Lars P. Syll – Understanding government debts and deficits

One of the great economic fallacies: that a government needs to manage its finances like a household, and if the government consistently spends more than it receives in income, the nation’s debt will ultimately become unsustainable, and the nation will go broke.

Lars P. Syll is an economist at the Faculty of Education and Society at Malmö, Sweden, not to mention a prolific blogger on his own website.

Cross-posted from Syll’s blog

The balanced budget paradox is probably one of the most devastating phenomena haunting our modern economies. The harder politicians — usually on the advice of establishment economists — try to achieve balanced budgets for the public sector, the less likely they are to succeed in their endeavour. And the more the citizens have to pay for the concomitant austerity policies these wrong-headed politicians and economists recommend as “the sole solution.”

One of the most effective ways of clearing up this most serious of all semantic confusions is to point out that private debt differs from national debt in being external … A variant of the false analogy is the declaration that national debt puts an unfair burden on our children, who are thereby made to pay for our extravagances. Very few economists need to be reminded that if our children or grandchildren repay some of the national debt these payments will be made to our children or grandchildren and to nobody else. Taking them altogether they will no more be impoverished by making the repayments than they will be enriched by receiving them.

Abba Lerner The Burden of the National Debt (1948)

Few issues in politics and economics are nowadays more discussed — and less understood — than public debt. Many raise their voices to urge for reducing the debt, but few explain why and in what way reducing the debt would be conducive to a better economy or a fairer society. And there are no limits to all the — especially macroeconomic — calamities and evils a large public debt is supposed to result in — unemployment, inflation, higher interest rates, lower productivity growth, increased burdens for subsequent generations, etc., etc.

But the truth is that public debt is normally nothing to fear, especially if it is financed within the country itself (but even foreign loans can be beneficent for the economy if invested in the right way). Some members of society hold bonds and earn interest on them, while others have to pay the taxes that ultimately pay the interest on the debt. The debt is not a net burden for society as a whole since the debt cancel itself out between the two groups. If the state issues bonds at a low-interest rate, unemployment can be reduced without necessarily resulting in strong inflationary pressure. And the inter-generational burden is also not a real burden since — if used in a suitable way — the debt, through its effects on investments and employment, actually makes future generations net winners. There can, of course, be unwanted negative distributional side effects for the future generation, but that is mostly a minor problem since when our children and grandchildren repay the national debt these payments will be made to our children and grandchildren.

To both Keynes and Lerner, it was evident that the state has the ability to promote full employment and a stable price level – and that it should use its powers to do so. If that means that it has to take on debt and (more or less temporarily) underbalance its budget – so let it be! Public debt is neither good nor bad. It is a means to achieve two over-arching macroeconomic goals – full employment and price stability. What is sacred is not to have a balanced budget or running down public debt per se, regardless of the effects on the macroeconomic goals. If ‘sound finance,’ austerity and balanced budgets means increased unemployment and destabilizing prices, they have to be abandoned.

Discussing within which margins public debt is feasible, the focus today is solely on the upper limit of indebtedness, and very few ask the question if maybe there is also a problem if public debt becomes too low.

To guarantee a well-functioning secondary market in bonds it is essential that the government has access to a functioning market. If turnover and liquidity in the secondary market become too small, increased volatility and uncertainty will, in the long run, lead to an increase in borrowing costs. Ultimately there’s even a risk that market makers would disappear, leaving bond market trading to be operated solely through brokered deals. As a kind of precautionary measure against this eventuality, it may be argued – especially in times of financial turmoil and crises — that it is necessary to increase government borrowing and debt to ensure – in a longer run – good borrowing preparedness and a sustained (government) bond market.

To view government debts in terms of the ‘functional finance’ concept introduced by Abba Lerner, is to consider their role in the macroeconomic balance of the economy. In simple, bare bones terms, the function of government debts that is significant for the macroeconomic health of an economy is that they provide the assets into which individuals can put whatever accumulated savings they attempt to set aside in excess of what can be wisely invested in privately owned real assets. A debt that is smaller than this will cause the attempted excess savings, by being reflected in a reduced level of consumption outlays, to be lost in reduced real income and increased unemployment.

William Vickrey

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