Category Archives: Taxes

Time to panic? You Betcha.

By Stephanie Kelton

Earlier this week, President Obama talked about the weakening state of the economy, telling us that he’s not worried about a double-dip recession and that the nation should “not panic.” It’s hard to imagine a more alarming assessment at this juncture.

The recovery is faltering. Our economy is growing at annual rate of just 1.8 percent. Manufacturing just grew at its slowest pace in 20 months. More than 44 million Americans – one in seven – rely on food stamps. Employers hired only 54,000 new workers in May, the lowest number in eight months. Jobless claims increased to 427,000 in the week ended June 4. The unemployment rate rose to 9.1 percent. Nearly half of all unemployed Americans have been without work for more than 6 months. About 25% of all teenagers who are looking for work are unemployed. Eight-and-a-half million Americans are underemployed – i.e. working part-time because their hours have been cut or because they can’t find full-time work. There are, on average, 4.6 unemployed people for every 1 job opening. And even if all the open positions were filled, there would still be 10.7 million people looking for work.

The Case-Shiller index shows that the housing market has already double-dipped.

And, because of the huge shadow inventory of yet-to-be-foreclosed homes, Robert Shiller, a co-creator of the index, thinks home prices could easily fall another 15-25% before bottoming out. If he’s right – and I suspect he is – this spells the end of the recovery. As prices continue to decline they create hidden losses elsewhere in the economy, hurting not just homeowners but the financial institutions that hold their mortgages. The list goes on and on.

These are not, as Obama said, “headwinds” that will slow the pace of our recovery. They are gale force winds that will push millions of families into poverty and thousands of business into bankruptcy.

There is a way out, but it seems unlikely that Congress and the White House will work together to do what’s necessary to turn things around.  Why?  Because a recent poll shows that 59 percent of the public disapproves of the president’s handling of the economy.  And Republicans smell blood.  They know that since WWII no president has been re-elected with unemployment above 7.2 percent, so they see Harry Hard Luck and Sally Sob Story as their best chance at reclaiming the White House in 2012.  It’s a victory the Republicans have been masterfully engineering since February 2009, when they succeeded in restricting the size and scope of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
Some of us saw this coming.  For example, Jamie Galbraith and Robert Reich warned, on a panel I organized in January 2009, that the stimulus package needed to be at least $1.3 trillion in order to create the conditions for a sustainable recovery.  Anything shy of that, they worried, would fail to sufficiently improve the economy, making Keynesian economics the subject of ridicule and scorn.
But it’s easy to see why the $787 billion package we ended up with didn’t do the trick.  Remember that the stimulus didn’t take effect all at once – it was spread out over a three-year period.  And while the left hand of the federal government was trying to rev up the economy with increased spending, the right hand of the private sector (together with state and local governments) was dutifully stomping on the breaks.  Just consider the fact that bank lending declined by $587 billion in 2009 alone – the biggest one-year drop since the 1940s.  That’s a $587 billion hole that businesses and households created just as the stimulus was rolling out the first $200 billion or so.  ARRA was the right medicine, but it was administered in the wrong dosage, and this became clear within months of its passage.

In July 2009, I wrote a post entitled, “Gift-Wrapping the White House for the GOP.” In it, I said:

“If President Obama wants a second term, he must join the growing chorus of voices calling for another stimulus and press forward with an ambitious program to create jobs and halt the foreclosure crisis.”

Two years later, both crises are still with us, and the election is just around the corner.
Meanwhile, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney with a slight edge in a hypothetical race against President Obama, and Howard Dean is warning that without a marked improvement in the economy, even Sarah Palin could clobber Obama in 2012.
To avoid this, President Obama must get his economics right.  Unfortunately, he’s too busy fanning the flames of the phony debt crisis and complaining that the discouraging data is hampering the recovery because it “affects consumer confidence, and it affects business confidence.” But here’s the thing – the recovery isn’t going to be driven by a change in our mentality.  It’s going to be driven by a change in our reality.
So here’s what he needs to do – stop talking about the deficit.  It has always been his Achilles’ heel.  The US is not broke and cannot go bankrupt.  Let go of that myth, and deliver one of those jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring speeches of yesteryear.  Tell the American people that he’s calling on the Republicans to help him enact the most sweeping tax relief since Ronald Reagan was in office — a full payroll tax holiday for every employee and every employer in the nation.  Tell us that you understand that sales create jobs, and income creates sales.  Tell us that families and small businesses don’t have enough income to dig us out of the ditch we’re still in.  Tell us that you will not withhold a dime from our paychecks until cash registers across the nation are chiming and unemployment has fallen below 5 percent.  Tell us before it’s too late.

The Perfect Fiscal Storm: Causes, Consequences, Solutions

Approximately a decade ago I wrote a paper with a similar title, announcing that forces were aligned to produce the perfect fiscal storm. What I was talking about was a budget crisis at the state and local government levels. I had recognized that the economy of the time was in a bubble, driven by what I perceived to be unsustainable deficit spending by the private sector—which had been spending more than its income since 1996. As we now know, I called it too soon—the private sector continued to spend more than its income until 2006. The economy then crashed—a casualty of the excesses. What I had not understood a decade ago was just how depraved Wall Street had become. It kept the debt bubble going through all sorts of lender fraud; we are now living with the aftermath.
Still, it is worthwhile to return to the “Goldilocks” period to see why economists and policymakers still get it wrong. As I noted in that earlier paper:
It is ironic that on June 29, 1999 the Wall Street Journal ran two long articles, one boasting that government surpluses would wipe out the national debt and add to national saving—and the other scratching its head wondering why private saving had gone negative. The caption to a graph showing personal saving and government deficits/surpluses proclaimed “As the government saves, people spend”. Almost no one at the time (or since!) recognized the necessary relation between these two that is implied by aggregate balance sheets. Since the economic slowdown that began at the end of 2000, the government balance sheet has reversed toward a deficit that reached 3.5% of GDP last quarter, while the private sector’s financial balance improved to a deficit of 1% of GDP. So long as the balance of payments deficit remains in the four-to-five percent of GDP range, a private sector surplus cannot be achieved until the federal budget’s deficit rises beyond 5% of GDP (as we’ll see in a moment, state and local government will continue to run aggregate surpluses, increasing the size of the necessary federal deficit). [I]n recession the private sector normally runs a surplus of at least 3% of GDP; given our trade deficit, this implies the federal budget deficit will rise to 7% or more if a deep recession is in store. At that point, the Wall Street Journal will no doubt chastise: “As the people save, the government spends”, calling for a tighter fiscal stance to increase national saving!

Turning to the international sphere, it should be noted that US Goldilocks growth was not unique in its character. [P]ublic sector balances in most of the OECD nations tightened considerably in the past decade–at least in part due to attempts to tighten budgets in line with the Washington Consensus (and for Euroland, in line with the dictates of Maastricht criteria). (Japan, of course, stands out as the glaring exception—it ran large budget surpluses at the end of the 1980s before collapsing into a prolonged recession that wiped out government revenue and resulted in a government deficit of nearly 9% of GDP.) Tighter public balances implied deterioration of private sector balances. Except for the case of nations that could run trade surpluses, the tighter fiscal stances around the world necessarily implied more fragile private sector balances. Indeed, Canada, the UK and Australia all achieved private sector deficits at some point near the beginning of the new millennium.

