You are browsing the archive for debt-to-GDP ratio.

The Five Worst Reasons Why the National Debt Should Matter To You: Part Four, The Three Real Reasons

2:15 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

This is the concluding post in a four part series on the “Top” reasons why the national debt should matter. In Part One, I considered “Fix the Debt’s” claim that high levels of debt cause high unemployment and argued that this is a false claim. In Part Two, I followed with a review of the historical record from 1930 to the present and showed that it refutes this claim throughout this period, and that there is not even one Administration where the evidence doesn’t contradict “Fix the Debt’s” theory. In Part Three I showed that the other four reasons advanced by “Fix the Debt” also had very little going for them. In this part, I’ll give reasons why the national debt does matter, and why we should fix it without breaking America, or causing people to suffer. Read the rest of this entry →

The Five Worst Reasons Why the National Debt Should Matter To You: Part Three, The Other Four Worst Reasons

3:06 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In Part One of this series, I considered “Fix the Debt’s” claim that high levels of debt cause high unemployment and gave a few reasons why this is a false claim. In Part Two, I followed with a review of the historical record from 1930 to the present and showed that it refutes this claim throughout this period, and that there is not even one Administration where the evidence doesn’t contradict “Fix the Debts” theory. In this part I’ll continue my examination of the other four “top reasons” why “Fix the Debt” insists that the National Debt should matter to you.

2. Debt means more expensive consumer credit: home, auto, student loans, as well as credit cards.

Growing federal debt can drive up interest rates throughout the American economy. That means higher interest rates for people across the country who may be taking out loans for a home, a new car or truck, to pay down credit card cards or for education costs. Higher interest costs mean they will all be more expensive, resulting in higher monthly payments.

Response: This is a proverbial red herring. Interest rates in the United States aren’t determined by private markets, they’re determined primarily by the Federal Reserve, or by the Fed in collaboration with the Treasury. That is not to say that markets can’t drive up interest rates if the Fed does nothing about it. But if the Fed chooses to take counteraction, then it can determine the term structure of interest rates across the Board.

3. Delaying action on the national debt means it will be much more difficult to protect Medicare and Social Security from abrupt, severe, and widespread cuts in the future on all beneficiaries.

Social Security’s disability program will exhaust its assets in 2016, the overall Social Security trust funds will be exhausted in 2033, and the Medicare Trust Fund will run out in 2026. Some of those dates may seem like a long time away, but if we want to protect beneficiaries who rely on these programs from severe and abrupt cuts – especially the elderly who have used up all their savings and other vulnerable groups – we need to start taking gradual steps now.

Response: All of this is false. It assumes that we will fund safety net programs in the way we do today, by continuing to issue debt, and it also assumes that continuing to issue debt and having higher levels of debt are problems for a fiat sovereign. They’re not! Fiat sovereigns can continue to deficit spend regardless of their debt or debt-to-GDP ratio levels. And if we want to get rid of or reduce debt for political reasons, then Congress needs to guarantee annual funding for these programs in perpetuity and for the Executive to ensure that funds are there by using Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS), to supply the reserves to cover appropriated deficit spending.

Even if these alternatives aren’t available right now, however, it still makes no sense to cut safety net programs now, based on some long-range projections that may never come to pass. If people really will have to suffer later, because Congress and the Executive are refusing to use their power to remove the need for any suffering at all, then why should we, the people just accept that?

Much better to get ourselves a new Congress and a new President who will do what’s needed to remove any need for suffering at all. We certainly should not let today’s politicians rob us now, so we can plan ahead for poverty, when we have as much as 25 years to replace this crew of reprobates with people who will vote in the interests of most of the people, most of the time, and who will take back the gains of the 1% extracted from the economy and the Government through political influence and outright fraud.

4. If we do not address the debt now, federal investments in education, infrastructure, and research will decline.

We currently spend nearly $225 billion each year in interest payments alone on the national debt. And that number will only continue to rise. These payments – which have to be made – reduce our ability to fund critical investments in areas such as education, infrastructure, and research that are vital parts of a strong economy. In addition, the mindless sequester continued to cut spending throughout many of these programs, without making any decisions on where to target the savings and without focusing on the most unsustainable areas of the budget: increasingly-costly entitlement spending and an outdated, inefficient tax code.

Response: Yet another fairy tale for the gullible. Yes, interest payments are at $225 Billion per year. That’s about 1.5% of GDP. During the 1980s that figure was more than 5% of GDP. Why did it go down?

Not because our national debt got smaller; but because the Federal Reserve drove interest rates down, allowing the Treasury to sell securities at lower interest rates. Again, the Fed can drive down interest rates to virtually zero if it wishes to, and can keep the interest bill of the United States as low as it wishes, ensuring that interest on the national debt will never be a threat to the rest of the budget. So, forget about this. Interest payments on Treasuries can never be a threat to the solvency of the United States as long we maintain the present fiat currency system we’ve had since 1971.

But, of course, apart from such action by the Fed, the option of PCS is always open to the Treasury. It can pay back whatever portion of the debt it likes and refrain from issuing any more debt. So, over time, the Treasury can lower its interest costs as low as it wishes if it believes interest payments are becoming either a financial or a political problem.

5. Taking steps to address our deficit now would mean a more robust economy and significant job growth over the next 10 years.

A Congressional Budget Office analysis indicates that $2 trillion in deficit reduction over ten years could grow our economy by nearly an additional 1 percent by 2023. A healthy, growing economy means more good jobs and higher wages for hardworking Americans.

Response: The CBO projections about deficit reduction growing our economy are wrong. First, because CBO projections are mostly wrong. They’re even wrong four months out. For example, compare CBO projections on the anticipated 2013 deficit published in January and May of 2013. CBO failed to project the four years of Clinton Administration surpluses. It failed to project the recession at the end of the Clinton Administration at the beginning of the year 2000. It failed to project the crash of 2008 in early 2008, and even a few months before the crash.

Then it failed to project the seriousness of the recession in January of 2009. It failed to project the Clinton recovery in 1993, or the boom in Clinton’s second term. All these were relatively short-term errors. But, forecasting errors due to false models accumulate drastically over time. So, CBO has nil capacity to project over a period of ten or more years. All one can really count on is that CBO (and all the other well-known projectionistas will be wrong.

CBO’s projections do not take into account the macroeconomic sectoral financial balances. So, it doesn’t even recognize that long-term proactive deficit reduction means reducing Government additions of Net Financial Assets (NFAs) into the private economy. Of course, lower NFA additions over a decade, due to deficit reduction, do not guarantee a contracting economy and high unemployment in 2023. But, in the absence of a private credit bubble, which will bring another crash sooner or later, they make it much more likely that CBO’s projection will prove false.

In short, the idea that $2 Trillion in deficit reduction now will produce a healthier, more robust economy is false. We might have a more rapidly growing economy in 2023, even with deficit reduction, if the private sector, supported by the Fed, blows that big credit bubble. But that growth will not mean a healthy, robust economy. It will mean a sick one on the point of a huge deflationary collapse produced by another debt crisis. And while the new class of Peterson plutocrats might greatly desire such a result so that they can extract most of the rest of the financial resources of the 99%, I think the rest of us would prefer to base our future expansions on the actual additions to private NFAs produced by Government spending that is not offset by tax revenue.

So, we’ve now seen that “Fix the Debt’s” five top reasons why the national debt should matter to you, are actually the five worst reasons why it should matter. However, there are at least three REAL reasons why the national debt should matter, and why we should fix it without breaking America, or causing people to suffer. In the concluding, Part Four of this series, I’ll give these reasons.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

The Five Worst Reasons Why the National Debt Should Matter To You: Part Two, the Record Since 1930

1:25 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In Part One, of a critique of the most important of “Fix the Debt’s” reasons for “Why the National Debt Should Matter To You,” I asserted that high debt levels haven’t caused high unemployment in the United States, and that, if anything causation was in the other direction. I didn’t want to disturb the flow of the argument there with a relatively lengthy survey of some of the numbers in the historical record since the 1930s. But let’s test the idea that High debt causes fewer jobs and lower wages in the United States by looking at that record now.

