“Yes, the government must pay its bills in the long run.” (Every few centuries?) Questions for Krugman.

I’d like to push back on Paul Krugman a bit, on this bit in particular:

Yes, the government must pay its bills in the long run

You hear this from him a lot. And I want to ask him:

Paul, are you letting yourself be sucked into the very syndrome that you so bemoan and berate? Are you saying this because you feel the need to cast yourself as being sensible, responsible, moderate, and somewhat centrist — in short, as a Very Serious Person?

I ask because over four centuries and two centuries respectively (six hundred years combined), the U.K. and the U.S. governments have paid off their debts exactly once: the U.S. in 1836.

This happy event was followed, in 1837, by one of the most catastrophic depressions in either country’s centuries-long history. Likewise, the one other time that the U.S. got close to paying off its debt (the U.K. never has), in 1893, a disastrous depression followed immediately thereon.

Every depression in U.S. history has been preceded by a major decline in nominal Federal debt. It’s not a sufficient condition for, or reliable predictor of, depression (many declines have not been followed by depressions), but it does seem to be a necessary condition.

So we haven’t had to pay off our debt, and the one time we did (plus one time we got close), we were not happy with what ensued. From that history, how can you conclude that, now, “the government must pay its bills in the long run”?

To quote Chris Cook (HT Izabella Kaminska; emphasis mine), the national debt:

is a national equity

At least two-thirds … came into existence as mortgage loans, and are therefore backed by claims over the productive value of the US land and buildings which they fund. Much of the rest consists of claims over the value of US assets which fund the productive capacity of US corporations. The remainder – which provides the credit necessary to finance the circulation of goods and services in the US – is based upon the magnificent productive capacity of the US people.

Only by liquidating US Incorporated could this National Equity [read: Debt] ever be redeemed.

Such a liquidation, of course, would involve liquidating our overwhelmingly largest real asset: the ability of the American people to work. (Something your ideological opponents seem intent on doing.)

Of course you might well mean that we can’t increase deficits faster than GDP growth forever. But in today’s monetary world you have to at least question even that. Since 1971, when the U.S. stopped promising to redeem its dollar for anything besides…dollars (perhaps in some other “dollar” form, like Fed reserves), that proposition has become at least questionable. Dollars really might be like points issued by a bowling alley, and we may be able to issue a lot of them before we see problems with inflation.

I don’t think we really know; we don’t have any comparable situation to look back on (except maybe Japan, and that’s a glass, darkly). For a decade or so after the ’71 sea change, monetary authorities and markets flailed to adjust their reaction functions to the brave new world. Then those interacting functions settled down and we saw twenty years of steady inflation and steadily-declining interest rates. That may have been the inevitable emergent path for the world’s dominant economy and currency issuer, resulting inexorably from the game rules put into place in ’71/’73.

The place we are now — where Japan landed two or three decades earlier — may be the inevitable (and perhaps enduring) result.

Yes, rising globalization and the political rise of neoliberal Reaganomics may have contributed, but it seems possible that even absent those trends, we would have ended up in this place, perhaps sooner perhaps later.

So now, having arrived at this point, reaction functions are getting rejiggered again, and in a big way. (The institution of IOR was a big change, for both the Fed’s and the markets’ reaction functions.) One key element of those reaction functions is the belief that “we can’t keep running deficits forever.” But at least some parts of the market are acting as if we (and certainly Japan) can. And they may very well be right.

All of which is to say, think again. Think deeply. I’m not sure you’re thinking in your usual clear-eyed manner about a belief that may not be true. At least, given the new rules of the game, we might be a very long way — decades? centuries? — from a point where large government deficits or debt might pose any danger to our economy.

All my tentative language above should make clear that I’m not at all certain of this. I’d sure like to hear what you think.

Cross-posted at Asymptosis.