Insights & Advice

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Does our debt really matter?

The country’s national debt hovers at historically record highs, as the nation’s budget battle begins. It’s a pretty safe bet to expect another budget-busting compromise as well as a hefty increase to our already-overwhelming debt load.

At times like this I wonder whether Americans are facing the prospect that someday the United States could be the world’s largest impoverished nation, and if so, does it really matter?

Last week’s column examined the subject of debt, both private and domestic, and how large it has become. This week, I begin by asking why debt matters at all? On a personal level, we know the answer, but what about the nation?

Debt has been a popular whipping boy for economists and politicians in this country for decades. At times, one or the other political party has found it expedient to become a champion of economic sobriety. Of course, once they recapture control of the government purse strings, they pretend amnesia.

The Republicans, for example, spent eight years fighting the Democrats under President Obama on every dollar of proposed spending, except defense. Their argument back then was that any spending would increase the public debt and make it impossible to balance the budget. Republicans even refused to approve funding for our national debt limit and actually shut down the government in defense of what they called fiscal responsibility.

Fast forward to 2016-2018, when the same party (and the exact same politicians) added more debt to the country than at any time in our history, while throwing the budget into the red by trillions of dollars. The president’s recent budget proposal only adds more fuel to our fiscal fire.

According to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), debt under the President’s budget would rise from 77 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2017 to 82 percent in 2022 before falling to 73 percent of GDP by 2028. OMB also projects the deficit will rise from 3.5 percent of GDP ($665 billion) in 2017 to 4.7 percent of GDP ($984 billion) by 2019, and then decline to 1.1 percent of GDP ($363 billion) by 2028.

Given that the supposed “fiscally conservative party” has thrown in the towel on spending and debt, is it too much to hope that the liberals (read Democrats) might have a sudden attack of conscience and discover fiscal responsibility? Don’t hold your breath.

In fact, over the past few weeks, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has once again caught the attention of certain politicians in Congress and on the 2020 campaign trail. What exactly is MMT?

It is an old economic idea that periodically comes to the forefront and has, from time to time, attracted the attention of mostly liberal politicians. It does so, in my opinion, because some of its tenets fit their vision of what government and the economy should be all about.

In essence, MMT argues that if you have borrowed money (increased your debt) in your domestic currency (in this case the dollar), which is the currency that you as a government create, then you can always pay back your claims. How? By simply printing more money. Sounds simple, right?

The problem is that the United States, or any other country, does not exist in a vacuum. For every action, there is a reaction There are ramifications for piling on more and more debt and printing vast mountains of money to pay for it. The Weimar Republic tried that back before WWII, and so did Zimbabwe less than a decade ago. It resulted in hyperinflation, destitution and political unrest.

Nonetheless, if you believe government has the right and the responsibility to provide health care for all, or full employment through a federally-mandated jobs program, or any other big government spending program, then MMT has some appealing features. The MMT proponents argue that the country’s central bank would be the locomotive for such programs by simply printing more money, and raising more debt, which, in turn, would finance such programs.

If, as critics argue, that causes our debt to skyrocket and inflation to explode upward someday, then it would be up to Congress to deal with it by raising taxes (to pay down debt), while tightening fiscal policy (to put a lid on inflation by slowing the economy). It would, in essence, turn our economic and financial world upside down, while leaving it to the politicians to make the hard, politically unpopular choices when necessary. Raise your hand if you would have confidence in such a system.

MMT, which has never been proven, nor completely understood as an economic theory, continues to look for a home among politicians and others. It is now being used in some quarters as economic justification for the financial expansion of a new welfare state. Does that surprise you?

In a country where partisan politics, extreme income inequality, and increasingly radical attitudes and ideas (fostered and fueled by our elected officials) are in every headline and tweet, is it any wonder that ideas like this would find increased backing by a polarized society?

Posted in A Few Dollars More, Macroeconomics