Monday, September 12, 2011

Only Deficit Spending Will Save Us

Today's must-read comes from the chief economist at the Financial Times.

People have been bullied and misled about the so-called "ogre" of deficit spending. During a recessionary period, when businesses are not spending and tax revenues are down, the government becomes the key player. All other players are sitting on the sidelines, so government has to act. Government has to spend when no one else will. It may be the most crucial role government plays in our lives––unless you subscribe to the idea that government's only role is blowing up our enemies and fencing our borders.

The founders knew the importance of a national debt. Alexander Hamilton created a robust national economy by creating the national debt. Washington presided over this. Business wealth grew in America because we had a national debt. The great presidents knew this and used this tool to create infrastructure. Eisenhower didn't win WWII, rebuild Europe or build the interstate highway system with ready cash.

FDR got us through the Great Depression with deficit spending. Without it millions would have died of starvation and disease, not to mention millions more households that would have been broken up, homes and businesses lost. Instead, well built bridges and parks, roads and dams, electrical grid work in rural areas, hospitals, schools and public buildings were the result. We still see those projects in use today. We also see several generations who got higher education through the G.I. Bill, the last liberal "good deed" created by FDR. Millions would never have gone to college but for the New Deal.

FDR did make one key mistake, though. In 1936 he promised to balance the budget. His attempt to do so when the economy was still weak caused a second recession in 1937. It was only the massive deficit spending of WWII that finally ended the Great Depression.

In good times we pay our debt back... unless we have a Republican leadership that decides good times are a reason to loosen up, to throw no-strings tax breaks at corporations that are shifting jobs overseas.

Government needs to do the opposite of what businesses do. In bad times, government must spend. In good times, government spending is less important than government oversight to make sure the private sector doesn't create another financial collapse. Think if it as Id and SuperEgo. In good times the private sector needs a grown-up in the room, a conscience. In bad times, it needs someone to clean up its messes.

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