Why public debt is not like credit card debt

By Robert Kuttner
January 14, 2013

One big part of the well-financed campaign for economic austerity is the contention that the public debt is like a national credit card. If we keep charging on it, the argument goes, we’ll get overwhelmed with interest costs, suffer a reduced standard of living and, pretty soon, go bankrupt.

As David Walker, a prominent budget hawk and the former head of the billion-dollar Peter G. Peterson Foundation, has contended, “Both Republicans and Democrats in Washington have charged everything to the nation’s credit card, including tax cuts and spending increases, without paying for them.”

The Peterson Foundation is the leading sponsor of this brand of bogus economics. It is a spurious metaphor on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Most important, this credit-card metaphor is a totally false analogy because, unlike a consumer on a spending spree who later has to pay the piper, government’s borrowing strategy directly affects economic growth. When deficit spending helps increase growth, that, in turn, makes the debt less burdensome. The Federal Reserve also has the power to buy public debt ‑ a prerogative not available to consumers.

The U.S. economy has vast productive potential that remains idle in a deep recession. When everyone who wants a job has one, and people use their purchasing power to buy goods and services, the economy is maximizing that potential.

When the economy is in a prolonged slump, however, there are literally trillions of dollars’ worth of idle people, factories, buildings and purveyors of services.

The worst slumps typically occur after a financial collapse – true for both 1929 and 2008 – because so much asset value is wiped out. The whole economy goes into a self-reinforcing tailspin.

Employers are then too risk-averse to hire enough workers, consumers are too traumatized to buy everything the economy is capable of producing, banks are awash in money but won’t lend to any but the most blue-chip borrowers. The whole economy remains stuck in second gear.

That’s where government borrowing comes in. Unlike private credit-card debt, public borrowing can improve a depressed economy’s performance.

When government borrows, it invests in projects that cycle right back into the private economy. These are usually things the economy needs, anyway, that make it more productive or are necessary services curtailed by the recession, like schools and road repair. Superstorm Sandy, for example, made clear the need for massive public outlays to protect our coasts.

But doesn’t increased borrowing add to the government’s long-term load? Not in a severely depressed economy.

Today, the debt keeps going up because the economy is underperforming. Get unemployment rates down and growth back up, and more consumers and business pay more taxes. The ratio of the public debt to overall economic output (gross domestic product) starts coming down in a healthier economy.

In World War Two the government borrowed massive sums to win the war. By the end of the war the debt ratio was about 120 percent of gross domestic product, compared with 72 percent today. But the war turned out to be the greatest unintended economic stimulus of all time: GDP increased by about 50 percent during the war.

After the war, far from sandbagging the recovery, all that debt-financed prosperity propelled the postwar boom. The Fed kept interest rates low, so government could afford the interest payments. The economy grew so much faster than the debt that by 1978 the debt ratio was down to about 27 percent.

But what about interest costs today? Doesn’t the public debt frighten money markets and cause interest rates to rise?

Not in a depressed economy. The private sector now sees so few profitable places to invest that the government can sell its bonds at record-low rates. Investors are willing to lend Washington money for 10 years at less than 2 percent, and for 30 years at less than 3 percent. If investors were worried about the debt driving rates, they would demand higher returns now.

So the analogy between the government and the family fails on all levels. If our government listens to the austerity-mongers, it will tighten the national belt and make a bad situation worse.

The idea that the debt inflicts a burden on our grandchildren and depresses their standard of living has it backward. What is destroying the prospects of future generations is our failure to generate a recovery with decent jobs.

The clouded future of our children and grandchildren is compounded by our failure to alleviate private debts, which are the fruit of bad government policy. By failing to adequately finance public universities, we’ve compelled non-wealthy kids who want college educations to take on $1 trillion of student debt.

That’s a real hit to living standards. Recent graduates, unlike government, do have to worry about maxing out their credit cards. So public borrowing (and taxing) to alleviate that burdensome private borrowing would be smart policy.

The next time you hear someone compare the public debt to your credit cards, keep your hand on your wallet.

