficit myth is that the government ‘spending’ more than it receives in tax is detrimental and holds back economic recovery – hence the argument for the cuts and austerity.

In order to understand why the deficit fears are just hype, it is helpful to look at how money and tax have historically been used to control and direct the behavior of populations.  For example, British Colonialism in South Africa.

Essentially, the motivation for invading and colonising a foreign country is about land – new land for settlement, agriculture and to exploit the foreign country’s natural resources.  All of these require a substantial labour force.

Obviously, the colonialists could have tried to import all the necessary workers (as the US has done) but the most practical quick solution was to use the indigenous population.

The problem was how to get the indigenous population to plough the fields or go down the mines to dig for gold.  Why would people, who had been living and surviving perfectly well for generations, want to give up their way of life to work for the colonialists?  Not only was the work demanding and uncongenial but their own self-sufficiency would be threatened.

Basically, there are three possible answers:

Offer high wages… not only would that be beside the point of colonising in the first place but (initially at least) money would only be an inducement if it could be spent on some stuff or service that the indigenous population wanted or needed.  No-one can eat bank notes.

Enslave the population and force them to work at gunpoint … but that in itself is quite labour intensive, requiring guards as gang masters, and generally incurs an inconveniently high mortality rate (as in the Belgium Congo).

The third option is much simpler…. create a currency and require the indigenous population to pay tax in that currency.

Warren Mosler has a neat routine which explains how taxing works.  He tells the audience that he is turning his business cards into a currency and that he will pay each of them, one business card, to clean the lecture theatre at the end of his talk.  The audience laugh until Warren Mosler adds that there will be armed guards at all the exits who will only allow individuals out of the lecture theatre if they pay a tax of one Mosler business card.  So now the audience has the choice of being trapped in the lecture theatre all night, or do the cleaning, get their business card ‘pay’ and be allowed to go home.

So by creating a Business card currency and enforcing ‘tax’ collection, Warren Mosler is able to control and direct the behavior of the audience.

The same system held in inducing the indigenous population to work for the colonists.  Those who failed to pay their taxes were imprisoned and could then be used as unpaid forced labour.  Either which way, the indigenous population were snookered.

Now the main point is that neither the colonists or Warren Mosler had to wait until the tax was collected before they could ‘spend’ their currencies on paying their workers.  In fact, it would have been impossible because there wasn’t a currency before they created it out of thin air. (The pound sterling became the standard currency of the Cape of Good Hope colony in 1825 … Before a unified South Africa, many authorities issued coins and banknotes in their own pound, equivalent to sterling.)

The Colonial and Mosler ‘governments’ had to ‘spend’ before the workers could pay their taxes.  Futhermore, the tax that was collected was quite irrelevant in determining how much the Colonial/Mosler ‘governments’ could spend.  If they needed more labourers, they just created more money.  The tax was not government income in the household sense.  The tax was simply part of the mechanism to get the work done and make the money flow.  In fact, after collecting, the tax receipts/business cards could just be thrown away .. the only cost would be the cost incurred in the actual manufacture of the bank notes/business cards.

Now in the Mosler currency system, the amount of tax received back would equal the amount that his ‘government’ created.. so there would be no ‘deficit’.

However, if someone wanted to ‘save’ a Mosler card memento more than they wanted to go home… there would be a ‘deficit’ of one Mosler business card collected in ‘tax’.  Nevertheless, the deficit would not be any problem to the economic system.  Warren would still have got the Lecture Theatre cleaned, he could print another set of business cards whenever he needed to, and the Mosler business card collector would have ‘saved’ his card to spend at a later date.

Essentially, the ‘deficit’ is a reflection of the total amount of saving, investment and employment that is occurring in the economy.  It is not something which has to be paid back.

Just as with the unilateral decision of the ‘saver’ of the Mosler business card:

‘It is the non-government sector deciding to save more than it invests that generates the government deficit’ (Neil Wilson cif).