As we now know, my short-term projections were not too bad, but the medium-term projections were off. The Bush deficit did grow to 5% of GDP, helping the economy to recover. But then the private sector moved right back to huge deficits as lender fraud fueled a real estate boom as well as a consumption boom (financed by home equity loans). See the following chart (thanks to Scott Fullwiler):

This chart shows the “mirror image”: a government deficit from 1980 through to the Goldilocks years is the mirror image of the domestic private sector’s surplus plus our current account deficit (shown as a positive number because it reflects a positive capital account balance). During the Clinton years as the government budget moved to surplus, it was the private sector’s deficit that was the mirror image to the budget surplus plus the current account deficit. This mirror image is what the Wall Street Journal had failed to recognize—and what almost no one except MMT-ers and the Levy Economic Institute’s researchers understand. After the financial collapse, the domestic private sector moved sharply to a large surplus (which is what it normally does in recession), the current account deficit fell (as consumers bought fewer imports), and the budget deficit grew mostly because tax revenue collapsed as domestic sales and employment fell.  

Unfortunately, just as policymakers learned the wrong lessons from the Clinton administration budget surpluses—thinking that the federal budget surpluses were great while they actually were just the flip side to the private sector’s deficit spending—they are now learning the wrong lessons from this crash. They’ve managed to convince themselves that it is all caused by government sector profligacy. Especially, spending on public sector workers.

For example, Wisconsin Governor Walker’s attack on workers has been taken on the pretext that state employee wages and pensions have driven the budget into deficit. We all know that is ridiculous. The reality is simple: Wall Street crashed the economy, crashed state revenues, and crashed workers’ pensions. Washington responded with a massive bail-out for Wall Street—perhaps $25 trillion worth. It gave a mere pittance to “Main Street” in its $1 trillion stimulus package. Since the recession manufactured on Wall Street cost the economy a lot more than that, Main Street is not on the road to recovery. No one is projecting that jobs will return for many more years. It is delusional to believe that economic recovery can really get underway until we have added 8 million jobs.

In other words, the fiscal storm that killed state budgets is the same fiscal storm that created federal budget deficits. You cannot lose about 8% of GDP (due to spending cuts by households, firms and governments) and over 8 million jobs without negatively impacting government budgets. Tax revenue has collapsed at an historic pace. State governments really do need to balance their budgets, and they really do need tax revenue to finance their spending or to service debt. The federal government, as the sovereign issuer of the currency is in a different situation. I will not go through the MMT approach to sovereign currency spending as all readers here are familiar with that. My point is that states really are facing a funding crisis. The federal government does not face a solvency constraint and it can always afford to buy anything for sale in dollars. Still, as we all know, Washington Beltway insiders have manufactured a fake budget crisis to serve political ends.

State spending cuts (or tax increases) will not restore their budgets. Just take a look at the results of austerity in Greece or the UK. Budget-cutting in a downturn does not reduce deficits significantly. The reason is obvious: austerity slows the economy and reduces tax revenue. Art Laffer’s supply siders were onto something, although they mostly got it the wrong way around. Yes, a booming economy will generate a movement toward balanced government budgets. They thought that tax cuts are always the answer to everything—cut tax rates and you get more tax revenue. I would not say that that never works, but it didn’t when Presidents Reagan and Bush tried it. However, if we get the Laffer Curve the right way around, we can use it to explain why austerity in a downturn just makes budget deficits worse.
In truth, state budgets will not recover before the economy recovers. And state austerity will just make the economy worse. So, as a Thatcher might say: TINA: there is no alternative–to federal government stimulus, that is. I realize that goes against the deficit hysteria in Washington. But it is the truth.
What kind of stimulus makes the most sense? I think we need another trillion dollars, minimum. This can be split equally between aid to the states and extension of the payroll tax holiday. The federal government should provide $500 billion in block grants to the states, on a per capita basis. On the condition that they stop attacking state workers. The funds would be used to replace lost tax revenue—to cover operating expenses (and where possible, to actually increase spending on priority projects). This program would continue until economic growth and job creation reaches established thresholds. Let us say 10 million more jobs or a measured unemployment rate of 4%.

The payroll tax holiday would also be expanded, with a moratorium on taxes for both workers and employers until those thresholds are reached. Why penalize job creation with an employment-killing payroll tax? Reward firms for providing jobs by giving them tax relief. Let workers keep more of their hard-earned pay. This is the quickest and best way to give significant tax relief to most Americans. In addition, we need to stop the attacks on unemployment compensation. To be sure, jobs should always be favored over unemployment compensation—but until we get the jobs we must extend the unemployment benefits. Cutting benefits will just prevent the jobs from coming back.

These measures are only a first step. We still have a lot of damage to repair—damage caused by Wall Street’s excesses. And we will need to reign-in and prosecute the fraudsters, otherwise they will blow up the economy again. Actually, they are already trying to do that—creating yet another commodities market speculative bubble. It is looking an awful lot like 2006 all over again. However this time, we are down by 8 million jobs and trillions of dollars of household wealth. Wall Street is bubbling up even as the economy as a whole is in the trenches. This bubble will not last long. It is going to crash. That will expose the huge accounting holes in the bank balance sheets. Wall Street will want another 25 trillion dollar bail out. This time, we’ve got to follow Nancy’s dictum: just say no.

While Labor Unions celebrate Anti-Austerity Day in Europe, European Neoliberals raise the ante: Governments must Lower Wages or Suffer Financial Blackmail

By Michael Hudson

Most of the press has described Europe’s labor demonstrations and strikes on Wednesday in terms of the familiar exercise by transport employees irritating travelers with work slowdowns, and large throngs letting off steam by setting fires. But the story goes much deeper than merely a reaction against unemployment and economic recession. At issue are proposals to drastically change the laws and structure of how European society will function for the next generation. If the anti-labor forces succeed, they will break up Europe, destroy the internal market, and render that continent a backwater. This is how serious the financial coup d’etat has become. And it is going to get much worse – quickly. As John Monks, head of the European Trade Union Confederation, put it: “This is the start of the fight, not the end.”
Spain has received most of the attention, thanks to its ten-million strong turnout – reportedly half the entire labor force. Holding its first general strike since 2002, Spanish labor protested against its socialist government using the bank crisis (stemming from bad real estate loans and negative mortgage equity, not high labor costs) as an opportunity to change the laws to enable companies and government bodies to fire workers at will, and to scale back their pensions and public social spending in order to pay the banks more. Portugal is doing the same, and it looks like Ireland will follow suit – all this in the countries whose banks have been the most irresponsible lenders. The bankers are demanding that they rebuild their loan reserves at labor’s expense, just as in President Obama’s program here in the United States but without the sanctimonious pretenses.
The problem is Europe-wide and indeed centered in the European Union capital in Brussels, where fifty to a hundred thousand workers gathered to protest the proposed transformation of social rules. Yet on the same day, the European Commission (EC) outlined a full-fledged war against labor. It is the most anti-labor campaign since the 1930s – even more extreme than the Third World austerity plans imposed by the IMF and World Bank in times past.