PHOTO (Top): Credit cards are pictured in a wallet in Washington, February 21, 2010. REUTERS/Stelios Varias

PHOTO (Insert): In the middle of The Great Depression, a vast workforce was required to build Hoover Dam, a massive public infrastructure project constructed from 1931 to 1936. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

 

 

 

21 comments

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“The private sector now sees so few profitable places to invest …” — exactly. I believe that our low capital gains taxrate as well as the Bush taxcuts have in fact exacerbated this problem. We have long suffered from too much investment money chasing too few investment opportunities. That’s why investors keep chasing chimerical opportunities like the dot-com bubble, the real estate bubble, and the chicanery of “financial instruments”. Solid investment opportunities are most often fostered by infrastructure investments such as education, transportation, and telecommunications. Sometimes such opportunities are created in the absence of public investment, but not usually. Conventional wisdom has so many kooky ideas that this situation, staring us in the face for at least a decade, goes unnoticed.

But here’s a question: what is the economic impact of government borrowing for infrastructure in the presence of huge trade deficits? Aren’t we stimulating the Chinese economy when we put borrowed money into people’s paychecks, since we turn around and spend it on imports?

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

Yet another example of thinking which lead world to crisis in first place. Did Bernanke’s “helicopters” really helped to heal economics?

As for matter of facts in article…if facts do not support The Theory then it’s worse for fact. Post-WWII growth was not based on government carpet-bombed problems with money, it was due to fact that USA acquired markets and resources that were off-limits to them before – western Europe (which was huge market for anything american, though on borrowed US money), British Empire ( opened for free trade as part of USA/UK war deal), Japan – and overall position of only power to be reckoned with in capitalist world until the rise of EU.
Currently we see no such markets – yes, Africa have resources…but they’re already controlled by west due to both honest deals and “deals one can’t refuse”,while Russia, Asia and India are actually competitors to US industries, Southern America states also either already controlled by US or hostile to them.

And as far as public debt concerned…it’s like saying that ‘we always borrowed money, repaying with new loans, what can go wrong?”- well, BRICS already began withdrawing funds from US treasuries and preparing for end of USD as international money, what – combined with very creative financial politics of US gov./FedR (de facto unlimited printing of money, not that they need really to print anything) – spells nearly inevitable possibility of hyperinflation, when USD will follow the example of post-WWI deutch mark or post-USSR rouble – with _only_ creditor in economy bein’ goverment’s (Feds) printing press. Of course public debt will be eliminated in progress…along with any USD-nominated savings, US financial reputation (on which USA cashed in for at least from ’70s) and very possible Federal Government/_U_SA itself.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

As if uncompetitive wage and benefit demands, and extremely unsustainable entitlement spending (which doesn’t invest directly in the working age generations), had nothing to do with the buildup of the public debt. Then the author tries to say that private debt could be greatly alleviated if we just enact measures like paying for everyone to go to college, regardless of work-ethic, and as if we didn’t have a tax/regulatory regime too burdensome to allow for a prosperity capable of funding all of these generous public investments. The arguments used in this article are shamelessly piggy-backing on the far deeper realities of our fiscal and economic struggles- namely that, yes, someone does have to pay the piper.

Posted by reason1 | Report as abusive

Americans live on debt. Do they pay as they go for college? Pay cash for homes? Pay cash for about anything? Of course not. Some debt is taken on in return for a hoped for betterment of the person, which will reap rewards. Whether higher earnings and a better job from a college degree, to the feelings of home ownership.

Now, government can tax as they go, but voters really object. That new highway or bridge to make it easier to get to ones job? Well, pay cash, since borrowing is cruel? The elected officials will be out on the street soon. That new school, to replace the falling down? Better borrow, since no one wants to see taxes go up if cash had to be paid.

And many people don’t pay off their credit cards when the bill comes due. The spread out the payments. Yet, can they expect government to operate differently?

Now, there are times when costs should be paid up front. Like wars. The Bush wars are the first ones not paid for. Other wars had tax increases to pay for the war, and spread the pain across the population.

And that is what is so hypocritical about much of the debt complaints. It seems deficits run up my Democrats are the problem, not Republican debts.

And the calls by the Peterson Foundation? Very self serving.

The US still has no problems selling debt. And nothing like improved employment to close the deficit. And that comes from people spending.

