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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.

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If we could revive private lending, should we do it? Well, yes, up to a point there is good reason to have a robust private lending sector. Government is by nature centralized and policy driven. It works by law and regulation. Decentralized and competitive private banks have much more flexibility. A good banking system, run by capable people with good business judgment who know their clients, is good for the economy. The fact that you have to pay interest on a loan is also an important motivator of investment over consumption.

But right now, we don't have functional big banks. We have a cartel run by an incompetent plutocracy, with its long fingers deep in the pockets of the state. For functional credit to return, we'll have to reduce the unpayable private debts now outstanding, to restore private incomes (meaning: create jobs) and collateral (meaning: home values), and we'll have to restructure the big banks. We need to break them up, shrink the financial sector overall, expose and prosecute frauds, and create incentives for profitable lending in energy conservation, infrastructure and other sectors. Or we could create a new parallel banking system, as was done in the New Deal with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and its spinoffs, including the Home Owners' Loan Corporation and later Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Either way, until we have effective financial reform, public budget deficits are the only way toward economic growth. You don't have to like budget deficits to realize that we must have them, on whatever scale necessary to restore growth and jobs. And we will need them not just now but for a long while, until we've shaped a strategic program for investment, energy and the environment, financed in part by a reformed, restored and disciplined financial sector.

It's possible, of course, that all the deficit hysteria is intended to divert attention from the dysfunctions of private banking, and so to help thwart calls for financial reform. Is that giving them too much credit? Maybe. Maybe not.

James K. Galbraith is the author of The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too , and of a new preface to The Great Crash, 1929 , by John Kenneth Galbraith. He teaches at The University of Texas at Austin.