No, The United States Will Not Go Into A Debt Crisis, Not Now, Not Ever
By Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry/ Forbes/ October 19, 2012
(If you read the headline and thought “Well, yeah”–feel free to skip this post.)
If there’s one article of faith in Washington (and elsewhere), it’s the idea that the United States might get into a debt crisis if it doesn’t get its fiscal house in order.
This is not true.
The reason why it’s not true is because we live in a fiat currency system, where the United States government can create an infinite number of dollars at no cost to meet its obligations. A Treasury bill is a promise that the government will give you US dollars–something that the United States government can produce infinitely and at no cost.
That’s the reason why interest rates on United States debt have only gone down even as the debt has ballooned. That’s the reason why Great Britain has very low rates on its debt despite having very high debt-to-GDP. That’s the reason why Japan has an astounding debt-to-GDP ratio and still enjoys some of the lowest rates ever. Investors have bet for so long that there would be a run on Japanese debt and have ended up so ruined that in financial circles that trade is called “the Widowmaker”. (Here’s a more detailed analysis by my former colleague Joe Weisenthal at Business Insider.)
Well, what about Argentina? Argentina had to default on its debt because it had pegged its currency to the US dollar. It wasn’t sovereign with regard to its currency since it had to maintain its currency’s peg. It wasn’t Argentina’s debt that caused it to default, it was its currency peg.
What about Greece? Same thing. Greece hasn’t used its own currency for ten years. Of course it’s going bankrupt.
You don’t have to take my word for it. How about Alan Greenspan? He said (PDF): ”[A] government cannot become insolvent with respect to obligations in its own currency. A fiat money system, like the ones we have today, can produce such claims without limit.”
Well, in theory, yes. But probably not. Why is that? Because the US has an even bigger advantage than just being sovereign in its own currency (hi Greece), it also holds the reserve currency. The US dollar is the main currency that is used in most international transactions, it is held by all of the world’s central banks, and so forth.
Why is this important? Well, another way to define inflation is to say that the supply of a currency gets out of whack with its demand: too much currency chasing too few people who want to hold it, and so its value drops. Well, when you have the reserve currency, the demand for your currency is always going to be extremely strong. There’s always going to be tons of people, all around the world, who want to use US dollars, because their transactions are conducted in US dollars. (And it’s highly unlikely that this will change soon–being the reserve currency has a network effect, meaning everyone uses the dollar as the reserve currency because everyone else uses it, creating a self-reinforcing cycle that’s extremely hard to break.)
And even if it did–well, for all the bad memories we have about it, the Stagflation of the 1970s was many things, but it was not Greece. Life in the 1970s was still relatively okay, despite the stagflation. That is to say, even in the extremely unlikely event that the government had to print so much money to get out of its debt that it caused moderate inflation, it still would not be a debt crisis of the kind that Greece and Spain are under right now. (Hyperinflation, meanwhile, is even less of a danger, since in recorded history it only happens in cases of not just reckless money printing, but also extremely serious exogenous shocks such as war, regime change, etc.)
Why am I writing this?
After all it’s already common knowledge among economists, Fed officials, and an increasing number of sophisticated investors.
Maybe so, but it’s still not common knowledge among politicians and among the general public. A lot of people still think that the US is under some risk of one day becoming like Greece, and it’s distorting our public debate.
It’s especially distorting it on the Right, where hysteria about deficits, and debt, and becoming like Greece has reached a fever pitch. Paul Ryan, especially, has framed his entire message on entitlement-cutting on the flawed premise that the US needs to cut its entitlement or it will suffer a debt crisis. This message, in turn, has infected broad swathes of the conservative movement (including very smart people in it), a movement that I consider myself a member of and want to see in strong intellectual health. But very few liberals–certainly no Democratic elected officials that I’m aware of, certainly not the President and the Vice President–are disputing the premise that the US is in any danger of a debt crisis.
In future posts, I will try to look at what the conservative movement can do to move past the idea of the debt crisis, and what it means.