Hoover, FDR, and Truman

During the early 1930s, in the presidency of Herbert Hoover, unemployment spiked up first; then the deficits, funded by debt issuance, followed. In fiscal 1933, which began in July 1932, unemployment peaked at 24.9%, while the debt-to-GDP ratio reached 39.1%, up from a low of 14.9% in 1929.

During FDR’s first two terms, the increases in the debt-to-GDP ratio level off. But, unemployment declines steadily to 9.9% in 1941, with an exception coming in 1938, the year following his misguided attempt to cut the debt. During WW II, the public debt skyrockets, but unemployment declines to a historically low level of 1.2%, another contradiction to the idea that high debt levels cause fewer jobs and lower wages.

Nor are the Truman Administrations any kinder to this first “fix the debt” myth. During these eight years the debt-to-GDP ratio declines steadily from 112.7% to 60.2% with one exception in fiscal 1949. Meanwhile, unemployment rises until driven down by Korean War spending beginning in Fiscal 1951.

Eisenhower and Kennedy-Johnson

How about the Eisenhower and Kennedy-Johnson Administrations? Again, all the evidence contradicts the “Fix the Debt” myth. Levels of the debt-to-GDP ratio continue to fall while unemployment rates vary cyclically, but generally average a full point higher than in the Truman Administration, and more than three points higher than at the height of wartime full employment. In short, decreasing levels of the debt-to-GDP ratio do not appear to cause more jobs and higher wages than the higher debt-to-GDP ratio levels during WWII and the Truman period.

In 1969, the debt-to-GDP ratio falls to 28.5%, a drop of nearly 3 points from the year before. The budget surplus is 0.3% up from a deficit of -2.9 in 1968. Unemployment is down to 3.5%, a low water mark for the Kennedy-Johnson period. But in FY 1970, unemployment spikes up to 4.9% and continues “high” for the rest of the Nixon-Ford Administration, reaching 8.5% in FY 1975, even as the level of the debt-to-GDP ratio declines to 24.6% in 1974, and then goes up to 28.1% in 1976 before resuming its downward track for a few years.

Nixon – Ford and Carter

The Nixon-Ford Administration, marks a break in the currency system, since in August of 1971 Nixon withdrew from the Bretton-Woods agreement and both ended the convertibility of dollars to gold on the international exchange, and allowed the value of the dollar to float freely on the international exchanges. Since then, the US has had a fiat currency system, rather than a commodity-based system. However, the US has continued to act domestically as if it was still on the gold standard, continuing to issue public debt even though the rationale for borrowing back money created under its authority, and which can be created in unlimited amounts, at will, is based on the idea of a Government Budgetary Constraint (GBC) that no longer exists; and also on the need to “sterilize” excess reserves produced by deficit spending, because these are falsely assumed to be more inflationary than new securities would be.

In spite of the change in the currency system, and the change in political party control of the White House, the Carter Administration was not able to break the pattern of economic stagnation that characterized the Nixon-Ford Administrations, probably because it received bad advice from economists, who did not understand the significance of the shift to a fiat currency system. The general levels of unemployment remained similar over the two administrations.

The mean annual employment rate during the Nixon – Ford period is 6.3%. During the Carter Administration, it increases to 6.65%. We’ve already seen that the decline in the debt-to-GDP ratio reached 24.6% and then increased slightly. The Carter Administration began to reduce it again, but never reached the Nixon low point, and ended at 26.3%.

There’s no noticeable relation here between high debt levels and unemployment. The debt-to-GDP ratio hit a low level and was varying slightly higher than that level after 1974 through 1981. Unemployment, on the other hand, varied cyclically, but was trending upward, with apparently no direct relationship to high debt levels.

Reagan-Bush

The Reagan-Bush years are remembered as prosperous years. But the mean unemployment rate was 7.1%, a half point higher than under Carter and 0.8% higher than in the Nixon-Ford years, and the period ended at 6.9%. So, many people weren’t prospering.

On the other hand, the Reagan-Bush years saw a substantial rise in the debt-to-GDP ratio which increased from 26.3% at the end of Carter’s Administration’s to 49.5% at the end of Bush 41′s. A level that high had last occurred 35 years before in 1958, during a period when unemployment had averaged 4.9%. Comparing the two, note 1) the level is nowhere near the historic high of 112.7% and 2) the level of the ratio is apparently compatible with both relatively low and relatively high unemployment levels, again refuting the idea that “high debt levels = fewer jobs and lower wages.”

Clinton and Goldilocks

The period of the Clinton Administration has been characterized as the period of “the Goldilocks Economy,” and is also considered by many as a time of “fiscal responsibility.” The economy grew at the most rapid rate since the 1960s, but did so in the presence of trade deficits, and decreasing budget deficits, finally ending in Government surpluses.

With GDP growing rapidly and public debt growing slowly, and actually shrinking through four consecutive years, of surpluses, the debt-to-GDP ratio fell throughout the period FY 1994 – 2001, declining from 49.5% to 32.5% in 2001. This happened simultaneously with steadily declining unemployment rates, reaching 4.0% in 2000, before increasing again to 4.7% in 2001, when a new recession, in reaction to the surpluses and the credit bubble of the 1990s began to bite. The unemployment rate over the whole goldilocks period averages 4.93%, the lowest average since the Kennedy-Johnson and Eisenhower Administrations.

Why isn’t the Clinton Administration a confirmation of the claim that high debt causes fewer jobs and lower wages? Well first, the data show the debt-to-GDP ratio falling, along with unemployment, not the ratio rising while unemployment increases. But even if one wants to claim that a falling debt-to-GDP ratio increases employment and wage levels, the data show unemployment falling much faster than the debt-to-GDP ratio, which doesn’t begin declining appreciably until the unemployment rate has declined from 6.9% in 1993 to 4.9% in 1997.

Also, when unemployment rises again in 2001 to 4.7% from 4.0%, the fall in the debt-to-GDP ratio continues, suggesting a lag relationship between unemployment and a falling debt-to-GDP ratio. What would explain this? The answer is the automatic stabilizers. When people go back to work, they cease to draw as much, or at all on the safety net, and they also pay taxes. So, tax revenues increase, government deficits decrease, and GDP increases, meaning that the debt-to-GDP ratio falls.

But a mystery remains, why did the goldilocks economy appear? Why did it create an apparently strong recovery with decreasing unemployment and higher wages, without the assistance of large government deficits, and with the disadvantage of increasingly substantial trade deficits. The answer is that the goldilocks economy was driven by the Fed’s decision to maintain low interest rates, and easy bank credit, and by the increasing willingness of the private sector to run a deficit, and run down its net financial assets, accommodating the Government’s desire to run a surplus.

The private sector balance went into deficit in 1997 when the Government’s deficit declined to -0.3%. Then the four years of Government surplus: 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001, were all years of aggregate private sector deficit in which the private sector, looked at as an aggregate, lost net financial assets. While this was going on, the “dot com” bubble was bursting and the economy fell into recession, accompanied by the increase in the unemployment rate in 2001, followed by the increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio, as the automatic stabilizers, along with the beginning of post 9/11 homeland security deficit spending, kicked in with a return to deficits in 2002.

So, it turns out that the primary causal factor in the Goldilocks economy and its increasingly low unemployment rate wasn’t deficit reduction, as claimed by many Clinton partisans, and debt hawks, but the credit bubble blown by the Federal Reserve, the banks, Wall Street, and an increasingly optimistic private sector. The economy boomed in spite of deficit reduction, and was itself the primary cause of deficit reduction, and not vice versa. This is another refutation of the narrative behind the theory that high debt levels cause high unemployment and low wages, because the boom was due to a credit bubble that drained net financial assets from the private sector and then burst at the end of the period.

Later, the blowing of another bubble under Bush 43, restored a modicum of prosperity, but only increased the chances for a more serious crash in 2008. Had the expansion of the 1990s been based on much larger government deficits, the recession at the end of the Clinton-Gore period would have been avoided, because the expansion would have been based on a permanent transfer of new net financial assets to the private sector, and not on bubble-generated paper assets that are gone with the wind when the inevitable collapse of a credit bubble occurs.

