From austerity to rebellion?

Robert Skidelsky, a Keynesian political economist, thus addressed the scourge of deficit mania:

This, the official doctrine of most developed countries today, contains at least five major fallacies, which pass largely unnoticed, because the narrative is so plausible.

First, governments, unlike private individuals, do not have to “repay” their debts. A government of a country with its own central bank and its own currency can simply continue to borrow by printing the money which is lent to it. This is not true of countries in the eurozone. But their governments do not have to repay their debts, either. If their (foreign) creditors put too much pressure on them, they simply default. Default is bad. But life after default goes on much as before.

Second, deliberately cutting the deficit is not the best way for a government to balance its books. Deficit reduction in a depressed economy is the road not to recovery, but to contraction, because it means cutting the national income on which the government’s revenues depend. This will make it harder, not easier, for it to cut the deficit. The British government already must borrow £112 billion ($172 billion) more than it had planned when it announced its deficit-reduction plan in June 2010.

Third, the national debt is not a net burden on future generations. Even if it gives rise to future tax liabilities (and some of it will), these will be transfers from taxpayers to bond holders. This may have disagreeable distributional consequences. But trying to reduce it now will be a net burden on future generations: income will be lowered immediately, profits will fall, pension funds will be diminished, investment projects will be canceled or postponed, and houses, hospitals, and schools will not be built. Future generations will be worse off, having been deprived of assets that they might otherwise have had.

Fourth, there is no connection between the size of national debt and the price that a government must pay to finance it. The interest rates that Japan, the United States, the UK, and Germany pay on their national debt are equally low, despite vast differences in their debt levels and fiscal policies.

Finally, low borrowing costs for governments do not automatically reduce the cost of capital for the private sector. After all, corporate borrowers do not borrow at the “risk-free” yield of, say, US Treasury bonds, and evidence shows that monetary expansion can push down the interest rate on government debt, but have hardly any effect on new bank lending to firms or households. In fact, the causality is the reverse: the reason why government interest rates in the UK and elsewhere are so low is that interest rates for private-sector loans are so high.

As with “the specter of Communism” that haunted Europe in Karl Marx’s famous manifesto, so today “[a]ll the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise” the specter of national debt. But statesmen who aim to liquidate the debt should recall another famous specter — the specter of revolution.

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