The American Institute for Economic Research has up an article on why economist Paul Krugman is wrong when he says that government “debt is money we owe to ourselves” and therefore not anything to worry about.
Paul Krugman coined the term “zombie ideas” to describe “policy ideas that keep getting killed by evidence, but nonetheless shamble relentless forward, essentially because they suit a political agenda.”
Krugman has revived one of his favorite zombies: the notion that high government deficits aren’t dangerous in the way that an individual incurring heavy debt is because the national debt is “money we owe to ourselves.” He doubled down on his claims in response to an article comparing the dangers the debt poses to future generations to climate change.
Krugman has repeatedly written on this topic at his blog (see here and here). It was a common refrain of his during the Eurozone crisis and in the aftermath of the Great Recession when there was a bipartisan push to cut future deficits to prevent future Greek-style debt crises.
As with most myths, there is a grain of truth to the claim. National debt does differ from the debt individuals and households incur in a few notable ways. Individuals have a finite lifetime to incur and repay their debts. Governments don’t; they can pass debt onto future generations. So long as people are willing to lend it money and the government can service debt as it comes due, government debt can persist in perpetuity. And to the extent that the debt is owned by domestic citizens, the money that is used to repay the debt needn’t leave the economy.
That said, this grain of truth doesn’t eliminate the ocean of evidence against Krugman’s claim that worrying about the burden the national debt might impose on future generations is nonsensical. Here are some reasons why this argument is fundamentally flawed.
A large share of the national debt is owed to foreigners
For starters, it’s not the case that the national debt is entirely owed to “ourselves” (i.e., that it is exclusively owned by US citizens). Nearly one-third of the US debt ($6.636 trillion of the $22 trillion in debt) is owned by foreign governments and international investors.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The willingness of foreigners to lend to the U.S. government has helped keep Treasury rates at historical lows, making it cheaper for future taxpayers to repay the interest on the national debt. If the US government is running deficits to finance justifiable initiatives (say, fighting World War II) and spending programs that will boost future growth, we should welcome funds from investors regardless of their nationality.
Nevertheless, it undercuts Krugman’s case that repaying the debt won’t burden future taxpayers and the future economy on net because the money will “stay in the U.S. economy.”
The fallacy of “we” and the reality that future taxpayers really do “foot the bill”
A bigger problem is that Krugman commits what Don Boudreaux calls the “Fallacy of Us, We, and Our.” Even if the entire national debt is owned by US citizens, there is no real sense in which “we” owe the debt to “ourselves.” The individuals incurring and benefitting from the debt are entirely different from the individuals who must bear the burden of repaying that debt.
Once we move past the intellectual sleight of hand of using collective pronouns like “we” and “ourselves” to describe all Americans across time, we get a much clearer picture of who gains and loses from the national debt.
Current taxpayers and citizens clearly benefit; they receive the benefit of increased government spending without incurring the full cost of those expenditures. Future taxpayers and citizens, who will have to repay the debt as it comes due, are clearly hurt. They have to pay higher taxes to repay the debt incurred and owned by the prior generation.
This insight remains true even if the older generation sells them its bonds before they pass. As James Buchanan astutely noted decades ago, future generations first have to buy these bonds from the prior generations. And, in order to buy them, they must first reduce their consumption. It is that reduced consumption — not the higher taxes they’ll have to pay when the debt is retired (since, by assumption, that money will flow right back to them as bondholders) — that is the true cost imposed on future generations from government debt.
Government debt “crowd outs” private investment and creates deadweight loss
The “we owe it to ourselves” argument also glosses over two of the most important arguments for why deficit spending is not a free lunch for taxpayers or the future economy.
First, deficit spending crowds out private investment…