A recent Washington Post article purports to bail Paul Krugman (New York Times columnist and Nobel-winning “economist” aka water boy for Hillary Clinton and the DNC) out of a glaringly breathtaking contradiction. Krugman’s 180° flip involves his sudden hawkish attitude toward budget deficits whereas when it looked as though Clinton’s coronation was imminent last fall it was “spend baby spend” time. A one Matt O’Brien with the Post now tries to rescue Krugman from his own Kontradiction (def. Kontradiction: the fairly regular phenomenon whereby Paul Krugman supports the exact opposite of something he previously wrote while himself remaining unaware of his own hypocrisy). For a complete takedown of Krugman on this issue listen to ContraKrugman.
The core of O’Brian’s defense of Krugman’s reasoning is that at a Federal Funds rate of 0.25% government borrowing exerts no upward pressure on interest rates (because the private sector is not borrowing). But at a rate of 0.50% now magically the reverse happens; more, not fewer, businesses are interested in borrowing at a higher rate (?) and so government borrowing will exert upward pressure on rates and crowd out private borrowing. So because rates are today a hairs-breadth higher than last fall a flip on deficit policy is warranted. The special pleading is strong with this one. His argument only works if you carve out this nonsensical exception to the normal laws of supply and demand. Government borrowing at any interest rate will crowd out the private sector and cause rates to rise. This doesn’t magically change the closer one gets to a rate of zero.
However, that is not the most inane contention in O’Brian’s article. He states:
“If businesses won’t borrow even when interest rates are zero, the government can do so without having to worry that it’s using money the private sector wants.”
Let’s just tick off everything wrong with this statement. Businesses are still borrowing; to suggest otherwise is dishonest to put it mildly. Second, the Federal Funds rate (0%) is reserved exclusively for interbank overnight loans at the Federal Reserve. So no, businesses were not stupidly passing up 0% rate loans. Lastly, government borrowing would impact money the private sector is competing for even if somehow the government was the only borrower. Borrowing equals taxation. Although one-half of the borrowing equation is voluntary, the other unseen half (repayment) is not. This is a classic case of Bastiat’s “seen and unseen”. Every dollar someone lends to the government is one dollar less they have to spend elsewhere. It shifts spending from those industries otherwise favored by individuals and toward those favored by government. Although the individual lending favors investment, their investment dollar is still directed to government ventures rather than private ones. Whether you agree or disagree with how the funds are redirected is irrelevant, the fact of the matter is it occurs, therefore the private sector is impacted. The next unseen effect is loan repayment. Government bonds, and the interest they earn, can only be paid back by either (a) increased borrowing or (b) increased taxes. To the extent more of (a) occurs than (b) debt will skyrocket into a death spiral. This is our present situation. But if (b) is used to return funds then obviously all we have done is shift the tax burden from the present into the future. Future taxpayers must then support themselves and us.
I agree with 2017 Krugman. Deficits do matter. Deficits are an immoral act of violence. Deficits are the product of borrowing and borrowing is political cowardice. It takes no courage to give your constituents gifts that their grandchildren will have to repay. Government debt is even more morally repugnant than taxation. At least with taxation the present generation must bear the burden of the policies it puts in place. If the burden becomes too great, then democratic methods (in theory) will push for a change in policy. But borrowing unfairly shifts our burden onto a generation that never had a voice in the decision. Borrowing breaks the democracy feedback loop and permits unlimited dumping of the costs of current policy onto the future. There is so much concern over how our actions today affect the climate for future generations but ironically no concern whatsoever how our spending today will impact the standard of living for future generations who are forced to repay our profligacy. But I suppose Krugman would find no Kontradiction there.