Economy

Paul Krugman on the Real Reason Behind the Deficit Panic and the Terrible Damage It Has Wrought

'The debt apocalypse has been called off.'

Photo Credit: via youtube

Paul Krugman attacks the recent, years-long panic over the national debt and deficits in today's column reminding readers that this once relentless topic in the news has pretty much disappeared from view. And for good reason, Krugman says, "The whole thing turns out to have been a false alarm."

There was a time not so long ago when it was all you could read or hear about. The media and politicians of both stripes kept sounding the alarm over budget deficits and rising debts. Very serious people said the U.S. would soon turn into Greece unless something was done. Obama tried to strike a "Grand Bargain" with Congress for a balanced budget. But, of course, this Congress does not bargain—refuses to raise taxes—and no deal was struck.

Writes Krugman:

I’m not sure whether most readers realize just how thoroughly the great fiscal panic has fizzled — and the deficit scolds are, of course, still scolding. They’re even trying to spin the latest long-term projections from the Congressional Budget Office — which are distinctly non-alarming — as somehow a confirmation of their earlier scare tactics. So this seems like a good time to offer an update on the debt disaster that wasn’t.

About those projections: The budget office predicts that this year’s federal deficit will be just 2.8 percent of G.D.P., down from 9.8 percent in 2009. It’s true that the fact that we’re still running a deficit means federal debt in dollar terms continues to grow — but the economy is growing too, so the budget office expects the crucial ratio of debt to G.D.P. to remain more or less flat for the next decade.

Krugman goes on to responsibly inform readers that things will get more complicated after about a decade as an aging population makes increasing demands on Medicare and Social Security. But, on the plus side, healthcare costs have dramatically slowed down, which none of the doomsday prognosticators saw coming. Krugman writes:

As a result, despite aging, debt in 2039 — a quarter-century from now! — is projected to be no higher, as a percentage of G.D.P., than the debt America had at the end of World War II, or that Britain had for much of the 20th century. Oh, and the budget office now expects interest rates to remain fairly low, not much higher than the economy’s rate of growth. This in turn weakens, indeed almost eliminates, the risk of a debt spiral, in which the cost of servicing debt drives debt even higher.

OK, but still, Krugman allows, rising debt is not good. He also points out that it would take "surprisingly little" to avoid it. 

The budget office estimates that stabilizing the ratio of debt to G.D.P. at its current level would require spending cuts and/or tax hikes of 1.2 percent of G.D.P. if we started now, or 1.5 percent of G.D.P. if we waited until 2020. Politically, that would be hard given total Republican opposition to anything a Democratic president might propose, but in economic terms it would be no big deal, and wouldn’t require any fundamental change in our major social programs.

In short, the debt apocalypse has been called off.

So, having cleared up the economics, Krugman turns to the real reasons behind the fiscal panic. It is, as you might have imagined, politically and ideologically motivated. So much so that conservative thinkers like Alan Greenspan have expressed disappointment that the Greece-style crisis never arrived. Even in Europe, the crisis was dealt with rather quickly, in fact, "once the European Central Bank began doing its job, making it clear it would do 'whatever it takes' to avoid cash crises in nations that have given up their own currencies and adopted the euro," Krugman illuminates. "Did you know that Italy, which remains deep in debt and suffers much more from the burden of an aging population than we do, can now borrow long term at an interest rate of only 2.78 percent? Did you know that France, which is the subject of constant negative reporting, pays only 1.57 percent?"
 
No, that story is not told here. Nor is the simple fact that we do not have a debt crisis. Why is that? Krugman suspects that it has served a political purpose, namely  it suited those powerful conservative interests that want to dismantle Social Security and Medicare. That desire in itself is cruel and irresponsible enough, but these deficit hawks also did a lot of collateral damage along the way, distracting all of us from real problems like unemployment and decaying infractructure and climate change for far too many years. 
 
And who is going to pay for that?
 
 

 

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