In a recent New York Times Op-Ed entitled “Till Debt Does Its Part,” Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman rebuffs those few reactionary souls who argue that all this debt we are incurring is a bad thing. He assures us,
…don’t fret about this year’s deficit; we actually need to run up federal debt right now and need to keep doing it until the economy is on a solid path to recovery. And the extra debt should be manageable. If we face a potential problem, it’s not because the economy can’t handle the extra debt. Instead, it’s the politics, stupid.
Sometimes you really have to wonder what the standards are for winning a Nobel Prize. We have an economy built on consumer debt which relative to disposable income increased from a low in 1945 to its peak in 2007. As the Daily Reckoning further notes, we have $20 trillion in excess debt to work through over the coming years. Yet while on the private side, we need to pay for our sins, liquidate our debts, allow malinvestments to go belly up and start over on more solid fiscal ground, apparently the public sector can just keep on trucking.
As the sage Mr. Krugman notes,
Right now deficits are actually helping the economy. In fact, deficits here and in other major economies saved the world from a much deeper slump. The longer-term outlook is worrying, but it’s not catastrophic. The only real reason for concern is political. The United States can deal with its debts if politicians of both parties are, in the end, willing to show at least a bit of maturity. Need I say more?
Explain this to me exactly. When are deficits a help to an economy in distress? If the whole reason we are in economic distress is because of a glut of debt, then why is the answer to pour more gasoline on the fire? Any company that still functions in any semblance of a free market knows that if it can’t service its debt, it will be forced to make difficult decisions, potentially opting for bankruptcy. It cannot continually slop at the trough of the debt market.
But Krugman seems to think that the government can have its cake and eat it too. Where a sober person might argue that in hard times, a government must tighten its belt, like a business or a man, Krugman seems to think that incurring more and more debt, in essence stretching out the inevitable painful liquidation whilst creating another debt/currency crisis down the road is better. Why have one financial crisis when you can have two or three stretched out over a longer period of time? You get the sense that Krugman’s agenda is more political than economic sometimes.
Which brings me to my next point. Krugman believes the only reason for concern over the debt is “political.” Proud of this claim, Krugman states, “Need I say more?” Well yes, I think you need do so. Our currency, and the debts run up by our government denominated in our currency are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government; which is to say our money and debt are backed by our economy, our people. If we are in for a prolonged period of negative private sector growth, high unemployment and increased intervention in all aspects of life, especially our economy, how can Krugman make the assumption that the ability to continue adding to our debt solely rests on the “maturity” of the politicians? Can Barney Frank snap his fingers and suddenly make the world buy our paper?
If the politicians wish to be “mature” they can remove themselves from the private sector, slash spending and taxes, let whole swaths of industry go belly up and allow people to foreclose on their homes and pay off their debts. Alternatively, if the politicians wish to be immature, they can do so through intervention and coercion.
Krugman as one might expect opts for the latter, immature route. Mind-numbingly, he proclaims:
If governments had raised taxes or slashed spending in the face of the slump, if they had refused to rescue distressed financial institutions, we could all too easily have seen a full replay of the Great Depression.
As I said, deficits saved the world.
In fact, we would be better off if governments were willing to run even larger deficits over the next year or two. The official White House forecast shows a nation stuck in purgatory for a prolonged period, with high unemployment persisting for years. If that’s at all correct — and I fear that it will be — we should be doing more, not less, to support the economy.
Krugman, going along with his Keynesian (read socialists) brethren, forgets about the failures of all of the interventionism even before his idol FDR ever got into power during the Depression, in addition to the disastrous results of similar policies (which he of course advocated) over the last two decades in Japan. These frauds continue to peddle the same illogical government gobbledygook that prolonged the Depression, all the way to “cash for clunkers”, the modern day equivalent of FDR’s forced killing of crops and slaughtering of pigs.
Mr. Krugman seems to think that interventionism is what saves economies. Might I ask then, why not intervene from the start? If the state is so good at managing crises, why not let it manage all industry in good times as well? Is the free market only sufficient when the Dow is rising? And if deficits are the cure-all, then why do nations ever default on their debt? Why is Zimbabwe the way Zimbabwe is? Could it be that perhaps the central planners are not so divine after all?
