Mises Daily Articles
Money for Nothing
If you want to expose the absurdity of the state, think governmental accounting. Really, there is no better way to show the impossibility of a government solution to scarcity than by reading the annual audit of any governmental entity.
Goethe considered double-entry bookkeeping — the essence of accounting — to be "one of the finest inventions of the human mind." For without accounting, we lose the ability to calculate, and without the ability to calculate, modern civilization is impossible.
Accounting lets the entrepreneur know whether he earned a profit, utilizing scarce resources in order to produce something of greater value. Accounting also lets the entrepreneur know whether activities he performs are better outsourced, or, conversely, whether he should expand into new orders of production. In essence, accounting directs the entrepreneur toward activities that satisfy the wants of the consumer.
Government accounting is a true oxymoron. We can determine the cost of government, but what about the value produced? What is the product? What is its value? What is the bottom line? Of course, these unanswered questions do not stop government from playing business, pretending to create value and profit for society.
Governmental entities operate under the cash basis of accounting, tracking cash in and cash out. To direct their activities, these entities create budgets that list revenue and expenditures. Accounting then is simply the recording of cash flows against the budget. In this world, the cheered concept of fiscal accountability is the process of reporting how close the entity's final revenue and expenditures matched its approved budget. And nothing more.
This is an important point to note: whenever government officials speak of fiscal accountability, they are only considering approved budget versus actual spending. They are not referring to worthiness of expenditures, only whether or not they spent revenue according to the budget, with no outright theft of money. Oh, sure, the officials will claim that fiscal accountability means that money was spent on productive activities since, as expected, it is assumed by the governmental entity that only productive activities were approved in the budget. Circular reasoning.
With cash accounting, the cost of infrastructure investments — roads, bridges, buildings, etc. — is reported in the year it occurs, though the capital assets continue to have value or usefulness for years. Reporting cash flow misses the complete financial picture of the government entity, leaving this question unanswered: is it in a better financial position than the year before?
To answer that question, the Government Accounting Standards Board issued its Statement 34 in 1999. Annual reports that satisfy this statement supposedly detail the financial health of governmental entities as if these entities were profit-oriented businesses. Reporting is now done on the accrual basis of accounting, and assets are depreciated over their lifetime. This change provides a bottom line: net assets. With a view of either increasing or decreasing assets over liabilities, we can now determine a profit or loss of sorts.
Under this logic, when a governmental entity has more net assets this year than the prior year, it is in a better financial state — it has achieved a profit. Government can now report to its constituents whether or not it was able to take scarce resources and turn them into something of greater value. Socialism, here we come.
But not so fast. Government assets are the product of theft, not the result of satisfying the wants of consumers. A governmental entity with increasing assets is simply stealing more from taxpayers year after year. Ironically, the same holds true for a governmental entity that has decreasing assets. In either situation, more is being thieved, with nothing of value being created.
The implication is that a governmental entity that increases its tax revenue faster than its expenditures is performing a service for its constituents; the entity is achieving a profit for the taxpayers. Conversely, a governmental entity in a deficit cycle is creating a loss for its taxpayers. So, the more a government confiscates, the better off the taxpayers. Does that make sense? Down is up, and up is down. Somewhere, somehow, we ventured down the rabbit hole.
It is as if we are to cheer a government that taxes and builds since increasing assets count as profit, not waste. The public school district that builds a $50 million high school is bettering its financial position. Whether or not the high school produces anything of value is of no consideration. In government accounting, the cost itself is a benefit. Of course, that is not how businesses serve the consumer, but, with government, we are through the looking glass.
The difference between government and business is the chain of taxation versus the dollar vote. The public school district taxes regardless of value produced. Once the bond issue passes the voters, the bill must be paid, to be enforced by the long, strong arm of government. On the other hand, the entrepreneur must face the consumer every day, product in hand, hoping to make a sale. The consumer can as easily bypass as enter his store, based on a whim if he so chooses. The taxpayer? Well, just try to hide.
If government is of the people, and I am one of the people, shouldn't I include changes in the net assets of my local school district in my financial portfolio? Since the local schools are my schools — or so the mantra goes — don't those changes have an impact on my finances? Shouldn't I record changes of district assets in my ledger?
Moreover, shouldn't I be able to sell my shares of the supposed public good and use the resulting proceeds for my benefit? Yes, I should. But, as I learned growing up in Allegheny County in southwestern Pennsylvania, the sign that reads, "Keep out, Property of Allegheny County," does not refer only to those who live outside the county; it means that even the taxpayers of Allegheny County have no right to that property.
The bottom line — increasing government net assets — is not my property; never was; never will be.
 Of course, accounting has changed as taxation creates financial incentives to beat the taxman by showing as little profit as possible, but that is another article.
 During the Cold War, both the US and Soviet governments calculated Soviet GDP to include tractors rusting on the plains of the Ukraine. That the tractors had no real value to the local farmer was not considered. With government, cost is always recorded as value.