James Galbraith “In Defense of Deficits” (thanks, Jayne Lyn Stahl)

Posted on March 5, 2010

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 CAITLIN DOVER

CAITLIN DOVER

The Simpson-Bowles Commission, just established by the president, will no doubt deliver an attack on Social Security and Medicare dressed up in the sanctimonious rhetoric of deficit reduction. (Back in his salad days, former Senator Alan Simpson was a regular schemer to cut Social Security.) The Obama spending freeze is another symbolic sacrifice to the deficit gods. Most observers believe neither will amount to much, and one can hope that they are right. But what would be the economic consequences if they did? The answer is that a big deficit-reduction program would destroy the economy, or what remains of it, two years into the Great Crisis.

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  • Private borrowers can and do default. They go bankrupt (a protection civilized societies afford them instead of debtors’ prisons). Or if they have a mortgage, in most states they can simply walk away from their house if they can no longer continue to make payments on it.

    With government, the risk of nonpayment does not exist. Government spends money (and pays interest) simply by typing numbers into a computer. Unlike private debtors, government does not need to have cash on hand. As the inspired amateur economist Warren Mosler likes to say, the person who writes Social Security checks at the Treasury does not have the phone number of the tax collector at the IRS. If you choose to pay taxes in cash, the government will give you a receipt–and shred the bills. Since it is the source of money, government can’t run out.

    It’s true that government can spend imprudently. Too much spending, net of taxes, may lead to inflation, often via currency depreciation–though with the world in recession, that’s not an immediate risk. Wasteful spending–on unnecessary military adventures, say–burns real resources. But no government can ever be forced to default on debts in a currency it controls. Public defaults happen only when governments don’t control the currency in which they owe debts–as Argentina owed dollars or as Greece now (it hasn’t defaulted yet) owes euros. But for true sovereigns, bankruptcy is an irrelevant concept. When Obama says, even offhand, that the United States is “out of money,” he’s talking nonsense–dangerous nonsense. One wonders if he believes it.

    Nor is public debt a burden on future generations. It does not have to be repaid, and in practice it will never be repaid. Personal debts are generally settled during the lifetime of the debtor or at death, because one person cannot easily encumber another. But public debt does not ever have to be repaid. Governments do not die–except in war or revolution, and when that happens, their debts are generally moot anyway.

    So the public debt simply increases from one year to the next. In the entire history of the United States it has done so, with budget deficits and increased public debt on all but about six very short occasions–with each surplus followed by a recession. Far from being a burden, these debts are the foundation of economic growth. Bonds owed by the government yield net income to the private sector, unlike all purely private debts, which merely transfer income from one part of the private sector to another.

    Nor is that interest a solvency threat. A recent projection from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, based on Congressional Budget Office assumptions, has public-debt interest payments rising to 15 percent of GDP by 2050, with total debt to GDP at 300 percent. But that can’t happen. If the interest were paid to people who then spent it on goods and services and job creation, it would be just like other public spending. Interest payments so enormous would affect the economy much like the mobilization for World War II. Long before you even got close to those scary ratios, you’d get full employment and rising inflation–pushing up GDP and, in turn, stabilizing the debt-to-GDP ratio. Or the Federal Reserve would stabilize the interest payouts, simply by keeping short-term interest rates (which it controls) very low.

    About James K. Galbraith

    James K. Galbraith is the author of The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too. He teaches at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and is a senior scholar at the Levy Economics Institute. more…

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