In case you missed it earlier this week, Ezra had a fantastic interview with James Galbraith, economist and the Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr. chair in government and business relations at the University of Texas at Austin. The key take-away that really isn't heard enough:
EK: You think the danger posed by the long-term deficit is overstated by most economists and economic commentators.
JG: No, I think the danger is zero. It's not overstated. It's completely misstated.
JG: What is the nature of the danger? The only possible answer is that this larger deficit would cause a rise in the interest rate. Well, if the markets thought that was a serious risk, the rate on 20-year treasury bonds wouldn't be 4 percent and change now. If the markets thought that the interest rate would be forced up by funding difficulties 10 year from now, it would show up in the 20-year rate. That rate has actually been coming down in the wake of the European crisis.
So there are two possibilities here. One is the theory is wrong. The other is that the market isn't rational. And if the market isn't rational, there's no point in designing policy to accommodate the markets because you can't accommodate an irrational entity.
EK: Then why are the bulk of your colleagues so worried about this?
JG: Let's push a bit deeper on the CBO forecasts. They publish a baseline set of projections. One of those projections holds the economy will return to a normal high-employment level with low inflation over the next 10 years. If true, that would be wonderful news. Go down a few lines and they also have the short-term interest rate going up to 5 percent. It's that short-term interest rate combined with that low inflation rate that allows them to generate, quite mechanically, these enormous future deficit forecasts. And those forecasts are driven partially by the assumption that health-care costs will rise forever at a faster rate than everything else and by interest payments on the debt will hit 20 or 25 percent of GDP.
At this point, the whole thing is completely incoherent. You cannot write checks to 20 percent to anybody without that money entering the economy and increasing employment and inflation. And if it does that, then debt-to-GDP has to be lower, because inflation figures into how much debt we have. These numbers need to come together in a coherent story, and the CBO's forecast does not give us a coherent story. So everything that is said that is based on the CBO's baseline is, strictly speaking, nonsense.
With an economy that is still struggling, and unemployment continuing at unacceptable levels it's critical to see dissenting voices to the convention wisdom that deficits are--at this point in time--a critical public policy concern. The whole interview is fascinating, and worth the read.