Paul Krugman, along with his fellow neo-Keynesians and even Richard Koo, implicitly believes that there is "enough money" outstanding to solve everybody's financial woes. They believe the solution is to borrow money from savers and spend that money back into circulation as a way of providing incomes to all the people who earn the newly spent money. This gives debtors an opportunity to earn back out of the economy the money they spent into it when they originally borrowed and spent on a consumer or investment good. But neo-Keynsianism merely transfers debt from the private sector to the public sector, so the indebted businesses and households now become indebted taxpayers.
"Borrowing" more money = taking on more debt, and you cannot reduce or solve a debt problem by rearranging or adding to already excessive debt. If America's private sector owes $1 trillion, and the government assumes responsibility for $400 billion of it, America still owes $1 trillion. The private sector is now responsible for $600 billion and the public sector for $400 billion, which adds up to the same old $1 trillion. Americans are still responsible for the entire $1 trillion, either as a private sector firm or household or as a taxpayer. There is no escaping the arithmetic of money. You cannot repay debt with different debt.
Austrians and neo-classicalists also believe there is “enough money”. They think our debt woes are the result of “malinvestment”, building and buying stuff that is “unprofitable” for the economy. They think if only governments didn’t encourage so much wasteful investment and consumption the money system would keep working fine. Austrians think a good sharp Depression is just what we need right now, to purge all that malinvestment and return the economy to its sound footings. But this view too assumes that our monetary system “works”, that it is capable at least in principle of supporting a profitable economy. As we will see, this is sadly untrue.
Borrowing and earning are the only 2 ways to get money (selling assets is earning, because if you own the asset you necessarily paid for it out of previously earned income). The ONLY source of money that is capable of truly reducing and extinguishing debt is "earned income". Earned income is money a person has that he does not owe to anybody. He owns the money free and clear. But in our monetary system this is impossible, as ALL of our money is issued by our banking system as "debt". So even though some person may own money free and clear, some other person owes that money to a bank to repay a loan.
Likewise, when a government borrows and spends, all the "new" spending money that becomes people’s incomes is owed by the government as repayment of that borrowing. Churning people's savings into borrowed spending and new incomes does not create net new income that can reduce total debt. It just shifts repayment obligation onto future taxpayers. The problem has not been addressed. Total debt has not been reduced. You cannot reduce debt by paying old debt with different debt.
There is zero "net money" in our monetary system. If all the money was used to repay all the bank loans there would be no money left. But there would still be interest charges due on all the loans that had been made. When a bank makes a $1000 loan it credits your account with the principal amount of the loan, and that is the "money" that is available to spend into the economy. When you "spend" or "invest" money into the economy, the other party "earns" that money as his "income". You got some consumer or investment good, the seller got the money. So spending, whether the money is spent on consumer goods or investment goods, is the ONLY source of "earned incomes" in a monetary economy. So a simple monetary equation emerges:
Spending = Income
It really is that simple. Even if the government taxes primary incomes and redistributes money to other people as "unearned incomes", the total amount of income money in the equation is unchanged. If there is $1 trillion of earned income, and the government taxes and redistributes $400 billion of it to people as unearned incomes leaving $600 billion in the hands of earners, there is still only $1 trillion of total income in the equation.
Money is a numbers system. You cannot get more numbers out of a system than the amount you put in. Money obeys the adding and subtracting laws of simple arithmetic. To add some here you have to subtract it from there. Money is a zero-sum equation. +$400 billion here requires -$400 billion elsewhere in the equation. Basic arithmetic. No math or magic. If you want to take more total numbers out, you first have to put more total numbers in. Arithmetic is rigid about things like that.
At the same time as the bank created the $1000 of money, it created an additional percentage of monetary "debt", which is the interest on the loan. So every time a bank makes a loan of $1000 at 5% interest, the bank creates $1000 of money but it also creates $1050 of monetary "debt". The ONLY way to get more money into the economy to pay the interest is if somebody else takes out another bank loan and spends that money into the economy. But the new loan also carries an interest obligation so now instead of the economy owing a non-existent $50 in interest money to the banking system it owes $100 more monetary debt than there is money.
