First, there was the surprising about face during the summer months when European leaders switched from advocating austerity to voicing their support for actions that promote growth. Professor Domar would have most likely approved of this change of heart by Europe’s ruling elite given that, many decades ago, Domar authored “The Burden of the Debt and National Income” (1944), a paper which argues that “the problem of the burden of the debt is a problem of achieving a growing national income” rather than one associated with the size of the budget deficit or national debt.
Specifically, in his paper, Domar demonstrated that, in the long run, the ratio of debt to GDP will gradually approach the ratio of the fraction of GDP borrowed each year to the rate of growth of GDP. So, for instance, the US federal government borrowed approximately 7 percent of GDP in 2012. If the borrowing continued at the same rate and the GDP (in money terms) grows at 2 percent per year, the ratio of debt to GDP will approach 3.5; with a 3 percent growth, it will be 2.3.
Thus, Domar showed that "less attention should be devoted to the problem of the debt and more to finding ways of achieving a growing national income" (1945:415)
According to Domar, attempting to reduce the public debt by cutting government expenditures (thus removing a significant source of income and growth from the economy) is largely self-defeating and exactly the wrong course of action if undertaken when the economy is struggling.
Then, in the fall, there was the debate among economists and bloggers about the intergenerational burden of the public debt. Had he been around, Professor Domar would have probably been disappointed to learn that issues addressed (and, for many, put to rest) decades ago are still being debated.
And now we're facing the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’, a metaphor depicting the slowdown facing the US economy as a result of the expiry of tax breaks enacted at a time when the US federal fiscal budget situation was in better shape. In the face of such a situation, Domar would have understood that the last thing policymakers should do when the economy is weak is to increase taxes which take away purchasing power from the economy.
As we enter a New Year, it is worth remembering Domar’s views on these and other related issues. And nowhere are these matters best addressed than in his short, three-page article “On Deficits and Debt” published in 1993. In this article, Domar challenges many of the widely held beliefs about debt and deficits.
First, the article begins by taking on the popular view that considers the US federal government debt as analogous to household debt:
Our old puritanical injunctions against running into debt remain valid when applied to a private person. He or she can disregard them only at his or her peril. A large corporation has more leeway: it can borrow by issuing bonds, and replace them with new ones when they fall due. If many large corporations simultaneously decided to pay off their debts, our economy would collapse: it is based on credit, the inverse of debt. Still any corporation, however large can go bankrupt...But, the Federal government is in a class by itself: so long as its debt is expressed in dollars (which fortunately is the case), it can always print as many dollars as it needs to pay the interest, though nowadays it would issue bonds, sell them in the market and, if necessary, have the Federal Reserve repurchase them. The Federal government, the creator of the Federal Reserve System, is its own banker.Then, Domar describes the merits of a budget deficit:
By definition, a budget deficit means that the government spends more money then it receives, or, in other words, that it creates more purchasing power by its expenditures than it destroys through taxes. Is this good or bad? It depends. If the economy is working to capacity, the creation of extra purchasing power will do little good and much harm: it will cause an inflation, which is easy to start and hard to stop. But when the economy has plenty of unused resources, the additional purchasing power is welcome. At such a time, we should rebuild our physical infrastructure, improve our education, health, and environment, and intensify our scientific and industrial research efforts, without raising taxes and without reducing or eliminating other needed services, always keeping a watchful eye on economic barometers to make sure that we do not overdo it.
All this sounds nice and easy, perhaps too easy to avoid suspicion. Are we to get something for nothing, as the old saying goes? Is there such a thing as a free lunch, after all? The offer of a free lunch is strictly temporary; it lasts only so long as unused resources, and particularly unemployed labor, are available, because they can be put to use with little, if any, social cost. But one they are gone government expenditures, however, desirable, must be matched with revenue.Later in the article, Domar explains that the true burden of the national debt is distributional in that it involves a transfer of resources from one group to another group within the economy:
Some early proponents of fiscal policy argued that the size of the debt and of interest payments on it are not important because “ we owe it to ourselves”...There is some truth in this argument, but it should not be exaggerated. Even if all the Federal bonds were owned by Americans and all interest on the debt received by them, problems created by the existence of a large debt and by the need to transfer [billions of dollars] from the taxpayers to the bondholders would remain...
On the other hand, this does not mean that the...interest paid on the debt represents a net loss to the country...[T]hat interest go to other Americans, directly or not and that much of it is subject to Federal income taxes. President Eisenhower, who disliked deficits and debts, is reported to have said, shortly before he left the White House, that every American baby born at the time carried on its neck a tag indicating its share of the Federal debt. Perhaps it did; but it must have also borne a second tag showing its share of the value of the Federal bonds.The article then presents some interesting views about whether the country’s ratio of debt to GDP is an appropriate indicator of the state of the economy:
Does the ratio of the debt to GNP matter? Yes, it does. Other things being equal, I would prefer a smaller rather than larger ratio...Other things are not equal. There are times and conditions calling for a deficit. Without it, unemployment may rise and the GNP may fall, thus raising, rather than lowering the debt burden.The article concludes with a comment on how to best address the “debt problem”:
The proper solution of the debt problem lies not in tying ourselves into a financial straight-jacket, but in achieving faster growth of the GNP, a result which is, of course, desirable by itself. To the Republican and other politicians who are hell-bent on reducing the deficit and even repaying the debt, I would like to address a very short and simple question: Why? Are we suffering from an excess of purchasing power now?As we head into the New Year and get ready to face many of the same concerns as in 2012, I think it would be a good idea to keep in mind these points.
On that note, I wish all readers of this blog a very Happy New Year!
UPDATE: The third paragraph was revised on January 12, 2013. It originally indicated that Domar demonstrated in his 1944 paper that the ratio of deficit to GDP would equal the ratio of the fraction of GDP borrowed each year to the rate of growth of the economy. Rather, Domar focused on the ratio of debt to GDP. I also added a subsequent paragraph (after paragraph 3) which includes a reference to Domar's article "The Burden of the Debt: A Rejoinder" (1945).
Domar, E., "The Burden of the Debt and the National Income", American Economic Review, 34(4), December 1944
Domar, E., "The Burden of the Debt: A Rejoinder", American Economic Review, 35(3), June 1945, pp. 414-418.
Domar, E., "On Deficits and Debt", American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 52(4), October 1993, 475-478.