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Rethinking public budget

from Lars Syll

The balanced budget paradox is probably one of the most devastating phenomena haunting our economies. The harder politicians — usually on the advice of establishment economists — try to achieve balanced budgets for the public sector, the less likely they are to succeed in their endeavour. And the more the citizens have to pay for the concomitant austerity policies these wrong-headed politicians and economists recommend as “the sole solution.”

One of the most effective ways of clearing up this most serious of all semantic confusions is to point out that private debt differs from national debt in being external … A variant of the false analogy is the declaration that national debt puts an unfair burden on our children, who are thereby made to pay for our extravagances. Very few economists need to be reminded that if our children or grandchildren repay some of the national debt these payments will be made to our children or grandchildren and to nobody else. Taking them altogether they will no more be impoverished by making the repayments than they will be enriched by receiving them.

Abba Lerner The Burden of the National Debt (1948)

Few issues in politics and economics are nowadays more discussed — and less understood — than public debt. Many raise their voices to urge for reducing the debt, but few explain why and in what way reducing the debt would be conducive to a better economy or a fairer society. And there are no limits to all the — especially macroeconomic — calamities and evils a large public debt is supposed to result in — unemployment, inflation, higher interest rates, lower productivity growth, increased burdens for subsequent generations, etc., etc.

Through history public debts have gone up and down, often expanding in periods of war or large changes in basic infrastructure and technologies, and then going down in periods when things have settled down.

The pros and cons of public debt have been put forward for as long as the phenomenon itself has existed, but it has, notwithstanding that, not been possible to reach anything close to consensus on the issue — at least not in a long time-horizon perspective.

In classical economics — following in the footsteps of David Hume — Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Jean-Baptiste Say put forward views on public debt that was mostly negative. Later on, 20th-century economists like John Maynard Keynes and Abba Lerner would hold a more positive view on public debt. Public debt was normally nothing to fear, especially if it was financed within the country itself (but even foreign loans could be beneficent for the economy if invested in the right way). Some members of society would hold bonds and earn interest on them, while others would have to pay the taxes that ultimately paid the interest on the debt. But the debt was not considered a net burden for society as a whole since the debt cancelled itself out between the two groups. If the state could issue bonds at a low-interest rate, unemployment could be reduced without necessarily resulting in strong inflationary pressure. And the inter-generational burden was no real burden according to this group of economists, since — if used in a suitable way — the debt would, through its effects on investments and employment, actually make future generations net winners. There could, of course, be unwanted negative distributional side effects for the future generation, but that was mostly considered a minor problem since when our children and grandchildren repay the national debt these payments will be made to our children and grandchildren.

Central to the Keynesian influenced view is the fundamental difference between private and public debt. Conflating the one with the other is an example of the ‘atomistic fallacy,’ which is basically a variation on Keynes’ savings paradox. If an individual tries to save and cut down on debts, that may be fine and rational, but if everyone tries to do it, the result would be lower aggregate demand and increasing unemployment for the economy as a whole.

To both Keynes and Lerner, it was evident that the state had the ability to promote full employment and a stable price level – and that it should use its powers to do so. If that meant that it had to take on a debt and (more or less temporarily) underbalance its budget – so let it be! Public debt is neither good nor bad. It is a means to achieve two over-arching macroeconomic goals – full employment and price stability. What is sacred is not to have a balanced budget or running down public debt per se, regardless of the effects on the macroeconomic goals. If ‘sound finance,’ austerity and balanced budgets means increased unemployment and destabilizing prices, they have to be abandoned.

Now against this reasoning, exponents of the thesis of Ricardian equivalence, have maintained that whether the public sector finances its expenditures through taxes or by issuing bonds is inconsequential, since bonds must sooner or later be repaid by raising taxes in the future.

Robert Barro attempted to give the proposition a firm theoretical foundation, arguing that the substitution of a budget deficit for current taxes has no impact on aggregate demand and so budget deficits and taxation have equivalent effects on the economy.

The Ricardo-Barro hypothesis, with its view of public debt incurring a burden for future generations, is the dominant view among mainstream economists and politicians today. The rational people making up the actors in the model are assumed to know that today’s debts are tomorrow’s taxes. But — the main problem with this standard mainstream theory is that it simply does not fit the facts.

