The Clarity Deficit

Why deficit spending is more populist than practical.

Deficit spending. It’s all the rage in the US, from progressive politicians to populist economists the call goes out for “greater spending to offset the recession”. Money’s cheap, the need is great and history shows it can work, or so they say. But is it that true, and is that really going to help?

The basic theory of maintaining demand in our economies is sound, but the proposal to spend borrowed money to maintain it has limited applicability (Jeffrey Sachs, Financial Times, June 2010). To misquote the master of fiscal interdiction, the economy can stay rational longer than policy can remain illiquid. We cannot at the same time profess belief in monetary economics and propose to subvert it. In other words, we cannot propose to inject more liquidity, more demand, into the economy without also proposing how to pay for it and what kind of demand we expect to stimulate. The debate must be about what to do in our specific context now, not about competing theories of economic policy. Our reality is that we are carrying structural budget and trade deficits into it a period that requires very significant investment.

The rationales for deficit spending today rely on appeals to empathy and historical precedent, rarely is there rational analysis of how the imbalance that they propose to create would be corrected. While the desire to do something to alleviate the plight and suffering of those victimized by the recession is both honorable and understandable, the proposed solutions must have a stronger foundation in the reality of our predicament and the practical possibilities available to us.

Let’s look at the arguments proffered to support the case for further deficit spending at this time. They boil down to two assertions: one, that the spending will stimulate future growth and that that growth (along with a little inflation) will make today’s borrowing affordable in the future; and, second, that the historical lesson of the Great Depression is that fiscal rectitude robbed us of an early exit, only rectified by the splurge of deficit spending that accompanied the Second World War.

First, the idea that growth and inflation will make our debts affordable in the future assumes that we grow our wealth and that inflation is controlled. The anticipation is that growth will exceed 3% and inflation will be constrained to single digits.

Just how much growth can our current economies sustainably achieve? Our modern economies are basically tooled for 20th-century style industrial growth, fed by an unsustainable power infrastructure. Any increases in demand today necessarily feed fuel into an unsustainable, waste generating economic system dependent on limited supplies of fossil fuels. The real need in our economies is for investment in re-infrastructuring to support sustainable growth, but that is not where anything but a vanity veneer of the proposed deficit spending would be directed. The principle supporting argument advanced by the proponents of deficit spending is that it will stimulate demand today, and we have to ask ourselves if that is not simply sacrificing our grandchildren to feed our comfort now, while wasting the opportunity to actually invest in our futures.

Even if we put aside concerns about sustainability, the cost of primary inputs into our economies today, from foods to oil and just about everything in between, are rising and forecast to increase by 50% to 100% within a decade (Sir David King, The Guardian, June 2010). Increases in demand today automatically trigger rises in the price of raw materials that are primary determinants of the costs basis of our economy; for instance, the price of oil is directly related to the prospects for growth in the US, and as soon as there is a predicted rise in US demand the price of oil goes up. These cost increases suck wealth out of the US economy in most cases.

Inflation is dramatically more likely than growth, to a point of near assuredness, if there is no real growth in wealth. Monetary economic systems are completely dependent and finely balanced on the concurrence of money supply and real wealth, the former without the latter necessarily results in inflation. None of the proponents are arguing that deficit spending today will directly result in real increases in wealth, the proposal is simply to maintain demand on the grounds that real wealth growth will be stimulated by the demand. This has some limited validity, but it is important to note that the vast majority of the proposed spending would be consumed immediately by the social needs of the society, leaving increases in wealth substantially lagging behind the increase in money supply. This is a recipe for inflation and would be spotted by the would-be lenders way before it becomes a fact, resulting in increased borrowing costs that would sap any increase in wealth achieved.

So if the assertion is that we will be able to grow and inflate our way out of the debts we create, we are wrong on both counts. We are unlikely to generate net growth and we are very likely to create inflation. And the inflation will not mitigate our debts because the markets will spot the risk and inflate the cost of our debts to compensate.

Turning our attention to the historical narrative offered to support the importance of spending our way out of depression, we need to look at the circumstances of that history and ask ourselves if we are in the same context today. The example is that the Western economies only truly emerged from the Great Depression when deficit spending dramatically accelerated with the advent of a concerted war effort in the 1940s. That history is true, but is deeply flawed as an example of what we could follow to emerge from this recession. The number and variety of reasons why the history does not apply to us are great but let’s have a go at a few of the obvious ones.

Firstly, World War II left only one industrialized economy effectively untouched: the USA. As a result of this preeminent advantage the US was able to grow its wealth very dramatically in the years following the war and thus easily afford to repay the debts. The years following WWII were effectively a free-for-all for the Americans, and to a lesser extent the British, because they had little or no economic competition. That is most assuredly and evidently not the case today. The world has many strong economies today and growth in US demand today will result in the accumulation of wealth over a much more distributed geography than was the case in the 1950s. In fact, deficit spending in the US today is most likely to result in greater increases in wealth abroad than it is at home, while the debt will be entirely American.

Second, the spending in the 40s was focused on production capacity, not demand enhancement. The equivalent today would be to spend all the money on greening our infrastructure, something we should do, but not the intention of the proponents of deficit spending. It is possible to invest without borrowing, as I explain later.

Third, the deficit in the 40s was funded from a basically domestic debt market when global fluidity was almost nonexistent. Today’s deficit must be funded in a highly fluid global money market, using international sources for at least half of the debts. This means that borrowers today are subject to the inspection and opinion of economic observers across the globe, who have a myriad of options for what to do with their money. Thirty, and even ten, year debt today is substantially more expensive than it was in the offered historical example.