Bush 43

That brings us to the Bush 43 Administration. In 2002, the Government went back to deficit spending. But the Government deficit was small enough that, given the size of the demand leakage due to the trade deficit, it kept the private sector in deficit. Deficit spending increased in 2003, along with war spending, but since the trade deficit was rising to 5% it wasn’t large enough at – 3.4% to compensate for the trade deficit. Over the next two years, the private sector balance varied around zero, sometimes in deficit, sometimes showing a small surplus.

But beginning in 2005, as the trade deficit rose eventually to 6%, and the Government deficit again was lowered first to -2.6, and then to -1.9 and -1.2% in 2007, the private sector was again in substantial deficit for three consecutive years. Altogether, beginning in 1997 under Clinton and ending in 2007 under Bush, the private sector went through 11 years without ever having a substantial private sector surplus, and for 6 of those years the private sector lost more than 2 – 4 % of GDP in net financial assets, because private sector activity was funded by private sector credit bubbles rather than by government deficits that were high enough to compensate for the Trade deficit.

In other words Government deficit spending wasn’t too high under the Bush 43 Administration, as we hear in conventional economic and political analysis. But rather, it was far too low to sustain a decent level of economic activity without relying on the credit bubble-fueled housing bubble that burst in 2007, and led to the crash of 2008.

No wonder the Bush 43 period had the highest average unemployment rate (5.83%) since the Bush 41 Administration (6.7%). Neither Government deficit spending, nor the private credit bubble were large enough to drive unemployment down to the levels seen in the Clinton period, and unemployment was mostly over 5% hitting 5.8% in 2008, and then in the transition 2009 fiscal year, between the Bush 43 and Obama Administrations, rising to 9.3%. Meanwhile, the debt-to-GDP ratio slowly rose nearly 4% from 32.5% between 2001 and 2007, and then jumped sharply to 40.5% in 2008 and to 54.0% in 2009, as unemployment was rising and safety net spending accelerated.

So, during Bush 43, we see a sharp rise in the debt-to-GDP ratio in 2008 and 2009. But, it’s not this rise in debt levels that causes unemployment, because the sharp increases in unemployment were a result of the financial crash caused by the lengthy attempt over two administrations to fuel economic expansion through increasing private sector debt facilitated by the Fed, the banks, and Wall Street. That attempt led us back to the boom-bust cycles that were prevalent prior to the New Deal and the reform of the banking system — reforms that were largely repealed in the Clinton and Bush Administrations.

The sudden growth in debt in 2008 and 2009 appeared because the rise in unemployment caused by the Great Crash, led to increases in Federal deficit spending resulting from the automatic stabilizers, and the beginning of the economic stimulus provided by the American Recovery and Re-investment Act of 2009. So, once again, job loss came first, and was then followed by higher debt levels, rather than vice versa, another contradiction with the theory that high debt levels cause higher unemployment and lower wages.

The Obama Administration

From 2009 until the present, the results of the sharp spike in the unemployment rate on the debt-to-GDP ratio are apparent. The ratio has increased by nearly 20 points in 2010, 2011, and 2012 to 72.6%, while the unemployment rate has declined from 9.3% to the present 7.4%. So, increases in the debt-to-GDP ratio are inversely correlated with the unemployment rate, yet another contradiction of the austerian theory. Meanwhile, the reduction in unemployment and the increase in both GDP and tax revenues is driving the 2013 deficit toward 4% of GDP, down from 10.1% in 2009.

This result, while touted as good news by the Obama Administration, and nearly everyone else in sight, resulting in a veritable Versailles happy dance, is bad for the economy. While the trade deficit is down to close to 2.5% now, a projected Government deficit of 4% for 2013 is too small to provide for more than a 1.5% of GDP surplus in private sector net financial assets. Most of this is likely to go to continue to repair private sector balance sheets that were damaged so much during the 11 year debt binge over the Clinton and Bush Administrations.

That means there won’t be new private sector financial assets sufficient to support increasing aggregate demand. And this, in turn means that the economy will continue to stagnate or heal only very slowly, or perhaps even turn back to recession, provided there’s no substantial private sector credit expansion to fuel demand. But, so far at least, one can’t see such an expansion getting under way, and without it there’s no substitute for the Government deficit spending that the Administration and Congress are so intent on reducing.

Where’s the Evidence?

It’s astonishing how people just make up stories to support policies they favor. Even though I have the background to use rigorous modeling or statistical analysis methods, and have used them many times in past years, my look at the record hasn’t involved them, because, this is, after all, a blog post meant to be read more widely than a statistical study, and I think the raw numbers since 1930 continuously and conclusively refute the causal theory advanced by the “Fix the Debt” group that high debt or debt-to-GDP levels increase unemployment rates.

Falsification of any theory can never be certain, but the evidence in this case never contradicts the idea that high unemployment comes first, and high debt levels come afterward as an effect of high unemployment, assuming, of course, that deficit spending is accompanied by debt issuance. Given the data, I think one has to reasonably conclude that High debt levels ≠ fewer jobs and lower wages, as the “Fix the Debt” group claims.

If the “Fix the Debt” group disagrees, and thinks that I’ve interpreted the data incorrectly, or that more rigorous analysis expanding the set of variables and using more sophisticated techniques shows that the evidence doesn’t refute their theory, then I challenge them or others in the Peter G. Peterson Foundation-funded network of organizations to produce such an analysis. Until they do, I think we have to continue to ask “Where’s the evidence”?

And we also have to ask whether a theory amounting to no more than a plausible narrative about what causes unemployment, contradicted by many other plausible causal narratives can serve as the basis for a Federal fiscal policy of deficit reduction that will hurt many millions of American citizens for generations? I think not! I think the very idea is ludicrous, and that it’s time to laugh the “Fix the Debt” campaign off the public stage.

In Part Three, I’ll cover the other four “worst reasons” why the national debt should matter.

Data Sources:

Budget deficits/surpluses, 1940 – 2018.

Unemployment rates, annual averages, 1923 -1942.

Unemployment rates, annual averages, 1940 – 2008.

Unemployment Rates, annual averages, 1947 – 2012.

Sectoral Financial Balances.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

The Five Worst Reasons Why the National Debt Should Matter To You: Part One, High Debt Levels and Jobs

10:34 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Your Social Security, My Pocket

I came across a post from the “Fix the Debt” campaign last month called “The Top Five Worst Reasons Why the National Debt Should Matter to You.” It’s a post full of debt/deficit lies that cry out for correction. That’s what I’ll provide in this series.

1. High debt levels = fewer jobs and lower wages

In times of fiscal and economic uncertainty, consumers and businesses reduce investment and delay projects because investment is costly to reverse. Higher government borrowing can also drive up interest rates once the economy recovers, reducing the access and affordability of funds for consumers and businesses to borrow and invest in new ventures and ideas. This can hold back the economy, resulting in fewer jobs and lower wages down the road.

Response: What’s with the colloquial use of the ‘equals sign’ in this statement? Is the “Fix the Debt” campaign trying to say that there’s an identity between high debt levels and fewer jobs/lower wages? Is it trying to say that fewer jobs/lower wages cause high debt? Are they trying to say that there’s mutual causation between the two over time? Or are they trying to say something more complex than these things?

The summary statement after the headline indicates that the “equals” is an ambiguous way of making the straightforward claim that high debt levels trigger a causal chain ending with fewer jobs and lower wages. Here are two ways of addressing this claim: is it true, or even likely, given the data; and even if it is true, then so what?

Addressing “truth” first, it’s not! There’s plenty of evidence (See Part Two) refuting the idea that high public debt levels cause fewer jobs and lower wages in nations like the United States that use a non-convertible fiat currency, a floating exchange rate, and have no debts in currencies they do not issue.

In fact, even before 1971, when the United States closed the gold window allowing convertibility to gold on international exchanges and arrived at our current fiat currency system, the data still refute this claimed identity and suggest, that, if anything, the causation is reversed. In Part Two I’ve added a historical addendum dating from 1930 to the present showing that the evidence refutes this theory about the causes of higher unemployment.

