–Deficits: The Possible vs. the Certain

An alternative to popular faith

Human beings have difficulty distinguishing threat levels. Despite the absolute fact that airline travel is safer per mile than auto travel, some people drive, even long distances, because they fear the safer air travel more than the dangerous auto travel.

Then think of the people who won’t vaccinate their children against the H1N1 flue, because they fear any unknown, possible adverse effects of vaccination more than they fear the known, deadly effects of the flue.

I was reminded of this human failing when I read an article in which the author claimed the economic recovery was not “real,” because it relied on government funding rather than on private funding. The author seemed to feel government funding was, in some way, artificial – as though we were using saccharine, rather than sugar, to sweeten our coffee.

Of course, money is money, and federal money is indistinguishable in effect from private money. But I suspect the author had something more than artificiality in the back of his mind. He probably understands that the federal government has the unique and unlimited ability to create money from thin air, and repeatedly has proved it never can run out of money. So, what is his concern? He must fear two things: Federal deficit spending might cause inflation and our grandchildren might have to pay for deficits.

As for inflation: Despite current, massive deficit spending we do not now experience an unacceptable level of inflation, and are unlikely to soon. Moreover, in the thirty-five years since we went off the gold standard, large deficits never have caused inflation. Clearly, something is askew with the deficits-cause-inflation hypothesis.

Even if deficits did cause inflation, private spending is identical with public spending; both add money to the economy. So the author should fear the supposed inflationary effects of private and public spending, equally.

As for grandchildren, I am a grandchild of the adults who saw the gigantic deficits of WWII and of President Reagan. Yet, because tax rates have gone down, I never have paid one penny toward those monster deficits. Similarly, if tax rates continue to stay level or decline, as they should, my grandchildren will not pay a penny toward today’s deficits.

What has this to do with the human difficulty distinguishing threat levels? The debt hawks know with certainty, that many millions of people now suffer the devastating effects of unemployment and loss of homes and lifestyle. People are dying, financially, emotionally and yes, even physically.

These same debt hawks believe that at some unknown time in the future, their children, grandchildren or great grandchildren may have to pay some unknown amount toward today’s debt. Yet they fear unknown future damage more than the certainty of today’s. That is why you see people rail against deficits. In essence, they are so afraid they one day may run short of water, they will let a home burn to the ground rather than allowing the fire fighters to save it.

The shame is that many professional economists, who should know better, foster these misguided fears, leading to misguided actions.

Rodger Malcolm Mitchell

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