To be fair, Krugman, digressing notes:
But what about all that debt we’re incurring? That’s a bad thing, but it’s important to have some perspective. Economists normally assess the sustainability of debt by looking at the ratio of debt to G.D.P. And while $9 trillion is a huge sum, we also have a huge economy, which means that things aren’t as scary as you might thinkHere’s one way to look at it: We’re looking at a rise in the debt/G.D.P. ratio of about 40 percentage points. The real interest on that additional debt (you want to subtract off inflation) will probably be around 1 percent of G.D.P., or 5 percent of federal revenue. That doesn’t sound like an overwhelming burden.
Even though all this debt we’re adding on might not actually be so great, we have a huge economy. Ah, the panacea of the huge (albeit shrinking) economy – an economy based on consumption, services and debt, the hallmarks of any economic powerhouse. He also argues that a rise in debt/GDP of 40% is OK, since this debt will only be 5% of federal revenue, which doesn’t sound so overwhelming. So essentially, because it’s only 5% of a massively-sized federal government which will have ever-decreasing tax revenues necessitating continued debt financing (to pay for more boondoggles), we should be OK to pay off our debt (with devalued dollars I suppose?).
What might our lenders think about that? Krugman has an answer for this too.
Now, this assumes that the U.S. government’s credit will remain good so that it’s able to borrow at relatively low interest rates. So far, that’s still true. Despite the prospect of big deficits, the government is able to borrow money long term at an interest rate of less than 3.5 percent, which is low by historical standards. People making bets with real money don’t seem to be worried about U.S. solvency.
I would challenge the assumption that the US government’s credit will remain good. As Krugman notes, our debt/GDP is going to rise significantly, “The official White House forecast shows a nation stuck in purgatory for a prolonged period, with high unemployment persisting for years,” and as I mentioned government is intervening in the economy on an unprecedented scale, but relax, our friends in the Far East will continue to bankroll us. Krugman should take a page from Milton Friedman’s playbook (along with those of Hayek, von Mises and Bastiat) and remember that there is no such thing as a free lunch. All government can do for “revenue,” is directly tax, or indirectly tax through issuing debt (taxing future generations and/or devaluing the currency) or printing money.
While Krugman argues that the people “making bets” don’t seem worried about our solvency, as numerous publications have noted, the Chinese are buying less treasuries and stockpiling commodities (however short-lived the Times may think it will be), indicating that they are diversifying out of dollar-denominated assets. Meanwhile, the government has had to take the drastic measure of purchasing its own Treasuries, with the Fed committing to buy $300bn in notes (i.e. printing $300bn) and also monetizing the debt more discretely. In other words, the government has had to keep its own borrowing costs down artificially, making up for the lack of demand of its primary dealers by bidding for its own debt. But look at the YTD yield curve for the 10-Year Treasury, and tell me that the markets aren’t reacting at all to our fiscal recklessness:
Moreover, just because rates haven’t spiked by 500bps in the last year, does that mean that market participants really aren’t scared about our solvency? Markets can stay irrational for long periods of time, just look at the housing bubble or any of the other bubbles which after the fact have seemed so obvious. Further, I would argue that creditors like China are being perfectly rational. The Chinese are trying to shift their money towards assets with real tangible value like commodities, while doing as little as possible to spook the government debt markets, because doing so would hurt the value of their own paper. If they flooded the markets with Treasuries, all of their dollar-denominated assets would plummet in price. It’s not in their interest for there to be a run on the US government yet. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t slowly but surely make their exit from US paper assets, leading to higher borrowing costs for our government and less confidence in our dollar. As I mentioned, there is no free lunch.
Krugman notes that other governments that have practiced similar profligacy like Belgium and Italy never faced financial crises in the early 1990s, but there are obvious notable differences. We are the biggest economy in the world. We were the most prosperous one. We have the world’s reserve currency. We are not accustomed to the kind of fiscal stagnancy faced in Europe. I just do not see that Krugman’s comparisons hold water. A more apt comparison in my eyes would be the US versus the British Empire circa its collapse.
