Over the past three years, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) has repeatedly introduced budget resolutions that contain draconian spending cuts in an effort to stave off the debt crisis he says is right around the corner if it isn’t addressed immediately. Ryan’s plans, all three of which have passed the House of Representatives, would almost surely add to the debt instead of decreasing it, but his main view is that America’s current level of debt is weighing down the economy, a claim he repeated to Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren Thursday night.
“The debt is crushing our economy, it’s slowing us down, and it’s guaranteeing the next generation has a diminished future,” Ryan said. “And we believe we have a moral obligation to balance this budget to get a healthier economy and create jobs.”
The source of those claims is a paper by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff that shows that economies grow more slowly when their debt-to-GDP ratios are in excess of 90 percent. But as Bloomberg reports, there is no economic consensus around those findings, especially when it comes to large economies like the United States:
“The argument that heavy debt loads slow economic growth doesn’t hold a lot of water,” says Guy LeBas, chief fixed- income strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott LLC in Philadelphia who oversees $12 billion. “It suffers from a mix-up of cause and effect: When weak economic conditions arise, it tends to encourage deficit spending, which is what has led to more U.S. debt being issued, and not the other way around.” [...]
“The Rogoff-Reinhart 90 percent is really quite a fragile number,” says Joseph Gagnon, a former economist in the Fed’s monetary affairs division. “There is no threshold like that for countries that have control of the currency they borrow in.”
Moreover, there is no evidence that the debt is threatening the United States in the short-term. Borrowing costs are at historic lows — as Bloomberg notes, the cost of paying off the debt is lower today than it was when Ronald Reagan was president and financial markets are “begging” the U.S. to borrow. Instead, there is plenty of evidence that the focus on debt and deficit reduction has slowed the economic recovery. Government spending has plateaued since the 2009 stimulus effort that kickstarted the recovery, so while government spending traditionally pulls the economy out of recessions, spending cuts hampered efforts to boost the economy this time.
Investments to help the economic recovery now would fuel growth that reduces deficits and, thus, improve America’s long-term debt outlook as well. The current crisis facing the U.S. isn’t a debt crisis, but rather an unemployment crisis that is being exacerbated by lawmakers who focus too much on the debt.