Archive for the 'Keynesian Economics' Category

Nov 06 2012

To continue stimulus or to pursue austerity, that is the question

Note: This post was originally published in August of 2010. It is being reposted today to support a lesson on fiscal policy in my year 2 IB Economics class.

In the seemingly endless and currently ongoing debate over the role of the government in the macroeconomy, there are two main camps: Those who think the governments of the developed economies have not done enough to get their economies out of recession, and those who think they have already done too much, and therefore need to start rolling back stimulus and reducing deficits.

At the heart of this debate are the two macroeconomic schools of thought, the  Keynesian demand-side theories and the classical, supply-side theories. Two intellectuals have emerged in the last several years representing the two sides of the macroeconomic debate. On the demand-side, representing the Keynesian school of thought, is 2008 Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman. Representing the classical, supply-side school of thought is Harvard economic historian Niall Ferguson. These two have squared off in many forums over the last three years, Krugman arguing for more and continued fiscal stimulus to prop up and increase demand in the economy, Ferguson arguing for smaller deficits, lower taxes and less government spending to increase private sector confidence and thereby supply in the economy.

During our long summer break the two squared off once again in the aftermath of a G20 meeting in which the governments of several major economies from Europe and North America announced plans to begin rolling back the stimulus spending they embarked on throughout 2008 and 2009. The reason for increased “austerity measures” (policies that reduce the budget deficit and slow the growth of national debt), argue global leaders, is to reduce the chances of more countries experiencing debt crises like that experienced in Greece this spring.

International investors realized earlier this year that Greece’s budget deficits were a much larger percentage of its GDP than previously thought, and very quickly decided that Greek government bonds were an unsafe investment. Almost overnight the cost of borrowing in Greece shot up above 20%, bringing investment in the economy to a halt and forcing the government to cut its budget, leading to higher unemployment and reduced social benefits for the people of Greece.  If investors were to look at the growing budget deficits in other developed countries and  then suddenly lose faith in other government’s ability to pay back their debts, then a similar crisis could occur in much larger economies, including the UK, Germany and the United States. Hence these country’s apparent desire to begin reducing deficits and rolling back stimulus spending; measures that may just plunge these economies into an even deeper recession than that which they have experienced over the last two years.

The videos below show the leading intellectuals on both sides of the stimulus/austerity debate presenting their arguments. Below each video are discussion questions to help guide your understanding of their views. Watch the videos and respond to the discussion questions in the comment section below.

Video 1 - Krugman argues for continued stimulus:

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Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the two “profoundly different views of economics” that are being tested as governments begin rolling back the fiscal stimulus packages of the last two years?
  2. What are three characteristics of an economy in a “depression” according to Krugman?
  3. What is “budget austerity” and why does Krugman think this should not be the first priority of policymakers in the G20 nations?
  4. Why is deflation dangerous according to Krugman?
  5. What is the additional annual cost to the US government of borrowing and spending an additional trillion dollars now? What is the potential additional benefit of more stimulus?

Video 2 - Ferguson argues for austerity and “fiscal regime change”:

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Discussion Questions:

  1. Why might the US have to pass spending cuts and tax increases to maintain its “credibility in international bond markets”?
  2. Why would fiscal tightening “choke off the recovery”?
  3. How is the financial crisis in Europe a warning to the US?
  4. How could the “costs” exceed the “benefits” of deficit financed expansionary fiscal policy.
  5. Ferguson proposes a new type of policy that “boosts confidence”. Why will expansionary fiscal and monetary policies fail if private sector confidence remains depressed?

6 responses so far

Oct 30 2012

Visualizing recession’s effect on government deficits and debt

Fiscal policy consists of the use of taxes and government spending in the economy to promote macroeconomic objectives such as full employment, economic growth, low inflation and reduced income inequality. When an economy is doing poorly, the government’s fiscal policies tend to result in large budget deficits, which occur when the amount of expenditures exceed the amount of tax revenue collected in a particular year.

When a government runs deficits year after year, each deficit is added to the nation’s debt. The charts below, created using Google’s Public Data Explorer, provide a snapshot of the deficit and debt situations experienced by the countries of Europe over the last couple of decades. Study the graphs closely with your class, then read the analysis and explanations that follow!