The EC is using the mortgage banking crisis – and the needless prohibition against central banks monetizing public budget deficits – as an opportunity to fine governments and even drive them bankrupt if they do not agree roll back salaries. Governments are told to borrow at interest from the banks, rather than raising revenue by taxing them as they did for half a century following the end of World War II. Governments unable to raise the money to pay the interest must close down their social programs. And if this shrinks the economy – and hence, government tax revenues – even more, the government must reduce social spending yet further.
From Brussels to Latvia, neoliberal planners have expressed the hope that lower public-sector salaries will spread to the private sector. The aim is to roll back wage levels by 30 percent or more, to depression levels, on the pretense that this will “leave more surplus” available to pay in debt service. It will do no such thing, of course. It is a purely vicious attempt to reverse Europe’s Progressive Era social democratic reforms achieved over the past century. Europe is to be turned into a banana republic by taxing labor – not finance, insurance or real estate (FIRE). Governments are to impose heavier employment and sales taxes while cutting back pensions and other public spending.
“Join the fight against labor, or we will destroy you,” the EC is telling governments. This requires dictatorship, and the European Central Bank (ECB) has taken over this power from elected government. Its “independence” from political control is celebrated as the “hallmark of democracy” by today’s new financial oligarchy. This deceptive newspeak evokes Plato’s view that oligarchy is simply the political stage following democracy. The new power elite’s next step in this eternal political triangle is to make itself hereditary – by abolishing estate taxes, for starters – so as to turn itself into an aristocracy.
It is a very old game indeed. So it is time to put aside the economics of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and the Progressive Era, to forget Marx and even Keynes. Europe is ushering in an era of totalitarian neoliberal rule. This is what Wednesday’s strikes and demonstrations were about. Europe’s class war is back in business – with a vengeance!
This is economic suicide, but the EU is demanding that Euro-zone governments keep their budget deficits below 3% of GDP, and their total debt below 60%. On Wednesday the EU passed a law to fine governments up to 0.2% of GDP for not “fixing” their budget deficits by imposing such fiscal austerity. Nations that borrow to engage in countercyclical “Keynesian-style” spending that raises their public debt beyond 60% of GDP will have to reduce the excess by 5% each year, or suffer harsh punishment.[1] The European Commission (EC) will fine euro-area states that do not obey its neoliberal recommendations – ostensibly to “correct” budget imbalances.
The reality is that every neoliberal “cure” only makes matters worse. But rather than seeing rising wage levels and living standards as being a precondition for higher labor productivity, the EU commission will “monitor” labor costs on the assumption that rising wages impair competitiveness rather than raise it. If euro members cannot depreciate their currencies, then they must fight labor – but not tax real estate, finance or other rentier sectors, not regulate monopolies, and not provide public services that can be privatized at much higher costs. Privatization is not deemed to impair competitiveness – only rising wages, regardless of productivity considerations.
The financial privatization and credit-creation monopoly that governments have relinquished to banks is now to really pay off – at the price of breaking up Europe. Unlike central banks elsewhere in the world, the charter of the European Central Bank (ECB, independent from democratic politics, not from control by its commercial bank members) forbids it to monetize government debt. Governments must borrow from banks, which are create interest-bearing debt on their own keyboards rather than having their national bank do it without cost.
The unelected members of the European Central Bank have taken over planning power from elected governments. Beholden to its financial constituency, the ECB has convinced the EU commission to back the new oligarchic power grab. This destructive policy has been tested above all in the Baltics, using them as guinea pigs to see how far labor can be depressed before it fights back. Latvia gave free reign to neoliberal policies by imposing flat taxes of 51% and higher on labor, while real estate is virtually untaxed. Public-sector wages have been reduced by 30%, prompting labor of working age (20 to 35 year-olds) to emigrate in droves. This of course is contributing to the plunge in real estate prices and tax revenue. Lifespans for men are shortening, disease rates are rising, and the internal market is shrinking, and so is Europe’s population – as it did in the 1930s, when the “population problem” was a plunge in fertility and birth rates (above all in France). That is what happens in a depression.
Iceland’s looting by its bankers came first, but the big news was Greece. When that nation entered its current fiscal crisis as a result of not collecting taxes on the wealthy, European Union officials recommended that it emulate Latvia, which remains the poster child for neoliberal devastation. The basic theory is that inasmuch as members of the euro cannot devalue their currency, they must resort to “internal devaluation”: slashing wages, pensions and social spending. So as Europe enters recession it is following precisely the opposite of Keynesian policy. It is reducing wages, ostensibly to “free” more income available to pay the enormous debts that Europeans have taken on to buy their homes and pay for schooling (hitherto provided freely in many countries such as Latvia’s Stockholm School of Economics), transportation and other public services. Manly such services have been privatized and subsequently raised their rates drastically. The privatizers justify this by pointing to the enormously bloated financial fees they had to pay their bankers and underwriters in order to get the credit to buy the infrastructure that was being sold off by governments.
So Europe is committing economic, demographic and fiscal suicide. Trying to “solve” the problem neoliberal style only makes things worse. Latvia’s public-sector workers, for example, have seen their wages cut by 30 percent over the past year, and its central bankers have told me that they are seeking further cuts, in the hope that this will lower wages in the private sector as well, just as neoliberals in other European countries hope, as noted above.
About 10,000 Latvians attended protest meetings in the small town of Daugavilpils alone as part of the “Journey into the Crisis.” In Latvia’s capital city, Riga, yesterday’s Action Day saw the usual stoppage of transportation and an accompanying honk concert for 10 minutes at 1 PM to let the public know that something was happening. Six independent trade unions and the Harmony Center organized a protest meeting in Riga’s Esplanade Park that drew 700 to 800 demonstrators, relatively large for so small a city. Another union protest saw about half that number gather at the Cabinet of Ministers where Latvia’s austerity program has been planned and carried out.
What is happening most importantly is the national parliamentary elections this Saturday (October 2). The leading coalition, Harmony Center, is pledged to enact an alternative tax and economic policy to the neoliberal policies that have reduced labor’s wages and workplace standards so sharply over the past decade. A few days earlier a bus tour drove journalists to the most visible victims – schools and hospitals that had been closed down, government buildings whose employees had seen their salaries slashed and the workforce downsized.
These demonstrations seem to have gained voter sympathy for the more militant unions, headed by the hundred individual unions belonging to the Independent Trade Union Association. The other union group – the Free Trade Unions (LBAS) lost face by acquiescing in June 2009 to the government’s proposed 10% pension cuts (and indeed, 70% for working pensioners). Latvia’s constitutional court was sufficiently independent to overrule these drastic cuts last December. And if the government does indeed change this Saturday, the conflict between the Neoliberal Revolution and the past few centuries of classical progressive reform will be made clear.
In sum, the Neoliberal Revolution seeks to achieve in Europe what the United States has achieved since real wages stopped rising in 1979: doubling the share of wealth enjoyed by the richest 1%. This involves reducing the middle class to poverty, breaking union power, and destroying the internal market as a precondition.
All this is being blamed on “Mr. Market” – presumably inexorable forces beyond politics, purely “objective,” a political power grab. But is not really “the market” that is promoting this destructive economic austerity. Latvia’s Harmony Center program shows that there is a much easier way to cut the cost of labor in half than by reducing its wages: Simply shift the tax burden off labor onto real estate and monopolies (especially privatized infrastructure). This will leave less of the economic surplus to be capitalized into bank loans, lowering the price of housing accordingly (the major factor in labor’s cost of living), as well as the price of public services. (Owners of monopoly utility services would be prevented from factoring interest charges into their cost of doing business. The idea is to encourage them to take returns on equity. Whether or not they borrow is a business decision of theirs, not one that governments should subsidize.) The tax deductibility of interest will be repealed – there is nothing intrinsically “market dictated” by this fiscal subsidy for debt leveraging. This program may be reviewed at, the Renew Task Force Latvia website.
No doubt many post-Soviet economies will find themselves obliged to withdraw from the euro area rather than see a flight of labor and capital. They remain the most extreme example of the Neoliberal Experiment to see how far a population can have its living standards slashed before it rebels.
But so far the neoliberals are fully in control of the bureaucracy, and they are reviving Margaret Thatcher’s slogan, TINA: There Is No Alternative. But there is an alternative, of course. In the small Baltic economies, pro-labor parties are pressing for the government to shift the tax burden off employees and consumers back onto property and financial wealth. Bad debts beyond the reasonable ability to pay must be scaled back. It may be necessary to let the banks go under (they are mainly Swedish), even if this means withdrawing from the Euro. The choice is between who will be destroyed: the banks, or labor?
European politicians now view this as being truly a fight to the death. This is the ideology that has replaced social democracy.

