Magic money trees (there are two!). Both the state and banks can create money out of thin air

Mary Mellor, professor emeritus at the University of Northumbria and one of the featured thinkers in the CSG’s “Democratic Money and Capital for the Commons” report, clarifies the ongoing debate on the UK about where money comes from. Originally published in The London Economic.

Mary Mellor: That’s right there are two magic money trees. Both the state and the banks can create money out of thin air.  States do this by having budgets. Despite the myths that have been told time and time again, states are NOT households – they run armies and banks and schools and police forces and so on. They allocate expenditure in expectation of getting an equivalent amount of money back through taxation. There is no direct connection between public expenditure and public income. There is no state piggy bank or house-keeping allowance.

Public expenditure and income is a constant flow of money and it is only when the totals are totted up that it becomes clear if there is a balance. Deficits are simply evidence that states spend in advance of receiving any income. If they waited until the money rolled in, deficits would never occur.

Despite the claim that states ‘printing’ money is automatically inflationary, this is not the case. What matters is the relationship between state income and expenditure and the condition of the wider economy. The skill is to balance the money created with the money recovered via taxation. In any case, public deficits can be a good thing. They put fresh money into the economy that is then free to circulate.

The other magic money tree is the banking sector. Banks do not simply look after the money in people’s bank accounts and “lend it out”, they actually create money out of thin air by creating new accounts or putting new money into existing accounts – with no democratic accountability.

The neoliberal era saw a massive increase in bank lending (student, consumer, mortgage, financial speculation) with banks becoming the major source of new money in modern economies. The magic money tree of the banks is far more de-stabilising than the magic money tree of the state. Unlike state magic money which can be created free of debt, bank magic money always has to be repaid with interest.

This creates the dilemma that the banks always want more money back than they lend out. Where does the extra money come from? Either extra loans constantly being taken out, or ‘leakage’ of debt free money from the state, that is public deficit. In fact, the use of public money was much more direct following the 2007-8 crisis.

‘Quantitative easing’ – a fancy term for new electronic money from central banks – put billions of pounds, dollars and euros into the banking sector to stave off collapse. This and other rescue measures did little to stimulate the core economy, but made a small elite very rich.

So when we are told social welfare, education, housing, health cannot be afforded because there is no magic money tree, this is a lie. New money is constantly pouring into the hands of the already rich as they gamble and speculate. Ordinary people are burdened with debt as they try to keep their heads above water.

The right of states to directly fund public services (“people’s quantitative easing”), is denied. It is falsely claimed that all new money is ‘made’ by the market sector. This is not true, money is accumulated in the market. It can only be created by states or banks. The claim that all state income comes from taxing the private sector is also false. The public sector also pays taxes – much more reliably than the private sector.

Let us have no more myths about the lack of magic money trees. They do exist – what matters is who owns and controls them. And it should be all of us.

Mary Mellor’s new book Debt or Democracy is available now please click here

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