Debunking The Deficit Myth

Posts in this series
The Deficit Myth By Stephanie Kelton: Introduction And Index

The first chapter of Stephanie Kelton’s book The Deficit Myth takes up the biggest myth about federal government finances, the idea that federal budget deficits are a problem in themselves. The deficit myth is rooted in the idea that the federal government budget should work just like a household budget. A family can’t spend more than its income will support. The family has income, and may be able to borrow money, and the sum of these sets the limit on household spending. Those who propagate the deficit myth say government expenditures should be constrained by the government’s ability to tax and borrow. First the government has to find the money, either through taxes or borrowings, and only once it has found the money can it spend. The way things actually work is different.

In the real world, it goes like this. Congress votes to direct an expenditure and authorize payment. An agency carries out that direction. The Treasury instructs the Fed to pay a vendor. The Fed makes the payment by crediting the bank account of the vendor. That’s all that happens. It turns out that the real myth is that the Treasury had to find the money before the Fed would credit the vendor. That’s because the federal government holds the monopoly on creating money. U.S. Constitution Art. 1, §§8, 10. In practice this power is given to the Treasury, which mints coins, and to the Fed, which creates dollars. [1]

It also turns out that for the most part, the Treasury does cover the expenditure by taxing or borrowing, but because the government is an issuer of dollars, it isn’t necessary. [2] In the last few months, the Treasury has been selling securities and the Fed has been buying about 70% of them. Here’s a chart from FRED showing Fed holdings Fed holdings of treasury securities. The Fed may or may not sell those securities to third parties. If it doesn’t, they will be held to maturity and remitted as a dividend to the Treasury.

The recognition that spending comes first, and finding the money comes second is one of the fundamental ideas of MMT. Kelton describes her meeting with Warren Mosler who introduced her to these ideas; the stories are amusing and instructive. I particularly like this part:

[Mosler] began by referring to the US dollar as “a simple public monopoly.” Since the US government is the sole source of dollars, it was silly to think of Uncle Sam as needing to get dollars from the rest of us. Obviously, the issuer of the dollar can have all the dollars it could possibly want. “The government doesn’t want dollars,” Mosler explained. “It wants something else.”

“What does it want?” I asked.

“It wants to provision itself,” he replied. “The tax isn’t there to raise money. It’s there to get people working and producing things for the government.” Pp. 24-5.

Put a slightly different way, people accept the government’s money in exchange for goods and services because the government’s money is the only way to pay taxes imposed by the government. Kelton says she found this hard to accept. She spent a long time researching and thinking about it, and eventually wrote her first published peer-reviewed paper on the nature of money. [3]

The monopoly status makes governments the issuers of money, and everyone else is a user. That fundamental difference means that governments have different financial constraints than households, and that it certainly isn’t constrained by its ability to tax and borrow. Kelton offers several interesting and helpful analogies that can help people grasp the Copernican Revolution that this insight entails.

Once we understand that government doesn’t require tax receipts or borrowings to finance its operations, the immediate question become why bother taxing and borrowing at all. Kelton offers four reasons for taxation.

1. Taxation insures that people will accept the government’s money in exchange for goods and services purchased by the government.
2. Taxes can be used to protect against inflation by reducing the amount of money people have to spend.
3. Taxes are a great tool for reducing wealth inequality.
4. Taxes can be used to encourage or deter behaviors society wants to control. [4]

She explains borrowing this way: government offers people a different kind of money, a kind that bears interest. She says people can exchange their non-interest-bearing dollars for interest bearing dollars if they wish to. “… US Treasuries are just interest-bearing dollars.” P. 36. Let’s call the non-interest-bearing dollars “green dollars”, and the interest-bearing ones “yellow dollars”.

When the government spends more than it taxes away from us, we say that the government has run a fiscal deficit. That deficit increases the supply of green dollars. For more than a hundred years, the government has chosen to sell US Treasuries in an amount equal to its deficit spending. So, if the government spends $5 trillion but only taxes $4 trillion away, it will sell $1 trillion worth of US Treasuries. What we call government borrowing is nothing more than Uncle Sam allowing people to transform green dollars into interest-bearing yellow dollars. P. 36-7.

