Publications on Budget deficits
Working Paper No. 936 | September 2019
The Modern Money Theory ApproachThis paper will present the Modern Money Theory approach to government finance. In short, a national government that chooses its own money of account, imposes a tax in that money of account, and issues currency in that money of account cannot face a financial constraint. It can make all payments as they come due. It cannot be forced into insolvency. While this was well understood in the early postwar period, it was gradually “forgotten” as the neoclassical theory of the household budget constraint was applied to government finance. Matters were made worse by the development of “generational accounting” that calculated hundreds of trillions of dollars of government red ink through eternity due to “entitlements.” As austerity measures were increasingly adopted at the national level, fiscal responsibility was shifted to state and local governments through “devolution.” A “stakeholder” approach to government finance helped fuel white flight to suburbs and produced “doughnut holes” in the cities. To reverse these trends, we need to redevelop our understanding of the fiscal space open to the currency issuer—expanding its responsibility not only for national social spending but also for helping to fund state and local government spending. This is no longer just an academic debate, given the challenges posed by climate change, growing inequality, secular stagnation, and the rise of Trumpism.Download:Associated Programs:Author(s):
Working Paper No. 900 | January 2018
A Comparison of the Evolution of the Positions of Hyman Minsky and Abba LernerThis paper examines the views of Hyman Minsky and Abba Lerner on the functional finance approach to fiscal policy. It argues that the main principles of functional finance were relatively widely held in the immediate postwar period. However, with the rise of the Phillips curve, the return of the Quantity Theory, the development of the notion of a government budget constraint, and accelerating inflation at the end of the 1960s, functional finance fell out of favor. The paper compares and contrasts the evolution of the views of Minsky and Lerner over the postwar period, arguing that Lerner’s transition went further, as he embraced a version of Monetarism that emphasized the use of monetary policy over fiscal policy. Minsky’s views of functional finance became more nuanced, in line with his Institutionalist approach to the economy. However, Minsky never rejected his early beliefs that countercyclical government budgets must play a significant role in stabilizing the economy. Thus, in spite of some claims that Minsky should not be counted as one of the “forefathers” of Modern Money Theory (MMT), this paper argues that it is Minsky, not Lerner, whose work remains essential for the further development of MMT.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):
One-Pager No. 43 | September 2013
Unemployment in Greece has climbed to a new record of 27.9 percent and the country is headed toward a third bailout. The obsession with reducing the budget deficit is crippling the Greek economy. Extreme fiscal consolidation in the midst of a major depression can only have extreme effects on output, leading to greater unemployment, widening poverty, massive loss of faith in political and social institutions, and the potential for political violence. This is precisely what has been taking place in Greece since 2010, as fiscal brutality intensifies from one year to the next. Offering Greece yet another bailout package is not the answer.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):C. J. Polychroniou
Working Paper No. 723 | May 2012
Recently, some have wondered whether a fiscal stimulus plan could reduce the government’s budget deficit. Many also worry that fiscal austerity plans will only bring higher deficits. Issues of this kind involve endogenous changes in tax revenues that occur when output, real wages, and other variables are affected by changes in policy. Few would disagree that various paradoxes of austerity or stimulus might be relevant, but such issues can be clarified a great deal with the help of a complete heterodox model.
In light of recent world events, this paper seeks to improve our understanding of the dynamics of fiscal policy and financial crises within the context of two-dimensional (2D) and five-dimensional heterodox models. The nonlinear version of the 2D model incorporates curvilinear functions for investment and consumption out of unearned income. To bring in fiscal policy, I make use of a rule with either (1) dual targets of capacity utilization and public production, or (2) a balanced-budget target. Next, I add discrete jumps and policy-regime switches to the model in order to tell a story of a financial crisis followed by a move to fiscal austerity. Then, I return to the earlier model and add three more variables and equations: (1) I model the size of the private- and public-sector labor forces using a constant growth rate and account for their social reproduction by introducing an unemployment-insurance scheme; and (2) I make the markup endogenous, allowing its rate of change to depend, in a possibly nonlinear way, on capacity utilization, the real wage relative to a fixed norm, the employment rate, profitability, and the business sector’s desired capital-stock growth rate. In the conclusion, I comment on the implications of my results for various policy issues.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):
One-Pager No. 20 | November 2011As the crisis in Europe spreads, policymakers trot out one inadequate proposal after another, all failing to address the core problem. The possibility of dissolution, whether complete or partial, is looking less and less farfetched. Alongside political obstacles to reform, there is a widespread failure to understand the nature of this crisis. And without seeing clearly, policymakers will continue to focus on the wrong solutions.
Working Paper No. 693 | October 2011Yet another rescue plan for the European Monetary Union (EMU) is making its way through central Europe, but no one is foolish enough to believe that it will be enough. Greece’s finance minister reportedly said that his nation cannot continue to service its debt, and hinted that a 50 percent write-down is likely. That would be just the beginning, however, as other highly indebted periphery nations will follow suit. All the major European banks will be hit—and so will the $3 trillion US market for money market mutual funds, which have about half their funds invested in European banks. Add in other US bank exposure to Europe and you are up to a potential $3 trillion hit to US finance. Another global financial crisis is looking increasingly likely.
