Posts Tagged ‘national debt’

Tear down the debt ceiling!

3 January 2011

Ex-Reagan Administration official Bruce Bartlett makes some excellent points about Congress’s annual vote on whether to raise the debt ceiling:

  1. it’s superfluous (no other country, as far as he could tell, has such a ritual)
  2. it’s at best a distraction
  3. it allows policymakers to vote for budget-busting tax cuts, wars, new entitlements, etc., while pretending to be deficit hawks because they voted against raising the debt ceiling
  4. worst of all, if the debt-ceiling resolution ever did get voted down, as some Republicans* are eager to do, the USA would immediately have to start defaulting on Treasury bonds as they came due.  Two hundred and twenty years of building the world’s best credit rating would be undone in a flash.

(Hat tip: WSJ Real Time Economics)

Of course, as Paul Krugman pointed out recently, in nearly all cases, “Deficit hawkery is just a stick with which to beat down social programs.” So if the object of the game is to whale away at social programs, losing the nation’s stellar credit rating would be worth it. At least on paper. “Deficit hawk” is too tame a phrase to describe a person who would favor such a strategy — “fiscal Armageddonist” is more like it.

*Ironically placed next to Bartlett’s blog post was an ad by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Mageddon) to “Tell Congress – Don’t Raise the Debt Ceiling.”

P.S. “Waiting for the End of the World” always sounds better live:

Advertisements

Selective-attention deficit disorder

15 June 2009
debt/gdp ratio

debt/gdp ratio

So who’s the party of fiscal responsibility again?  That mantle seems to be claimed by whichever party does not occupy the White House.  In the late 1970s, Ronald Reagan and other Republicans charged that Jimmy Carter’s deficits (although puny in retrospect) were inflationary and needed to be stopped.  As president in the 1980s, Reagan presided over the largest deficits ever (in absolute terms) and the first-ever major peacetime increase of the national debt-to-GDP ratio in history.   Leading Democrats pounded him for the deficits, and Reagan swatted them away as “born-again budget balancers.”  Dick Cheney said later (quoted in one of the Bush 43 administration tell-all books), “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.”  Economists by and large weren’t buying it, but aside from relatively high real interest rates and relatively low levels of business investment, the economy was prospering as it hadn’t in two decades, and Democratic attacks on Republican deficits found little traction.  Just ask Walter Mondale.

As we can see from the red line in the diagram, courtesy of my former professor Willem Buiter, the debt/GDP ratio (our best measure of the overall burden of federal deficits and debt):

  • mostly fell during the 1970s, as appears to be the norm for the economy in peacetime (at least in non-recession years);
  • more than doubled during the 1980s and all through Bush 41’s presidency, from about 24% to 54%, likely due to tax cuts, the Reagan military buildup, and the growth of health care costs and entitlements spending;
  • fell sharply during the Clinton years to about 34% in 2000, likely due mostly to the booming economy and the post-USSR “peace dividend”;
  • rose sharply in the Bush 43 presidency, likely due initially to the 2001 recession, tax cuts, and Medicare prescription drug expansion, then to the Iraq and Afghan wars, rising health care and entitlement costs, the aging of the population (including early baby boomer retirements), and of course the 2008 recession and bank bailouts.

So what? you ask . . .

(more…)

Printing money?

10 June 2009

Trivia question:  How much money has the Federal Reserve printed in its entire ninety-five-year history?

Answer:  $0.  The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, part of the federal government’s Department of the Treasury, prints all the money.  And none of those bills become “money” (i.e., part of the money supply, M1 or M2) until they’re held by the public anyway.

Am I being pedantic?  After all, those dollar bills are “Federal Reserve Notes” and are delivered to the twelve Federal Reserve Banks upon request.   I don’t think it’s pedantic, though, as there’s a world of difference between printing money and dropping it from a helicopter (as described in countless economics classrooms and which would be very inflationary) and how those bills actually do hit the street (generally not covered in econ classes, an omission that has always mystified me*, and which is not so inflationary).

Anyway, what brought on this post is the constant chatter in the media and the blogosphere about how the government or the Fed is printing money.   (Of course this chatter is most pronounced on the right.  The three minutes I heard of Limbaugh’s show this year were devoted to some witless sarcasm about we should all be allowed to print counterfeit money because the government is already doing it.  Har de har.)

(more…)

The phantom inflation menace, and a credit crunch update

30 May 2009

Krugman has it right here, in yesterday’s NYT. I’d been planning a post on the recent spate of fear-mongering about the deficit, and Krugman covers a lot of the same ground.  One of the arguments against deficits is that they may lead to high inflation down the road, if the government leans on the central bank to “inflate away the debt” (i.e., jack up the price level so as to reduce the real burden of the national debt), but Krugman notes that there are precious few such examples in recent (post-WWII) history.  He concludes:

‘. . . it’s hard to escape the sense that the current inflation fear-mongering is partly political, coming largely from economists who had no problem with deficits caused by tax cuts but suddenly became fiscal scolds when the government started spending money to rescue the economy. And their goal seems to be to bully the Obama administration into abandoning those rescue efforts.

‘Needless to say, the president should not let himself be bullied. The economy is still in deep trouble and needs continuing help.

‘Yes, we have a long-run budget problem, and we need to start laying the groundwork for a long-run solution. But when it comes to inflation, the only thing we have to fear is inflation fear itself.’

(more…)