Regardless, I want to return to the fundamental point that going into more debt to solve a problem caused by too much debt makes no sense. One might argue that sometimes debt can be beneficial and not cause long term harm. One might cry that parents are right to take out a mortgage on a house to raise their children. If the family can reasonably expect to generate the cash flows to retire this debt over time, then this will certainly be fine. But the US is like one giant family of drug-addled deadbeats looking to buy a mansion in the Hamptons, having already foreclosed on its subprime mortgage, maxed out all of its credit cards and traded in its Rolexes to the local pawn shop. And its only cash flows are those it can obtain by plundering its citizenry.
Debt is OK if you can reasonably expect to pay it off. To incur even greater debt in the face of debt that you will already be unable to service is downright immoral and will lead to severe consequences for the people.
These deficits in and of themselves are also not productive. They represent a stealing of wealth from future generations. As I mentioned, the only way to pay down the debt will be to tax future Americans, either directly or indirectly through inflating the money supply and thus devaluing the currency. Further, regarding what the debts are actually being used to finance, as I have argued in accordance with sound Austrian economics, the deficit spending for bailing out failing ventures stops the market from naturally adjusting, and leads to less productive if not downright destructive “jobs,” and labor being diverted from the private sector.
So in some respects again, Krugman is right that our politicians need to be mature. But the people get the government they deserve, and as of yet though there have been some bright signs, the majority of people don’t seem to want to deal with the pain that mature servants would bring them today for a brighter tomorrow.
It is worth noting that in Krugman’s delusion, he actually makes a redeeming comment:
Over the really long term, however, the U.S. government will have big problems unless it makes some major changes. In particular, it has to rein in the growth of Medicare and Medicaid spending.
He actually has me for a second, until the subsequent stanzas:
That shouldn’t be hard in the context of overall health care reform. After all, America spends far more on health care than other advanced countries, without better results, so we should be able to make our system more cost-efficient.
But that won’t happen, of course, if even the most modest attempts to improve the system are successfully demagogued — by conservatives! — as efforts to “pull the plug on grandma.”
Keep it classy, Paul.
“Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.” – Frederic Bastiat
Pundits, pontificators and plebeians all have polarized around the issue of national healthcare. Many have spoken wisely on the pros and cons of the proposed system, a heartening fact given the relative deafening silence when it came to the other government boondoggles of the last few years (really the last hundred to be exact). At the heart of the matter is a debate fundamental to our liberty that the public has failed to have. This regards the broader ramifications of a government-granted right to health.
Aristotle said that man seeks pleasure while avoiding pain. Healthcare is a means to prevent physical pain, and thus I would argue secure pleasure. However, a need for healthcare is dictated by one’s physical condition. One’s physical condition is attributable to a variety of factors. First, there is the question of diet. Then, there are one’s living conditions, namely shelter and clothing. Surely there is a psychosomatic factor as well. Finally of course, there is the question of one’s physical activity level.
If we are to allow healthcare to fall under the purview of government, then certainly it must follow that all things that contribute to one’s health must also be regulated by the government.
Thus, necessarily each and every citizen will have a responsibility to provide ample food, sufficient shelter and clean clothing for each and every other citizen. Likewise, it should follow that the types of food be regulated to ensure an optimal diet, and the shelter and clothing be comfortable enough and of high enough quality to meet government standards. Since one needs a stable living environment, should not the government also have a say as to how children are raised within their homes? Naturally one’s mental health might also be tied to access to diversions, so should not all entertainment such as the arts, film and sports also be government-controlled and taxpayer-subsidized? Should not exercise be mandated, with government-run physical fitness centers for all? What scares me most is that in writing this list, government already controls many of these things in one way or another.
Naturally, a government-run system of healthcare will lead to arbitrary, whimsical intrusions into our daily lives. Who is to set the bounds as to what constitutes proper controls to make the system “competitive” and “affordable,” when the Ezekiel Emanuel’s of the world will influence the system?
Much like the Necessary and Proper Clause, nationalized healthcare will serve as a Trojan horse; it will lead to the greatest infringement on our natural rights of all, infringement on our lives. You’d think the state would already be satisfied having devoured our liberty and property (pursuit of happiness if you prefer), but always hungry for more power, under this system it will get personal.
Perhaps scarier than the details of this system, devilish as they may be is the principle that from the first day we spend on this Earth, given a right to health for all, our responsibility will be to provide for our fellow man, valuing the community above ourselves. If one were to choose to dedicate one’s life to supporting others, of one’s own volition, than this would be fine. The merits of sacrifice for others are numerous and in many cases commendable. However, under a national healthcare system, because of a handful of politicians, we will be forced from day one to work to support everyone else, because the state says so. In the end, we will all be enslaved to each other. Our common lot will be one of misery.
