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.
As the recession has deepened, many of our economists (namely Krugman, Summers and the like) and elected officials have continuously argued that given the current dire circumstances, the only way to get the economy going is for the government to create demand by spending. The logic is that in a recession, the problem is that we have underconsumption; the magic pill for increasing consumption is government spending, generally in the form of public works projects. If resources like laborers are sitting on the sidelines (having been laid off), why not employ them in jobs building tangible public goods, enabling them to earn a living? Then, the government-spending multiplier will kick in, and the economy will grow again.
Robert Murphy in his refreshingly simple but thorough manner goes about picking apart the Keynesian argument in a recent Mises article. Murphy neatly sums up the Krugmanite point that “putting unemployed resources to work can only help, since prodding workers into producing even items of dubious value is better than letting them sit around watching Let’s Make a Deal.” He cites blogger Mark Thoma’s drawn-out explanation of the logic here. In debunking the Keynesian “idle resources” thesis, Murphy notes,
Even on its own terms, Thoma’s scenario fails because it is unrealistic. It is absurd to think that the government could come up with spending programs that would draw only on unemployed resources. Keynesian “macro” thinking ignores the complex capital structure of an economy. To build a bridge (as in Thoma’s example) requires a lot more than cranes and generic laborers. For example, gasoline will be burned in order to transport the newly employed workers to and from the work site. Nails, screws, steel, lumber, and other resources will be channeled into the new bridge, and at least some of these inputs will be diverted away from other private-sector uses, rather than simply leaving a state of idleness. Within the broad category of “labor” we find a similar situation, once we actually contemplate doing this project for real. If the city of Houston wants to build a new bridge, is it really the case that every last person even remotely involved with the project, will come from the ranks of the unemployed who are within commuting distance of the Houston bridge site? Surely the project will draw on engineers, construction foremen, and other skilled workers, who were still gainfully employed even amidst the recession, and who therefore will not be able to work on as many private-sector projects as they otherwise would have.
This issue is essential to understanding the way that the economy works. As I have mentioned before, no bureaucrat can ever plan for productive economic activity because he lacks the specialized knowledge, the ability to coordinate the activities and the profit motive of the business people who provide goods and services. He does not understand the capital structure of the economy. In the end, his central planning as always will fail.
As Murphy notes however, the Krugman’s of the world admit that during downturns, government spending is not about generating efficient economic activity, but rather acting on the assumption
that normal rules don’t apply. Ordinarily we’d welcome an increase in private saving; right now we’re living in a world subject to the “paradox of thrift,” in which private virtue is public vice. Normally we want to be careful that public funds are spent wisely; right now the crucial thing is that they be spent fast. (John Maynard Keynes once suggested burying bottles of cash in coal mines and letting the private sector dig them up — not as a real proposal, but as a way of emphasizing the priority of supporting demand.) [Emphasis added]
I just cannot understand this logic that when things get bad, somehow the laws of economic do not apply anymore. If the government can be so productive in using resources when times are bad, why not use resources when times are good as well? Can a country not prosper without a government boost? As we have seen, this is patently false given the success of all of the nations that have shed the yoke of socialism. Just look at Eastern Europe. In addition, if we as individuals were in financial trouble, would we spend money fast, or be careful in how we spent our funds, if we spent them at all? The same logic that applies to a man applies to the nation. During rough economic times, we need to ENCOURAGE SAVINGS, CUT SPENDING AND LOWER ALL BARRIERS TO POSITIVE ECONOMIC ACTIVITY (NAMELY TAXES). This will pave the way for real economic growth when the market corrects.
Murphy goes on to explain to the recalcitrant Keynesians that it is important to remember how we got into this situation, if we are to figure out the best way out of it. As Murphy puts it, following the low-interest-rate-fuelled boom, which created a mirage of wealth-generating activities ending in bust,
Once people in the private sector realized they had made horrible decisions during the boom years, they needed to stop business as usual and figure out how to make the best of a bad situation. Homeowners who had skimped on their savings for years (relying on booming house prices) had to slash spending to compensate for years of overconsumption, while entrepreneurs needed to decide which activities were likely to be profitable going forward, in light of the new information.
What had to happen is that workers and other resources that had been misallocated into housing construction and Wall Street investment banks, needed to be moved into other sectors. To repeat, this was and is a fantastically complex reshuffling, because even something as simple as producing a pencil requires the contributions of thousands of workers all over the world.
It’s not a simple matter of moving unemployed builders and hedge-fund managers into “booming” sectors X, Y, and Z, because (as we’ve seen above) these newly employed workers will require complementary tools and resources that were not laid off to the same extent. So the issue is, what is the best new outlet for all of these laid-off workers, such that — all things considered — the final mix of output goods best satisfies consumer desires? How can we be sure that channeling them into occupation X won’t actually do more harm than good?
This Austrian analysis of the problem shows that there was a major misallocation of resources that need to be channeled into productive sectors. However, the government is not the best authority to determine how to do this. According to Murphy,
In practice, the people in a market economy solve this fantastically complex problem by making profit-and-loss calculations, which in turn rely on market prices. For example, it is clear that a former Wall Street quant isn’t doing anybody a service by cranking out models that give mortgage-backed securities a gold star for safety. But what should this PhD do now? Should he go into academia and teach thermodynamics (which may very well have been the subject of his dissertation)? Or is his impressive education really a complete waste, and he would — at this point, given the economic realities — provide the most service by working the register at Wal-Mart?
Nobody knows the answer to this question. What happens during the recovery process is that the unemployed whiz kid initially looks for a job paying his former salary. As the months pass, he realizes that this is unrealistic, and he begins lowering his minimum price. Eventually, he finds an employer with compatible desires, and the two agree to a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Imagine that, letting the markets sort out the problems brought about by the government-created boom-and-bust cycle. Murphy notes that the Keynesians are wrong to assume that it is simply an issue of scared consumers causing the economy to contract. He argues:
On the contrary, the economy’s capital structure really was thrown into an unsustainable condition during the boom years, and it takes time for the mess to be sorted out. When the government runs up a deficit to fund “stimulus” projects, all that really means is that it is forcing taxpayers to pay for projects that they wouldn’t buy with their own money.
This is an aspect of the stimulus that really makes my blood boil. If it isn’t bad enough that the government is going to use precious resources inefficiently, and prolong the market-based recovery needed to start real economic growth again, the taxpayers funding these projects also don’t have really any say in them. Sure, we can vote out our elected officials. But as we have seen with all of the bailouts and the TARP money, even when sizable amounts of the populace have opposed government policies, we have not been able to stop them. It is immoral that the politicians can determine how best to use our hard-earned cash, and how much to burden our future generations with debt for these false stimuli. Let’s hope that we can not only vote out the bums during the midterm elections, but supplant them with people that have a sound understanding of economics and the Constitution.