Posted by pavoter1946 | Report as abusive

Employment will increase when the government reduces its growing consumption of the available dollars. When a dollar is consumed by government, once less dollar is invested that could be used to create wealth. When another government employee is hired, dollars are diverted from the private sector, which businesses can use to expand. The idea that private sector has few places to invest is driven by a tax structure that penalizes success–via a higher marginal tax rate as your income increases. This is reinforced by the fact that our (current) government perpetuates the idea that wealth is generated by taking wealth from someone else –a zero sum game__when in fact wealth can (and is) created (ala Apple, Facebook, 3D systems, etc.)

The bigger problem is that debt has a cost–and it consumes capital that could be better deployed. When we reach a point where the interest rate on our national debt reach historic levels, it will consume 1/3 of the federal budget. Add forecast entitlement expenditures to consume 40% of the federal budgets, and you have 30% remaining to support all of the government. It won’t work, and something will have to give.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Gotta agree with @Chyron. Really short sited thinking from this author. He apparently didn’t notice that it is not 1976 anymore and those old antiquated thoughts just are not going to help in the new 21st century global economy. Creating “good jobs” my arse. There are 7 billion people and only around 4 billion jobs. In 30-40 years there will be 9 billion people and only 3-4 billion jobs. Deal with that dude!

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I’m a little curious where does this 72% debt to gdp number come from, I couldn’t find anything under 102% for most recent estimates.

If the argument here is further spending > higher debt maintenance (rates certainly can’t stay at record low rates forever) even if taxes were increased this companies won’t be satisfied with lower profits = inflation. = Wealth destruction. Inflating away debt via consumption still won’t correct a broken account balance.

Posted by StigTW | Report as abusive

“After the war…all that debt-financed prosperity propelled the postwar boom. ” “The economy grew so much faster than the debt that by 1978 the debt ratio was down to about 27 percent.”

Yeah, and the U.S. never paid it off. They just inflated it into insignificance. People that don’t pay off their credit cards every month have less to spend by the amount of interest they must pay. That’s why it’s a BAD idea to finance day-to-day living expenses or unnecessary expenditures at ANY time.

A mortgage or a car are different, in that these are “hard assets” that contribute to one’s ability to live; i.e. ownership of a home traditionally being cheaper than renting (although that may no longer be true) and a reliable vehicle is cheaper to own and operate if one doesn’t take the huge financial “hit” of going from “new” to “used” by driving off the dealer’s lot every year or two.

If we were to concede each Mr. Kuttner’s “points” there would still exist the age old question. Just because we CAN do certain things “on credit” doesn’t mean we SHOULD do these things “on credit” (or “everything now possible). It’s just stupid to mortgage one’s future for the present. i.e. “instant gratification”.

More financially responsible governments have never been those with total control over everyone and everything. They have been the ones with the most capable leadership that is able and willing to act nimbly to meet constantly changing challenges and priorities.

Like individuals, these are NOT, by definition, those forever in hock up to their ears with no “rainy day” funds or other LIQUID ASSETS to invest. No one can hear opportunity knocking if they’re deep in a bunker hunkered down.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

There are numerous serious errors in your analysis. Just to touch on a few of the most egregious:

(1) For example, the scenario you describe basically applies only to a single isolated nation, whereas the US is part of a global economy in which totally different set of rules apply. For example, you state “Unlike private credit-card debt, public borrowing can improve a depressed economy’s performance. When government borrows, it invests in projects that cycle right back into the private economy. These are usually things the economy needs, anyway, that make it more productive or are necessary services curtailed by the recession”.

This is nothing but a feel-good theory which really doesn’t produce the results advertised. The make-work projects of the 1930s are a classic example. They gave the impression something was being done, but in reality the US economy did not recover until actual demand did first, and that was due mainly to WWII (as you, yourself, pointed out).

(2) Companies will invest only in an environment where they can obtain the best profits.

Since roughly 1980 when China (in desperation after the Chairman Mao disaster) supposedly threw open its doors to “free trade”, the US companies have been investing less and less in their own economy and increasingly so in Asia — the fabled “Holy Grail” of trade since Marco Polo — which predictably caused massive capital investment losses in the US that produced job outsourcing, and began the greatest speculative bubble in history that crashed in 2007-08 (but in reality has not, due to the efforts of the central bankers).

