Kitchen Table Economics

Over at Naked Capitalism our old pal dday has a couple of thought provoking pieces I’d like to draw your attention to.

The second is a reprint of an article by Chris Mayer that has also appeared at New Economic Perspectives.  Chris is no deficit dove, in fact he used to be an Austrian which is the school of Weber, Mises, and Hayek and heavily influenced the thinking of the ‘Freshwater’ University of Chicago style of economics with its theories of perfect markets and concerns about inflation.

In it he describes a simple thought experiment proposed by Warren Mosler (considered the father of neo-Chartalism or as we know it more familiarly now- Modern Monetary Theory) to describe how fiat currency, which is to say sovereign currency unbacked by any fixed convertibility into commodities or currency other than that of the state that issues it, works.

Chris Mayer: How Fiat Money Works

by David Dayen, Naked Capitalism

Posted on January 9, 2014

Imagine parents create coupons they use to pay their kids for doing chores around the house. They “tax” the kids 10 coupons per week. If the kids don’t have 10 coupons, the parents punish them. “This closely replicates taxation in the real economy, where we have to pay our taxes or face penalties,” Mosler writes.

So now our household has its own currency. This is much like the U.S. government, which issues dollars, a fiat currency. (Meaning Uncle Sam doesn’t have to give you something else for it. Say, like a certain weight in gold.) If you think through this simple analogy, all kinds of interesting insights emerge.

For example, do the parents have to get coupons from their kids before they can pay them to do any chores? Obviously not. In fact, the parents have to spend their coupons first by paying their children to do chores before they can collect the tax. “How else can the children get the coupons they owe to the parents?” Mosler writes.

“Likewise,” he continues, “in the real economy, the federal government, just like this household with its own coupons, doesn’t have to get the dollars it spends from taxing or borrowing or anywhere else to be able to spend them.”

The government creates dollars. It doesn’t even have to print them. The vast majority of spending is simply done by adding electronic dollars to bank accounts. Therefore, the U.S. government can’t go bankrupt. It pays all its bills in U.S. dollars, of which it is the sole issuer.

This sounds really obvious, but it is amazing how many people – even very smart people – forget this simple fact. They get hysterical about the fiscal deficit or the national debt. (This is not to say there aren’t bad consequences from issuing too many coupons, or from government spending in general.) The only way the U.S. government can default is if it chooses to do so.

Going back to Mosler’s example, let’s ask another question: How can the kids “save” coupons in excess of the weekly tax? Well, they can only do that if the parents spend more than they tax. There is no other way to hoard coupons. In the real economy, the same is true. The private sector can save dollars only if the government spends more than it taxes. Spending pours fiat money into an economy; tax payments drain it away.

Another question: Do the parents have fewer coupons if they spend more than they tax? No. The parents make the coupons. They don’t even need physical coupons. They can simply track them on a piece of paper or in a spreadsheet. Likewise, the U.S. government doesn’t have any fewer dollars after running deficits. It can’t run out. (There are real-world restraints on how much government spends.) To borrow from another Mosler analogy, the U.S. government can no more run out of dollars than a scorekeeper can run out of points.

You don’t have to like this. (I don’t.) It’s merely a description of how a fiat currency system works. That’s the world we live in.

One great story Mosler tells in both books is how he cleaned up on another free lunch in lira-denominated bonds in the early ’90s. This was before the euro and back when there was worry over a default by Italy’s government. Italy’s national debt was 110% of GDP and interest rates were high on its bonds.

But Mosler knew that it was the sole issuer of lira. Italy could not default unless it wanted to. Mosler actually met with senior officials in Rome to let them in on the “secret.” Long story short, Italy didn’t default. Mosler’s fund made over $100 million.

For an investor, macroeconomics has limited uses most of the time. Mosler’s career shows this can be otherwise. But then again, you have to study economics that actually describe the real world. And Mosler’s economics, or MMT, does that rather well.

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