Reviewing The Deficit Myth

Stephanie Kelton’s The Deficit Myth opens with the startling assertion that the only reason today’s fiat currencies have any value is because citizens need to acquire them to pay taxes. Without that requirement, there would be no need to hold dollars, euros or yen.

I first heard this argument from Warren Mosler twenty five years ago when he was a partner in hedge fund Illinois Income Investors in West Palm Beach. I found this view quixotic at the time, although our meeting was too brief to fully refute it. Today Mosler is regarded as the father of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), seized by progressive Democrats as evidence that the Federal government can pay for everything.To prove that tax liabilities are necessary to give money value, Kelton recounts a story I heard personally from Mosler in the 1990s. Suppose he assigned household chores to his children with payment promised in business cards. With little of value being offered in exchange for the work, the lawn would remain uncut and the car unwashed. But if Mosler the Dad then imposes a monthly tax of 30 business cards from each offspring, on pain of being grounded, they suddenly have value. The work gets done.

 

From this follows the logic that the government needs to spend money in order to provide the means with which to pay taxes. The government, as the sole issuer of currency, can pay in regular green dollars, or in yellow interest-bearing dollars (i.e. they can borrow to pay their bills). They can never run out. So they can never go bankrupt. Therefore, deficits don’t matter unless they exhaust the economy’s productive capacity, which is inflationary.

I’m still not convinced taxes are necessary to give a fiat currency value, although behind every such currency lies a government taxing and spending it. For much of human history money has been linked to gold. When the US left the gold standard in 1971, the severing of the link ushered in fiat currencies that derived their value from the issuing country’s policies. But it’s definitely clear that a country can never be forced into bankruptcy in its own fiat currency, as they can always issue an unlimited amount to pay their bills. In this narrow sense, debt doesn’t matter.

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