Automatic stabilizers in Fiscal Policy

When an economy is doing well, fiscal policy adjusts automatically to bring down deficits, and even allow a government to run a budget surplus if the tax revenues exceed government expenditures. When the economy slows down, output falls, and unemployment rises, government spending and taxation automatically adjust in ways that move the budget towards deficit, in which the government spends more than it collects in taxes.

These automatic adjustments to fiscal policy result from the effect growth or recession have on previously mandated government expenditures and tax receipts. For example, imagine the US economy slips into a recession:

  • As demand for the nation’s output falls, the incomes of producers and workers decline, therefore the amount of income tax received by the government decreases automatically
  • At the same time, more workers are becoming unemployed, making them eligible to receive unemployment benefits from the government. More people slip into poverty and begin to receive welfare and government health insurance, and perhaps even subsidized housing and food.
  • Revenues automatically decline while government spending automatically increases, moving the budget further into deficit.

Next imagine the US economy has recovered and is growing at rates above its long run average growth rate. During such “booms” in the business cycle, the following occurs:

  • Business and household incomes are rising, so more income tax is being paid, increasing government tax revenues.
  • Unemployment is falling, meaning fewer people receive government benefits. Fewer people are in poverty, meaning less spending on transfer payments that support the poor.
  • With tax revenues increasing and government transfer payments decreasing, the budget automatically moves towards surplus.

These “automatic stabilizers” should mean that as an economy experiences the normal fluctuations of its business cycle, the government budget fluctuates between surpluses and deficits, and over time, national debt is kept nice and low. But as we saw in the graphs linked in the top of this post, a sustained downturn in economic activity can lead to structural deficits that persist for years and years. Persistent budget deficits mean an ever ballooning national debt, as can be seen in this chart:

As the graph above shows, over time, large deficits lead to ever growing debts. Notice the general inverse relationship between the size of a country’s budget deficit and the size of its national debt. Countries in the upper left hand corner of the graph generally have low deficits (or budget surpluses) and enjoy relatively small national debts. In the lower right, on the other hand, large deficits have lead to levels of debt frighteningly large as a percentage of the countries’ GDPs.

Discretionary Fiscal Policy

What does all this mean for government policy makers? Let’s first distinguish between the automatic fiscal policy described above and discretionary fiscal policy. Much of the increase in budget deficits and national debts seen in the charts in this post can be explained by European governments’ initial responses to the economic downturns first seen in 2007 and 2008. When unemployment began to rise and output began to fall across Europe, the first response of many governments was to intervene to try to stimulate aggregate demand  beyond what was provided automatically through increased transfer payments and decreasing tax receipts. Discretionary fiscal policy refers to deliberate changes to overall tax rates and government spending aimed at directly or indirectly stimulating (or contracting) demand in the economy to help move an economy back to its full employment level during a recession (or, in some cases, during a period of high inflation).

Discretionary fiscal policy, when used during a recession, will drastically increase the size of a budget deficit (and therefore, the national debt). Why do it, you ask? Advocates of such policies (often known as Keynesians, after John Maynard Keynes, whose theories formed the basis for such policies) argue that a recession must be reversed as soon as possible, or else the burden of a nation’s existing debt will grow (as a percentage of its GDP) as the country’s GDP falls. More importantly, of course, is the human and social cost of a recession, as workers become unemployed and hardship spreads among the nation’s households.

A short-term increase in the budget deficit may pay for itself if the subsequent increase in overall demand is mulitplied throughout the economy and overall GDP increases by more than it would have with only automatic stabilizers to rely on. Government spending on infrastructure, education, health, and other public goods creates jobs, increases household income, provides the economy with new capital and infrastructure, increasing the nation’s production possibilities and boosting demand to move the economy closer to full employment. Higher incomes among those employed in government projects will be spent, creating even more new jobs in the private sector.

Discretionary fiscal policy aimed at stimulating demand requires a government borrows money, increasing the national debt. But if such policies are successful, the debt burden will be smaller over time since economic growth may return, increasing the GDP and thus allowing the budget to move back towards surplus sooner, as automatic stabilizers once again kick in.

Evaluating the use of Fiscal Policy for managing the economy

Understanding the difference between automatic and discretionary fiscal policy, and the impact that expansionary policies have on budget deficits and national debt, provide us with tools for evaluating its use during recessions or periods of high inflation. However, we need to know more about the impact of deficits and debt in order to fully evaluate its use. For that, you’ve got to read some more posts and watch some videos. Here are some key resources that will help you evaluate the use of fiscal policy for fighting recessions.