Read it and see what’s happened for yourself; but the upshot is that this theory is pure fiction. Its narrative hasn’t happened once in the United States since 1930.

Now, on to “so what.” Let’s, for the sake of argument, say that high debt or debt-to-GDP levels did cause high unemployment, and that Government debt is a problem. The “Fix the Debt” campaign wants to respond to this by cutting Government deficit spending, raising taxes and following a long-term deficit reduction program featuring cuts to social safety net programs.

But why follow that unnecessarily painful economy-contracting, middle-class depriving strategy? The United States is a fiat currency sovereign. It doesn’t have to borrow back its own currency and reserves from people who are holding those.

It doesn’t have to sell any more debt instruments, providing unearned profits primarily to wealthy individuals and foreign nations. Congress can either provide the Treasury Department with the authority to create whatever money it needs to repay the debt as it falls due and to perform whatever deficit spending chooses to appropriate; or the Executive branch can use existing Platinum Coin Seigniorage (PCS) authority to fill the public purse with all the dollar reserves needed to do both of these things.

I’ve outlined how this works in numerous posts at this site and others, also in my kindle e-book. The process is very straightforward, will not cause inflation, and is legal under current law. So, if the “Fix the Debt” campaign is really worried about high unemployment and fixing the debt, then I challenge “Fix the Debt” to support my petition for the President to order the Secretary to mint a $60 T platinum coin immediately to accomplish this without in any way compromising the safety net or hurting the economy.

I don’t think “Fix the Debt” will support this proposal however. The reason why is that “Fix the Debt” is a front group for a very long-term effort by Peter G. Peterson to gut the social safety net and privatize Social Security. Peterson and the various front groups he funds through the Peter G. Peterson Foundation aren’t really interested in fixing the debt. They understand that the public debt is no danger to a fiat sovereign like the US, and doesn’t cause high unemployment.

What they are really interested in is persuading the public that patriotism demands crippling the safety net in the name of fiscal responsibility. If they were not, and they really think that “teh debt” is a cause of high unemployment, then they would join me in supporting one of the two proposals I advanced earlier for “Fixing the Debt.” Read the rest of this entry →

Make ‘em Prove the Causality before They Cause Any More Suffering: Part Three, Reinhart – Rogoff Retrospective

7:31 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

This post is a more complete statement of my conclusions based on the analysis in Parts One and Two of this series. As I’ve explained in Part Two, there’s no reason in the Reinhart-Rogoff (R-R) data to believe that the debt-to-GDP ratio has a negative impact on growth. Ironically, that’s because their data set is terribly biased in its incompleteness, and was constructed to try to prove that there was a negative relationship between the debt-to-GDP ratio and economic growth. The interests supporting the RR work, both in its inception, and in disseminating its original results, were clearly trying to develop a basis for saying that since there is such a negative relationship, the right thing to do when the ratio gets too high (over 90%) is to implement a program of austerity aimed at deficit reduction, more or less drastic, depending on the individual case.

Of course, there may well be a relationship between debt-to-GDP ratios and economic growth in nations lacking non-convertible fiat currencies and floating exchange rates, and and/or having external debts in currencies they cannot issue. However, the R-R data set didn’t include those variables, so that analysis can’t be done without augmenting the data set. In such nations, MMT theory suggests that Government Budget Constraints (GBCs) on deficit spending, such as those we find in Eurozone nations would create a negative relationship between debt-to-GDP ratios and growth.

In fiat sovereign nations, such as the US, the UK, Australia, Japan, etc. we might also have the presence of an indirect relationship between variations in the debt-to-GDP ratio and economic growth through the actions of politicians who believe in austerity ideology pulling back on government deficit spending and consequently having a negative impact on economic growth through that mechanism. But to test for that self-fulfilling prophecy, and also for the negative relationship in nations subject to a GBC, someone will, again, have to augment the R-R data set and re-analyze it to include currency regime variables

In addition, we need to build on the biased and incomplete R-R data set to begin to test alternative hypotheses about the effects of austerity and different types of fiscal and monetary policy on different outcome variables and on feedback relationships from those outcome variables to economic growth and much more. When Matthew Berg and Brian Hartley say: “We suggest that simultaneous equations models may offer a way forward on the “frontier question” of causality,” they are also saying that other possible causes of both economic growth and debt-to-GDP ratios must be included in richer theories of economic dynamics, if we want to understand the place of both growth and debt in the broader context of what matters to people.

What matters to them are economic and social value gaps related to the idea of Public purpose like these:

– the gap between actual output and projected “full” output;

– High involuntary unemployment vs. full employment;

– Price stability vs. inflation or hyperinflation;

– Minimum wage vs. a living wage;

– No operative right to health care for everyone;

– social exclusion and the loss of personal freedom;

– skill deterioration due to unemployment;

– psychological harm such as sense of identity, self-respect, and sense of
empowerment;

– much greater ill health and reduced life expectancy than necessary;

– loss of motivation to live a full empowered life;

– deterioration of social relations, communities, social networks, and family life;

– increasing racial and gender inequality;

– increasing educational inequality;

– decreasing equality of opportunity;

– loss of social values and sense of individual responsibility;

– increasing economic inequality over time;

– increasing poverty;

– increasing crime rates including increasing use of control frauds by
important economic institutions;

– Failure to prosecute and punish people who commit control frauds;

– The collapse of real estate values and the destruction of the wealth of
working people after the crash of 2008;

– increasing anger against economic and political elites that get more and
more and more wealthy, and more and more immune to the rule of law;

– increasing political inequality undermining political, social, and economic democracy;

– increasing political unrest and threats of political violence both from the privileged and those seeking change.

– increasing environmental degradation;

– Increasing climate change/global warming.

– the gap between current energy foundations of our economy and new energy foundations based on renewables.

It will involve more of an effort to gather the necessary data in some of these areas than in others, and doing this kind of thing is a multi-year job. But it’s imperative that something like it gets done, because the kind of narrowly focused data set created by R-R is biased towards the concern of neoliberal ideology with debts, deficits, inflation, and economic growth, and its lack of concern with the impact of its favored economic policies on a range of outcomes important for most people. We need to be gathering data on those outcomes and analyzing the past, present, and likely impacts of alternative fiscal and monetary policies on them. In short, we need to be gathering data that allows us to test the impact of alternative fiscal policies on public purpose.

Finally, we must ask why there wasn’t a greater outcry from progressive activists and economists when the R-R study first appeared and they failed to make their data available for re-analysis and replication. After all, everyone who read their work and who knows even a little about quantitative analysis in the social sciences could see that it was based on a very superficial two-variable cross-country global data analysis, and that any result they reported had to present a false picture of causality.

This is true because you can’t provide a thorough analysis of causality between two cross-country variables without including additional variables and doing time series analysis at the national level to establish causal ordering and partial out spurious correlations. This has been well-known in the social sciences for at least 50 years.

MMT economist Randy Wray has called the R-R study “crap.” He’s right; for all the reasons just advanced, it was crap from the get-go. It presents an argument of partisan advocacy, not one of economic scientists making a conscientious effort to get at the truth.

So, the question is why has it been it challenged so little since 2010? It’s true that some economists provided critiques. But the discipline as a whole was respectful. The criticism was civil, when it should have expressed outrage. Everyone treated the critical exchanges as a matter of “he said, she said,” even though every economist who does any data analysis must have recognized the very simplistic level of R-R’s data analysis.

So, again I ask, why didn’t economists make ‘em prove it? And why did policy makers accept the findings so easily? You can’t tell me that the top economists in the Obama Administration, in the UK, and the Eurozone couldn’t see the nakedness of their co-emperors. They chose not to see.

I think there’s really no mystery here. Neoliberal elites wanted to believe in the austerity fairy tale for various reasons, including perhaps a desire to widen the wealth gap between the very rich and the middle class, and also a belief that belt-tightening in welfare states has moral value for the population subjected to that belt-tightening, though not for them, of course. For them, R-R was just window dressing for the financial sadism they wanted to implement anyway. If you doubt this characterization, then pay close attention to interviews of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson sometime. The are exhibit A.

