Paying for government – From Scotland to Greece and beyond


Governments have three ways of getting money to spend

1) They can tax it

2) They can borrow it

3) They can print it

If you can think of anymore, let me know.

I wrote a little while ago about how the government of an independent Scotland would finance itself. I argued that if Scotland adopted a currency board with England its government wouldn’t be able to pursue 3 and if their fiscal situation was poor they’d struggle do 2, at least at a rate they could afford. This would leave them entirely reliant on 1 and I doubted that that avenue would provide the revenue necessary to sustain Scotland’s present levels of government spending.

The case of Greece is interesting. In the euro its government cannot pursue 3. It’s citizens have a famously low tolerance for 1. It has just about exhausted its capacity for 2. That is the Greek crisis in a nutshell.

If Greece left the euro I believe avenues 1 and 2 would still be closed to the Greek government. I don’t think Greeks are going to suddenly start paying lots more tax and I doubt lenders will reassess the country as a sound credit risk. But the Athens government would reopen avenue 3 – it would have control of a new drachma and could print it to finance its spending.

The obvious drawback is that this would be inflationary. All those euros that Greeks are unable to shift out of Greece would be swapped at some rate for x drachma and that rate would, almost certainly, fall and fall quite rapidly as the government printed more drachmas to continue funding pensions which currently amount to 16.2% of Greek GDP. The spending power of Greek citizens will fall just as surely as if their wage had fallen in nominal terms from €1,000 to €800 a month.

But even this has limits. If they could find a counter party (a big if) holders of drachma could switch their currencies, even at heavy discounts, for other currencies in an effort to preserve something of their purchasing power. This is capital flight. Alternatively, they could swap money for goods and services in Greece while their money can still purchase them. The falling demand for money relative to the demand for goods and services would increase the money price of those goods and services – inflation. Less generally, it could push up only a few prices and create asset bubbles. The point to make is that all money is convertible, even fiat paper money. That, after all, is its point.

Governments always and everywhere have to live within the three means listed at the top. 1 is limited by the public’s willingness to pay. 2 is limited by people’s willingness to lend. 3 is limited by people’s ability to swap their money for something else. Hopefully this will be heeded by whoever is in charge in Greece a month or so from now.

EDIT – This post was picked up by the people at the Foundation of Economic Education


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