public debt

Some comments on Zygmunt Bauman’s “A Chronicle of Crisis”

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 24/05/2018 - 11:21pm in

I recently read the book by the UK sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and want to comment on a few things that I really like and a few I did not. The book starts with interesting chapters (originally, articles) on, among other things, Amartya Sen’s Theory of Justice. Bauman writes on page 22 (source):

“Just society” is a society permanently sensitive and vigilant to all cases of injustice and undertaking to take action to rectify them without waiting for the search of the universal model of justice to be completed”. In somewhat different and perhaps simpler terms, a society up in arms to promote the well-being of the underdog; the “well-being” including in this case the capacity of making real the formal human right to decent life – recasting “freedom de jure” into “freedom de facto”.

This is very interesting, almost revolutionary in today’s Western societies. Yet I think that the societies we live have largely been built by people promoting the well-being of the many, assaults on the welfare state and the public sector in general in the last few decades notwithstanding. I believe there is today a very large gap between what we think is how societies, and with it, economies work and they way the actually work. Financial crises, trade wars, polarization and inequality do not spring up from out of nowhere. They are symptoms of underlying processes. Bauman picks up this topic on page 50 (source):

There were, in other words, “natural” limits to inequality and “natural” barriers to social exclusion; the main causes of Karl Marx’s prophecy of the “proletariat’s absolute pauperisation” turning self-refuting and getting sour, and the main reasons for the introduction of the social state, a state taking care of keeping labour in a condition of readiness for employment, to become a “beyond left and right”: a non-partisan issue. Also the reasons for the state needing to protect the capitalist order against the suicidal consequences of leaving unbridled the capitalists’ morbid predilections, their fast-profit-seeking rapacity – and acting on that need by introducing minimal wages or time limits to the working day and week, as well as by legal protection of labour unions and other weapons of workers’ self-defence.

This should be undisputed, but probably it is not be the mainstream view of today, at least not in Germany and those countries in Europe that were left relatively unscarred by the last economic crisis.

Now we come to the main issue that I do not agree with, written on p. 76 (source):

Watching the already exorbitant yet still fast rising federal debt of the US, one may feel excused if wondering whether Bin Laden and his successors might have managed to take a hint and learn the lesson, and are set to repeat Reagan’s feat.

The idea that the federal debt of the US is a problem is moot. The US is issuer of its own sovereign currency and hence faces no budget constraint. Stephanie Kelton wrote as much in her LA Times article last year:

In other words, the government spends money and then collects some money back as people pay their taxes and buy bonds. Spending precedes taxing and borrowing – STAB. It takes votes and vocal interest groups, not tax revenue, to start the ball rolling.

If you need proof that STAB is the law of the land, look no further than the Senate’s recent $700-billion defense authorization. Without raising a dime from the rest of us, the Senate quietly approved an $80-billion annual increase, or more than enough money to make 4-year public colleges and universities tuition-free. And just where did the government get the money to do that? It authorized it into existence.

Whoa, cowboy! Are you telling me that the government can just make money appear out of nowhere, like magic? Absolutely. Congress has special powers: It’s the patent-holder on the U.S. dollar. No one else is legally allowed to create it. This means that Congress can always afford the pony because it can always create the money to pay for it.

Now, that doesn’t mean the government can buy absolutely anything it wants in absolutely any quantity at absolutely any speed. (Say, a pony for each of the 320 million men, women and children in the United States, by tomorrow.) That’s because our economy has internal limits. If the government tries to buy too much of something, it will drive up prices as the economy struggles to keep up with the demand. Inflation can spiral out of control. There are plenty of ways for the government to get a handle on inflation, though. For example, it can take money out of the economy through taxation.

So, if you want to create a “just society” as Zygmunt Bauman envisioned it, there is no financial problem of “running out of money” or “rocketing public debt”. There are internal limits – you can only use the resources that government can buy for its money – and there is inflation, which can be handled by taxing people (which we already do).

Those reading Zygmunt Bauman should be warned. I applaud Bauman the sociologist for his clear thought and ideas. However, I would not recommend Bauman the economist who seems to believe that national governments like that of the US can be driven into bankruptcy by “over-spending”.

Public Debt. I can’t Believe we are Still There

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 26/01/2018 - 5:19am in

The crisis is supposedly over, as the European economy started growing again. There will be time to assess whether we are really out of the wood, or whether there is still some slack. But this matters little to those who, as soon as things got slightly better, turned to their old obsession: DEBT! Bear in mind, not private debt, that seems to have disappeared from the radars. No, what seems to keep policy makers and pundits awake at night is ugly public debt, the source of all troubles (past, present and future).

Take my country, Italy. A few days ago this tweet showing the difference between the Italian and the German debt made a few headlines:


The ratio increased, so DEBT is the Italian most pressing problem. Not the slack in the labour market. Not the differentials in productivity. I can’t stop asking: why aren’t Italians desperately tweeting this figure?


