You know, kids were very different then. They didn’t have their heads filled with all this Cartesian dualism
December 28, 2012 § Leave a comment
Why on earth would Washington deliberately throw the US into yet another recession when we haven’t even recovered from the last one? They are doing so because of the so called long-term costs of the debt. They (both the Democrats and Republicans, albeit to different degrees) believe that unless we reduce the debt and deficit now, we will pay a price in the years to come, a price that outweighs the higher unemployment their actions will cause today. They are, however, dead wrong. Not only are their fears either completely unfounded or irrelevant given current circumstances, but trying to cut the deficit now would actually leave us in a situation where we would need an even larger one to extricate ourselves from the deep economic slump it will create.
To explain this, let me briefly review the long-run costs typically used to support the current efforts at deficit/debt reduction and show how each is much ado about nothing:
1. Higher debt levels raise the possibility of US default
Let’s get this one off the table right away. The US cannot possibly be forced to default on debt denominated in its own currency. This is a cold, hard fact, not a theory or conjecture. This should not be any part of the discussion whatsoever.
2. Debt burdens future generations
Not true. Government debt is a private sector asset and government deficits create private sector surpluses. Think about it this way: if there were only two people in the economy and one spent more than she earned, giving her a deficit, what must be true about the other? He must have earned more than he spent and thus has a surplus. Now replace “she” with “federal government” and “he” with “private sector” and you’ll see. Nor is there a day of reckoning when federal government debt must be reduced to zero. Thus, it will NOT be necessary to tax future generations in order to finance today’s deficit. Reducing the budget deficit reduces the private sector surplus and reducing debt destroys private sector assets.
3. Debt makes us slaves to foreign interests
First, see point 1. We cannot be forced to default. Second, when a country has net debt with respect to another nation, it’s because of a trade deficit not a budget deficit. Note further that if China does not buy our financial assets, they will no longer have a trade surplus because they will not have provided the credit necessary for us to buy more than we sold. It is therefore in their best interests to do so. And, to reiterate, debt to foreign nations has nothing to do with the budget deficit. Lowering the latter will not lower the former. read more
December 12, 2012 § Leave a comment
I’ll let you in on a secret: before this crisis, when I thought about the budget deficit I was like everyone else in that I paid no attention to how the government budget interacted with the private and trade sector balances. This is a big error. If you do that, you treat the government budget deficit in isolation, when the reality is that the government is an integral part of an open economy with households and businesses that trade domestically and abroad. When the government balance changes, the balances for those businesses and households change too. If you are talking about deficits then, you need to know how changes in the government balance affect the rest of the economy.
Here’s the thing: when we exchange goods and services with each other, from an accounting perspective, it’s a wash; if you buy my goods, I get money and you get goods of equivalent value. If you pay for those goods with an I.O.U., with a debt, your liability, your deficit in the year we made the transaction, is exactly equal to the asset on my balance sheet and my surplus for the year. I mean this is basic accounting, folks. There’s no hocus pocus. Any person’s, any household’s, any business’s, any group’s, any government’s debt is someone else’s asset. Any person’s, any household’s, any business’s, any group’s, any government’s deficit is someone else’s surplus. Again, it’s basic accounting.
Think of it like exchange traded options and the profit and losses on the exchange. People buy and sell oil futures or soybean futures. At the end of the option period, they either have a loss or a profit and that period’s deficit or surplus is exactly offset by the deficit or surplus of the counterparties. When you sum up these deficits and surpluses they net to zero. Again, no hocus pocus. That’s how accounting works.
The same is true for national accounts. At the end of any accounting period, then, the sum of the sectoral financial balances must net to zero. The government balance – the private balance – capital account balance = 0. The government balance = the private balance + the capital account balance. See my post Economics 101 on government budget deficits for the full write-up. I credit British economist Wynne Godley for making this identity relevant to macro economics.
What does all this mean then? Put simply, the financial sector balances framework means that when the government sector runs a deficit, the non-government sector runs a surplus of equivalent size. So, to move any sector balance in an open economy, you need to move the other two balances exactly opposite in equivalent measure. To reduce the government deficit in any period, the private balance and the capital balance must increase by the exact same amount in that period.
Thinking about government deficits this way opens a whole new understanding of what cutting deficits means for the economy. What it should mean to you is that deficits are the effect and not the cause. Budget deficits are the result of the ex-post accounting identity between the sectoral balances and should not be a primary goal of public policy. read more
PHOTOGRAPH: Francesca Woodman