Daily Archives: June 27, 2011

Cato is Shocked that the Three “de’s” Produce a Criminogenic Environment

By William K. Black

(Cross-posted with Benzinga.com)

James Bovard of Cato wrote an article entitled “The Food-Stamp Crime Wave” on June 23, 2011 for the Wall Street Journal.


Bovard shows no awareness of criminology, but what he described was the creation of a criminogenic environment. A criminogenic environment has such perverse incentives that it produces widespread crime in a particular field of activity. Non-criminologists frequently have difficulty believing that fraud can become common. They often believe that fraud can only arise among “a few rotten apples.” This view is naïve and crimionological research falsified the claim over a half century ago. Bovard is correct, therefore, that fraud can become common in an industry. This is particularly true if fraud produces a “Gresham’s dynamic.” George Akerlof explained this point over 40 years ago in his famous article on a market for “lemons” (1970).

“[D]ishonest dealings tend to drive honest dealings out of the market. The cost of dishonesty, therefore, lies not only in the amount by which the purchaser is cheated; the cost also must include the loss incurred from driving legitimate business out of existence.”

Bovard purports to be a libertarian, yet he ascribes the creation of the criminogenic environment in food stamps to the three “de’s” – deregulation, desupervision, and de facto decriminalization. He is also upset that the federal government, in the context of food stamps, has failed to sufficiently distort consumer decision making. I address his substantive position on food stamps in another column.

This column explains his argument as to how the three de’s created a criminogenic environment in food stamps and shows how his reasoning would compel him to demand the end of the far more powerful and destructive criminogenic environments that drove the Great Recession (and the second phase of the S&L debacle and the Enron-era accounting control frauds).

The first element Bovard cites as producing a criminogenic environment is deregulation.

“Thirty-five states have abolished asset tests for most food-stamp recipients. These and similar “paperwork reduction” reforms advocated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are turning the food-stamp program into a magnet for abuses and absurdities.”

The second element he cites is de facto decriminalization due to the Obama administration’s near indifference to fraud.

“The Obama administration is far more enthusiastic about boosting food-stamp enrollment than about preventing fraud.”

Bovard argues that desupervision led to de facto decriminalization.

“The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service now has only 40 inspectors to oversee almost 200,000 merchants that accept food stamps nationwide. The Government Accountability Office reported last summer that retailers who traffic illegally in food stamps by redeeming stamps for cash or alcohol or other prohibited items “are less likely to face criminal penalties or prosecution” than in earlier years.”

Bovard is implicitly raising the danger of a Gresham’s dynamic among retailers. Large, fraudulent retailers can obtain vastly more from food stamp fraud than can recipients. An honest retailer cannot compete against a large, fraudulent retailer. This turns market forces perverse and can drive honest retailers out of business. Fraud begets fraud.

Bovard appears to recognize that vigilant regulation is essential to successful fraud prevention and prosecution. When the regulators do not make anti-fraud efforts a priority the prosecutors are so overwhelmed that the criminal justice system breaks down. He cites the example of Wisconsin.

“The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute concluded: “Prosecutors have simply stopped prosecuting the vast majority of [food-stamp] fraud cases in virtually all counties, including the one with the most recipients, Milwaukee.””

In criminology, we refer to this as a “system capacity” problem. Bovard argues that the desupervision has effectively destroyed the capacity of the system to respond to the “crime wave” produced by the criminogenic environment. Bovard concludes that the criminogenic environment was inevitable because cheaters can profit with greatly reduced risk of prosecution.

Environments become intensely criminogenic when the federal government engages in the three “de’s” and preempts state anti-fraud efforts. This was an infamous feature of the Bush administration’s response to the fraudulent mortgage lenders, and Bovard argues that the Obama administration is intensifying a criminogenic environment in food stamps by following similarly fraud-friendly policies.

“The Obama administration is responding by cracking down on state governments’ antifraud measures. The administration is seeking to compel California, New York and Texas to cease requiring food-stamp applicants to provide finger images.”