After watching these two video lectures and reading the post, answer the discussion questions that follow:

  1. Explain the huge increases in national debts (both in Euros and as percentages of the countries GDPs) during the later part of the decade from 2000 to 2010.
  2. How does automatic fiscal policy differ from discretionary fiscal policy?
  3. How does the multiplier effect of fiscal policy provide support to the Keynesians’ views that tax cuts and increases in government spending can highly effective at getting and economy out of recession?
  4. How does the crowding-out effect of fiscal policy support the opponents of its use who argue that government spending and tax cuts will only make an economy less competitive and grow more slowly in the long-run?

No responses yet

Sep 27 2012

Deflation: why lower prices spell doom for any economy!

The Fed should focus on deflation | The greater of two evils | The Economist

Deflation: a decrease in the general price level of goods and services of an economy. Sounds great, right? Lower prices mean the purchasing power of our income increases, making the “average” person richer! On the surface, it could be concluded that deflation may actually be a good thing. And in some cases, it is!

If prices of goods are falling because of major technological advances (think of the price of cell phones and laptop computers over the last 20 years) or because of massive improvements in the productivity of labor and capital (think of the price of manufactured consumer goods during the Industrial Revolution), then deflation could be considered a sign of healthy economic growth. Put in terms an IB or AP Economics student should understand, a fall in prices caused by an increase in a nation’s aggregate supply is good, since it is accompanied by greater levels of employment and higher real incomes. But if the fall in prices is caused by a decline in spending in the economy (in other words, by a decrease in aggregate demand), the consequences can be catastrophic.

It just so happens that the United States, Great Britain, and my own home of Switzerland are all faced with demand-deficient deflation at this very moment. I’ll allow the Economist to elaborate:

…With unemployment nearing 9% (in the United States), economic output is further below the economy’s potential than at any time since 1982. This gap is likely to widen. House prices are not part of America’s inflation index but their decline is forcing households to reduce debt , which could subdue economic growth for years. As workers compete for scarce jobs and firms underbid each other for sales, wages and prices will come under pressure.

So far, expectations of inflation remain stable: that sentiment is itself a welcome bulwark against deflation. But pay freezes and wage cuts may soon change people’s minds. In one poll, more than a third of respondents said they or someone in their household had suffered a cut in pay or hours…

Does this matter? If prices are falling because of advancing productivity, as at the end of the 19th century, it is a sign of progress, not economic collapse. Today, though, deflation is more likely to resemble the malign 1930s sort than that earlier benign variety, because demand is weak and households and firms are burdened by debt. In deflation the nominal value of debts remains fixed even as nominal wages, prices and profits fall. Real debt burdens therefore rise, causing borrowers to cut spending to service their debts or to default. That undermines the financial system and deepens the recession.

From 1929 to 1933 prices fell by 27%. This time central banks are on the case. In America, Britain, Japan and Switzerland they have pushed short-term interest rates to, or close to, zero…

inflation is easier to put right than deflation. A central bank can raise interest rates as high as it wants to suppress inflation, but it cannot cut nominal rates below zero… In the worst case, rising debts and defaults depress growth, poisoning the economy by deepening deflation and pressing real interest rates higher….Given the choice, erring on the side of inflation would be less catastrophic than erring on the side of deflation.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Deflation poses several threats to an economy that is otherwise fundamentally healthy, such as the United States’. What are some the threats posed by deflation?
  2. The expectation of future deflation can have as equally devastating effect. Why is this?
  3. What evidence does the article put forth that an economy experiencing deflation may eventually “self-correct”, meaning return to the full employment level of output in the long-run?
  4. Why don’t governments and central banks just sit back and let the economy self-correct? In other words, why are fiscal and monetary policies being used so aggressively by the US, Great Britain and Switzerland during this economic crisis?

Deflation or Inflation:Watch the video below, see if gives you any clues as to the causes and effects of deflation. What do you think John Maynard Keynes would say in response to the deflationary fears expressed in the Economist article?

