There are tons of delusional things said on the airwaves these days. Most are a simple variation that rhymes with a similar doomsday theme. One example, since our federal government’s debt is so unsustainable, before the entire US economic apparatus implodes, we should abolish the Fed, and go back to a gold standard, blah, blah. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference if these people are actually serious, or are they just hoping for ‘likes’ on their Facebook page, looking for orders on their websites, playing us for ratings, or maybe even pandering for primary election votes (so in cases like that, then I think those people are brilliant marketing geniuses).
That is not always the case with some claims, however. A bizarre statement I heard recently to substantiate an accusation of federal financial finagling was that the Clinton surpluses were a hoax, and that instead of those four years of surpluses, each of them were deficits. If you search ‘Clinton surplus myth’, you will see that there are many people that actually believe this. The main rationale of the ‘Clinton surplus myth’ mentality (which defies accounting reality) is that in each of those four Clinton surplus years, the total public debt, commonly known as the national debt, increased, and thus, that cancels out any ‘surplus’. How could there be a federal budget surplus, they claim, if total federal gov’t debt rose? How could the gov’t borrowing more money in one year be called a surplus in that year? More specifically, they ask how can the gov’t say there was a Clinton surplus of $237 billion in fiscal year 2000, if the total national debt that year increased $18 billion?
I will attempt to explain why, first, with a short answer. The reason why, is that instead of the US federal gov’t borrowing that $18 billion from someone else, the US federal gov’t borrowed that $18 billion from itself. The US federal gov’t has two books, or two set of ledgers, one that counts debt borrowed from others (“on-budget”), and another that counts debt borrowed from itself (“off-budget”). Spending $18 billion that you got from someone else’s pocket in exchange for an IOU that went into someone else’s pocket (“on-budget”) is an outright loss of money, and considered a liability, but spending $18 billion from your own pocket in exchange for an IOU that went into your own pocket (“off-budget”) is considered both an asset to yourself and a liability to yourself of equal amounts that, at the present moment, cancel each other out. ‘At the present moment’ is the key to why the Clinton surpluses were real. If you spend money today, money that is in your own pocket, but money that is earmarked for something else, some future expense, then that is not deficit spending, it’s not a loss, nor a liability, not yet, not until that day, that day when that pending “off-budget” expense is realized. For example, if you won at poker, when you get back home do you put all your winnings in a jar and leave it there for the next game (do you set up an “off budget” trust fund for future poker losses)? No, you don’t. As a ‘user’ of dollars (with a ‘user’ of dollars set of budget books), you simply spend the money right afterwards on whatever your next “on-budget” expenses are. Which is exactly what the federal gov’t does with excess FICA taxes (dollars withheld from your wages for Social Security); except the federal gov’t, an ‘issuer’ of dollars (with an ‘issuer’ of dollars set of budget books) DOES have that jar to keep track of winnings to consolidate their balance sheets. The federal gov’t records any excess FICA receipts (Social Security ‘winnings’) by putting an ‘IOU’ inside a ‘jar’ (puts an intra-government debt known as Gov’t Account Series bonds in the Social Security trust fund). Note that Social Security and the federal gov’t are two different pockets, but on the same pair of pants. That is why that “off-budget” debt in the year 2000 was not part of the “on-budget” surplus calculation, because that $18 billion increase in total national debt was not borrowed by the federal gov’t from others (which is an immediate liability), it was borrowed by the federal gov’t from itself (which isn’t yet a liability). When the federal gov’t ‘borrows’ from Social Security, it is ‘borrowing’ from itself, not from others, and why pending “off-budget” debt doesn’t negate any actual “on-budget” surplus.
Now here is the long answer. The US federal government has a legislated accounting construct that is quite complex. Being hard to understand, like many other issues today and throughout time, it naturally tempts a certain amount of people to be suspect of it, especially if it fits their subjective narrative. First of all, deficits and debts are two separate things. Deficits or surpluses reflect current cash flow, like entries on an income statement. Debt is a cumulative measure, like entries on a balance sheet. The US national debt ($19 trillion at this writing) is a sum of two separate things. The US national debt is the sum of public-held debt ($14 trillion) and intra-gov’t-held debt ($5 trillion). These two ‘debts’ are not both liabilities, and why they are posted separately in two different “on-budget” and “off-budget” ledger books.
