It never ceases to amaze me how people misunderstand the process of financing the federal government. The ridiculous economic stimulus programs that the government frequently adopts provide just one example.
I thought that a simple explanation of the dynamics of government finance would help readers understand how this system works.
How the Government Spends Money
To understand government finance, you must first understand the meaning of what people generally refer to as government “spending.” Although I do use the word occasionally, I try to avoid “spending” when referring to the money government disburses. Spending implies voluntary exchanges of earned resources (or money) for goods and services. Governments do not earn money. We’ll see how they get it in a moment.
Despite the laundry list of programs that get money from the government, those programs fall into three general categories of disbursements: 1) transfer payments; 2) acquisitions; and 3) debt payments. This diagram depicts those general categories of disbursements from the Federal Government to the National Economy.
As the term implies, transfer payments simply transfer money to individuals, who belong to some specific group or category of citizens (or even non-citizens). Examples of transfer payments include: Social Security, Medicare, Welfare Payments, and Economic Stimulus Payments. The government receives nothing in return for these payments.
Acquisitions include all disbursements made in return for products and services. Unlike transfer payments the government gets something for the money it disburses. Examples of acquisitions include: Defense, Highways, Buildings, and Salaries for Legislators and bureaucrats.
Debt payment includes all payments made on federal debt obligations. This includes principal and interest.
As many categories as the people in government invent, and as many hearings and debates the legislators have, the “spending” side of federal finance boils down to these three categories: money given away (transfer payments), money to buy stuff (acquisitions), and money to pay debt obligations (debt payments).
That, however, does not provide a complete picture. Every dollar that government disburses must come from somewhere. Government has no money of its own. And, it earns no money.
So, where does government get the money it disburses?
How the Government Gets Money
Coincidently and conveniently it comes from three sources. I have completed the diagram of government finance to show those sources of money: 1) taxes, 2) inflation, and 3) borrowing.
Taxes—all forms of federal taxes—provide the primary source of money for the disbursements described above. (I have included fees with taxes because the market does not determine these fees.)
No matter how nicely you phrase it taxation amounts to the use of the coercive power of the government to take people’s private property. Plunder, thievery, and taxation all provide accurate names for this source of government money.
The nature and effect of government borrowing seems to confuse people. Most explanations of government borrowing tend to complicate the subject beyond comprehension.
First, why does government borrowing occur?
As depicted in the diagram, the government must have a source for every dollar it disburses. Taxes provide the money for most of those disbursements, but when the government spends more money than it collects in taxes it must borrow to cover the deficit.
Second, what effect does borrowing have on the national economy?
In simple terms, borrowing has only a slightly different effect than does taxation. It takes money, which has other uses, from the national economy. Just as with taxation, when the government borrows money from the economy, that money gets used as government authorities dictate, without the benefit of a pricing mechanism. That money is no longer available for any other purpose for which the free market might have used it.
Third, what secures government borrowing? Or, what provides assurance of repayment to lenders?
People don’t lend money without the expectation of getting paid back. When people lend money to a government they rely on the government’s ability to tax in order to repay those loans. The security for government debt comes from its ability to tax.
(I don’t have the space to elaborate here, but don’t get confused by people who talk about “borrowing against our kids’ future.” First, money borrowed by government gets redistributed in the economy today—not in the future, just like taxes. Second, when government makes debt payments in the future, government redistributes that money in the economy at that same time in the future. The government makes a transfer today. The government makes a transfer in the future. In addition, the “wealthy” lend money to the government; the “wealthy” pay taxes to repay that debt—not “our kids.)
With the aid of the banking system, the government can create new money to “pay its bills.” The Government likes this method for “collecting” revenue for several reasons: it can do it unilaterally (with the assistance of banks), without people noticing, and people don’t feel the pain immediately.
I have described inflation as a receipt like the other sources of revenue because inflation takes value away from people in the economy—just as taxation does. When the banking system creates new money—from nothing—the value of money already in existence declines. But, the decline in value does not affect everyone uniformly. Those who get this new money first benefit; those who get it later suffer. Just like counterfeiting.
Although the banking system has the power to create money for any purpose, it frequently creates it to buy federal debt—frequently referred to as monetizing federal debt. That does not change the effect of inflation: transferring value from on group of people to another group.
(Because of the complexity of the concept of inflation, I will address it in more detail in future posts.)
The Books Must Balance
For every dollar the government disburses it must receive a dollar from somewhere. Disbursements and receipts must always equal. Simple. Keep this in mind whenever reading or hearing about government finances.
When your legislators propose wonderful sounding programs (e.g. healthcare, museums, homeland security, or economic stimulus) they must tax, borrow, or inflate to get that money. They cannot give you anything for free.
Similarly, when they propose tax cuts without equivalent spending cuts, don’t let that fool you. They must borrow or inflate to make up the difference.
This system looks rather benign. Doesn’t the government put back into the economy every dollar it takes out?
Yes, it does. However…
A Flaw in the Model
That last question exposes the flaw with the model I have presented here. The homogeneous entity that we refer to as “National Economy” simply does not exist. The economy actually exists as an interconnected, yet heterogeneous, collection of individual people and businesses.
Transfer payments, acquisitions, and debt payments do not go to everyone equally. The government makes those disbursements to specific people or organizations—based on the whim of legislators, not the desires of market participants.
Taxes, borrowing, and inflation do not come from individual people and businesses uniformly. Specific people or organizations pay taxes, lend money, or suffer from the effects of inflation.
The Wealth Redistribution Machine
In summary, the federal government acts as a gigantic wealth redistribution machine. In the aggregate, the government gives a dollar for every dollar it takes. The economy, however, does not operate as an aggregate. So, for every dollar the government gives to one group of individuals it must take a dollar from another group of individuals.
Government finance simply amounts to involuntary, coerced, exchange.