It might seem that there are no constraints, but that is not so. Congress has created some legislative constraints on its behavior, including PAYGO, the Byrd Rule, and the debt ceiling, but these can be waived, and always are if a majority of Congress really want to do something. They also serve as a useful way of lying to progressives demanding public spending on not-rich people, like Medicare For All. We have to pay for it under our PAYGO rules, they say, while waiving PAYGO for military spending (my language is harsher than Kelton’s).

The real constraints are the availability of productive resources and inflation. The correct question is not “where can we find the money”, but “will this expenditure cause unacceptable levels of inflation” and “do we have the real resources we need to do this” and “is this something we really want to do. As Kelton puts it, if we have the votes, we have the money.

In my next post, I will examine some of these points in more detail. Please feel free to ask questions or request elaboration in the comments.

[Graphic via Grand Rapids Community Media Center under Creative Commons license-Attribution, No Derivatives]

[1] Art. 1, §8 authorizes the federal government to create money; §10 prohibits the states from issuing money. That leaves open, for now, the possibility that private entities can issue money. Banks and from time to time other private entities play a role in the creation of money, but I do not see a discussion of this in the book.

For those interested, here’s a discussion of the MMT view from Bill Mitchell. I may take this up in a later post. In the meantime, note that every creation of money by a bank loan is matched by a related asset. Thus, bank creation of money does not increase total financial wealth. In MMT theory this is called horizontal money. It is contrasted with vertical money representing the excess of government expenditures over total tax receipts, which does increase financial wealth. Here’s a discussion of this point.

[2] There are, of course, constraints on government spending, especially inflation and resource availability. We’ll get to that in a later post.

[3] Kelton cites the paper in a footnote: The Role Of The State And The Hierarchy Of Money.

[4] Compare this list to the list prepared by Beardsley Ruml, President of the New York Fed, in 1946.

M&M Mars Candy, Trump and The Estate Tax Giveaway

[Ed Note: This is a guest post by our tax law expert friend Bob Lord. It is a particularized abject story of exactly what kind of interests are pushing the Trump “Tax Cuts” agenda, why, and how ridiculously corrupt and insulting to the 99.5% of America the effort really is.]

The Mars family has made billions selling us M&Ms, Snickers, and countless other Halloween treats for a century now. But when it comes to paying tax, the Mars family seems to be all tricks and no treats.

In fact, the family’s latest tax trick may have cost the U.S. Treasury a whopping $10 billion. What could $10 billion do? That’s the cost of delivering prenatal care to hundreds of thousands of expectant moms under Medicaid, an essential program that President Trump and the GOP Congress plan to cut by up to $1 trillion.

According to the current U.S. tax code, any American worth $25 billion can expect 40 percent of that, or $10 billion, to go to Uncle Sam in estate tax, the federal levy on the personal fortunes of deep pockets who kick the bucket. Forrest Mars Jr. had a $25-billion fortune when he died in July 2016. But the Mars family has apparently been able to avoid estate tax on that entire $25 billion.

How do we know? Researchers at Forbes and Bloomberg, the two business publications that track America’s billionaire wealth, have some fascinating numbers for us.

Forest Jr. and his two siblings started 2016 with personal fortunes in the vicinity of $25 billion. Now if Forrest’s fortune had been subject to a significant estate tax after he passed on, the collective wealth of his four daughters in 2017 would be substantially less than that $25 billion.

The just-released 2017 Forbes list of America’s 400 richest shows otherwise. Forbes puts the wealth of each of Forest’s four daughters at $6.3 billion, for a total of $25.2 billion. That’s almost identical to the 2017 fortunes of their Aunt Jacqueline and their Uncle John, each at $25.5 billion. The Bloomberg Billionaires Index reports similar numbers.

Should any of this surprise us? Not really. We’re seeing Mars family history repeat itself. Eighteen years ago, Forrest Mars Sr., the original Mars family billionaire, died. The Forbes 400 lists from the years surrounding 1999 show that the Mars family lost no wealth to estate tax back then either.