[1] Matthew Dalton, “EU Proposes Fines for Budget Breaches,” Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2010.

“Fed Chairman Ruml got it right in 1946″

Hat tip Warren Mosler’s blog (

On his recent piece “Taxes For Revenue Are Obsolete ” that appeared on the Huffington Post he notes:

April 15th has come and gone, but the issue of taxation remains the course de jour. I was recently forwarded an article entitled Taxes For Revenue Are Obsolete, written in 1946 by Beardsley Ruml, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and published in a periodical named American Affairs. While Ruml was writing about the merits of corporate taxes, it is his discussion about how the function of taxes changed after the nation exited the gold standard that make this a must read. As Ruml’s stated, with an “…inconvertible currency, a sovereign national government is finally free of money worries and need no longer levy taxes for the purpose of providing itself with revenue… It follows that our Federal Government has final freedom from the money market in meeting its financial requirements… All federal taxes must meet the test of public policy and practical effect. The public purpose which is served should never be obscured in a tax program under the mask of raising revenue.” He goes on to explain how, with Federal spending not revenue constrained, the first function of taxation is to regulate the value of the dollar, which we know as regulating inflation. The notion of the Federal government ‘running out of money’ and ‘dependence on foreign borrowing’ as well as ‘sustainability’ is categorically inapplicable. The operative CBO ‘scoring’ is the inflationary effect, rather than simply a revenue forecast. And while Social Security and Medicare may turn out to be inflationary, they are not ‘bankrupting the nation’ as most believe, including a Democratic Congress that cut Medicare spending with the recent health care bill and has all entitlements ‘on the table.’

See also here.

A Plea to the President: Tear Up That Speech

By Stephanie Kelton

My colleague and fellow blogger, Randy Wray, has just argued that President Obama should scrap the speech he’s planning to deliver tonight and surprise the American people with something entirely different. I couldn’t agree more. And while I agree that job creation must be JOB ONE in the months (and years) ahead, I would encourage the President to make massive tax relief the cornerstone of tonight’s speech.
Specifically, the President should call on Congress to support a full and immediate payroll tax holiday. Right now, the government takes away about 15% of our incomes in the form of payroll taxes. With a full payroll tax holiday, a married couple earning $60,000 a year would see their take-home pay increase by about $750 each month. In the aggregate, this will help millions of Americans pay their mortgages, student loans, credit card bills, and so on, while at the same time reducing business expenses (remember that employers contribute to the payroll tax too). All told, a full payroll tax holiday would allow Americans to keep about $1 trillion this year.
So stand before us, Mr. President, and tell us that you want to stop taking this income away from us until we, as a nation, have clawed back every job that has been lost since the start of the recession. Tell us that you intend to take bold steps to protect jobs, keep families intact and provide relief for millions of American businesses. Tell us that you have done all you intend to do to help the banks and the automakers and that you will not accept a jobless recovery — that an increase in economic activity is meaningless without rising employment in good jobs.
And, most importantly, tell us that you refuse to adopt a timeline for cutting the deficit. Tell us that you will not take one dime of payroll taxes away from us until your Administration can declare “Mission Accomplished” on the job front.
Finally, tell the American people that anyone who opposes a payroll tax holiday wants to keep taking hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars from them every month. Then watch what happens in 2012.

Memo to Congress: Don’t Increase the Government’s Debt Limit!

By L. Randall Wray

In a piece written for CNN, Senator Evan Bayh rails against the growing federal government budget deficit. He warns that next month the Treasury will ask Congress to raise the debt limit from its current $12.1 trillion, and promises that he will vote “no”. It is time, he argues, for Congress to stand up for our nation’s future by creating a bi-partisan debt commission that would finally put an end to “unsustainable” deficit spending.

The Senator goes on:

When President George W. Bush took office in 2001, our public debt amounted to 33 percent of our economy. Today, it is 60 percent of our gross domestic product. If we do nothing, our debt is projected to swell to over 70 percent by 2019. To put those numbers in perspective: If you divided the debt equally among all Americans, every man, woman and child living in the United States today would owe more than $39,000.

I presume the Senator has got his math correct, but there is a glaring error in his English that can be corrected by substituting an “n” for an “e”: If you divided the debt equally among all Americans, every man, woman and child living in the United States today would own more than $39,000. Government debt is a private asset. You and I do not owe government debt, we own it. Indeed, the only source of net dollar-denominated financial wealth is federal government debt.

The good Senator continues, comparing his proposed debt commission with an earlier successful bi-partisan effort:

There is precedent to create this type of commission with real teeth. President Ronald Reagan created a commission, chaired by Alan Greenspan, to shore up Social Security in the early 1980s.

That commission hiked payroll taxes to transform Social Security from a “pay-as-you-go” system (payroll taxes collected were matched to current year spending) to an “advanced funded” system that accumulated “Trust Fund assets”. In truth the Trust Fund is nothing but an accounting gimmick in which one arm of government (the Treasury) owes another arm of government (Social Security), with workers and their firms saddled with payroll taxes that are a third larger than Social Security spending. Like almost everything else Alan Greenspan did, the Social Security commission was a monumental failure and its actions were completely unnecessary. All Social Security payments can be made as they come due whether the Trust Fund holds Treasury debt or not, and no matter how much “revenue” the payroll tax collects. Like the bowling alley that credits points when pins are knocked down, the Treasury cannot run out of “points” credited to the accounts of pensioners.

The anti-deficit mania in Washington is getting crazier by the day. So here is what I propose: let’s support Senator Bayh’s proposal to “just say no” to raising the debt ceiling. Once the federal debt reaches $12.1 trillion, the Treasury would be prohibited from selling any more bonds. Treasury would continue to spend by crediting bank accounts of recipients, and reserve accounts of their banks. Banks would offer excess reserves in overnight markets, but would find no takers—hence would have to be content holding reserves and earning whatever rate the Fed wants to pay. But as Chairman Bernanke told Congress, this is no problem because the Fed spends simply by crediting bank accounts.

