We are coming to the point in the United States when even the US government will no longer be able to borrow at very low long-term rates. That point is a few years off, and we have time to change paths; but as I have shown in previous letters, the longer we wait to get the deficit under control, the fewer choices we have and the more painful they are. NO country can run deficits the size we are currently running, along with unfunded deficits over four times the size of the economy and a growing overall debt burden, without consequences. At some point, investors in bonds will start wondering exactly what the process is by which they will be repaid. And what will the value of those future payments be?
One by one, the countries of Europe are losing their ability to sell their bonds at an interest rate that is sustainable for their economies and revenue bases without severe and socially disruptive restructuring, even if a central bank that will accommodate their spending by printing money or other countries will tax their citizens to pay for someone else’s debts.
The US will soon be faced with that same problem if we do not act soon. Will it be 2014? 2015? 2016? I think it will be earlier rather than later, as the bond market will look at Europe and what will soon be an imploding Japan and decide that the US is only different in size and scale. The interest on the debt is a growing part of the overall budget, and any rise will put severe constraints on spending or force large tax increases or require the Federal Reserve to monetize the debt. None of those have positive outcomes. Ignored long enough, it will bring about another Depression. This week we will explore some options to actually resolve the deficit and debt crisis. Cutting spending or raising taxes have consequences, but not all cuts and not all taxes are the same. For those who have been wanting more specific solutions from me, I am going to address the issues surrounding taxation and offer my thoughts as to what we should do. Let’s see how many friends and readers I can upset this week. And I close with a few brief thoughts on writing, the coming employment crisis (will two billion jobs really disappear?), and advice for younger readers.
Before we dive in, I want to respond to a lot of letters and blogs about last week’s letter, which also handily works as a preface to this week’s musings. There were a lot of comments pro and con about my thoughts on various historical events. In quick review, I offered numerous thought experiments about what would have been different economically following a presidential election if their opponent had won. It was mostly an alternative-history type of speculative process. There are whole book series written with such a premise. What would have happened if the South had won the Civil War or Germany World War II? Total speculation as to the details, open to much disagreement.
And disagreement there was over certain interpretations of history. Would Al Gore (or pick your alternative president) have done certain things differently? Possibly, and maybe even probably. Such speculations are totally open for debate. But nearly all disagreements missed my main point, which was (and is) that presidents take the credit for good economic times and get blamed for bad times, when the reality is that they don’t have all that much control over the economy, especially in their first four years in office. They take the oath of office and their first budget isn’t even offered until 13 months later and then maybe adopted later in their second year, with lots of changes. With lots of compromises. Hardly time to radically affect the economy by year four of their term. Some changes? Yes, of course. But the main direction is already set, and they are really affecting the future more than their present time.
I argued that you really have to go back to Reagan to get serious change of direction, and even then you can argue that it was Carter that appointed Volcker (though I doubt he thought Volcker would create a major recession in an election year). Does anyone really think Reagan wanted a second double-dip recession in his second year in office? The legacy of Reagan was just beginning in 1984, and I will argue below that it was the restructuring of taxes in 1986 that provided the largest and most lasting contribution in terms of economics.
Read More in Scribd doc. embedded below:mwo021812