Sunday, December 6, 2009

Government Spending, Deficits and Debt

There's been a lot of spurious stuff written recently about the dangers of deficit financing during the Great Recession. Reading some of the more alarmist stuff one would be forgiven for thinking that the world didn't just dodge a huge bullet - a major systemic financial collapse and a serious depression in the developed world, which would have eventually engulfed the whole world. The negative feedback possibilities were extremely scary. Massive fiscal stimulus made a big difference. As growth returns money will need to be paid back. My major concern is with indebtedness across the system, rather than in the govt sector.

The more alarmist writers always refer to govt debt in gross terms rather than in net terms.
Those interested in the detail can read the earlier post "Public Debt (for Nerds)". What really matters is net debt or more to the point net financial worth and net worth.

There is no doubt that govts cannot keep borrowing indefinitely, just like households and corporations.
One of the main differences between public andf private, however, is the capacity to fix finances through taxation. In the US in the 1990s, Clinton shifted the US debt position relatively easily and then Bush messed it up again.

For an excellent counter-intuitive account of these issues see Robert Frank's article "How to Run Up a Deficit, Without Fear

Frank drily notes that:
there are really only three basic truths that policy makers need to know about deficits: First, it’s actually good to run them during deep economic downturns. Second, whether deficits are bad in the long run depends on how borrowed money is spent. And third, eliminating deficits entirely would not require any painful sacrifices.

What! You ask, surely this can't be true? The first point comes directly from Keynes who correctly argued that in times of recession govts should do what they can to bolster spending.
Consumers won’t lead the way, because even those who still have jobs are fearful they might lose them. And most businesses won’t invest, since they already have more capacity than they need. Only government, Mr. Keynes concluded, has both the motive and opportunity to increase spending significantly during deep downturns.
Of course, if the government borrows to do so, the debt must eventually be repaid (or the interest on it must be paid forever). That fact has provoked strident protests about government “bankrupting our grandchildren.”
It’s an absurd complaint. Failure to stimulate the economy would mean a longer downturn. That, in turn, would mean longer stretches of reduced tax receipts, increased unemployment insurance payouts, and depressed private investment. The net result? Higher total public borrowing and a permanent decline in productivity compared with what we would have had under effective economic stimulus.
But govts do have to pay the debt back as the economy recovers.
At full employment, extra borrowing often compromises future prosperity, just as critics say. On President George W. Bush’s watch, for example, the national debt rose from $5 trillion to $10 trillion. Some of that borrowing paid for an expansion of Medicare prescription coverage and a financial bailout a year ago, but most went for a war in Iraq and tax cuts that largely just allowed for additional consumption. Our grandchildren will be forever poorer as a result.
What matters is what govt borrowing is used for - govts can usefully make productive investments that will benefit future generations.
After decades of neglect of the nation’s infrastructure, attractive public investment opportunities abound. It’s been estimated, for example, that eliminating bottlenecks on the Northeast rail corridor would generate $12 billion in benefits at a cost of only $6 billion. These are present value estimates. When government undertakes such investments, our grandchildren become richer, not poorer.
Frank then suggests correctly that in normal times, govts should pay for productive investment with savings rather than borrowings.
But they’d be richer in the long run if we paid for those investments with our own savings rather than with borrowed money, for that would allow our grandchildren to benefit from the miracle of compound interest. Many fiscal hawks insist that the only way to eliminate deficits and pay for additional investment is by cutting government spending. But as California’s experience suggests, that approach often backfires. Government programs have constituents. Those that get the ax are often not the least valuable ones, but those whose supporters have the least influence. California’s schools, once among the nation’s best, are now among the worst.
The solution, of course, is taxation. A dirty word for many, but essential for not only a civilized society but a productive one as well.
To eliminate deficits, we need additional revenue. The encouraging news is that we could raise more than enough to balance government budgets by replacing our existing tax system with one that taxes activities that cause harm to others. Called Pigovian taxes by economists — after the English economist Arthur Cecil Pigou — such levies create a burden that is more than offset by the reductions they cause in costly side effects of everyday activities.
When producers emit sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, for example, the resulting acid rain harms others. As the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act demonstrated, the most efficient and least intrusive remedy was to tax sulfur dioxide emissions. Doing so entailed no net sacrifice, because solving the same problem by prescriptive regulation would have been much more costly.
Similarly, when motorists enter congested roadways, they impose additional delays on others. Here, too, taxation is the best remedy. The time that congestion fees save is more valuable than the fees are burdensome.
When the transactions of financial speculators fuel asset bubbles, they increase the risk of financial meltdowns. A small tax on those transactions would reduce this risk.
When drivers buy heavier vehicles, they increase others’ risk of dying in accidents. This risk would be lower if we taxed vehicles by weight. Carbon dioxide emissions contribute to global warming. Here as well, taxation offers the most efficient and least intrusive remedy.
Anti-tax zealots denounce all taxation as theft, as depriving citizens of their right to spend their hard-earned incomes as they see fit. Yet nowhere does the Constitution grant us the right not to be taxed. Nor does it grant us the right to harm others with impunity. No one is permitted to steal our cars or vandalize our homes. Why should opponents of taxation be allowed to harm us in less direct ways?
Taxes on harmful activities would be justified quite apart from any need to balance government budgets. But such taxes would also generate ample revenue for the public services we demand, quieting the ill-considered commentary about deficits.
In the meantime, however, such commentary continues to render intelligent political decisions about deficits less likely. For example, 58 percent of respondents in a recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll said the president and Congress should worry less about bolstering the economy than keeping the deficit down, while only 35 percent said economic recovery was a higher priority.
If we really want to bankrupt our grandchildren, that poll charts a promising course.


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