This would allow Senator Bayh and other deficit warriors to stop worrying about Treasury debt and move on to something important like the loss of millions of jobs.

Should America Kowtow to China?

By Marshall Auerback
First Published on New Deal 2.0.

Do the Chinese really fund our deficit? Or is this more Neo-classical money mythology?

Another Presidential junket to Asia and another one of the usual lectures from China, decrying our “profligate ways”. Today’s Wall Street Journal reports:, “China’s top banking regulator issued a sharp critique of U.S. financial management only hours before President Barack Obama commenced his first visit to the Asian giant, highlighting economic and trade tensions that threaten to overshadow the trip.”

According to Liu Mingkang, chairman of the China Banking Regulatory Commission, a weak U.S. dollar and low U.S. interest rates had led to “massive speculation” that was inflating asset bubbles around the world. It has created “unavoidable risks for the recovery of the global economy, especially emerging economies,” Mr. Liu said. The situation is “seriously impacting global asset prices and encouraging speculation in stock and property markets.”

Well, “them’s fightin’ words”, as we say over here. And of course, the President and his advisors are supposed to accept this criticism mildly because in the words of the NY Times, the US has assumed “the role of profligate spender coming to pay his respects to his banker.”

The Times actually does believe this to be true. They refer to China’s role as America’s largest “creditor” as a “stark fact”. They do not seem to understand that simply because a country issuing debt which it creates, it does not depend on bond holders to “fund” anything. Bonds are simply a savings alternative to cash offered by the monetary authorities, as we shall seek to illustrate below.

It is less clear to us whether the Chinese actually believe this guff, or simply articulate it for public consumption. China has made a choice: for a variety of reasons, it has adopted an export-oriented growth strategy, and largely achieved this through closely managing its currency, the remnimbi, against the dollar.

One can query the choice, as many would argue that it is more economically and socially desirable for China to consume its own economic output. According to Professor Bill Mitchell, for example, “once the Chinese citizens rise up and demand more access to their own resources instead of flogging them off to the rest of the world…then the game will be up. They will stop accumulating financial assets in our currencies and we will find it harder to run [current account deficits] against them.”

But there have undoubtedly been certain benefits that have accrued to the Chinese as a consequence of this strategy. The export prices obtained by Chinese manufacturers are about 10 times as high as the prices obtained in the more competitive domestic markets, and the challenge of competing in global markets has forced Chinese manufacturers to adhere to higher quality standards. This, in turn, has improved the overall quality of Chinese products. In the words of James Galbraith:

“Is there a way for the Chinese manufacturing firm to turn a profit? Yes: the alternative to selling on the domestic market is to export. And export prices, even those paid at wholesale, must be multiples of those obtained at home. But the export market, however vast, is not unlimited, and it demands standards of quality that are not easily obtained by neophyte producers and would not ordinarily be demanded by Chinese consumers. Only a small fraction of Chinese firms can actually meet the standards. These standards must be learned and acquired by practice.” (”The Predator State, Ch. 6, “There is no such thing as free trade”, pg. 84).

What about the US government? What should it do? Should it actually respond to China’s complaints by trying to “defend the dollar”?

I hear this recommendation all of the time in the chatterplace of the financial markets, but seldom do those who fret about the dollar’s declining level actually suggest a concrete strategy to achieve the objective. In fact, it is unclear to me that there is any measure the Fed or Treasury could adopt which might support the dollar’s external value.

And why should they? Given the horrendous unemployment data, and 65% capacity utilization, it is hard to view imported inflationary pressures via a weaker dollar actually becoming a serious threat.

But wait? Don’t the Chinese (and other external creditors) “fund” our deficit? And won’t they demand a higher equilibrating interest rate in order to offset the declining value of their Treasury hoard?

Again, this displays a seriously lagging understanding of how much modern money has changed since Nixon changed finance forever by closing the Gold window in 1973. Now that we’re off the gold standard, the Chinese, and other Treasury buyers, do not “fund” anything, contrary to the completely false & misguided scare stories one reads almost daily in the press.

This claim is seldom challenged, but our friend, Warren Mosler, recently gave an excellent illustration of this fact in an interview with Mike Norman. Mosler provides a hypothetical example in which China decides to sell us a billion dollars’ worth of T-shirts. We buy a billion dollars’ worth of T-shirts from China:

“And the way we pay them is somebody pays China. And the money goes into their checking account at the Federal Reserve. Now, it’s called a reserve account because it’s the Federal Reserve, and they give it a fancy name. But it’s a checking account. So we get the T-shirts, and China gets $1 billion in their checking account. And that’s just a data entry. That’s just a one and some zeroes.

Whoever bought them gets a debit. You know, it might have been Disneyland or something. So we debit Disney’s account and then we credit China’s account.

In this situation, we’ve increased our trade deficit by $1 billion. But it’s not an imbalance. China would rather have the money than the T-shirts, or they wouldn’t have sent them. It’s voluntary. We’d rather have the T-shirts than the money, or we wouldn’t have bought them. It’s voluntary. So, when you just look at the numbers and say there’s a trade deficit, and it’s an imbalance, that’s not correct. That’s imbalance. It’s markets. That’s where all market participants are happy. Markets are cleared at that price.

Okay, so now China has two choices with what they can do with the money in their checking account. They could spend it, in which case we wouldn’t have a trade deficit, or they can put it in another account at the Federal Reserve called a Treasury security, which is nothing more than a savings account. You give them money, you get it back with interest. If it’s a bank, you give them money, you get it back with interest. That’s what a savings account is.”

The example here clearly illustrates that bonds are a savings alternative which we offer to the Chinese manufacturer, not something which actually “funds” our government’s spending choices. It demonstrates that rates are exogenously determined by our central bank, not endogenously determined by the Chinese manufacturer who chooses to park his dollars in treasuries (credit demand, by contrast, is endogenous).

Here is how the mechanics actually work: government spending and lending adds reserves to the banking system because when the government spends, it electronically credits bank accounts.

By contrast, government taxing and security sales (i.e. sales of bonds) drain (subtract) reserves from the banking system. So when the government realizes a budget deficit (as is the case today), there is a net reserve add to the banking system, WHICH BRINGS RATES LOWER (not higher). That is, government deficit spending results in net credits to member bank reserves accounts. If these net credits lead to excess reserve positions, overnight interest rates will be bid down by the member banks with excess reserves to the interest rate paid on reserves by the central bank (currently .25% in the case of the US since the Fed started to pay interest on these reserves). If the central bank has a positive target for the overnight lending rate, either the central bank must pay interest on reserves or otherwise provide an interest bearing alternative to non interest bearing reserve accounts. But this is a choice determined by our central bank, not an external creditor.

Yet we are constantly being told by the financial press that the dollar’s weakness was supposed be the factor that would “force” the Fed to raise rates, since the Chinese supposedly “fund” our deficits.

So far, that thesis hasn’t been borne out. And it won’t be, because this isn’t how things operate in a post gold-standard world.

