Reflections on The Deficit Myth

Posts in this series

The Deficit Myth By Stephanie Kelton: Introduction And Index
Debunking The Deficit Myth
MMT On Inflation

The first three posts in this series address the Introduction and the first two chapters of Stephanie Kelton’s The Deficit Myth. In this post I add her definition of money and some of my thoughts, and invite readers to do the same, either questioning points she made or applying her ideas to our society.

1. Modern Monetary Theory starts by asking one question: how does money work in a fiat currency nation. Kelton defines money in her first published paper: The Hierarchy of Money. This is a very readable discussion of the range of opinions on this subject, focused on the argument between the Metalists and the Chartalists, which began over 400 years ago. [1] Kelton starts with a definition of money. [2]

Money represents a debt-relation or promise to pay that exists between human beings. It cannot be identified independently of its institutional usages, because money represents a social relationship. … The creation of money, then, is simply the balance sheet operation that records this social relation. (Emphasis in original.)

According to Kelton, the Chartalists called money any token representing a debt relationship. Thus, a postal stamp is a money: it represents an asset to the owner and a debt to the Post Office which is satisfied by delivering a letter. A plane ticket is money: it represents the obligation of the airline to fly the holder to a particular place at a particular time. Bank deposits are money: they are a liability of the bank which must deliver money at the direction of the account holder. The rule for creation of money is the agreement by one person to hold the debt of another. [2]

Now consider the dollar. The dollar is a creation of the federal government. Kelton writes:

Thus, State money is created when the public agrees to hold (as an asset) state-created money (a liability to the State) which is required in payment of taxes.

This explains why currency and other forms of dollars (bank deposits, treasury securities, and bank reserves at the Fed) are liabilities of the federal government. We users agree to hold these dollars as assets. We can use them to acquire different forms of assets from sellers, obtain services from providers, and pay taxes. When the government collects taxes, it matches that asset with a corresponding liability and clears to zero.

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that money is a balance sheet representation of the debt/asset relations between human beings, a social relationship. That understanding is crucial to the arguments advanced in The Deficit Myth.

2. Kelton calls for a Copernican Revolution in the way we think about money. This, of course, is a reference to the Copernican Theory, which said that the earth revolves around the Sun, and not vice versa, despite what we see with our own eyes. The ramifications of the Copernican Revolution eventually led to a complete change in our understanding of the nature of reality. [3] The revolutionary change she describes is that US government spending is not constrained by its ability to tax and borrow, but by the actual resources available, labor, material, and the organization of production. One important part of The Deficit Myth is the description of the kinds of changes we have to make in our own thinking. But there are many more revolutions. Here are three.

a. Congress ducks policy arguments by turning them into discussions of budgets or into political games. That never made sense, because all budgeting is about priorities. Games like pay-fors or one-upmanship on military spending were always perverse, but both parties pretended these were real arguments. They aren’t. MMT strips away one more layer of pretense.

b. Mainstream economists refuse to look honestly at MMT. Marion Fourcade and her colleagues at Berkeley published a paper examining the economics profession titled The Superiority of Economists, a devastating critique of their pretensions. Among other things, economists tell us that markets should make our decisions about allocation of resources, and that anything that interferes with the operations of markets is harmful to society. When government spending is between 35 and 45% of GNP prior to the pandemic, it’s stupid to argue that markets are the best form of allocation of resources. When capitalists exercise outlandish control of government spending priorities, it’s stupid to argue that markets should determine what we can and can’t have.

Many economists hold themselves out as experts on all sorts of things, including the pandemic. In the MMT world, as Kelton points out, economists would concentrate on predicting the inflationary effect of spending choices, and get completely out of the business of telling us how we should make decisions about allocation of resources.

c. Historically, people thought that the most important problem facing an economy was to accumulate capital and turn it to productive use for the benefit of society. The chosen solution was Capitalism, and to encourage capitalists to invest, we allowed them to reap outlandish profits through monopoly, grants from the Crown, and other favors, while ignoring the fraud and corruption those policies entailed. This continued in the US, with gigantic giveaways to railroad and mining companies, ludicrous levels of patent protection, and grotesquely unfair tax rules, while mostly ignoring or even praising graft, corruption and fraud. The results of coddling capitalists are rubbed in our faces every day.

MMT gives us space to think about the way society could operate to make our lives better. It allows us to make decisions about what we need and want. We do not have to accept whatever is on offer from Capitalists. We can decide based on our principles, morals, values and dreams. MMT puts us in charge, and frees us from the domination of the rich. It opens the door to the “euthanasia of the rentier”, as Keynes calls it in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

Now, though this state of affairs would be quite compatible with some measure of individualism, yet it would mean the euthanasia of the rentier, and, consequently, the euthanasia of the cumulative oppressive power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity-value of capital.

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

[1] Fun fact, Adam Smith may have held Chartalist views. Kelton quotes him thus:

A prince, who should enact that a certain proportion of his taxes should be paid in a paper money of a certain kind, might thereby give a certain value to this paper money.

[2] Kelton doesn’t go into the history of money, but this BBC article is a fascinating picture of trade in Ancient Sumeria, and gives a tantalizing hint about the origin of money in record-keeping and accounting for trade.

[3] For a fascinating and occasionally comprehensible discussion of this new understanding, see Reality Is Not What It Seems, by Carlo Rovelli.

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.