Michael Burke provides the numbers to show that it is indeed the current non-government sector ‘saving’ (ie. not investing) which accounts for the ‘entirety of the prolonged crisis’.  It is estimated that private sector businesses are holding back £700+billions.  Effectively, there is an investment strike by the private sector:

The driving force of the slump remains the fall in investment, led by the fall in business investment. The fall in business investment alone more than accounts for the entirety of the prolonged crisis.

Michael Burke (and others) stress the necessity for the government to act as the ‘investor of last resort’:

Government could act to offset this by investing on its own account, if necessary drawing on the resources of the private sector to do so. Instead, the Coalition cut public sector investment by £6bn after Labour increased it modestly…. It is still the case that increased public sector investment is the only viable means of resolving the crisis that doesn’t lead to further misery for the majority of the population.

Neil Wilson writes:

Why is it so difficult for people to connect the dots… When money is injected into the economy it bounces around generating transactions and taxation. Anything left is saved by somebody and eventually ends up being swapped for Gilts.

Government spending pays for itself.  Each time every time.

It is, at least arguable, that Osborne knows that his policies on deficit reduction are a complete but ideologically useful fiction.  Generously, the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf wrote in response to the Autumn Statement:

“The government has been led astray by focusing on deficit and debt rather than the health of the economy.”

However, Professor Bill Mitchell does not mince his words and they can act as a conclusion as to why the deficit myth is a useful deception:

Structural deficits – the great con job!

… the constraints imposed by neo-liberalism are entirely ideological and came about from a concerted campaign to win the battle of ideas. There is nothing about deficits that should frighten international capital. In fact, capitalists will make higher profits in a fully employed economy than in a stagnant economy.

Update:

Important point made in comment’s thread by petermartin2001 

The question of inflation also does need to be answered. No economist, including Warren Mosler and Bill Mitchell, would say that the deficit didn’t matter. Although their argument is often deliberately misrepresented in that way. The argument at the moment should be that, as inflation isn’t the major issue at present, therefore the deficit isn’t the major issue either..

Its an argument which, as Bill Mitchell points out, doesn’t bother the more progressive of the capitalist class. They know they don’t make profits from low deficits if low deficits mean reduced business activity and higher unemployment. There’s no profit , or surplus value, to be made from an unemployed worker!

Reply:

I was trying to keep it simple. I did try working inflation into the Mosler business card model but it all got a bit surreal!

Inflation is only a problem when all the potential capacity of the economy has been reached which with our levels of unemployment/underemployment is not an immediate problem. In the words of Neil Wilson (filched from Cif):

‘five million without work that want it, education opportunities for our youth, limiting the excessive growth of house prices, and euthanising all the rentiers and oligopolists out there.’

I know that the OBR etc question that the UK has suffered a decline in capacity post 2008 but you know how iffy their predictions are.. and can’t see it being a problem when we need ‘a New green Deal’ to be zerocarbonbritain 2030!

References:

https://think-left.org/2012/08/25/why-does-the-structural-deficit-remind-me-of-libor/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1uWVj0YJ3M

http://socialisteconomicbulletin.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/a-milestone-reached-in-british-slump.html

http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=2326

Why do politicians tell us Debt/Deficit myths which they must know to be untrue?

Why do politicians tell us Debt/Deficit myths which they must know to be untrue?

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The New Economic Perspectives’ video clip on the Government budget, Deficits and Debt presented below (produced for educational purposes), debunks the myths that politicians tell their populations to justify ‘austerity’.  In the case of the clip, it starts with 3 full minutes of American politicians misinforming the electorate.  An identical montage aimed at the UK electorate could undoubtably just feature George Osborne’s utterances from his forthcoming Autumn statement scheduled for this Thursday (5th December 2013).

However, the reality is that all economists know that the deficit and debt mythologies are not true and ‘have long known that the idea of balancing budgets over the cycle is a bit like a fairy story we tell to frighten the kids’.  Economists, and Central bankers like Mervyn King, Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan, all know that:

The UK government can never ‘run out’ of money;

The UK government can never be forced to default;

The UK government can never be forced to miss a payment;

The UK government is never subject to the whim of ‘bond vigilantes’.