And a second and equally salient point: what would those who fret about the dollar, have the Fed do? Should they raise rates to defend it? It is unclear that this would work. The relationship between a given level of interest rates offered by the central bank and the external value of a currency is tenuous. Consider Japan as Exhibit A. The BOJ has been offering virtually free money for 15 years and yet the yen today remains a strong currency (much to the chagrin of the likes of Toyota or Sony).

Of course, higher rates can have an offsetting beneficial income impact (what Bernanke calls the “fiscal channel”), but it does not follow that a decision to raise rates would actually elevate the value of the dollar (and the benefits of higher rates from an income perspective could just as easily be achieved via lower taxation).

The reality is that private market participants could well view the move as something akin to a panicked response by the Fed, and the decision could well trigger additional capital flight, which could weaken the value of the dollar.

So it is unclear to me what the Tsy or Fed should be doing about the dollar. My view is that this is a private portfolio preference shift and I don’t think central banks should be responding to every vicissitude of changing market preferences. The US government should simply ignore the market chatter and idle threats from the Chinese and do nothing.

Money as a Public Monopoly

By L. Randall Wray

What I want to do in this blog is to argue that the reason both theory and policy get money “wrong” is because economists and policymakers fail to recognize that money is a public monopoly*. Conventional wisdom holds that money is a private invention of some clever Robinson Crusoe who tired of the inconveniencies of bartering fish with a short shelf-life for desired coconuts hoarded by Friday. Self-seeking globules of desire continually reduced transactions costs, guided by an invisible hand that selected the commodity with the best characteristics to function as the most efficient medium of exchange. Self-regulating markets maintained a perpetually maximum state of bliss, producing an equilibrium vector of relative prices for all tradables, including the money commodity that serves as a veiling numeraire.

All was fine and dandy until the evil government interfered, first by reaping seigniorage from monopolized coinage, next by printing too much money to chase the too few goods extant, and finally by efficiency-killing regulation of private financial institutions. Especially in the US, misguided laws and regulations simultaneously led to far too many financial intermediaries but far too little financial intermediation. Chairman Volcker delivered the first blow to restore efficiency by throwing the entire Savings and Loan sector into insolvency, and then freeing thrifts to do anything they damn well pleased. Deregulation, which actually dates to the Nixon years and even before, morphed into a self-regulation movement in the 1990s on the unassailable logic that rational self-interest would restrain financial institutions from doing anything foolish. This was all codified in the Basle II agreement that spread Anglo-Saxon anything goes financial practices around the globe. The final nail in the government’s coffin would be to preserve the value of money by tying monetary policy-maker’s hands to inflation targeting, and fiscal policy-maker’s hands to balanced budgets. All of this would lead to the era of the “great moderation”, with financial stability and rising wealth to create the “ownership society” in which all worthy individuals could share in the bounty of self-regulated, small government, capitalism.

We know how that story turned out. In all important respects we managed to recreate the exact same conditions of 1929 and history repeated itself with the exact same results. Take John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash, change the dates and some of the names of the guilty and you’ve got the post mortem for our current calamity.

What is the Keynesian-institutionalist alternative? Money is not a commodity or a thing. It is an institution, perhaps the most important institution of the capitalist economy. The money of account is social, the unit in which social obligations are denominated. I won’t go into pre-history, but I trace money to the wergild tradition—that is to say, money came out of the penal system rather than from markets, which is why the words for monetary debts or liabilities are associated with transgressions against individuals and society. To conclude, money predates markets, and so does government. As Karl Polanyi argued, markets never sprang from the minds of higglers and hagglers, but rather were created by government.

The monetary system, itself, was invented to mobilize resources to serve what government perceived to be the public purpose. Of course, it is only in a democracy that the public’s purpose and the government’s purpose have much chance of alignment. In any case, the point is that we cannot imagine a separation of the economic from the political—and any attempt to separate money from politics is, itself, political. Adopting a gold standard, or a foreign currency standard (“dollarization”), or a Friedmanian money growth rule, or an inflation target is a political act that serves the interests of some privileged group. There is no “natural” separation of a government from its money. The gold standard was legislated, just as the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 legislated the separation of Treasury and Central Bank functions, and the Balanced Budget Act of 1987 legislated the ex ante matching of federal government spending and revenue over a period determined by the celestial movement of a heavenly object. Ditto the myth of the supposed independence of the modern central bank—this is but a smokescreen to protect policy-makers should they choose to operate monetary policy for the benefit of Wall Street rather than in the public interest (a charge often made and now with good reason).

So money was created to give government command over socially created resources. Skip forward ten thousand years to the present. We can think of money as the currency of taxation, with the money of account denominating one’s social liability. Often, it is the tax that monetizes an activity—that puts a money value on it for the purpose of determining the share to render unto Caesar. The sovereign government names what money-denominated thing can be delivered in redemption against one’s social obligation or duty to pay taxes. It can then issue the money thing in its own payments. That government money thing is, like all money things, a liability denominated in the state’s money of account. And like all money things, it must be redeemed, that is, accepted by its issuer. As Hyman Minsky always said, anyone can create money (things), the problem lies in getting them accepted. Only the sovereign can impose tax liabilities to ensure its money things will be accepted. But power is always a continuum and we should not imagine that acceptance of non-sovereign money things is necessarily voluntary. We are admonished to be neither a creditor nor a debtor, but try as we might all of us are always simultaneously both. Maybe that is what makes us Human—or at least Chimpanzees, who apparently keep careful mental records of liabilities, and refuse to cooperate with those who don’t pay off debts—what is called reciprocal altruism: if I help you to beat the stuffing out of Chimp A, you had better repay your debt when Chimp B attacks me.

OK I have used up two-thirds of my allotment and you all are wondering what this has to do with regulation of monopolies. The dollar is our state money of account and high powered money (HPM or coins, green paper money, and bank reserves) is our state monopolized currency. Let me make that just a bit broader because US Treasuries (bills and bonds) are just HPM that pays interest (indeed, Treasuries are effectively reserve deposits at the Fed that pay higher interest than regular reserves), so we will include HPM plus Treasuries as the government currency monopoly—and these are delivered in payment of federal taxes, which destroys currency. If government emits more in its payments than it redeems in taxes, currency is accumulated by the nongovernment sector as financial wealth. We need not go into all the reasons (rational, irrational, productive, fetishistic) that one would want to hoard currency, except to note that a lot of the nonsovereign dollar denominated liabilities are made convertible (on demand or under specified circumstances) to currency.

Since government is the only issuer of currency, like any monopoly government can set the terms on which it is willing to supply it. If you have something to sell that the government would like to have—an hour of labor, a bomb, a vote—government offers a price that you can accept or refuse. Your power to refuse, however, is not that great. When you are dying of thirst, the monopoly water supplier has substantial pricing power. The government that imposes a head tax can set the price of whatever it is you will sell to government to obtain the means of tax payment so that you can keep your head on your shoulders. Since government is the only source of the currency required to pay taxes, and at least some people do have to pay taxes, government has pricing power.

Of course, it usually does not recognize this, believing that it must pay “market determined” prices—whatever that might mean. Just as a water monopolist cannot let the market determine an equilibrium price for water, the money monopolist cannot really let the market determine the conditions on which money is supplied. Rather, the best way to operate a money monopoly is to set the “price” and let the “quantity” float—just like the water monopolist does. My favorite example is a universal employer of last resort program in which the federal government offers to pay a basic wage and benefit package (say $10 per hour plus usual benefits), and then hires all who are ready and willing to work for that compensation. The “price” (labor compensation) is fixed, and the “quantity” (number employed) floats in a countercyclical manner. With ELR, we achieve full employment (as normally defined) with greater stability of wages, and as government spending on the program moves countercyclically, we also get greater stability of income (and thus of consumption and production)—a truly great moderation.