This shows the relative performance of Italy and Germany along two very common measures of productivity, Multifactor productivity and GDP per capita. I took these variables (quick and dirt from the OECD site), but any other measure of real performance would have depicted a similar picture.

So what? The public debt crusaders will argue that precisely because of debt, Italy has poor real performance. The profligate public sector prevented virtuous market adjustments, and hampered real convergence.  The causality goes from high debt to poor real performance, they will argue. Reduce debt!

Well, think again. Research is much more nuanced on this. A paper by Pescatori and coauthors shows for example that countries with high public debt exhibit high GDP volatility, but not necessarily lower growth rates. High but stable levels of debt are less harmful than low but increasing ones. In a recent Fiscal Monitor the IMF has shifted the focus back to private debt (which, it is worth remembering is the root cause of the crisis), arguing that the deleveraging that will necessarily continue in the next few years will require accompanying measures from the public sector: on one side, renewed attention to the financial sector, to make sure that liquidity problems of firms, but also of financial institutions) do not degenerate into solvency problems. On the other side, the macroeconomic consequences of deleveraging, most notably the increase of savings and the reduction of private expenditure, may need to be compensated by Keynesian support to aggregate demand, thus implying that public debt may temporarily increase in order to sustain growth (self promotion: the preceding paragraph is taken from my book on the relevance of the history of thought to understand current controversies. French version available, Italian version coming out in March, English version coming out eventually).

In just a sentence, the causal link between high debt and low growth is far from being uncontroversial.

Last, but not least, it is worth remembering that Italy was not profligate during the crisis; unfortunately, I would add.  Let’s look at structural deficit (since 2010; ask the Commission why we don’t have the data for earlier years), which as we know washes away the impact of cyclical factors on public finances.


The Italian figures were slightly worse than the German ones, but not dramatically so. And if we take interest expenditure away, so that we have a measure of what the Italian government could actually control, then Italy was more rigorous (Debt obsessive pundits would use the term “virtuous”) than Germany.

The thing is that the Italian debt ratio is more or less stable, in spite of sluggish growth (current and potential) and low inflation. It is not an issue that should worry our policy makers, who should instead really try to boost productivity and growth. Said it differently, it is more urgent for Italy to work on increasing the denominator of the ratio between debt and GDP than to focus on the numerator. And I think this may actually require more public expenditure and a temporary increase in debt (some help from the rest of the EMU, starting from Germany, would not hurt). It is a pity that the “Italian debt problem” is all over the place.

It's the demand, stupid! The role of weak demand on productivity growth

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 06/10/2014 - 12:52pm in

I couldn't resist the title.

Last week I was invited to give a short talk on what I thought was the most pressing policy issue facing the world economy today.

So I presented the findings from a very interesting paper entitled "Explaining Slower Productivity Growth: The Role of Weak Demand Growth" by Someshwar Rao and Jiang Li.

The paper examines the link between demand and productivity growth in both Canada and OECD countries. This issue has been an interest of mine ever since I read these lines in a book by Alan Blinder several years ago:

Economic slack...discourages business investment because companies that cannot sell their wares see little reason to expand their capacity. In consequence, the nation gradually acquires a smaller, older, and less efficient capital stock. 

[A]lthough the state of the national is far from the only factor, who doubts that a booming economy provides a better atmosphere for inventiveness, innovation, and entrepreneurs than a stagnant one? As the cliché says, a rising tide raises all boats...From 1962 to 1973, our generally healthy economy experienced only one mild recession, an average unemployment rate of 4.7 percent, and productivity growth that averaged a brisk 2.6 percent per annum. [Between 1974 and the mid-1980s] the economy [was] frequently...out of sorts. We...suffered through two long recessions and one short one, with an average unemployment rate of 7.3 percent and a paltry average productivity growth rate of 1 percent. This association of high unemployment with low productivity growth is no coincidence. 

Surveying these concomitants of high unemployment -- lack of upward mobility for workers, sluggish investment, lackluster productivity growth -- suggests an ironic conclusion: the best way to practice supply-side economics may be to run the economy at peak levels of demand. (1986:36).

This still makes lots of sense to me.

Verdoorn's Law

During my talk I described the paper as lending support to the well-known findings of economist Petrus J. Verdoorn, who several decades ago published research showing a positive relationship between labour productivity growth and real output growth.

In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have discussed this since it led to a number of questions on Verdoorn and his research, which shifted the focus away from the paper and the real purpose of my talk, which was to drive home the point that there is considerable evidence that productivity growth shouldn't be viewed as solely a supply-side phenomenon.

Specifically, the paper supports the -- in my opinion, common sense -- view that a slowdown in domestic and external demand is detrimental to growth in labour productivity, real incomes and economic activity because of the negative impact of weaker demand on scale and scope of economies, formation of physical and human capital, innovation and entrepreneurial activity.