By the time the US economy crashed, the negative trade balance with China in particular was so great and job losses so huge that the American people began to gamble with their own homes in an effort to avoid the inflation that was destroying this economy. All of it aided and abetted of course by the insane policies of the US government, courtesy of Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and now Ben Bernanke.

This situation that has persisted for more than 30 years explains why the stock markets have since regained their former glory while the real US economy languishes, why Bernanke’s frantic efforts to print money to deflate ourselves out of recession/depression by flooding the global economy with increasingly worthless US dollars are a total failure. Indeed, the logic behind this incredible blunder in monetary policy will go down in history as the greatest Ponzi scheme ever invented.

Without any restrictions whatsoever placed on them, wealthy investors are taking the free money (at below cost) and investing it elsewhere. The money that is sitting on company balance sheets is capital they cannot find a place to invest at the double-digit rates they have become used to in the past few decades.

The ugly truth is that this nation is in a severe liquidity trap that no amount of borrowing will cure. What we need are our jobs back to create demand. Without significant changes in tax, free trade and banking regulation those jobs are gone forever. The lack of manufacturing jobs is the “nail in the horseshoe” that will shortly bring this kingdom down to ignominious defeat.

(3) You state, “But doesn’t increased borrowing add to the government’s long-term load? Not in a severely depressed economy. Today, the debt keeps going up because the economy is underperforming. Get unemployment rates down and growth back up, and more consumers and business pay more taxes. The ratio of the public debt to overall economic output (gross domestic product) starts coming down in a healthier economy”, but that is totally and completely wrong as long as the present free trade conditions exist, for the reasons I stated above.

(4) You state, “After the war, far from sandbagging the recovery, all that debt-financed prosperity propelled the postwar boom. The Fed kept interest rates low, so government could afford the interest payments. The economy grew so much faster than the debt that by 1978 the debt ratio was down to about 27 percent”, which is a true statement, but the underlying reason was the paradigm shift in economic policy of the government, which not only allowed, but encouraged the rise of the American middle class (i.e. the American Dream) which has now been killed by better prospects for investment elsewhere.

Prior to the few short halcyon years after WWII, the US economy operated on the principle of Social Darwinism (i.e. “survival of the fittest”), totally controlled by the wealthy elite who prospered at the expense of the huge importation of cheap-labor immigrants that were needed to expand and develop this nation.

It was during the period shortly after WWII that this country became the greatest power in the world, solely because of the hard work and belief in this nation by the middle class. However, by the 1970s those economic policies that had made us so great were beginning to crack, primarily because the wealthy resented the success and rising power of the middle class, who demanded ever more benefits (i.e. the American Dream) from their employers who did not feel they deserved to live in better conditions.

It was job outsourcing to Japan that first heralded the “global economy”, and the wealthy pursued it with a vengeance, thus undercutting the very thing that had made this country great (i.e. the American middle class) in search for better profits and looser regulations.

Thus it began, the growth the of greatest economic bubble in human history that, contrary to popular opinion, has yet to crash — because the central bankers are supporting all of this with the “drug” of free money, thus providing the illusion the US economy is continuing to expand. When that stops, for whatever reason, the US economy will crash harder than during the Great Depression.

(5) You state, “The idea that the debt inflicts a burden on our grandchildren and depresses their standard of living has it backward. What is destroying the prospects of future generations is our failure to generate a recovery with decent jobs. The clouded future of our children and grandchildren is compounded by our failure to alleviate private debts, which are the fruit of bad government policy.”

Only the statement about the government’s “failure to generate a recovery with decent jobs … which are the fruit of bad government policy” is true. In reality, we have alleviated the private debts of the wealthy class, thereby rewarding them for their greed and economic excesses, and shifted them to public debt which the American taxpayers must ultimately pay — thus exposing the lie of your premise that high debts do not constitute a threat to this nation — and thereby depriving our children and grandchildren of any future whatsoever.