So, how much does the food stamp fraud cost? Bovard does not provide the published estimates, but notes that 44 million Americans are recipients of food stamps at a total cost of $77 billion, or under $2000 per recipient. Individual frauds, therefore, obtain relatively small proceeds. Fraudulent retailers are the ones who are enriched by food stamp fraud. Bovard, however, concentrates entirely on fraudulent recipients and several corrupt public officials.

The GAO estimated, prior to the adoption of electronic benefit transfers (EBT) that food stamp trafficking represented 3.7% of annual benefits. Food stamps are now paid through EBT. This has greatly reduced the incidence of fraud by recipients, in some studies by an estimated 75-81 percent. Whitmore, Diane. “What are Food Stamps Worth?” (July 2002: p. 6 & n. 5).


Bovard missed the real food stamp crime wave (in terms of a much higher incidence of fraud) that peaked over a decade ago.

What we need now is to get Bovard and the Wall Street Journal to apply this same reasoning and passion about the dangers of the three “de’s” producing intense criminogenic environments to the three “de’s” that produced our recurrent, intensifying financial crises. My prior columns have explained at length how the three “de’s” produced the criminogenic environment that drove the “epidemic” of accounting, securities, mortgage, and appraisal fraud that hyper-inflated the bubble and led to the Great Recession. Bovard’s column was the most e-mailed WSJ article for two days. Food stamp fraud is important and Bovard’s rhetoric stirred the WSJ readership to rage. The accounting control frauds that drove the S&L, Enron era and ongoing crises are massively greater and more destructive and they involve our most elite CEOs becoming spectacularly wealthy at the expense of the public. The incidence of banking and mortgage fraud is far greater than food stamp fraud. The direct dollar losses due to these frauds are massively greater than food stamp fraud. The moral culpability and the financial gain of the CEOs who led the accounting control frauds are incomparably greater than that of a typical fraudulent food stamp recipient. The typical fraud consists of a recipient who is actually eligible for food stamps because she is impoverished selling some of those stamps to obtain income to purchase non-food items. Those non-food items can range from paying the rent and health care costs to illegal drugs. The systemic damage caused by the fraudulent CEOs – the Great Recession – has no counterpart in the food stamp context.

Bovard’s column allows us to test two rival theories. Hypothesis one: Bovard and the WSJ readers were enraged that the three “de’s” produced a criminogenic environment and led to a “crime wave” of fraud because they are enraged by fraud and the theoclassical dogmas that lead us to repeatedly adopt the three “de’s” despite the recurrent disasters they cause. Hypothesis two: Bovard and the WSJ readers were enraged by fraud by poor people and refuse to apply the same logic and moral outrage to the vastly greater and more damaging crimes led and generated by elite financial CEOs. Instead, they will blame “the government” and make excuses for the elite frauds. My bet is on the second hypothesis, but I hope to be proven wrong.


In Blog #2 we introduced the basics of macro accounting, and in Blog #3 we took a break from accounting to take a look at the rise and fall of the Goldilocks economy in the US. Thus, we applied our sectoral balance identity to the case of the US. In today’s blog we will go a bit deeper into the accounting, looking at the relation between flows (deficits) and stocks (debts). To avoid making mistakes we need to make sure that we have “consistency” between our flows and our stocks. We want to make sure that all spending and saving comes from somewhere and goes somewhere. And we must make sure that one sector’s surplus is offset by a deficit in another sector. This is a lot like keeping track of the scores in a baseball game, and in fact most financial “scores” really are electronic entries in the modern world.

We will also try to say something about causation. It is not sufficient to say that at the aggregate level, the private balance plus the government balance plus the foreign balance equals zero. We would like to be able to understand why the private sector balance was negative during the Clinton Goldilocks years while the government balance was positive—how did we get to that point, and what sorts of processes did it induce. Obviously that is necessary before we can really analyse the situation and formulate policy. Unlike the macro accounting identity (which must be true), it is not possible to say with certainty what causes a particular sector’s balance. It is quite easy to say that if the government runs a surplus and if the foreign balance is positive (foreign sector spends less than its income) then the domestic private sector must by accounting identity be negative (running a deficit). It all must sum to zero.

