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As I said, Italy, is now experimenting with paying for public services with tax credits. Presumably, this is happening because Italy doesn’t possess enough Euros to pay its citizens to provide all the goods and services needed to maintain and run the public sector of its social economy. And Italy can’t “create” the additional Euros it needs because that prerogative is the exclusive right of the EU Central Bank which Italy, even as a sovereign member of the EU, has no control over. But, as the news article explains, Italy still needs to have the grass mowed and the weeds pulled in its public gardens. So it has decided (out of desperation, the article implies) to pay the gardeners with tax-credits. The gardeners are willing to do the work in exchange for the government’s tax-credits, because it means the Euros they earn (in other ways) can then be used to purchase goods and services rather than for paying their taxes. So, in practical terms, it is “just like” getting paid in Euros.
This, in fact, is way more interesting than it seems. In fact, it might even be mind-expanding! Here’s why:
Presumably, the tax-credit payments described take the form of notations on the gardeners’ tax account. An hour’s worth of weeding is noted as 15 Euros worth of extinguished taxes. If the gardener has a tax liability of, say, €3750, her taxes would be completely paid after providing 250 hours of weeding and pruning. After that, obviously, she’d have no more incentive to provide any services in exchange for the tax-credits. So the amount of services Italy can obtain in this fashion is directly limited by the amount of tax liabilities it can impose on its citizens.
It would be possible, however, to structure the tax-credit payments in another way which would have a very different outcome. Instead of making the payment as a credit notation on a citizen’s tax account, the Italian government could issue paper tax-credits and pay them to the citizens for their gardening services. To be specific, this would be a piece of “official” paper, signed with an important signature, on which was printed something like the following:
The Sovereign Italian Government promises the bearer of this paper ONE EURO of credit on taxes owed to the Sovereign Italian Government.
This amounts to exactly the same thing as making a direct credit on a citizens’ tax account, but we now have set in motion a curious set of subsequent economic actions: Now, after an hour of weeding, upon receiving her 15 paper tax-credits―for convenience, let’s call them “PTCs” and give them the symbol β―the gardener can choose to do the following. She can put the PTCs under her mattress for safekeeping until the day her taxes must be paid. Or she can use the β15 to purchase a lasagna dinner at her neighborhood trattoria. The owner of the trattoria is willing to accept the PTCs in exchange for the lasagna, garlic bread, and wine because he, too, has to pay taxes to the Italian government. So, for all practical purposes, receiving the PTCs is just the same as receiving Euros for him as well.
Now we have to ask an important question: Is the amount of services Italy can obtain by issuing and “spending” its paper tax-credits still directly limited by the amount of tax liabilities it can impose on its citizens? In other words, if every Italian citizen theoretically has received enough PTCs to pay their taxes with—either having received them directly from the government for providing public services, or having received them from other citizens in exchange for lasagna dinners—will the citizens’ willingness to exchange real goods and services in exchange for the PTCs come to a halt?
Crucially, the answer is No. This is because the act of “embodying” the tax-credits in exchangeable pieces of paper has given the PTCs a usefulness in addition to their usefulness as tax payments: This additional usefulness, of course, is the ability to use them to buy goods and services from other Italian citizens and businesses. Thus, the number of paper tax-credits in “circulation” could vastly exceed, at any given time, the total actual tax liabilities of the Italian citizenry. The PTCs would continue to be accepted for lasagna dinners, because the Trattoria owners know they can use the PTCs they receive to subsequently buy Italian shoes and motorcycles— in addition to using them to pay their taxes.
It will no doubt have dawned on most every reader that what we’ve just created is “money.” Specifically, we’ve created what is called “fiat money”—which happens to be the kind of money the world has been using now for the past half century (ever since the U.S. formally abandoned the gold-standard in 1971). Having thus conjured a rudimentary image of fiat-money to life we should quickly make some important (and perhaps startling) observations about it.
Observation 1: How does the PTC “currency” come into existence? The sovereign Italian government creates it. Paper tax-credits are not created by Italian banks, nor are they borrowed from China—or even the EU Central Bank. They are printed by the Italian government. Note: PTCs could also be created by the Italian government digitally—that is, with keystrokes that enter numbers in an electronic ledger of account. In either case, the point is ONLY the Italian government has the legal right to create them. Why? Because that is the prerogative of sovereignty and the definition of fiat money.
Observation 2: How many PTCs can the Italian government create and spend? Or, to rephrase the question more precisely, how many times can the Italian government promise to accept one of its paper tax-credits in exchange for a Euro’s worth of taxes owed? The answer is simple: as many times as it wants! It doesn’t matter if all the taxes have been paid in full—it can still issue and spend the promise over and over again. The citizens will continue to accept the promise in exchange for real goods and services for two reasons: first, they know other Italian citizens and businesses will accept the promise as payment for lasagna dinners and, second, they know for sure that taxes due will come around again—and soon.