I want to strongly stress this next point, as this is where people confuse "the economy" with "the monetary system". As I am taking pains to explain, the economy and the monetary system are 2 entirely separate systems that operate on different principles. Money is a zero-sum numbers system. The economy is a value-expanding wealth production system. The rules that govern the economy do not apply to money, and the rules that govern money do not apply to the economy. Classical economics "assumes money", assumes that money just somehow “exists” and "works". But that assumption is wrong, because our present system of money does not and cannot work as classical free market theory requires or as Keynesian borrow and spend theory requires.
The essential point is, you cannot repay your bank loan with "economic production". You cannot repay a monetary debt with "goods-values". Bank loans must be repaid "in money". Banks only create the principal money. They do not create the interest money. Banks have a monopoly on money creation, so there is no other source of money in an economy other than the banking system. This is the way the system is set up. It is a closed loop zero-sum numbers system. How is the economy supposed to come up with more money than exists in the economy?
As long as people keep taking out more and more loans and adding more and more money into the economy, this arithmetic problem can be disguised and it can "appear" that there is enough money, as classicalism assumes and as neo-Keynesians believe. But there is not enough money. There cannot be, not with this system as it is currently set up. Reshuffling responsibility for repaying debt, from private debtors to public debtors, does not alter the impossible arithmetic of money.
The same arithmetic impossibility that applies to bank interest applies to business profits for the same reason. As we saw above, Spending = Income. Business spending is called "investment" because, unlike consumer spending where the money is traded for a "final demand" good that will be used by the consumer, businesses spend money in the course of producing goods or services for sale and businesses expect to sell their output for MORE money than it costs them to produce it. Indeed, it is the enabling and encouraging of this capitalist "profit motive" that makes nations economically wealthy.
Business spending becomes "incomes" to the people who sell inputs or labor to the business. That business spending is the business's "costs". To recover its costs and earn profits, the business must mark up its output and sell it for prices above cost. The money that businesses "spend" becomes the nation's "earned income". Spending = income. So a derivation of our monetary equation emerges,
Business Costs (investment spending) = National Earned Income
Where will the economy get income-money to pay the nation's businesses marked-up prices? Just as banks only distribute the principal amount of loan-money into the economy, but expect the economy to repay MORE money as principal + interest; businesses distribute their "costs-money" into the economy as earned incomes, but expect to receive MORE money back out of the economy as costs + profits. Just as the interest-money does not exist, the income-money for business profits does not exist. Once again, just like interest-money, constantly increasing consumer borrowing and investor borrowing can disguise the fact that there is simply not enough income for businesses to earn profits.
We are doing a cash-flow analysis of money to show why our present system is arithmetically incapable of generating money to pay interest and business profits, so we’ll take a quick dip into money-flows within an economy. As we will see, it doesn’t matter how long or how fast the money churns around as “velocity of money” within the economy. Ultimately the money must flow back to banks as payment of principal + interest, and ultimately it must flow back to businesses as costs + mark-up, or else those banks and businesses will “lose money” and will have to quit their business.
Money velocity functions precisely as molecules in a gaseous state: the faster the money molecules move the higher the pressure in the system. Money pressure is measured in “prices”, so higher money velocity exerts upward pressure on prices. But the “quantity” of molecules or dollars in the system is totally unaffected by the molecules’ velocity of motion. Fast-spent money increases prices, but it does not increase the total amount of money available to “pay” those prices. Whoever sells first at the high prices gets all the money. If they don’t quickly spend it back into the system to keep up the price pressure, prices will “deflate” just like cooling the air molecules in a balloon will cause the balloon to deflate.
After businesses spend money the economy has incomes. The economy does not immediately spend all of their incomes buying the outputs of those businesses. Governments tax and redistribute part of the earned incomes. People hire each other to do housework and gardening and various services. People buy stuff from each other. People buy stuff from other businesses. People save some of their income in bank accounts or under their mattress. People invest some of their income in stocks and bonds and their own business ventures. But ultimately the economy must buy its businesses’ outputs at prices equal to costs + mark-up, or those businesses will lose money and go out of business.
