So you're concerned about the debt-to-GDP ratio? Then listen to Rob Johnson, who separates the real white whales to harpoon from the harmless minnows. A new paper he co-authored with Tom Ferguson points out that austerity and stagnation most threaten our fiscal future. The American people are angry, and "there is a lot of valid rage in our society," Rob says. But "fears of magic thresholds like a 90% debt-to-GDP ratio or mythologies that have to do with the painlessness of cutting deficits are playing on those fears, but they're not sending things in a proper direction."
Is Social Security going to bring down the ship? Rob is "nominating Social Security as a minnow." It seems a bit fishy that those who avow it will go bankrupt by 2050 couldn't see a financial crisis just two years ahead of them, he points out. So perhaps that shouldn't keep us up in bed at night.
So what is the largest fish threatening fiscal instability? "If you're doing a whale watch," Rob says, "the Moby Dick of the American budget problem has to do with... money and politics, the concentration of interests." And there are three things we spend our money on that hurt the budget most: wars, financial crises and health care. He points out that as a country we spend more on our military budget than all other developed countries put together, and "the American people carry that on their back." The budget could also be rocked by another large bailout of a financial institution -- a threat that looms larger as banks continue to be Too Big To Fail. "Anybody who calls themselves a deficit hawk should have been and should continue to be a financial reform hawk," Rob says. And lastly, we should all be most afraid of skyrocketing health care costs. As he puts it, "We are letting oligopolies be oligopolies in the health care industry, and that is the center of the problem."
So no, high deficits don't necessarily forecast stormy seas ahead. But there are things that might. He ends his presentation by saying, "If I were a bond speculator, I'd be worried if we don't invest in America. If I were a citizen, I'd be worried if we don't invest in America."
Be sure to check out the full Working Paper: "A World Upside Down? Deficit Fantasies in the Great Recession."