The Sham of “Fiscal Responsibility” in Public Policy

The budgets of a government are different in nature than the budgets of a family, yet it seems that few media and political elites seem to understand this. A sovereign government can for example create more currency (which doesn’t necessarily lead to more inflation, per the quantity theory of money) for various initiatives, an option legally unavailable for personal families.

It’s official: New York Times columnist David Leonhardt pronounced the Democrats as the party of fiscal responsibility. In contrast to three of the last four Republican presidents who raised deficits with big tax cuts for the rich and increases in military spending, the last Democratic presidents sharply reduced the budget deficit during their term in office.

Leonhardt obviously intends the designation to be praise for the party, but it really shows his confusion about budget deficits and their impact on the economy. Unfortunately, this confusion is widely shared.

Contrary to what Leonhardt seems to think, the economy doesn’t get a gold star for a balanced budget or lower deficit. In fact, lower deficits can inflict devastating damage on the economy by reducing demand, leading to millions of workers needlessly unemployed.

This has a permanent cost as many of the long-term unemployed may lose their attachment to the labor market and never work again. Their children will also pay a big price as children of unemployed parent(s) tend to fare worse in life by a wide variety of measures, especially when unemployment is associated with family breakup, frequent moves and possible evictions. Also, lower levels of output will mean less investment, making the economy less productive in the future.

We actually have some basis for estimating the cost of long periods where the economy suffers from insufficient demand. If we compare the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) projections for potential GDP in 2018 made before the Great Recession, with their current projections, the gap is more than $2 trillion, or 10 percent of GDP.

That loss comes to more than $15,000 a year for every household in the country. In other words, the CBO’s projections imply that if we had managed to sustain high levels of demand in 2008 and subsequent years, rather than falling into a severe recession with a weak recovery, the annual income of the average household would be $15,000 a year higher.

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Balanced Budget Amendment Would be a Disaster

If you want to see how horribly austerity works for the general population, look what’s happened to Europe. Deficits create demand somewhere in the economy, and removing the ability to run them would be horrifying, especially in recessions.

The House is set to take up a balanced budget amendment this week, which would limit federal spending in each fiscal year to federal receipts in that year. Putting aside for a moment the chutzpah of House Republicans trying to pass a balanced budget amendment (BBA) just a few months removed from their passage of a $1.5 trillion tax cut that went largely to the richest households and big corporations, the simple fact is that the economic consequences of a balanced budget amendment range from extremely bad to catastrophic. The reason for this is that a BBA would amplify any negative economic shock to the economy and would thereby turn run-of-the-mill recessions into disasters.

When the economy enters a recession, government deficits increase as tax revenues decline and government spending on programs such as unemployment insurance increase. These “automatic stabilizers” are incredibly important as they cushion the blow to the economy from a recession. For example, researchers at Goldman Sachs found that the shock to private sector spending from the bursting of the housing bubble was larger than the shock that led to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Given this larger initial shock, why didn’t we have another Great Depression, with unemployment rates approaching 20 percent and beyond, in 2009–10? The simple reason is that the mechanical increase in the deficit from tax reductions and increased transfer payments absorbed a lot (not enough, but a lot) of this shock, and automatic stabilizers were either non-existent or a lot smaller in the 1930s. Having these programs in place to absorb recessionary shocks is one of the great economic advances of the past 80 years—and getting rid of them by imposing a BBA makes as much sense as outlawing computers or antibiotics.

Government Budget Deficits as Overblown Concerns

Government budget deficits can actually be beneficial if the spending that results in them is in the public interest. This is contrasted with large trade deficits, however, which in wealthy countries have a negative impact on demand in the economy. Both of these truths are important to know for public policy debates.

There are three ways in which deficits or debt can be seen as a problem. First, large deficits can overheat the economy leading to high interest rates or high inflation. Second, a large debt can impose a significant interest burden on the government and implicitly on future taxpayers. The third way is that excessive indebtedness can cause a country to become uncreditworthy, making it difficult or impossible to finance the government. None of these issues plausibly apply to the United States at present.

The first point is the classic story in which large amounts of government borrowing pulls capital away from the private sector. This would be bad news because businesses and state and local governments would have to pay higher interest rates, which would reduce their investment. With less investment, we would see less productivity growth, which would mean that we would be poorer in the future.

There are times when excessive deficits may crowd out investment, but this is clearly not one of them. Interest rates are extraordinarily low. In fact, they are far lower than in the years at the end 1990s when we were running surpluses.

There also is no evidence that excessive spending has led to inflation. The Federal Reserve Board has been struggling for most of the last decade to raise an inflation rate it views as too low.

The second issue is that the debt service — the amount of interest that we pay on the debt each year — will impose a large burden requiring either higher taxes or cuts in other spending or some combination. There also is no basis for this concern at present.

The interest that the government pays on its debt each year comes to around 1.0 percent of GDP, after we subtract the amount that was paid to the Federal Reserve Board and then refunded back to the Treasury. By comparison, the interest burden was more than 3.0 percent of GDP at the start of the 1990s.

It is also worth noting that the much larger interest burden of the 1990s did not prevent us from having a very prosperous decade. In other words, there is a long way to go before we face any serious problem by this measure.

Finally, there is the argument that we could end up in the same situation as Greece was in a few years back, where no one wants to lend money to the U.S. government. There are two major reasons the United States will not end up like Greece.

First, we borrow in our own currency. The U.S. prints dollars; we don’t have to worry about being able to borrow them. By contrast, Greece borrowed in euros, which it did not print.

This brings up the second point; we could print so much money that we face hyperinflation, like Zimbabwe did in the last decade. In principle, that could happen, but the problem in that case would be having a weak economy, not having a large debt. As long as the U.S. economy remains strong and grows at a respectable pace, we will never end up like Zimbabwe.

If we need proof of this fact, we need only look at Japan. The country has a debt that is two-and-a-half times as large as the U.S. debt relative to the size of its economy. Nonetheless, it can borrow long-term at a near zero interest rate. Its inflation rate has also been near zero as the government has been desperately trying to increase inflation for the last two decades.

In short, the country has many real problems. Tens of millions of young people struggle to pay for college. Young parents struggle to pay for quality child care and tens of millions of people have inadequate health care insurance.

These are all issues that deserve our attention. The federal debt is just a huge distraction.