Local taxes fund spending.
State taxes fund spending.
Federal taxes fund spending…however…* (see below)
The oft-abused phrase “Federal Taxes Do Not Fund Spending” is not entirely accurate. I don’t question anyone’s motive saying it, to be clear, I am 100% positive that each time it is said by an MMTer (Modern Monetary Theory enthusiast), no question it is to promote MMT. Federal gov’t DEFICIT spending (the spending that is not funded by taxes) was only 15% of total spending last year. Besides not being entirely accurate, saying ‘Federal taxes do not fund spending’ veers off course from that first of Seven Deadly Innocent Frauds, which states that it is incorrect to think that federal taxes “must raise funds through taxation”, and that it is incorrect to think that federal “gov’t spending is limited by its ability to tax” (7DIF pg 13). I interpret that as saying that because the federal gov’t is now spending fiat dollars, there is no longer any constraint on federal spending, nor any solvency risk. I don’t interpret that as saying that federal ‘taxes do not fund spending’, but as meaning that the federal gov’t, while it is taking in tax revenues, while it is indeed spending those funds, because it is the issuer of fiat dollars (instead of a user of gold backed dollars), those revenues, those federal taxes are NOT NEEDED to fund spending anymore, a big difference. ’Federal taxes do not fund spending’ is a deadly innocent misinterpretation of this MMT pillar…
‘Federal taxes do not fund spending’ is also a misinterpretation of the accounting construct on the consolidated balance sheets of the federal gov’t. When taxes are paid, yes, those dollars are ‘destroyed’, it’s a simple bank entry, a bank debit, a ‘dollar drain’, debited from the taxpayer’s account, but that’s only half of it, only one side of the seesaw. Rather than thinking that ‘dollar drain’ is a simple change of numbers on a spreadsheet, you should be thinking where are those dollars draining to; and more importantly, other than a taxpayer’s bank account balance, that federal taxation just ‘destroyed’ net financial assets (dollars in the banking system). Thanks to the consolidated balance sheets of the federal gov’t however, that debit of taxes creates an equal and opposite entry, a ledger posting, a credit (funded by taxes), to the federal gov’t, which in turn is immediately debited back, to someone else, a.k.a. ‘surplus spending’, the spending funded by dollars that DO NOT add net financial assets (that is not a net increase in the amount of dollars in the banking system). So rather than only seeing taxes as a ‘destruction’ (debit) of dollars out from the money supply, you need to also see it as an equal and opposite creation (credit) to the federal gov’t of previously-existing, or more significantly, as previously-Congressional-approved dollars; which are then subsequently ‘refunded’ back into the money supply (without Congressional approval), and instantly making whole those net financial assets, those dollars in the banking system being ‘destroyed’ by federal taxation…
In a post titled “Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) Critique”, Cullen Roche, founder of Orcam Financial Group, cites five MMT ‘flaws’, or in his words, the five ‘myths’ of MMT. As per John Biesterfeldt, creator of the popular Facebook website ‘Intro to MMT’, Cullen and others in his camp like economist Jan Hatzius of Goldman Sachs are smart guys and considered ‘MMT compliant’ (meaning they know what they are talking about and are seldom wrong). In his very first ‘myth’, Cullen takes aim at ‘taxpayers don’t fund anything’. By the third ‘myth’, Cullen makes this damning indictment: “(MMT) even goes so far as to create their own alternative reality wherein they consolidate the Fed into the Treasury to make their fantasy accounting world appear more accurate. They literally create a fictional world in order to make the flawed accounting look correct.” Cullen has a point there. MMTers that say ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ have simply waved bye bye to bookkeeping, to basic accounting reality. For example, when debating a so-called ‘Deficit Owl’, I was told, and I quote, “There’s no such actual tangible or concrete thing as surplus spending or deficit spending” unquote (why offline that person is now referred to as The Owl That Lost His Glasses). John Biesterfeldt, in response to another misguided statement that ‘US Treasury bond sales do not fund spending’, replied that “Treasury bond sales fill Treasury’s (General Funds) account at the Fed, and that (deficit) spending comes from that account”, the perfect answer, simply because it’s true. Tax revenues are also posted to this same General Funds Account, which is Treasury’s checking account at the central bank (which is just like your checking account at your bank that you use to fund your spending). Don’t take John’s word for it, go see for yourself, go to the website of the US Department of the Treasury, where it says that the “United States Treasury oversees the disbursement of payments to the public,” meaning that the ‘United States Treasury’ is paying for the spending. Every year, on April 15th, when you pay your federal taxes due, you must make your check or money order payable to the ‘United States Treasury’, meaning your taxes fund that (surplus) spending. Don’t take my word for it, check out the Daily Treasury Statement (the ‘checkbook’ of the US Treasury) found online. See for yourself (and anyone else that you just said ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ to can go see for themselves) that federal tax dollars are going in and going out for federal spending. Unlike you or me (a user of dollars) that ‘uses’ the same dollars to pay for spending with another user; your federal tax dollars, are ‘destroyed’, those dollars are debited, out from your commercial bank, out from the banking system, and then ‘different’ dollars are issued (by the issuer of dollars) to pay for their spending, SURE, but that doesn’t mean your federal tax dollars were not credited to the Treasury, not counted towards surplus spending. At the very same time that your taxes are ‘destroyed’ on one ledger, your tax dollars also ‘destroy’, to the penny, an equal amount of federal gov’t deficit spending on another ledger. Your taxes reduce the amount of deficit spending. As MINETHIS1, another pure MMTer, has said repeatedly, without federal tax revenues, deficit spending would have been $3.8T in 2016 (20% of GDP), but deficit spending was only $0.5T in 2016 (3% of GDP) because taxes ‘destroyed’ the rest. The pure MMT thinking is that federal revenues like Treasury bond sales and taxes ARE NOT NEEDED to fund spending, not the nonsensical notion that they don’t at all. Another pearl from Cullen Roche: “The thing that gives you credit is primarily your assets and income. The same is true of a (federal) gov’t. A gov’t needs to finance their spending to prove to the private sector that they have credit. The fact that a central bank can issue money in perpetuity does not mean they don’t need income sources to finance their spending….The fact that they (The Bank of Zimbabwe) can’t run out of money doesn’t mean they never needed a revenue source.” Some MMTers that say ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ need to understand that IF they are interested in understanding pure MMT. Some won’t however, because these folks have co-opted MMT to advance their causes, to push a special interest, or to shill for a political movement. They aren’t promoting MMT. They are only promoting themselves (under the guise of promoting MMT). ‘Ober Meister’, commenting on a Facebook thread, explains why the ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ crowd says it that way: “Most people don’t use accounting identities, mathematics or even logic while reasoning. They use praxeology (metaphorical thinking and moral ‘framing’ like Orwellian gimmickry) to argue economic policy, using morality and ethics to derive conclusions instead of mathematics.” In other words, when saying ‘taxes don’t fund spending’, these MMTers mean well, but unfortunately they are not advancing MMT (they have no idea how ridiculous they sound to a non MMTer)…
All MMTers say that the federal gov’t deficit equals our surplus, which is true. They say that federal gov’t deficit spending funds our savings, which is absolutely correct. Federal gov’t deficits equal our surplus, agreed; federal gov’t deficits fund our savings to the penny, absolutely; and federal gov’t deficits fund our spending on things like paying our federal taxes or buying Treasury bonds, most certainly; but why do some MMTers have trouble saying that the other way around? In FY99, the US federal gov’t spent $1.704 trillion dollars and federal tax revenues were $1.827 trillion dollars, meaning that on top of federal taxes funding ALL federal spending in 1999, there was also a federal gov’t profit, a federal gov’t surplus, a federal gov’t ‘savings’ of $123B. So in that case, why do some MMTers hide their ‘sectoral balances’ chart and say that our deficits, that our federal taxes, didn’t fund those surpluses, didn’t fund those federal gov’t savings? Let’s take a closer look at the process using actual amounts from last year. In FY16, (Oct 1, ‘15 – Sept 30,‘16), the US federal gov’t spent $3.854 trillion (100%). Federal gov’t tax revenues (federal income tax, social security & medicare withholdings) was $3.267 trillion (85%), and the difference, $587 billion (15%), was deficit spending. Plug those percentages into the sectoral balances chart and it looks like this:
[G – T] (federal gov’t sector) = [S – I] + [M – X] (non federal gov’t domestic sector + non federal gov’t international sector)
At the beginning of the fiscal period, before any federal gov’t spending (G) or federal gov’t taxes (T), before any non federal gov’t domestic sector a.k.a. private sector savings (S) or investment (I), or any non federal gov’t international sector imports (M) or exports (X):
[Gov’t spending – Taxes] = 0
[(S)avings – (I)nvestment] + [iMports – eXports] = 0
(federal gov’t) 0 = 0 (non federal gov’t)
Then we have total federal gov’t spending of $100 (100%) before including any federal gov’t tax revenues (based on actual 2016 figures):
G – T = 100 – 0
If [G – T], the federal gov’t, equals 100 – 0, then by accounting identity it also equals [S – I] + [M – X], the non federal gov’t domestic plus the non federal gov’t international:
S – I + M – X = 100
(federal gov’t deficit spending) 100 = 100 (non federal gov’t surplus savings)…
Then we factor in total federal gov’t tax revenues of 85 (85%) with that total spending (based on actual 2016 amounts):
G – T = 100-85
S – I + M – X = 15
(federal gov’t deficit spending) 15 = 15 (non federal gov’t surplus savings)…
MMTers that say ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ get hung up on ‘the deficit spending is the beginning’, they insist that ‘federal gov’t spending comes first, BEFORE taxes are paid’ as shown above. Sure, this is true, no argument there, but that’s not the only perspective. Another way to look at it, step one, is that taxes defunds net financial assets; then step two, surplus spending refunds that decrease of dollars in the banking system; and step three, deficit spending funds increases of net financial assets. If you want to say number three comes first, like shown above, FINE, go ahead, but it really doesn’t matter, because once you step back from the picture, you will see that all three are part of huge cycle, an ebb and flow, a perpetual motion, a man-made economic ecology, inside our very own US dollar dominion. John Biesterfeldt: “I’m not crazy about the ‘govt must spend the currency into existence first’ argument,” adding, “It’s misleading…and I don’t think it squares with our history.” I agree, there is no ‘beginning’ or ‘end’ on this, just like on any other circle. Here’s the exact same circle again, except this time we show the total federal gov’t revenues being paid first:
G – T = 0-85
S – I + M – X = (-85)
Federal gov’t deficit spending of negative 85 (a.k.a. federal gov’t surplus of positive 85) = non federal gov’t surplus savings of negative 85 (non federal gov’t ‘dissavings’ of positive 85). In other words, a non federal gov’t ‘defunding’, an actual clawback, of net financial assets out from the non federal gov’t (the ‘destruction’ of dollars out from the banking system)…
As usual (as per the accounting construct of the Consolidated Balance Sheets of the US federal gov’t), any federal gov’t surpluses no matter the source (on-budget or off-budget), are immediately spent on-budget (credited towards day-to-day operations):
G – T = 85 – 0
S – I + M – X = 85
The running balance is (federal gov’t deficit spending) 0 = 0 (non federal gov’t surplus savings). In other words, there was a non federal gov’t ‘refunding’ of net financial assets, that makes whole the previous claw-back, which reverts the running balances back to the same amount at the start of the fiscal period (the so-called federal gov’t ‘balanced’ budget)…
Finally, additional federal gov’t spending of $15 (15%), the remainder of total annual federal gov’t spending (based on actual 2016 figures):
G – T = 15 – 0
S – I + M – X = 15
(federal gov’t deficit spending) 15 = 15 (non federal gov’t surplus savings). In other words, that 15% of total federal gov’t spending in 2016 (that deficit spending) is a ‘funding’ of the non federal gov’t as a result of an actual addition of net financial assets. Unlike surplus spending, deficit spending, and only deficit spending, adds dollars (funds additional dollars) to the banking system because to pay for deficit spending there is an issuance of new dollars PLUS there is an additional issuance, in the exact same amount, of new savings accounts denominated in dollars (a.k.a. Treasury bonds) handed over to the non federal gov’t …
NOTE: As for the international sector, depending on the difference of iMports minus eXports (the US trade balance), the addition of net financial assets from the federal gov’t to the non federal gov’t gets whacked up within the non federal gov’t (between the non federal gov’t / domestic and the non federal gov’t / international). Of the 552B of dollars added to the banking system from federal gov’t deficit spending in 2016, the non federal gov’t / domestic (a.k.a. the US private sector) got a measly $49B and the non federal gov’t / international got a whopping $503B (more on this worrisome imbalance in greater detail below)…
Same goes for the double-entry, ledger-book accounting system that all MMTers stand firmly behind. All MMTers agree that for every federal gov’t deficit, there is, by accounting identity, to the penny, a non federal gov’t surplus. This is absolutely correct. However, when talking about federal taxation, that DEBIT entry posted against the non federal gov’t, some MMTers then conveniently ignore the double-entry reality, saying that those dollars were ‘destroyed’, period. These MMTers don’t see federal taxation as a swap (a simple redistribution of assets). They are only looking at the reserve ledger, they only see that DEBIT, that ‘destruction’, that dollar ‘drain’ (taxes getting paid), but they don’t see that simultaneous, equal and opposite CREDIT entry posted to another federal gov’t ledger, which in turn is immediately debited (returned right back to the non federal gov’t, via surplus spending). As long as the federal gov’t is running annual budget deficits (as long as there is deficit spending once taxes have stopped funding surplus spending), federal taxes, at the end of the day, go right back from whence they came.