Today there seems to be a rather widespread consensus of public debt being acceptable as long as it doesn’t increase too much and too fast. If the public debt-GDP ratio becomes higher than X % the likelihood of debt crisis and/or lower growth increases.

But in discussing within which margins public debt is feasible, the focus, however, is solely on the upper limit of indebtedness, and very few ask the question if maybe there is also a problem if public debt becomes too low.

The government’s ability to conduct an ‘optimal’ public debt policy may be negatively affected if public debt becomes too small. To guarantee a well-functioning secondary market in bonds it is essential that the government has access to a functioning market. If turnover and liquidity in the secondary market become too small, increased volatility and uncertainty will, in the long run, lead to an increase in borrowing costs. Ultimately there’s even a risk that market makers would disappear, leaving bond market trading to be operated solely through brokered deals. As a kind of precautionary measure against this eventuality, it may be argued – especially in times of financial turmoil and crises — that it is necessary to increase government borrowing and debt to ensure – in a longer run – good borrowing preparedness and a sustained (government) bond market.

To view government debts in terms of the ‘functional finance’ concept introduced by Abba Lerner, is to consider their role in the macroeconomic balance of the economy. In simple, bare bones terms, the function of government debts that is significant for the macroeconomic health of an economy is that they provide the assets into which individuals can put whatever accumulated savings they attempt to set aside in excess of what can be wisely invested in privately owned real assets. A debt that is smaller than this will cause the attempted excess savings, by being reflected in a reduced level of consumption outlays, to be lost in reduced real income and increased unemployment.

William Vickrey

  1. Prof Dr James Beckman, Germany
    August 8, 2018 at 1:08 pm

    Lars, I have been left cold by much of this discussion. Witness WWII borrowing, followed by the great American expansion of nearly 30 years. My point: sometimes a government must borrow, as for national defense or other national disaster. Other times a govenment is advised for borrow as for VA & other -insured home loans, a national road system, better health care/education, all of which were a part of my growing up post WWII in California.
    To those who note the US had lots of national private savings, the biggest post WWII thrust was to complete education & build a family. My father moved from Minnesota to California to do just that. There were lots of others. Global savings & the Federal Reserve COULD made this happen even without most of those war-accumulated savings, it seems to me. Crazy advertising to motivate buying was largely unnecessary I think. I recall Trump-type performers such as “Mad Man Muntz” who sold autos & electronics in the 1960’s on. Moreever, he had an engineering sense that perhaps benefited electronics’ merchandising: 4-track stereo for one.

    • Calgacus
      August 8, 2018 at 7:41 pm

      Lerner, Keynes, MMT, Vickrey are not criticizing public debt. They’re criticizing people who criticize public debt, and who understand it incorrectly, by making false, insane distinctions and producing stupendous quantities of nonsense based on them. Public debt and public money are the same thing. Bonds are dollars, dollars are bonds.

      To those who note the US had lots of national private savings,
      After the war. Not before the war, not in 1929. The national private savings was the (internal) public debt, to the penny.

      Global savings & the Federal Reserve COULD made this happen even without most of those war-accumulated savings, it seems to me.

      No. There were no global savings after the war. Everybody owed the US. Again, the war-accumulated savings was the public debt. The Federal Reserve has no such power to make such things happen. It is far, far less powerful than the propaganda makes it out to be. All the Fed can do and did especially back then is exchange one form of money for another by bond trading, by discounting, by monkeying with interest rates. It does NOT really create money. Congress and Treasury spending is what really creates the money = public debt, which was necessary for the stable worldwide expansion.

  2. lobdillj
    August 8, 2018 at 7:27 pm

    Lars, I am so pleased that you included a link to Stephanie Kelton’s YouTube, The Public Purse. I highly recommend that everyone watch it. There are serious misconceptions that are universally accepted by mainstream macroeconomists today in the text of your comment above. It is not clear to whom they are attributable (yourself, Abba Lerner, or William Vickrey). I list these misconceptions here:

    1. A sovereign government, issuer of the currency, must pay for its spending with taxes or debt or both.
    2. Bonds are a means of financing government expenditures.
    3. Bonds are a means to achieve two over-arching macroeconomic goals – full employment and price stability.
    4. In simple, bare bones terms, the function of government debts that is significant for the macroeconomic health of an economy is that they provide the assets into which individuals can put whatever accumulated savings they attempt to set aside in excess of what can be wisely invested in privately owned real assets.
    5. Public debt incurs a burden for future generations.