I have said anyone can create money (things). I can issue IOUs denominated in the dollar, and perhaps I can make my IOUs acceptable by agreeing to redeem them on demand for US government currency. The conventional fear is that I will issue so much money that it will cause inflation, hence orthodox economists advocate a money growth rate rule. But it is far more likely that if I issue too many IOUs they will be presented for redemption. Soon I run out of currency and am forced to default on my promise, ruining my creditors. That is the nutshell history of most private money (things) creation.

But we have always anointed some institutions—called banks—with special public/private partnerships, allowing them to act as intermediaries between the government and the nongovernment. Most importantly, government makes and receives payments through them. Hence, when you receive your Social Security payment it takes the form of a credit to your bank account; you pay taxes through a debit to that account. Banks, in turn, clear accounts with the government and with each other using reserve accounts (currency) at the Fed, which was specifically created in 1913 to ensure such clearing at par. To strengthen that promise, we introduced deposit insurance so that for most purposes, bank money (deposits) functions like government currency.

Here’s the rub. Bank money is privately created when a bank buys an asset—which could be your mortgage IOU backed by your home, or a firm’s IOU backed by commercial real estate, or a local government’s IOU backed by prospective tax revenues. But it can also be one of those complex sliced and diced and securitized toxic waste assets you’ve been reading about. A clever and ethically challenged banker will buy completely fictitious “assets” and pay himself huge bonuses for nonexistent profits while making uncollectible “loans” to all of his deadbeat relatives. (I use a male example because I do not know of any female frauds, which is probably why the scales of justice are always held by a woman.) The bank money he creates while running the bank into the ground is as good as the government currency the Treasury creates serving the public interest. And he will happily pay outrageous prices for assets, or lend to his family, friends and fellow frauds so that they can pay outrageous prices, fueling asset price inflation. This generates nice virtuous cycles in the form of bubbles that attract more purchases until the inevitable bust. I won’t go into output price inflation except to note that asset price bubbles can fuel spending on consumption and investment goods, spilling-over into commodities prices, so on some conditions there can be a link between asset and output price inflations.

The amazing thing is that the free marketeers want to “free” the private financial institutions to licentious behavior, but advocate reigning-in government on the argument that excessive issue of money is inflationary. Yet we have effectively given banks the power to issue government money (in the form of government insured deposits), and if we do not constrain what they purchase they will fuel speculative bubbles. By removing government regulation and supervision, we invite private banks to use the public monetary system to pursue private interests. Again, we know how that story ends, and it ain’t pretty. Unfortunately, we now have what appears to be a government of Goldman, by Goldman, and for Goldman that is trying to resurrect the financial system as it existed in 2006—a self-regulated, self-rewarding, bubble-seeking, fraud-loving juggernaut.

To come to a conclusion: the primary purpose of the monetary monopoly is to mobilize resources for the public purpose. There is no reason why private, for-profit institutions cannot play a role in this endeavor. But there is also no reason to believe that self-regulated private undertakers will pursue the public purpose. Indeed, as institutionalists we probably would go farther and assert that both theory and experience tell us precisely the opposite: the best strategy for a profit-seeking firm with market power never coincides with the best policy from the public interest perspective. And in the case of money, it is even worse because private financial institutions compete with one another in a manner that is financially destabilizing: by increasing leverage, lowering underwriting standards, increasing risk, and driving asset price bubbles. Unlike my ELR example above, private spending and lending will be strongly pro-cyclical. All of that is in addition to the usual arguments about the characteristics of public goods that make it difficult for the profit-seeker to capture external benefits. For this reason, we need to analyze money and banking from the perspective of regulating a monopoly—and not just any monopoly but rather the monopoly of the most important institution of our society.

* Much confusion is generated by using the term “money” to indicate a money “thing” used to satisfy one of the functions of money. I will be careful to use the term “money” to refer to the unit of account or money as an institution, and “money thing” to refer to something denominated in the money of account—whether that is currency, a bank deposit, or other money-denominated liability

‘Monetization’ of Budget Deficits

By L. Randall Wray [via CFEPS]

It is commonly believed that government faces a budget constraint according to which its spending must be “financed” by taxes, borrowing (bond sales), or “money creation”. Since many modern economies actually prohibit direct “money creation” by the government’s treasury, it is supposed that the last option is possible only through complicity of the central bank—which could buy the government’s bonds, and hence finance deficit spending by “printing money”.

Actually, in a floating rate regime, the government that issues the currency spends by crediting bank accounts. Tax payments result in debits to bank accounts. Deficit spending by government takes the form of net credits to bank accounts. Operationally, the entities receiving net payments from government hold banking system liabilities while banks hold reserves in the form of central bank liabilities (we can ignore leakages from deposits—and reserves—into cash held by the non-bank public as a simple complication that changes nothing of substance). While many economists find the coordinating activities between the central bank and the treasury quite confusing. I want to leave those issues mostly to the side and simply proceed from the logical point that deficit spending by the treasury results in net credits to banking system reserves, and that these fiscal operations can be huge. (See Bell 2000, Bell and Wray 2003, and Wray 2003/4)

If these net credits lead to excess reserve positions, overnight interest rates will be bid down by banks offering the excess in the overnight interbank lending market. Unless the central bank is operating with a zero interest rate target, declining overnight rates trigger open market bond sales to drain excess reserves. Hence, on a day-to-day basis, the central bank intervenes to offset undesired impacts of fiscal policy on reserves when they cause the overnight rate to move away from target. The process operates in reverse if the treasury runs a surplus, which results in net debits of reserves from the banking system and puts upward pressure on overnight rates—relieved by open market purchases. If fiscal policy were biased to run deficits (or surpluses) on a sustained basis, the central bank would run out of bonds to sell (or would accumulate too many bonds, offset on its balance sheet by a treasury deposit exceeding operating limits). Hence, policy is coordinated between the central bank and the treasury to ensure that the treasury will begin to issue new securities as it runs deficits (or retire old issues in the case of a budget surplus). Again, these coordinating activities can be varied and complicated, but they are not important to our analysis here. When all is said and done, a budget deficit that creates excess reserves leads to bond sales by the central bank (open market) and the treasury (new issues) to drain all excess reserves; a budget surplus causes the reverse to take place when the banking system is short of reserves.

Bond sales (or purchases) by the treasury and central bank are, then, ultimately triggered by deviation of reserves from the position desired (or required) by the banking system, which causes the overnight rate to move away from target (if the target is above zero). Bond sales by either the central bank or the treasury are properly seen as part of monetary policy designed to allow the central bank to hit its target. This target is exogenously “administered” by the central bank. Obviously, the central bank sets its target as a result of its belief about the impact of this rate on a range of economic variables that are included in its policy objectives. In other words, setting of this rate “exogenously” does not imply that the central bank is oblivious to economic and political constraints it believes to reign (whether these constraints and relationships actually exist is a different matter).