Fourth, material input costs today are substantially more volatile than they were in the 40s. In the 40s and 50s the cost of many raw material inputs was still falling in real terms, as the effects of advances in the sciences of discovery and extraction increased available supplies, at the same time that speed to market and cost of production were reduced. This is most certainly not the case today; the cost of primary inputs into our economies today are only going to rise, especially energy costs.

Fifth, the demographics of the modern societies that host the economies of which we speak have almost exactly the reverse characteristics of the historical example. Today we have aging populations with high demands for social support within reproductively stable demographic profiles. Our futures promise greater social infrastructure burdens, not the larger contributing workforces of the 40s and 50s.

So, compared to the historical example: we have more competition for the benefits, greater constraints on activity and higher costs of borrowing, within a more globally fluid economy, with a completely different demographic profile.

The 21st century is not the 20th century, and we are not in the same position as our grandparents. The idea that we can spend our way out of this recession, like our grandparents spent their way out of their Great Depression, is both false and a disservice to the great pain inflicted on them by the worldwide war that created their circumstances. We must face our challenges with a clear understanding of the world we live in, and we must develop solutions in the context of our situation and with the objective of developing a sustainable future for ourselves, our grandchildren and the planet we inhabit.

Given the constraints on both the source and use of funds that we face today, it becomes apparent that rather than running up debts to fuel demand, we must invest in re-infrastructuring our economy while reducing our dependence on borrowing – a mighty challenge indeed! Which brings us back around to one of the motives for proposing the deficit spending: empathy for our fellow citizens and an understanding that our peace and freedom are dependent on a more balanced distribution of material security across our society. How can we reduce borrowing, increase investment and maintain our social cohesion simultaneously? That is what we need to do, and I doubt there’s a single proponent of deficit spending that would disagree, it’s just that they assume it’s not possible to do all three at the same time, and so they propose a remedy for one or two out of the three. In reality our social cohesion is doomed if we don’t do all three: debts, inflation and failure to adjust to climate changes are the three most common causes of social collapse.

In order to do all three there is one key factor that must be achieved: a reduction in real (aka monetary) costs. As we have just examined, this will not be a reduction in the cost of material inputs, nor a reduction in the cost of capital, so it must be a reduction in the remaining element in the cost of production: labor. The key to understanding how the cost of labor can be reduced is to remember that the “cost” we are talking about is monetary cost, measured in Dollars or Pounds or Yen. Monetary costs are significant of wealth, and costs paid in money are necessarily significant of the transfer of wealth. If costs can be met without money, then wealth does not get used to satisfy them, and wealth does not need to be borrowed to fund them.

There is a significant portion of labor costs that do not need to be satisfied with wealth transfer, these are the cost of satisfying what Maslow termed as “hygiene factors” in his Hierarchy Of Needs. That portion of labor costs that are made up of hygiene factors and can be satisfied with the transfer of labor instead of money, can be removed from the monetary cost equation. Those costs do not need to be funded with money, instead they can be “funded” by the transfer of labor within a social system. For instance, if transport is free to me, that reduces my need for monetary compensation commensurate to my need for that transport. Of course transport is not free, because there are material inputs to its provisioning and operation, but if that portion of the cost of transport that is represented by the hygiene needs of the workers within the transport system was satisfied in-kind, the monetary cost of the transport service presented to me would be similarly reduced. There is a cyclical and repetitive reduction in the cost of labor the more the hygiene needs of the workforce are met without monetary transfer. Because hygiene factors are nearly universal across the population, the exchange of labor as a replacement for currency has universal value and similarly reductionist effects on the cost of labor across the economy and society.

Even just the availability of hygiene services at reduced cost has the effect of reducing labor costs, even if many do not avail themselves of the actual services. Establishing the universal availability of basic services that satisfy the hygiene needs of the workforce at little or no monetary cost reduces the cost of labor in the economy significantly. The size of the cost reduction can be measured in that portion of income it is necessary to pay the labor component of satisfying hygiene needs; in most economies an easy indicator of this cost is some portion of the mandated minimum wage.

Analyzing the hygiene services in the modern economy (housing, food, health and elder care, education, transport and information access) suggests that 80% of the cost is attributable to labor, and of that about one third is the equivalent of minimum wage. If 50% of that is provided by in-kind services, the reduction in the cost of providing the hygiene services themselves is around 13%, a factor that is at least repeated throughout the private sector as well. If the cost of labor across the economy was reduced by half the minimum wage, sufficient monetary value would be liberated to invest in infrastructure without borrowing, and the cohesion of society would be enhanced. The impact on taxation revenues would be minimal because the hygiene portion of incomes is not usually tax burdened, and the hygiene services themselves are not typically subject to consumption taxes.

The move to universal hygiene services has the potential to negate the annual budget deficit of most industrialized countries at the same time as it enables development of a sustainable microeconomic fabric that generates real wealth across a broader spectrum of society, and enhances resilience against the turbulence of climate instability. Instead of increasing debts to increase demand which results in accelerated climate change, we can reduce debts to increase sustainable development that begins to mitigate our impact on the climate. If we were to implement universal services within existing budget constraints, reduce costs and invest in infrastructure, that would be a more relevant narrative for our current predicament than deficit spending to maintain unsustainable demand!

The 21st century is the birth of the global age and we must put away our 20th-century toys if we are to successfully navigate the waters of our modern world. Borrowing is a 20th-century tool that requires segregations and imbalances that are no longer sustainable, in the 21st century we must learn to live sustainably without borrowing from each other or from the planet. By definition a self-sustaining system prospers from its inputs such that its balance sheet is in equilibrium at the end of each cycle – that is the nature of the planet that hosts us, and it is a process we are obliged to align ourselves with.

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