When people hire each other they are functioning as “businesses” as far as the government is concerned, so the money they pay out is deemed to be “taxable income” to the people who receive it. This confuses the income issue, because in fact households who hire help are “consuming” that labor, not “investing” in that labor in order to earn profits from it. But aside from the confusion, this issue does not affect our cash flow analysis of the money businesses spend as their costs. Households are merely functioning like tax and spend government, redistributing a portion of their income to other people. You can take up the “taxable” status of labor consumption with the IRS.
In fact, statistically, most businesses do lose money and go out of business within 4 years of startup. They never recover their costs. This “lost money” is still out in the economy where it can be earned by successful businesses as their “profits”. But here again we see the zero-sum nature of money. ALL businesses cannot earn costs + profits by selling their outputs at prices above cost. But SOME businesses can earn profits at the expense of other businesses.
Just as constantly increasing new bank loans adds money into our monetary equations to make it appear that it is possible for the economy to pay loan principal + interest, so money-losing business failure makes it appear that it is possible for businesses to earn costs + profits. Consumer debt and new bank-loan financed business investment also adds spending money into the economy that businesses can earn as profits, but this new debt merely kicks the arithmetic problem down the road until we reach where we are today, when all the debt-enabled consumption of future incomes must be paid back out of present incomes.
So now out of “present” incomes people must pay for their consumption of “past” business outputs. Now there is not enough spendable income in the economy for businesses to recover even their present costs. Much of the incomes they are presently paying out is being used by earners to pay back loans for past consumption. The money ruse has reached its debt ceiling, additional new money is not flowing into the economy fast enough to keep up the illusion that our monetary system “works”, and the arithmetic problem is becoming clear. QE and fiscal stimulus is stalling the plunge into the Depression abyss by adding money into the system, but if these measures are discontinued then look out below because plunge we will.
When money supply growth is strong we get “economic growth”, clear sailing where everything appears to be working just fine. When money supply growth goes flat we get “excess inventory” recessions, where businesses discover there is not enough spendable money in the economy to purchase their outputs at profitable prices. When money supply growth goes negative, like the 1930s and now, we get “balance sheet Depressions” where present incomes are used to pay for past consumption (“debt”) rather than to purchase present outputs, and we get mass money-losing and business failure. This so-called “business cycle” has nothing to do with “the economy”. It is a monetary phenomenon pure and simple.
And it is not a consequence of using expandable quantity fiat money instead of fixed quantity gold money. In his, “Principles of Political Economy” (published in 1848), the classicalist John Stuart Mill describes the same monetary phenomenon occurring in England under the gold standard. During the runup phase of a “capitalist cycle” businesses are earning profits and accumulating capital. In other words, businesses are acquiring all the nation’s gold. Eventually too much of the nation’s money is in the hands of investors and too little in the hands of spenders and,
“…it is no longer possible to invest it at the accustomed profit: all public securities rise to a high price, the rate of interest on the best mercantile security falls very low, and the complaint is general among persons in business that no money is to be made.
…But the diminished scale of all safe gains, inclines persons to give a ready ear to any projects which hold out, though at the risk of loss, the hope of a higher rate of profit; and speculations ensue, which, with the subsequent revulsions (*we say “recessions”), destroy, or transfer to foreigners, a considerable amount of capital, produce a temporary rise of interest and profit, make room for fresh accumulations, and the same round is recommenced.”
So contrary to the Austrian’s hopes, “sound money” does not solve the monetary arithmetic problems nor prevent malinvestment and the destructive phase of the business cycle. On the micro scale some businesses and some investments do need to fail and be purged and the capital reallocated to more capable hands. But on the macro scale it is the zero-sum nature of money that guarantees there will be recessions and Depressions where even highly productive and economically beneficial businesses and their workers will fail due to lack of money.
It has recently dawned on me that "macroeconomics" is about nothing other than our monetary system, and "microeconomics" is about the real economy. Classical economics is microeconomics, even on a national, international and global scale. It describes how the real economy works, where resources (including energy), technologies (including organizational/management techniques) and labor are brought together to transform raw materials into forms useful to humans. It assumes that everyone is able to contribute to the productive work and trading and that families and private charity will support those who are unable.
Classical economics describes a barter economy, where the goods-values function as the medium of exchange--the 'money'--so that when there are more goods there is automatically more exchange medium. It is those goods-values that are "traded" so it is impossible to have a shortage of trading medium, of 'money', as long as the economy is still capable of producing goods.
