An alternative to popular faith

April 14, 2010: By JEANNINE AVERSA, AP Economics Writer; WASHINGTON – “Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke […] testifying before Congress’ Joint Economic Committee, also once again called on lawmakers and the White House to come up with a plan to whittle down record-high budget deficits.

Ben Bernanke is a smart man. He knows federal deficits are nothing more than a balance sheet measure of money created by the federal government. He knows the $12 trillion debt merely is a statement that in the history of the United States, the federal government has created $12 trillion net dollars. He knows that to “whittle down record-high budget deficits” is another way to say, the government should create and spend less money.

But also knows the federal government cannot default on debts of any size, and creating and spending money stimulates economic growth. So, he favors continuing federal stimuli (aka deficit spending).

If you think that is a mixed message consider this: He said, “A credible plan to pare the deficit could provide the economy with benefits in the near term, including lower longer-term interest rates and increased consumer and business confidence.” And, “A moderate U.S. economic recovery is likely to warrant very low interest rates for a long time.”

First, he says the deficit should be reduced in order to lower interest rates. Then, he says the Fed will keep rates low for a long time. Question: If the Fed can keep interest rates low for a long time, why does Bernanke need a plan to whittle down deficits?

Is it to avoid inflation? There is widespread belief that large deficits cause inflation, despite history saying otherwise. See: Deficits, inflation and hyperinflation And though raising interest rates prevents and cures inflation, the Fed believes it must keep rates low to “increase consumer and business confidence.”

What’s a guy to do? He keeps rates low and deficit spending high. But, he knows the public believes deficits are too high (This is the same public that wants neither tax increases nor to forgo the benefits stimulus spending buys. It wants a magical deficit decrease.) So Bernanke, by seeming to agree with the public, takes the political route, saying in essence, “Those high deficits aren’t my fault. Blame Congress and the President. I’m just doing what’s necessary to help the economy,” (which, don’t tell anybody, means running big deficits and keeping rates low).

The balance is not between what’s good and bad for the economy. That’s the easy part. The balance is between what’s good for the economy and what’s good politically. They are quite different, and the high wire balancing act is tough.

Rodger Malcolm Mitchell