Aside Posted on
British public life has always been riddled with taboos, and nowhere is this more true than in the realm of economics. You can say anything you like about sex nowadays, but the moment the topic turns to fiscal policy, there are endless things that everyone knows, that are even written up in textbooks and scholarly articles, but no one is supposed to talk about in public. It’s a real problem. Because of these taboos, it’s impossible to talk about the real reasons for the 2008 crash, and this makes it almost certain something like it will happen again.
I’d like to talk today about the greatest taboo of all. Let’s call it the Peter-Paul principle: the less the government is in debt, the more everybody else is. I call it this because it’s based on very simple mathematics. Say there are 40 poker chips. Peter holds half, Paul the other. Obviously if Peter gets 10 more, Paul has 10 less. Now look at this: it’s a diagram of the balance between the public and private sectors in our economy:
Notice how the pattern is symmetrical? The top is an exact mirror of the bottom. This is what’s called an “accounting identity”. One goes up, the other must, necessarily, go down. What this means is that if the government declares “we must act responsibly and pay back the national debt” and runs a budget surplus, then it (the public sector) is taking more money in taxes out of the private sector than it’s paying back in. That money has to come from somewhere. So if the government runs a surplus, the private sector goes into deficit. If the government reduces its debt, everyone else has to go into debt in exactly that proportion in order to balance their own budgets.
The chips are redistributed. This is not a theory. Just simple maths.