60 responses so far

Oct 31 2011

Keynes versus Hayek 101 – the debate continues

The most important graph used in Macroeconomics today is almost certainly the Aggregate Demand / Aggregate Supply (AD/AS) model. This graph can be used to illustrate most macroeconomic indicators, including those objectives that policymakers are most interested in achieving:

The AD/AS model, on its surface, is a very simple diagram, showing the total, or aggregate demand for a nation’s output and the total, or aggregate supply of goods and services produces in a nation. It is very similar to the microeconomics supply and demand diagram, except that instead of comparing the quantity of a particular good to the price in the market, the AD/AS model plots the national output  (Y) against the average price level (PL). The model shows an inverse relationship between aggregate and price level, and a direct relationship between aggregate supply and price levels.
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What makes this seemingly simple model so interesting, however, is that there are two wildly different opinions among economists on one of the its two primary components. Some economists, whom we shall refer to as Keynesians, believe that the AS curve is horizontal whenever aggregate demand decreases, and vertical whenever AD increases beyond the full employment level of output. On the other side of this debate is whom we shall refer to as the Hayekians who believe that AS is vertical, regardless of the level of demand in the nation. The two views of AS can be illustrated as follows.
Underlying the two models above are very different ideas about a nation’s economy. The Keynesian AS curve implies that anything that leads to a fall in a nation’s aggregate demand (either household consumption, investment by firms, government spending or net exports) will cause a relatively mild fall in prices in the economy but a significant decline in the real GDP (or the total output and employment in the nation). The neo-classical AS curve, on the other hand, being vertical (or perfectly inelastic), implies that no matter what happens to AD, the nation’s output and employment will always remain at the full employment level (Yfe).
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Behind these two models of AS are two schools of economic thought, one rooted in Keynesian theories and one rooted in the theories of an intellectual rival and contemporary of John Maynard Keynes’, Friedrich Hayek. Keynes and Hayek were the most pre-eminent economists of their era. Both lived in the first half of the 20th century, and rose to prominence in between the two World Wars. Both economists saw the world fall into the Great Depression, but each of them formulated their own distinct theory on the best way to deal with the Depression. The episode of Planet Money below goes into some detail about the lives and the theories of these to most influential economists.

