comments_image Comments

In Defense of Deficits

The deficit phobia of Wall Street, the media, politicians and some economists is one of the deepest dangers that we face -- and it threatens all of us.

Continued from previous page


What about indebtedness to foreigners? True, foreigners do us a favor by buying our bonds. To acquire them, China must export goods to us, not offset by equivalent imports. That is a cost to China. It's a cost Beijing is prepared to pay, for its own reasons: export industries promote learning, technology transfer and product quality improvement, and they provide jobs to migrants from the countryside. But that's China's business.

For China, the bonds themselves are a sterile hoard. There is almost nothing that Beijing can do with them. China already imports all the commodities and machinery and aircraft it can use -- if it wanted more, it would buy them now. So unless China changes its export policy, its stock of T bonds will just go on growing. And we will pay interest on it, not with real effort but by typing numbers into computers. There is no burden associated with this, not now and not later. (If the Chinese hoard the interest, they also don't help much with job creation here. So the fact that we're buying a lot of goods from China simply means we have to be more imaginative, and bolder, if we want to create all the jobs we need.) Finally, could China dump its dollars? In principle it could, substituting Greek bonds for American and overpriced euros for cheap dollars. On brief reflection, no Beijing bureaucrat is likely to think this a smart move.

What is true of government as a whole is also true of particular programs. Social Security and Medicare are government programs; they cannot go bankrupt, and they cannot fail to meet their obligations unless Congress decides--say on the recommendation of the Simpson-Bowles Commission -- to cut the benefits they provide. The exercise of linking future benefits and projected payroll tax revenues is an accounting farce, done for political reasons. That farce was started by FDR as a way of protecting Social Security from cuts. But it has become a way of creating needless anxiety about these programs and of precluding sensible reforms, like expanding Medicare to those 55 and older, or even to the whole population.

Social Security and Medicare are transfer programs. What they do, mainly, is move resources around within our society at a given time. The principal transfer is not from the young to the old, since even without Social Security the old would still be around and someone would have to support them. Rather, Social Security pools resources, so that the work of the young collectively supports the senior population. The effective transfer is from parents who have children who would otherwise support them (a fairly rare thing), to seniors who don't. And it is from workers who do not have parents to support, to workers who would otherwise have to support their parents. In both cases this burden sharing is fair, progressive and sustainable. There is a health-care cost problem, as everyone knows, but that's not a Medicare problem. It should not be solved by cutting back on health care for the old. Social Security and Medicare also replace private insurance with cheap and efficient public administration. This is another reason these programs are the hated targets, decade after decade, of the worst predators on Wall Street.

Public deficits and private lending are reciprocal. Increased private lending generates new tax revenue and smaller deficits; that's what happened in the 1990s. A credit collapse kills the tax base and generates more spending; that's what's happening now, and our big deficits are the accounting counterpart of the massive decline, last year, in private bank loans. The only choice is what kind of deficit to run -- useful deficits that rebuild the country, as in the New Deal, or useless ones, with millions kept unnecessarily on unemployment insurance when they could instead be given jobs.