Stanley Mulaik, retired Professor Emeritus of Quantitative Psychology at Georgia Tech, who was on the fence about MMT claims that ‘revenues don’t finance spending’, wrote a letter to the Fed and asked about the specifics of Treasury bond sales funding deficit spending. James A. Clouse, Deputy Director, Division of Monetary Affairs at the Board of Governors Of The Federal Reserve System in Washington, D.C. wrote back. “Dear Mr. Mulaik,” the letter began, “Chair Yellen asked me to respond to your recent letter in which you raised questions related to federal deficits, the mechanics of Treasury debt auctions, and a set of ideas that has been popularized as ‘Modern Monetary Theory.’ On the question of the mechanics of Treasury debt auctions, there are a number of inaccuracies in the description of the process that you passed along based on the MMT website discussion.” Regarding funding federal gov’t deficit spending via Treasury bond sales: “When the Treasury has expenditures that exceed receipts, it typically must borrow in the public debt markets to cover the shortfall. The Federal Reserve, acting as fiscal agent for the Treasury, processes the instructions that result in payments flowing to the U.S. Treasury associated with new debt issues. The Federal Reserve debits the reserve accounts of the correspondent banks of the investors that have purchased new securities, AND THERE IS A CORRESPONDENT CREDIT TO THE RESERVE ACCOUNT OF THE U.S. TREASURY AT THE FEDERAL RESERVE (italics mine). The correspondent banks that have received a debit to their reserve account at the Federal Reserve then pass a corresponding debit to the deposit accounts of their customers that have purchased new Treasury securities. Finally, the Treasury effectively pays down the temporarily elevated balance in its reserve account at the Federal Reserve to cover the excess of expenditures over receipts. At the end of this process, reserves held by the banking system are unchanged and the Treasury has issued more debt to the general public to finance the deficit.” OK, as MMTers, we can argue that the Treasury doesn’t ‘borrow’ its own dollars. We can also argue that those Treasury bonds, because they are denominated in the same currency that the Treasury issues, are not actual ‘debt’ like during the gold standard era when those dollars were backed by gold, but don’t ever say ‘bond sales don’t fund spending’. Please go ahead and say ‘bond sales ARE NOT NEEDED to finance deficit spending’, yes; and that ‘bond sales ARE NOT NEEDED as a financing operation’, absolutely; but not that they don’t at all. This letter from the Fed goes for all federal gov’t revenues, not just dollars received from Treasury bond sales, but for dollars received from federal taxation as well. When talking about what happens to dollars that the federal gov’t receives from Treasury bond sales, that letter from James Clouse at the Fed also applies to dollars received from federal taxes: “The Federal Reserve, acting as fiscal agent for the Treasury, processes the instructions that result in payments flowing to the U.S. Treasury…” (When the federal gov’t receives any tax revenues), “…the Federal Reserve debits the reserve accounts of the correspondent banks who then pass a corresponding debit to the deposit accounts of their customers…” (those tax dollars are ‘destroyed’), “…and there is a correspondent credit to the reserve account of the U.S. Treasury at the Federal Reserve” (and there is an equal and opposite ‘creation’). “Finally, the Treasury effectively pays down the temporarily elevated balance in its reserve account at the Federal Reserve” (those taxes are then debited right out to fund surplus spending). “At the end of this process, reserves held by the banking system are unchanged” (same as when revenues from bond sales fund deficit spending). The important distinction between surplus spending and deficit spending is that the former does not add net financial assets and the latter is an increase of dollars in the banking system. When surplus spending (spending funded by taxes), the Treasury has NOT issued more ‘debt’ (assets) to the general public (spending funded by taxes is just a swap – no increase in dollars to the banking system – no addition of net financial assets – why no Congressional approval needed); and when deficit spending (spending not funded by taxes), the Treasury, in addition to the newly-created dollars (assets) issued to fund that deficit spending (actual ‘HPM’), has in addition, ALSO issued more ‘debt’ (assets) to the general public (an outright increase in dollars to the banking system – addition of net financial assets – Congressional approval needed). See 7DIF (FRAUD #3 PG 41). So to those MMTers that say ‘taxes don’t fund spending’, those federal tax dollars, when paid, are ‘destroyed’, sure; those taxes ARE NOT NEEDED to finance surplus spending, of course; and those taxes ARE NOT NEEDED as a financing operation, absolutely; but not that they don’t. If you say ‘taxes don’t fund spending’, you are not describing the monetary system nor MMT. Instead, what a pure MMTer says, because the federal gov’t is the issuer of dollars, bond sales and taxes, those revenues, ARE NOT NEEDED to fund spending. *Your* dollars (you are the user of dollars) are not needed to fund federal gov’t spending, because it’s *their* dollars (they are the issuer of dollars) funding spending. The MMT pillar is that *your* taxes (your dollars) are not needed to fund spending (not that they don’t). Here, Stanley Mulaik sums up why saying ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ is wrong, but also includes a consolation to some of those MMTers (who say it incorrectly, have no idea how foolish they sound, but are still on the right track): “Whether tax dollars no longer exist because they have left M1, were exchanged for reserve-settlement dollars, exist as central bank reserve-settlement dollars deposited in Treasury’s general fund account at the Federal Reserve bank…and then immediately exchanged at a correspondent bank back into other bank dollars to be spent back into the economy…does not change the rest of your (MMT’s) positions on fiat money and the values of humane treatment of your fellow man that allows.”
Let’s take an even closer look at our federal government’s central bank, the Federal Reserve. The Fed is part of the federal gov’t, or as they define it, ‘independent within the federal government’. That said, there are some characteristics of the Fed that lead many folks to believe (incorrectly) that the Fed is ‘private’. For example, even though it is part of the federal gov’t, the Fed is not capitalized by the federal gov’t. The way the Fed gets its equity capital is by private sector US banks being required to buy and hold non-voting shares in the Fed. Furthermore, some spending by the Fed (part of the federal gov’t) is not funded by the federal gov’t. Show me someone who thinks that we in the private sector do not fund federal gov’t spending at all, and I’ll show you someone who does not know (or does not like to mention the fact) that the Fed’s spending IS NOT funded through the congressional budgetary process. The Fed gets most of its revenues from the bonds it holds. Meaning the Fed pays for some its spending from the interest income of mortgage bonds held at the Fed, like for example, at the time of this writing, the $2T of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) that the Fed purchased during the Large Scale Asset Program (LSAP) and presently held on the Fed’s balance sheet. So to this day every time some folks in the private sector make a mortgage payment, a mortgage payment that includes interest expense servicing that mortgage, that interest, those hard-earned dollars, goes to where the mortgage is held, which right now has a one in six chance of being at the Fed. The Fed pays for its own spending with that interest income from the private sector (payments from the private sector to the Fed *literally* funded gov’t spending in 2016). Furthermore, any profits after funding the Fed’s expenses are handed over to the Treasury. Last year the Fed sent a record $97.7 billion in profits to the U.S. Treasury. Same as the private sector paying federal taxes due to the Treasury, but this time it’s the private sector paying mortgage interest due that also winds up at the Treasury, when the Fed paid that $97.7 billion, it was debited (‘destroyed’) on one side of the federal gov’t accounting seesaw. That triggered a credit (‘creation’) on the other side of the federal gov’t accounting seesaw, and was immediately debited right back to the private sector for on-budget expenditure (federal gov’t surplus spending). In other words, exactly the same as when you paid federal taxes last year, that $97.7 billion of Fed payments sent to the US Treasury (the same place you always make out your check to whenever paying US federal taxes) were ‘destroyed’ and simultaneously, to the penny, reduced the amount of federal gov’t deficit spending.
The paradigm difference between the gold standard era and the post-gold standard era is that federal gov’t revenues became obsolete as a federal gov’t financing operation. The federal gov’t, or any issuer of a non-convertible, free-floating (pure fiat) currency no longer needs revenues solely to fund spending in fiat currency like they used to in a bygone era when they were spending with a gold-backed dollar or any kind of pegged currency. In addition to funding spending, the federal gov’t now takes in tax revenues for much more important, modern priorities of a fiat monetary system. In a brilliant 1946 article “Taxes For Revenue Are Obsolete”, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Beardsley Ruml, wrote that the federal gov’t is “free of money worries and NEED NO LONGER (emphasis mine) levy taxes for the purpose of providing itself with revenue”. Note: Beardsley Ruml said they ‘need’ no longer (not that they ‘didn’t’ no longer). This article, so prophetic for its day, was the realization of the profound change in motion as a result of the federal gov’t transitioning from spending in gold-backed dollars to spending in pure fiat currency. This was the groundbreaking observation that the primary purpose of federal taxes was no longer to finance spending (not that they didn’t); that the financing function of taxation took a backseat to much more important functions, yet even to this day, over 70 years later, some MMTers still deadly and innocently misinterpret ‘taxes for revenue are obsolete’. In April 2010 (04/17/10) Dr. Bill Mitchell ‘billy-blogged’ about this article, arguing (titling the post) “Taxpayers Do Not Fund Anything”. I respectfully disagree, and my guess former Fed Chair Ruml would as well. Fact: Of total federal gov’t spending ($3.854T in FY16) federal taxes funded 85% ($3.267T). The key words in that prophetic 1946 Beardsley Ruml piece is ‘need no longer’ (the basis for today’s MMT pillar that ‘taxes are no longer needed to fund spending’). The point of saying ‘taxes for revenue are obsolete’ was for us to understand that federal taxes in 1946, and to this day, for any monetary sovereign, need no longer constrain spending for that common good (not that they don’t fund that spending). Fed Chair Ruml (rolling in his grave every time someone says it wrong) meant the notion that taxes are only needed to fund spending is obsolete because federal taxes are now more importantly needed “1) To stabilize the purchasing power of the dollar; 2) To express public policy in wealth redistribution with progressive income taxes; 3) To subsidize or penalize various industries; 4) To assess the costs of national benefits such as highways and social security.” (Read #4 again, does that sound like Ruml meant that Taxpayers Do Not Fund Anything?) Since 2010 however, Dr. Bill Mitchell has changed his ‘Taxpayers Do Not Fund Anything’ tune a little. In October 2014 (10/14/14) he wrote, “A consequence of this (when President Nixon abandoned gold convertibility in 1971 and ended the system of fixed exchange rates) is that governments that issue their own currencies no longer have to ‘fund’ their spending, they never need to ‘finance’ their spending through taxes or selling debt to the private sector.” Did he say the federal gov’t DOESN’T issue their currency to fund their spending ? No, he said they NO LONGER have to, that’s a big difference. Did he say the federal gov’t DOESN’T finance their spending through taxes? No, he said they never NEED to, another big difference. In other words, for any non-convertible free-floating (pure fiat) currency-issuing governments such as Australia, Britain, Japan and the United States, federal taxation, as a financing operation, took a back seat (not that it ended). In a July 2017 Real Progressives broadcast, when prompted to talk about “his blog post about taxes not funding anything”, Dr. Bill Mitchell passed. My guess why, is what Dr. Mitchell, the Chair in Economics and Director of the Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE), an official research center at the University of Newcastle, had said earlier in the show. Which was that he, like Dr. L. Randall Wray and Dr. Stephanie Kelton (professors of Economics at the University of Missouri–Kansas City) “has an ‘academic’ background in MMT, while Warren Mosler, doing his thing in the financial markets, has a ‘commercial’ background in MMT.” Dr. Mitchell says that is what he calls “the missing link” that brought Warren Mosler and the three economics PHDs together in alliance as proponents of MMT. Why have MMT academics like Dr. Mitchell, Dr. Wray and Dr. Kelton said “Taxes Do Not Fund Anything”, but why does Warren Mosler, the one without the Ph.D in economics, NEVER say “Taxes Do Not Fund Anything”? Perhaps it is because what Dr. Mitchell also said in that same RP broadcast. He said that Warren Mosler (with ‘only’ a B.A. degree in economics), has actual “commercial knowledge of the inner workings of banking, the interactions between the banks, and the central banks, while those with only a mainstream economics background neglects all of those.” Warren Mosler wisely never says “Taxes Do Not Fund Anything” because it neglects some of those inner workings and interactions that anyone else with actual ‘commercial’ (read: more than just classroom) experience fully understands.
