In devastating testimony, James K. Galbraith challenges the pitchfork and torch crowd led by the deficit reduction committee.
5. The Only Way to Reduce Public Deficits is to Restore Private Credit.
The conclusion to draw from the above argument is that large deficits going forward are likely to have the same source as they do right now: stubbornly high unemployment.
The only way to reduce a deficit caused by unemployment is to reduce unemployment. And this must be done with a substantial component of private financing, which is to say by bank credit, if the public deficit is going to be reduced. This is a fact of accounting. It is not a matter of theory or ideology; it is merely a fact. The only way to grow out of our deficit is to cure the financial crisis.
To cure the financial crisis would require two comprehensive measures. The first is debt restructuring for the entire household sector, to restore private borrowing power. The second is a reconstruction of the banking system, effectively purging the toxic assets from bank balance sheets and also reforming the bank personnel and compensation and other practices that produced the financial crisis in the first place. To repeat: this is the only way to generate deficit-reducing, privately-funded growth and employment.
As a former top adviser in the Clinton White House, co-chairman Bowles no doubt knows that privately-funded economic growth produced the boom years of the late 1990s and the associated surplus in the federal budget. He must also know that the practices of banks and investment banks with which they were closely associated worked to destroy the financial system a decade later. But I would wager that the Commission has spent no time, so far, on a discussion of the relationship between deficit reduction and financial reform.
To be clear: unemployment can be cured without private-sector financing, if public deficits are large enough -- as was done during World War II. But if the objective is to reduce public deficits, for whatever reason, then a large contribution from private credit is essential.
One more time: without private credit, deficit reduction plans through fiscal austerity, now or in the future, will fail. They cannot succeed. If at the time the cuts take effect the economy is still relying on public expenditure to fund economic activity, then reducing expenditure (or increasing taxes) will simply reduce GDP and the deficits will not go away.
Further, if the finances of the private sector could be fixed, then an austerity program would be entirely unnecessary to reduce public debt. The entire national experience from 1946 to 1980, when public debt fell from 121 to about 33 percent of GDP and again from 1994 to 2000, proves this. In those years the debt-to-GDP ratio fell mainly because of credit driven economic growth -- certainly not because of public-sector austerity programs. And this is why the deficits returned, in 1980-2 and in 2000, once the credit markets froze up and the private economy entered recession.
Thus until the private financial sector is fully reformed -- or supplemented by parallel financing institutions as was done in the New Deal -- high deficits and a high public-debt-to-GDP ratio are inevitable. In the limit, if there is no private financial recovery, debt-to-GDP will converge to some steady-state value, probably near 100 percent - a normal number in some countries - and at that point the public deficit will be the sole engine of new economic growth going forward. Only when the private sector steps up, will the debt-to-GDP ratio begin to decline.
For this reason, a Commission report focused on "entitlement reform" rather than "financial reform" would be entirely beside the point. Entitlement cuts, no matter how severe, cannot and will not achieve deficit reduction. They cannot "meaningfully improve the long-term fiscal outlook," as required by your charter. All they will accomplish is to impoverish vulnerable Americans, impairing the functioning of the private economy and the taxing capacity of the government.