Keynes believed in what we today call demand-management. The idea that through well planned economic policies, governments and central banks could intervene in a nation’s economy during periods of economic downturn to return the economy to its full-employment level, or the level of output the nation would be producing at if everyone who was willing and able to work was actually working. Keynes believed that aggregate demand was the most vital measure of economic activity in a nation, and that through its use of fiscal and monetary policies (changes in the tax rates, the levels of government spending, and the interest rates in the economy), the government and central bank could provide stimulus to a depressed economy and create demand for the nation’s resources that would help move a depressed economy back towards full employment.
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Hayek and his disciples, on the other hand (sometimes referred to today as the supply-siders) had a different interpretation of the macroeconomy. Hayek was what many today refer to as a libertarian. He believed that the government’s best strategy for handling an economic downturn was to get out of the way. Any attempt by the government to influence the allocation of resources through “stimulus projects” would only reduce the private sector’s ability to quickly and efficienty correct itself. The free market, argued Hayek, was always superior to the government when it came to allocating resources towards the production of the goods and services consumers demanded, so why allow government to intervene in the economy at all. All a government should do, argued Hayek, was provide a few basic guidelines to allow the economy to function. A legal system of property rights, for instance. The government need not provide anything else. The free market would take care of health care, education, defense, security, infrastructure, and anything else the market demanded.
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During depressions, Hayek believed that government could only make things worse by trying to intervene to restore full employment. At any and all times, government’s best action would be to lower taxes, reduce its spending on goods and services, and thereby encourage private entrepreneurs to provide the nation’s households with the output they demand. Any regulation of the private sector, including minimum wages, environmental regulations, workplace safety laws, government pensions, unemployment benefits, welfare payments, or any other measures by government to redistribute wealth or promote equality or social welfare would reduce incentives for individuals in society to achieve their full productivity and strive to maximize their potential output. By minimizing the government’s role in the economy, argued Hayek, a nation would be likely to recover swiftly from a 1930′s style Depression, and output can be maintained at a level that corresponds with full employment of the nation’s resources.
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The graphs below show how the two competing ideologies view the effects of a fall in aggregate demand in the economy.
On the left we see the Keynesian model, which shows output (real GDP) falling with a fall in AD. The fall in output corresponds with a fall in employment, and therefore a recession (or Depression). To return to full employment, aggregate demand must move back to the right (or increase). To facilitate this, Keynes and his contemporaries believed that government should increase its spending, decrease taxes (to encourage households and firms to spend) and lower interest rates (to make saving less appealing). All that is needed, say the Keynesians, is a dose of stimulus to get back to full employment (Yfe).
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In the Hayekian model, no government intervention is needed at all when aggregate demand falls. In fact, in an economy with very limited government, a fall in AD will have little or no effect on output and employment. Without minimum wages or laws making it difficult or expensive for firms to reduce wages or fire and hire workers, firms faced with falling demand will simply lower their employees’ wages and reduce the prices of their products to maintain their output. If there is no more demand for some products, those firms will shut down and their workers will go to work for firms whose products are still in demand, at whatever wage rate the market is offering. Wages and prices are perfectly flexible in the Hayekian view, because there is no government interfering, demanding workers for big government projects, competing wages up, enforcing a minimum wage, or paying unemployment benefits to those out of work: all policies that make it difficult for wages to adjust downwards during a recession. Without government intervention, wages and prices rise and fall with the level of demand in the economy, but output remains constant at its full employment level.
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The two models could not be more different. In one (Keynes’) recessions will occur anytime demand falls below the level needed to maintain full employment. In the other (Hayek’s), recessions are impossible as long as government gets out (and stays out) of the way.
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Which models is the right model? For most of the last 100 years, most Western economies have demonstrated more of the characteristics of the Keynesian model. As the last several years show, recessions certainly are possible. Wages and prices have NOT fallen as much as Hayek’s model suggest they should, and economic output has declined in many Western nations and remains below the levels achieved in 2007 in many places. Most economists would argue that this prolonged recession is likely due to a weak level of aggregate demand. And the economic policies of many Western nations have reflected the Keynesian belief that government can “fix the problem” through stimulus plans involving tax cuts, spending increases, and low interest rates.
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But two years of Keynesian policies are now being reversed. US President Obama’s latest attempt at a Keynesian-style stimulus (his $447 billion “American Jobs Act”) has been rejected by the US Congress. Across Europe, government spending is being slashed and taxes are being raised, both policies that threaten to further reduce aggregate demand. Deregulation is the battle cry of the Republican Party in the United States one year before the next presidential election. Presidential candidates are promising to “cut taxes, cut spending and cut government”, which sounds like a Hayekian battle cry. Less government will lead to more competition, greater efficiency, more employment and a stronger economy, goes the thinking. Government cannot solve our problems, government is our problem.
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This debate is not a new one. It has been going on since the 1930s when two scholars, one an Englishman from Cambridge, the other an Austrian at the London School of Economics, went toe to toe on the role of government in a nation’s economy. The two models of aggregate supply above survive to this day, and 80 years later, in the midst of what may be the second Great Depression, economists and politicians still haven’t figured out which theory is correct. Part of our problem is that in our Western democracies in which economic policies are determined by politicians who are often only in office for two to four years, we have not had the opportunity to truly put either economic theory to the test. Less than three years ago Barack Obama, freshly elected, embarked on the greatest experiment in Keynesianism since Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, which was widely credited with getting the US out of the Depression. Now, with another election looming, we have politicians promising to bring America back to economic prosperity in a truly Hayekian fashion, by “cutting, cutting and cutting”.

source: http://www.beaumontenterprise.com/

 

4 responses so far

Aug 16 2011

Too much debt or not enough demand? A summary of the debate over America’s fiscal future

As yet another school year begins, we once again find ourselves returning to an atmosphere of economic uncertainty, sluggish growth, and heated debate over how to return the economies of the United States and Europe back onto a growth trajectory. In the last couple of weeks alone the US government has barely avoided a default on its national debt, ratings agencies have downgraded US government bonds, global stock markets have tumbled, confidence in the Eurozone has been pummeled over fears of larger than expected deficits in Italy and Greece, and the US dollar has reached historic lows against currencies such as the Swiss Franc and the Japanese Yen.

What are we to make of all this turmoil? I will not pretend I can offer a clear explanation to all this chaos, but I can offer here a little summary of the big debate over one of the issues above: the debate over the US national debt and what the US should be doing right now to assure future economic and financial stability.