In a 02/20/17 YouTube video, Mike Norman says ‘federal taxes do not fund spending’, using the Monopoly board game analogy, saying that “it’s the same in real life.” His rationale is that The Player (private sector) taxes do not fund The Bank (federal gov’t) spending because “basically you are just giving back money that was already distributed by the game.” True, Player taxes did not fund that original spend (the $1500 in Monopoly Money that The Bank gives The Player at the start of the game), but that was Bank deficit spending. Taxes don’t fund deficit spending, taxes fund surplus spending. Deficit spending adds money (net financial assets) that is an increase of the amount of Monopoly money in the game (an increase of dollars into the banking system). So yes, Player taxes didn’t fund the initial Bank deficit spending; however, Player taxes fund subsequent Bank surplus spending. For example, if a Player then rolls the dice and lands on ‘Chance’ and has to pay a $200 tax, that Player tax payment (debit entry on one spreadsheet) is an equal and opposite Bank receipt (credit entry on another spreadsheet). That Player tax of $200, that ‘destruction’ of net financial assets, is only the half of it; it is also a simultaneous $200 credit, a ‘creation’, at the Bank. If the next Player lands on ‘GO: Collect $200’ the Bank does not need to deficit spend (add net financial assets), the Bank immediately recycles and spends that $200 (federal gov’t surplus spending). The Bank is not adding net financial assets when it surplus spends (because it is funded by Player taxes). Bank surplus spending of that $200 makes whole the previous $200 reduction of Player net financial assets when the tax was paid. The Player taxes fund The Bank surplus spending but the more important point, the MMT pillar, is that The Player taxes are NOT NEEDED to fund spending. Collecting taxes in Monopoly money to fund surplus spending in Monopoly money is no longer the highest priority for The Bank (for any modern monetary sovereign in the post gold standard era). The Bank (the issuer of Monopoly money) can never go broke and the game never ends because The Bank runs out of Monopoly money (fiat dollars). The game ends because Players run out of money. As per Monopoly rules, “…if The Bank runs out of money it may issue as much more as may be needed by merely writing on any ordinary paper” (same as the federal gov’t keyboarding in more money via deficit spending after getting Congressional approval). Meaning that The Bank, once it has run out of tax revenues that fund surplus spending, can deficit spend and add Monopoly money (net financial assets) to the game (add dollars into the banking system) without constraint (no such thing as the federal gov’t being in debt of their own fiat currency). The game ends when all but one of the Players runs out of Monopoly money, which is inevitable because the Players (user of Monopoly money) do have a constraint when they deficit spend (Players are adding on actual debt). The message that federal taxes are NOT NEEDED to fund spending is that Players (user of dollars), unlike The Bank (issuer of dollars), have a corresponding debt burden attached to their deficit spending. Counter-intuitive to mainstream thought, it is Player (non federal gov’t) deficit spending, not Bank (federal gov’t) deficit spending that is actually unsustainable, and ‘it’s the same in real life’.
In September ‘17 (09/17/17) when the ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ issue started boiling over across the MMT websites and chat rooms (when a MINETHIS1 website got burned down and Real Progressives started getting booted from chat rooms), Mike Norman posted another YouTube video called “The Proof That Taxes Don’t Fund Spending.” In this video he says, “Regarding the argument, this nonstop debate everywhere about federal taxes, I’m an MMT guy, and I say that, it’s not that I just say it, the reality is, that taxes do not fund federal gov’t spending. Here is a very simple explanation, a thought exercise that I want everybody who disagrees with me, my factual claim that taxes do not fund spending. I want you to think about this very hard and very deeply. It is very logical, it is not hard, you don’t need a college education, ok, here we go. You can’t drain a swimming pool, until you fill it up first. You can’t pay your taxes until the gov’t spends them into existence first. For those of you who think taxes fund spending, that would be like you thinking that the water in my swimming pool is what keeps my lawn green but you gotta fill up the pool with water first! Where did the water in the pool come from? You gotta fill up the pool first before you water the lawn. The water in my pool is what keeps my yard green…C’MON IT’S VERY SIMPLE PEOPLE”. Before I retort to that, full disclosure, I personally like Mike Norman. As I wrote in my book ‘The National Debit’, it was a Mike Norman YouTube video where I first got wind of MMT, so for that alone, I will always be grateful to him. In addition, I took Mike’s FX trading course (not the ‘MMT Trader’ course) which I thought was superb, and I would highly recommend to anyone (however I wouldn’t advise anyone to touch his ‘MMT Trader’, a glorified double-down system, even with a ten-foot pole). After seeing this ‘Proof That Taxes Don’t Fund Spending’ YouTube video, I commented, quote, Mike, there are two ways the pool gets water or the lawn gets water: 1) From a faucet and 2) excess water evaporates and comes back down a.k.a. ‘rain’. Saying ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ isn’t MMT, it is like saying rain doesn’t land in pools, or that rain doesn’t water the lawn (and completely ignores the accounting constructs from the old system, albeit unnecessary, yet still in place). Saying taxes ARE NOT NEEDED to fund spending (to fill the pool or to water the lawn) is MMT, unquote. I didn’t finish there. Knowing that Mike Norman prides himself on being a Daily Treasury Statement ‘expert’, I threw in this last line: “Don’t take my word for it Mike, see the Daily Treasury Statement under Federal Tax Deposits (the ‘rain’) in addition to the bond sales (the ‘faucet’) that go into the Treasury’s account at the Fed, the same account where all federal spending is drawn from.”
An inconvenient fact that doesn’t fit the ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ narrative is that it is US law that the Treasury must be funded (Treasury reserves must be ‘increased’) in order for the Treasury to keep spending (so that Treasury reserves can be ‘decreased’). The Treasury account at the US central bank, the Federal Reserve Bank, is called the Treasury General Account (TGA) where federal revenues are accounted for after collection from one commercial bank before going right back to another commercial bank to make federal spending payments. In other words, after getting ‘destroyed’ (debited) from your bank account, the same exact amount is ‘created’ (credited) to the same exact Fed account where ALL federal spending comes from. While a Ph.D. candidate in 1998, Stephanie Bell wrote a paper entitled ‘Can Taxes and Bonds Finance Gov’t Spending?’ In this paper, she describes federal financing on the reserve accounting level (the banks and the Treasury department), not on the policy level (everything else). As per Stephanie Bell (now Dr. Stephanie Kelton) “Modern federal governments finance all of their spending through the direct creation of new ‘High Powered Money’.” I agree that all federal spending is ‘newly created money’ but I respectfully disagree that all federal spending is ‘high powered money.’ Beckoning Frontiers was written by Marriner Eccles, Chair of the Federal Reserve from 1934 – 1948, who coined the term High Powered Money (HPM). As per Chair Eccles, prior to The 1951 Fed-Treasury Accord, the Treasury, who then also didn’t quite fully understand the difference between ‘HPM’ and ‘newly-created money’, sold its bonds either to investors paid for with previously ‘existing money’ from the private sector (meaning newly-created prior to the destruction of already-existing money) that decreased net financial assets from the banking system; OR the Treasury sold its bonds directly to the Fed, paid for without ‘existing money’ from the private sector (meaning newly-created money without any prior destruction) that added net financial assets to the banking system. Modern federal governments finance all of their spending through the direct creation of new money (because taxes ‘destroy’ dollars), but all of that newly-created money funding total federal gov’t spending is not HPM. What she’s missing there is whether the newly-created money funding federal gov’t spending IS a net increase of dollars in the banking system (what I consider actual HPM), or is not an addition of net financial assets (is not HPM). To be fair, another quote in this 1998 paper is that taxes “mask a more pragmatic operation”. That’s perfect. The key word there is “mask”. My takeaway from that line is that Stephanie Bell correctly concludes that it is just a formality that federal taxes and bond sales are ‘financing’ federal spending. For any monetary sovereign using fiat currency, federal gov’t revenues today are now a price stability function and a maintaining of currency demand operation which the mainstream can’t understand because that so-called ‘financing’ operation (that ‘mask’) is all they see. Stephanie Bell is an MMT champion calling for policymakers to stop seeing “taxation and bond sales as financing operations,” but many MMTers misinterpret Stephanie Kelton, believing that she means that ‘taxes and spending are totally separate operations.’ In her paper, Stephanie Bell makes no such claim, in fact the opposite, she wrote about “the coordination of taxation and bond sales.” Far from being separate functions, she adds, “Treasury CHOOSES (emphasis by Stephanie Bell) to coordinate its operations, transferring funds from T&L accounts (which in 1998 were Treasury accounts created at commercial banks to accept electronic tax and bond collection payments which, like in today’s Treasury GFA account, is also where the Treasury makes all federal spending payments), draining reserves AS IT SPENDS (emphasis by Stephanie Bell) from its account at the Fed.” She concludes that “This interdependence is not de facto evidence of a ‘financing’ role of taxes and bonds…the proceeds from taxation and bond sales are technically incapable of financing government spending.” In other words, there is no longer a financial constraint on federal spending. There is however, still a political constraint. That’s what Stephanie Bell means by saying the Treasury CHOOSES, meaning that it’s only a self-inflicted choice, or more precisely, it is only outdated, idiosyncratic political ‘formalities’ that only constrain federal spending. We cannot ignore (by using simple catchphrases like ‘taxes don’t fund spending’) that processes from the old system (albeit unnecessary) still exist. Whether we like it or not, gold-standard era accounting rules and appropriations laws dictate that federal spending must be ‘funded’ (i.e. the Social Security Trust Fund, the Highway Fund, Treasury General Fund Account, etc). Revenues from federal taxes and Treasury bonds sales to ‘pay for’ federal spending are obsolete (no financial constraint), but those pesky rules and laws are still in place that says these accounts must be funded (political constraint). As per Vernon Etzel, “The ‘funds’ aren’t necessary, but they actually exist, and they constrain spending…for instance, FICA taxes ‘fund’ spending…so MMTers realize that’s not what actually happens, and we recognize that there’s no financial constraint on Social Security Administration payments, however the political constraint, the trust ‘fund’ does exist, and it has consequences.” The MMT pillar is that Treasury bond sales and federal taxes ARE NOT NEEDED to ‘fund’ spending. If an MMTer today says ‘taxes don’t finance spending’ (no financial constraint), that’s fine; but if they say ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ (no political constraint), they are jumping ahead. Sure, federal taxes don’t ‘finance’ spending like they do on the state and local level, but rather than also thinking that federal taxes don’t ‘fund’ spending, better to think federal taxes ‘enable’, ‘earmark’, ‘permit’, or ‘allow’ spending. Even better, federal taxes ‘approve’ federal surplus spending; or more specifically, by triggering credits of