Can The US. Afford Its Present Deficit Spending?

Stephanie Kelton argues that affordability is not the issue with federal government deficit spending. The government’s spending is a political or social choice. So the deficit issue is a philosophical, a political debate about the size and purpose of government.

As followers of the UMKC economics blog have discovered, we work within a framework that has been dubbed Modern Money Theory (MMT). The approach itself is fundamentally descriptive, although there are logical ways to apply the principles of the approach to any number of policy-oriented (i.e. prescriptive) economic problems. Above all, we are committed to describing the way government spending works in a modern money system. Once that is understood, it becomes apparent that a government with flexible exchange rates and a sovereign currency (US dollar, British pound, Mexican peso, etc.) can afford to purchase anything that is for sale in its own sovereign currency.

This means that debates about "affordability" become inapplicable. As this becomes more widely understood, we can begin to have a completely different — and vastly more important — debate about the size and role of government. What do we, as Americans, want? Medicare for all? A job guarantee? High-speed rail? Renewable energy?

As promoters of MMT, we are all very keen on Abba Lerner, who was one of the first to articulate the foundations of the approach. Lerner believed that the government should maintain the level of aggregate spending in the economy (either by reducing taxes, increasing its own spending or a combination of the two) at the rate consistent with full employment. We agree. This is the overarching goal. How we get there is, as I said, a matter of (political/social) choice.

But we cannot ‘get there’ until we dispense, once-and-for-all, with the erroneous belief that deficit spending is reckless and irresponsible, something akin to "fiscal child abuse", as Kotlikoff and Burns so disgracefully characterized it.

Instead, just remember this fundamental accounting identity:

Private Sector Surplus = Public Sector Deficit + Current Account Surplus

For me, this is the most important identity in economics. It holds true in every nation at every point in time, and it is useful when you run thought experiments like, for example, "What will happen to the private sector’s balance sheet position if the government’s budget is cut by X% of GDP and the current account deficit remains Y% of GDP?"

So, for example, in the US we have a current account deficit of, roughly, 5% of GDP. This SUBTRACTS from the Private Sector Surplus. So, the only way the private sector can have positive net savings (i.e. a surplus) is for the government to run a deficit that is LARGER than the current account deficit. This is exactly what the government has been doing, and it is the reason the private sector has managed to sharply increase its savings in the downturn. Cutting the public sector deficit will reduce the private sector surplus one-for-one in a closed economy (i.e. one with no foreign trade and therefore no current account). It is an easy way to demonstrate that the government’s deficit is the private sector’s surplus.

So the next time someone tells you that the US government cannot "afford" to keep its promises to retirees, fund the arts, build bullet trains, and so on, ask them whether they understand any of this!

** And, no, it does not follow that because the US government "can" do something that it "should" do it. It has the ability to purchase anything for sale in terms of its own currency. Let us accept that point and then debate whether, when, and to what extent it should exercise this power.

This post was first published on the UMKC blog New Economic Perspectives. Professor Kelton, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Research Scholar at The Levy Economics Institute and Director of Graduate Student Research at the Center for Full Employment and Price Stability. Her research expertise is in: Federal Reserve operations, fiscal policy, Social Security, health care, international finance and employment policy.

1 Comment
  1. Harold Skolnick says

    With fiat money and debt denominated in dollars, there is no federal government deficit spending problem in terms of money. However money is not wealth.

  2. Harold Skolnick says

    With fiat money and debt denominated in dollars, there is no federal government deficit spending problem in terms of money. However money is not wealth.

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