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Federal government spending is different from household spending

December 20, 2015

It is not unusual to hear from politicians that government spending and household spending operate according to the same overall principles. This narrative usually states that households and governments must both “live within their means”.

And although many astute commentators recognise that attempts to draw an analogy between government and household financing are fallacious, they fail to recognise that the reason for this fallacy runs much deeper than their commonly expressed observation that government expenditure leads to some return in the form of revenue for the government.
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For several decades now, currency-issuing countries around the world have been operating without a gold standard to back their respective currencies. Modern currencies are based on pure state fiat money, backed only by the ability and willingness of each central government to tax its citizens.

Unfortunately mainstream economists have largely not yet caught up with the implications of this relatively new situation, and consequently they do not understand the significance of the development of modern monetary theory (MMT) and what it is all about.

Amongst other things, MMT proposes that monetarily sovereign governments (this includes our federal government but not our state or municipal governments) do not need to rely on taxation revenue in order to effectively spend into the economy without having to worry about inflationary pressures or potential rises in interest rates.
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Deficit spending, whether accommodated by issuing Treasury bonds to the private sector or more directly to the central bank, allows the central government to inject new net financial assets into the private sector, as deemed appropriate for the purpose of enhancing aggregate demand, boosting the ability of the private sector to save and invest, and reducing the overall level of unemployment. Only central government has the ability to create net financial assets in this way; it never needs to “balance” its budget, and can never go broke.
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Putting it another way, a central government which is monetarily sovereign will always live within its means, because it has a bottomless pit of financial assets (denominated in dollars, and easily convertible into actual dollars if this is required) at its disposal. There is no risk of inflationary pressure from deficit spending in circumstances where the economy is operating below its capacity to produce goods and services (such as right now!). None of this applies to a household, or to household budgeting.

John Hermann

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