Classicalism simply assumes that tacking money onto the economy will not affect outcomes and that, just as it is impossible to have a shortage of trading medium when the goods themselves are the medium of exchange, it should be impossible to have a shortage of money when money is superimposed as the exchange medium. Classicalism and neo-classicalism conflate "goods-values", which are denominated in money, with money itself.
This is a fatal error in classical theory when it is applied to a monetary economy where goods are not traded for goods but are bought and sold "for money". Economic goods-values are produced by the expanding-sum economy. Money is created by the zero-sum banking system. Producing more goods-values does not generate additional money to purchase the goods at profitable prices.
The economy and money are 2 separate systems, and our monetary system, whether it is fixed-quantity gold money or zero-sum bank-debt money, does not arithmetically match our expanding-value real economy. "Making money", on the macro scale, is not arithmetically possible in this situation where increasing quantity of goods-values is not matched by increasing quantities of income-money to purchase those goods-values. Debt-enabled additions to the money supply temporarily support a "profitable" economy but, as the Austrians warn, this strategy cannot but end in collapse when the debt ceiling is reached and money supply growth goes negative.
Economic activity is a value-expanding enterprise. You take 10 units of economic inputs and convert them to 12 units of finished goods. Economic activity is "profitable". You get more economic value out than the amount you put in.
"Capitalists" are the people who are good at organizing their little part of the economy in ways that generate economic value, employment income, and profits. This kind of capitalism is the reason we are rich in economic goods, individuals motivated by the prospect of getting more money out of the economy in sales than they put into the economy as their costs of production. It is the only system ever tried that actually "works". On this planet with human nature as it is, capitalism is our only hope for avoiding permanent poverty and insecurity. Capitalism needs to be saved from our defective monetary system. Our alternative is the abyss.
But capitalist economic activity produces exactly zero "money". Money is not produced by the economy. Miners produce ore and oil, tailors produce coats, builders produce houses, manufacturers produce parts and finished goods, transporters haul it, wholesalers and retailers sell it all, and various services (government, legal, accounting, teaching, health care) contribute to the economic process.
None of these economic actors produces a single nickel of "money". Money is created by our banking system as "loans". The banking system is on the opposite end of the money system from the real economy. Your "debt" to the bank is the bank's "asset". Your deposit balance at the bank is the bank's "debt". Banking is a balance sheet accounting system. In the left column are the bank's "assets", which are the economy's "debts" to the banking system. In the right column are the bank's "liabilities", which are the economy's "money" in the form of account balances. The "balance" of a balance sheet accounting system must equal zero. There must be exactly as much assets in the left column as there are liabilities in the right column.
Our banking system is a zero-sum balance sheet monetary system. There CANNOT be more money than there is debt, and there cannot be more debt than there is money. How does the banking system solve the interest problem, the arithmetic certainty that there is more monetary debt in the economy than there is monetary “money”? A bank's balance sheet is:
A = K + L.
Assets = capital + liabilities.
Assets are the total amount of loans outstanding that are owed by the economy to the banks. Liabilities are the total amount of customer deposits and other debts owed by the banks to the economy. K, capital, is the adjustable number in this equation. Even if there is no real "money" in the economy to pay interest, banks can "assume" the interest money as an addition to their assets (we “owe” the principal plus interest) and an equal addition to their capital. The banking system has to do this in order to include borrowers' interest obligation in their asset column, even though the interest money was never created and does not exist, while still making the balance sheet = zero.
Otherwise, with compound interest over decades, banks' assets would total trillions of dollars more than their liabilities. The economy's total monetary "debt" would be trillions more than the economy's total monetary "money". Surprise! That is precisely the state we are in today. Bank assets are the economy's debts. Bank liabilities are the economy's money. The banking system balance sheet is assuming money that does not exist anywhere in the economy, because the banking system did not create that interest money, and the banking system is the ONLY source of the economy's "money".
