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Monday, January 9, 2012

Too much debt or not enough demand? A summary of the debate over America’s fiscal future

Economics in Plain English
For students and teachers of Economics


Too much debt or not enough demand? A summary of the debate over America’s fiscal future

Published by at 2:33 pm under AD/AS Model,Budget deficit,Consumer confidence,Cost/Benefit Analysis,Crowding-out Effect,Economic Growth,Financial markets,Fiscal Policy,Government,History,Interest rates,Investment,Keynesian Economics,National debt,Recession,Supply-side economics,Unemployment

As yet another school year begins, we once again find ourselves returning to an atmosphere of economic uncertainty, sluggish growth, and heated debate over how to return the economies of the United States and Europe back onto a growth trajectory. In the last couple of weeks alone the US government has barely avoided a default on its national debt, ratings agencies have downgraded US government bonds, global stock markets have tumbled, confidence in the Eurozone has been pummeled over fears of larger than expected deficits in Italy and Greece, and the US dollar has reached historic lows against currencies such as the Swiss Franc and the Japanese Yen.

What are we to make of all this turmoil? I will not pretend I can offer a clear explanation to all this chaos, but I can offer here a little summary of the big debate over one of the issues above: the debate over the US national debt and what the US should be doing right now to assure future economic and financial stability.

There are basically two sides to this debate, one we will refer to as the “demand-side” and one we will call the “supply-side”. On the demand-side you have economists like Paul Krugman, and in Washington the left wing of the Democratic party, who believe that America’s biggest problem is a lack of aggregate demand.

Supply-siders, on the other hand, are worried more about the US national debt, which currently stands around 98% of US GDP, and the budget deficit, which this year is around $1.5 trillion, or 10% of GDP. Every dollar spent by the US government beyond what it collects in taxes, argue the supply-siders, must be borrowed, and the cost of borrowing is the interest the government (i.e. taxpayers) have to pay to those buying government bonds. The larger the deficit, the larger the debt burden and the more that must be paid in interest on this debt. Furthermore, increased debt leads to greater uncertainty about the future and the expectation that taxes will have to be raised sometime down the road, thus creating an environment in which firms and households will postpone spending, prolonging the period of economic slump.

The demand-siders, however, believe that debt is only a problem if it grows more rapidly than national income, and in the US right now income growth is almost zero, meaning that the growing debt will pose a greater threat over time due to the slow growth in income. Think of it this way, if I owe you $98 and I only earn $100, then that $98 is a BIG DEAL. But if my income increases to $110 and my debt grows to $100, that is not as big a deal. Yes, I owe you more money, but I am also earning more money, so the debt burden has actually decreased.

In order to get US income to grow, say the demand-siders, continued fiscal and monetary stimulus are needed. With the debt deal struck two weeks ago, however, the US government has vowed to slash future spending by $2.4 trillion, effectively doing the opposite of what the demand-siders would like to see happen, pursuing fiscal contraction rather than expansion. As government spending grows less in the future than it otherwise would have, employment will fall and incomes will grow more slowly, or worse, the US will enter a second recession, meaning even lower incomes in the future, causing a the debt burden to grow.

Now let’s consider the supply-side argument. The supply-siders argue that America’s biggest problem is not the lack of demand, rather it is the debt itself. Every borrowed dollar spent by the goverment, say the supply-siders, is a dollar taken out of the private sector’s pocket. As government spending continues to grow faster than tax receipts, the government must borrow more and more from the private sector, and in order to attract lenders, interest on government bonds must be raised. Higher interest paid on government debt leads to a flow of funds into the public sector and away from the private sector, causing borrowing costs to rise for everyone else. In IB and AP Economics, this phenomenon is known as the crowding-out effect: Public sector borrowing crowds out private sector investment, slowing growth and leading to less overall demand in the economy.

Additionally, argue the supply-siders, the increase in debt required for further stimulus will only lead to the expectation among households and firms of future increases in tax rates, which will be necessary to pay down the higher level of debt sometime in the future. The expectation of future tax hikes will be enough to discourage current consumption and investment, so despite the increase in government spending now, the fall in private sector confidence will mean less investment and consumption, so aggregate demand may not even grow if we do borrow and spend today!

This debate is not a new one. The demand-side / supply-side battle has raged for nearly a century, going back to the Great Depression when the prevailing economic view was that the cause of the global economic crisis was unbalanced budgets and too much foreign competition. In the early 30′s governments around the world cut spending, raised taxes and erected new barriers to trade in order to try and fix their economic woes. The result was a deepening of the depression and a lost decade of economic activity, culminating in a World War that led to a massive increase in demand and a return to full employment. Let’s hope that this time around the same won’t be necessary to end our global economic woes.

Recently, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria had two of the leading voices in this economic debate on his show to share their views on what is needed to bring the US and the world out of its economic slump. Princeton’s Paul Krugman, a proud Keynesian, spoke for the demand-side, while Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff represented the supply-side. Watch the interview below (up to 24:40), read my notes summarizing the two side’s arguments, and answer the questions that follow.

