Tag Archives: national debt

Who Cares About the National Debt?

By James Kwak

Not Greg Mankiw. Or, to be precise, not “Republicans.”

This past weekend Mankiw wrote a column for the Times laying out the arguments for a carbon tax. They are so well known and so obviously correct that I won’t bother repeating them. (A tradable permit system could work equally well, depending on how it is designed.)

In addition, many people think that the national debt is a serious long-term problem. A carbon tax (or a tradable permit system where permits are auctioned off) would obviously bring in revenue. In White House Burning, we estimated this at about 0.7–0.9 percent of GDP by the early 2020s (citing Metcalf, Stavins, and the CBO).

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Want To Reduce the National Debt? Find More Workers

By James Kwak

Why do some people oppose immigration reform? One conservative objection is that we should follow rules and punish lawbreakers (not to mention all the other arguments that have to do with protecting a white, Protestant, English-speaking nation). That fits nicely with the Strict Father worldview identified by George Lakoff. Another common conservative objection is that we can’t afford more immigration because it would increase deficits and the national debt; that also fits with the tough-minded, austerity-loving ethos of modern conservatism. The little problem is that more immigrants, and more legal immigrants, are unambiguously good for the economy and for the federal budget deficit.

This is the conclusion of two reports put out by the Congressional Budget Office this week: one a cost estimate of the bill currently in the Senate, the other an expanded estimate incorporating additional economic impacts of the bill. The bottom line is that the bill would make the economy 5.4 percent bigger in 2033 than it would be otherwise; per capita GNP would be 0.2 percent higher and wages would be 0.5 percent higher in 2033. Finally, immigration reform would reduce aggregate deficits by about $200 billion* over the first decade and about $1 trillion in the second decade.

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Fatal Sensitivity

By James Kwak

One more post on Reinhart-Rogoff, following one on Excel and one on interpretation of results.

While the spreadsheet problems in Reinhart and Rogoff’s analysis are the most most obvious mistake, they are not as economically significant as the two other issues identified by Herndon, Ash, and Pollin: country weighting (weighting average GDP for each country equally, rather than weighting country-year observations equally) and data exclusion (the exclusion of certain years of data for Australia, Canada, and New Zealand). According to Table 3 in Herndon et al., those two factors alone reduced average GDP in the high-debt category from 2.2% (as Herndon et al. measure it) to 0.3%.*

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Are Reinhart and Rogoff Right Anyway?

By James Kwak

One more thought: In their response, Reinhart and Rogoff make much of the fact that Herndon et al. end up with apparently similar results, at least to the medians reported in the original paper:

Screen shot 2013-04-18 at 4.20.55 PM

So the relationship between debt and GDP growth seems to be somewhat downward-sloping. But look at this, from Herndon et al.:

Screen shot 2013-04-18 at 4.18.02 PM

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More Bad Excel

By James Kwak

In 1975, Isaac Ehrlich published an empirical study purporting to show that the death penalty saved lives, since each execution deterred eight murders. The next year, Solicitor General Robert Bork cited this study to the Supreme Court, which upheld the new versions of the death penalty that several states had written following the Court’s 1973 decision nullifying all existing death penalty statutes. Ehrlich’s results, it turned out, depended entirely on  a seven-year period in the 1960s. More recently, a number of studies have attempted to show that the death penalty deters murder, leading such notables as Cass Sunstein and Richard Posner to argue for the maintenance of the death penalty.

In 2006, John Donohue and Justin Wolfers wrote a paper essentially demolishing the empirical studies that claimed to justify the death penalty on deterrence grounds. Donohue and Wolfers attempted to replicate the results of those studies and found that they were all fatally infected by some combination of incorrect controls, poorly specified variables, fragile specifications (i.e., if you change the model in minor ways that should make little difference, the results disappear), and dubious instrumental variables. In the end, they found little evidence either that the death penalty reduces or increases murders.

Now the macroeconomic world has its version of the death penalty debate, in the famous paper by Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, “Growth in a Time of Debt.” Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin released a paper earlier this week in which they tried to replicate Reinhart and Rogoff. They found two spreadsheet errors, a questionable choice about excluding data, and a dubious weighting methodology, which together undermine Reinhart and Rogoff’s most widely-cited claim: that national debt levels above 90 percent of GDP tend to reduce economic growth.

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Moving the Goalposts

By James Kwak

Ezra Klein yesterday highlighted one of the underlying problems with even apparently informed discussions of deficits and the national debt: the CBO’s “alternative fiscal scenario.” As opposed to the (extended) baseline scenario, which simply projects the future based on existing law, the alternative scenario is supposed to be more realistic. And it is more realistic in some ways: for example, it assumes that spending on Afghanistan will follow current drawdown plans, not a simple extrapolation of the current year’s spending. But the problem is that it has become excessively conservative in recent years—to the point where, as Klein says, “Policy makers, pundits and others almost exclusively use this model to stoke Washington’s deficit anxieties.”

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Entitlements Scare Tactics

By James Kwak

A friend asked me about last week’s WSJ op-ed by Christopher Cox and Bill Archer claiming that the government’s true liabilities exceed $86 trillion—not the  $16 trillion national debt that people usually talk about. There’s something to it, but there’s also a huge scary story in there that’s purely meant to frighten people.

$16 trillion is the amount of Treasury debt outstanding at the moment. The more relevant figure is the amount of debt the federal government owes to people and institutions other than itself. If, for some reason, I lent money to my wife and she promised to pay it back to me, we wouldn’t count that as part of the debt owed by our household. The debt owed to the public is about $10 trillion these days.

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