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US Debt A 'Phantom Menace,' Krugman Argues

First Posted: 03/18/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 03:45 PM ET

Krugman

The United States is borrowing trillions of dollars under terms that seem "too good to be true" just as a "spending explosion" on benefits programs like Medicare and Social Security is set to begin, according to the New York Times.

In a series titled "Payback Time: Debt Bomb," the Times details the magnitude of our nation's borrowing and warns of an impending and monumental reality check:

The government faces a payment shock similar to those that sent legions of overstretched homeowners into default on their mortgages.


With the national debt now topping $12 trillion, the White House estimates that the government's tab for servicing the debt will exceed $700 billion a year in 2019, up from $202 billion this year, even if annual budget deficits shrink drastically."

Replete with charts and stupefying figures (Americans must pay off more than $1.6 trillion in debt by March 31, 2010), the piece states that there is "little doubt that the United States' long-term budget crisis is becoming too big to postpone."

Au contraire, says Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who argues today that "Most economists I talk to believe that the big risk to recovery comes from the inadequacy of government efforts: the stimulus was too small, and it will fade out next year, while high unemployment is undermining both consumer and business confidence."

Krugman cites a recent interview during which President Obama warned that "if we keep on adding to the debt, even in the midst of this recovery, that at some point, people could lose confidence in the U.S. economy in a way that could actually lead to a double-dip recession."

Krugman's response: "What? Huh?"

[T]he concerns Mr. Obama expressed become comprehensible if you suppose that he's getting his views, directly or indirectly, from Wall Street.


Ever since the Great Recession began economic analysts at some (not all) major Wall Street firms have warned that efforts to fight the slump will produce even worse economic evils. In particular, they say, never mind the current ability of the U.S. government to borrow long term at remarkably low interest rates -- any day now, budget deficits will lead to a collapse in investor confidence, and rates will soar. [...]

A better model [for our current scenario], I'd argue, is Japan in the 1990s, which ran persistent large budget deficits, but also had a persistently depressed economy -- and saw long-term interest rates fall almost steadily. There's a good chance that officials are being terrorized by a phantom menace -- a threat that exists only in their minds.

Read Krugman's full piece here.

Likewise, economist and blogger Dean Baker scoffs at the Times's over-hyped debt reporting. Baker's post -- titled, "In Just a Decade the U.S. Interest Burden Could Be as High as It Was in 1992!!!!!!!" -- notes that there is "no evidence presented in this article that the rise in interest rates will place the U.S. government in a situation where it will be unable to pay its bills and no one cited in this article makes such a claim."

Incidentally, today's Wall Street Journal features more evidence that the Obama administration is rejecting Krugman's advice. "The White House is lukewarm about proposals by congressional Democrats to introduce broad legislation to create jobs, instead favoring targeted measures that would be less likely to inflate the deficit," the Journal reports, citing administration officials.

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Filed by Nico Pitney  |