    Point 1: There is no logical reason why the sovereign must borrow any money at all, and taxes do not pay for anything. The sovereign creates all money in circulation out of thin air by crediting the accounts of all payees with payment. No payment is made through taxes, and there is no need whatever to borrow money to pay. Whatever money is borrowed was originally created by the government (or in our ridiculous and unnecessary system, by Federal Reserve member banks through agreement of the government).
    Point 2: No! The government does not need to borrow. Bonds are paid off by simple creation of money through computer keystrokes.
    Point 3: If there is any benefit to bond issuance it is the security of private assets guaranteed by the full faith and credit of the US government.
    Point 4: See Point 3.
    Point 5: That is a useful lie. The liability account item labeled national debt is only a historical record of government spending (done exclusively through creation of money by computer keystroke entry into the accounts of payees.) There is no way that taxpayers will ever pay off a single penny of this. Taxes received are duly noted in taxpayers’ accounts and the receipts are then sent back into the thin air where they originated.

    The wrangling over the budget has the useful function of using austerity to spend on programs Wall Street and powerful corporations want and to defund programs that benefit Main Street. It is kabuki theater. And as for the claim that the national “debt” must and will be paid, there is no feasible payment schedule by which this can happen. As Prof. Michael Hudson has noted, “Debts that can’t be paid won’t be paid.” (See, for example, his book, Killing the Host.)
    Additionally, if the national debt account contains payment entries labeled “Revenue” it is fraudulent accounting that hides the source of all government spending.

  3. Helen Sakho
    August 9, 2018 at 1:56 am

    Dear Lars, I can tell that you have been at it again! You made me happy temporarily this morning when I watched the video you had posted, but like Prof. James, and further to my comment earlier today, my joy was momentary. I must admit that I have often been warned by a very close friend, a genuine mathematical jewel that insomnia is not good for my health when I do send him pieces of writing to read as “compulsory” in the early hours of the morning. When he and I occasionally “hook up” from Mars, I do ask him if he could kindly disentangle for me mathematical models that I have formulated decades ago and forgotten all about. And he does always oblige promptly and accurately.

    As, I am sure we are all aware, whole concepts such as the nation-state, nationalism, national identities, and all related issues to public versus private domains and markets are being reshaped. A whole host of borders, alliances, threats and counter-threats are being cross fired at key moments in key geographies and non-geographies by leading actors, their agents and their marketing experts. In the absence of states, unions, enduring alliances, and the rest of it, who is going to create the Newest of the new Brave New World? Or, should it be Worlds? I will, once again, make a naïve guestimate. I reckon it is going to be a “Belliwood” this time. In a large, borderless world connected by simple and cheap devices, we can all relax and enjoy the fun really. After all, humour is healing to the body and the soul. But, on this one, I am with Prof. James. I, too, got utterly confused by this discussion and had to re-read through the last comment’s very useful disentangling of the various “misconceptions”.

    The derailment of Economic disputes from main issues that remain unprecedented polarisation – on all fronts, in all geographies remains my key concern. Please do note that I am not including the non-geographies that do not even come into the equation. As I have repeatedly argued, we urgently need a new curriculum. Admittedly, I am now absolutely convinced that apart from perfectly legitimate mathematical formulations, we need two basic components we could test in a mock exam:
    1) What competitive advantage would your village offer to which technological giant to give each family unit a free device and in return for what? Choose from the following options: a big smile on everyone’s face documented in a photograph; a photograph showing the village chiefs distributing free devices to smiling children; or strong bandits fighting over newly arrived boxes of beautiful gadgets that had been delivered to your village of choice free of charge. You do not need to justify your answer.
    2) Do explain, in as much detail as you can, your reasons for your choice of the village. It will help the examiners to determine how up-to-date you are with the latest developments in the field. (Older students are strongly advised to not choose this question and to stick to reading and writing books.) A pass mark is, however, guaranteed for all.

