Why the US debt crisis is a good thing
I must politely disagree with Felix Salmon of Reuters, Ben White at Politico and others who wring their hands and fret about the undoing of the world in the prospective debt default by the US. The damage is done, Felix declared on Reuters.com. I have heard similar views from many friends and colleagues, but I must disagree.
First the debate over the budget, pathetic as it may seem, represents an increase in the intensity of the public discourse over the nature of the American economy. Debate is good. It is the essence of checks and balances, the key feature that separates American democracy from the authoritarian states of Europe and Asia.
For too long Americans have been on auto pilot, relying upon elected representatives and various flavors of hired agents in Washington and on Wall Street to manage our money and our nation. It’s time to start paying attention again.
Second and more important, the debate over federal spending and the tradeoff between higher taxes and greater fiscal discipline begins a larger discussion about the nature of the American political system. After 80 years of borrow, spend and inflate to finance the Cold War, Housing Bubbles and the rest of the world’s growth needs, the US economy has reached an endpoint. The experiment in corporate statism begun by FDR in the 1930s and extended through and after WWII has brought us to the brink of insolvency.
Political gridlock in Washington means not only an end to growth in government spending, but also that we are no longer willing to serve as the overdraft account for the world in terms of demand for imported goods and services. As I noted in my 2010 book Inflated, the US has bailed out the no growth states of Europe three times since WWI. Each time our allies in western Europe have defaulted on their debts. Bring the US troops in Europe home, I say, right now.
Asia, likewise, has grown at the expense of American jobs, the bitter legacy of owning the world’s reserve currency. As the US reins in spending and the monetary excesses that created the illusion of economic growth since the 1980s, an illusion funded with inflation and vast amounts of public debt, our ability to bail out the EU will fade. Remember George Washington’s warning about “European entanglements.”
But the third and most important side effect of the fiscal crisis in Washington is that people around the world will start to diversify both commerce and financial transactions out of dollars and into other currencies. Far from being a threat, I welcome such an evolution. The less of world trade and finance that flows through dollars, the less easy it will be for the Treasury to issue debt or for the Fed to monetize this borrowing on the backs of US consumers and businesses via steady, unrelenting inflation.
Of course Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman rightly notes that a reduction in federal spending will result in pain for many Americans. But what he fails to tell these Americans, especially low income working people he pretends to love, is that the cost of the borrow and spend policies advocated by second generation New Dealers is persistent inflation, a diminution of purchasing power that is just as surely killing the hopes and dreams of all Americans.
I have long argued that a low growth, low inflation environment is better for the working people that the manic, boom and bust cycles caused by big federal deficits and following accommodative Fed policies to make this all seem to work in a nominal sense. Alan Greenspan, after all, was at best a tool; a cog in the machine.
Americans need to understand that we face not a mid-cycle slowdown, to paraphrase the economist Richard Alford, but a post-stimulus adjustment to economic reality. Think post WWII in fact. If this crisis helps to break the cycle of debt and inflation, that is a big plus for America’s long term prospects.
The right choice for Americans is to say no to ever more debt and to instead embrace debt reduction and restructuring of insolvent banks and markets to restore economic solidity. Both in the EU and the US, debt levels by governments and consumers must be reduced to restore national and personal solvency, and thereby start the great growth game all over again.
Do Americans have the courage to make the tough choices, cut spending and also generate more revenue, and thereby set an example for the world? I think the answer is yes, but it may take some time. That is why I am in no hurry to pass the new debt ceiling. A few days or weeks of pain will raise the political temperature in Washington even further and bring all Americans into the proverbial kitchen for a long overdue family discussion about money. And that is a very good thing.