–Which adds to federal debt — federal spending or federal borrowing?

The debt hawks are to economics as the creationists are to biology.

Which adds to the federal debt — federal spending or federal borrowing? Before you read further, think about this question and your answer.

The federal government’s finances are nothing like yours and mine, which is why the economy is so counter-intuitive. Most people worry about the federal debt. They are influenced by the media and the pundits, who also worry about the federal debt. And in turn, they are influenced by mainstream economists, who as college students, were taught to worry about the federal debt. This “debt-worry” translates into “spending-worry,” so we hear continual calls for less government spending. But does federal spending really add to federal debt?

You and I cannot print money. So, before we spend, you and I must have sources of money. We either must have money in hand or we must have a ready source of borrowing, the most popular of which is a credit card. Without a source of money, you and I cannot spend. The states counties and cities are in the same predicament. Without a source of money, they cannot spend.

The federal government is different. Or it can send you a check, and when you deposit that check, your bank will mark up your account and the federal government will mark up the bank’s account, and it can do this endlessly, without having any source of money.

When the federal government spends, money is created from nothing. But no debt is created, at least not the federal debt referred to in “debt clocks” or by media editors.

So what does create the federal debt? The creation and sale of T-securities. The federal government not only has the unlimited power to create money from thin air, it also has the unlimited power to create T-securities from thin air, and then exchange these T-securities for dollars it previously created from thin air.

There are two separate processes, unrelated by function, though related by law. Process #1 is federal spending, which requires the creation of dollars by printing currency or by crediting bank accounts. Process #2 is federal borrowing, i.e. the creation and sale of T-securities. Functionally, either of these processes can take place without the other. The federal government can spend without borrowing, and it can borrow without spending.

While federal spending leads to the Deficit (the difference between spending and tax receipts), federal borrowing leads to the Debt (the total of outstanding T-securities). In this way, the federal debt would not necessarily be the total of federal deficits, except for an obsolete law that requires it.

By law, the U.S. Treasury must sell enough T-securities to equal the deficit – the difference between federal spending and federal tax receipts. This law is a relic of gold standard days, when the federal government did not have the unlimited ability to create money. Back then, dollars had to be matched by gold, and so were limited by gold supplies.

But for this law, there would be no need for federal borrowing and there would be no federal debt. The government simply would spend by creating money, i.e. by crediting bank accounts.

In summary, federal spending does not add to the much feared, often maligned federal debt. Instead, the federal debt is created by an obsolete law, which requires T-security creation to equal federal deficits. So debt-worriers, there is no need to cut federal spending. Merely change that needless law. No law; no debt.

Rodger Malcolm Mitchell

No nation can tax itself into prosperity. Those who say the stimulus “didn’t work” remind of the guy whose house is on fire. A neighbor runs with a garden hose and starts spraying, but the fire continues. The neighbor wants to call the fire department, which would bring the big hoses, but the guy says, “Don’t call. As you can see, water doesn’t put out fires.”

2 thoughts on “–Which adds to federal debt — federal spending or federal borrowing?

  1. I like the way you said this. I’m sending it to my friend who is thinking of voting for a Tea Party candidtae for Senate. Don’t know his name, but he is talking about “defaulting” on our debt in order to solve our defecit problems. And he doesn’t want any more govt. spending. Maybe the candidtae needs to read this, too.


  2. Defaulting on U.S. debt would be an economic disaster, not only for the U.S. but for the entire world — and would not “solve” anything.

    Your friend is confused by semantics. Like most of Americans, he doesn’t understand that “debt” and “deficit” mean something entirely different when referring to the federal government’s finances.

    The deficit is not a problem; it is a necessity. Deficit spending is just the method by which the federal government creates money to grow the economy. All six depressions in U.S. history have come when the deficit declined. All recoveries have come when the deficit increased.

    Rodger Malcolm Mitchell


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