In fact, the St Louis Federal Reserve, from the heart of Western capitalism in the US confirms the same for the US dollar (and any other nation that creates its own currency) :

‘As sole manufacturers of dollars whose debt is denominated in the dollar, the US government can never become insolvent ie. unable to pay its bills.  In this sense, the government is not dependent on credit markets to remain operational.  Moreover, there will always be a market for US government debt at home because the US government has the only means of creating risk-free dollar-denominated assets.’

Paul Samuelson, ‘father of modern economics’ and Nobel Prize winner, suggested the reason for perpetuating the mythologies in a 1995 interview:

“I think there is an element of truth in the view that the superstition that the budget must be balanced at all times [is necessary]. Once it is debunked [that] takes away one of the bulwarks that every society must have against expenditure out of control. There must be discipline in the allocation of resources or you will have anarchistic chaos and inefficiency. And one of the functions of old fashioned religion was to scare people by sometimes what might be regarded as myths into behaving in a way that the long-run civilized life requires. We have taken away a belief in the intrinsic necessity of balancing the budget if not in every year, [then] in every short period of time. If Prime Minister Gladstone came back to life he would say ‘uh, oh what you have done’ and James Buchanan argues in those terms. I have to say that I see merit in that view.”

It may be that politicians fear the ‘anarchic’ demands of the electorate were the public to understand that the UK economy is not like a household and can never be bankrupt.  However, these distortions of reality have been carried to a new pitch by George Osborne and the Coalition government:

The scale of the Coalition government’s intended austerity measures are on a scale never seen in modern Britain. What is planned here will dwarf anything that was undertaken by Thatcher in the 1980s. There is already massive unemployment in the public sector….Massive unemployment and lower wages mean lower tax receipts, and even bigger budget deficits and debt loads…It is now clear that the austerity policy in the UK is not a matter of economic necessity but of political choice… It is obvious that the cuts of this scale are about much more than just deficit reduction… The cuts are part of an agenda to transfer services from the public sector to the private sector. The pretence of ‘there is no alternative’ is a means for the Conservative project to radically transform the state.

http://www.globalresearch.ca/uk-economy-falls-into-double-dip-recession/5313842

It would be just as well to remember this week, when listening to George Osborne and Danny Alexander, that Keynes said:

’Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men, for the nastiest of reasons, will somehow work for the benefit of us all.’

 

New Economic Perspectives on the Government Budget, Deficits, and Debt

Published on Nov 28, 2013

The video clip features the following speakers, in order of appearance:

L. RANDALL WRAY
Professor, Economics, University of Missouri-Kansas City
Senior Scholar, Levy Economics Institute
Author, Understanding Modern Money, Modern Money Theory
http://www.economonitor.com/lrwray/

STEPHANIE KELTON
Professor, Economics, and Chair of the Department of Economics, University of Missouri-Kansas City
http://stephaniekelton.com/

WARREN MOSLER
President, financial services firm Valance Co. Inc.
Author, Soft Currency Economics, The Seven Deadly Innocent Frauds of Economic Policy
http://moslereconomics.com/

For More Information:

University of Missouiti-Kansas City, Economics Blog:
New Economic Perspectives
http://neweconomicperspectives.org/

The Modern Money Network
http://www.modernmoneynetwork.org/

Other posts from Think left:

George Osborne says we’re running out of money ..

The fundamental deceit of ‘There’s No Money Left’

The Modern Economics (MMT) – Warren Mosler

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Warren Mosler on Modern Monetary Theory   

This video shows Warren Mosler being interviewed by Marshall Auerback on Modern Monetary Theory. MMT is the alternative to what we usually hear in the mainstream media. Warren discusses the government’s role as issuer of the currency, the meaning of deficits and the job guarantee. He is talking about the US, but there are parallels with the UK

More on MMT:

The UK is not broke and doesn’t need to borrow to reverse the cuts.

