Robert Reich's Blog: The Great Debt Scare: Why Has It Returned?: It’s the kind of thing I expect to hear from deficit hawks and chicken littles -- from the self-described "fiscally responsible" right, from the scolds Ross Perot and Pete Peterson, from my former cabinet colleague Bob Rubin.... The Great Debt Scare is back. Odd that it would return right now, when the economy is still mired in the worst depression since the Great one. After all, consumers are still deep in debt and incapable of buying. Unemployment continues to soar. Businesses still are not purchasing or investing, for lack of customers. Exports are still dead, because much of the global economy continues to shrink. So the purchaser of last resort -- the government -- has to create larger deficits if the economy is to get anywhere near full capacity, and start to grow again.
Odder still that the Debt Scare returns at the precise moment that bills are emerging from Congress on universal health care, which, by almost everyone’s reckoning, will not increase the long-term debt one bit because universal health care has to be paid for in the budget.... Even odder that the Debt Scare rears its frightening head just as the President’s stimulus is moving into high gear with more spending on infrastructure. Every expert who has looked closely at the nation’s crumbling infrastructure knows how badly it suffers from decades of deferred maintenance -- bridges collapsing, water pipes bursting, sewers backed up, highways impassable, public transit in disrepair. The stimulus, along with the President’s long-term budget, also focus on the nation’s schools, as well as America’s capacity to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. These public investments are as important to the nation’s future as are private investments.
First, some background: Deficit and debt numbers mean nothing in and of themselves. They take on meaning only in relation to something else.... Pay close attention, in particular, to the debt/GDP ratio. True, that ratio is heading in the wrong direction right now. It may reach 70 percent by the end of 2010. That’s high, but it’s not high compared to the 120 percent it was in 1946, after the ravages of Depression and war. Over time, the basic way America has reduced the debt/GDP ratio is by growing the U.S. economy.... That growth path, by the way, will be faster and stronger if the nation invests in our infrastructure, our schools, and our environment -- which is exactly what Obama aims to do. In this respect, national budgets are like family budgets. It’s dumb for an indebted family to borrow more money to take a world cruise. But it’s smart even for an indebted family to borrow money to send their kids to college.... Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying there's nothing to worry about when it comes to long-term deficit and debt projections. I'm just saying now's not the time to worry, and we ought to temper our worries by understanding the larger context...
Back in 1992 the real interest rate on a ten-year U.S. Treasury bond was 5% per year. Right now the real interest rate on a ten-year U.S. Treasury bond is more or less zero. Borrow back in 1992 thinking that the government is going to repay its borrowings ten years down the road and ten years down the road you find yourself paying back $1.65 in real purchasing power for each dollar you borrowed in 1992. Today you find yourself paying back just $1 in real purchasing power ten years from now for each dollar you borrow today. As Commander Whorf would say if he were an economist rather than a Klingon professional practitioner of coercive violence: "Today is a good day to borrow," for the government at least.
There are worries about the long-run deficit to the extent that we are unable to bend the curve on government health-care expenditures, but those demand policy actions to raise taxes or change the medical-care system not today but in the 2012 time frame and beyond.
And of course there is the real way to cure destructive long-term deficits: stop electing Republicans like George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan who don't care about the quality of the economic policies they pursue. Elect Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama who do care about the quality of their economic policies instead.