The Deficit Problem Is A Spending Problem

After 2008, the US economy has experienced relative stagnation. The  common refrain from the Left was that federal budget deficits weren't big enough. Of the belief that government spending is what lifts economies out of slow-growth ruts, Paul Krugman, Lawrence Summers and other neo-Keynesians called for federal borrowing beyond what Treasury took in as a way of allegedly boosting the economy.

Who cares that excessive spending failed so impressively in the U.S. back in the 1930s, and who cares that massive increases in Japanese debt have failed to awaken its economy from its "lost decades?” The Keynesians most associated with America's Left (they populate the Right too, but most who think this way don't admit it, or know it) pointed to increased deficits as the certain source of our economic salvation.

​This is interesting mainly because with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 in concert with promises of big tax cuts, the same left that cheered deficits as the path to recovery suddenly claimed they would hold the economy down. This requires mention as a reminder that budget deficits and national debt are political props, first and foremost.

As for their economic implications, governments can only spend insofar as they tax or borrow from the private sector. Period. As such, and in a very real sense, all government spending is deficit spending; the deficits and national debt a bit of a distraction.

Spending Is What Matters

The level of government spending is what matters the most because the wealth we produce in the private sector is precious. The spending consumes capital that otherwise might reach innovators. Government spending is the worst kind of tax mainly because its horrors are mostly unseen.

Taxes we see and feel in each paycheck, devaluation of the dollars we earn (a tax like any other) we suffer through reduced work opportunity and spending power, but government spending represents the unseen; as in what would intrepid, innovative minds do with the expropriated capital if government weren't consuming it?

How many Apple, Amazon and Microsoft equivalents haven't, and will never emerge from start-up infancy thanks to government's consumption of crucial resources, how long ago would cancer and heart disease have been cured; only for bright minds to train their genius on the erasure of other life-ending maladies, or the fulfillment of other market needs?

The Salsman View

All of the above at least partially explains why I approached Duke political economy professor Richard M. Salsman's new book, The Political Economy of Public Debt: Three Centuries of Theory and Evidence, with some reservation.

Salsman's genius and broad knowledge have long been evident, but e-mail exchanges over the years between author and reviewer revealed a friendly difference of opinion about budget deficits. Though no deficit "hawk," Salsman views them as a problem in their present state, while I view government spending as the real problem. If given the choice between a balanced budget of $4 trillion, and annual deficits of $1.4 trillion on $1.5 trillion in spending, I would take the latter. In a heartbeat. It represents less government waste of precious capital to the tune of $2.5 trillion.

​So while my views on what Salsman refers to as "public debt" haven't changed much, Salsman's book forced a very healthy rethink of the debt question, though for reasons different from the traditional critiques of deficit spending. And while this review will reveal some ongoing areas of disagreement with the author, none of the differences should be construed as a non-endorsement of what I'll refer to going forward as "Public Debt."  

Salsman has written something beyond special, a book dense with information and history that I'll be referencing for years to come. It's perhaps commonly thought that Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff's This Time Is Different is the definitive history of government debt, but Salsman's Public Debt trumps their book by many miles. It's quite simply spectacular, and informative in a way that few academic economics books (or, for that matter, any economics books) are.

To give readers a sense of how the book is constructed, it "examines three centuries of the most prominent political-economic theories of public debt." Salsman addresses the debt through the eyes of some of the grandest names in economics, along with others who similarly deserve stature, but who have in a sense been forgotten. One of Salsman's many triumphs is the staggering amount of research he conducted in order to explain to readers the myriad ways economists of different persuasions viewed government debt in the past, and how some do in the present.

Salsman divides up the economists of varying Schools into three groups. "Public debt pessimists" typically "argue that government provides no truly productive services," that the "taxing and borrowing detract from the private economy, while unfairly burdening future generations," plus they generally believe that government debts are "unsustainable and will likely bring national insolvency and perpetual economic stagnation." David Hume, Adam Smith and Nobel Laureate James Buchanan were three public debt pessimists, and then the list today is endless: Niall Ferguson, Laurence Kotlikoff, David Stockman, etc. etc. To the debt pessimists, the world is seemingly always about to end.

"Public debt optimists" think "government provides not only productive services, such as infrastructure and social services," but they also think deficit spending can lift economies out of "savings gluts, economic depressions, inflation, and secular stagnation." Interesting about the optimists is that while they're convinced of the wonders of deficits, they almost universally despise the creditors (the "rentier class") who make deficits possible. Those who lend to governments in return for an income stream are almost invariably immoral financiers in the eyes of the optimists, and so the optimists fully support defaulting on those who provide government with the funds to waste.

Alvin Hansen and Abba Lerner are prominent in Public Debt as some of the old-style optimists, but the list of neo-optimists in today's commentariat is similarly endless; think once again, Krugman, Summers, Alan Blinder, Christina Romer, etc. At book's end, Salsman correctly points out that the "pessimists and optimists have more in common than is commonly realized - and each perpetuate long-established falsehoods." Salsman was being kind....

The Realists

And then there are the "public debt realists." They "contend that government can and should provide certain productive services," but within strict limits. Realists neither whine all the time about world-ending government debts, nor do they claim that they can be essential sources of economic sustenance as the equally confused optimists believe.

Realists who favor "constitutionally limited government" don't think public debt is "inevitably harmful" mainly because when government is limited, so will borrowing be. Alexander Hamilton was the most famous public debt realist. Of the moderns in our midst, Steve Forbes is a realist, so is George Gilder, and so of course is Salsman. More on your reviewer's stance later.

​Up front, public debt isn't some recent concept reflecting the supposed immorality of the modern world whereby governments borrow today only to heartlessly pass the debt on to future generations. Salsman notes early on that public borrowing by governments such that the citizens were "ultimately responsible for servicing the debt" came about in the "late seventeenth century" through the issuance of "tangible securities traded in secondary, liquid markets with prices and yields visible on public exchanges."

People have long wanted a way to securely store wealth today in favor of future consumption tomorrow, governments have long looked for ways to borrow existing wealth, and financiers brought the two together. This isn't to defend the public borrowing as much as it's to say that it's not something that arose in the 20th century.

The Founding

Going back to the U.S.'s founding, Salsman writes that "Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson differed pointedly over whether government should borrow at all, whether it should fully pay its debts (even when trading at a discount), whether the currency in which debts were to be repaid should be gold backed and of uniform consistency nationally or instead be cancelled, and whether private banking was legitimate. On all such questions Hamilton answered in the affirmative, Jefferson in the negative." Based on Salsman's analysis, Jefferson would be grouped with the pessimists, and Hamilton as mentioned with the realists.

Hamilton felt a national debt would be very additive to the U.S.'s early fortunes as a sign of the new country's strength. Issuance of debt would "show the world the United States could and would pay its debts." This was a particularly important signal to send to creditors analyzing what was again, a new country. Salsman is very clear that Hamilton wasn't a "proto-Keynesian optimist" as much as the world was then, as it is now, uncertain. If the U.S. was seen as creditworthy, borrowing for national defense (defense spending a legitimate function of government in the eyes of realists) during times of war would be easier.

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