But the Mars family must at least be paying oodles of income tax, right? Nope. How could that be? This particular tax-avoidance story starts over a century ago, when Frank Mars incorporated his candy business.

Back then, the value of the stock in Mars Inc. had only minimal value. But over the years the stock appreciated considerably in value. By 1988, that appreciation had made the Mars family the wealthiest clan in America. The Mars billionaires still rank as one of America’s wealthiest families, in no small part because none of the gains in the value of the family’s Mars stock have ever been subject to income tax.

Is the Mars family content with its current level of tax savings? Apparently not. The family has joined with 17 other billionaire families and collectively spent $500 million lobbying Congress for reduced taxes on billionaires and the companies they run.

These companies face corporate income tax on their profits. Mars, Inc. has had to pay these taxes over the years. Unlike Mars family members as individuals, the Mars company hasn’t been able to sidestep its tax bills. But the Mars and other billionaire families have found a friend in President Trump and the current Republican-led Congress. The pending Trump-GOP tax plan would take a meat axe to corporate tax rates.

The resulting corporate tax savings, if this plan gets adopted, will likely translate into a multi-billion-dollar tax savings for Mars, Inc. — and a corresponding bump in the net worth of Mars family members.

The real prize for the Mars in the Trump tax plan? That may be in the elimination of the estate tax that the Trump White House is now pushing. Wait, what? How would the repeal of the federal estate tax help a family that’s already avoiding the estate tax?

For America’s ultra-wealthy, repealing the estate tax turns out to be more about the federal income than the federal estate tax. As Mars family history makes painfully clear, tax avoidance vehicles available under current law allow even billionaires to zero out their estate tax.

But billionaires, under current law, do pay an appreciable income tax price for their estate tax avoidance. Assets on which estate tax is avoided carry an offsetting income tax disadvantage. That disadvantage would vanish in a simple estate tax repeal.

What does that mean? Let’s say we have a billionaire who paid $10 million for stock now worth $100 million and does nothing to avoid estate tax on that stock The billionaire never has to pay income tax on that gain. Those who inherit that stock from the billionaire’s taxable estate can sell it for $100 million and not pay any income tax on the gain either.

But if that billionaire stashed that stock into a trust to avoid estate tax, he would forfeit that income tax advantage. The untaxed gain associated with the stock would be passed to the trust beneficiaries. These beneficiaries would face an income tax on the previously untaxed gain when they sell the stock.

If the Trump-GOP estate tax repeal takes the same final form as the estate tax repeal bill introduced in the House of Representatives in 2015, wealthy Americans will get to have it both ways: zero estate tax and the elimination of any untaxed gain at death.

And that would allow the next generation of Mars family members to avoid income tax on over a century’s worth of economic gain. Quite a trick, huh?

So enjoy the candy, America. The Mars family will keep the cash.

Happy Halloween!

[Robert J. Lord, a tax lawyer in Phoenix, Arizona and former Congressional candidate, is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.]

Revolutionary Changes in Economics

In this series, I tried to learn what Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions meant for economics. In this post, I suggested a possible paradigm for neoliberal economic theory. It uses the Ten Principles of Economics preached by N. Gregory Mankiw in his best-selling economics textbook, the general principle of maximization of economic efficiency, and a method suggested by David Andolfatto of the St. Louis Fed. Let’s assume the goals of neoliberalism fit the parameters described by Philip Mirowski in this article. I think my proposed paradigm can be used to generate the economic theory those parameters require, and I think that suits the goals of the people who fund academic neoliberalism just fine.

