Sunday, July 18, 2010

Intro to Fiat Money Part 2

To review the ideas from part 1:

1. All the island dollars that people have came from government spending at one time or another.

2. When the government spends, it increases the net dollar wealth of the world. You can think of government spending as the government printing green pieces of paper and exchanging them for good and services.

3. When the government taxes, it decreases net dollar wealth. You might think of taxation as the government collecting money and dumping it into a shredder.

4. Fiat money has value because it’s the only form of payment accepted for island taxes.

A lot of this probably sounds odd if you're used to thinking about gold backed currency. The goal here isn't to attack or defend fiat currency; rather I just want to explain how it works and how these ideas might affect policy decisions.

As Bob and ESM pointed out in the comments to part 1, in year 1 the government has to spend (or give away) at least as much money as it wants to collect in taxes each year; otherwise people won't have money with which to pay their taxes. ESM went further and said that the government has to spend enough for people to pay their taxes and satisfy their demand for dollar savings.

If the government spends or gives away $6000 per person per year and collects $5000, then people will be able to save $1000/person on average. Some people might save more or less (and some could end up in debt), but $1000 has to be the average.

You should also note that in this example, the government ran a deficit of $1000/person. So each year, the government deficit matches the change in private dollar savings. If the government runs a deficit, then total dollar savings must rise, and if the government runs a surplus, total dollar savings must fall. (This might be the opposite of what you thought previously.)

For this reason, some people (though admittedly, not many) refer to the national debt as "the national savings account". People's total accumulated dollar savings must match the government's accumulated dollar debt. It's a closed system after all.

A few other interesting points about this system:

  • The purpose of taxation is not to raise revenue, at least not on the federal level. The island government prints and destroys its own currency, so it can spend however much it wants.

  • Of course, printing a lot of money and not destroying very much money can cause the dollar to lose value and trigger inflation. So the real reason for taxation is to reduce the number of dollars floating around to "make room" for the dollars that the government wants to deploy. Another way to say it is that the government taxes in order to reduce aggregate demand and keep prices under control. A second purpose of taxation is to give dollars value in the first place!

  • Not everyone has to pay taxes for this set-up to work. Even if only people whose last names began with "A" had to pay taxes, dollars would still have value to Mr. Aaronson. But Mr. Bozo would still value dollars since he knows that Mr. Aaronson values them. In other words, Mr. Bozo is happy to accept dollars as payment for calculus tutoring, since Bozo can then use those dollars to buy stuff from Aaronson. So they'll both value dollars. To pick a more realistic example, U.S. dollars have value to Canadians even though they (typically) don't have to pay U.S. taxes.

Next time: How does government borrowing work? Is printing money the same as borrowing?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Intro to fiat money part 1

The mysterious Bob requested a short "course" on how fiat money works. Considering that our economy runs on fiat money and probably less than 1% of Americans understand it, it's probably important to come up with a simple way to wrap one's head around it.

Imagine we all live on an island, isolated from the rest of the world. (This keeps things simple; we'll talk about international trade later.) People on the island obtain goods and services by trading with each other. Whatever merits this system has, it can be very tedious to enter into a transaction. For example, if you're a calculus tutor and you want some salmon, you have to find someone who has a bunch of salmon and wants calculus tutoring. What are the odds of finding that person in a reasonable amount of time?

So the government of the island issues green pieces of paper called "dollars" and lets people trade with dollars. There's just one problem: These pieces of paper have no intrinsic value, so there's no way I'm giving you some of my stuff in exchange for dollars.

Now let's add one more kink that will actually make these dollars valuable. At the end of each year, every island resident (government worker or otherwise) has to pay a tax of $5000. These pieces of paper will be collected and tossed into a shredder. [Alternately, the taxpayer can simply submit a YouTube video of himself shredding the money he owed.] If anyone fails to turn in $5000, he'll be put out to sea in a raft with nothing but a DVD player with Britney Spears videos and "What's Happening!!" reruns.

Now no matter what you think of the idea of having a "head tax", you have to agree that dollars now have some serious value. They're the only form of payment that the government will accept for tax liabilities.

So now dollars have value and people can use dollars for trade. I can buy fish in exchange for dollars because either the fisherman needs the dollars to pay his taxes, or he knows that somebody else needs them for taxes (and thus that guy will trade for them).

One last problem we have to address: Where do people get dollars from? They need to accumulate dollars in order to pay taxes each year, after all. Saying that they get dollars from trading with other people is a cop out, because those people need to get dollars from somewhere. Even if somehow people "started out" with a certain number of dollars floating around, they will eventually be destroyed at a rate of $5000/resident/year.

The answer is that dollars can only come from one place: the government. The government can create and destroy dollar bills and they're the only ones who can do it.

So the island government decides to hire people to do various jobs around the island such as cleaning seaweed off the beach, maintaining the roads, and running a tropical counter-terrorism unit. The employees are paid in dollars. If the government wants to, it could even supplement the supply of dollars by dropping them from a helicopter and letting people find them.

So dollars "start" in the hands of people who sell their services (or goods) to the government, the dollars are used for trade, and they eventually end up in the hands of people who need to pay taxes (government workers or private sector workers alike.)

Now here's a good question to think about: How much does the government "need" to spend each year? As a follow-up, what happens if they spend more or less than that amount?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Don't you hate traffic? Part 3

Ok, one last note about charging people to use the road. It's easy to draw the wrong conclusion from my posts. When people hear about these ideas, some of the ideas that pop into their heads are:

1. "Thank goodness there's a huge tax on parking in some places." Manhattan charges an unbelievable 18.375% tax on parking! (Incidentally, residents can get much of it rebated, but out-of-towners are stuck paying the whole thing. I'm not sure if this has been challenged in court yet). Anyway, taxing parking is totally backwards! What's crazy is that if there's one thing I want people to do with their cars, it's to keep them parked in garages. I don't want those things on the roads during busy times. In other words, road space during rush hour is the scarce resource that needs to be rationed via prices; room in parking garages already is rationed by the owner (since he charges for them).

2. "That's why we have a gas tax." A gas tax is not the stupidest thing on earth. As ESM has pointed out to me in the past, the government spends considerable resources keeping the waters safe for oil shipping, and it makes sense to charge the consumers of the oil. There are other externalities associated with gasoline use, so a tax might make sense. But a gas tax doesn't address the traffic problem very well. The guy driving through Nevada at 2 a.m. might be using a lot of gas but he's creating no traffic congestion. But Marginal Matt, who's driving in Manhattan rush hour traffic uses only a litle gas and creates all sorts of delays and aggravation. That's the guy you want to charge.

3. "God bless the DMV. They charge registration fees for cars." Again, cars aren't the problem; using road space when it's scarce is the problem. There may be good reasons to charge a small fee for having a car (the police now have to track it down if it's stolen, etc.), but rationing road space isn't one of them.