Washington refuses to understand that debt can be an essential tool for economic growth. Can we overcome this irrational and destructive fear?
Our national fear and misunderstanding of debt, deficits, and borrowing is understandable, given their role in the etiology of the Great Recession that continues to choke our economy. But such confusion is also terribly destructive. It helped lead us into the recession, and it’s preventing us from recovering from it.
Over the last decade, too many households, governments, firms, and banks borrowed recklessly, nudged by financial “innovations,” negligent underwriting, and pure disregard for their ability to meet the liabilities they were taking on. Then, in September 2008, the system snapped. One particularly overleveraged investment bank, Lehman Brothers, went bankrupt, and the global debt bubble popped. Millions of people lost, and continue to lose, their homes. Unemployment is rampant, and just under half of the unemployed have been jobless for more than half a year. The debt burdens of sovereign nations, Greece in particular, pose existential threats.
And yet policy-makers seem frozen in place, unwilling to take the necessary actions for one basic reason: doing so would mean deficit spending. Indeed, those at the helm in the advanced economies seem intent on shifting into reverse, pursuing austerity measures that, like medieval bleeding, only make the patient sicker. We recently inflicted more wounds on our already injured economy by arguing about whether or not to default on our own sovereign debt. This frustrating and destructive debate would have been a pitiful sideshow had it occurred during a period of full employment. For it to happen in the midst of the worst jobs crisis in decades amounts to malpractice by the policy-makers involved.
None of this was inevitable. A precious few economists warned of the housing bubble, which was the root cause of the recession. Had borrowers and lenders treated debt more responsibly, we arguably wouldn’t be stuck where we are today. Years ago, the economist Hyman Minsky warned about exactly the situation we were in before the bubble burst—the debt-driven instability of financial markets in economic expansions. Had we listened to him instead of Greenspanian notions of “self-correcting markets,” we’d also be a lot better off.
In other words, there are very high opportunity costs to misunderstanding and misusing debt, both in booms and busts. Economists have a solid understanding and story about the “identities” involved in public debt—the basic relations among deficits, savings, and debt. But we disagree on their implications. Financial market participants seem to regularly relearn lessons regarding the instability cycle associated with overleveraging, a cycle identified by Minsky years ago. Politicians deeply fret (and scaremonger) about deficits and debt, while neither exhibiting much of an understanding of their functions nor doing much about them. In some cases, these pols are motivated by an ideological strategy to shrink government, but in others, they fail to understand important nuances regarding the purpose, timing, and magnitude of public borrowing.
We clearly need a better understanding of the role of and threats associated with debt, which means internalizing a crucial point: Controlling for the state of the economy and assuming mature capital markets and the ability to service the debt burden (and those are not unrealistic assumptions—they exist in this and most other advanced economies), there’s little empirical evidence that we should be particularly alarmed at “high,” yet stable, levels of federal debt, such as the current U.S. level of around 70 percent of GDP. On the other hand, if you can’t effectively and reliably tax your citizens, as in Greece, any level of debt is a foundational threat. (Note that I distinguish between levels and trends here. The projection that under current policy the federal government will, year in and year out, spend a lot more than it takes in is obviously unsustainable.)
We need to take a “debt sobriety pledge.” We need the insight and wisdom to understand when borrowing is useful and productive and when it’s reckless. For governments, that means getting past irrational or ideological fear of borrowing, especially at a time like the present. For households, it means not substituting unsustainable borrowing for income growth. For financial markets, it’s recognizing the predictable tendency toward instability and the necessity of regulation.
I cannot emphasize enough the stakes of getting this right, and quickly. Global credit markets are behaving exactly as we would expect, offering historically low borrowing costs to finance the essential fiscal expansion that must take place if we are to avoid the mistakes of Japan in the 1980s and Europe now. But conservatives use debt aversion as a weapon in the ideological fight to shrink government, while too many liberals essentially agree, arguing for perhaps smaller cuts.
The First Step: Understanding Debt
The concept of debt is so poorly understood that it makes sense to start from first principles. Debt is what a person, firm, or government accrues when it borrows financial resources from a lender to be paid back over time. In the case of so-called sovereign debt—that of governments—there are a few wrinkles. When government outlays surpass receipts, the difference over the course of a year is known as the annual deficit. And when you add up all the deficits we’ve run since we became a nation and subtract the occasional surpluses, you’re left with the debt.
Personal and corporate debt are also straightforward. A family might borrow to invest in a child’s education. A startup needs physical capital—machines, offices, computers—and might borrow to finance those purchases, as does a factory owner upgrading aging machines. These are investments—that is, they are expected to return a stream of payments, a stream from which debt liability will be serviced. But households, firms, and governments also borrow to boost short-term consumption, to meet payrolls, or to pay the annual Medicare bill.
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