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Sat Mar 1, 2014, 01:03 AM

Taxes donít fund government; public debt doesnít need to be paid off

In this post, I foolishly wade into the sticky morass that is monetary policy. Bear with me.

A common way to look at how taxes, government spending, and public debt work is a very intuitive one:

The government takes in taxes. These taxes are used to pay for government spending. If the taxes are more than the spending, the government runs a surplus for the year. If the taxes are less than the spending, the government runs a deficit for the year, and must issue bonds (borrow money) to make up the difference.


This is intuitive but completely wrong, and gets backwards what is actually going on.

I want to start with the end of that paragraph in particular: "and must issue bonds (borrow money) to make up the difference". Even a very conventional economist will eventually admit that this isnít in fact true; the government (assuming it has its own central bank Ė so weíre not talking about the Eurozone right now) can also "print money" to make up the difference. It can simply say "well, through the magic of central banking we now have the money to make up the difference between receipts and outlays."

So, borrowing is one way a government can "make up the difference"; not the only way. And looking at the question with that in mind, one is led to the fundamental fact that a government like the US's actually canít ever "need" dollars; it is capable of generating as many of them as it wants instantly. So looking at taxes as a way of getting dollars that the government needs for spending is clearly wrong.

But why, then, does the government tax or borrow at all? Why not just create the money it needs every year? Even a high school economics student can tell you, "inflation": doing so will decrease the value of money to the point that itís not worth doing. But this also leads to my first point:

Taxation isnít a way to get the government revenue that it doesnít (and canít) need; itís a way to control the money supply.

Since the government canít need a dollar, and can create them at any time it wants, itís possible to look at every dollar paid in taxes as disappearing from the economy, and every government dollar spent as being created when it is spent. Actually, itís better to look at it that way: as weíre fond of saying, "a government is not a household", and getting rid of a model that treats it like one is a good thing.

So why does the government borrow money? Iím glad you asked. Look at a bond issue from the perspective above, of money being created when the government spends it and destroyed when the government receives it. When the government borrows money, it takes (ie, destroys) a dollar now in exchange for a promise to spend (ie, create) a dollar and a bit more later. Itís a way of signalling the intended future size of the money supply, and of growing it at a predictable rate. Just like with banks, debt is where growth comes from. Furthermore, since we use the bond market to set interest rates (ie, how much the "a bit more" above actually means), itís also a way of gauging the marketís reaction to the proposed future money supply

Currently, for the US, that "a bit more" is actually negative in real terms Ė people are asking for a lower return on bonds than the already-low rate of inflation. To put it facilely, the world is paying the US government for the privilege of lending us money. What the market has achieved (whether it "wants" this is a different question, one I canít answer) is that instead of promising a steady future growth of the money supply, the debt as it stands will decrease the (real) money supply as the government pays (creates) less in real terms for redemptions than it received (destroyed) for the original bonds. On a side note, this is probably a decent argument for stopping all taxing (which has the same effect on the money supply as negative-interest borrowing) until the interest rates come up enough that borrowing is again a net real money-creator rather than money-destroyer. Also as a side note, this is whatís "actually" going on with the QE attempts at the Fed: if the debt isnít monetized now, it will end up shrinking the real money supply when itís redeemed, which nobody wants (like I said, an easier version of the same thing would simply be to stop all taxation for a year or two and let the deficit get up to where the market "wants" it).

But then the debt would increase. Quelle horreur! I often hear "we canít leave this debt for our children to pay off", and I scratch my head a little each time. This leads me to my second point:

The national debt never needs to be "paid off".

It never needs to be smaller than it is. In fact, "paying it off" would be a pretty horrible idea and would send the fixed-income market (and with it, most of our retirement funds) reeling. Again, governments arenít households. For that matter, raising taxes and cutting spending to "pay off the debt" (one or both of those being everybody politicianís basic plan, seemingly) completely misses the point, I suppose because it buys into the "taxes pay for government" fallacy. US debt is dollar-denominated. The US government can create as many dollars as it wants. If the debt per se is actually a "problem", particularly "the most pressing problem of our day" or whatever, then we can pay it off tomorrow if we want (we donít want, which is why we haven't) at the cost of inflation.