The US federal gov’t fiscal year begins on October 1st and ends on September 30th. In the fiscal year ending September 30, 2000, the US federal govt had a surplus of $237 billion. In addition, the total US national debt was $ 5.655 trillion on September 30, 1999 and $ 5.673 trillion on September 30, 2000, so that was an annual increase of $18 trillion [SOURCE: Treasury Department’s ‘Monthly Treasury Statement of Receipts and Outlays of the United States Government’]. The total US national debt is the sum of the debt held by the public (“on-budget”) and the debt held by the gov’t (“off-budget”). The debt held by the public (owed to others) was $ 3.232 trillion on September 30, 1999 and it was $ 2.992 on September 30, 2000, so that was an “on-budget” decrease of $240 billion (The Clinton surplus). The debt held by the gov’t (‘owed’ to itself) was $ 2.423 on September 30, 1999 and $ 2.681 on September 30, 2000, so that was an “off-budget” increase of $258 billion, meaning a net $18 billion increase of both together, or, an $18 billion increase in the total US national debt. [SOURCE: google search ‘monthly statement of the public debt of the United States September 30, 2000’ and in the TreasuryDirect website click 1999, click September, click Summary Adobe Acrobat, repeat for 2000]
The ‘Clinton surplus myth’ movement points out this net $18 billion increase in total debt, and of that total $258 billion increase in govt-held debt, they specifically finger a $246 billion entry figure found in the same Monthly Treasury Statement [To find it, scroll to ‘Table 6. Schedule D’, ‘Net Purchases’, ‘Fiscal Year to Date’, ‘This Year’, ‘Grand total’]. This $246 billion is that year’s increase of intra-govt debt of off-budget items, mainly Social Security. What that means is the US Treasury took that year’s “off-budget” Social Security surplus, gave the Social Security trust fund an IOU in exchange for that cash money, and spent that cash money for other “on-budget” expenditures. The myth movement says that the federal gov’t surplus of $237 billion in 2000 would not have been possible without ‘borrowing’ the Social Security surplus. Only by ‘borrowing’ that fiscal year’s $246 billion off-budget surplus and by Treasury ‘trickery’ could that be called a fiscal year ‘surplus’. According to them, if there was an actual surplus, the national debt in 2000 would have come down, instead of going up $18 billion.
There is a difference when the federal gov’t has borrowed from itself (isn’t a liability), and when the federal gov’t has borrowed from others (is a liability), or more specifically, there’s a difference between “on-budget” and “off-budget” federal gov’t debt. What confuses everybody is that these two different types of debt are added together and called the national debt which makes them seem like the same types of debt. How are these debts different? During current “on-budget” operations, if the federal govt receives less money from individual federal tax withholding, corporate federal tax, etc., than it pays out while provisioning itself, running the country, etc., that “on-budget” deficit spending is financed with newly-created money. That newly-created money was approved by Congress and also was accounted for to the penny by selling additional “marketable” securities, or Treasury bonds, to the public. These additional Treasury bonds increase the federal gov’t debt “held by the public”. Furthermore, when the federal gov’t receives more money from “off-budget” operations, like Social Security payments deducted from paychecks, above what it pays out to those “off-budget” operations, like Social Security recipients, by law it must use that surplus to buy “non-marketable” Government Account Series securities, or what I personally like to call ‘pending’ Treasury bonds. These ‘pending’ Treasury bonds increase the federal gov’t debt “held by the govt”. These ‘pending’ Treasury bonds are placed in the corresponding trust fund for future redemption, and that surplus off-budget cash money is promptly spent on current on-budget expenditures. The sum of both those Treasury bonds issued and sold by the Treasury to finance on-budget deficit spending (debt held by the public), plus all those ‘pending’ Treasury bonds posted in off-budget trust funds (debt held by the gov’t) is the total public debt, or the national debt. The key difference is, only the marketable Treasury bonds issued that coincided with the newly created money to finance on-budget deficit spending are liabilities (because they already monetized an on-budget deficit). The non-marketable securities, or ‘pending’ Treasury bonds that are sitting in trust funds like the Social Security trust fund are not liabilities until they are redeemed by the trust fund (because they have not yet monetized an off-budget deficit)…
In other words, Treasury bonds held by the public and ‘pending’ Treasury bonds held within the federal government are both considered a debt, but both are not a liability. Only debt held by the public that financed on-budget deficit spending is reported just as a liability on the consolidated financial statements, the balance sheet of the United States government. Debt held by government accounts, or the intra-gov’t-held debt, is not (yet) reported just as a liability on the consolidated balance sheet of the United States government (not until it is redeemed by the trust fund). Using basic rules of accounting, not trickery, debt held by government accounts, or the intra-gov’t-held debt, is at the moment both an asset (to those trust funds) and a liability (to the Treasury), so they presently offset each other on the consolidated balance sheet, and why that fiscal year 2000 off-budget debt is separate from that fiscal year 2000 on-budget surplus.