There are basically two sides to this debate, one we will refer to as the “demand-side” and one we will call the “supply-side”. On the demand-side you have economists like Paul Krugman, and in Washington the left wing of the Democratic party, who believe that America’s biggest problem is a lack of aggregate demand.

Supply-siders, on the other hand, are worried more about the US national debt, which currently stands around 98% of US GDP, and the budget deficit, which this year is around $1.5 trillion, or 10% of GDP. Every dollar spent by the US government beyond what it collects in taxes, argue the supply-siders, must be borrowed, and the cost of borrowing is the interest the government (i.e. taxpayers) have to pay to those buying government bonds. The larger the deficit, the larger the debt burden and the more that must be paid in interest on this debt. Furthermore, increased debt leads to greater uncertainty about the future and the expectation that taxes will have to be raised sometime down the road, thus creating an environment in which firms and households will postpone spending, prolonging the period of economic slump.

The demand-siders, however, believe that debt is only a problem if it grows more rapidly than national income, and in the US right now income growth is almost zero, meaning that the growing debt will pose a greater threat over time due to the slow growth in income. Think of it this way, if I owe you $98 and I only earn $100, then that $98 is a BIG DEAL. But if my income increases to $110 and my debt grows to $100, that is not as big a deal. Yes, I owe you more money, but I am also earning more money, so the debt burden has actually decreased.

In order to get US income to grow, say the demand-siders, continued fiscal and monetary stimulus are needed. With the debt deal struck two weeks ago, however, the US government has vowed to slash future spending by $2.4 trillion, effectively doing the opposite of what the demand-siders would like to see happen, pursuing fiscal contraction rather than expansion. As government spending grows less in the future than it otherwise would have, employment will fall and incomes will grow more slowly, or worse, the US will enter a second recession, meaning even lower incomes in the future, causing a the debt burden to grow.

Now let’s consider the supply-side argument. The supply-siders argue that America’s biggest problem is not the lack of demand, rather it is the debt itself. Every borrowed dollar spent by the goverment, say the supply-siders, is a dollar taken out of the private sector’s pocket. As government spending continues to grow faster than tax receipts, the government must borrow more and more from the private sector, and in order to attract lenders, interest on government bonds must be raised. Higher interest paid on government debt leads to a flow of funds into the public sector and away from the private sector, causing borrowing costs to rise for everyone else. In IB and AP Economics, this phenomenon is known as  the crowding-out effect: Public sector borrowing crowds out private sector investment, slowing growth and leading to less overall demand in the economy.

Additionally, argue the supply-siders, the increase in debt required for further stimulus will only lead to the expectation among households and firms of future increases in tax rates, which will be necessary to pay down the higher level of debt sometime in the future. The expectation of future tax hikes will be enough to discourage current consumption and investment, so despite the increase in government spending now, the fall in private sector confidence will mean less investment and consumption, so aggregate demand may not even grow if we do borrow and spend today!

This debate is not a new one. The demand-side / supply-side battle has raged for nearly a century, going back to the Great Depression when the prevailing economic view was that the cause of the global economic crisis was unbalanced budgets and too much foreign competition. In the early 30′s governments around the world cut spending, raised taxes and erected new barriers to trade in order to try and fix their economic woes. The result was a deepening of the depression and a lost decade of economic activity, culminating in a World War that led to a massive increase in demand and a return to full employment. Let’s hope that this time around the same won’t be necessary to end our global economic woes.

Recently, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria had two of the leading voices in this economic debate on his show to share their views on what is needed to bring the US and the world out of its economic slump. Princeton’s Paul Krugman, a proud Keynesian, spoke for the demand-side, while Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff represented the supply-side. Watch the interview below (up to 24:40), read my notes summarizing the two side’s arguments, and answer the questions that follow.