As Kuhn describes them, scientific revolutions take the form of a wholly new way to look at things, like an optical illusion. Where once our eyes told us that the sun revolves around the earth, now we know that it’s just the opposite. Not just is the earth not the center of the universe, we are on a small planet on the outskirts of a small galaxy, whirling around in a monstrously large physical space until entropy ends it. Since publication of Kuhn’s essay in 1962, there has been some discussion of such paradigm changes in economics, but as the series shows, I think old ideas do not die, but come back to haunt us, just as John Maynard Keynes said:

… the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil. Chap. 24 Sect. 5, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

I don’t know where Keynes got the optimism in the second half of that quote, any more than his seeming optimism about the end of laissez-faire theories. The ideas of Hayek and Friedman and their laissez-faire government-hating chest-beating right wing capitalism-worshipping true believers are still dominant nearly a century later. It just goes to show that if you capture the minds of the young, especially the young elites with textbooks like Mankiw’s, it’s mostly impossible to change their minds with mere facts and natural experiments from the real world.

Still, I think it’s quite possible to change some minds, or I wouldn’t bother with this. And there are new ideas, ideas just as revolutionary as any that Kuhn describes. One example is taxation. For centuries, people believed that the function of taxes was to provide the revenues to run the government. That may have been true in an age of gold. But in an age of fiat money, it’s just not true. Here’s a 1946 discussion by Beardsley Ruml, head of the New York Fed, explicitly stating this truth, and then offering justifications for taxation:

1. As an instrument of fiscal policy to help stabilize the purchasing power of the dollar;
2. To express public policy in the distribution of wealth and of income, as in the case of the progressive income and estate taxes;
3. To express public policy in subsidizing or in penalizing various industries and economic groups;
4. To isolate and assess directly the costs of certain national benefits, such as highways and social security.

This, of course, is the basis of Modern Money Theory. Here’s a quote from a readable and cogent explanation from L. Randall Wray:

But in the case of a government that issues its own sovereign currency without a promise to convert at a fixed value to gold or foreign currency (that is, the government “floats” its currency), we need to think about the role of taxes in an entirely different way. Taxes are not needed to “pay for” government spending. Further, the logic is reversed: government must spend (or lend) the currency into the economy before taxpayers can pay taxes in the form of the currency. Spend first, tax later is the logical sequence.

In the same way, most of us were taught that banks and other savings institutions were intermediaries between savers/depositors, and borrowers/investors. The role of the banks was to direct the accumulated assets of a society into their most profitable uses. No. Banks don’t need deposits to make loans. That idea, which I remember learning in Econ 101 at Notre Dame a very long time ago, is false. The bank merely makes book entries, one set to loans receivable, and one to deposits. This model is called finance and money creation in this 2014 paper by Zoltan jakab and Michael Kuhof of the IMF. Here’s the abstract:

In the loanable funds model of banking, banks accept deposits of resources from savers and then lend them to borrowers. In the real world, banks provide financing, that is they create deposits of new money through lending, and in doing so are mainly constrained by expectations of profitability and solvency. This paper presents and contrasts simple loanable funds and financing models of banking. Compared to otherwise identical loanable funds models, and following identical shocks, financing models predict changes in bank lending that are far larger, happen much faster, and have much larger effects on the real economy.

I remember learning about bank multiplier effects and the importance of reserves in determining the amount of money in circulation. It was one of those bizarre things that seemed logical until you realized that there was no particular reason to think any bank could or would actually lend all that money sensibly. Yet, as Jakob and Kuhof say, that is the theory incorporated into standard models of the economy. They create a new model using the financing theory, and get completely different predictions. These graphs are from the paper. The dotted lines are the predictions under the loanable funds model, and the solid lines are from the financing and money creation model.

graphs for post

At one level, this is just another reason to distrust economic models, because their basic assumptions are simply wrong. At another, it demonstrates that the standard paradigm is useless, because it treats the finance sector are irrelevant. And at another level, the new model demolishes the idea that the role of the bank is to intermediate savings. Savings are irrelevant to the main role of the bank, which is not to insure that savings are rewarded, but to make sure banks are rewarded.

Of course, such revolutionary changes won’t affect anyone not exposed to them and to their basis. And the wrong ideas will stay in textbooks for decades, insuring that generations will have them imprinted. No wonder nothing changes.

The proposed paradigm is set out here. In future posts in this series, I’ll attempt to show how each element contributes to the neoliberal economic theory that dominates the national discourse, and see whether I can find an optical illusion in each, leading to a better although not revolutionary understanding.