In conclusion, the notion of a “government budget constraint” only applies ex post, as a statement of an identity that has no significance as an economic constraint. When all is said and done, it is certainly true that any increase of government spending will be matched by an increase of taxes, an increase of high powered money (reserves and cash), and/or an increase of sovereign debt held. But this does not mean that taxes or bonds actually “financed” the government spending. Government might well enact provisions that dictate relations between changes to spending and changes to taxes revenues (a balanced budget, for example); it might require that bonds are issued before deficit spending actually takes place; it might require that the treasury have “money in the bank” (deposits at the central bank) before it can cut a check; and so on. These provisions might constrain government’s ability to spend at the desired level. Belief that these provisions are “right” and “just” and even “necessary” can make them politically popular and difficult to overturn. However, economic analysis shows that they are self-imposed and are not economically necessary—although they may well be politically necessary. From the vantage point of economic analysis, government can spend by crediting accounts in private banks, creating banking system reserves. Any number of operating procedures can be adopted to allow this to occur even in a system in which responsibilities are sharply divided between a central bank and a treasury. For example, in the US, complex procedures have been adopted to ensure that treasury can spend by cutting checks; that treasury checks never “bounce”; that deficit spending by treasury leads to net credits to banking system reserves; and that excess reserves are drained through new issues by treasury and open market sales by the Fed. That this all operates exceedingly smoothly is evidenced by a relatively stable overnight interbank interest rate—even with rather wild fluctuations of the Treasury’s budget positions. If there were significant hitches in these operations, the fed funds rate would be unstable.

The Endogenous Money Approach

By L. Randall Wray [via CFEPS]

In Neoclassical theory, money is really added as an after thought to a model that is based on a barter paradigm. In the long run, at least, money is neutral, playing no role except to determine unimportant nominal prices. Money is taken to be an exogenous variable-whose quantity is determined either by the supply of a scarce commodity (for example, gold), or by the government in the case of a “fiat” money. In the money and banking textbooks, the central bank controls the money supply through its provision of required reserves, to which a deposit multiplier is applied to determine the quantity of privately-supplied bank deposits.

The evolving Post Keynesian endogenous approach to money offers a clear alternative to the orthodox, neoclassical approach. With regard to monetary theory, early Post Keynesian work emphasized the role played by uncertainty and was generally most concerned with money hoards held to reduce “disquietude”, rather than with money “on the wing” (the relation between money and spending). However, Post Keynesians always recognized the important role played by money in the “monetary theory of production” that Keynes adopted from Marx. Circuit theory, mostly developed in France, provided a nice counterpoint to early Post Keynesian preoccupation with money hoards, focusing on the role money plays in financing spending. The next major development came in the 1970s, with Basil Moore’s horizontalism (somewhat anticipated by Kaldor), which emphasized that central banks cannot control bank reserves in a discretionary manner. Reserves must be “horizontal”, supplied on demand at the overnight bank rate (or fed funds rate) administered by the central bank. This also turns the textbook deposit multiplier on its head as causation must run from loans to deposits and then to reserves.

This led directly to development of the “endogenous money” approach that was already apparent in the Circuit literature. When the demand for loans increases, banks normally make more loans and create more banking deposits, without worrying about the quantity of reserves on hand. Privately created credit money can thus be thought of as a horizontal “leveraging” of reserves (or, better, High Powered Money), although there is no fixed leverage ratio. In recent years, some Post Keynesians have returned to Keynes’s Treatise and the State Theory of Money advanced by Knapp and adopted by Keynes therein. Rather than imagining a barter economy that discovers a lubricating medium of exchange, this neo-Chartalist approach emphasizes the role played by the state in designating the unit of account, and in naming exactly what thing answers to that description. Taxes (or any other monetary obligations imposed by authorities) then generate a demand for that money thing. In this way, Post Keynesians need not fall into the “free market” approach of orthodoxy, which imagines some pre-existing monetized utopia free from the evil hands of government. The neo-Chartalist approach also leads quite nicely to Abba Lerner’s functional finance approach, which refuses to make a fine separation of fiscal from monetary policy. Money, government spending, and taxes are thus intricately interrelated. This approach rejects Mundell’s “optimal currency area” as well as the monetary approach to the balance of payments. It is not possible to separate fiscal policy from currency sovereignty-which explains why the “one nation, one currency” rule is so rarely violated, and when it is violated it typically leads to disaster (as in the current case of Argentina, and-perhaps-in the future case of the European Union!).

Like Keynes, Post Keynesians have long emphasized that unemployment in capitalist economies has to do with the fact that these are monetary economies. Keynes had argued that the “fetish” for liquidity (the desire to hoard) causes unemployment because it keeps the relevant interest rates at too high a level to permit sufficient investment to raise aggregate demand to the full employment level. While it would appear that monetary policy could eliminate unemployment either by reducing overnight interest rates, or by expanding the quantity of reserves, neither avenue will actually work. When liquidity preference is high, there may be no rate of interest that will induce investment in illiquid capital-and even if the overnight interest rate falls, this does not mean that the long term rate will. Further, as the horizontalists make clear, the central bank cannot simply increase reserves in a discretionary manner as this would only result in excess reserve holdings and push the overnight interest rate to zero without actually increasing the money supply. Indeed, when liquidity preference is high, the demand for, as well as the supply of, loans collapses. Hence, there is no way for the central bank to simply “increase the supply of money” to raise aggregate demand. This is why those who adopt the endogenous money approach reject ISLM-type analysis in which the authorities can eliminate recession simply by expanding the money supply and shifting the LM curve out.

Furthermore, unlike orthodox economists, Post Keynesians reject a simple NAIRU or Phillips Curve trade-off according to which some unemployment must be accepted as “natural” or as the cost of fighting inflation. Earlier, some Post Keynesians had argued for “incomes policy” as an alternative way of fighting inflation, however, that rarely proved to be politically feasible. Lately, at least some Post Keynesians have argued that not only is the inflation-unemployment “trade-off” unnecessary, but that full employment can be a complement to enhanced price stability. This is accomplished through creation of a “buffer stock” of labor, according to which the government offers to hire anyone ready, willing, and able to work at some pre-announced and fixed wage. The size of the buffer stock moves counter-cyclically, such that government spending on the program will act as an “automatic stabilizer”. At the same time, the fixed wage and benefit package helps to moderate fluctuation of “market” wages. Finally, it is emphasized that the “functional finance” approach to money and fiscal policy advanced by Lerner explains why any nation that operates with a sovereign currency will be able to “afford” full employment. In this way, it is recognized that while unemployment exists only in monetary economies, unemployment does not have to be tolerated even in monetary economies. When aggregate demand is low, fiscal policy-not monetary policy-can raise demand and provide the needed jobs. The problem is not that money is “neutral”, but that when demand is low, the private sector will not create money endogenously, hence, the government must expand the supply of HPM through fiscal policy. If a deficit results, this will increase reserves held by the banking system, which must be drained through sale of government bonds in order to prevent a situation of excess reserve holdings from pushing overnight interest rates to zero. Therefore, bond sales by the treasury are seen as an “interest rate maintenance operation” and not as a “borrowing” operation. Indeed, no sovereign issuer of the currency needs to borrow its own currency from its population in order to spend.



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