It’s the kind of thing I expect to hear from deficit hawks and chicken littles — from the self-described “fiscally responsible” right, from the scolds Ross Perot and Pete Peterson, from my former cabinet colleague Bob Rubin. But yesterday I was shown slides developed by the putatively liberal Center for American Progress intended to make the point. And today’s front page story in the New York Times, by the eminent David Leonhardt, entitled “Sea of Red Ink: How It Spread From A Puddle,” puts the issue right before our progressive noses, so to speak.
The Great Debt Scare is back.
Odd that it would return right now, when the economy is still mired in the worst depression since the Great one. After all, consumers are still deep in debt and incapable of buying. Unemployment continues to soar. Businesses still are not purchasing or investing, for lack of customers. Exports are still dead, because much of the global economy continues to shrink. So the purchaser of last resort — the government — has to create larger deficits if the economy is to get anywhere near full capacity, and start to grow again.
Odder still that the Debt Scare returns at the precise moment that bills are emerging from Congress on universal health care, which, by almost everyone’s reckoning, will not increase the long-term debt one bit because universal health care has to be paid for in the budget. In fact, universal health care will reduce the deficit and cumulative debt — especially if it includes a public option capable of negotiating lower costs from drug makers, doctors, and insurers, and thereby reducing the future costs of Medicare and Medicaid.
Even odder that the Debt Scare rears its frightening head just as the President’s stimulus is moving into high gear with more spending on infrastructure. Every expert who has looked closely at the nation’s crumbling infrastructure knows how badly it suffers from decades of deferred maintenance — bridges collapsing, water pipes bursting, sewers backed up, highways impassable, public transit in disrepair. The stimulus, along with the President’s long-term budget, also focus on the nation’s schools, as well as America’s capacity to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. These public investments are as important to the nation’s future as are private investments.
First, some background: Deficit and debt numbers mean nothing in and of themselves. They take on meaning only in relation to something else. And the most important something else, in terms of deciding whether the nation can afford such deficits or debts, is the size of the national economy.
Pay close attention, in particular, to the debt/GDP ratio. True, that ratio is heading in the wrong direction right now. It may reach 70 percent by the end of 2010. That’s high, but it’s not high compared to the 120 percent it was in 1946, after the ravages of Depression and war.
Over time, the basic way America has reduced the debt/GDP ratio is by growing the U.S. economy. GDP growth makes even large debts manageable. When the economy is cooking, more people have jobs and better wages. So they pay more taxes. And they require less unemployment assistance and other social insurance. That’s why it’s so important now, in the depths of depression, that government, as purchaser of last resort, steps in and runs large deficits. Without large deficits this year and next, and perhaps the year after, the economy doesn’t have a prayer of getting back on a growth path, and the debt/GDP ratio could really get ugly.
That growth path, by the way, will be faster and stronger if the nation invests in our infrastructure, our schools, and our environment — which is exactly what Obama aims to do. In this respect, national budgets are like family budgets. It’s dumb for an indebted family to borrow more money to take a world cruise. But it’s smart even for an indebted family to borrow money to send their kids to college. So too with the Obama budget. Public investments, just like family investments, build future wealth. They allow faster growth. They make the debt/GDP ratio even lower and more manageable over time.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there’s nothing to worry about when it comes to long-term deficit and debt projections. I’m just saying now’s not the time to worry, and we ought to temper our worries by understanding the larger context.
Not every expert agrees that a deficit-driven stimulus is the best and fastest way to get the economy back on a growth track, or that public investments can speed growth. Conservative economists, Republicans, and many Wall Streeters are skeptical because they don’t think government can do anything well. But look at the record of the last seventy-five years — look at how the nation got out of the Great Depression, and consider the critical role public investments have played since then in speeding the nation’s growth, investments such as the interstate highway system — and you have ample evidence that the deficit hawks are wrong. They were wrong when they convinced Bill Clinton to chuck a large part of his investment agenda (the nation is now paying the price) and they’re wrong now.
So, back to the mystery. Why are the ostensibly liberal Center for American Progress and New York Times participating in the Debt Scare right now? Is it possible that among the President’s top economic advisors and top ranking members the Fed are people who agree more with conservative Republicans and Wall Streeters on this issue than with the President? Is it conceivable that they are quietly encouraging the Debt Scare even in traditionally liberal precincts, in order to reduce support in the Democratic base for what Obama wants to accomplish? Hmmm.