Explaining why the private sector had a deficit during the Goldilocks years is harder; it is even harder to project if and for how long that deficit would continue. I already made clear in Blog 3 that I got the timing wrong—private sector deficits continued for about 4 years longer than I expected. Projections are darned hard to get right—if they were easy, MMTers would all make lots of money placing bets on outcomes. Another way of stating this is to say that a good understanding of MMT does not give one any monopoly on explanations of causation. We must not be overly confident. As the late and great Wynne Godley used to put it, he did not make forecasts, rather, he made contingent projections.

For example, carrying on with the work of Godley, the Levy Economics Institute (www.levy.org) makes such projections. Typically it begins with CBO (Congressional Budget Office) projections of the path of government deficits and of economic growth over the next few years. CBO projections are largely determined by current law (ie: laws determining government spending and taxing, as well as mandates over deficit reduction). However, the CBO’s projections are not stock-flow consistent and do not adopt the three sector balances approach (this used to drive Godley crazy). In other words, they are incoherent. But given projections over the government balance and GDP growth as well as empirical estimates of various economic parameters (propensity to consume and import, for example), one can produce a stock-flow consistent model that produces the implied sectoral balances as well as path of debt. The Levy Institute often finds that economic growth rates (for example) plus government deficit projections used in CBO forecasts imply highly implausible balances in the other two sectors (domestic private and foreign) as well as private debt ratios. To do that kind of analysis, you must go beyond the simple accounting identities.

Deficits -> savings and debts -> wealth. We have established in our previous blogs that the deficits of one sector must equal the surpluses of (at least) one of the other sectors. We have also established that the debts of one sector must equal the financial wealth of (at least) one of the other sectors. So far, this all follows from the principles of macro accounting. However, the economist wishes to say more than this, for like all scientists, economists are interested in causation. Economics is a social science, that is, the science of extraordinarily complex social systems in which causation is never simple because economic phenomena are subject to interdependence, hysteresis, cumulative causation, and so on. Still, we can say something about causal relationships among the flows and stocks that we have been discussing in the previous blogs. Some readers will note that the causal connections adopted here follow from Keynesian theory.

a) Individual spending is mostly determined by income. Our starting point will be the private sector decision to spend. For the individual, it seems plausible to argue that income largely determines spending because one with no income is certainly going to be severely constrained when deciding to purchase goods and services. However, on reflection it is apparent that even at the individual level, the link between income and spending is loose—one can spend less than one’s income, accumulating net financial assets, or one can spend more than one’s income by issuing financial liabilities and thereby becoming indebted. Still, at the level of the individual household or firm, the direction of causation largely runs from income to spending even if the correspondence between the two flows is not perfect. There is little reason to believe that one’s own spending significantly determines one’s own income.

b) Deficits create financial wealth. We can also say something about the direction of causation regarding accumulation of financial wealth at the level of the individual. If a household or firm decides to spend more than its income (running a budget deficit), it can issue liabilities to finance purchases. These liabilities will be accumulated as net financial wealth by another household, firm, or government that is saving (running a budget surplus). Of course, for this net financial wealth accumulation to take place, we must have one household or firm willing to deficit spend, and another household, firm, or government willing to accumulate wealth in the form of the liabilities of that deficit spender. We can say that “it takes two to tango”. However, it is the decision to deficit spend that is the initiating cause of the creation of net financial wealth. No matter how much others might want to accumulate financial wealth, they will not be able to do so unless someone is willing to deficit spend.

