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The Dangers of Deficit Reduction

NEW YORK – A wave of fiscal austerity is rushing over Europe and America. The magnitude of budget deficits – like the magnitude of the downturn – has taken many by surprise. But despite protests by the yesterday’s proponents of deregulation, who would like the government to remain passive, most economists believe that government spending has made a difference, helping to avert another Great Depression.

Most economists also agree that it is a mistake to look at only one side of a balance sheet (whether for the public or private sector). One has to look not only at what a country or firm owes, but also at its assets. This should help answer those financial sector hawks who are raising alarms about government spending. After all, even deficit hawks acknowledge that we should be focusing not on today’s deficit, but on the long-term national debt. Spending, especially on investments in education, technology, and infrastructure, can actually lead to lower long-term deficits. Banks’ short-sightedness helped create the crisis; we cannot let government short-sightedness – prodded by the financial sector – prolong it.

Faster growth and returns on public investment yield higher tax revenues, and a 5 to 6% return is more than enough to offset temporary increases in the national debt. A social cost-benefit analysis (taking into account impacts other than on the budget) makes such expenditures, even when debt-financed, even more attractive.

Finally, most economists agree that, apart from these considerations, the appropriate size of a deficit depends in part on the state of the economy. A weaker economy calls for a larger deficit, and the appropriate size of the deficit in the face of a recession depends on the precise circumstances.