Dean Baker yesterday refutes a claim made by the New York Times, and in doing so pops a bubble that is a favorite of Paul Krugman. That’s the problem for economists. Their little theories are such exercises in fantasy that when they prop one up, they always manage to do damage to another one.
The Times claims that the federal deficit is projected to increase by 2020 “as increasing entitlement costs for retiring baby boomers take their toll on federal coffers." Dean Baker says that is untrue and that the projected deficit increase is due to the “Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) projection that interest rates will rise.”
He seems to have no argument with the CBO’s projection that payments of interest will rise to about $800 billion per year just four years from now. That’s a pretty big jump from the $223 billion we spent on interest payments in 2015, and it should be receiving a lot of discussion in the presidential campaign. It’s not mentioned at all, of course.
Anyway, Paul Krugman is fond of repeating that the government should be borrowing a lot of money right now because interest rates are low and “debt is cheap.”
Borrowing money merely because the interest is low is a stupid move under any circumstances. My family doesn’t, for instance, need a new car; we don’t want a new car; we can’t afford a new car; we can’t afford to put gas in a new car; but we buy a new car because we are offered one at a good price. Stupid.
But borrowing money merely because the interest rate is low is particularly stupid when the interest rate is not going to remain low.
The government secures debt in the form of fixed rate bonds, but many of them are short term bonds and none of them are of indefinite term. All of them must be either repaid or rolled over into new debt at whatever interest rate prevails at the time. Since Krugman also promotes the theory that governments “never pay off debt” (which is another discussion), and our government has not done so in any meaningful amount since World War II, that means in effect that the government has a variable rate loan.
Remember all those people in 2000 through 2006 who bought houses using the wonderful adjustable rate mortgage loans? They were so happy that, because the interest rate was only 2%, they could afford to buy a much bigger house. Right? They must all have been reading Paul Krugman.
Government, that is taxpayer’s, payment of interest on the debt was $223 billion last year and is objectively forecast to increase to $800 billion in just four more years, even if the government does not borrow any more money. That’s a 259% increase, or more than tripling the expense. Somebody please ask Paul Krugman if that borrowing still sounds like a real bargain.