In my last post I showed that the recent record of debt and debt servicing looks different when one looks at different countries. This makes it difficult to identify 'good' or 'bad' governance in any comparative way. I would rather say we should say that some countries tend towards a more conservative governance in their debt management than others. Other countries have more of a risk-accepting governance model.
The key issue is "what has the government been authorized to do" and, consequently, "when are they doing this well—so that they exercise the authority effectively—and when are they doing this poorly—exercising the authority in too conservative or too risky a fashion."
Let's think about this in relation to the United States:
- Many on the conservative side of US politics complain that the federal government has exercised its authority to raise funds through debt poorly—being too risky. One expects that these commentators want the USA to be in the more conservative domain of the graph below (which I showed a few days ago)…where Sweden and New Zealand currently are. They often say that the US is going to become like Greece.
- Less conservative commentators think that the USA can probably still raise more debt without increasing its debt service costs too much or becoming like Greece. They reference the fact that debt has grown in recent years without growing debt service costs (see second graph, shown this morning) and argue that too conservative a stance could stymie the country's efforts to get out of the economic doldrums.
The political debate about US debt is an important one in that it will determine whether the US continues shifting right on the horizonatal axis (increasing debt) or turning a 180 and decreasing debt. As I have suggested, there are normative angles to this debate…as with any debate on governance…where the question is "what kind of authority does government have and is it running up against limits to authority?"
Interestingly, this is not a purely ideological debate, and there are various factors one can look at to see if the US debt governance currently qualifies as 'good' or 'bad' in a fairly objective sense. Here are two of them:
First, when one compares the US situation today with that of the past, it is obvious that the territory currently being traversed is not new. The US experienced high debt levels between 1945 and 1956, for instance, and saw debt rise substantially in other periods (between 1980 and 1990, for instance). These instances tended to coincide with the overexpenditure associated with wars and with expenditure and revenue implicatos of economic downturns. It seems these factors are acepted as reasonable drivers of acceptable public sector debt. So, the argument in 2012 is that the federal government has amounted debt because of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2008 crash. Given such events, the current debt does not reflect a government acting outside of its authority.
Second, the US can still access cheap debt to finance spending that many seem to believe is warranted. The US federal government borrows at historically low rates right now and it appears that the public demands federal engagement more than conservative pundits would like to believe. Polls show that citizens are more interested in the government helping create jobs, infrstructure etc. than bringing down the debt (given that the latter is always a lower-rated issue than the former). So it seems that government is being authorized to incur more debt and when it does so it is not necessarily driving up costs (at least not for now).
There are obviously many other points to consider, but if these two make sense then one cannot say that the current governance of debt in the USA is 'bad'. Risky, yes. But not 'bad'. And not worthy of all the hype it attracts.