May 22nd 2013

The Debt-Growth Controversy

by Michael J. Boskin

Michael Boskin, Professor of Economics at Stanford University and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, was Chairman of George H. W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers from 1989 to 1993.

STANFORD – The recent controversy over errors in a 2010 paper by the economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff is a sad commentary on the demands of the 24/7 news cycle and the politically toxic atmosphere surrounding fiscal policy in the United States, Europe, and Japan. In their paper, “Growth in a Time of Debt,” Reinhart and Rogoff estimated large declines in growth associated with public-debt/GDP ratios above 90%. But it contained coding errors discovered by a University of Massachusetts graduate student. When corrected, the effect is substantially smaller, but nonetheless economically consequential. 

The Reinhart/Rogoff paper is just a small part of a voluminous academic literature that shows high debt levels to be economically risky. A more fundamental question is causality: the state of the economy certainly affects the fiscal position, just as taxation, spending, deficits, and debts may affect economic growth.

Research errors in economics are not uncommon, but they are usually caught at an early stage, as happened once to me in a prepublication draft. Sometimes errors are not discovered until later, when they are working papers, as with Reinhart and Rogoff, or after publication, as with Nobel laureate Ken Arrow, who had to correct a mistake in the proof of his famous impossibility theorem. 

Economists use different methods to analyze fiscal issues: stylized analytical models; macroeconometric models fitted to aggregate data, such as those used by the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, and the US Congressional Budget Office (CBO); empirical estimation of key parameters, such as spending multipliers; vector autoregressions; and historical studies. Each of these approaches has its strengths and weaknesses, and serious economists and policymakers do not rely on a single study; rather, they base their judgments on complementary bodies of evidence.

Thus, there is no excuse for the outrage, the exaggerated claims for one paper’s influence, and the attempt to use the error to discredit legitimate concerns over high levels of debt (let alone to vilify the authors). 

While large deficits are usually undesirable, sometimes they can be benign or even desirable, such as in recession, wartime, or when used to finance productive public investment. In normal times, deficits crowd out private investment (and perhaps crowd in private saving and/or foreign capital), and hence reduce future growth. By contrast, in a deep, long-lasting recession, with the central bank’s policy rate at the zero lower bound (ZLB), a well-timed, sensible fiscal response can, in principle, be helpful.

But the political process may generate poorly timed or ineffective responses – focused on transfers rather than purchases, infra-marginal tax rebates, and spending that fails cost-benefit tests – that do little good in the short run and cause substantial harm later. America’s 2008 stimulus barely budged consumption upward, and the 2009 fiscal stimulus cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per job – many times higher than median pay. 

We should adopt policies that benefit the economy in the short run at reasonable long-run cost, and reject those that do not. That sounds simple, but it is a much higher hurdle than politicians in Europe and the US have set for themselves in recent years.

I estimated the impact on GDP of America’s recent and projected debt increase (in which the explosive growth of public spending on pensions and health care looms largest), using four alternative estimates of the effect of debt on growth: a smaller Reinhart/Rogoff estimate from a more recent paper; a widely used International Monetary Fund study, which finds a larger impact (and which deals with the potential reverse-causality problem); a related CBO study; and a simple production function with government debt crowding out tangible capital. The results were quite similar: unless entitlement costs are brought under control, the resulting rise in debt will cut US living standards by roughly 20% in a generation. 

Corroborating statistical evidence shows that high deficits and debt increase long-run interest rates. The effect is greater when modest deficit and debt levels are exceeded and current-account deficits are large. The increased interest rates are likely to retard private investment, which lowers future growth in employment and wages.

Numerous studies show that government spending “multipliers,” even when large at the ZLB, shrink rapidly, then turn negative – and may even be negative during economic expansions and when households expect higher taxes beyond the ZLB period. Permanent tax cuts and those on marginal rates have proved more likely to increase growth than spending increases or temporary, infra-marginal tax rebates; successful fiscal consolidations have emphasized spending cuts over tax hikes by a ratio of five or six to one; and spending cuts have been less likely than tax increases to cause recessions in OECD countries. 

Some argue that fiscal consolidation by gradual permanent reductions in spending would be expansionary for high-debt countries, as occurred in some historical episodes. Others maintain that a temporary increase in spending now would boost growth. Both could be expansionary – or not, depending on details and circumstances. Because many countries have been consolidating simultaneously, interest rates are already low; and, for the US, which accounts for more than 20% of the global economy and issues the global reserve currency, caution in generalizing from other fiscal episodes is highly advisable.

Nonetheless, the evidence clearly suggests that high debt/GDP ratios eventually impede long-term growth; fiscal consolidation should be phased in gradually as economies recover; and the consolidation needs to be primarily on the spending side of the budget. Finally, the notion that we can wait 10-15 years to start dealing with deficits and debt, as economist Paul Krugman has suggested, is beyond irresponsible.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see:

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.



Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: " Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."