This is the monetary system that was implemented in 1913 with the Bank Act and the Federal Reserve Act. The Fed has exclusive authority to issue banknotes, "cash", and the commercial banks have the exclusive authority to issue bank "credit-money". Credit -money is also debt-money, because all bank credit-money is issued as "loans" that must be repaid. So at best our banking system is a zero-sum equation where all the bank "money" = all the economy's "debt". But when you add interest charges on the created money, banking is actually a negative sum equation. There is always less "money" in the economy than there is monetary "debt". And again, keep in mind that “the economy” produces exactly zero “money”. Only banks can create money, so our monetary system is a closed loop arithmetic equation that necessairly generates more negative numbers (debt) than positive numbers (money).
I'm not sure if the creators of this system were aware of its arithmetic impossibility and deliberately designed a money system guaranteed to trap nations in inescapable debt bondage, or whether this was a simple lack of understanding of monetary arithmetic. If we're interested in solving the present monetary crisis rather than laying blame, it doesn't really matter whether ignorance or evil motivated the creators of the system.
What matters is that we recognize we have a monetary arithmetic problem that cannot be solved by anything we do in "the economy". It matters not a wit if we triple our “economic efficiency” and our output of mines and factories and houses and cars and all other economic goods. Our economy cannot produce a single nickel of "money". Only our monetary system is allowed to create money. The economy can only "borrow" that money. We can only get “more money” in the form of “more debt”.
The whole world uses this same kind of monetary system. The solution to our present global financial crisis is not an economic solution. It is an arithmetic solution, a monetary solution. I cannot stress strongly enough that no amount of economic effort can make a single bit of difference to our monetary problems. We have reached the "credit limit" of our debt-money monetary system. Our options now are to revise the system or let it take us over the edge into the abyss of Depression. The macro problem is that there is more debt in the world than there is money to repay that debt. The solution is to add non-debt money into the monetary arithmetic equation so that we have "real" money rather than bank balance sheet fantasy money to balance our monetary books. I've written this many times before on Seeking Alpha and the RagingDebate network, but I'll outline again what a solution would look like.
Governments must create and distribute money into the economy. Not "borrow and spend". We have already seen the futility of shuffling those deck chairs as the monetary ship is smashing into the debt iceberg. Government spending distorts the economy by overloading some areas and starving others, so the best distribution strategy is to give equal amounts of money to every US citizen over 18 with a SS number, no means testing or other bureaucratic make-work required.
The Bank Act and the Federal Reserve Act prohibit the government from directly creating its own money, so let's keep our solution within the existing legal framework. Treasury would sell zero interest perpetual bonds to the Fed, and the Fed would credit Treasury's account with the money. "Perpetual bonds" can be redeemed, or not, at the discretion of the issuer. So unlike ordinary bonds, Treasury NEVER has to pay back the money it gets from these bonds. But after enough new money is injected into the economy and it starts working again and legitimate inflation fears arise, Treasury can tax money out of the economy and "extinguish" that money by redeeming some of its bonds. And unlike ordinary interest bearing bonds, these zero interest perpetual bonds never cost the economy MORE money than the initial principal amount. This is how, within the existing structure and with no legislative changes to the existing monetary/banking/bond system, the government could introduce new non-debt money into our woefully underwater monetary arithmetic system.
Fiat money is a pure creation, and no fiat money exists until it is created by a bank, so don't worry that the Fed "doesn't have enough money". Money is created as numbers and there is no limit to the numbers that can be created. And for right now don't worry about "hyperinflation". We will come to that. Right now worry about the actual problem that is confronting us, which is catastrophic global debt default with mass business and household bankruptcy and banking system insolvency and economic collapse. That is the immediate threat. We have to live through this one before we start worrying about what comes after.
Government distributes the new non-debt money as "stimulus checks". The Social Security Administration is the obvious conduit for this delivery system. Ideally it could all be done by direct deposit into recipients' bank accounts, but apparently there are about 28 million American citizens who don't have bank accounts. So these people would have to receive actual checks. Or, the government could establish “income accounts” for every American with participation from the banking system. I have been suggesting checks of $1000 per month for each citizen, with an initial program duration of one year (to see how it's working) and extendable thereafter if the program produces the good results that it promises. At $1000 per citizen per month the program would inject about $2.5 trillion per year of new non-debt money into the US economy.
