In recent months, a form of mass hysteria has swept the country as fear of "unsustainable" budget deficits replaced the earlier concern about the financial crisis, job loss, and collapsing home prices. What is most troubling is that this shift in focus comes even as the government's stimulus package winds down and as its temporary hires for the census are let go. Worse, the economy is still -- likely -- years away from a full recovery. To be sure, at least some of the hysteria has been manufactured by Pete Peterson's well-funded public relations campaign, fronted by President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform -- a group that supposedly draws members from across the political spectrum, yet are all committed to the belief that the current fiscal stance puts the nation on a path to ruinous indebtedness. But even deficit doves like Paul Krugman, who favor more stimulus now, are fretting about "structural deficits" in the future. They insist that even if we do not need to balance the budget today, we will have to get the "fiscal house" in order when the economy recovers.
There is an alternative view propounded by economists following what has been called "Modern Money Theory", which emphasizes the difference between a currency-issuing sovereign government and currency users (households, firms, and nonsovereign governments) (See here and here). They insist that the notion of "fiscal sustainability" or "solvency" is not applicable to a sovereign government -- which cannot be forced into involuntary default on debts denominated in its own currency. Such a government spends by crediting bank accounts or issuing paper currency. It can never run out of the "keystrokes" it uses to credit bank accounts, and so long as it can find paper and ink, it can issue paper currency. These, we believe, are simple statements that should be completely noncontroversial. And this is not a policy proposal -- it is an accurate description of the spending process used by all currency-issuing sovereign governments.
And, yet, there are a number of misconceptions circulating that need to be addressed. Many (often of the Austrian persuasion) interpret this simple statement as a Leninist plot to destroy the nation's currency by flying black helicopters dumping an infinite supply of bags of money all over the planet. This is usually accompanied by a diatribe on the evils of fiat money, with a call to return to "sound money" based on shiny yellow metal. Others suggest that we are instead proposing to ramp up the size of government, until it completes Obama's plan to gobble up the whole economy. Almost all critiques eventually produce a lecture on the lessons to be learned from Weimar Germany and from Zimbabwe.
The strangest criticism of all is that we MMT-ers argue that "deficits do not matter". In a recent exchange in the New York Times, Paul Krugman put it this way: "But here's the thing: there's a school of thought which says that deficits are never a problem, as long as a country can issue its own currency." In that piece he took Jamie Galbraith to task for arguing that "Insolvency, bankruptcy, or even higher real interest rates are not among the actual risks" facing a sovereign government. I won't go into the details, but Krugman produced a simple model in which ever-larger budget deficits generate ever-rising prices. You can see the rest of that back-and-forth here. But the strange thing is that Krugman never actually addressed Galbraith's points that insolvency, bankruptcy, or higher interest rates are non-issues for a sovereign government. Nor did Krugman even try to justify his claim that MMT-ers "say that deficits are never a problem".
In fact, MMT-ers NEVER have said any such thing. Our claim is that a sovereign government cannot be forced into involuntary default. We have never claimed that sovereign currencies are free from inflation. We have never claimed that currencies on a floating exchange rate regime are free from exchange rate fluctuations. Indeed, we have always said that if government tries to increase its spending beyond full employment, this can be inflationary; we have also discussed ways in which government can cause inflation even before full employment. We have always advocated floating exchange rates -- in which exchange rates will, well, "float". While we have rejected any simple relation between budget deficits and exchange rate depreciation, we have admitted that currency depreciation is a possible outcome of using government policy to stimulate the economy.
A favorite scenario used by the critics is the ever-rising budget deficit that causes the government debt-to-GDP ratio to rise continuously. As interest payments on the debt increase, government faces a vicious cycle of rising deficits, more debt, more interest paid, higher interest rates, and even higher deficits.
Our response is two pronged.
First, OK, let us accept your premise. Will the government be able to make all payments (including interest paid on debt) as they come due? The answer is, of course, "yes -- by crediting bank accounts". Insolvency is not possible when one spends by a simple keystroke. The critic then quickly changes the subject: Weimar! Zimbabwe! You are a destroyer of the currency! Yes, but it was your scenario, not mine. And even in your worst case scenario, the government cannot be forced to default. Instead, Krugman argues "the government would decide that default was a better option than hyperinflation". In other words, Krugman veers off into politics -- government "decides" to default -- because the economics does not give him the result he wants.
Second. Your scenario is highly implausible. As budget deficits rise, this increases income (government spending exceeds tax revenue, thus adds net income to the nongovernment sector) and wealth (nongovernment savings accumulated in the form of government debt) of the nongovernment sector. Eventually, this causes private spending and production to grow. As the economy heats up, tax revenue begins to grow faster than government spending or GDP. (In the US over the past two cycles, in the expansion phase federal tax revenue grew two to three times faster than GDP and government spending.) This reduces the government deficit (remember the Clinton boom and budget surpluses?). Even if the government spending is on interest (in Krugman's model, the deficit is due to interest payments) that generates nongovernment income and spending. In other words, the cyclical upswing will automatically reduce the budget deficit. The scenario ignores the "automatic stabilizers" that cause the budget deficit to swing counter-cyclically.
What if the economy runs up against a full employment constraint, but government stubbornly keeps spending more, driving up prices toward hyperinflation? Even though incomes and thus tax revenues rise, government spending always keeps one step ahead so that the deficit rises. This is Krugman's "infinite inflation" scenario.
OK, we never claimed that a sovereign government will necessarily adopt good economic policy. The last time the US approached such a situation was in the over-full employment economy of WWII. Rather than bidding for resources against the private sector, the government adopted price controls, rationing, and patriotic savings. In that way, it kept inflation low, ran the budget deficit up to 25% of GDP, and stuffed banks and households full of safe sovereign debt. By the way, Jamie Galbraith's father, John Kenneth Galbraith, was the nation's chief inflation fighter. After the war, private spending power was unleashed, GDP grew relatively quickly, and government debt ratios came down (not because the debt was retired but because the denominator -- GDP -- grew more quickly than the numerator -- debt; see here). In other words, Galbraith, senior, used rational policy to avoid the Zimbabwean fate. I do not understand why Krugman prefers to believe that our policymakers would choose hyperinflation over more rational policy. If there is anything that policymakers of developed nations in the postwar period appear to hate, it is rapid inflation. In other words, the policy choice will not be between hyperinflation and default, but rather rational use of inflation-fighting policy should the need arise in order to prevent hyperinflation.
If we can get beyond the fears of national insolvency then there are many issues that can be fruitfully discussed. While inflation will not be a problem for many years, price pressures could return some day. Impacts of exchange rate instability are important, at least for some nations. Uemployment is a chronic problem, even at business cycle peaks. Aging does raise serious questions about allocation of resources, especially medical care. Poverty and homelessness exist in the midst of relative abundance. Simply recognizing that our sovereign government cannot go bankrupt does not solve those problems, but it does make them easier to resolve. We may well need more government spending, and, yes, even budget deficits to tackle some of those problems.
So, yes, deficits do matter, but not for solvency.
L. Randall Wray is Professor of Economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.