But what about interest payments? What about them? They're kind of the point: the purpose of the bond was to destroy some money in the past and create a somewhat larger amount of money in the future. This is a feature, not a bug. Whenever I mention that real interest rates are negative someone always says, "yeah, but they won't always be". To which my response is, "great, then the debt will finally be able to go back to doing its job of predictably increasing the money supply". We would like positive (if low) real interest because we would like the debt to continue to be a money supply growth tool

The public perception problems here are tied up together. If you think (wrongly) that ďtaxes fund governmentĒ rather than (rightly) ďtaxes are a way the government controls the money supplyĒ, then you also think ďdebt means that at some point in the future we will need to pay more or receive less to pay it offĒ. But, of course, being ďin debtĒ of something you control the supply of is a ludicrous idea. It may well be useful at points in the future to destroy more money (raise taxes) or create less (cut spending) in order to change the balance of the money supply expected in the future, but (firstly) this is hardly the end of the world itís presented as, and (secondly) we only ďneedĒ to do either if itís more convenient for us in terms of the size and value of our money supply.

Governments are not households. There is no repo man who is going to come take Mount Rushmore. The national debt is a (pretty good) technique we have to manage current and future money supply, and it complements money destruction (taxes) and money creation (spending) pretty well.

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Reply Taxes donít fund government; public debt doesnít need to be paid off (Original post)
Recursion Mar 2014 OP
geckosfeet Mar 2014 #1
Pretzel_Warrior Mar 2014 #2
Recursion Mar 2014 #4
Pretzel_Warrior Mar 2014 #3
Recursion Mar 2014 #5
bemildred Mar 2014 #6

Response to Recursion (Original post)

Sat Mar 1, 2014, 02:43 AM

1. Soverign debt debt must be paid back. Bonds must be redeemable.

If not then there is no government. It holds no real power to govern and becomes irrelevant. Similar to european royalty, king and queen of England etc. Figureheads incapable making and enforcing policy.

Now, whose policies are enforced becomes an issue. If those who would be taxed buy government votes we run into real problems. The extremly wealthy become the owners of the government. I think that this is where the US government is finding itself.

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Response to geckosfeet (Reply #1)

Sat Mar 1, 2014, 03:03 AM

2. I'm sure he means net total debt. public debt is being paid off all of the time and treasury

 

is in a constant cycle of selling new rounds of treasury bills. Often to the same customers who are redeeming their previous t-bills once they've matured.

Right now, there is a very low premium on short term and longer term treasuries so there's not exactly an incentive to stop borrowing.

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Response to geckosfeet (Reply #1)

Sat Mar 1, 2014, 03:18 AM

4. Any given bond, sure. But the government can just issue a new one

A given bond has to be paid off, yes, but there's no particular reason our debt should ever be smaller than it is.

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Response to Recursion (Original post)

Sat Mar 1, 2014, 03:09 AM

3. taxation payments do not per se destroy money supply

 

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Response to Pretzel_Warrior (Reply #3)

Sat Mar 1, 2014, 03:22 AM

5. Why not?

It's not like a given dollar is reified and can be traced from point A to point B. Creation and destruction are much more useful ways to look at it than receipt and outlay when you're dealing with something that can create or destroy dollars any time it wants.

Look at it this way: Congress could obligate the Fed to literally zero out the Treasury's account every midnight and then re-fill it at 12:00:01. The money supply would go up and down like I'm talking about. Since there would be no difference between that and what we do now, why distinguish them?

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Response to Recursion (Original post)

Sat Mar 1, 2014, 05:08 AM

6. +1. nt

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