Jingoism and the Budget Deficit: Using Any Tactic to Advance the Budget Cutting Agenda

The deficit hawks apparently believe that their case is so weak that they must resort to crass jingoism to push their agenda. NBC apparently intends to run a piece on the evening news on Tuesday that talks about the portion of the government debt that is owned foreigners, highlighting the role of China.

This is incredibly dishonest. The extent to which foreigners hold U.S. assets is determined by the trade deficit, not the budget deficit. (Actually, the causation largely goes the other way. The decision of foreign governments and/or investors to buy dollar assets raises the value of the dollar, leading to a larger trade deficit.) Insofar as there is an issue of U.S. indebtedness, it is the holding of U.S. assets in general by foreigners. This represents claims against future U.S. output that will be paid out to foreigners rather than being available for domestic consumption. Whether foreigners hold shares of General Electric and Microsoft or U.S. government bonds makes no difference, especially since one can be readily sold to buy the other any day of the week.

A serious discussion of this issue would focus on the value of the dollar. That is the relevant factor in the story of foreign indebtedness. Given the current value of the dollar, at the same level of GDP, we would be building up just as much foreign debt if the government were running a budget surplus rather than a $1.3 trillion deficit. Economists all know this.

However, the deficit hawks are not interested in a serious discussion. They are pushing their agenda of cutting Social Security and Medicare. And they are apparently willing to appeal to crude jingoism to make their case.

--Dean Baker

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