FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #48: “Government benefits aren’t from the government. They’re from the taxpayers.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 11th, 2011

The Concept of Other People’s Money

A lot of people don’t understand how a bank works.  Or government.  In fact, banks and government are similar in one respect.  They both ‘give’ things away.  Banks loan money.  Government gives out benefits.  But before either gives anything away, they have to take from other people first.  Banks take money from depositors.  And government takes money from taxpayers.  That’s how they get the money that they give away (bank loans and government benefits).

You see, banks and government have no money of their own.  They work with other people’s money.  Yes, they can make money.  Banks via fractional reserve banking.  And government via monetary policy (lowering the discount rate, selling bonds and treasuries or simply printing money – we call this fiat money).  But there’s a danger when they do.  If they make too much money, we get inflation.  And a lot of bad things follow inflation.  Higher interest rates.  Higher prices.  And an overheated economy that eventually crashes into recession.  Which causes higher unemployment.  So they have to be careful when they’re making money.

If inflation is such a bad thing, then why do they even make money in the first place?  That’s a bit complicated.  To get a simplified understanding, think of a bank.  Businesses borrow from banks to expand their business.  When they expand they create jobs.  Everybody likes this.  Jobs.  So we try to help them get the money they need to expand their businesses.  But banks often don’t have enough money from their depositors to loan to all these businesses.  Fractional reserve banking solves that problem.  This allows the banks to lend more money than they have in their vaults from their depositors.  Creating more money allows more economic activity.  And that’s why we make money.  But we have to be careful not to make too much.

Money is only as Good as our Faith in It

More economic activity means more jobs.  And more taxes for the government.  This is why the government likes a little inflation.  A little bit allows economic activity.  And what is economic activity?  People trading with each other.  A worker trades his or her skills for groceries.  Of course, an office worker in midtown Manhattan can’t easily trader his or her office skills for a dairy farmer’s milk and cheese in Wisconsin.   But that’s okay.  Because we have a medium of exchange to make trading easier.  Our money.

You see, it’s things or services we want.  Not the money.  Money just lets us trade what we do with what others do.  We’ve used different types of money throughout history.  Specie (like gold and silver coins).  And commodities (tobacco, food, whiskey, etc.).  Specie and commodities have intrinsic value.  They’re worth something besides their value as money.  And because of this, it is not easy to make more of it.  Because a printing press can’t print gold, silver, tobacco, food, whiskey, etc.  So you can’t ‘stimulate’ the economy like you can with fiat money.  Of course, this can be a good thing.  Because you can’t over-stimulate the economy like you can with fiat money.  There are pros and cons of each type of money.  And there’s been a lot of debate between competing types of money (such as the gold standard versus fiat money). 

Money is only as good as our faith in it, though.  Because specie and commodity have intrinsic value, it’s easy to have faith in it.  It’s pretty hard to make this kind of money worthless.  But it’s easy to make fiat money worthless.  All you have to do is print too much of it.  You do that and people won’t want to use it.  Because they will have little faith that it will hold its value.

Inflation Reduces your Purchasing Power

How bad can it get?  Let’s illustrate with an example.  Let’s say you dug down about 30 feet in your back yard and discovered gold.  And you worked your butt off to bring it up to the surface, smelt it and pour it into gold bars.  Now you want to trade that gold for a new car, a 60″ plasma television, a state of the art home theater sound system, an in-the-ground swimming pool, some property on an island in the Caribbean and a few other extravagances.  You see all of these things for sale.  But the sale prices are all in dollars, not weights of gold.  Not a problem.  Because you can sell your gold for dollars. 

Think of a scale.  Put your gold on one side of the scale.  And put dollars on the other side.  When the scale balances (when both sides equal the same value, not weights), you have the value of your gold in dollars.   Let’s say your gold equals $1 million.  Lucky for you because that’s the total price of everything you want to buy. 

A week later you have all the details worked out.  You’re ready to write your checks.  But the day before, the government printed more money and doubled the number of dollars in circulation.  When you increase the number of dollars, you decrease the value of each dollar.  In this case, they doubled the amount of money so money is now only worth half of what it used to be worth.  This makes you furious.  Because if you had waited only one more week, you would have gotten $2 million for your gold instead of $1 million (same amount of gold on one side of the scale but twice the amount of dollars on the other).  Worse, not only did the price of your gold go up (after you had already sold it at the old price), but prices everywhere went up.  The stuff you were about to buy for $1 million now costs $2 million.  Now you can only buy half of what you want.  Because doubling the amount of dollars in circulation cut your purchasing power in half.

Other People’s Things

This is the time value of money.  Money decreases in value over time because of inflation.  The greater the inflation rate, the quicker the money in your wallet loses value.  During times of high inflation, people will not want to hold onto their money for a long time.  They’ll want to spend it fast.  Because they’ll be able to buy more with it sooner than they will be able to later.  And it’s the things they want to buy that have real value to them.  Not the money.

Things, not money.  That’s what people want.  And that’s what government benefits are.  Things.  Other people’s things.  You can’t just print money and give it away.  Because you need things to buy with that money.  So not only do you need taxpayers to pay taxes.  But you need them to make the things (and services) people want to buy. 

The greater amount of benefits the government hands out, the more of other people’s stuff they have to take.  That’s why there is a limit on the amount of benefits that government can hand out.  The things the government does to pay for those benefits reduces economic activity.  And increases unemployment.  Unemployed people can’t make stuff or perform services.  And they have less stuff to take.   No matter how much fiat money the government prints.

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