    • Prof Dr James Beckman, Germany
      August 9, 2018 at 2:17 pm

      Bravo, Helen, as I could give this exam in a course in Economic Anthropology, where of course the students generally like/know anthro more than econ. I really, really feel sorry for econ students who want to comprehend “the way things work” in whatever part of the world they live–unless they use their eyes.

  4. August 19, 2018 at 8:17 am

    This entire discussion omits the basic question on the table. Public budgets serve certain purposes. What are those purposes? One version is that government spending (public budgets) exist to provide support for citizen welfare or, in some instances support citizens directly. An alternative version is that public budgets exist to support private economic activities that then provide jobs that allow people to earn the income to support themselves and their government. In my view the former is preferable, since it leaves out the middle-men, and obviates the need to pay them for their so-called services. Capitalist enterprises are predatory. They will pursue any source of profit available. And the larger they become the larger the profit they seek. Until we have the situation in place to day in which capitalist enterprises pursue every dollar available. In effect rejecting the belief that dollars have any other purpose but to provide them profit. Public budgets (government spending) in this scenario has only one purpose, therefore. To increase the profits of private businesses. This story (culture) dominates not just the US but much of Europe today and has for the last 40 years. Applied, this culture literally places the welfare of all citizens in the hands of private businesses. Governments intentionally have no money to support or protect any citizen. We can recognize clearly why business owners and wealthy citizens oppose the plans of American governments to educate, care for, or provide food for its citizens. After all this is socialism say American businesses and their allies. Better American go naked, remain ignorant, live in filth, and receive no health care than give in to the devil of socialism. Support for this preposterous nonsense by economists explains much of why ordinary Americans hate economists and why the American elites find them useful.

  5. Prof Dr James Beckman, Germany
    August 19, 2018 at 10:17 am

    Naturally, taxes can provide much of what people might need or ask for, Ken, but the politicians have to be open for it. The Left is pretty incompetent in most countries, is it not?

    • August 19, 2018 at 12:17 pm

      That is irrelevant, James. We are ALL pretty incompetent, not least when we see monetary taxes (as against old-fashioned parish tithes) providing “much of what people might need or ask for”, enabling them thereby to produce infrastructure for common use which can be acquired for own-use only by force or legalised fraud. One can’t eat, live in or travel down dollars.

      • Prof Dr James Beckman, Germany
        August 19, 2018 at 1:42 pm

        Hi, Dave, then how do people get to work, how do they earn enough to pay for housing/ food, and how do they stay alive when having medical issues? There are a few billion people around the world who would like to know, I expect.

    • August 20, 2018 at 8:28 am

      James, for any nation not obsessed over arguing about the need for and usefulness of taxes, you are correct. But the US is that one, strange nation. The US population has been divided since its beginning between those who reject taxes that are not voluntary, and those who want taxes included as routine parts of work by Congress. And that division reflects a larger division in the US between what James Madison considered the most common and durable faction in America, the unending struggle over wealth and wealth distribution. At the time of the American Revolution the colonies were a surprisingly egalitarian place with an estimate GINI of 0.437. Compared to other nations in 1776. The current US GINI is 0.415. But the issue of taxes, the need for them and how they are collected remains a festering controversy in America. One that may soon bring the US to civil war.

      • Prof Dr James Beckman, Germany
        August 20, 2018 at 11:14 am

        Ken, I haven’t researched when/where sales taxes came into play, but tariffs probably were high enough to impact many. With my church background, I imagine many were paying a considerable portion of their income into that pot as well as for property taxes. In other words, we seldom discuss the impact of various taxes on each American family. I have just read that those in/around New York remain horrendously high. Guess I don’t want to move there.

      • August 21, 2018 at 7:52 am

        James don’t know how to make this clear. But will try. Taxes are taxes. According to Encyclopedia Britannia, “A tax (from the Latin taxo) is a mandatory financial charge or some other type of levy imposed upon a taxpayer (an individual or other legal entity) by a governmental organization in order to fund various public expenditures. A failure to pay, along with evasion of or resistance to taxation, is punishable by law. Taxes consist of direct or indirect taxes and may be paid in money or as its labour equivalent.” Governments can and have taxed just about anything. The two important questions about taxes, in my view are what sort of government creates them and why; and how are taxes used to benefit or harm society and its participants.