A condition of the program is that nobody can spend any of their checks if they have outstanding bank debt of any kind. This condition would have to be administered through the commercial banking system where Americans have their bank accounts and their mortgages and other loans. Bankers would be paid fees to administer this provision, to apply all of a debtor's stimulus money to paying down his bank loans. This is the "anti-default" and "deleveraging" goal of the program. It immediately restores almost all household loans, including mortgages, to "performing" status. And because small businesses self-finance, it would restore most small business loans to performing status. This move significantly reduces the current threat of mass loan defaults and banking insolvency.
With an extra $2000/month of debt paydown money, 2 person households could afford to pay their mortgage and other debts without crippling their normal consumer spending. Remember our equation: spending = income. Renewed spending would restore private sector incomes and business sales and profitability. With an additional $2000/month families could afford the homes that are being foreclosed, and America wouldn't face the appalling prospect of wasting millions of empty houses that are being robbed, vandalized and deteriorated. People want to live in those houses. The houses are already there. Stimulus checks put many of those people back in those houses.
Americans with no debt would enjoy increased power to spend or save. Increased saving would encourage new bank lending to businesses who want to ramp up production to sell into the renewed demand. Small businesses self-finance, so stimulus money given to small business owners would be used to paydown their business loans or to finance their operations or expansion.
It is not the "fault" of commercial banks that interest money does not exist. Banks need to charge interest on loans in order to pay interest on saver's deposits, and to earn operating profits for themselves, and to pay dividends to all their stockholders like pension funds who depend on bank earnings to fund their pension obligations. Interest is not "evil". It is necessary, as is our commercial banking system.
Capitalism depends on a functioning banking system to intermediate between savers and borrowers. Our bankers and banking system micromanages financial credit within our economy. The stimulus checks program is designed to save these banks from insolvency, not radically reform or eliminate them. We need our banks and our bankers. And we need them to be solvent and profitable. Adding new non-debt money into our monetary system will produce these beneficial effects and prevent our imminent plunge into the abyss.
If this program were to continue long enough, eventually ALL bank-debt money would be paid out and replaced with non-debt stimulus money. The banks would no longer be creators of money. They would become true financial intermediaries, taking deposits of savings and lending them out to qualified borrowers. At this point the Bank Act could be revised and the credit-money creation privilege revoked. America's debt-money would be replaced by non-debt money. "Temporary" money, that exists only as long as a bank loan is outstanding, would be replaced with "permanent" money, that exists until Treasury decides to redeem its perpetual bonds, which to a large extent would be "never". The nation needs a supply of money. This is how it could create it.
I suggest this government money creation program be restricted to funding the stimulus checks, so in the free market spirit it is individual Americans deciding how to allocate their small amounts of money, rather than bureaucrats allocating billions and trillions at a time. Government should fund all its other programs and operations from taxes. This is the only way to keep them in check, to prevent them from creating money to finance every pie in the sky vote buying welfare scheme they can think up. In fact, as almost all state "welfare" is nothing more than income supplement programs masquerading as something else, stimulus checks would largely replace the welfare system.
People's stimulus money would be non-taxable. It is their "basic personal exemption", and it also functions as a basic minimum income. All earned income would be taxed, preferably at a flat rate of, say, 10% - 20%. So welfare recipients would no longer suffer the disincentive to work that comes from reducing welfare in the amount of any income they earn. We should profit from going to work. As it is, welfare recipients are punished for going to work. This is perverse. Stimulus checks would fix this problem too.
After all the existing bank-debt money is repaid, the stimulus checks might be adding too much money into the economy and causing inflation. I would not suggest ending the stimulus program or even changing it. To remove excess money from the economy and keep inflation in check the government should increase taxes and use the excess money to redeem some of its perpetual bonds.
This program should also be isolated from the existing bond market. The government should not use zero interest perpetual bond funds to pay out existing bond debt. Over time, after our economies are restored, governments can raise taxes and begin paying down their bond debts. But here again, pension plans and many other socially essential purposes depend on bond income to fund their pension payments. The idea of the stimulus checks is to "tweak" the monetary system, not tear it down and rebuild it. We want to cause as little dislocation as possible to the existing financial structures. Our goal is to restore solvency by fixing an arithmetic problem, not revolutionize finance.