Why US debt must continue to rise – Michael Pettis

Donald Trump’s signature policy of 2017, the so-called Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, cut taxes sharply for the richest earners and corporations. As so often in recent decades, many Republicans claimed that this would pay for itself via the increased revenue generated by faster economic growth, which would incorporate higher investment and higher wages for ordinary Americans. There would therefore be little need to cut spending to prevent the deficit from rising.

Such supply-side policies are part of the essence of ‘trickle-down’ economics, which boils down to the argument that making the richest members of society richer will make everyone richer, including those at the bottom. As with previous such policies, this remains to be seen, but the signs are not good.

On the other hand the US budget deficit is rising and is set to rise further. The national debt is also now growing faster than previously. While growth has been stimulated for a while, perhaps more from the demand-side than the supply-side, it seems that it is now slowing once more. This is a long way from the vaunted economic miracle from the President’s State of the Union address.

Here is Michael Pettis’ latest post on the rise in US debt and why in the absence of a change in policy which reduces capital inflows, reduces inequality or raises productive investment, the country will be forced to choose between a rising debt burden and rising unemployment.

Pettis is always particularly lucid on the economics of debt and its relationship to trends in economic performance. He also links rising income inequality to the global savings glut and international macroeconomic imbalances that were at the heart of the financial crisis, and which have yet to be sufficiently resolved.

Here are the introductory paragraphs:

“Debt is rising more quickly in the United States than most people would prefer. This is happening in part because the U.S. current account deficit and the country’s high level of income inequality distort the structure and amount of American savings.

Many Americans are worried about the seemingly inexorable rise in U.S. debt, whether government debt, household debt, or business debt. They are right to be concerned. Rapidly rising debt is a problem not just in the United States but in many other countries too, including China, parts of Europe, and most of the developing world. In today’s environment, it seems, reasonable levels of economic growth cannot be achieved unless boosted by even faster growth in debt.”


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