      • Prof Dr James Beckman, Germany
        August 21, 2018 at 12:42 pm

        You make me laugh, Ken, as you know that a 20% charge on a dinner out is not a tax–it’s the reason to revolt, at least for some of my Texas friends. My point is that taxes take many forms, including refundable sales taxes when traveling. The “little matter” of Prof !3 which severely limited the property tax in California was part of the reason we lost our bands & auto shops in that state. It suggests to me that the subject is rather complex, my friend,.

      • August 22, 2018 at 6:34 am

        James, I agree with the mechanics of taxation as you lay them out. Taxes are always a political issue. Such a strong political issue taxes at times overwhelm routine democracy and force choices about taxes via populist dogma. The problem is that the first thing populists jettison in their haste to “make the world better” is the checks and balances of routine law making. Which makes the results of the “making the world better” impossible to predict. It may produce the same results as routine laws, or chaos, violence, or show the process to the world as just a not too funny joke. As you suggest populist “law making” often results in unintended outcomes that are harmful. Sometimes even creating the opposite effects to those wanted. All the men who wrote America’s Constitution opposed populism for just these reasons. Getting tax or any other laws right is difficult when approached via deliberative law-making bodies. It’s absolutely a shot-in-the-dark when approached through populism.

  6. lobdillj
    August 20, 2018 at 3:00 pm

    I see that most, if not all, of the comments assume that in our fiat money system taxes are used by the government to pay its expenses. Those who assume this are dead wrong. You have to understand MMT and fiat money to realize that NONE of the government’s income pays for ANYTHING. It all is credited to the payees’ liability accounts and then it disappears from the government’s asset account as it goes back into the void from which all fiat money originates. Likewise, the principal and interest paid to lenders and bondholders is created on the spot from thin air, and the phony government liability account balance is simply decreased accordingly by computer keystrokes.

    FACT: The government creates NEW fiat money to pay ALL its expenses–including any payment of principal and interest on the “national debt”. NOTE: There would be only bond interest to pay if the Federal Reserve system had not been established. The banksters really pulled off a heist with that arrangement.

    Taxes simply suck from M1; they act to diminish the money supply and cause redistribution of wealth (to the benefit of the rich).

    • Craig
      August 20, 2018 at 5:22 pm

      MMT certainly has the mechanics of fiat money correct, and as it recognizes that government deficits are necessary it also is onto the most basic problem of modern economies, namely insufficient aggregate INDIVIDUAL demand THAT IS REALISTICALLY AND ACTUALLY AVAILABLE TO LIQUIDATE A COST-PRICE.

      This scarcity is at the base of every other problem in the economy and certain other fallacies like additional money in the economy being the operant reason for “monetary” inflation make it appear as if there is no alternative but austerity.

      The problem for MMT and other heterodox economists need to resolve is their adherence to this fallacy. Instead they fall back on liberal orthodoxies on inflation like “automatic stabilizers” and even more off mark conservatives fall back on “inflation will not occur if aggregate demand does not exceed production.”

      The actual cause of “monetary” inflation is….there is absolutely no impediment or rational ALTERNATIVE to commercial decision makers, already being afflicted by a scarcity of individual demand, to raising their prices, especially when they see additional demand coming into the economy.

      So, if you created a policy alternative that simultaneously increased individual incomes and integrated price deflation into profit making economic systems implemented at the TERMINAL expression point for any and all forms of inflation….you could kill the two birds of individual monetary scarcity and chronic inflation with one stone….and create the thirdness greater oneness of increased individual monetary freedom, monetary abundance for all enterprise and systemic economic free flowingness.

      And of course if one then doesn’t have to worry about inflation (or with unemployment with a sufficient universal dividend being paired with a discount/rebate policy as above) then, except for a smallish percentage to establish governmental sovereignty, we could eliminate both income taxation and transfer taxes that everyone pays….and concentrate on directly funding government on all levels….based on and aligned with the concept of grace as in the ultimate rationality of combining the truths in opposites instead of the stupidities and arrogance of obsessive partisan politics.

      • lobdillj
        August 20, 2018 at 6:37 pm

        Craig, I really don’t understand what you are trying to say are problems with MMT from the beginning of your reply to the very end. The understandability seems to get worse as the word count increases. I have no idea what the last paragraph is about.

