Free Markets, Free People

Can you solve the debt crisis by creating more debt?

Most intuitively know you can’t borrow your way out of debt, so it seems like a silly question on its face.  But the theory is that government spending creates a simulative effect that gets the economy going and pays back the deficit spending in increased tax revenues.  $14 trillion of debt argues strongly that the second part of that equation has never worked.

The current administration and any number of economists still believe that’s the answer to the debt crisis now and argue that deficit spending will indeed get us out of the economic doldrums we’re in.  William Gross at PIMCO tells you why that’s not going to work:

Structural growth problems in developed economies cannot be solved by a magic penny or a magic trillion dollar bill, for that matter. If (1) globalization is precluding the hiring of domestic labor due to cheaper alternatives in developing countries, then rock-bottom yields can do little to change the minds of corporate decision makers. If (2) technological innovation is destroying retail book and record stores, as well as theaters and retail shopping centers nationwide due to online retailers, then what do low cap rates matter to Macy’s or Walmart in terms of future store expansion? If (3) U.S. and Euroland boomers are beginning to retire or at least plan more seriously for retirement, why will lower interest rates cause them to spend more? As a matter of fact, savers will have to save more just to replicate their expected retirement income from bank CDs or Treasuries that used to yield 5% and now offer something close to nothing.

My original question – “Can you solve a debt crisis by creating more debt?” – must continue to be answered in the negative, because that debt – low yielding as it is – is not creating growth. Instead, we are seeing: minimal job creation, historically low investment, consumption turning into savings and GDP growth at less than New Normal levels.

Not good news, but certainly the reality of the situation.  Deficit spending has been the panacea that has been attempted by government whenever there has been an economic downturn.  Some will argue it has been effective in the past and some will argue otherwise.   But if you read through the 3 points Gross makes, even if you are a believer in deficit spending in times of economic downturn, you have to realize that there are other reasons – important reasons – that argue such intervention will be both expensive and basically useless.

We are in the middle of a global economy resetting itself.  Technology is one of the major drivers and its expansion is tearing apart traditional institutions in the favor of new ones that unfortunately don’t depend as heavily on workers.

Much of the public assumes we’ll return to the Old Normal.  But one has to wonder, as Gross points out, whether we’re not going to stay at the New Normal for quite some time as economies adjust.   And while it will be a short term negative, the Boomer retirements will actually end up being a good thing in the upcoming decades as there will be fewer workers competing for fewer jobs.

But what should be clear to all, without serious adjustments and changes, the welfare state, as we know it today, is over.  Economies can’t support it anymore.   That’s what you see going on in Europe today – its death throes.   And it isn’t a pretty picture.

So?  So increased government spending isn’t the answer.  And the answer to Gross’s question, as he says, is “no”. 

The next question is how do we get that across to the administration (and party) which seems to remain convinced that spending like a drunken sailor on shore leave in Hong Kong is the key to turning the economy around and to electoral salvation?


Twitter: @McQandO

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8 Responses to Can you solve the debt crisis by creating more debt?

  • “And while it will be a short term negative, the Boomer retirements will actually end up being a good thing in the upcoming decades as there will be fewer workers competing for fewer jobs.”

    Don’t tell the OWS crowd. They think that this crisis is going to be the rebirth of their 19th century workers’ movement. Somehow I don’t think they’ve gotten the less boomers = less jobs = less workers = decimated welfare state.

  • It gets even worse.  I could pay off the debt with the $600 trillion I have tucked away in a dresser drawer.  All I have to do is to convince people that my Zimbabwe currency is more than a colored piece of paper.  This is the dead end that this deficit spending road leads to.

  • One serious flaw in the government’s approach is the idea that if you just pump enough money into the economy, growth will happen. Magically! It’s never worked and never will because the assumptions are flawed. I quote Mel Brooks to people all the time, “We’ve got to do something to save our phony baloney jobs.” But it’s the best summary I can come up with to describe the administration’s desperate gambles on stimulus, green jobs etc. In a sense, the political class has been hoist on the petard of their own creation. Promise the voters anything but give them economic growth. The idea that there would be one school solution to an economy of 300 million people connected to a world of 630 billion other people engaging in trillions of transactions each day crosses the line from arrogance to invincible ignorance.
    If globalization is creating an employment problem in the United States, maybe it’s time our leaders ask, “What do we control that we can change?” Domestically, we control taxation and regulation. Given these levers, what policies can we adopt to ameliorate the labor cost advantage of foreign competitors? I won’t go into detail because you could compile a list several pages long of policies that could be adopted or adapted that would make business creation or expansion domestically more desirable. I will note in passing that Steve Jobs apparently complained to the President that the regulatory environment in the US was the main reason Apple produced its products overseas.
    What’s bad about our situation is that the President is starting to sound like CPT Queeg. It’s never his fault that things don’t work out. At some point I fully expect him to take some ball bearing out of his pocket, while complaining about the disloyal subordinates who are covering up who ate the strawberries.

  • Comparing government spending to drunken sailors is an insult to drunken sailors!  Sailors spend their own money. 

  • Of course it cannot possibly work for two reasons. Reason one, the money to fund government borrowing has to come from somewhere, that is money not being used to fund private investment. It is the old opportunity costs argument.
    Second, unlike Keynesian’s, Business leaders are not stupid. They see huge deficits today and realize that it means huge taxes or inflation tomorrow, and they plan accordingly.
    It is always funny to me that the left think of themselves as so much smarter than us mouth breathers, but they actually believe that you can tax, spend, and borrow your way into prosperity. That takes a special kind of stupid.