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Austerity and Debt Realism

CAMBRIDGE – Many, if not all, of the world’s most pressing macroeconomic problems relate to the massive overhang of all forms of debt. In Europe, a toxic combination of public, bank, and external debt in the periphery threatens to unhinge the eurozone. Across the Atlantic, a standoff between the Democrats, the Tea Party, and old-school Republicans has produced extraordinary uncertainty about how the United States will close its 8%-of-GDP government deficit over the long term. Japan, meanwhile is running a 10%-of-GDP budget deficit, even as growing cohorts of new retirees turn from buying Japanese bonds to selling them.

Aside from wringing their hands, what should governments be doing? One extreme is the simplistic Keynesian remedy that assumes that government deficits don’t matter when the economy is in deep recession; indeed, the bigger the better. At the opposite extreme are the debt-ceiling absolutists who want governments to start balancing their budgets tomorrow (if not yesterday). Both are dangerously facile.

The debt-ceiling absolutists grossly underestimate the massive adjustment costs of a self-imposed “sudden stop” in debt finance. Such costs are precisely why impecunious countries such as Greece face massive social and economic displacement when financial markets lose confidence and capital flows suddenly dry up.

Of course, there is an appealing logic to saying that governments should have to balance their budgets just like the rest of us; unfortunately, it is not so simple. Governments typically have myriad ongoing expenditure commitments related to basic services such as national defense, infrastructure projects, education, and health care, not to mention to retirees. No government can just walk away from these responsibilities overnight.