Missing from debt discussion and from the economy: economic growth

I’m pretty confident one way or another the debt limit will be raised.

Great piece from the NYT today about the role of economic growth in the current deficit problem: Sure Cure for the Debt Problem: Economic Growth.

Writer Catherine Rampell makes some pretty obvious points, but those points have largely been missing from the debt debate. A few snippets with a few key passages emphasized.

“The basic issue is that the U.S. is on an unsustainable fiscal track,” says Dean Maki, the chief United States economist at Barclays Capital. “From that point, none of the choices are fun.” The most obvious choices, Mr. Maki says, are to reduce spending (ouch), raise taxes (yuck), let inflation run (gasp) or default (thud).

We wouldn’t need any of that if we could restore economic growth. If that happened, Americans would become richer and pay more taxes. Et voilà! — we’d pay down the debt painlessly.


After World War II, gross federal debt reached 122 percent of G.D.P., the highest ratio on record. But over the next 40 years, it fell to about 33 percent. That wasn’t because some blue-ribbon panel prescribed austerity; it was because the American economy became much, much richer.

The same happened during the prosperous 1990s, which began with deficits and ended with surpluses. Former President Bill Clinton is often credited for that turnabout, as he engineered higher tax rates. But most economists attribute the surplus years primarily to extraordinarily rapid growth.

It would be lovely to repeat that experience today, and send our federal debt off to that farm with Skip.

But the structure of America’s federal spending is different now than it was in, say, the immediate postwar decades. Back then, growth helped to erase the debt. But remember that in the 1950s, the United States didn’t have Medicare. The population was younger, and Americans didn’t live as long.

And this:

While it may be difficult or impossible to grow our way out of debt, the G.D.P. figures announced on Friday suggest that we could quite possibly shrink our way into bankruptcy. The austerity measures that Congress is debating would almost certainly slow growth further. That, in turn, might actually worsen the debt problem — the exact opposite of what their proponents suggest.

Economists agree that in the long run, fiscal discipline is good for growth. When the budget is in order, the country isn’t weighed down by the burden of paying down burgeoning entitlements. Companies can worry less about being surprised by, say, higher taxes, and proceed to hire new workers. More manageable federal debt also helps to keep interest rates low, which is generally good for growth. And, again, what’s good for growth is generally good for the debt.

The problem is that reducing spending or raising taxes just now would hurt the already fragile economy. Another recession would not only be painful for ordinary Americans but would actually worsen the debt problem by reducing tax revenue.

Don’t believe it? Consider this: Of the $12.7 trillion in additional federal debt that was accumulated over the last decade, about a third came from the souring economy.