That’s all very well but as a nation we just can’t afford it

5 min read

Health and social care and education are now just unaffordable. There are too many old and sick people and too many people want to go to university. We can’t afford it. We have to do something different, they say.

However, affordability at the level of a nation is widely misunderstood. The common metaphor for a nation’s finance is drawn from household budgets and an appeal to prudence. Dickens expressed this through the character of Wilkins Micawber in David Copperfield,

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.

This we are told is the basis of sound fiscal management of a national economy – the books should be balanced. We are reminded of this on a daily basis in the news and media. Recently when the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced additional funding of £20 billion for the National Health Service, the first questions from the press were “where is the money coming from?” and “will there be additional taxes to cover the cost?” The Micawber principle is deeply embedded in public discourse. Indeed to suggest otherwise is considered to be incompetent or economically reckless, or both.

What the mainstream media rarely talk about is the differences between a national economy and a household. The difference is very important in understanding the nature of public spending. What makes a household different to a nation is that most nations are the issuers of the currency used in that nation. Households do not in general issue their own currency. This is an essential fact in understanding a nation’s finance. The demand for that currency is a consequence of taxes having to be paid in the national currency.

The next bit takes a little bit of thinking about. It is worth allowing your imagination space to contemplate what I am about to say to assure yourself of its validity.

The sum of all surpluses in a national economy must equal the sum of all deficits. 

Let us unpack this with a thought experiment. Imagine there are just two of us on a fabled desert island. We decide that we are going to issue a currency and agree that is the only legal tender on the island. If one of us, for some reason or another is acquiring more currency than they are spending, then that person is running a surplus. It follows then that the other person must be in deficit – they are losing more currency than gaining. Of course, no one would issue a currency for two people, but this does illustrate how in a simple case, with a single legal tender, deficits and surpluses must sum to zero. If we now start adding people into the economy the same accounting fact must hold; all deficits and surpluses must sum to zero since there is only one source of currency.

The zero-sum of deficit and surpluses is profoundly different from the Micawber principle of income and expenditure. The implication of this is that if the government tries to generate a surplus by reducing the difference between spending and taxation, members of society will have to start to carry a deficit (and accumulate debt) in order to meet the needs of the nation. At the same time, public services are run down as result of lack of funding. Yet a government, as the currency issuer, has the capacity to create money to spend on things like health and education. In fact, a government with a sovereign currency (i.e. one that is not pegged to another currency) does not need to borrow money to spend, it has the power to create currency to spend on the things we need, like health and social care, education, housing, welfare, infrastructure, defence and an industrial strategy (secure and meaningful jobs).

It is incorrect then to argue that public services are unaffordable, the choice is to fund them through public funding or through private debt. I know which I prefer. Political activists are quite right in saying that austerity is a political choice and not an economic necessity.

I am going to end here, but no doubt, there are many questions from this which I will address in subsequent posts. Questions like:

  • How does this relate to the £2 trillion national debt in the UK?
  • Doesn’t currency creation lead to massive inflation?
  • Why does the mainstream media insist on the Micawber principle?

Acknowledgements

I have not referenced these ideas and none of theme are mine, so I would like to acknowledge some sources, past and present: Bill Mitchell, L Randall Wray, Stephanie Kelton, Warren Mosler, Ellis Willingham, John Maynard Keynes, Karl Marx, Win Godley, Alfred Mitchell Innes and all the Modern Money Theory proponents on social media #learnMMT

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