ALL of what you see in this country today is the direct result of tax laws, “free trade” legislation, and banking deregulation that favors the wealthy elite. We are being bled to death by these people.

Yes, it really is as simple as that.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

@ PseudoTurtle,

The illusion of simplicity can be seductive, powerful and misleading to both writer and reader.

You dismiss as “feel-good theory which really doesn’t produce the results advertised…the make-work projects of the 1930s…[that] gave the impression something was being done…”. I don’t think that’s credible.

Prior to WW II there three basic types of Americans (considering that each contained the very young and the very old). There were the “well off” that didn’t really have to work (although most did), those who labored for others in some form or fashion, and a huge number were “subsistence farmers” that contributed very little to gross national product or tax revenues.

The “Great Depression” really didn’t affect the “well off” because any loss in assets tended to be made up in the added purchasing power of what was left. It really didn’t affect the “subsistence farmers” because these people already lived a grueling life compared to today, laboring dawn to dusk to scratch out a few dollars here and there beyond keeping themselves fed. Animals and crops still grew, and one could still hunt and fish.

But a lot of workers who had fled the fields were hurting to the point of facing starvation. The “Great Depression” was, for them, a sudden economic reality where for many there was NO ONE who could profit by hiring them. When faced with an economic collapse unprecedented in this country, Roosevelt’s choice was to do nothing or do something. That’s a “no-brainer” choice under those circumstances if one wanted to be reelected.

Say what you will, the WPA gave many of the idle something to do in exchange for food, shelter and a few dollars. It probably cost less than the crimes the increasingly desperate unemployed with families would have cost the society of the time. The low pay still kept many Americans of all ages from literally starving.

For you to play “Monday morning quarterback” purporting to judge the needs and alternatives of an entirely different era and infer that the WPA was without redeeming economic value is SIMPLY disingenuious. I do agree, given the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, that “…the US economy did not recover until…WW II…”; but the program helped Americans and America itself in countless other ways.

Labels like the “global economy”, the “wealthy”, “wealthy class”, “wealthy elite” reveal your personal hatred of all who achieve beyond some abstract economic level of success anywhere. These exist in every functioning society. Always have, always will.

Here in America it is easier, if not easy, for those from “the bottom” rung of the ladder to climb to “the top”. Your obvious hatred spews forth as endless indictment of America because it is not perfect? You demand from life a perfection that to date only exists in abstraction, and see “good” as the enemy of the “perfect”? That’s SIMPLY ridiculous.

The “jobs” that have disappeared in the last twenty years aren’t coming “back” any more than the “jobs” for human weavers that steampowered looms eliminated. That, too, was “Social Darwinism (i..e. ‘survival of the fittest’), totally controlled by the wealthy elite who prospered…”. So was the replacement of the horse by the automobile and the tractor which forced harness makers, buggy whip manufacturers, carriage makers, farriers, etc. to find an new line of work. The process is caused PROGRESS!

You can’t bring “back” obsolete jobs for obsolete people by tinkering with “…tax, free trade and banking regulation…”. Any modern society that would turn from a future that computers and production robots will make prosperous to a degree limited only by human imagination is destined for, at best, a footnote in history.

You look to government to provide a safe, comfortable predictable future for an American “middle class” that has NEVER, in truth, had a safe, comfortable predictable future. We all have an obligation to re-invent ourselves as necessary to stay relevent and, yes, valuable economic entities. As always, there will (and must be) “winners” and losers”.

Yes, it really is as SIMPLE as that.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Very good OOTS. So few people can see the forest thru the trees. @psudoturtle, very good analysis, you have some great points there. I hope Reuters is paying attention as this opinion author has been trending in the late 20th century. I think we would all like to see more forward thinking opinions.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

We need more articles like this. I am sick and tired of folks who write letters to the editor saying why can’t the government live within its means like they do. First of all, as the article points out government debt is not like personal debt. Second of all, the vast majority of those letter writers who claim to not have debt have mortgages (usually a good idea) and car loans (often not such a good idea).

