A couple of CNBC commentators ripped Paul Krugman for today’s op-ed on budget deficits, with Rick Santelli saying something about lining a bird cage. We aren’t defending Krugman against charges of self-contradiction or factual inaccuracies, but we are definitely siding with him on the economic substance of his argument (the lonely wingnut’s sojourn continues).
Prevailing rhetoric holds that the U.S. government is over extended, and that there’s precious little room for additional economic stimulus. That would be true if US dollars could only be obtained by taking them from people who have them, or by digging new ones out of the ground. In that case, servicing our debts — both private and public — would be quite burdensome. But the reality is that in a modern monetary system, monetary units are simply ledger entries. Whether carried in hand as a Treasury obligation, or held digitally in a bank account, all dollars are created out of thin air by the Federal Reserve in response to demands of the banking system.
The federal government does not have direct control of the Federal Reserve, so its control of money creation is only indirect (if Congress wished, it could wrest control of USD creation from the quasi-private Fed, a measure that a small number of radical but diverse members might like to see). But existing arrangements do not change the basic fact that the U.S. has the capacity to print the money (the non-interest bearing debt) used to service its public debt. That means that the only meaningful constraint on the level of our pubic debt is people’s willingness to accept the USD. And despite the sophomoric rhetoric on that point, people are still overwhelmingly willing to accept USDs.
The claim that Congress is “spending money that we don’t have” is even more egregious. To reiterate: if USDs could only be dug out of the ground, or pulled out of taxpayers’ pockets, then the argument might make some sense. But as long as we have the ability to create USDs out of thin air, then Congress has the ability to spend new USDs instead of existing ones.
The conservative argument against this type of Keynesian activism rests on a couple of key pillars, and under certain conditions, they’re valid: (1) as long as government constraints on the private sector are moderate, an economy will grow at or near full capacity; (2) public demand for capital will always tend to ‘crowd out’ private sector borrowing; and (3) public sector allocation of capital is inevitably distorted, which imposes long run economic costs.
As long as those assumptions are valid, then Congressional thrift, beyond a basic level of social insurance and national defense spending, is a desirable objective. However:
(1) History doesn’t lend strong support to the idea that an unbridled private sector will always and everywhere produce positive growth; and if monetary policy is constrained by a zero bound (i.e., interest rates can’t go below zero), then whenever growth is below potential, fiscal stimulus is appropriate (and can be enacted in myriad ways that appeal to lefties or righties). This is especially true for long economic cycles, such as the Great Depression, Japan from 1989 until 2008 or so, and several developed western economies since roughly 1999. Judging by the available empirical research, demographic composition could be the main driver of these cycles (and if the effect is strong enough, it might deemphasize the importance of rationality vs behavioralism in theory and policy making).
(2) When private sector demand for capital is contracting, as can happen in a long down cycle, then public sector demand for capital (i.e., deficits and debt issuance) is beneficial, and should foster rather than crowd out private sector credit demand. However, under certain conditions, this will only work if money creation is supportive of public sector credit demand, i.e, if new money is created to finance the public sector debt (the conservative point of view tends to see this as banana republic monetary policy, but that isn’t always the case). Today, banks are taking advantage of a steep yield curve to borrow funds from the Federal Reserve (which creates new USDs) to purchase higher yielding Treasury debt, i.e., a significant amount of our public debt is being ‘monetized’. While that would be a bad thing in an inflationary environment, it’s a good thing when it offsets deflationary forces. Almost everyone who parrots the prevailing rhetoric is overlooking this dynamic.
(3) Public sector capital allocation is certainly prone to distortion in as much as it is not subjected to competition and the judgement of diverse agents. But asymmetries in the private sector can have powerfully negative effects too (financial crisis, anyone?). And while there’s room in our political system for new institutions designed to allocate public resources more optimally, the existing ones, such as voting, negotiation, and oversight, should do a good enough job in the meantime.
Krugman wrote that “there’s no reason to panic about budget prospects for the next few years, or even for the next decade,” and apparently this has some pundits and analysts pulling their hair out. But if prevailing demographic ratios are going to drive another decade of subpar economic outcomes…then he’s absolutely right!
When the real economy is humming along, we can leave the creation and allocation of new USDs to the private sector, and rein in public deficits without doing too much harm. But when the state of the real economy is uncertain, as it certainly is now (pun intended), the refusal to finance public spending, investment, and intermediation via the creation of new dollars (within the constraints dictated by inflation objectives and expectations) is inherently deflationary and destructive. And that is what undermines the sophomoric notion that we are “leaving a mountain of debt to our grandchildren.” If the public sector is not active enough to offset destructive forces acting in the economy today, then our grandchildren will be worse off. Like most economic variables, public debt levels mean nothing in isolation. And we shouldn’t just look at it relative to current GDP. We must also look at it relative to opportunity cost, or looked at another way, to future GDP. There are actions that the public sector can take today to favorably impact GDP in the future, but they all require financing, including deficit spending. We should only be frightened of deficits when they are scarier than the opportunity costs imposed by government saving. Today, that is simply not the case.
So Krugman is right to be concerned about the policy outlook, which he has a rather pessimistic view of:
Washington now has its priorities all wrong: all the talk is about how to shave a few billion dollars off government spending, while there’s hardly any willingness to tackle mass unemployment. Policy is headed in the wrong direction — and millions of Americans will pay the price.
We’ve expressed similar concerns since 2H09, but it now looks to us as though the Obama administration is “triangulating” on deficits and the federal debt, with no intention to substantially withdraw fiscal stimulus in the government’s 2011 fiscal year (though again, we’re still trying to figure out how the president’s emphasis on PAYGO fits into this). If we’re right, then the readjustments underway in exchange rates, specifically the Euro and USD, are being driven by the Euro and sovereign debt concerns, rather than from the USD side. That means we should settle into a new exchange rate equilibrium in the coming weeks, at which point risky assets should start to recover. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, but we’ll get there.
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