We first summarize the situation in Euroland. Our main argument will be that the problem is not due to profligate spending by some nations but rather the setup of the EMU itself. We then turn to US problems, assessing the probability of a return to financial crisis and recession. We conclude that difficult times lie ahead, with a high probability that another collapse will be triggered by events in Euroland or in the United States. We conclude with an assessment of possible ways out. It is not hard to formulate economically and technically simple policy solutions for both the United States and Euroland. The real barrier in each case is political—and, unfortunately, the situation is worsening quickly in Europe. It may be too late already.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):
Policy Note 2011/2 | May 2011
By general agreement, the federal budget is on an “unsustainable path.” Try typing the phrase into Google News: 19 of the first 20 hits refer to the federal debt. But what does this actually mean? One suspects that some who use the phrase are guided by vague fears, or even that they don’t quite know what to be afraid of. Some people fear that there may come a moment when the government’s bond markets would close, forcing a default or “bankruptcy.” But the government controls the legal-tender currency in which its bonds are issued and can always pay its bills with cash. A more plausible worry is inflation—notably, the threat of rising energy prices in an oil-short world—alongside depreciation of the dollar, either of which would reduce the real return on government bonds. But neither oil-price inflation nor dollar devaluation constitutes default, and neither would be intrinsically “unsustainable.”
After a brief discussion of the major worries, Senior Scholar James Galbraith focuses on one, and only one, critical issue: the actual behavior of the public-debt-to-GDP ratio under differing economic assumptions through time. His conclusion? The CBO’s assumption that the United States must offer a real interest rate on the public debt higher than the real growth rate by itself creates an unsustainability that is not otherwise there. Changing that one assumption completely alters the long-term dynamic of the public debt. By the terms of the CBO’s own model, a low interest rate erases the notion that the US debt-to-GDP ratio is on an “unsustainable path.” The prudent policy conclusion? Keep the projected interest rate down. Otherwise, stay cool: don’t change the expected primary deficit abruptly, and allow the economy to recover through time.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):
Working Paper No. 668 | May 2011
Functional Finance and Full Employment
Forty-five years ago, the A. Philip Randolph Institute issued “The Freedom Budget,” in which a program for economic transformation was proposed that included a job guarantee for everyone ready and willing to work, a guaranteed income for those unable to work or those who should not be working, and a living wage to lift the working poor out of poverty. Such policies were supported by a host of scholars, civic leaders, and institutions, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; indeed, they provided the cornerstones for King’s “Poor Peoples’ Campaign” and “economic bill of rights.”
This paper proposes a “New Freedom Budget” for full employment based on the principles of functional finance. To counter a major obstacle to such a policy program, the paper includes a “primer” on three paradigms for understanding government budget deficits and the national debt: the deficit hawk, deficit dove, and functional finance perspectives. Finally, some of the benefits of the job guarantee are outlined, including the ways in which the program may serve as a vehicle for a variety of social policies.Download:Associated Programs:Author(s):
Working Paper No. 640 | December 2010
Remedies for High Unemployment and Fears of Fiscal Crisis
In recent years, the US public debt has grown rapidly, with last fiscal year’s deficit reaching nearly $1.3 trillion. Meanwhile, many of the euro nations with large amounts of public debt have come close to bankruptcy and loss of capital market access. The same may soon be true of many US states and localities, with the governor of California, for example, publicly regretting that he has been forced to cut bone, and not just fat, from the state’s budget. Chartalist economists have long attributed the seemingly limitless borrowing ability of the US government to a particular kind of monetary system, one in which money is a “creature of the state” and the government can create as much currency and bank reserves as it needs to pay its bills (this is not to say that it lacks the power to impose taxes). In this paper, we examine this situation in light of recent discussions of possible limits to the federal government’s use of debt and the Federal Reserve’s “printing press.” We examine and compare the fiscal situations in the United States and the eurozone, and suggest that the US system works well, but that some changes must be made to macro policy if the United States and the world as a whole are to avoid another deep recession.Download:Associated Programs:Author(s):
Working Paper No. 580 | October 2009
This paper contrasts the orthodox approach with an alternative view on finance, saving, deficits, and liquidity. The conventional view on the cause of the current global financial crisis points first to excessive United States trade deficits that are supposed to have “soaked up” global savings. Worse, this policy was ultimately unsustainable because it was inevitable that lenders would stop the flow of dollars. Problems were compounded by the Federal Reserve’s pursuit of a low-interest-rate policy, which involved pumping liquidity into the markets and thereby fueling a real estate boom. Finally, with the world awash in dollars, a run on the dollar caused it to collapse. The Fed (and then the Treasury) had to come to the rescue of US banks, firms, and households. When asset prices plummeted, the financial crisis spread to much of the rest of the world. According to the conventional view, China, as the residual supplier of dollars, now holds the fate of the United States, and possibly the entire world, in its hands. Thus, it’s necessary for the United States to begin living within its means, by balancing its current account and (eventually) eliminating its budget deficit.
I challenge every aspect of this interpretation. Our nation operates with a sovereign currency, one that is issued by a sovereign government that operates with a flexible exchange rate. As such, the government does not really borrow, nor can foreigners be the source of dollars. Rather, it is the US current account deficit that supplies the net dollar saving to the rest of the world, and the federal government budget deficit that supplies the net dollar saving to the nongovernment sector. Further, saving is never a source of finance; rather, private lending creates bank deposits to finance spending that generates income. Some of this income can be saved, so the second part of the saving decision concerns the form in which savings might be held—as liquid or illiquid assets. US current account deficits and federal budget deficits are sustainable, so the United States does not need to adopt austerity, nor does it need to look to the rest of the world for salvation. Rather, it needs to look to domestic fiscal stimulus strategies to resolve the crisis, and to a larger future role for government in helping to stabilize the economy.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):
Strategic Analysis, December 2008 | December 2008
The economic recovery plans currently under consideration by the United States and many other countries seem to be concentrated on the possibility of using expansionary fiscal and monetary policies alone. In a new Strategic Analysis, the Levy Institute’s Macro-Modeling Team argues that, however well coordinated, this approach will not be sufficient; what’s required, they say, is a worldwide recovery of output, combined with sustainable balances in international trade.Download:Associated Program:Author(s):