An alternative to popular faith

The May 15, 2010 issue of NewScientist Magazine included an excellent piece by James Giles, titled “Giving life to a lie.” I strongly recommend you read it. (See: LIE for the full article.)

It tells how a statement by John Houghton, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change – “Unless we announce disasters, no one will listen” – supposedly was repeated in three books, 100 blogs and 24,000 web pages.

Despite this widespread circulation and belief, the statement never was made. It was created by conservative columnist Piers Akerman. It was a lie.

The article, with its subtitle, “In the battle for hearts and minds, a plausible falsehood too often trumps the truth,” goes on to explain how a lie can acquire almost universal acceptance. Here are a few quotes: “. . . a falsehood has to have at least a shred of believability.” “Any falsehood can acquire currency … so long as there are enough people inclined to believe it . . . Falsehoods can come to be believed simply because others believe them. . . This is an information cascade, a process described by the economist DavidHirshleifer . . .” “The mainstream media often participates in the cascade … the more often you hear something, the more likely you are to believe it is true.”

Today, the big lie in economics is, “The federal debt is unsustainable” (See: UNSUSTAINABLE ).

The word ‘unsustainable,” means unable to endure. What is the evidence the federal debt cannot endure? That is, what evidence shows the debt cannot continue, cannot continue to grow, cannot continue to be serviced by the federal government, or will cause economic hardship? Amazingly, no such evidence exists. It all is myth.

That is why you never will see such evidence provided by any of the newspaper or magazine articles making the claim, nor will economists provide such evidence. They all merely will make the claim and support it with other claims, also unsupported by evidence (i.e., “The debt is unsustainable. It will cause inflation. It will reduce the availability of lending funds. Our children and grandchildren will pay for it through higher taxes. Nations will refuse to lend to us. Eventually, we’ll be like Zimbabwe.”) As each lie begets additional lies, the entire package becomes impervious to fact. More and more believe it, until it seems to become solid truth – all without supporting evidence.

The U.S. is 225 years old, yet the federal debt has grown about 1500% in just the past 30 years – a truly amazing increase. Despite this unprecedented debt growth, the federal government never has trouble servicing its debt, nor do we have inflation beyond what the government specifically wants (about 2%-3%), nor is there any mechanism by which the federal debt, which actually is the main source of dollars, can reduce the availability of lending funds. Nor do taxes pay for debts, which is how the debt managed to grow so much. In fact, tax rates are lower today than 30 years ago. And, nations do not refuse to lend to us. Nor do we even need nations to lend to us.

Why does this lie, which the most easily obtainable evidence shows to be wrong, have such widespread following and persistence? First, it has the requisite “shred of believability.” We think of the federal government as being like us – an anthropomorphic misunderstanding. If my debts grow too large, they are not sustainable. I might not be able to obtain the money to service them, and I even can go bankrupt. The same can be said of you, your business, your city, county and state. It even can be said of the European Union nations. But it cannot be said of the U.S. government.

I cannot create unlimited amounts of money to pay my bills. Nor can you, businesses nor local governments. Even Greece and Spain cannot, for they are constrained by EU rules. The U.S. government however, has no such constraints, as it proves every day. It can pay any bill of any size, immediately, simply by crediting the bank account of any creditor.

Then there is the collection of taxes. Local governments use taxes to pay their bills, which is why local governments can go bankrupt if taxes do not support spending. The federal government does not use taxes to pay its bills, because it alone has the unlimited power to create money. For that reason, our children and grandchildren will not pay for the debt. No one will. The government pays its debts by creating money, ad hoc.

The notion that federal borrowing replaces private borrowing has a quasi-arithmetic logic about it. “There is only so much money to lend, and if the government borrows it all, the funds will be used up and there will be none left for the private sector.” In reality, lending facilitates more lending. When you lend to the bank, by depositing in your bank account, this does not reduce the bank’s ability to lend. When the government borrows, it merely exchanges one form of money for another. It does not “use up” lending funds. And when the government spends, it creates lending funds.

Many nations often are used as an example of what excessive debts cause: Zimbabwe, WWII Germany, Brazil, Italy et al. But, each had special circumstances, that were unlike those in the U.S. and not directly related to excessive deficits. For instance, in the case of Zimbabwe, wars, corrupt leadership (Robert Mugabe), stealing farm land from owners, loss of exports and other problems caused its economic disaster.

As the media broadcast the lie, and more people came to believe it, the lie became a cascade. It became a truth unto itself, a self evident statement requiring no supporting evidence.

Are you old enough to remember when “Stomach ulcers are caused by emotional stress” was such a self-evident statement. No one doubted it, and no one asked for evidence, until one day it was discovered the vast majority of stomach ulcers are caused by a bacterium (Helicobacter pylori). Even today, some people cling to that original lie about ulcers.

In summary, when someone tells you the federal deficit and debt are too large, ask for factual evidence in the form of data. They will not provide factual evidence. They merely will give you more opinions (inflation, taxes, children, eventually, etc.) also unsupported by data. If you would rather depend on facts than on myth, read through the various posts on this blog, beginning with SUMMARY, and do read that article.

Rodger Malcolm Mitchell

No nation can tax itself into prosperity