Friday, December 9, 2011

The Meme that Refuses to Die: Government Debt Must Be Paid Back

No it doesn’t.  It almost never is.  To pay back government debt, you have to run a budget surplus, and while there may be modest surpluses from time to time, they don’t add up to more than a minuscule fraction of all the accumulated debt.  But don’t take it from me, look at the record.

The story is unmistakable: the US jacked up its public debt to finance WWII and increased it further in almost every year since then.  We are not paying off the debt left by our parents and grandparents, and our children and grandchildren will not pay off ours.

The debt burden depends on the ratio of debt to GDP as well as the interest cost in servicing it.  The way to reduce this burden is to have a combination of real economic growth, inflation and modest interest rates.  If you want to show your solicitude for the well-being of future generations, demand macroeconomic policies that will boost demand and raise inflation a bit, consistent with continued low interest rates.

What to avoid: nonsense like this excerpt from today’s column by Catherine Rampell of the New York Times:
Total debt for the United States — that is, also including corporate and government debt — hit another all-time high because government borrowing is still outpacing the rate at which households shed debt.
 Guess who will ultimately pay back that government debt: American households.


Post a Comment