The Deficit Myth By Stephanie Kelton: Introduction and Index

Stephanie Kelton’s new book, The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy is now available, and I will be discussing it in a series of posts. [1]

Kelton lays out the structure of the book in her Introduction. She starts with a common bumper sticker approach to the federal deficit: Uncle Sam looking abashed while holding out his pockets to show they’re empty. That image dominates most discussion of budgeting in the US. It depicts an individual facing the limits of personal finance. It relies on this image to create panic about federal deficits. This is the dominant view among politicians of both parties. In a New York Times opinion piece, Kelton reminds us that a group of 60 Congressmen, 30 from each legacy party, are terribly worried about the deficit. This kind of deficit hawkery hit President Obama in 2010 after the weak financial stimulus offered by Democrats after the Great Crash.

That month, in his State of the Union address, he committed to a reversal of fiscal stimulus, telling the nation, “Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same.” What followed was a sustained period of self-inflicted harm.

These 60 legislators learned nothing from the misery created by Obama’s turn to austerity, and just like Obama are prepared to hurt Americans in desperate need of assistance following the collapse of the economy, a pandemic, and political upheaval. These supposedly principled people couldn’t agree on actual proposals to increase taxes or cut programs.

Instead, they called for the Government Accountability Office to issue an annual report detailing the government’s fiscal health. They also endorsed legislation introduced last year that would create “rescue committees” to recommend fixes for Social Security, Medicare and other trust funds that are projected to become insolvent.

And they called for adopting goals for managing the debt, such as setting a limit based on its share of the economy. Such a move, they said, “would reduce debt-limit brinkmanship as long as the budget remains on a responsible path.”

It would serve them right if the GAO read Kelton’s book and concluded, as she does, that they are dangerously wrong. By the way, the Fed disagrees with these spineless wonders, and says more fiscal stimulus is needed. It goes without saying that the Fed is more likely to be right than legislators mired in the economics and politics of the past.

Kelton calls for a Copernican Revolution:

MMT changes how we view our politics and economics by showing that in almost all instances federal deficits are good for the economy. They are necessary. P. 7.

There is no doubt that Modern Monetary Theory would require a revolutionary change in our understanding of economics. Here’s a tweet from Paul Krugman [2]:

No revolutionary thinking needed says Krugman, carry on. I assume this is a reference to Krugman’s general view that the US can borrow cheaply thanks to the low interest rates set by the Fed, and that bonds will be issued to “pay for” economic support. That’s not what’s happening. The Fed is buying the securities issued by the Treasury to “pay for” whatever Congress said to pay for. Between February 27 and May 31, the national debt increased $2.4 trillion while Fed holdings of treasuries increased by $1.657 trillion. [3] In other words, the Fed bought about 70% of the new issuance, simply by marking up the Treasury’s account at the Fed. That’s blatantly creating money out of thin air. It’s important to add that no one is going to pay off the securities owned by the Fed unless the Fed decides to sell them to third parties. I wonder if the 60 Representatives who signed that letter know that. Or care. Or understand why it’s relevant.

Kelton takes up six myths about the economy in her book.

1. The US government should budget itself like a household.
2. The deficit is evidence of overspending.
3. Deficits will burden the next generation.
4. Deficits crowd out private investment undermining long-term growth.
5. Deficits make the US dependent on foreign investment.
6. Entitlements will cause a huge future problem.

Then she discusses our real crises:

The fact that 21 percent of all children in the United States live in poverty—that’s a crisis. The fact that our infrastructure is graded at a D+ is a crisis. The fact that inequality today stands at levels last seen during America’s Gilded Age is a crisis. The fact that the typical American worker has seen virtually no real wage growth since the 1970s is a crisis. The fact that forty-four million Americans are saddled with $1.7 trillion in student loan debt is a crisis. And the fact that we ultimately won’t be able to “afford” anything at all if we end up exacerbating climate change and destroying the life on this planet is perhaps the biggest crisis of them all. These are real crises. The national deficit is not a crisis. P. 11-12.

And I’ll add one more: the grotesque skewing of wealth and income to white poeple is a crisis.

This book is a joy to read. It’s written for non-economists. The language is lucid and precise, with no jargon. I hope people will discuss it in the comments as I move through it. I’ll try to answer any and all questions to the best of my ability.

I will also add my own comments, but I will separate my thinking from Kelton’s. I know of two areas I want to discuss in more detail. First, as I see it MMT is an example of a pragmatic approach to the study of economics. I offer a primer on pragmatism in three posts, here, here, and here. In contrast, mainstream economics rests heavily on Bentham and Mills’ Utilitarianism, but it’s buried deeply in the history of economics, and is never discussed as a normative principle. For an introduction to this area, search the site for William Stanley Jevons.

The value of pragmatism is that it strives to be non-normative. It leaves discussion of what should we do to political or some other discourse. Mainstream economics claims to know how things should be: the market is all-knowing and politics should never interfere with its operation.

This book lays out an argument for MMT as the foundation for an economics for progressives. It offers an understanding of the way our government funds itself which can free us from the constraints demanded by the rich and powerful. It shows us how to use federal monopoly control over money for the benefit of all of us, not just the filthy rich. With this book, we can master the basic concepts and teach them to our friends and neighbors, and especially to our politicians.

[1] My original plan was to discuss John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems, but that was derailed by a bad case of quarantine brain. I’ll return to that excellent book next. One of the reasons to discuss that book is that Dewey, the leading pragmatist, opens with a discussion of that theory.
[2] I replied to this tweet.
[3] The Fed’s weekly balance sheets are here. Debt figures from the Treasury are here.

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