But for the progressives, and others opposed to austerity, the R-R work should have immediately become a target of opportunity for educating the public about “junk” economic studies relied upon by politicians to justify their favored policies. Opposition to the study should have taken the form of telling people never to trust simplistic two variable analyses using cross-sectional rather than time series data to develop causal explanations. It should have taken the form of a demand for the economists and policy makers to prove what they say rather than just wave around a fig leaf that couldn’t possibly, and in the end did not, prove a thing about the desirability of austerity in modern economies.

But none of this occurred. And partly as result of this dog who never barked, millions around the world live with economic hardship lasting for years. Millions lost their homes. Millions went into bankruptcy, and many thousands needlessly died from lack of medical care and are still dying today.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Make ‘em Prove the Causality before They Cause Any More Suffering: Part Two, the Fall and After

11:18 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In Part One, I asked whether the Carmen Reinhart/Kenneth Rogoff study and book didn’t show that, on average, nations experiencing debt-to-GDP ratios above 90% had negative rates of economic growth? And I said the answer to the question was “no.” But I didn’t explain why that was true. So, here goes.

The Fall

When Reinhart and Rogoff published their work they did not make their data set available to people to replicate, analyze, critique their findings, and augment to improve the data set. They ignored the scientific norm that you do that when you’re claiming that you’ve made an important empirical discovery. Other researchers wrote them and requested access to their data set in vain for at least the past three years.

Then a few weeks, ago, they finally yielded to a request for the data set made by Thomas Herndon, a Graduate Student in economics at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) in Amherst. Herndon tried to replicate their analysis and findings and could not do so. In fact he found errors. Here’s a summary from the paper he co-authored with two of his professors, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin, both of the economics department (hereafter called HAP).

RR has made significant errors in reaching the conclusion that countries facing public debt to GDP ratios above 90 percent will experience a major decline in GDP growth.9 The key identified errors in RR, including spreadsheet errors, omission of available data, weighting, and transcription, reduced the measured average GDP growth of countries in the high public debt category. The full extent of those errors transforms the reality of modestly diminished average GDP growth rates for countries carrying high levels of public debt into a false image that high public debt ratios inevitably entail sharp declines in GDP growth.

Moreover, as we show, there is a wide range of GDP growth performances at every level of public debt among the 20 advanced economies that RR survey.

Specifically, “actual average real growth in the high public debt category is +2:2 percent per year compared to the -0.1 percent per year published in RR.” That change in the findings is very important because even though the new average growth level found is still less than in the 60% to 90% category, where the average growth found was 3.2% annually, the claim that there’s a sharp drop-off between these two categories isn’t supported since the 1 percent difference is not statistically significant. In addition, neither the 3.2% nor the 2,2% average growth rates are representative of their debt-to-GDP ratio level categories, since as HAP say just above there’s a wide range of GDP growth performance in all the categories.

So, that does it. That one finding shows that RR did not show that, on average, nations experiencing debt-to-GDP ratios above 90% had negative rates of economic growth, or even that they had an average rate of growth significantly different from the average in the 60 – 90 % category. Given this finding, what happens to the further inference that high debt levels cause lower growth?

In Part One, I showed that even assuming that the R-R finding was correct it still would not have provided any test of the inference that high debt levels cause lower growth. I stated three reasons. First, R-R committed the ecological fallacy in implying that the high level debt category group growth average could be extended to individual nations and times in each group. We can see from the conclusions of HAP, that there was good reason to be concerned about the ecological fallacy because the group growth average was not found to be representative of individual nations and times.

Second, I pointed out that R-R ignored currency regime variables, failing to include them in the analysis, when it is very likely that any association between the debt-to-GDP ratio and economic growth would vary with these variables. Since HAP end up showing that there is only a small difference between averages in the over 90% category and the 60 – 90% category, it is even more likely that including these variables would have washed out the small differences found, or even reversed the relationship claimed by R-R.

Third, I pointed out that control variables that might have shown that the relationship stated by R-R was spurious were not included in the study, so that possible causes of both a high level of debt-to-GDP and economic growth could not be tested. HAP has nothing to say on this score, but it does raise the question of causality and the failure of R-R to analyze it in any rigorous way, and it concludes by questioning the claim that the R-R findings support the view that high levels of debt inevitably cause low growth.

After the Fall Empirical Research

The HAP analysis and the new availability of the R-R data quickly led to three other analyses, all of which began to explore the question of causality, each one by using more rigorous and more sophisticated though not novel techniques of analysis, than used in the study by Reinhart and Rogoff. A question which immediately occurs is why R-R with all the resources they cold call upon didn’t pursue the same or similar analyses either before or after publication of their results in 2010. After all, those replicating their study only a took a few days to begin to explore questions of causality once they had the R-R data set, yet R-R with three years of opportunity or more to do the same or similar analyses of their own data sets, evidently never did anything of the kind. One simply has to ask whether they were afraid of what they would find if they took a deeper dive into their own data.

Dube’s Distributed Lag Cross-country Panel Analysis

The first of the three studies following on HAP was done by Arindrajit Dube in a guest post at Next New Deal entitled “Reinhart/Rogoff and Growth in a Time Before Debt.” Professor Dube is also in the economics department at UMass. Working on 20 OECD nation corrected panel data set of R-R produced by HAP, Dube used LOWESS regressions and distributed lag models. His results speak to the question of whether slow GDP growth causes higher debt-to-GDP ratios, or whether, as R-R opine, while alternately protesting that correlation isn’t causation, higher debt-to-GDP ratios cause relatively low or even negative growth. They suggest that the causation is more likely to run from growth to debt-to-GDP ratios, than from those ratios to growth. Dube also found that 1) any negative relationship between debt ratios and growth is strongest at lower levels of debt, rather than at higher levels as found by R-R, and 2) there is a stronger association between past economic growth, and current debt ratio levels than the association between current debt ratio levels and future economic growth.

Basu’s Time-Series Analysis of the US, Italy and Japan

The second new follow-on to the R-R and HAP studies was done by yet another UMass economics professor, Deepankar Basu and reported at Next New Deal. He addressed the question of causality by examining time series data in Italy, Japan, and the United States, using vector autoregression (VAR) models, accompanied by Granger non-causality tests and impulse response analysis. VAR analysis isn’t enough to determine causality without making additional assumptions about an underlying causal model. But in cases, where one is analyzing a two-variable relationship using time series data and one assumes that causality can only run way or another, or perhaps both ways, the VAR technique can produce evidence about which of the two variables, if any, is prior to the other. I’ll quote Basu’s summary of his results

To summarize, I find that the time series pattern of the dynamic relationship between public debt and economic growth in the postwar U.S., Italian, and Japanese economies is consistent with low growth causing high debt rather than the high debt causing low growth. I draw this conclusion from two types of analyses: Granger non-causality tests and an investigation of impulse response function plots.

Granger non-causality tests allow one to ask the following questions: (a) do debt levels in the past help in better predicting current economic growth, and (b) does economic growth in the past help in improving predictions of current debt levels? The evidence suggests that for the U.S., Italy, and Japan, the answer to the first question is a NO and the answer to the second is a YES.

Impulse response analysis allows one to address the following questions: (a) what is the impact of an unexpected increase in current debt levels on the future time path of economic growth, and (b) how does an unexpected decline in economic growth affect future levels of debt? The data suggests that an unexpected increase in debt levels has only a small effect on future economic growth but an unexpected decline in economic growth is associated with large and long-lasting increases in public debt levels.

So, Basu’s analysis further extends HAP’s suggestion that it’s more likely that growth causes debt than debt causes growth. Like Dube’s it falsifies the austerity conjecture that debt causes growth at least in the context of a two variable model.

Berg and Hartley’s 20 Nation Panel Study

Perhaps the most important of the recent analyses of the R-R data comes from Matthew Berg and Brian Hartley who are Graduate Students in the economics department at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. They followed Dube in analyzing the R-R 20 nation panel data, used and corrected by HAP, using LOWESS regressions, and distributed lag with impulse response analysis.

