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Debt-Friendly Stimulus

NEW HAVEN – With much of the global economy apparently trapped in a long and painful austerity-induced slump, it is time to admit that the trap is entirely of our own making. We have constructed it from unfortunate habits of thought about how to handle spiraling public debt.

People developed these habits on the basis of the experiences of their families and friends: when in debt trouble, one must cut spending and pass through a period of austerity until the burden (debt relative to income) is reduced. That means no meals out for a while, no new cars, and no new clothes. It seems like common sense – even moral virtue – to respond this way.

But, while that approach to debt works well for a single household in trouble, it does not work well for an entire economy, for the spending cuts only worsen the problem. This is the paradox of thrift: belt-tightening causes people to lose their jobs, because other people are not buying what they produce, so their debt burden rises rather than falls.

There is a way out of this trap, but only if we tilt the discussion about how to lower the debt/GDP ratio away from austerity – higher taxes and lower spending – toward debt-friendly stimulus: increasing taxes even more and raising government expenditure in the same proportion. That way, the debt/GDP ratio declines because the denominator (economic output) increases, not because the numerator (the total the government has borrowed) declines.