Summary of Krugman’s argument:

  • Despite the downgrade by Standard & Poor’s (a ratings agency) there appears to be strong demand for US government bonds right now, meaning really low borrowing costs (interest rates) for the US government.
  • This means investors are not afraid of what S&P is telling them to be afraid of, and are more than happy to lend money to the US government at low interest rates.
  • Investors are fleeing from equities (stocks in companies), and buying US bonds because US debt is the safest asset out there. The market is saying that the downgrade may lead to more contractionary policies, hurting the real economy. Investors are afraid of contractionary fiscal policy, so are sending a message to Washington that it should spend more now.
  • The really scary thing is the prospect of another Great Depression.
  • Can fiscal stimulus succeed in an environment of large amounts of debt held by the private sector? YES, says Krugman, the government can sustain spending to maintain employment and output, which leads to income growth and makes it easier for the private sector to pay down their debt.
  • With 9% unemployment and historically high levels of long-term unemployment, we should be addressing the employment problem first. We should throw everything we can at increasing employment and incomes.
  • Is there some upper limit to the national debt? Krugman says the deficit and debt are high, but we must consider costs versus benefits: The US can borrow money and repay in constant dollars (inflation adjusted) less than it borrowed. There must be projects the federal government could undertake with at least a constant rate of return that could get workers employed. If the world wants to buy US bonds, let’s borrow now and invest for the future!
  • If we discovered that space aliens were about to attack and we needed a massive military buildup to protect ourselves from invasion, inflation and budget deficits would be a secondary concern to that and the recession would be over in 18 months.
  • We have so many hypothetical risks (inflation, bond market panic, crowding out, etc…) that we are afraid to tackle the actual challenge that is happening (unemployment, deflation, etc..) and we are destroying a lot of lives to protect ourselves from these “phantom threats”.
  • The thing that’s holding us back right now in the US is private sector debt. Yes we won’t have a self-sustaining recovery until private sector debt comes down, at least relative to incomes. Therefore we need policies that make income grow, which will reduce the burden of private debt.
  • The idea that we cannot do anything to grow until private debt comes down on its own is flawed… increase income, decrease debt burden!
  • Things that we have no evidence for that are supposed to be dangerous are not a good reason not to pursue income growth policies.
  • When it comes down to it, there just isn’t enough spending in the economy!

Summary of Rogoff’s argument:

  • The downgrade was well justified, and the reason for the demand for treasuries is that they look good compared to the other options right now.
  • There is a panic going on as investors adjust to lower growth expectations, due to lack of leadership in the US and Europe.
  • This is not a classical recession, rather a “Great Contraction”: Recessions are periodic, but a financial crisis like this is unusual, this is the 2nd Great Contraction since the Depresssion. It’s not output and employment, but credit and housing which are contracting, due to the “debt overhang”.
  • If you look at a contraction, it can take up to 4 or 5 years just to get back where you started.
  • This is not a double dip recession, because we never left the first one.
  • Rogoff thinks continued fiscal stimulus would worsen the debt overhang because it leads to the expectation of future tax increases, thus causing firms and households increased uncertainty and reduces future growth.
  • If we used our credit to help facilitate a plan to bring down the mortgage debt (debt held by the private sector), Rogoff would consider that a better option than spending on employment and output. Fix the debt problem, and spending will resume.
  • Rogoff thinks we should not assume that interest rates of US debt will last indefinitely. Infrastructure spending, if well spent, is great, but he is suspicious whether the government is able to target its spending so efficiently to make borrowing the money worthwhile.
  • Rogoff thinks if government invests in productive projects, stimulus is a good idea, but “digging ditches” will not fix the economy.
  • Until we get the debt levels down, we cannot get back to robust growth.
  • It’s because of the government’s debt that the private sector is worried about where the country’s going. If we increase the debt to finance more stimulus, there will be more uncertainty, higher interest rates, possibly inflation, and prolonged stagnation in output and incomes.
  • When it comes down to it, there is just too much debt in the economy!

Discussion Question:

  1. What is the fundamental difference between the two arguments being debated above? Both agree that the national debt is a problem, but where do the two economists differ on how to deal with the debt?
  2. The issues of “digging ditches and filling them in” comes up in the discussion. What is the context of this metaphor? What are the two economists views on the effectiveness of such projects?
  3. Following the debate, Fareed Zakaria talks about the reaction in China to S&P’s downgrade of US debt. What does he think about the popular demands in China for the government to pull out of the market for US government bonds?
  4. Explain what Zakaria means when he describes the relationship between the US and China as “Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)”.
  5. Should the US government pursue a second stimulus and directly try to stimulate employment and income? Or should it continue down the path to austerity, cutting government programs to try and balance its budget?

About the author: Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

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