reserves to federal funding accounts, taxes provide the political space for surplus spending. Surplus spending doesn’t have to be approved by Congress because it is funded by taxes (NOT funded in a ‘financial’ constraint sense, BUT funded in a ‘political’ constraint sense). It is important to also note that other than the financial and political constraint to any kind of spending, there is a resources constraint (any spending whether by the federal gov’t, or state / local gov’t, or any household, is constrained by a limited amount of resources). For example, if you are a married man in your late forties and you want to buy an expensive sports car, you (user of dollars), have three constraints. The first one is financial (do you have the money); the second one is political (do you have permission from your wife); and the third constraint is limited resources (is the car you want available). The federal gov’t (issuer of dollars) NEVER has the financial constraint. The federal gov’t only has the political constraint (the part the ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ folks aren’t grasping) and the constraint of limited resources (the MMT pillar that gets lost in the ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ nonsense). Nonsensical because if anyone says ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ before MMT has taken hold; before being accepted by the mainstream; before that sorely-needed renovation of the monetary system that removes all remnants of the old system; before policymakers stop seeing Treasury bonds as ‘debt’; then you still need to include those crucial words, ‘taxes ARE NOT NEEDED to fund spending’. If you say otherwise, anyone outside the MMT circle will assume that you do not understand the federal gov’t accounting construct that, even though we left the gold standard era, there are still those old processes in place. Such as, when federal tax revenues end (when taxes are no longer funding surplus spending), that is the changeover from surplus spending to deficit spending. From spending that doesn’t need congressional approval (spending that doesn’t raise the ‘debt ceiling’), to spending that does. Most people understand that. If you say ‘taxes don’t fund spending’, most people will assume you don’t understand that, and they won’t pay much attention to whatever else you have to say. For example, in 2016, when Dr. Stephanie Kelton, chief economist for the Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee in Washington, said ‘taxes don’t fund spending” to presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, he probably thought ‘WTF?’ That’s why we didn’t hear anything about MMT from Bernie during the 2016 election campaign. That’s why it wasn’t Bernie, but another candidate, eventual winner Donald J. Trump (the politician without the MMT economist) that actually got the closest to starting an MMT discussion with the now-famous words, “This is the United States gov’t…First of all, you never have to default because you print the money, I hate to tell you, OK?” And that’s why Bernie, even to this day (the politician with the MMT economist), still thinks and routinely says that “the federal gov’t must first raise tax revenue to pay for policy.” (Those will be trick questions in future versions of Trivial Pursuit). To be fair, on 07/19/17 President Trump said “But single-payer will bankrupt our country, because it’s more than we take in for just health care…so single-payer is never going to work, but that’s what they’d like to do” (but I’m talking about during the 2016 campaign, not after). As per Logan Mohtashami, senior loan officer in his family-run mortgage company, AMC Lending Group, “One of the reasons why MMT is not popular is because MMTers can’t speak to people in general…It’s difficult to get people to understand that deficits are not bad, but if you’re trying to scare them into it (with a negative drumbeat of ‘recession theory’ / accusing them of being ‘murderers by proxy’ / badgering them with ‘taxes don’t fund spending’), it’s not going to work…Sure, that works for the group of people you’re talking to, because they are using their ideology to push an economic agenda, using fear to put views through, but that’s not the way macroeconomics works…The left wing people who listen to MMT people need to convince the masses that deficit spending is not a bad thing, and then talk about it from strength.” Logan Mohtashami is absolutely right. Bernie or any other candidate in the future with an MMT economist advising them should hammer away at their opponent’s ignorance of how a monetary sovereign works and then drive home a positive, ‘rates are low, we can deficit spend’, pro-growth message. Another suggestion, as per ‘Ober Meister’, “Argue to the general public that government needs to spend so that we do not fall behind China scientifically, technologically…play on their feelings of fear, greed, pride… that they would understand.” Don’t get me wrong, Dr. Stephanie Kelton is one of the great ones. I think that if there is ever an MMT Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Dr. Stephanie Kelton should be chiseled in right next to Warren Mosler, who I consider the greatest economic mind walking the planet right now. That said however, even the great ones do swing and miss sometimes, and I believe ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ is a miss. Surplus spending does not need congressional approval because taxpayers are funding surplus spending. The surplus spending distinction is that it has a deflationary bias (emphasis on ‘bias’ – this is not a rule – just one of many moving pieces in the economy that may or may not result in actual deflation), which is why fiscal policymakers of any federal gov’t (any issuers of currency) should not run surpluses (the ‘Clinton’ surplus triggered the ‘Bush’ recession and all six depressions were preceded by sustained federal gov’t surpluses). Federal taxes, that ‘dollar drain’ of dollars from the banking system, that ‘destruction’ (‘defunding’ of net financial assets), functions in tandem with spending, and this function is what determines the end of the line for surplus spending which makes whole the previous destruction (‘refunding’ of net financial assets). That is the point where the deflationary bias of surplus spending ends and the deficit spending (‘funding’ of net financial assets) begins. That is the line in the ledger book where the surplus spending stops being offset (stops being funded), by tax dollars that do not need congressional approval because they already were approved before (think: ‘double jeopardy’). That is the changeover to deficit spending funded by ‘borrowed’ dollars (an outdated facade from the bygone gold-standard era), but the big difference is, unlike taxes that fund surplus spending, where taxpayers receive nothing in return for paying taxes, buyers of federal ‘debt’ get something for their dollars (a US Treasury bond), so this part of the ‘financing’ process is a swap of assets in the banking system. Meaning that unlike surplus spending, those newly-created federal gov’t dollars that fund deficit spending PLUS the simultaneous addition of newly-created Treasury bonds result in a ‘dollar add’ into the banking system, an increase in net financial assets. Another distinction, the net addition of ‘newly-created’ dollars funding deficit spending, unlike the ‘already-existing’, ‘already-Congressional-approved’ dollars funding surplus spending, has an inflationary bias. This is why Fed Chair Eccles called deficit spending monies ‘high powered money’, why he feared HPM, and why he had a huge public spat with the Treasury and the White House over HPM (which he won, which the Fed gained independence in the ‘51 Accord, but it cost Eccles his job). To emphasize, deficit spending has an inflationary ‘bias’ (not automatic) because, as we saw, in the eight years after the credit crisis, even though the ‘debt’ was doubled (a lot of federal gov’t deficit spending), there wasn’t much inflation, because the inflationary bias of those deficit-spending dollars vaporized on impact. Regarding the Stephanie Bell paper, Intro to MMT website founder John Biesterfeldt concludes, “The whole thing is this: Reserves are destroyed upon receipt by the Fed, and newly created upon spending. That is the thrust of the paper, and I’m not disagreeing with that. It’s just an accounting thing; reserves don’t ‘exist’ in the interim between receipt and spending, so the reserves used to pay taxes cannot be used to spend. It’s an esoteric point, because the numbers do show up as an addition to Treasury’s account. I think that it’s important to understand what ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ really means, and I think the discussion should have been a useful exercise – but people are getting up in arms about it, instead of learning.” I agree with that. Another Intro to MMT member, Chris McArdle, also puts it well: “Federal taxes, as a matter of policy, not operations, can be properly understood to be funding spending when, as a matter of policy, they have been connected.” He adds, “That’s not a prescription, it is a description, and it is not at odds with the operational fundamentals, it illuminates how things actually function (or, at least, attempts to).”
The ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ line is a complete distraction from a larger issue, which is whether or not any net financial assets (federal gov’t deficit spending ‘dollar-adds’) going into the banking system are reaching the non federal gov’t / domestic, a.k.a. private sector. In 16 of the past 20 years, those dollars did not. In most of the recent years, the US private sector was forced to deplete savings +/or deficit spend while the non federal gov’t / international sector saved. In an October 2015 Seminar Series at the International and Comparative Law Center (ICLC), titled ‘Modern Money Theory: Intellectual Origins and Policy Implications’, Professor L. Randall Wray states that “Logically, the gov’t spends so you can pay taxes.” He adds that “the spending has to come first…what that means is taxes actually don’t ‘finance’ gov’t spending.” He is talking about DEFICIT spending, yes, taxes don’t fund DEFICIT spending, but what about subsequent SURPLUS spending (excuse me professor, why is it called SURPLUS spending)? With all due respect to Professor Wray, he too belongs on that MMT Mount Rushmore, but here he also veers off course from that MMT pillar that taxes actually ARE NOT NEEDED to ‘finance’ gov’t spending. Instead he groups both deficit and surplus spending as being the same, he says that ‘taxes aren’t funding spending’ and that’s where Randy Wray, another great one, also swings & misses because there are those major distinctions between federal gov’t surplus spending and federal gov’t deficit spending. Instead of confusing his listeners by saying “You can’t pay your dollar tax unless the gov’t provided some dollars” (excuse me professor, what if I borrowed the dollars from a bank to pay the tax?), perhaps Professor Wray, regarding gov’t spending, should say this: Just because the federal gov’t is deficit spending, just because federal gov’t deficit spending is supplying newly-created dollars entering into the banking system that increases non federal gov’t net financial assets (federal gov’t deficit = non federal gov’t surplus), that still doesn’t necessarily mean we in the US private sector are good to go, because the non federal gov’t is divided into two sectors, the Non federal gov’t / domestic and the Non federal gov’t / international. If in any given year the US trade deficit is as much as, or even larger than, the US budget deficit, that means all those newly-created federal gov’t deficit spending dollars that year, that ‘dollar add’, skipped right over the US private sector and went straight into the US bank accounts of overseas interests. Those dollars were promptly converted to foreign currency to pay overseas workers, factories, shipping, plus any other expenses and profits generated from that product sold in America (Note: US dollars never ‘leave’ the US banking system, however, the damage is already done because the entire production of said goods took place overseas, instead of here in the US, causing what is known as a US aggregate ‘demand leakage’). Those ‘dollar adds’ all going to the non federal gov’t / international sector, that’s the same difference, that’s just as bad, for the non federal gov’t / domestic (US private sector) as if the federal gov’t ran a surplus, meaning no newly-created federal gov’t deficit spending dollars, no ‘dollar-adds’ for the US private sector in that case either. This is EXACTLY what happened for thirteen straight years in a row from 1996 (cough *nafta* cough) to 2008. Let’s check out exactly how those dollars from the federal gov’t to the non federal gov’t for the first of those thirteen years got divvied up. In 1996 the US budget deficit (total federal gov’t deficit spending funded by newly-created dollars which were a net increase of dollars entering into the banking system) was $107B. Meaning there was a $107B addition of net financial assets, a ‘dollar add’ to the non federal gov’t (the domestic US private sector and the international sector combined). So far so good for both non federal gov’t sectors in 1996, but the US trade deficit in 1996 was $170B. The US trade deficit in 1996 was larger than the US budget deficit in 1996. Meaning that the domestic US private sector paid $170B for imported goods that they bought from the international sector over and above the amount they were paid for goods that they sold to the international sector. That means that every penny of that $107B ‘dollar add’ from the federal gov’t all went to the non federal gov’t / international sector, and that news got worse for the US private sector in 1996. The difference (170 – 107 = 63), was a transfer of dollars, a ‘dollar drain’, that also went to pay the remaining balance, of $63B, for those imports, in 1996, from the non federal gov’t / domestic (US private sector) to the non federal gov’t / international (overseas sector). In other words, because the non federal gov’t / domestic (US private sector) had a ‘dollar drain’ of $63B in 1996, the effect on the US private sector was the same as if the US federal gov’t had run a $63B surplus in 1996. After 1996 comes the fatal blow to the non federal gov’t / domestic (US private sector). Those US private sector ‘dollar drains’, those US private sector deficits, continued (they were sustained), for thirteen straight more years. When looking at these sustained US private sector deficit figures below, these final fiscal year results, keep in mind that all six depressions in US history were preceded by sustained federal gov’t surpluses (same as saying that all six depressions in US history were preceded by sustained US private sector deficits):
$107B ‘dollar add’ from the federal gov’t in 1996:
$170B surplus to the non federal gov’t / International
(-$63B) deficit from the non federal gov’t / Domestic
$22B ‘dollar add’ from the federal gov’t in 1997:
$181B surplus to the non federal gov’t / International
(-$159B) deficit from the non federal gov’t / Domestic
(-$70B) ‘dollar drain’ to the federal gov’t in 1998:
$230B surplus to the non federal gov’t / International
(-$300B) deficit from the non federal gov’t / Domestic
(-$126B) ‘dollar drain’ to the federal gov’t in 1999:
$329B surplus to the non federal gov’t / International
(-$455B) deficit from the non federal gov’t / Domestic
(-$235B) ‘dollar drain’ to the federal gov’t in 2000:
$439B surplus to the non federal gov’t / International
(-$674B) deficit from the non federal gov’t / Domestic
(-$128B) ‘dollar drain’ to the federal gov’t in 2001:
$539B surplus to the non federal gov’t / International
(-$411B) deficit from the non federal gov’t / Domestic
$157B ‘dollar add’ from the federal gov’t in 2002:
$532B surplus to non federal gov’t / International
(-$375B) deficit from the non federal gov’t / Domestic
$378B ‘dollar add’ from the federal gov’t in 2003:
$532B surplus to non federal gov’t / International
(-$154B) deficit from the non federal gov’t / Domestic
$412B ‘dollar add’ from the federal gov’t in 2004:
+$655B surplus to non federal gov’t / International
(-$243B) deficit from the non federal gov’t / Domestic
$318B ‘dollar add’ from the federal gov’t in 2005:
$772B surplus to non federal gov’t / International
(-$454B) deficit from the non federal gov’t / Domestic
$248B ‘dollar add’ from the federal gov’t in 2006:
$647B surplus to non federal gov’t / International
(-$399B) deficit from the non federal gov’t / Domestic
$161B ‘dollar add’ from the federal gov’t in 2007:
+$931B surplus to the non federal gov’t / International
(-$770B) deficit from the non federal gov’t / Domestic
$458B ‘dollar add’ from the federal gov’t in 2008:
+$817B surplus to the non federal gov’t / International
(-$359B) deficit from the non federal gov’t / Domestic
(H/T Chris Brown ‘Sectoral Balances info-graph of US Private Sector Dollar Drains & Dollar Adds Since 1992′)
We all remember what happened in 2008. Policymakers quickly ended those significant amounts of sustained non federal gov’t / domestic (US private sector) deficits, and ended the Great Recession with even more significant amounts of sustained US federal gov’t deficits (sustained US private sector surpluses), the same that was done to halt the previous six depressions:
$1.413T ‘dollar add’ from the federal gov’t in 2009:
$544B surplus to the non federal gov’t / International
$869B surplus to non federal gov’t / Domestic
$1.294T ‘dollar add’ from the federal gov’t in 2010:
$636B surplus to the non federal gov’t / International
$658B surplus to non federal gov’t / Domestic
$1.300T ‘dollar add’ from the federal gov’t in 2011:
$726B surplus to the non federal gov’t / International
$574B surplus to the non federal gov’t / Domestic
$1.087T ‘dollar add’ from the federal gov’t in 2012:
$730B surplus to the non federal gov’t / International
$357B surplus to the non federal gov’t / Domestic
The real point, the ‘logical’ point, professor, isn’t whether or not private sector taxes are financing federal gov’t spending; it’s whether or not federal gov’t spending is financing the private sector…Class dismissed.
My biggest problem with ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ is the tone of it. Saying that dollars today are just like points on a scoreboard is an excellent analogy, but don’t take the analogies too literally. Dr. Kelton, yes, ok, the tickets (taxes) are ‘destroyed’ at the turnstile (the reserve ledger) but that doesn’t mean THEY AREN’T COUNTED. The stadium (federal gov’t) is ‘destroying’ (debiting) the taxes, but of course that 70,000 seat stadium is counting (crediting) them, counting the people (dollars), making sure they don’t let in too many (inflation). How does an MMTer say ‘taxes are only to control inflation’ but then also says taxes aren’t counted (aren’t funding surplus spending) with a straight face? Saying that taxes are simply ‘destroyed’ and do not fund spending is like saying that the gas (taxes) you put in your car doesn’t make the car go, only the wheels make the car go, and the gas doesn’t ‘fund’ acceleration because the gas is ‘destroyed’ in the engine. Saying that your taxes do not fund spending because they are ‘only points on a scoreboard’ is like saying to the football player that his touchdown didn’t put the seven points up. If some MMT academic pointing to her blackboard tries to tell that running back that he doesn’t understand how it works, that the points on the scoreboard change ‘via crediting accounts’ and that ‘they don’t come from anywhere’, that sweating, bleeding and exhausted player (someone who is interested in learning about MMT) who knows exactly who funded those seven points is not going to agree. (If that same MMT academic, realizing that existing processes of the old monetary system still exist, and instead chose not to lead with ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ but say something like ‘Look, the stadium no longer has any spending constraints, so no need to worry about the team running out of money, nor our scoreboard running out of points, so go ‘em Tiger!’, that player would approve). This schoolroom notion that federal gov’t spending is just dollars being ‘keyboarded in’, that it’s only just a ‘1’ and a ‘0’, and nothing more, oversimplifies what is happening in the real world. In a June 2017 Real Progressives broadcast, Warren Mosler said “if you were to pay your taxes with a bunch of old twenty dollar bills, the gov’t would take your money, give you a receipt, say ‘Thank You’ very much FOR FUNDING the last airstrike in Syria or whatever THEY DID WITH THE MONEY, and that money goes out the back door, into a shredder.” Mosler’s point there was not ‘taxes don’t fund spending’, it was that the users of dollars (you and I) are different from the issuer of dollars (the federal gov’t). When you or I receive dollars (a $20 bill), we USE those same dollars (that same $20 bill) for spending, whereas the federal gov’t does not, because the federal gov’t ISSUES new dollars for spending. Total federal gov’t spending in 2016 was $3.854T. Taxes ‘destroyed’ dollars in the banking system and new dollars were issued to fund all that total spending, but not all that total spending of $3.854T was deficit spending. Not all that total spending was a net addition of dollars in the banking system. In 2016 only $0.587T was deficit spending. What reduced the amount of total federal gov’t spending, funded by newly-created dollars, from $3.854T in 2016 to only $0.587T of deficit spending? The answer, surplus spending, funded by taxes, is obvious to most, including Mr. Mosler (except the MMT ‘academics’ that say ‘taxes don’t fund spending’). Taxes ‘destroy’ dollars, yes, so all federal spending is newly-created dollars, sure, but what these academics don’t see is a very important distinction, which is that ALL federal spending IS NOT adding net financial assets (IS NOT increasing dollars in the banking system). Only deficit spending (15% of total spending in 2016) adds net financial assets (actual “HPM”), and the newly-created dollars of surplus spending DOES NOT. Surplus spending doesn’t add net financial assets because surplus spending is funded by taxes (makes whole a previous ‘destruction’ of net financial assets). Only deficit spending adds net financial assets. Every fiscal year, the amount of federal gov’t deficit spending is reduced, is offset, is funded by taxes. Another important distinction, unlike deficit spending, surplus spending (85% of total spending in 2016) DOES NOT need Congressional approval, because it is funded by taxes. Furthermore, all federal spending isn’t the same, like a helicopter drop, those dollars aren’t keyboarded in to just anyone. Anyone getting federal gov’t spending dollars performed a service, provided some goods, they ‘provisioned’ the federal gov’t, which carries forward, in a non-stop, circular, trade-off, inside a man-made ecology of labor for dollars. If you say ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ to a non MMTer, then you are saying to that person, who just finishing a double shift, that their labor, 33% of it needed to get those tax dollars, that their payments to the gov’t from withholding, and that their checks written out on April 15th to the gov’t, doesn’t fund the gov’t, doesn’t fund spending, because their tax dollars are destroyed, because those dollars just go ‘poof’, they will tune you out. If however, you say it correctly, if you instead say that their ‘taxes ARE NOT NEEDED to fund spending’, they will be intrigued. Regarding those tickets collected in the analogy, before being ‘destroyed’ (on one side of the seesaw), those tickets were counted, and those tickets offset deficit spending by funding the stadium’s surplus spending (the other side of the seesaw). Any non federal gov’t debit entry (payment of taxes) triggers an automatic, equal and opposite, federal gov’t credit entry (receipt of funding), and like any revenue, is immediately debited out (surplus spending) against on-budget federal spending. The same goes for federal revenues from Treasury bond sales as well. Semantics aside, the more important point is that unlike over at ‘Local Gov’t Stadium’ and unlike over at ‘State Gov’t Stadium’ where those tickets (taxes and bond sales) are needed to fund their spending, at ‘Federal Gov’t Stadium’, those tickets ARE NOT NEEDED to fund spending (that’s not saying they don’t at all). To be clear, ‘Federal Gov’t Stadium’ is still getting funded like the other stadiums, but unlike the other stadiums, as a monetary sovereign, ‘Federal Gov’t Stadium’ doesn’t actually need that funding for spending, or more specifically, its spending is no longer by constrained by ticket sales. That’s why there are so many more arguments with the accountants about expenses at ‘Federal Gov’t Stadium’.