So how does ‘pending’ off-budget debt (which isn’t counted in the 2000 surplus) become actual on-budget debt (that is counted in the 2000 surplus)? When any off-budget trust fund has a deficit in any given year, that trust fund needs to ‘finance’ that deficit. To finance that deficit, the trust fund will hand over some of their ‘pending’ Treasury bonds to the Treasury, and the Treasury will hand over newly created dollars. Newly created dollars means deficit spending, so just as in any on-budget federal gov’t deficit spending, those newly created dollars will be accounted for to the penny with a coinciding issuance of Treasury bonds. Those previously ‘pending’ Treasury bonds will become actual Treasury bonds. That previously ‘pending’ debt held by intra-gov’t will become actual debt held by the public. That previously ‘pending’ off-budget liability (caused by trust fund surplus savings) will become an actual on-budget liability (caused by trust fund deficit spending). Whether that given fiscal year has a total annual surplus or deficit will depend on actual liabilities (which depend on that year’s actual economic performance), not ‘pending’ liabilities (which depend on a future year’s hypothetical economic performance). To see the total debt, you look at the balance sheet, which is the entire, all-time, financial picture of the US federal gov’t from the very beginning. This total debt is the cumulative total of all the years up to the year 2000, made up of both the actual liabilities, or on-budget debt held by the public (money borrowed from others), and the ‘pending’ liabilities, the ‘pending’ off-budget debt held by gov’t (money ‘borrowed’ from itself). Conversely, to see the actual cash flow, you look at the income statement, which is the actual cash money flowing in and the actual cash money flowing out, or just the current, on-budget, actual cash flow that occurred in the year 2000. The bottom line of that US federal gov’t income statement shows that in that year 2000, the amount of actual cash money the federal gov’t took in was large enough to result in an on-budget fiscal year surplus. An increase in the total debt (+$18 billion) which includes a future-day ‘pending’ debt that is posted on the consolidated balance sheet doesn’t change the yearly income statement’s present-day bottom line cash surplus (+$237 billion). A cumulative balance sheet and a current cash flow statement are separate measures, of separate values, in separate time frames, and using separate rules of accounting. Comparing them together is like comparing apples to oranges.
The Clinton-surplus-myth mentality is yet another variation of the same theme, which is a gold-standard mentality that trips up many people when talking about the federal government. This outdated thinking from a bygone era contributes to a ‘federal-government-is-the-same-as-a-household’ groupthink (patterned behavioral and self-reinforcing group dynamic) that is widely pervasive today. Since leaving the gold standard for good in 1971, the federal gov’t is no longer like a household. In the post-gold standard, modern monetary system, when the federal gov’t, the issuer of dollars, ‘borrows’ dollars, it is not the same as when a household borrows dollars. As the saying goes, you can have your own opinions, but not your own facts. According to the Treasury Monthly Statement, in fiscal year 2000, the United States government had receipts of $ 2.025 trillion and outlays of $ 1.788 trillion and “the final budget results and details a surplus of $237 billion.” As per the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the US federal budget was in surplus and the Public Debt, or “debt held by the public” (money borrowed from others) was decreased during Clinton’s second term. Rather than grasping this hard reality and instead preferring to deny the accounting science, the Clinton-surplus-is-a-myth movement wants to engage you in a childish ‘What came first, the chicken or the egg’ argument. It bothers them that Clinton took a Social Security surplus and shamelessly used it to get his budget in surplus.
I have a compromise to offer to The-Clinton-surplus-is-a-myth folks: I’ll admit to them that Social Security being in surplus gets all the credit for putting Clinton’s budget in surplus if they’ll admit that the U.S. economy under the leadership of President Clinton was so strong that it put Social Security in surplus. If anyone says or posts otherwise, well, they won’t get a ‘like’ on their Facebook page from me.
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P.S. Thankfully, less and less folks are buying into the narrative that ‘social security is broke’. Here’s one of my favorite comments (comebacks) that I’ve read so far to date:
“When the Social Security Administration takes in more money than it paid out, what should it do with the extra money? Earn a bit of interest on it I’d say, wouldn’t you? That’s what they did, they bought a (special issue) Treasury Bond. Now what should the U.S. Treasury do with the money from the bond sale? How about do the exact same thing the U.S. Treasury always does with money from its bond sales!”—Charles ‘Kondy’ Kondak
Agreed… and note that when Kondy wrote that, the Social Security Trust Fund was sitting on 2.89 TRILLION dollars and even though another ADDITIONAL 10 THOUSAND baby boomers EVERY SINGLE DAY SINCE JAN 1ST 2011 starting collecting SS checks for the first time, the Trust Fund is running a $23B profit so far in 2018. The federal gov’t, the (sole monopoly) issuer of dollars, will NEVER have a problem ‘paying back’ this $2.89T to the Trust Fund (nor any “debt” denominated dollars).
The people saying ‘the Clinton surplus was a myth’ are having the same problem as the MMT people who say ‘the national debt is the amount of money the gov’t spent into existence and hasn’t taxed back yet’—they are all getting confused by surplus spending. When the federal gov’t runs a surplus, they hold hearings to decide what to do with them (how to spend them). The choices are either to pay off Treasury bonds that lowers the national debt or to pay for fiscal policies like more spending +/or tax cuts. It was decided that the Clinton surpluses were NOT to be used to pay off Treasury bonds (and with both candidate George W. Bush and Fed Chair Greenspan’s blessings) they eventually funded the next administration’s increased spending and tax cuts. In other words, for the ‘surplus was a myth’ people, just because surpluses don’t lower the national debt (weren’t ‘spent’ on paying off bondholders) doesn’t mean they weren’t a surplus at all; and for the MMT people, the national debt is the amount of money the gov’t hasn’t taxed back AND then used to lower the national debt (SEE Deadly Innocent Misinterpretation #28).
Thanks for reading,
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