Let's start the New Year by breaking a resolution. Here we go with Krugman v. Krugman, with yet another illustration of how Krugman's economic theories are dictated by the residency of the White House. Here is Krugman 2011, in a column titled "Nobody Understands Debt", sharing his newfound enlightenment:
In 2011, as in 2010, America was in a technical recovery but continued to suffer from disastrously high unemployment. And through most of 2011, as in 2010, almost all the conversation in Washington was about something else: the allegedly urgent issue of reducing the budget deficit.
Perhaps most obviously, the economic “experts” on whom much of Congress relies have been repeatedly, utterly wrong about the short-run effects of budget deficits. People who get their economic analysis from the likes of the Heritage Foundation have been waiting ever since President Obama took office for budget deficits to send interest rates soaring. Any day now!
And while they’ve been waiting, those rates have dropped to historical lows. You might think that this would make politicians question their choice of experts — that is, you might think that if you didn’t know anything about our postmodern, fact-free politics.
With war looming, it's time to be prepared. So last week I switched to a fixed-rate mortgage. It means higher monthly payments, but I'm terrified about what will happen to interest rates once financial markets wake up to the implications of skyrocketing budget deficits.
And that's way too optimistic. The Congressional Budget Office operates under ground rules that force it to wear rose-colored lenses. If you take into account -- as the C.B.O. cannot -- the effects of likely changes in the alternative minimum tax, include realistic estimates of future spending and allow for the cost of war and reconstruction, it's clear that the 10-year deficit will be at least $3 trillion.
So what? Two years ago the administration promised to run large surpluses. A year ago it said the deficit was only temporary. Now it says deficits don't matter. But we're looking at a fiscal crisis that will drive interest rates sky-high.
But what's really scary -- what makes a fixed-rate mortgage seem like such a good idea -- is the looming threat to the federal government's solvency.
That may sound alarmist: right now the deficit, while huge in absolute terms, is only 2 -- make that 3, O.K., maybe 4 -- percent of G.D.P. But that misses the point. ''Think of the federal government as a gigantic insurance company (with a sideline business in national defense and homeland security), which does its accounting on a cash basis, only counting premiums and payouts as they go in and out the door. An insurance company with cash accounting . . . is an accident waiting to happen.'' So says the Treasury under secretary Peter Fisher; his point is that because of the future liabilities of Social Security and Medicare, the true budget picture is much worse than the conventional deficit numbers suggest.
Of course, Mr. Fisher isn't allowed to draw the obvious implication: that his boss's push for big permanent tax cuts is completely crazy. But the conclusion is inescapable. Without the Bush tax cuts, it would have been difficult to cope with the fiscal implications of an aging population. With those tax cuts, the task is simply impossible. The accident -- the fiscal train wreck -- is already under way.
How will the train wreck play itself out? Maybe a future administration will use butterfly ballots to disenfranchise retirees, making it possible to slash Social Security and Medicare. Or maybe a repentant Rush Limbaugh will lead the drive to raise taxes on the rich. But my prediction is that politicians will eventually be tempted to resolve the crisis the way irresponsible governments usually do: by printing money, both to pay current bills and to inflate away debt.
And as that temptation becomes obvious, interest rates will soar. It won't happen right away. With the economy stalling and the stock market plunging, short-term rates are probably headed down, not up, in the next few months, and mortgage rates may not have hit bottom yet. But unless we slide into Japanese-style deflation, there are much higher interest rates in our future.
Ahh, that was then. In the interim, Social Security has not been reformed, Medicare has been tinkered with to help payfor the huge expansion of Federally funded benefits under ObamaCare, and the CBO is hardly sanguine about our long term fiscal prospects, assuming likely modifications to existing law (such as an ongoing "AMT fix"):
With significantly lower revenues and higher outlays, debt held by the public would exceed 100 percent of GDP by 2021. After that, the growing imbalance between revenues and spending, combined with spiraling interest payments, would swiftly push debt to higher and higher levels. Debt as a share of GDP would exceed its historical peak of 109 percent by 2023 and would approach 190 percent in 2035.
Many budget analysts believe that the alternative fiscal scenario presents a more realistic picture of the nation's underlying fiscal policies than the extended-baseline scenario does. The explosive path of federal debt under the alternative fiscal scenario underscores the need for large and rapid policy changes to put the nation on a sustainable fiscal course.
Yet today, unlike 2003, anyone worried that some future government will take the easy path of inflation and debasement is a right-wing partisan blinded by Obama hatred. Whatever.