What seems to be making all the headlines these days is the fact that the country has a debt problem. It does, and that's not really in dispute. The problem lies in the fact that people feel that we should address the issue RIGHT NOW. Politicians and common citizens alike are calling for spending cuts. Everyone has noticed Greece in the headlines; they may have heard of Portugal or Ireland's debt and financing issues. But it is wrong to look over to Europe and decide that we'll soon be sharing their fate. Let's first look at what interest the market is charging Greece, Portugal, and Ireland on their debt. When borrowing for 10 years, Greece is currently paying 16.8%, Ireland 12.1%, and Portugal 11.7%. This is roughly the rate Joe Shmoe would pay on his credit cards... and these are sovereign nations. The US? 2.93% (look at 'bonds' on the right side). It doesn't appear as if the market is sending us any worrying signals. In fact, as this chart shows, 10 year treasury interest rates (i.e., the rate at which people lend to the govt) never dipped below 3% at any point during the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, or W. Bush administrations. Matt Yglesias cites these facts, and justly asks "So why is this on the agenda now?" Robert Frank connects this issue with my first point:
Almost 14 million people — 9.1 percent of the labor force — were officially counted as unemployed last month. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There were almost 9 million part-time workers who wanted, but couldn’t find, full-time jobs; 28 million in jobs they would have quit under normal conditions; and an additional 2.2 million who wanted work but couldn’t find any and dropped out of the labor force.
If the economy could generate jobs at the median wage for even half of these people, national income would grow by more than 10 times the total interest cost of the 2011 deficit (which was less than $40 billion). So anyone who says that reducing the deficit is more urgent than reducing unemployment is saying, in effect, that we should burn hundreds of billions of dollars worth of goods and services in a national bonfire.
What has happened is that people are now in the debt-binge hangover stage. While loading up on debt while the bubble inflated, consumers are now paying down the debt and have reduced their current consumption. As roughly 2/3 of the economy relies on personal spending, when everyone reduces it at ones the result is reduced economic output and fewer jobs. However, as we've seen, the US can currently borrow money extremely cheaply. People recently were actually paying the US government to borrow their money. As we have a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built or improved around the country, it would be wise to borrow at these cheap rates and spend the money on the projects (which will have to be done eventually), WPA style; in this manner the government would step in and create the demand, since consumers haven't been able to. Considering the fact that it was a recession-related decline in tax receipts, and not runaway spending, which has exacerbated the budget problem, focusing on the economy to solve the issue makes sense.
With what's going on in Greece, I understand why there would be some concern over our budget. But it would be wise to wait a few years for action, at least until the economy has recovered. For now, the government can borrow cheap, spend the money that consumers cannot, help the economy, and perhaps relieve the unbelievable jobs situation. It's easier to pay down debt when your economy is not convulsing.Postscript: Bill Clinton and Bill Gross recently talked of (related) ways congress could help stimulate the economy. See here for how the economy has recently (and repeatedly) failed to meet expectations.