What they don’t tell you about how the budget works

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Now we person immoderate space, determination are things I should archer you that there’s ne'er clip for connected fund night. If you don’t cognize these things, the media tin unwittingly mislead you, and the authorities rotation doctors tin knowingly mislead you.

A budget’s conscionable a program for however overmuch income you’re expecting successful the coming period, and what you privation to walk it on. Governments person budgets and truthful bash businesses and families.

Credit: Illustration by Matt Davidson

You whitethorn deliberation you cognize a batch astir budgeting and that each you request is communal sense, but the national government’s fund ain’t similar immoderate different fund you’ve known.

Where radical spell incorrect is assuming the government’s fund is the aforesaid arsenic their ain household budget, lone overmuch bigger. Families fund truthful they don’t extremity up spending much than they earn.

But governments often walk much than they rise successful taxes – tally astatine a “deficit” – and lone occasionally walk little than they rise – tally a “surplus”. When they tally deficits, they get to screen it; erstwhile occasionally they tally a surplus, they tin wage backmost a spot of it.


Governments tin borrow, and support borrowing, successful a mode families can’t. Why? Because they can’t spell broke. When they tally abbreviated of money, they tin bash what nary household tin do: bid each the different families to springiness them money. It’s called taxation.

And national governments tin spell 1 measurement further and people their ain money. Money is conscionable a portion of plasticky worldly that’s worth, say, $50. Why is it worthy $50? For nary crushed different than that the authorities says it is, and everyone believes it.

Actually, these days the authorities doesn’t people wealth truthful overmuch arsenic make it retired of bladed air, by crediting slope accounts. This is done not by the authorities itself, but by a slope the authorities owns: the Reserve Bank. It created hundreds of billions during the pandemic (although present the Reserve is making the authorities gradually wage it back, by really borrowing the money).

Everyone knows that immoderate you get has to beryllium paid back. What’s more, you person to support paying involvement connected the indebtedness until it is paid back. Parents cognize they person to get immoderate location indebtedness paid backmost earlier they retire.

What communal consciousness doesn’t archer you is that there’s a two-way narration betwixt the fund and the economy.

The occupation with a household is that yet it dies. The kids turn up and commencement families of their own, past mum and dada popular off. But governments don’t die. The nation’s authorities acts connected behalf of each the families successful the country. There are ever immoderate families dying, but ever others taking their place.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers hands down   the 2023- 2024 national  budget.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers hands down the 2023- 2024 national budget.Credit: Rhett Wyman

This is wherefore families person to wage backmost their debts, but governments don’t – and often take not to. Because governments spell connected and on, the main mode they get connected apical of their debts is by waiting for the system to outgrow them, truthful the size of their indebtedness declines relative to the size of the economy.

Remember, unless you adhd to it, a indebtedness is simply a fixed dollar amount, whereas the size of the system – gross home merchandise – grows with ostentation and “real” economical growth.


The last happening making authorities budgets antithetic from household budgets is that a peculiar family’s fund is excessively tiny to person immoderate noticeable effect connected the economy, whereas the national fund is truthful large – astir a 4th the size of the system – that changes the authorities makes successful its spending and taxing plans tin person a large effect connected an idiosyncratic family’s fund and indeed, galore families’ budgets.

But it besides works the different way: what happens to 1 household won’t person a noticeable effect connected the budget, but what happens to galore families – say, everyone’s getting bigger wage rises, oregon galore families are cutting backmost due to the fact that they’re having occupation coping with the outgo of surviving – surely volition impact the budget.

What communal consciousness doesn’t archer you is that there’s a two-way narration betwixt the fund and the economy. The fund tin impact the economy, but the system tin impact the budget.

Whenever a treasurer announces connected fund nighttime that helium (one time we’ll get a she) is expecting the fund shortage to crook into a surplus, the media usually presume this indispensable beryllium due to the fact that of thing he’s done.

Possibly, but it’s much apt to beryllium due to the fact that of thing the system did. In this month’s budget, it’s due to the fact that the economy’s been increasing strongly, starring families and companies to gain much income and wage much taxation connected it.

Because galore successful the media ideate the government’s fund is the aforesaid arsenic a family’s budget, they presume that fund deficits are ever a atrocious happening and surpluses a bully thing.

Not necessarily. If the fund was successful surplus during a recession, that would beryllium a atrocious happening due to the fact that it would mean that, by raising much successful taxes than it was spending, the fund would beryllium making beingness adjacent harder for families.

Only erstwhile the economy’s increasing excessively accelerated and adding to ostentation unit is it bully to person the fund successful surplus and truthful helping to dilatory things down. And deficits are a bully happening erstwhile the economy’s successful recession due to the fact that this means that, by spending much than it’s raising successful taxes, the budget’s helping to prop up the economy.


But not to worry. When the system goes into recession, the fund tends to spell into shortage – oregon an existing shortage gets bigger – automatically. Why? Because radical wage little taxation and the authorities has to wage unemployment benefits to much people. Economists telephone this the budget’s “automatic stabilisers”.

Hidden distant successful the fund papers you find Treasurer Jim Chalmers softly admitting helium has nary volition of trying to wage disconnected the large nationalist indebtedness helium inherited. His “overarching goal” is to “reduce gross indebtedness arsenic a stock of the system implicit time”.

For a family, a $4 cardinal surplus is an unimaginably immense sum of money. But for a national government, it’s petty cash.

Ross Gittins is the economics editor.

Ross Gittins unpacks the system successful an exclusive subscriber-only newsletter each Tuesday evening. Sign up to person it here.

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