First, they addressed the important question of whether the relationship between current debt-to-GDP levels and future growth is the same or at least similar across nations. They found (through an examination of individual “backwards/forwards” graphs) that this relationship varied widely across nations. That is, nations were heterogeneous, not homogeneous with respect to this key relationship. They say:

. . . Even if some sort of relationship between debt-to-GDP and growth can in fact be found in cross-country panel analysis, that relationship does not appear to hold up on the level of individual countries. Because economic policy is made on the level of individual countries, this heterogeneity appears to undercut the rationale for any given particular country to make important policy decisions on the basis of government debt-to-GDP ratios.

I’ve italicized their key point in the paragraph for emphasis. Any attempt to generalize across all the 20 nation panel data, such as the R-R attempt to say that a debt-to-GDP ratio above 90% leads to relatively low or negative economic growth contradicts what the data show at the individual nation level for the two key variables, and is therefore just a false inference.

Second, Berg and Hartley also say:

We find that the correlation between government debt-to-GDP ratios and future growth in Reinhart and Rogoff’s . . . dataset results from outliers which come from the country most suggestive of the hypothesis that slow growth causes high levels of government debt – Japan. . . .

That is, the Japanese data disproportionately distort the overall relationship and create a misleading picture, because of the unique history of Japan. But, nevertheless historical examination of both Japan and the other nations provide evidence consistent with the “reverse causation” causation hypothesis that growth causes debt to-GDP ratio levels rather than the alternative hypothesis of a debt-GDP ratio causal ordering priority. Berg and Hartley show this with distributed lag/impulse response analyses and LOWESS regressions with and without the Japanese data. The analysis, for all practical purposes, shows that there is no relationship between current year association between GDP growth and the debt-to-GDP ratio as claimed by R-R.

They also summarize:

. . . This evidence strengthens and reinforces criticisms recently made by Herndon, Ash, and Pollin . . . of research suggesting a negative relationship between government debt-to-GDP ratios and real GDP growth rates. . . . we . . . find evidence suggesting that correlation of government debt-to-GDP ratios and future growth are much more likely explained by “reverse” causation running from slow GDP growth to high government debt-to-GDP ratios than by “forward” causation running from high government debt-to-GDP ratios to slow growth. Furthermore, what little evidence there is for forward causation appears to stem almost entirely from Japanese outliers. Because – as economists generally recognize – Japan is the clearest of all cases of reverse causation, this considerably weakens the argument for forward causation. In addition, we find tremendous heterogeneity on the level of individual countries in the relationship between current government debt-to-GDP ratios and future growth. This suggests that even if substantial evidence for forward causation is eventually discovered in cross-country studies, the effect will likely be small in size and unreliable, and therefore not relevant to economic policy decisions in any particular individual country. Our findings are suggestive, but not conclusive, and more research is needed. We suggest that simultaneous equations models may offer a way forward on the “frontier question” of causality.

Conclusion: You Can’t Generalize Across All Nations and Times About the Impact of the Debt-to-GDP Ratio on Economic Growth

Actually, I think the findings of Berg and Hartley following on and taking into account the findings of HAP, Dube, and Basu are pretty conclusive and not just suggestive. What they say is that the data included in the two-variable analyses flatly contradict the idea that the debt-to-GDP ratio causes economic growth in the individual nations comprising the 20 nation OECD panel. If anything, the evidence is much more consistent with the idea that it is growth that impacts the debt-to-GDP ratio.

I think there has hardly ever been a clearer finding in the Social Sciences than this one. After all, it took HAP, Dube, Basu, and Berg and Hartley only a matter of days to arrive at it. The only way R-R could have missed it is if they weren’t looking for it. It’s as if they just weren’t looking for the truth; but were only looking for an argument that could be used to justify the austerity policies they favored. That’s not economic science. It’s bias, pure and simple.

In Part Three, I’ll end this series on the R-R affair with a retrospective.

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)

Make ‘em Prove the Causality Before They Cause Any More Suffering: Part One

3:17 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

OK, austerity has always been about the causality. The people who are trying their best to get us to cut more and more spending, somewhat less than their best to get us to raise taxes, and who are doing nothing to fix our fraud-laden financial system, or the worst period of dis-employment we’ve experienced since the Great Depression, have been making other people (never themselves) suffer, because they believe the theory that excessive public debt hurts economic growth, and that to get rid of it we must follow a plan of long-term deficit reduction. And I’m being very charitable when I opine that they believe in this theory, because the alternative is that they don’t believe it, but are just using it as an excuse to make other people suffer, and widen the wealth gap between themselves and the rest of the population.

Either way it’s important for the rest of us to demand that before we do anything more based on that theory, they should be forced to prove that it is the best theory out there about the causal relationship between public debt and economy growth. Actually, we should have made them prove that before we allowed Congress and President Obama to start playing austerity games with us way back in 2009 – 2010, because there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then, including continuing very high disemployment, thousands and thousands of people dying due to lack of health insurance, suicide, depression-related illnesses, crime that need not have occurred, and all the effects of hopelessness that afflict the poor and the middle class during bad economic times. And now, our wonderful leaders have managed to inflict the sequestration upon us, while planning to inflict entitlement cuts on the old and the sick.

Lately, of course, the armor of the austerians, and their claims of empirical support for their view that high levels of the debt-to-GDP ratio are associated with and/or cause very low or even negative rates of economic growth has suffered repeated blows from Economics Graduate Students and Professors at the University of Massachusetts and the University of Missouri at Kansas City, in recent papers. I’ll review those studies in Part Two. In the rest of this part, I’ll evaluate the proof austerians had for their policies before this new research work appeared.

What Proof Did They Have?

So, what proof did they have, before the recent research appeared, that austerity is the best course to follow? Well, it’s been practiced all over Europe for years now, and what are the results? Only record unemployment, shrinking economies, increasing public debt, crime, public unrest, increasing suicide rates, damaged health care systems denying care to people who need them, no improvement to speak of in the economic outlook, and immense dissatisfaction all over the continent.

How about here? A stagnant economy, three steps forward, two steps back, high youth unemployment, no jobs for college graduates, layoffs in the public sector and declining services, low wages, recovery limited to the financial sector and the stock market — the kinds of results that in not so many years will produce a plutocracy, if one doesn’t exist already.

Everywhere austerity is being practiced we see a slowed economy. In some places, like Japan, we see short periods of it followed by some backing off, producing stagnation for close to a quarter of a century. In other places, like Australia and Canada we’ve seen enough of it that the prosperity they could have enjoyed is beyond their grasp.

Sure, Germany, hasn’t hit real hard times yet because their export-led economy gives them more policy space to run surpluses, but most of the nations of the Eurozone can’t run a trade surplus, so for them, continuing government austerity results in private sector losses, year after year, absent a change in rules by the Eurozone. Even the German economy has been slowing as its neighbors can afford less and less German goods, and France is seeing more than 10% unemployment and is rapidly becoming another basket case, creating the need for changing the well known Eurozone acronym to the PFIIGS. Is there an unambiguous success for austerity since the Second World War in a country running a trade deficit? I don’t know of one.

So, what about the work of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff? Didn’t it show that, on average, nations experiencing debt-to-GDP ratios above 90% had negative rates of economic growth? And doesn’t this provide evidence that excessive debt does cause low economic growth and even economic contraction, so that if we value economic growth, we must reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio to a much lower level than 90% before we try to use deficit spending to try again to grow?

Well, the answer to these questions is no, and no. I’ll explain the second “no” first, and consider the first “no” later on in Part Two.

Common Fallacies: First, Reinhart and Rogoff never claimed that the findings of their analysis of their very extensive cross-national, historical database supported causal inference. It’s true that after they wrote their paper and published their book reporting on their data and analysis, they recommended austerity policies and either referred to their work in that context, or have been identified by others hosting an appearance or publishing an article as having done that work to support their “expertise.” So, they talked out of both sides of their mouths; but in their work itself they acknowledge that correlation isn’t causation, and that they hadn’t proved cause and effect. And they urged further research to explore cause-and-effect relationships.