Here are the paper's main findings:

Our major findings is that 93 percent of the fall in average labour productivity growth between 1981-2000 and 2000-2012 can be attributed to the drop in real GDP growth between the two periods...In addition, our new empirical research shows that a slowdown in growth of domestic and external demand also impacts negatively some of the key drivers of productivity growth, such as, gross fixed capital formation, M&E investment (including ICTs) and R&D spending, thus leading to lower trend labour productivity. (2013:14)

I concluded my presentation by discussing some of the policy implications outlined by the paper's authors. At this point, I was hoping my comments would get the attention of the government policy analysts and economists in the audience.

First, I suggested that it would be prudent for governments to ensure that deficit and debt reduction measures are gradual in nature so that their negative impact on domestic demand would not be excessive.

Then, I explained that it's always a good idea for governments to spend on productivity-enhancing public investment, even during a period of economic slowdown, as it contributes to both today's demand as well as future productivity growth.


Blinder, A., Hard Heads, Soft Hearts, (Mass: Perseus Books)

Rao, Someshwar and Jiang Li, "Explaining Slower Productivity Growth: The Role of Weak Demand Growth", International Productivity Monitor, Spring 2013.

Anthony Atkinson on the public debt and intergenerational equity

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 28/09/2014 - 11:05pm in

It's been a long time since my last post. Much of my spare time has been spent reading and thinking about the best way to think about the economy. In the end, I've come to the conclusion that it's the big picture that matters.

Take the question of the public debt. Much of the discussion in the popular press relating to the national debt focuses on the liabilities of the government and actuarial concerns (dealing with "how to pay it off"), but it rarely discusses the link between public debt and private wealth, wealth distribution and intergenerational equity.

Anthony Atkinson, I believe, summarized it best here:

Much of the rhetoric of fiscal consolidation is concerned with the national debt as a burden on future generations [...] One lesson of the public economics literature on the national debt is that we have to look at the full picture. We pass on to the next generations:
  • national debt, 
  • state pension liabilities, 
  • public financial assets, 
  • public infrastructure and real wealth, 
  • private wealth, 
  • state of the environment, and
  • stocks of natural resources.

We need to look at the overall balance sheet, where assets as well as liabilities are taken into account. This does not mean that the position is a healthy one. If we consider the difference between the assets of the state and the national debt, expressed as a percentage of the total national wealth, then in the 1950s the net worth of the [UK] state was negative, but it was becoming less negative, and turned positive in the 1960s [...]

The direction of change since the 1970s has however been in the wrong direction [...] In effect the process of privatisation, with the proceeds used largely to fund tax cuts, transferred wealth from the state to the personal sector. We saw that it was at the end of the 1970s that personal wealth began to rise faster than income. The worsening of the public balance sheet is the other side. Personal wealth has risen faster than national wealth since the 1970s because, in effect, assets have been transferred from the public to the private sector. We are passing on more privately to the next generation but less publicly.

Reversing this pattern can be achieved not only by reducing the national debt, but also by increasing public assets.

Now, to say that more wealth is being passed on privately rather than publicly does not mean that it's being passed on equitably.

For instance, when the government sells-off public sector assets such as parks and decommissioned military bases, the government can use the proceeds to pay down the debt, but the assets get transferred to the purchasers of those assets in the private sector, who, most of the time, don't have the same class and socio-economic profile as that of the whole population (i.e., the former "owners" of those assets).

So here's the bottom line: paying down the debt by selling off public assets to the financial interests has contributed immensely to the wealth inequality that is being discussed these days.

And the corollary to this statement is that there's still lots of wealth "out there" that could be used for public purposes and has the potential to be passed on to future generation in a more equitable manner. It hasn't disappeared, it's just changed hands.


Atkinson, A.B., "Public economics in an age of austerity", January 12, 2012

Moving past the 90 percent threshold: Focusing on growth

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 23/04/2013 - 9:33pm in

Now that the proposition of a 90 percent threshold (of public debt-to-GDP above which countries' economic growth would significantly slow) associated with the work of Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff has been refuted, it's important that the debate now turn to the critical issue of how best to achieve growth moving forward.

On this point, one important aspect to keep in mind is that the uses toward which public debt is directed and the composition of public debt tend to have a significant impact on a country's economic growth.

A recent study by the IMF entitled "Public Debt and Growth" appears to support this view. The study, which examined the public debt dynamics in over 30 countries, found that, although the elasticity of growth with respect to public debt is -0.02, the elasticity of other variables that positively impacts growth offsets this number. For instance, as Iyanatul Islam has noted, the study shows that the elasticity of growth to initial years of schooling is above 2.0.

In other words, it's quite likely that public debt directed toward productive uses has the effect of supporting growth by cancelling out some of the negative effects associated with high public debt that impede growth.

These are the sort of issues policymakers should be discussing moving forward. I think it would go a long way to help us get out of the economic doldrums we're facing today.


Manmohan and Jaejoon, Public Debt and Growth, IMF, July 2010