Call me selfish. Call me greedy. Call me immoral. I value my life above yours, insofar as the Leviathan is forcing me to subsidize your eating habits, drinking habits, smoking habits mental health and genetic predisposition. I do not want to be forced to pay for your healthcare by government decree, nor should I. The Founders guarantees my right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To presuppose that the collectives’ right supersedes my own destroys these very rights. It ensures pain for all and pleasure for none.
I leave you with some prescient words from Grover Cleveland – the last respectable Democrat – regarding his reasoning for rejection of an act to appropriate federal funds for drought-stricken Texas farmers. He declared:
The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of the kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.
No life, no liberty and no property. This is the message coming from Albany based upon Governor Paterson’s proposed budget. In order to weather the economic downturn, Mr. Patterson has prescribed the age-old cure of tax and spend, and while New York’s budget represents perhaps the most perverse and grossly irresponsible of any in the nation, it is nevertheless a sign of things to come across more prudent states over the next year. Patterson’s scheme more or less amounts to a “soak-the-middle-class,” effort, although in reality the ripple unintended consequences will without a doubt hurt everyone. As the venerable Post reports, the plan calls for:
* An “iTunes tax” of 4 percent on videos, music or pictures downloaded from the Internet.
* A 4 percent tax on taxi, limo and bus rides. That means a $10 cab ride would cost 40 cents more.
* A 4 percent entertainment tax on tickets to movies, concerts and sporting events. That would add nearly 50 cents to a $12 movie ticket or $1.80 to the cheapest $44.50 seat at a Knicks game.
* The tax on beer increases 24 cents per gallon, or more than double the current rate, which means about 30 cents a case.
* An 18 percent tax on nondiet soft drinks, which aims to reduce child obesity. A $1.50 can of Pepsi would then cost at least 25 cents more.
* A 4 percent tax on cable TV and satellite services, raising a $100 bill by $4.
* Hiking the cost of “personal” services – including haircuts, manicures, pedicures, massages and gym memberships – by 4 percent.
* A 4 percent sales tax on clothing and shoes under $500, except for two weeks out of the year.
* Elimination of the law that caps the state sales tax on gasoline at 8 cents per gallon.
* Boosting the average vehicle registration fee for drivers by $11, from $44 to $55. Fees for new or renewed licenses also would increase 25 percent, or increase from $50 to about $62 to renew a license over eight years.
In addition, all drivers would have to get new, “reflectorized” license plates at a fee of $25 each.
While officials believe this will help them generate the greatest “revenue” increase in the history of the state at $4.6 billion annually, the state’s budget will still increase by 1.1%. If there were ever a way to cripple a state, this is the way to do it. When a reasonable person gets into trouble economically, they cut back their expenditures. They must become fiscally responsible or ultimately declare bankruptcy. What is true for a man should be true for a state. But sometimes, in fact as we’ve seen most of the time it isn’t. That’s government for you.
What could they do if they wanted to get their fiscal act in order? Slash taxes across the board while privatizing each and every public service that is inefficient (presumably almost all of them) in order to bring the budget level to its bare minimum. Instead, it is clear that they are going to resort to legalized plunder, by taxing the citizens of the state on basic entertainment and sustenance. There is something morally wrong when a state is actively seeking things to tax, as it appears New York is. If the government has to look for ways to take your money from you, then clearly they are not serving as faithful stewards of the public good. They are legalizing theft. Bastiat says:
See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime. Then abolish this law without delay … If such a law is not abolished immediately it will spread, multiply and develop into a system.
This perfectly characterizes our system of law — the spreading and multiplying of injustice. Were we to hold government to Bastiat’s standard, the one the Constitution seemingly ensured, we would see the inherent flaws in our laws; namely, that the vast majority of our laws benefit some at the expense of most and legalize plunder.
In the final analysis, my question is, what happens when New York has no income earners to tax anymore? This is the real risk that they and every other fiscally irresponsible state run. Moreover, what happens when a nation loses its income earners? Atlas Shrugged is just around the corner.