In addition, critics of their work have long emphasized that the reported association between high debt-to-GDP levels and low economic growth for all nations, had nothing to say about cause and effect in individual nations and therefore could not serve as the basis for a fiscal policy of austerity, or for Reinhart and Rogoff’s mere opinions that such a policy, expressed in other contexts should be implemented. One problem is that the association between debt-to-GDP and economic growth at levels of debt-to-GDP above 90% doesn’t apply to every instance in every nation. It’s an average, a mean or a median which is reported.

So, the association is ecological across all instances. It is the well-known ecological fallacy of social science to conclude that it applies to all or even most instances in the high debt-to-GDP category. To go on from there, and then suggest that the association is causally relevant in individual systems, is to compound the ecological fallacy with the correlation is causation fallacy. To do that is just terrible social science.

Currency Regime Variables: Read the rest of this entry →

More Austerity Advice From the Very Rich: Buffett On Deficits!

9:10 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett’s recent op-ed in the New York Times is making a stir because it calls for a minimum tax on high incomes above $One million annually. But I was much more interested in some deficit targeting he proposes which exposes his ignorance about the sectoral financial balances model of macro-economics, and reveals him as a deficit hawk whose advice, if followed would be unsustainable and lead the United States into another deep recession. I’ll comment on a couple of paragraphs in Buffett’s op-ed.

Our government’s goal should be to bring in revenues of 18.5 percent of G.D.P. and spend about 21 percent of G.D.P. — levels that have been attained over extended periods in the past and can clearly be reached again. As the math makes clear, this won’t stem our budget deficits; in fact, it will continue them. But assuming even conservative projections about inflation and economic growth, this ratio of revenue to spending will keep America’s debt stable in relation to the country’s economic output.

So, our goal ought to be running deficits of 2.5% and this is Warren Buffett’s idea of fiscal responsibility. Now here’s an accounting identity from macroeconomics, called the Sectoral Financial Balances (SFB) model in which the economy is divided into three sectors, and in all the balances are financial flows over a period of time:

Domestic Private Balance + Domestic Government Balance + Foreign Balance = 0.

There’s plenty of empirical evidence showing that the real world interpretation of this identity works. But, there’s NO negative evidence refuting it.

Now, let’s say that the income of the private sector exceeds the amount it pays to the other two sectors by 6% of GDP, so that the private sector has a surplus. And let’s say that the income of the foreign sector in dollars exceeds what it spends on US goods and services by 4% of US GDP, leaving it with a surplus, and the US with a current account (trade) deficit, then what does the formula say MUST happen to the Government balance?

Government spending will have to exceed its income from taxation by 10%. That is, it will have to run a deficit of 10% to support the foreign surplus and the domestic savings. i.e. 6% + 4% + (-10%) = 0.

Now, what happens if we refuse to let the deficit be 10% of GDP, and that we either cut Gov spending or raise taxes to make that happen? Let’s say we want to hit Warren Buffett’s target, so that we try to force that -10% to become Buffett’s – 2.5% of GDP. Then we have choices.

We can force a zero trade balance, by refusing to import more than we export. But that still leaves us with the need to DECREASE the private balance surplus from 6% to 2.5% of GDP to get the Federal budget to a deficit 2.5%. This is a decline of 3.5% of GDP in savings the private sector might have had, if Mr. Buffett’s deficit target was, say, – 6% of GDP.

There are other options here of course. We could leave the foreign sector balance where it is at 4% of GDP, and decrease the private sector balance to -1.5%, of GDP, actually increasing the private sector’s debt by 1.5% of GDP. But, do we really want to do either of these first two options or anything in between?

I really don’t think so. Do you? Why would we want a policy that would impoverish the private sector over time, or minimize its accumulation of nominal wealth? Is this really consistent with the public purpose?

Read the rest of this entry →

Stop Using Obama for America Against the People!

8:57 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Obama for America, the campaign apparatus with the very large e-mailing list and great segmentation techniques that exploited Romney’s weaknesses to help the President to eke out (yes, I know the electoral vote involved no “eking out,” but the popular vote was something else again) his re-election victory, is now trying to mobilize people who voted for the President to work against their own interests by supporting his deficit/debt cutting activities. So, I couldn’t resist the following commentary on their mobilization e-mail.

From the graphic:

Right now, President Obama is working with leaders of both parties in Washington to reduce the deficit in a balanced way so we can lay the foundation for long-term middle-class job growth and prevent your taxes from going up.

This is just one sentence. But it has more errors in it than a whole book written by some economists. First, it assumes that we should “reduce the deficit.” But:

– It’s fiscally irresponsible to frame and follow a long – term deficit reduction plan (limited austerity) when, as now, both a trade deficit and an output gap between the economy’s potential and its actual results exist. Such a plan is one that must remove more net financial assets, specifically reserves, from the private sector than would otherwise be the case, every year the plan is pursued. Banks can compensate for these reserves by creating new ones when they make loans. But, loans create both assets and liabilities in equal measure and no new net financial assets.

So eventually, if deficit reduction is pursued for long enough, a declining rate of addition to private net financial assets will exacerbate the output gap by lowering aggregate demand and causing both labor and capital to deteriorate. This will eventually dig the US’s economic grave by reducing the productive capacity of the economy, and the Government’s ability to sustain greater levels of deficit spending, producing outputs of real social value, without triggering inflation. Oh, well, President Obama, Timothy Geithner, Jack Lew, Erskine Bowles, Alan Simpson, Alice Rivlin, Pete Peterson, and the rest of us will be able to find consolation by reminding ourselves that our collective trip to the poorhouse was in the service of the neoliberal notion that fiscal responsibility is all about containing the rise of the debt-to-GDP ratio.

– REAL fiscal responsibility is a pattern of fiscal policy intended to achieve public purposes (such as full employment, price stability, a first class educational system, Medicare for All, etc.), while also maintaining or increasing fiscal sustainability, viewed as the extent to which patterns of Government spending do not undermine the capability of the Government to continue to spend to achieve our public purposes. Read the rest of this entry →

Trigger Mechanisms To Avoid the Fiscal Cliff? You’re Kidding, Right?

5:15 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Robert Reich has been writing a series on “the Grand Bargain” and the “fiscal cliff.” In this post, I’ll do a commentary on his “The President’s Opening Bid on a Grand Bargain (II): Put a Trigger Mechanism in the Legislation”, because I think it’s a good example of self-defeating progressivism or “loser liberalism. Take your choice of epithet.

Reich begins:

When he meets with Congressional leaders this Friday to begin discussions about avoiding the upcoming “fiscal cliff,” the President should make crystal clear that America faces two big economic challenges ahead: getting the economy back on track, and getting the budget deficit under control. But the two require opposite strategies. We get the economy back on track by boosting demand through low taxes on the middle class and more government spending. We get the budget deficit under control by raising taxes and reducing government spending. (Taxes can be raised on the wealthy in the short term without harming the economy because the wealthy already spend as much as they want – that’s what it means to be rich.)

So, the good “progressive” defines the problem pretty much the same way as the rest of the Washington mainstream does. And he just assumes everyone agrees on that, especially on the idea that the budget deficit is out of control and that we need to reduce deficits by raising taxes and reducing government spending. So he gives away half the game by agreeing on essentials with the deficit hawks. But why does he agree that the deficit has to be brought “under control,” implying that the deficit is a problem? Why are WE just expected to accept that? Why isn’t there an explanation? When are we going to make these “progressives” explain exactly why the deficit, debt, debt-to-GDP ratio is such a problem for them?

After all, Robert Reich has been around long enough to know that the Government of the United States is a currency issuer and that no deficit it may incur is beyond its power just to make more money? So why do they think it’s a problem? Let’s go on and see if we get a hint of what the explanation for Reich’s concern with “the deficit problem” comes from.

But before we do that, let’s briefly note that Reich’s easy comment that taxing the rich more won’t harm the economy, isn’t quite true since since for every dollar taxed away GDP does decline by about $.30. Of course, that can easily be fixed by spending an equivalent amount to the amount taxed on something more productive than tax cuts for the rich. But since we can easily spend that amount of money on that more productive thing if we want to, anyway, there’s no reason to tax the rich more arising out of any imagined shortage of dollars. Of course, there are many more reasons to tax them, like justice, fairness, the desire to make them pay for ill-gotten gains, etc. But the need for money in order for the Government to spend on other things is just not one of them.