However, it does matter for what you borrow the money. Infrastructure and public education are great investments for the country. Tax breaks for the ultra wealthy and putting cash in the hands of those who chose not to work are not good reasons to borrow. Please note that I am not against the government helping those who cannot help themselves, but I am against cash handouts as opposed to goods and services such as health care or food. Cash and cash equivalents are often diverted into booze, gambling, illegal drugs, etc.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

I’ve no doctorate in economics but I have always generally believed in the ideas this writer, Kuttner, espouses.
Government debt just isn’t the same as personal debt. Everyone remembers how rapidly the govt’s debt position reversed from bad to good during the Clinton administration.

But as much as I’d like it to be, I’m not nearly convinced that gov’t spending is always the cure.

If Kuttner is right, he would have done a much better job of persuading had he explained why the European financial situation, especially in Greece, is so grim.

I like Kuttner’s positive rhetoric, but show me the beef!

Posted by rgarrig | Report as abusive

I’ve no doctorate in economics but I have always generally believed in the ideas this writer, Kuttner, espouses.
Government debt just isn’t the same as personal debt. Everyone remembers how rapidly the govt’s debt position reversed from bad to good during the Clinton administration.

But as much as I’d like it to be, I’m not nearly convinced that gov’t spending is always the cure.

If Kuttner is right, he would have done a much better job of persuading had he explained why the European financial situation, especially in Greece, is so grim.

I like Kuttner’s positive rhetoric, but show me the beef!

Posted by rgarrig | Report as abusive

I’ve no doctorate in economics but I have always generally believed in the ideas this writer, Kuttner, espouses.
Government debt just isn’t the same as personal debt. Everyone remembers how rapidly the govt’s debt position reversed from bad to good during the Clinton administration.

But as much as I’d like it to be, I’m not nearly convinced that gov’t spending is always the cure.

If Kuttner is right, he would have done a much better job of persuading had he explained why the European financial situation, especially in Greece, is so grim.

I like Kuttner’s positive rhetoric, but show me the beef!

Posted by rgarrig | Report as abusive

Kuttner’s commentary is way off common sense.

Posted by ramjet44 | Report as abusive

“In World War Two the government borrowed massive sums to win the war. By the end of the war the debt ratio was about 120 percent of gross domestic product, compared with 72 percent today. But the war turned out to be the greatest unintended economic stimulus of all time: GDP increased by about 50 percent during the war.”

WWII crippled America’s current and future major competitors and left them on the front line of the Cold War that followed. American taxpayers were paying for the bombs that turned German and Japanese industry into rubble – actions which paid big dividends later. Bombing Iraq and Afghanistan isn’t likely to produce anything close to the same returns. The same Tax Policy Center site that the article’s author claims to show a 120% debt-to-GDP then compared to a 72% ratio now says:

http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/UploadedP DF/1001637-TN-Federal-Budget-Outlook.pdf
“the projected debt-to-GDP ratios rise to astronomical levels later in the century no matter how optimistic the assumptions”
“Under both [optimistic and pessimistic] scenarios, however, the debt-to-GDP ratio would then continue to rise rapidly, contrary to its sharp decline in the years immediately after 1946.

Posted by walstir | Report as abusive

2rgarr

Clinton era? When federal government lied with fair face to the public pretending that they had surplus while really counting as surplus “excess” revenue of Social Security and other funds – and NOT counting US gov’s IOUs which were issued to these funds.

And this is despite West making sh*load of money from fall of USSR (natural resources open to plunder, markets which _capitulated_ to western products, industrial competitors for emerging markets in death throes), exploitation of cheap asian workforce – and cutting military expenditures so much that even i remember members of US Army crying ’bout cut benefits, buying spare parts on their own money and how good wire and duct tape are in keeping their failing vehicles in one piece…

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

This guy is one of those fellows who thinks in a shallow dimension and has solutions bound in profligate concepts. There are too many holes in his argument for me to delve into now so let me resort to an old saw – there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Posted by keebo | Report as abusive

The government’s “borrowing strategy directly affects economic growth” and “public borrowing can improve a depressed economy’s performance”? If that were true, after running multiple trillion dollar plus deficits, we should have economic nirvana. Oh, we don’t.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive

If our government was worried about the future of our young citizens and legal immigrants, it would not have dumped almost a MILLION illegal Dreamers into the job market in competition for jobs.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive