Well, there it is: the supercommittee has failed. Supposedly, this means that $1.2 trillion worth of automatic "sequesters" will kick in. But as PJ O'Rourke remarked about a similar budget-balancing attempt, the storied Gramm-Rudman-Hollings act, "this is like trying to quick smoking by hiding your cigarettes from yourself--and leaving a note in your pocket reminding you where you hid them." What Congress did, Congress can undo, any time it wants. And indeed, rumor has it that they're already looking for ways "around" the sequester.
We're obviously nowhere near Italian levels of debt. But the inability to make even quite small changes in our levels of taxes or spending should worry the hell out of everyone. Yes, yes, I know--the other side is evil and intransigent and you don't trust them anyway. The fact remains that we're married to those jerks in the other party, and there's no prospect of divorce. "Stick to your guns, dammit!" is not a workable policy agenda for either side . . . and no, I don't really care how much better things could be if we were more like Europe/19th century America. Given events in Europe, this doesn't really seem like a good time to be talking up the virtues of larger welfare states or a weak central bank.
In a modern democratic state, two things are true of any policy agenda:
1. You eventually have to pay for it, with actual money.
2. You have to get those bastards on the other side to agree to it.
We seem to have an electorate who believes neither of these things, and the political class has followed them. We passed a giant health care entitlement "paid for" with cuts to existing services that should have gone towards deficit reduction, if they can be done at all . . . and with a structure that risks failing spectacularly and making everything worse if the cost projections are wrong, or the necessary changes prove politically unsustainable. When I pointed this out, I was told "it's not our fault if the Republicans fuck it up," as if it were somehow reasonable policy analysis to assume away the existence of anyone who disagrees with you.
Stop snickering conservatives: you didn't pay for your tax cuts at all, and you tried to get through an equally enormous entitlement change (remember Social Security reform) without funding it in any way, even a stupid and likely-to-fail one.
At some level, I wonder if our legislators understand that this matters. Sure, our debt-to-GDP ratio is only in the mid-fifties--but it was in the mid-thirties just a couple of years ago. And the best forecasts I've seen have it heading into the mid-eighties in a very short time.
For several years, as our debt has swelled by nearly 10% of GDP per year, the deficit hawks have panicked and the doves have told them to chill the hell out because, hey, look at how low interest rates are!
In November 2009, Paul Krugman--who ridiculed those who worried about "invisible bond vigilantes"--posted this graph and comment:
Why, people ask, would I want to compare us to Belgium and Italy? Both countries are a mess!
Um, guys, that's the point. Belgium is politically weak because of the linguistic divide; Italy is politically weak because it's Italy. If these countries can run up debts of more than 100 percent of GDP without being destroyed by bond vigilantes, so can we.
Now it looks like Italy and Belgium maybe can't actually run up such debts without being, well, destroyed by bond vigilantes . . . so what does that imply for us?
Well, Krugman has attempted to walk this back a little, pointing out that the euro is precipitating this crisis. While this is, of course, entirely true, I believe that Italy's membership in the euro had been fairly well-publicized by 2009; it's not new information.
Every time a crisis happens you can pick out the reasons that you aren't anything like those yahoos over there, who don't even have their own currency, ferchrissakes, or maybe they aren't a democracy, or they caught a dose of crony capitalism, or they had this huge balance-of-payments problem . . .
Well, never mind about that last one.
It is absolutely true that the specifics of this crisis involve the special problems of borrowing in another currency. Inflation is in some ways a kinder means of default, because you can inflate just a little bit, and see how things go, while nations that default tend to err on the side of a nice, spectacularly large default, because they don't want to have to do it more than once. So theoretically, at least, inflation can be better for both government and creditors.
But it is not true that loads of debt is just fine as long as you're borrowing in your own currency, except in the trivial sense that a government which borrows in its own currency can always resort to hyperinflation. This is rather like saying, "Don't worry about that cancer--you can always shoot yourself!" If you take too much advantage of the benefits of borrowing in your own currency, pretty soon you have trouble borrowing in your own currency, which means that practically, the distinction is not necessarily as strong as some people pretend.
Regardless of the folly of currency pegs, fundamentally, debt adds risk. It does so even if you borrow in your own currency (Greece has been in default for roughly half its life as a modern independent nation). It does so even if the stuff you spent the money on is really, really great--tax cuts, stimulus, shiny new infrastructure. Unless those things are self funding (the former two are not, and infrastructure only sometimes), then they make your government more financially fragile than it was before you borrowed the money. Every time debt grows faster than GDP, the risk of financial crisis inches up.
Conservatives can make fun of Italy all they want, but they're not the ones running deficits that flirt with double digits--and loudly proclaiming that it's better to run those deficits than to raise a dollar in new tax revenue.
In fact, debt adds risk even if you don't call it debt. Any unfunded obligation that is very, very hard to get out of without a great deal of political and economic pain is a debt, whether you call it a "long term lease" or "social security". Every time we add to these obligations we give future citizens less flexibility to deal with future economic conditions.
That doesn't mean that we need aim for zero debt, or zero long-term obligations. But we should understand that every additional dollar we promise in the future is not simply one less dollar that future taxpayers get to spend on themselves--but also one more dollar of risk added to a rapidly growing mountain.
More and more Americans found this out about their own personal finances the hard way. Unfortunately, this painfully acquired knowledge does not seem to have filtered through to our legislators.