Thursday, October 31, 2019

What Paul Krugman says about debt

Paul Krugman, the controversial Nobel Prize economist, who coincidentally penned an article about capital control and advice Asian countries on the matter one day before Malaysia had its capital control on 1 Sep 2018 - and the rest is history - politically and economically for Malaysia.

He has this to say about debt and its misconception (piece written on The New York Times) and I think this has its relevance to the Malaysian economy today although it was pointed towards the US.


People still don’t understand debt

By Paul Krugman
Opinion Columnist (29 Oct 2019)

Today’s column is about our trillion dollar deficit, which nobody seems to care about. The thing is, this lack of concern is justified: There’s no good reason to believe that the current budget deficit is doing significant harm.

What did do a lot of harm was the deficit hysteria that dominated establishment discourse the last time we had a deficit this big, which also happened to be a period during which the economy was deeply depressed, and the stimulus from deficit spending was actually a good thing. It should have been obvious that obsessing about deficits in 2012 was a huge mistake. What’s relatively new — and something I couldn’t get into at length in the column — is the realization that government debt isn’t much of a problem even at full employment.

One reason people find this hard to understand is that they make an analogy between the nation as a whole and an individual family. This leads to sober-sounding warnings that budget deficits amount to stealing from our children, in the same way that spendthrift parents are squandering their heirs’ inheritance.

This analogy, however, is all wrong. Debt is money we owe to ourselves — that is, for the most part it obliges one group of Americans, taxpayers, to make payments to another group of Americans, bondholders. It doesn’t directly make the nation poorer, at all. (O.K., there’s a small caveat: some debt is held by foreigners. But it’s not quantitatively important.)

Now, there might be indirect ways in which debt makes us poorer. To pay interest, the government might have to spend less or collect more taxes than it would have otherwise. And this could hurt growth — for example, high taxes could reduce incentives to produce and invest.

What economists have come to realize, however, is that even these indirect costs of debt may be negligible.

Why, after all, must a government raise taxes to deal with a higher level of debt? The usual answer is that if it doesn’t, the debt will snowball: the government will have to pay more in interest, which will cause the debt to rise further, leading to even more interest payments, and so on.

But nobody cares about the absolute value of debt; what matters is the ratio of debt to the tax base, which for the federal government is basically the whole economy, i.e., G.D.P. And a rise in the debt/G.D.P. ratio doesn’t snowball — it melts! Why? Because the interest rate on federal debt is normally lower than the economy’s growth rate.

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