Monday, October 02, 2006

Looking for a One-Arm Economist

A recent CRS report, Running Deficits: Positives and Pitfalls, makes two points about federal budgetary deficits. Maybe.

First, deficits paid by younger generational cohorts to finance benefits for older generations may be justified. Thus:
Some shifting of resources to older generations . . . can be justified on the basis of equity. To the extent that technological change leads to greater prosperity over time, future generations will have access to higher standards of living. To the extent that population growth increases the size of the economy, the burden of financing pay-as-you-go retirement systems is reduced. If some of those gains are shifted from younger to older generations, then incomes and levels of well-being would be more equal among generations. Furthermore, a fiscal policy that shifts some resources from younger to older generations can raise living standards of all following generations by transferring a portion of the benefits of future economic growth into the present.
Or, perhaps not:
The possibility of raising standards of living by shifting resources from younger to older generations has its limits. The example above relies on the assumption that the policy continues indefinitely into the future. With a finite ending point this policy would be unsustainable because some young cohorts near that end point would be made worse off and would be unwilling to give up resources.
On this point, the report's conclusion takes an "on the one hand, on the other hand" approach:
Despite the projected magnitude of these intergenerational transfers [Social Security and Medicare, particularly Part D], younger generations might not be worse off than their parents if economic grows at a sufficiently swift pace.

These generational transfers are largely driven by the growth in the number of beneficiaries of entitlement programs relative to the work force, as well as by rapid increases in health care costs. The possibility that some future generation may eliminate fiscal policies that it perceives will lower its standard of living introduces political risk into social insurance programs funded by a pay-as-you-go mechanism. If a generation anticipates that a younger generation will stop contributing to a pay-as-you-go social insurance program, then it may decide to end the program itself. A generation whose descendants are unwilling to finance its benefits would have little to gain, apart from altruistic impulses, by continuing its contributions.
However, when it comes to the question of permanent structural deficits, the report has only one arm:
A government that runs deficits and is unwilling to raise taxes or cut spending faces three choices. First, domestic borrowing can be increased at the cost of crowding out domestic investment. Second, a government can borrow from foreign investors and governments. Borrowing from the rest of the world prevents deficits from crowding out investment. That is, foreign investors can provide financial resources now in exchange for future interest payments and profits. As foreign investors accumulate larger portfolios of stocks, bonds and other assets, the flow of interest payments, dividends and repatriated profits abroad increases as well. Third, a central government can print money to reduce the real value of debt denominated in domestic currency.

All three options have unpleasant consequences. Over time, each can seriously damage national economies. Simple supply and demand theory implies that a smaller supply of savings for private investment will lead to higher interest rates and lower growth in private capital stocks. Lower stocks of private capital threaten economic growth, and slower economic growth translates into lower average living standards in the future. Borrowing from the rest of the world permits higher levels of investment and faster growth at the cost of sending a higher fraction of earnings abroad. If foreigners lend capital by purchasing stocks and bonds rather than by building auto plants, for example, they may decide suddenly someday to take their investments elsewhere. This could strain domestic and international financial systems, thus constricting firms' and households' access to capital. Finally, inflation caused by printing money distorts the flow of information generated by the price system and disrupts financial markets. Investors, if they wish to avoid capital losses in real terms, demand higher interest rates when they see signs of inflation. A major reduction in the real value of the federal debt would require a significant acceleration in inflation. Few economists believe that the restrictive monetary policies needed to squeeze rapid inflation out of an economy would not require substantial economic disruption, at least in the short run.

On the other hand, reducing government deficits can improve economic performance in at least three ways. First, paying off government debt increases the supply of investment funds available for domestic investment. Second, paying off government debt held by foreign governments or investors reduces the amount of interest payments going abroad. Alternatively, paying off debt held by domestic investors gives them the opportunity to rebalance their portfolios by buying foreign assets, which offsets some of the flow of dividends and profits going abroad, or by buying domestic assets that otherwise would have been bought by foreign investors. Third, scaling down the federal debt decreases the temptation to reduce its real value by printing money, lessening the possibility of a major acceleration in inflation. Finally, most economists believe reducing government borrowing lowers interest rates, which in turn have positive effects on investment and growth.
(BTW, talk about samizdat. I had to call my Congressman's office for a copy of the report. It was faxed to me, which explains the poor reproduction quality. As soon as I get a better copy, I will scan it and replace the fax version.)

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