Capital Before Credit
A recent article in the St. Louis Beacon posed a question to local economists that is being tossed around globally:
Given the current state of the economy and the deficit, is this the time to pull back on stimulus spending and pay more attention to the deficit, or should Washington worry more about the short term and let the long term take care of itself?
The Paul Krugman camp, consisting of those economists wanting to stimulate the
recovery through expansive government spending, are — like the spending they are advocating — lost in their own arguments.
In the article, Steve Fazzari, a professor of economics at Washington University in St. Louis, states, “One person’s spending is someone else’s income.” I absolutely agree. But then, in a quick turn of events, he goes on to say, “When the government cuts spending, it’s cutting income to someone.” This is also true, strictly speaking, but the implications of his first statement are more important.
I used to mow lawns, and if my employer had told me that he would give my payment to my brother after I finished my work so that my brother could do some weeding, I would have immediately walked away and taken my labor elsewhere.
If that same employer had given me $10 the week before I was supposed to mow the lawn, two things might have resulted: (1) With cash already in hand, my attention to detail would have suffered considerably; and, (2) I would not have been in any hurry to finish the job.
Historically speaking, capital evolved before credit, and for most of the real world, that is how personal finance is understood — you largely only spend what you have. The problem that got us into this recession was egregious spending beyond our means. If mortgage lenders hadn’t been so eager to hand out money — apart from the fact that home loans were implicitly backed by the federal government’s approval — this last recession most likely could have been avoided.
Without the possibility of high default rates at the micro level, the financial instruments that impregnated the system with risk may never have been implemented on such a large scale. Now, after the crisis, we see the world’s top economists trying to formulate a plan to fix the system. In practice so far, that has involved injecting liquidity into the economy through massive government spending. The Krugman camp claims this is more responsible than private investment, because the Fed can print more money to increase the flow of capital rather than bearing the risks of default. There’s no need to worry about the deficit now, they say; we can take care of that later.
Yet few are buying the empty promises of the government. And why should they? With an aging population and massive health care overhauls on the way, everyone can see that entitlement spending is about to skyrocket. Higher taxes are almost certain. Increasingly larger numbers of the American people are holding onto their money in an effort to maintain liquidity in anticipation of the expiring tax cuts at the end of the year. Stimulus money is falling into the same trap; it’s not multiplying the way Keynesians had hoped because investors are wary of the uncertain economic conditions that may be brought about by still more government spending and higher taxes.
We cannot extricate ourselves from the hole we are in until we stop digging. Americans need to see the sunlight before they are willing to buy an expensive ladder to climb out.