Sovereign Currency as a Tax Credit: Confusion for David Brooks

March 4th, 2012
in Op Ed

by L. Randall Wray, New Economic Perspectives

In an interesting post a week ago David Brooks wrote this:

fighter-planesSMALL"You might say that a tax break isn’t the same as a spending program. You would be wrong. David Bradford, a Princeton economist, has the best illustration of how the system works. Suppose the Pentagon wanted to buy a new fighter plane. But instead of writing a $10 billion check to the manufacturer, the government just issued a $10 billion 'weapons supply tax credit.' The plane would still get made. The company would get its money through the tax credit. And politicians would get to brag that they had cut taxes and reduced the size of government!

Follow up:

He then goes on to rail against tax credits, not quite recognizing the major intellectual breakthrough he has made.

What is a sovereign currency? It is (mostly) a keystroke that results in an electronic entry on a bank’s balance sheet. (Yes it can also be shiny coins, paper notes, and watermarked checks—but those are increasingly less important.) To be more accurate, it is two entries: an entry in the deposit account of the fighter plane’s producer and a reserve credit at the central bank for the producer’s bank.

In the case of a modern “fiat” sovereign currency, what does the government promise? To “redeem” its currency in tax payment. When the fighter plane producer pays taxes, the keystrokes are reversed: the deposit is debited and the bank’s reserves at the Fed are debited. Presto-change-O the sovereign currency disappears in redemption.

The fighter plane ends up at the government. That, of course, was the whole purpose of the keystrokes.

Now let’s take Bradford’s example. Instead of keystroking a deposit, the government issues a “tax credit” to be used later in redemption of its tax liability. When tax time comes, the tax credit is sent on to the Treasury (presumably, it will be an electronic entry so little electrons pulse their way to Washington). Presto-change-O the tax credit is gone.

Yep, Brooks has that part right. It is exactly the same thing. The fighter plane is moved to the government.

After all, that’s what it is all about, right? From inception, the purpose of the monetary system is to move resources to the public sphere.

And then the private sector gets all sorts of bright ideas about other uses for the monetary system, such as making subprime mortgage loans to those with no income, no jobs, no assets, packaging the trash into still trashier MBSs that get tranched and re-packaged into CDOs, which are further tranched to produce CDOs squared and cubed. And off we are to a GFC that the Fed then tries to resolve through keystroking $29 trillion of bail-out funds to save the banksters.

But that’s a story for another time. Let’s congratulate David Brooks for (finally!) getting one thing right.


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About the Author

wraylr-formalL. Randall Wray is a Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, a Senior Research Associate at the Center for Full Employment and Price Stability, as well as a visiting Senior Scholar at the Jerome Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. He is a past president of the Association for Institutionalist Thought (AFIT) and has served on the board of directors of the Association for Evolutionary Economics (AFEE). A student of Hyman P. Minsky while at Washington University in St. Louis where he earned his Ph.D. in economics (1988), Wray received his B.A. in Social Sciences (1976) from the University of the Pacific, Stockton, and his M.A. in economics (1985) from Washington University in St. Louis. Professor Wray has focused on monetary theory and policy, macroeconomics, and employment policy. He is currently writing on modern money, the monetary theory of production, social security, and rising incarceration rates (Penal Keynesianism). He is developing policies to promote true full employment, focusing on Hyman P. Minsky's "employer of last resort" proposal as a way to bring low-skilled, prime-age males back into the labor force.

Longer bio and partial list of publications are here.


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