Still, it is true that the household or firm will not be able to deficit spend unless it can sell accumulated assets or find someone willing to hold its liabilities. We can suppose there is a propensity (or desire) to accumulate net financial wealth. This does not mean that every individual firm or household will be able to issue debt so that it can deficit spend, but it does ensure that many firms and households will find willing holders of their debt. And in the case of a sovereign government, there is a special power—the ability to tax–that virtually guarantees that households and firms will want to accumulate the government’s debt. (That is a topic we pursue later.) We conclude that while causation is complex, and while “it takes two to tango”, causation tends to run from individual deficit spending to accumulation of financial wealth, and from debt to financial wealth. Since accumulation of a stock of financial wealth results from a budget surplus, that is, from a flow of saving, we can also conclude that causation tends to run from deficit spending to saving.

c) Aggregate spending creates aggregate income. At the aggregate level, taking the economy as a whole, causation is more clear-cut. A society cannot decide to have more income, but it can decide to spend more. Further, all spending must be received by someone, somewhere, as income. Finally, as discussed earlier, spending is not necessarily constrained by income because it is possible for households, firms, or government to spend more than income. Indeed, as we discussed, any of the three main sectors can run a deficit with at least one of the others running a surplus. However, it is not possible for spending at the aggregate level to be different from aggregate income since the sum of the sectoral balances must be zero. For all of these reasons, we must reverse causation between spending and income when we turn to the aggregate: while at the individual level, income causes spending, at the aggregate level, spending causes income.

d) Deficits in one sector create the surpluses of another. Earlier we showed that the deficits of one sector are by identity equal to the sum of the surplus balances of the other sector(s). If we divide the economy into three sectors (domestic private sector, domestic government sector, and foreign sector), then if one sector runs a deficit at least one other must run a surplus. Just as in the case of our analysis of individual balances, it “takes two to tango” in the sense that one sector cannot run a deficit if no other sector will run a surplus. Equivalently, we can say that one sector cannot issue debt if no other sector is willing to accumulate the debt instruments.

Of course, much of the debt issued within a sector will be held by others in the same sector. For example, if we look at the finances of the private domestic sector we will find that most business debt is held by domestic firms and households. In the terminology we introduced earlier, this is “inside debt” of those firms and households that run budget deficits, held as “inside wealth” by those households and firms that run budget surpluses. However, if the domestic private sector taken as a whole spends more than its income, it must issue “outside debt” held as “outside wealth” by at least one of the other two sectors (domestic government sector and foreign sector). Because the initiating cause of a budget deficit is a desire to spend more than income, the causation mostly goes from deficits to surpluses and from debt to net financial wealth. While we recognize that no sector can run a deficit unless another wants to run a surplus, this is not usually a problem because there is a propensity to net save financial assets. That is to say, there is a desire to accumulate financial wealth—which by definition is somebody’s liability.

Conclusion. Before moving on it is necessary to emphasize that everything in this blog (as well as Blog #2) applies to the macro accounting of any country. While examples used the dollar, all of the results apply no matter what currency is used. Our fundamental macro balance equation,

Domestic Private Balance + Domestic Government Balance + Foreign Balance = 0

will strictly apply to the accounting of balances of any currency. Within a country there can also be flows (accumulating to stocks) in a foreign currency, and there will be a macro balance equation in that currency, too.

Note that nothing changes if we expand our model to include a number of different countries, each of which issues its own currency. There will be a macro balance equation for each of these countries and for each of the currencies. Individual firms or households (or, for that matter, governments) can accumulate net financial assets denominated in several different currencies; vice versa, individual firms or households (or governments) can issue net debt denominated in several different currencies. It can even become more complicated, with an individual running a deficit in one currency and a surplus in another (issuing debt in one currency and accumulating wealth in another). Still, for every country and for every currency there will be a macro balance equation.

OK that is enough for this week. Can I remind commentators and questioners that this is a Primer. We will collect questions and comments until Wednesday and then post a response. We appreciate comments and questions directly related to this blog. We really do not want comments from those who have already examined and rejected MMT.