A timely column from Nobel economist Joe Stiglitz (emphasis added):
A wave of fiscal austerity is rushing over Europe and America…But despite protests by the yesterday’s proponents of deregulation, who would like the government to remain passive, most economists believe that government spending has made a difference, helping to avert another Great Depression.
…even deficit hawks acknowledge that we should be focusing not on today’s deficit, but on the long-term national debt. Spending, especially on investments in education, technology, and infrastructure, can actually lead to lower long-term deficits. Banks’ short-sightedness helped create the crisis; we cannot let government short-sightedness – prodded by the financial sector – prolong it.
Faster growth and returns on public investment yield higher tax revenues, and a 5 to 6% return is more than enough to offset temporary increases in the national debt. A social cost-benefit analysis (taking into account impacts other than on the budget) makes such expenditures, even when debt-financed, even more attractive.
In those last two paragraphs, Stiglitz is pointing out that if the returns on public spending are greater than the cost of financing them, then the future debt level will actually be lower. The government’s current cost of financing is simply the yield on Treasury debt. As of Friday, the ten year Treasury note yields 3.7%, while thirty year Treasury bonds yield about 4.6%. If publicly financed investments can be expected to return more than those figures, then undertaking them — and adding to current deficits and debt levels — is a no-brainer.
And as long as the yields on the securities of private sector issuers aren’t abnormally higher than those on Treasuries, the argument that the federal government is going to ‘crowd out’ the private sector is without merit.
Of course, it’s debatable (1) whether public expenditures are likely to produce returns of that magnitude and (2) whether future Congresses, Administrations, and Treasury Departments will manage the federal balance sheet appropriately. Unfortunately, no one’s openly debating these points. Instead, we’re treated to pithy but nonstop dogma from both sides, and a peculiar obfuscation by those in the middle, which in all cases overlook the basic financial calculus that Stiglitz reminds us of in his column.
Most importantly for debt and deficit hawks and those who fear higher taxes (those whom econo-nerds would refer to as ‘Ricardian equivalence’ subscribers), when the financial calculus is positive, then the debt service associated with marginal federal spending can be financed organically, via higher growth, rather than through higher taxes.
In short, people on all sides of the deficit issue should be able to agree, at least on financial and economic grounds, that investments yielding more than their cost of financing, when they do not crowd out private sector borrowing or resource demand, should absolutely be carried out.
Unfortunately, Stiglitz overlooks his own argument when he writes the following, which make us wonder if he doubts his 5 to 6% return figures, or if he’s just offering a gratuitous slap at the financial sector (emphasis added):
As the global economy returns to growth, governments should, of course, have plans on the drawing board to raise taxes and cut expenditures…
Continuing with his love of taxes:
The financial sector has imposed huge externalities on the rest of society. America’s financial industry polluted the world with toxic mortgages, and, in line with the well established “polluter pays” principle, taxes should be imposed on it. Besides, well-designed taxes on the financial sector might help alleviate problems caused by excessive leverage and banks that are too big to fail. Taxes on speculative activity might encourage banks to focus greater attention on performing their key societal role of providing credit.
As we’ve pointed out elsewhere, the domestic financial sector is going to shrink even without punitive measures, as demographic composition shifts away from the saving and investing age groups. Well-designed regulation might be a better approach than taxes to constraining financial sector activities to socially beneficial ones (we admit that a ‘Tobin tax’ can be the most efficient approach to regulation under certain conditions, but aren’t convinced that it’s optimal for the financial sector).
And it would be profoundly unjust for the federal government, which so strongly encouraged and underwrote the expansion of mortgage financing (Stiglitz’ “pollution”), to retroactively punish the financial sector, its employees, and its current and future clients for simply following the government’s orders.
Stiglitz also takes a step back from his underlying thesis with this sentence:
Over the longer term, most economists agree that governments, especially in advanced industrial countries with aging populations, should be concerned about the sustainability of their policies.
From a technical standpoint, this isn’t as iron clad as so many of us reflexively believe. First, we have no idea whether an aging population is bound to be a drag on an economy, whether it depends on particular conditions, or anything else. There simply isn’t much historical data available to test such a proposition. Second, if we assume that it is a significant drag, then policies that are seen as unsustainable under “normal” conditions might very well be the most sustainable under those novel conditions. This could include expanded deficit spending and public debt, and/or expansion of money supply.
[To be fair, Stiglitz is almost certainly referring to entitlement spending obligations in that passage, which might be a bird of a different feather. We're just using it as an opportunity to critique some of the conventional wisdom around demographics.]
Despite Sitglitz’ inability to break out of his New Keynesian box, or part ways with his passion for higher taxes, we agree wholeheartedly with his essential argument:
…even with large deficits, economic growth in the US and Europe is anemic, and forecasts of private-sector growth suggest that in the absence of continued government support, there is risk of continued stagnation – of growth too weak to return unemployment to normal levels anytime soon.
The risks are asymmetric: if these forecasts are wrong, and there is a more robust recovery, then, of course, expenditures can be cut back and/or taxes increased. But if these forecasts are right, then a premature “exit” from deficit spending risks pushing the economy back into recession. This is one of the lessons we should have learned from America’s experience in the Great Depression; it is also one of the lessons to emerge from Japan’s experience in the late 1990’s.
…we must be wary of deficit fetishism…high-return public investments that more than pay for themselves can actually improve the well-being of future generations, and it would be doubly foolish to burden them with debts from unproductive spending and then cut back on productive investments.
These are questions for a later day – at least in many countries, prospects of a robust recovery are, at best, a year or two away. For now, the economics is clear: reducing government spending is a risk not worth taking.