J.D. Alt, author of ‘The Millennials’ Money’, has a video that perfectly visualizes how our monetary system works using a ‘bathtub’ analogy, with both an ‘old’ diagram (using gold standard mentality) and a ‘new’ diagram (using post-gold standard mentality). The video is perfect…because….J.D. Alt doesn’t veer away from that MMT pillar, he says it correctly, that taxes are NOT NEEDED to fund spending. In his video he says “The federal gov’t DOESN’T NEED the cancelled iou in order to issue and spend new fiat dollars” and “The sovereign federal gov’t HAS NO NEED to harvest what it can create on its own anytime it needs to.” Furthermore, J.D. Alt offers a brilliant full-blown MMT vision. He sees the mainstream calling federal gov’t deficit spending “Net Spending Achievement” instead, and everybody also calling the national debt “The National Savings” instead. I give J.D. Alt a lot of credit, this is great video, especially because he is very careful to include those two crucial words ‘not needed’ in his statements, because, as he also says in that video, “We need to make sure we use the right terminology.” My only suggestion, I would add another diagram, because J.D. Alt’s second diagram is the MMT end game, a hopefully not-too-distant future (the ‘theory’ in the Modern Monetary ‘Theory’). In addition to J.D. Alt’s ‘before’ diagram (federal gov’t spending in gold-backed dollars) and his ‘after’ diagram (federal gov’t spending in fiat dollars), I would add another diagram, a third bathtub. A third bathtub that also depicts where we are right now (the ‘reality’ in our Modern Monetary ‘Reality’). We left the gold standard era (Diagram 1); however, even though we are now a ‘modern’ monetary sovereign, we still have NOT totally transitioned to full-scale MMT mode (Diagram 2). Diagram 2 is showing how it will work AFTER MMT has gone mainstream, AFTER we start calling deficit spending something like “Net Spending Achievement”, AFTER we call the national debt something like “The National Savings”, AFTER there is no such thing as a nonsensical ‘debt ceiling’, AFTER the economics books have been rewritten; and AFTER the ratings agencies stop rating Treasury bonds because instead of calling them ‘debt’, which implies solvency risk, we call those Treasury bonds something like guaranteed “Term Deposits”, etc., etc. For example, Diagram 2 is after MMT has gone mainstream and we don’t call federal spending beyond revenues ‘deficits’ anymore. Instead of saying how much of a deficit there was in any given fiscal year, the federal gov’t simply announces how many additional dollars they supplies to the banking system, period. Conversely, if revenues exceed spending, rather than calling that a ‘surplus’, the federal gov’t simply announces how many dollars they relieved from the banking system, end of story. That is the MMT endgame, that is Diagram 2, after our monetary system has become ‘pure’ MMT. Another example, a real-time occurrence, that ‘Large Scale Asset Program’ (aka ‘QE’), if you think about it, LSAP was a dry run of a not-too-distant, fully-accepted-by-mainstream, full-blown MMT in practice. During those years, one arm of the federal gov’t was selling $2.4T of ‘debt’, and another arm of the federal gov’t was buying it back. In other words, $2.4T of federal gov’t deficit spending was *LITERALLY* not being funded by bond sales at all. Rather than being ‘bond-financed’, every penny of that $2.4T of deficit spending was ‘cash-financed’ (it was ‘pure’ MMT). Until those idiosyncratic US laws and those outdated federal gov’t accounting processes have been repealed and replaced with full-blown, ‘pure’, unadulterated MMT as shown in Diagram 2, I suggest another diagram, a ‘now’ diagram, to reflect today’s system, our modern monetary reality as it is now. A ‘now’ diagram should be included with the ‘before’ and ‘after’ diagrams. A ‘now’ diagram shows where we presently are, warts and all, which came after we left Diagram 1, after we ended the gold standard era, which ended when we left domestic convertibility in 1934. A ‘now’ diagram notes that some old processes, some idiosyncratic accounting constructs from Diagram 1, albeit completely unnecessary, still clumsily exist. The ‘now’ diagram acknowledges that we have left the gold standard era; however, even though we also left international dollar convertibility in 1971, we recognize that there are accounting constructs, there are old processes, from the old system, from Diagram 1, that are still there, right now. If we want to make the MMT case to professionals in the field, like experts in US law, and accounting professionals, and policymakers, and constituents etc., etc. (who we need to get the monetary system to Diagram 2), oversimplifications are not good enough for them. We need a ‘now’ diagram that gets into this nitty gritty and enunciates the distinctions still present in current existence, because if you are saying ‘taxes don’t fund anything’ (Diagram 2), if you say it now, you are jumping the gun. Remember, MMT is still the heterodox, so MMTers cannot afford to make mistakes like leading with ‘taxes don’t fund spending’. So what do I mean, what would the ‘bathtub’ look like today? Let’s start with the shape of the bathtub. The ‘bathtub’ (the economy) today is not evenly shaped like the cozy-looking thing in the J.D. Alt diagrams. The bathtub today is quite uneven. Picture a graph of US wealth distribution, with a very small part of it being very deep with plenty of water and most of the other not-as-liquid parts. Picture a very shaggedy thing, completely unequal, and wildly uneven, that’s your actual bathtub shape. Next is the bathtub ‘faucet’ (spending). In 2016, $4T total spending came out of the ‘faucet’ and $3.5T in taxes went down the ‘drain’, and the difference, $0.5T (deficit spending) was added to the bathtub (dollars added to the banking system / increase in net financial assets). That’s too much of an oversimplification for today’s reality, because that depiction makes it looks like all total spending is the same, which is not the case (it’s the MMT goal, but it’s still not yet the case). In a third diagram, the bathtub would show the complexities, the huge differences found in total spending. For example, some of the spending coming out of that faucet in 2016 was surplus spending, which was funded by taxes (didn’t need Congressional approval), meaning it had a deflationary bias; while some of it was deficit spending, which did need Congressional approval and does have an inflationary bias. So to better show this difference, the bathtub ‘faucet’ in the third diagram is only turned open by Congress. Only deficit spending comes out of the faucet, and only after Congress turns the faucet knob (authorizes it). This would more clearly differentiate deficit spending from surplus spending, which are as different as hot and cold water. This would also more clearly show that only the faucet can add water (dollars) to the tub (to the banking system), that only the faucet adds net financial assets. As per former Fed Chair Eccles, only deficit spending is High Powered Money (HPM), so it is only this spending coming out of the faucet that you need to keep your eye on so as to prevent overflowing the bathtub (inflation). Finally, to represent surplus spending, the third diagram would show it in a similar way that J.D. Alt shows Treasury bond purchases, meaning that the water is not leaving the bathtub (only a swap of assets). Connected to the ‘drain’ which is located at the deep ends (the savings gluts) of the bathtub, is the ‘shower head’. The taxes from the deep ends ‘drain’ back up into the ‘shower head’, spraying them back out, to the other shallow ends of the bathtub. To show that the shower head (surplus spending) does not need Congressional approval, only a simple percentage of drainage, a simple (tax rate) setting is made every decade or so, and the shower head just works automatically. That’s it, that’s the third ‘now’ bathtub diagram that goes in between J.D. Alt’s other two. If any MMTer has a problem with this ‘now’ diagram because they cannot accept that tax dollars are being ‘reused’, back into the bathtub, then let this quote from Intro to MMT administrator John Biesterfeldt wash over you. “About this ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ stuff, you can look at the same balance sheet and explain it in a number of different, legitimate ways: Taxes are ‘destroyed,’ taxed dollars are ‘reused’ – same thing.”
In July ‘14 (07/07/14), Dr. Steven Hail, Adjunct Lecturer in Economics at Adelaide University School of Economics, gave a presentation (a video is posted on YouTube), entitled ‘Exposing The Myth of a Commonwealth Budget Emergency.’ In this lecture he says that there is ‘no such thing’ as federal gov’t deficits, and ‘no such thing’ as surpluses. As per Dr. Hail, “Currency-issuing sovereign governments don’t really run ‘deficits’ at all, they cause injections of demand and injections of net financial assets; currency-issuing sovereign governments don’t really run ‘surpluses’ either, they withdraw demand and weaken private sector balance sheets.” Dr. Hail fails to mention here that he is talking about that next phase still to come, that ‘pure’ MMT in the J.D. Alt ‘after’ Diagram 2. Only until policymakers have repealed and replaced those old, idiosyncratic processes that still clumsily coexist, the accounting construct, that reality, remains. Depending on the amount of federal taxes and bond sales, we still have ‘deficits’ and ‘surpluses’. One complaint I hear often from the ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ crowd is that I’m “dwelling in the antiquated accounting and economics schools of thought.” To that criticism I say, That’s Exactly My Point, I’m dwelling in the ‘now’ (diagram). MMTers must not ignore that it is the ‘modern’ monetary system itself that is dwelling in actual remnants of the ‘antiquated accounting and economics schools of thought.’ MMT illuminates however, that operationally, it doesn’t have to be that way. By simply changing a few laws and accounting constructs (when that day comes), monetary sovereigns won’t have ‘deficits’ or ‘surpluses’ (not that they don’t right now). In the meantime, the same accounting and the same laws of a bygone era are still in place, and they do matter. In the United States, the IRS procedural manual states that federal tax receipts and Treasury bond sales are processed into keystrokes and credited to the Treasury. Outside of that, only when the Fed sends yearly profits to the Treasury, nobody else is putting any numbers into this Treasury account where ALL federal spending comes from. Nobody could explain how or why this Treasury account grows without abandoning their ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ mantra; nor should anyone saying ‘there’s no such thing as surpluses’ ignore that this Treasury account will swell when taxes exceed spending. Take the Clinton years. You can’t just blurt out something like “Currency-issuing sovereign governments don’t really run surpluses”; because, Doctor, outside your classroom, an expert in the industry might ask ‘What about all those extra reserves in the Treasury General FUNDS account in FY 1999, what did you call that?’ What Dr. Hail is leaving out when he says “Currency-issuing sovereign governments don’t really run ‘deficits’ at all; they cause injections of demand and injections of net financial assets” is that it goes both ways. Sure, federal gov’t deficit spending means an ‘injection’ to the non federal gov’t (‘funding’ of net financial assets into the non federal govt); however, as per the sectoral balances equation, federal gov’t surpluses are ‘injections’ as well (‘defunding’ of net financial assets out from the non federal gov’t sector to the federal gov’t sector). Surplus spending (the amount of federal taxes collected above the amount of spending during a fiscal period) ALSO cause ‘injections’ (accumulating credits to the Treasury account). These accumulating credits (reserves) are immediately either ‘spent’ (debited) towards on-budget federal expenditure (‘refunding’ the net financial assets that federal taxes ‘destroy’); or even worse (for the economy), they are permanently removed and debited against the outstanding balance of federal bonds to ‘pay down’ the national ‘debt’ (which only MMTers know is foolish because that is counter-cyclical to economic growth). For an MMTer to even hint that it is a bad thing to pay down the national debt is mind-blowing to the mainstream, so MMTers must be careful when using gimmicky catchphrases. Don’t forget, MMT is the unorthodox, MMTers cannot afford mistakes, or sound trite, especially when talking to experts in the field (outside of lecture halls). Speaking of the field, to use a baseball analogy, saying ‘there’s no such thing as a surplus’ without carefully qualifying you are talking about the ‘after’ Diagram 2 (‘pure’ MMT), is taking too big of a lead off base and you will easily get picked off. To be fair however, on another pitch, Dr. Steven Hail does hit it out of the ballpark. In his video, at the 28:22 mark he says, “The important point is, the gov’t DOES NOT NEED to tax you to ‘pay for’ its spending.”
‘The gov’t does not need to tax you to pay for its spending’, that’s how to correctly say it today, because the ‘theory’ in modern monetary theory, is that we are still not there yet. We are still a work-in-progress, we are still in a modern monetary ‘reality’ between the old (gold-standard) system and the new (‘pure’ MMT) system. In a perfect (‘pure’ MMT) world, the accounting rules and the appropriations laws in the monetary system have been renovated by policymakers. Pure MMT means that there is no longer any need for a Treasury General Funds Account (where all federal spending needs to be drawn from); no need for a Social Security Trust Fund (that needs to be replenished with the federal government’s own IOUs written against itself); no need for a fiat dollar ‘debt ceiling’ (as if there is such a thing as the federal gov’t, the issuer of fiat dollars, being in ‘debt’ of fiat dollars); nor any need to say federal gov’t budget ‘deficit’ or ‘surplus’ (because we then just need to say how many dollars were ‘added’ or ‘relieved’ from the banking system, period, end of story). THAT’S the day you can say ‘taxes don’t fund spending’. Until then, until the mainstream has accepted MMT, the economics books are being rewritten (until we are at pure MMT), oversimplifications and catchphrases are not good enough for experts in the field. On 10/12/17 Warren Mosler tweeted that Puerto Rico (recently hit by Hurricane Maria, a Cat. 4 storm), because Puerto Rico was only a US territory, was at a disadvantage to any US state, regarding total spending, because “PR only keeps its own income taxes to spend, while DC spending in the states = income taxes paid + federal deficit spending = big advantage.” Warren Mosler has made this point before. In a 08/30/17 Real Progressives broadcast, he gave a similar analogy, this time regarding the US Virgin Islands (where he lives and is presently running for governor in the 2018 race) also having a disadvantage to US states (why saying ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ isn’t entirely accurate). “When Texas sends a (federal tax) dollar to Washington D.C.” Mr. Mosler explained, “DC spends $1.25 back.” He continued, “…all the (federal tax) money gets spent back into the states.” This is what I mean when I say MMTers shouldn’t oversimplify MMT with silly catchphrases, especially when talking to experts in the field who we need to change those pesky accounting rules and appropriations laws from the old monetary system that still (albeit unnecessary) exist. If citizen Mosler (hopefully) becomes Governor Mosler, he will immediately become one of these policy-making experts in the field (that you might want to avoid saying ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ to).