Summary of Krugman’s argument:

  • Despite the downgrade by Standard & Poor’s (a ratings agency) there appears to be strong demand for US government bonds right now, meaning really low borrowing costs (interest rates) for the US government.
  • This means investors are not afraid of what S&P is telling them to be afraid of, and are more than happy to lend money to the US government at low interest rates.
  • Investors are fleeing from equities (stocks in companies), and buying US bonds because US debt is the safest asset out there. The market is saying that the downgrade may lead to more contractionary policies, hurting the real economy. Investors are afraid of contractionary fiscal policy, so are sending a message to Washington that it should spend more now.
  • The really scary thing is the prospect of another Great Depression.
  • Can fiscal stimulus succeed in an environment of large amounts of debt held by the private sector? YES, says Krugman, the government can sustain spending to maintain employment and output, which leads to income growth and makes it easier for the private sector to pay down their debt.
  • With 9% unemployment and historically high levels of long-term unemployment, we should be addressing the employment problem first. We should throw everything we can at increasing employment and incomes.
  • Is there some upper limit to the national debt? Krugman says the deficit and debt are high, but we must consider costs versus benefits: The US can borrow money and repay in constant dollars (inflation adjusted) less than it borrowed. There must be projects the federal government could undertake with at least a constant rate of return that could get workers employed. If the world wants to buy US bonds, let’s borrow now and invest for the future!
  • If we discovered that space aliens were about to attack and we needed a massive military buildup to protect ourselves from invasion, inflation and budget deficits would be a secondary concern to that and the recession would be over in 18 months.
  • We have so many hypothetical risks (inflation, bond market panic, crowding out, etc…) that we are afraid to tackle the actual challenge that is happening (unemployment, deflation, etc..) and we are destroying a lot of lives to protect ourselves from these “phantom threats”.
  • The thing that’s holding us back right now in the US is private sector debt. Yes we won’t have a self-sustaining recovery until private sector debt comes down, at least relative to incomes. Therefore we need policies that make income grow, which will reduce the burden of private debt.
  • The idea that we cannot do anything to grow until private debt comes down on its own is flawed… increase income, decrease debt burden!
  • Things that we have no evidence for that are supposed to be dangerous are not a good reason not to pursue income growth policies.
  • When it comes down to it, there just isn’t enough spending in the economy!

Summary of Rogoff’s argument:

  • The downgrade was well justified, and the reason for the demand for treasuries is that they look good compared to the other options right now.
  • There is a panic going on as investors adjust to lower growth expectations, due to lack of leadership in the US and Europe.
  • This is not a classical recession, rather a “Great Contraction”: Recessions are periodic, but a financial crisis like this is unusual, this is the 2nd Great Contraction since the Depresssion. It’s not output and employment, but credit and housing which are contracting, due to the “debt overhang”.
  • If you look at a contraction, it can take up to 4 or 5 years just to get back where you started.
  • This is not a double dip recession, because we never left the first one.
  • Rogoff thinks continued fiscal stimulus would worsen the debt overhang because it leads to the expectation of future tax increases, thus causing firms and households increased uncertainty and reduces future growth.
  • If we used our credit to help facilitate a plan to bring down the mortgage debt (debt held by the private sector), Rogoff would consider that a better option than spending on employment and output. Fix the debt problem, and spending will resume.
  • Rogoff thinks we should not assume that interest rates of US debt will last indefinitely. Infrastructure spending, if well spent, is great, but he is suspicious whether the government is able to target its spending so efficiently to make borrowing the money worthwhile.
  • Rogoff thinks if government invests in productive projects, stimulus is a good idea, but “digging ditches” will not fix the economy.
  • Until we get the debt levels down, we cannot get back to robust growth.
  • It’s because of the government’s debt that the private sector is worried about where the country’s going. If we increase the debt to finance more stimulus, there will be more uncertainty, higher interest rates, possibly inflation, and prolonged stagnation in output and incomes.
  • When it comes down to it, there is just too much debt in the economy!

Discussion Question:

  1. What is the fundamental difference between the two arguments being debated above? Both agree that the national debt is a problem, but where do the two economists differ on how to deal with the debt?
  2. The issues of “digging ditches and filling them in” comes up in the discussion. What is the context of this metaphor? What are the two economists views on the effectiveness of such projects?
  3. Following the debate, Fareed Zakaria talks about the reaction in China to S&P’s downgrade of US debt. What does he think about the popular demands in China for the government to pull out of the market for US government bonds?
  4. Explain what Zakaria means when he describes the relationship between the US and China as “Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)”.
  5. Should the US government pursue a second stimulus and directly try to stimulate employment and income? Or should it continue down the path to austerity, cutting government programs to try and balance its budget?

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