      • Craig
        August 20, 2018 at 7:33 pm

        The problem with MMT and the rest of heterodoxy is they aren’t looking directly at the infrastructure of all commerce, i.e. double entry bookkeeping, the fact that it and the pricing and money systems are all digital in nature and that hence a digital policy of equal amounts of discount and rebate at the point of sale throughout the entirety of the economic process and also at retail sale would resolve the individual monetary scarcity, systemic monetary austerity and any possibility of price inflation. Instead they get caught up in the complexities and abstractions ABOUT the economy, and they also do not perceive that “monetary” inflation is a misnomer and a fallacy. Now as I said I agree with them about fiat money mechanics….it’s just that they and others are not looking in the place that if integratively researched could result in the policies that will bolster their theories, resolve the deepest and most chronic problems of modern economies and if done so in sufficient abundance elevates those policies to paradigm changing level.

        The last paragraph shows how not thinking integratively and paradigmatically insures that economists do not understand the “knock on” benefits of doing so. After all paradigms fit seamlessly within the vast majority of current structures but simultaneously transform them.

      • lobdillj
        August 20, 2018 at 10:31 pm

        MMT is not concerned with microeconomics. It is concerned with macroeconomics only. You seem to be saying that if it doesn’t get into microeconomics it is not valid. Is that what you are saying?

  7. Craig
    August 21, 2018 at 2:25 am

    Nope. The scarcity ratio of TOTAL individual incomes to TOTAL costs/prices is an aggregate one, thus macro-economic. I AM talking about how we can most insightfully and intelligently integrate the most basic infrastructure of the micro-economy, double entry bookkeeping and its digital nature so as to create policies that resolve modern economies’ most basic problems and do so with sufficient amounts of the new paradigm of monetary gifting….to make it a genuine paradigm change.

    Just play out the two policies of a universal dividend and a 50% discount/rebate at point of sale as they would occur in the temporal universe with the three agents involved, a monetary authority mandated to distribute the monies of the policies, an enterprise and the enterprise’s consumer and you’ll see just how beneficial they will be for the latter two.

    We can actually look at the effects of these policies and herd pols in the direction of their implementation or we can figure-figure with theorizing forever and a day, hobby horse less effective policies and hope that we don’t have another 10 years of stagnation, another financial crisis from the continuing build up of individual debt or stumble or be manipulated into a war or something stupid, destructive and unethical like that.

    Progressives had better look at these policies and recognize how they accomplish economic democracy in spades and make the system flow freely….or some less orthodox conservative economist will recognize how good it will be for the business community to have twice as much purchasing power available to purchase their products or services and reduce prices by half as well and yet still get their best competitive price with the rebate.

    It’s my observation from 10 years of posting about these matters that progressives are only slightly less orthodox than conservatives, but that conservatives are better at recognizing when something is beneficial to their agenda and are willing to go for it as a result. So unless liberals want to have egg on their faces for the umpteenth time….they’d best be open to policies that are truly innovative, integrative and beneficial to all agents except perhaps the illegitimate business model of private banking.

  8. August 21, 2018 at 7:59 am

    MMT is interesting but doesn’t provide much that’s new. About 5,000 years-ago government in the ancient middle east, and several other places in the world created money. It’s purpose initially is to provide support for the monarchy and later be used to support trade and merchants. Whatever name you give it, therefore money was from the start a government creation. Don’t quite understand why economists are just figuring this out. So, it is also historically correct to say that from its inception money was often, but not always used as a benefit for government (monarchs) and to support business. And it seems quite clear that taxes (for which money was at least in part invented) benefitted government (monarchs) more than those who paid the taxes. But the situation has changed, in my view. Today money is created and used by democratic governments. Taxes still benefit governments but ostensibly they should benefit citizens at least as much while also supporting general commerce and trade. This balancing is new. And it’s what created the problem I describe with taxes in America. It’s a classic conflict between a new democracy and those in the early USA who wanted to continue monarchial aristocratic primacy and privilege. This struggle continues in the USA today, more than 200 years after the country’s creation. If you think this farfetched in terms how economies work, consider the economics of monarch Trump.

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