‘The subway token doesn’t fund the subway’ meme is baloney. It’s another deadly innocent misinterpretation of Warren Mosler (7DIF Fraud #1). The token and ticket analogy only means that the monetary sovereign using pure fiat currency won’t ever run out of tokens or tickets (no solvency risk, no constraint on spending), not ‘taxes don’t fund spending’. My question to these ‘academics’ that say ‘the subway token doesn’t fund the subway’ is: ‘Does the subway rider also get ‘destroyed’ when he puts the token in the turnstile? Of course not. The riders (The reserves) next get on to (next get credited to) the subway (the Treasury’s General FUNDS account at the Federal Reserve Bank) and travel (and are electronically key stroked) in a special tube underneath the city (via the monetary base) which those riders soon exit (which soon get debited) out from the subway (out from the GFA) and go back into (and credited to) the city (the money supply) from whence they came (from whence they came). The takeaway of these analogies is not ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ at all; the takeaway is that the order of collection v. spending, switched, and that the priority of taxes as ‘financing’ stepped aside for other, more important functions. Warren Mosler says that “taxes…are not revenue PER SE” (he doesn’t say taxes are not revenue AT ALL). The only conclusion MMTers should make with the subway token analogy is that since the federal gov’t switched from having to first collect gold-backed dollars (and then spending gold-backed dollars), to now first spending fiat dollars (and then collecting fiat dollars afterwards), fiat dollar taxes ARE NOT NEEDED to fund spending in fiat dollars (not that they don’t). Furthermore, it is important to note, there are two routes that the added reserves in the Treasury GFA (that the ‘destruction’ of federal taxes create) can take. The first is to be immediately debited towards federal on-budget expenditures as mentioned above. The other is to be debited towards the outstanding amount of Treasury bonds (paying off some of the national ‘debt’). If an MMT ‘academic’ says ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ outside of their classrooms, they are unwittingly admitting that they don’t understand the US laws and these accounting constructs that (albeit unnecessary) are still in place.
The MMT ‘enlightenment’ is that all federal gov’t spending, both surplus spending and deficit spending, is simply cash-financed with federal gov’t fiat dollars, under a narrative, a charade, a bygone idiosyncratic formality, that spending is still ‘tax-financed’ and ‘bond-financed’ with someone else’s gold-backed dollars. That’s not saying that those federal gov’t revenues ARE NOT funding federal gov’t spending, that’s only saying that those revenues ARE NOT NEEDED to fund spending; not anymore, not since the federal gov’t stopped spending gold-backed dollars and started spending with fiat dollars. If you are an MMT professor (lecturing to other MMTers in a classroom), or an MMT ‘academic’ (commenting to other MMTers online), then fine, go ahead, say ‘taxes don’t fund spending’, but if you say that to anyone else, you sound like someone who never drove but got a degree memorizing a Ford Fiesta manual and now you are explaining braking distance to Mario Andretti. If you say ‘taxes don’t fund spending’, you are saying that EACH day 8,950,684,931 dollars and 51 cents (actual average 2016 tax revenue per day) was ‘destroyed’ (and went poof), yet miraculously, 8,950,684,931 dollars and 51 cents was also ‘created’, every day, by total coincidence, into the Treasury’s General Fund Account (TGA), the reserve account of the Treasury at the Federal Reserve, where all federal gov’t spending is paid from. Sure, whatever, say that, but please know how dopey you sound. If you keep saying that ‘taxes comes first’, that the federal gov’t must first spend money into existence for you to pay taxes, you aren’t getting it; you are thinking that the Monopoly Bank has to deficit spend $1500 dollars to each Player, into existence, not only at the beginning of the game, but at EVERY roll of the dice (which isn’t the case). If you say ‘taxes don’t fund spending’, not only don’t you fully understand accounting, you don’t fully understand political optics. Even though federal taxes are not needed to fund spending, WHAT exactly the federal gov’t spends on is just as important as those taxes doing what they’re actually needed for (maintaining price stability, etc). For example, some citizens, who are pro-life may be bothered if an Obamacare mandate is funding birth control. Some citizens, who scrimp and save to make ends meet may not think it’s fair that the military is paying for gender reassignment surgeries at $130,000 a pop. They may even understand macroeconomic concepts as well as you (that the only problem with deficit spending is potential inflation rather than worrying about how we are going to pay for it), but if you try to blow off their concerns by saying that their ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ (on things that trigger them), they will (correctly) think you are clueless. HOWEVER, if you say it right, if you say their federal taxes ‘ARE NOT NEEDED to fund spending’, you may pique your listener’s intellectual curiosity. Perhaps, they will follow up with a question like ‘If my taxes are not needed to fund spending, then what are they needed for?’ THAT’S a MUCH better way to start the MMT conversation.
The answer to ‘then what are revenues needed for?’ is that federal revenues are needed as a federal gov’t fiscal and monetary policy function, not a federal gov’t financing function. Meaning that the purpose of federal gov’t taxes and federal gov’t bond sales today, are actually maintaining price levels and regulating the economy, behind a facade of ‘financing’ the economy. Revenues are only needed to ‘finance’ users of currency, like households and businesses, in their quest to balance budgets; however, in the post gold standard, modern monetary system, revenues to any monetary sovereign, perform more important functions for the issuer of currency, to balance their economies. US Treasury securities sales (short-term bills, medium-term notes, long-term bonds) provide users of US dollars a safe, risk-free place to park their dollars, to fulfill their savings desires. Treasury securities are actively traded in a liquid global bond market which serves as a safe harbor for dollars taking a flight to quality away from risky assets, into risk-free assets, like Treasury bonds, during worldwide market turbulence (which further solidifies the US dollar’s stature as a world-class reserve currency). Treasury securities are tools used in monetary policy to set the price, or interest rate of dollars; and in fiscal policy to increase aggregate demand to stimulate the economy with more deficit spending (Treasury bond issuance acts as a dollar drain that neutralizes the inflationary bias of that net financial add, that increase to the money supply, of that deficit spending). Rather than financing the federal gov’t, federal revenues today are mostly needed for two things. In his prophetic 1946 article, NY fed chair Ruml writes that federal taxes are obsolete when it comes to financing the federal gov’t because for any monetary sovereign using a pure, fiat currency, federal taxes are only really needed to control inflation and serve public purpose. MMTers expand on this, that federal taxes are also needed to create the initial velocity and continuous demand for the currency by requiring that federal tax must be paid in the currency issued by the federal gov’t. Furthermore, federal taxes are also needed to balance the economy by redistributing wealth to widen prosperity. Finally, federal taxes are also needed to ‘create’ unemployment. The federal gov’t does this in the exact same way that a parent starts making their child pay for stuff they want. In order for the now ‘unemployed’ child to make those payments, the child must start doing chores and earn an allowance. The parent does this to make the child help provision the household. Afterwards, when the child, spending the earned allowance, pays the household, in exchange for wanted privileges, the child is indeed ‘funding’ or ‘financing’ the household; but ‘funding’ the household (paying into the off-budget ‘allowance trust fund’) and / or ‘financing’ the household (paying into the on-budget household spending), is not the primary function of collecting the child’s allowance. The child’s allowance IS NOT NEEDED to ‘fund’ the household, and certainly is not needed to ‘finance’ household spending (not that it doesn’t).
A recent comment by Brandon Verdier put it succinctly, “…the presence of federal tax is what allows us to spend more without experiencing more inflation than we are comfortable with.” Another good quote, from Geoff Coventry (although like most MMT ‘academics’, still struggles with the difference between the ‘funding’ and ‘financing’ aspects in commercial banking), sees the big picture very clearly and puts it very nicely, saying, “The primary purpose of federal taxation is to maintain stable demand for government currency and offset the economic effects of its issuance.” In my opinion that’s a much better tact to take rather than an MMT ‘academic’ saying to someone that ‘taxes don’t fund spending’. I suggest that when doing the good deed of spreading the MMT gospel, these MMTers should lose the ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ catchphrase. Unless of course, they think whomever they are speaking to is simplistic. While explaining why many MMTers frequently regurgitate the ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ line, Warren Mosler commented that they like to say that because “Creating sellers is generally not considered a funding operation.” The key word there is ‘generally’. Mr. Mosler wisely doesn’t say creating sellers (federal taxation) IS NOT considered a funding operation. Why? He DOESN’T say that those taxes, that creating those sellers, is not a funding operation because it’s too simplistic to say that. Creating sellers (federal taxation) is one of many important operations that taxes are ‘generally considered’ to perform. The less important operation that federal taxes are ‘generally not considered’ to perform is financing spending (since the federal gov’t now spends with fiat dollars instead of spending with gold-backed dollars). So if you hear ‘taxes don’t fund spending’, assume that either the speaker thinks you are simplistic, or that the speaker is simplistic. If someone is preaching to their faithful, and says ‘taxes don’t fund spending’, they’ll get a Hallelujah, no one will challenge them, members of cults never do. However, if that same person tells people outside their simplistic choir that your federal taxes, your hard-earned cash, confiscated from your earning, that you are painfully watching come out of your paychecks, YOUR THREE AND A QUARTER TRILLION $$$ ‘don’t fund spending’, you can assume (correctly) that they are simplistic.
During an online discussion, fellow MMTer Mike Morris wrote, “I see the MMT position as the endgame, wholeheartedly supporting it, once we have a Congress capable of enforcing it, and an electorate educated enough to back said Congress. Takes time.” That is well said and that, is the crux of this discussion. When that endgame happens, after the electorate has become educated, and after said Congress has reconfigured their thinking about our monetary system, which will take time, that’s the day we can say ‘taxes don’t fund spending.’ If you say it before then, you are jumping the gun, and you sound like a complete boob. “The point is you can’t PROVE it (‘TDSF’) in the accounting so it’s a suicidal mission which detracts from actually reaching people. The uncompromising adherence to this disastrous bit of cognitive dissonance (‘TDFS’) creates issues for all MMTers. That’s pretty much it,” Mike Morris adds. If however, you say ‘taxes are not needed to fund spending’, then good for you, because then you are helping the MMT cause, and you are helping MMT get closer to that endgame. Another MMTer, Ellis Winningham, who appears often on Real Progressives (RP) broadcasts, and who also contributes articles to the RP website, defends saying ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ (RP’s favorite head-turner to their donation-paying followers). Actually I like Ellis, at least he’s funny, I can relate to the dry sense of humor in his MMT lectures. Another thing that cracks me up about Ellis is how much he cocks around like a lot of the other self-proclaimed MMT ‘scholars’ (he reminds his readers of his superior MMT prowess every other day), despite still not grasping the difference between the ‘theory’ in Modern Monetary Theory, from the modern monetary reality (that some old processes from the gold-standard era, like the political constraint of taxes that are ‘funding’ the Treasury (not the same as ‘financing’ the Treasury, which an ex-Goldman alumni like Ellis should know by now). That said, my guess Ellis knows how dopey he sounds to anyone outside the RP movement (another variation of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ thing that disillusioned folks would rather do in lieu of blaming themselves for their own problems). By attempting to provide air cover for the ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ narrative, at least he’s loyal to his RP co-evangelists. The usually long-winded Winningham broke character with this pithy admission on his Facebook page in September 2017 (the same day of the ‘First International Conference on MMT, Economics for a New Progressive Era’, University of Missouri-Kansas City): “MMT is quite extensive. It is not as simple as ‘Hey, federal taxes don’t fund federal spending’. It does not matter if this is the key point that political people are missing. There is much, much more to be digested than this simple statement. So, to the activist I will say that if you only discuss this singular point endlessly, you are leaving a huge hole for people to drive a truck through with talk (as if) this is all there is to MMT…you are creating your own headaches. This is one reason why it is important to defer to those who understand MMT completely. And to those who’ve heard ‘federal taxes don’t fund federal spending’ from activists that say little else, and then afterwards, choose to go around claiming that this is all there is to MMT…I will tell you point blank that you simply do not understand MMT whatsoever, in whole or in part; and that your feelings and thoughts expressed in your comments are conclusive evidence to those who actually teach MMT that you do not know what you are talking about.”
The ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ debate began in February 2017 when I posted a suggestion on the Intro To MMT webpage, advising fellow MMTers not to say it. That post quickly escalated into a major battle across several fronts, and I have three good reasons why. First, the initial argument against me was that during the gold standard era, taxes funded spending, so since we have left the gold standard era, now ‘taxes don’t fund spending’, period. Folks arguing against me were saying that if I disagreed with ‘taxes don’t fund spending’, then it’s because I’m still stuck in gold standard mentality. My counterargument was that it isn’t as black and white like that because there’s a grey area here, a ‘now’ phase that we are still in, that a ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ catchphrase doesn’t quite capture. I told them they were struggling with the difference between the modern monetary ‘theory’ and the not-so-modern monetary ‘reality’. I explained to them that even though we left the gold standard era, that even though we are now a monetary sovereign using fiat currency, some US laws, some accounting constructs, and some modern monetary ‘formalities’ from the old system ARE STILL IN PLACE. So whether we like it or not, we need to recognize these complexities; especially if we want to make the MMT case to experts in the field (who we need to change those pesky outdated accounting rules and appropriations laws), because oversimplifications are not good enough for them. Second, when Nick (MINETHIS1), Vernon Etzel, Charles ‘Kondy’ Kondak and I created the Pure MMT for the 100% website with our original post that pointed out that Warren Mosler does not say ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ (which Mr. Mosler himself ‘shared’ on his own Center of The Universe website), it struck a nerve. It soon occurred to me that this was becoming more than just a debate over semantics, it was exposing the pretenders from the contenders in the MMT community. Unable to defend ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ too well on their own, it soon became quite obvious that what made this debate so polarizing was because it alienated the MMTers that were only regurgitating MMT (the ‘indoctrinated’ who didn’t like the ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ discussion); from those that were truly comprehending MMT (the ‘educated’ who liked the teachable moment that the discussion presented). The debate shined a needed light on the difference between the Modern Monetary THEORY (the ‘after’ diagram’) and the Modern Monetary REALITY (the ‘now’ diagram); and let’s just say many MMTers became quite ‘uncomfortable’ with the realization that they were not as up to speed on MMT as they thought (as they acted). Many MMTers also got frustrated because taxes were not ‘technically’ funding spending, which is true, which I agree with, but they didn’t like being asked “So why don’t you say ‘Taxes don’t technically fund spending’ instead?” Finally, and to be fair to the ‘Taxes don’t fund spending!’ element out there, here’s another reason why they insist on saying that: If they cede the fact that taxes do fund surplus spending, they fear they will get outflanked by the ‘How are we going to pay for that?’ element; and the country will never get free healthcare, free college, free whatever. I get that. In my opinion, they should cede that ground, take the higher road, take the hint, and just say it right, say ‘taxes are not needed to fund spending’ to win over more converts to MMT (who may be suspicious of MMTer intentions so we must be careful what we say). On 05/30/17 when we launched Pure MMT for the 100%, Warren Mosler commented that he “never made the statement ‘federal taxes don’t fund spending’ and if perchance I did it was carefully qualified”. My reply to Mr. Mosler was yes, I knew he was saying it right, that he has been saying it right all along (7DIF), just that getting all other MMTers to also say it right was my only interest. Rather than trying to be argumentative with MMTers, I explained to Mr. Mosler that I was simply offering a suggestion that I believe would help the MMT cause. “Whatever politics an MMTer has, whatever spending on public purpose they want for the common good, is fine by me,” I added (and I was also very happy to see that he ‘liked’ that comment).
The ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ narrative takes Warren Mosler’s ‘stadium tickets get ripped up at the turnstile’ analogy too literally. Mr. Mosler’s point (in his 7DIF Fraud #1) was to change our thinking how we look at the order of funding operations from once upon a time vs. now. Back then, federal taxes paid with gold-backed dollars were needed to be collected by the federal gov’t from us first, and then spent back to us. Meaning that the amount of federal spending was constrained, and that the federal gov’t faced a solvency risk if tax collections (revenues) were low. Now, the order is flipped, it’s a new paradigm, a new currency. Now, similar to a stadium, the federal gov’t issues and ‘supplies’ the fiat dollars (‘stadium tickets’) to us first; and then the stadium collects them back. In other words, back then, we first funded ‘Federal Gov’t Stadium’ with a limited amount of already-existing, gold-backed dollars, and then they funded us back; now, ‘Federal Gov’t Stadium’ funds you first with newly-issued fiat dollars, and then you fund them back. Now, the potential for ‘ticket sales’ at ‘Federal Gov’t Stadium’ is unlimited; and because the stadium is the sole monopoly issuer of those fiat dollar ‘tickets’, there is no solvency risk. Mr. Mosler’s stadium ticket analogy is just to get us to rethink the order of funding operations, to realize that taxes ARE NOT NEEDED to fund spending like they were before (not that they don’t at all, not yet, that accounting construct from back then still exists). Mr. Mosler also wants you to rethink what funding means.
To help us rethink what funding means, in closing, I submit to the court, the enclosed video, as Evidence A, @ 5:52 the question is posed from Steven D. Grumbine, Real Progressives webcast host to his guest, Warren Mosler: “Federal taxes do not fund spending, right?” and the answer is, “…I don’t actually say it that way… You don’t need to say it that way…To use an ambiguous word like fund…because to fund something means different things to different people”. Meaning that folks, playing financial experts, saying ‘taxes don’t fund spending’, have no idea they sound financially illiterate because they are confusing ‘funding’ with ‘financing’. Federal taxes paid in fiat dollars are not needed for ‘financing’ surplus spending because the federal gov’t is the issuer of fiat currency, that’s one thing. ‘Funding’ the federal gov’t is another. ‘Funding’ means different things to different people, especially to people with real world commercial banking experience like Mr. Mosler (read: outside the MMT ‘academia’). When you leave a bank with less money than you had before walking in, unless there was a holdup, you just ‘funded’ that bank (which is a lot different from ‘financing’ that bank). For example, if you deposited your paycheck into your savings account, that’s called ‘retail funding’. ‘Funding’ simply means ‘supplying’. The bank doesn’t make money from your deposit, that funding does not ‘finance’ the bank; however, if you also paid an interest income payment on your mortgage loan you had at that bank, that’s how the bank makes money, that ‘finances’ the bank. So just the same as when you hand over your dollars to make a deposit to the bank, when you hand over your dollars to make a tax payment to the federal gov’t, you are indeed funding them both. Regarding federal taxes and federal spending, taxes don’t finance spending (in term of a financial constraint), but taxes fund spending (in terms of a political constraint).
It’s a new order of funding operations. Unlike during the gold standard era, when the federal gov’t needed to first collect gold backed dollars from the non federal gov’t, or the federal gov’t needed to first assume debt denominated in gold backed dollars before spending; the federal gov’t now spends fiat dollars at will. As per Warren Mosler, “Operationally, the Fed just credits the appropriate accounts.” Taxes as a ‘financing’ (financial) operation (which involved balances of dollars financed by taxes) took the back seat; and taxes as a ‘funding’ (political) operation (which involves movements of reserves that maintains price stability) is now in the front seat.
It’s a rethinking of funding. The federal gov’t funds (supplies) us when they spend, and then we fund (supply) them back when we pay taxes, and back & forth, again & again. Hopefully the amount the gov’t is funding us is bigger than the amount we are funding them, our living standards are rising, jobs are plentiful, price stability is maintained, and the economy is in balance.
Mr. Mosler’s answer to that question was not ‘Yes, that’s right, that’s correct, and whoever disagrees or posts otherwise doesn’t understand MMT’; that answer was Q) Federal taxes do not fund spending, right? A) Wrong. Interpret that as him wavering on ‘federal taxes do not fund spending’, why he never says it, and for a very good reason (because it ain’t MMT). Warren Mosler, the father of MMT, doesn’t say it that way because it’s ambiguous, it’s not entirely accurate, and it shows a lack of actual banking experience and a confusion with simple financial concepts like ‘funding’. Which gets ironically weird if you are going around telling people that they don’t know how banking and finance really works.
Please note, I am only insinuating that Warren Mosler meant ‘taxes don’t fund spending’ is wrong. To be fair, even though Warren Mosler does say “I don’t actually say it that way”, he doesn’t say it’s “wrong” to say it that way. Actually he is neutral. Many other MMTers, including myself and my friends at the ‘Pure MMT for the 100%‘ website also share the same opinion that neither side of this debate is “wrong”. Our position is that saying “Taxes Don’t Fund Spending” is ok to say to the MMT beginners, to the politically left-leaning ‘Real Progressives’, to those that only dwell in the MMT academic echo-chambers (easier to grasp, a fantastic head-turner, and why MMT ‘scholars’ love to say it); but to understand pure MMT, to really comprehend it, we should, as Doug Hughes advises, “advance beyond the oversimplifications at the introductory level of MMT and acknowledge the real-world complexities so as to better communicate with experts in the industry.” While some accounting constructs of the old monetary system are still in place, I’m only suggesting that we use better verbiage to introduce MMT to the uninitiated outside our choirs (who may be slightly suspect of our intentions). The reason, as Doug Hughes adds, is that “convincing them is severely important and unless one understands the finer points of how the system operates they will be laughed at.”
What Warren Mosler has also said many times is that “tax liabilities are….Not revenue per se.” There is a subtle, yet significant difference between saying ‘taxes are…Not revenue PER SE’ vs. saying ‘taxes are…Not revenue’ (AT ALL). To understand what that difference is, just look up the definition of ‘per se’. ‘Per se’, is a Latin phrase meaning ‘by itself’ or ‘in itself’. So what ‘taxes are not revenue per se’ is saying is that taxes ‘by itself’, or that taxes themselves, are not ‘intrinsically’ a revenue, that taxes are not fully, ‘solely’ a revenue. It’s only saying that taxes are not just a revenue anymore (not that taxes aren’t a revenue at all). In other words, saying ‘taxes aren’t a revenue per se’ is a succinct way of updating the perspective of the role of revenue. It is simply pointing out that regarding the federal gov’t, the meaning of revenue has altered, that it’s not exactly the same as it used to be. That the bygone (gold-backed dollar) revenue operation of taxation has taken a back seat to the modern (fiat dollar) revenue functions of maintaining price stability, maintaining demand for the dollar, etc etc. It’s the same as gesturing air quotes whenever talking about something. For example, when talking about the national “debt”, better to say that any federal gov’t “debt” denominated in the fiat currency of any monetary sovereign, the issuer of that same currency, is not the same as real, ACTUAL, household DEBT. Don’t just blurt out something like ‘there is no national debt’ and call it a day if you are truly promoting MMT.
If you want to convince folks that you are still on the MMT bunny slope over at ‘academic’ hill, say ‘taxes don’t fund spending.’ If you are having trouble keeping your listeners awake during your lectures, say ‘taxes don’t fund spending.’ If you are pushing some product or promoting yourself (under the guise of promoting MMT), say ‘taxes don’t fund spending’. If you are selling some amateurish double-down system to compulsive gamblers who you’ve got convinced will get rich quick, say ‘taxes don’t fund spending’. If you are speaking to a simplistic flock of lost souls and lonely hearts that ‘like’ you, ‘share’ you, and ‘heart’ you because you’ve sold them on the notion that their bad lot in life is someone else’s fault and that you are going to get them free stuff in a Marxist utopia, say ‘taxes don’t fund spending’. If, however, you are truly speaking for the MMT cause, then trust Warren Mosler, and for everyone’s sake (mainly yours), don’t say it. I hope you now know why.
About a month later, during another webcast, Steven asked Iain Dooley, Economics Adviser, of the Australian Workers Party:
Q) “Taxes don’t fund spending right?”
A) “ I think that’s the most contentious statement that MMT makes.”
I rest my case.
Local taxes are needed to fund spending…
State taxes are needed to fund spending…
* Federal taxes ARE NOT NEEDED to fund spending.
Thanks for reading,
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P.S. “I DON’T LIKE TO SAY THAT ‘TAXES DON’T FUND SPENDING’ BECAUSE the word fund is ambiguous and even though you can be right, you can be dead right, but it’s better to say the gov’t DOESN’T NEED your money to be able to spend not that it DOESN’T FUND IT…taxes ARE NOT NEEDED to be able to spend.” Warren Mosler’s MMT conference closing remarks September 24, 2017