Observation 3: If (as observation 2 suggests is possible) the Italian government just keeps issuing and spending its paper tax-credits (fiat money) to buy goods and services from its citizens, won’t the number of PTCs in circulation keep growing until, inevitably, the price of things in the Italian economy begins to skyrocket? A lasagna dinner that used to cost β15 suddenly costs β150! In other words: Inflation. The answer, of course, is Yes. So what can the Italian government do to keep a lid on the inflationary pressure created by its continued issuing and spending of PTCs? Two things:
- The government can continue to collect taxes from the citizens (or, if necessary, even increase the taxes in collects). Taxes will remove PTCs from circulation, reducing the number of them available in the market-place to buy lasagna dinners and Italian shoes. Taxes, then, have a dual virtue in a fiat money system: they continuously reinforce the citizens’ desire to earn the government’s paper tax-credits—and they drain the paper tax-credits out of the market place, helping to keep prices stable.
- The government can also create special savings accounts that citizens can put their excess PTCs in. The accounts would earn interest (paid by the government with new PTCs)—but the agreement would be that the citizen would leave their “old” PTCs in the account, untouched, for a period of time—say 10 years. This means a large number of PTCs which would otherwise be competing to pay for lasagna dinners would be replaced with a much smaller number of PTCs (the interest payments). The net result will be fewer PTCs buying goods and services in the market-place. If you want, you could call these special savings accounts “government bonds.”
Historical Note: When the U.S. was in the midst of mobilizing to fight WW2 it was issuing and spending historical quantities of U.S. paper tax-credits (fiat dollars) to pay U.S. citizens to build battleships and bombers—and to pay the recruits in its growing army and navy. Inflation was, indeed, starting to become a problem. So what did the government do? Two things: it increased taxes, and it issued War Bonds. It even imposed a requirement that workers take a percentage of their pay in War Bonds. By 1943, inflation was brought back under control.
Observation 3: What happens to the PTCs when they are presented to the Italian government as tax payments? The mind-money framework we learn from early childhood “tells us” that the taxes collected by a national government are what the government then uses to pay for public goods and services. Crucially, however, this IS NOT TRUE with a fiat-money system. Looking at the paper tax-credit system we’ve just described, it’s clear that (by logical necessity) the government FIRST issues and spends the paper tax-credit, then it accepts it back as a tax payment. At that point of taking it back, the tax-credit is of no further use to the government. It is simply cancelled: it becomes a particular citizen’s tax liability with a line drawn through it. If the government needs to spend another paper tax-credit, it simply issues a new one. (It is actually easier and more efficient to issue new tax-credits than to “recycle” old ones.)
Observation 4: Is it logical for a sovereign government to borrow the paper tax-credits it has issued? Please try, for a moment, to wrap your mind around this question! Here is something that ONLY the Italian government can create, and something it can create as many of as it needs, at any time it needs them. Why would it ever want, or need, to “borrow” them from the Italian citizens? It is, therefore, illogical to imagine the Italian government ever being “in debt” to its citizens! The Government Bonds we mentioned previously are not a “debt” the Italian government owes to anyone—they are savings accounts which hold the citizens’ excess PTCs for a specified period time. When the bonds “mature,” the PTCs are simply transferred back to the citizen. In a fiat money system, therefore, it is illogical (and irresponsible) to imagine or describe U.S. Government Bonds as being the government’s “debt”—or, more specifically, to talk about that “debt” as being “unsustainable,” or to suggest the government cannot pay its citizens to undertake and accomplish some important task because it will “increase the government’s debt.”
Having made these observations, it appears the Italian government has stumbled on an actual solution to the “austerity” it has been forced to impose on itself by the European Union. Except we must now confront the fact that the rules of the EU do now ALLOW Italy to issue and spend its own sovereign fiat currency! The only “money” Italy is allowed to use is the Euro—and the only way the Italian government can obtain Euros is either by collecting them as taxes from its citizens, or by borrowing them from the European Central Bank, which has the exclusive prerogative of issuing them. And these methods of obtaining Euros to spend are falling short of what Italy needs to pay its citizens to do. So…. Italy has decided to pay its citizens with tax-credits, and then (why not?) with paper tax-credits. And then, presumably, the EU says, “Whoa, hold on here! It looks like you are printing your own money, which is not allowed by our rules!”
We could then proceed to an International Court in which Italy claims it isn’t breaking the EU rules because it isn’t printing “money” but is simply issuing tax-credits. The EU would then have to argue that “tax-credits” are, in fact, what “money” is! In making that argument, it would be forced to explain everything we’ve just explained which would, in turn, reveal and establish not only the absurdity of the Eurozone monetary system, but also that the whole world (including the U.S.) is misunderstanding and mismanaging its money system—and unnecessarily making a vast majority of the world’s citizenry miserable in the process.