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The UK is not broke and doesn’t need to borrow to reverse the cuts. The video clip explains this simple truth about the US economy, but it is also true for the UK and all other countries that issue their own currency. The Eurozone is different because each EZ country uses a foreign currency, the euro… and (whatever David Cameron says) Ed Balls and Gordon Brown prevented Tony Blair from signing the UK up to that particular disaster.

George Osborne’s economic policies and cuts are ideological choices which hit the most vulnerable for the advantage of the super-rich and the multi-national corporations which will/are benefiting from the privatisation of our public services. The cuts are not fair:

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A fair society: How the cuts target disabled people.

And the cuts are not necessary:

MMT Movie: Economics for Dummiez

Created by @HaikuCharlatan Published on Jan 15, 2013
MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) Basic Intro:
http://moslereconomics.com/wp-content/powerpoints/7DIF.pdf

Hat-tip New Economic Perspectives

There is a link to an good interview with Prof. Stephanie Kelton about the Fiscal Cliff and inflation, courtesy of the ‘From Alpha To Omega’ podcast…..

http://fromalpha2omega.podomatic.com/player/web/2013-01-12T02_24_14-08_00

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Hat-tip @mark5000910

Essentials for Opponents of Austerity

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Must Reads for Opponents of Austerity

 by  also published here 

Economics can seem a bit impenetrable to the lay person. Partly, it seems to me, this is deliberate on the part of economists to complicate the field – baffle with bullshit you might say. Accessible texts are difficult to come across; ones worth reading even more so. Economics and economic policy are too important to leave to the economists and politicians though, particularly since the dominant paradigm in economics has failed us so badly.

Whilst Eurozone countries are faced with a choice of austerity or default/Euro exit, there is no sound economic rationale for austerity in the major nations outside the Eurozone. High debt and deficits do not create an inherent risk of default, nor do they need mean higher taxes in the future, or place a burden on our grandchildren. These basic truths are emphasised by a branch of economics known as Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). There are a lot of passionate opponents of austerity on the left of the political spectrum, but I feel they don’t yet have the weapons necessary to argue effectively the case for an alternative. I think an understanding of MMT can provide a sound basis for making that case.

Here I just want to draw attention to two great primers on MMT. Both written by Warren Mosler, they are easily understood by the average reader although the ideas presented will seem counter intuitive at first. The first is called “Soft Currency Economics”. It can be read on Mosler’s website here. Here is an extract:

“The purpose of this work is to clearly demonstrate, through pure force of logic, that much of the public debate on many of today’s economic issues is invalid, often going so far as to confuse costs with benefits. This is not an effort to change the financial system. It is an effort to provide insight into the fiat monetary system, a very effective system that is currently in place. The validity of the current thinking about the federal budget deficit and the federal debt will be challenged in a way that supersedes both the hawks and the doves. Once we realize that the deficit can present no financial risk, it will be evident that spending programs should be evaluated on their real economic benefits, and weighed against their real economic costs. Similarly, a meaningful analysis of tax changes evaluates their impact on the economy, not the impact on the deficit.”

The second primer is called “The Seven Deadly Innocent Frauds of Economic Policy”. This can also be read for free via Mosler’s website here. Here are the ideas Mosler calls “innocent frauds”:

“1. The government must raise funds through taxation or borrowing in order to spend. In other words, government spending is limited by its ability to tax or borrow.

2. With government deficits, we are leaving our debt burden to our children.

3. Government budget deficits take away savings

4. Social Security is broken.

5. The trade deficit is an unsustainable imbalance that takes away jobs and output.

6. We need savings to provide the funds for investment.

7. It’s a bad thing that higher deficits today mean higher taxes tomorrow.”

Mosler is an American, and writes for a US audience, but the arguments he presents are equally applicable to the UK (or Canada, Australia, Japan etc). Please read and let me know what you think.

Links

Soft Currency Economics

7 Deadly Innocent Frauds

Mosler’s Mandatory Readings