Paul Lachine

Good and Bad Deficits

The distinction between capital and current spending (or between “good” and “bad” deficits) is old hat to any student of public finance. Nevertheless, we forget knowledge at such an alarming rate nowadays that it is worth re-stating, particularly with deficit hawks in power in the UK and throughout Europe.

LONDON – “Deficits are always bad,” thunder fiscal hawks. Not so, replies strategic investment analyst H. Wood Brock in an interesting new book, The American Gridlock. A proper assessment, Brock argues, depends on the “composition and quality of total government spending.”

Government deficits incurred on current spending for services or transfers are bad, because they produce no revenue and add to the national debt. Deficits resulting from capital spending, by contrast, are – or can be – good. If wisely administered, such spending produces a revenue stream that services and eventually extinguishes the debt; more importantly, it raises productivity, and thus improves a country’s long-run growth potential.

From this distinction follows an important fiscal rule: governments’ current spending should normally be balanced by taxation. To this extent, efforts nowadays to reduce deficits on current spending are justified, but only if they are fully replaced by capital-spending programs. Indeed, reducing current spending and increasing capital spending should be carried out in lock step.

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