It all boils down to timing and sequencing: First, get the economy back on track. Then tackle the budget deficit.

Get the economy back on track, indeed. But, again, why is the deficit something that has to be “tackled”?

If we do too much deficit reduction too soon, we’re in trouble. That’s why the fiscal cliff is so dangerous. The Congressional Budget Office and most independent economists say it will suck so much demand out of the economy that it will push us back into recession. That’s the austerity trap of low growth, high unemployment, and falling government revenues Europe finds itself in. We don’t want to go there.

We certainly don’t want to go where Europe has been going lately. They’re a great example of how NOT to manage your way out of a Great Financial Crash. But what makes Reich and other progressives think they can avoid the fate of the Eurozone nations by planning for deficit reduction later ,or at all? The assumption here is that there must and will be a time when we can reduce the deficit without harming the economy. But what if there’s no such time? What if any substantial deficit reduction to under 4% of GDP, a figure envisioned in most of the deficit reduction plans being offered, means making the private sector poorer in the aggregate?

That’s not just a theoretical question. Right now, the US imports more than it exports in an amount greater than 4% of GDP. If we continue to do so, and the Government deficit is forced down to a number below 4% of GDP, then a private sector surplus in the aggregate will be literally impossible to attain, and, if we continue with such a policy, year after year, the private sector will lose more and more of its net financial assets as the Government eats the private economy in a fit of fiscal irresponsibility, that since it’s now way past 1984, the austerity advocates label fiscal responsibility.

Although the U.S. economy is picking up and unemployment trending downward, we’re still not out of the woods. So in the foreseeable future — the next six months to a year, at least — the government has to continue to spend, and the vast middle class has to keep spending as well, unimpeded by any tax increase.

Of course, that’s true, but the “vast middle class” can be impeded from consuming by cuts in discretionary Government spending and in social safety net spending equally effectively, and deficit reduction, without raising taxes on the middle class, is likely to involve a good bit of those kinds of cuts, if there’s any compromise at all with the deficit hawks on the budget.

But waiting too long to reduce the deficit will also harm the economy – spooking creditors and causing interest rates to rise.

Now we’re getting an inkling of what Reich’s problem is. He’s afraid of the “bond vigilantes” and their supposed power to raise interest rates and leave us with a great big interest bill that will further increase the deficit. So, all this concern over a “deficit problem” is due to fear of the markets and, perhaps, Reich would have no problem with running continuous deficits if he thought that the Fed, along with the Treasury, control interest rate targets, and that the bond markets are powerless to impose their will on Mr. Bernanke and the Treasury Secretary if they want to keep rates near zero, or at any other level of interest they would like the US to pay? Well, if that’s true, then let me assure Professor Reich that the bond markets and the ratings agencies are powerless to drive up interest rates against the combined determination of the Fed and the Treasury to keep them low.

We can see this if we imagine what would happen if the Fed continues to target overnight rates at close to zero, and the Treasury issued mostly 3 month debt. We know that short-term debt tends strongly to the overnight rate, and that there’s nothing the markets can do about that. So, if the Fed targets that rate at say 0.25%, and if the Treasury issues only short-term debt, the result will be that the markets cannot drive the rates much higher than that even if Moody’s is follish enough to downgrade US debt to below Japan’s rating.

This is why any “grand bargain” to avert the fiscal cliff should contain a starting trigger that begins spending cuts and any middle-class tax increases only when the economy is strong enough. I’d make that trigger two consecutive quarters of 6 percent unemployment and 3 percent economic growth.

Triggers are a really bad idea, and I’d hate to be among those 6% on the U-3 measure of unemployment, or the likely 12% on the U-6 measure, when the spending cuts and tax increases specified in the trigger mechanism occur, because those levels aren’t ones associated with a booming economy or one that is anywhere prosperous enough to stand against years of reduced Government spending at a deficit level below that necessary to compensate for the loss of aggregate demand due to our trade deficit. A trigger like this would take an already fragile economy, operating at way less than full employment, and would make unemployment higher, while it reduces private sector net financial assets during the years of deficit reduction triggered by such a plan. Depending on the details of the trigger, and assuming there’s no private sector credit bubble putting off the day of reckoning, a recession is a sure thing within an unpredictable, but relatively short space of time.

And keep in mind please, that this notion of Reich’s is a proposal for Obama’s opening bid, which presumably is open to compromise. So, perhaps Reich would be willing to set the deficit reduction at a compromise level of 7% U-3 unemployment? What a “loser liberal”!

But the real mistake here is in having any “trigger” at all. The whole idea is really dumb from an economic point of view. Fiscal policy needs to be guided by our expectations about its likely effects on real outcomes; not by some scheme that assumes that deficits are “bad” and must be minimized. We no longer live under the gold standard Professor Reich! A deficit is nothing more than the amount that Government spending exceeds tax revenue. It’s just a number!

To assess its appropriateness we have to place it in the context of what the private sector wants to save, and how much it wants to import, assuming the willingness of other nations to export to the US. The best fiscal policy is one that spends what the US needs to spend to solve its serious problems and achieve public purposes, and at the same time lets the deficit float as it will given such spending.

Of course, too much deficit spending can cause demand-pull inflation. But the proper remedy for that is to raise specific taxes and lower specific spending in such a way that price stability and full employment, as well as other good outcome result from fiscal policy. The size of the deficit or surplus is not a proxy for such real outcomes, and responsible fiscal policy should not be attempting to maximize, minimize or optimize either deficits or surpluses, rather than the real outcomes of government fiscal policy. In other words, run fiscal policy in accordance with expected real outcomes, and forget about deficits and surpluses per se. They should be treated as insignificant side effects, not as as centerpieces for fiscal responsibility, as they were under the gold standard.

To make sure this doesn’t become a means of avoiding deficit reduction altogether, that trigger should be built right into any “grand bargain” legislation – irrevocable unless two-thirds of the House and Senate agree, and the President signs on.

Please, no more foolish legislation that tries to constrain the freedom of action of future Congresses! The context of fiscal policy is always changing, and the Government must be adaptive to changing conditions. Future governments have to take into account things that have gone or are likely to go wrong. We should not, and really cannot bind them to “triggers” that can’t take into account the future conditions that may present themselves.

The fiscal cliff is itself an example of this principle. The “cliff”, after all, results from the sequestration trigger. And now, after agreeing to it, how’s that working for Congress and the rest of us? It’s made Congress look really, really stupid, and has only made it more obvious that the only crisis is what Congress has manufactured, and now refuses to fix in any way that won’t hurt the economy. And it has put the nation in a bind and subjected Congress to an immediate high pressure situation and the people to more “shock doctrine.” The agreement producing it was the last thing we needed. But we’ve got it, because people resorted to a “trigger.”

Now Reich wants to turn to another kind of trigger. But what we need instead is a return to real fiscal responsibility, and some education about what it means to have a non-convertible fiat currency, a floating exchange rate, and no debts in a currency not our own.

The trigger would reassure creditors we’re serious about getting our fiscal house in order. And it would allow us to achieve our two goals in the right sequence – getting the economy back on track, and then getting the budget deficit under control. It’s sensible and do-able. But will Congress and the President do it?

If the main reason for the trigger is to stop the creditors from reacting badly to attempts to create an economy that produces full employment at a living wage and prosperity for all Americans, as well as a modern economy that fulfills our health care, educational, infrastructure, education, energy, climate change, and environmental needs, then I say let’s stop issuing debt and get the bond markets out of the Treasuries business entirely. That will certainly stop our interest costs from getting out of control and also render the bond vigilantes irrelevant to the finances of the US. Then neither Professor Reich, nor anyone else will have to give a moment’s thought to what “our creditors” think about our deficits, our national debt, or anything else we do.

Last time I looked, comparatively few of the bond market investors were actual American voters. So, why should they have any influence over what we choose to do anyway?

(Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.)