Thursday, July 19, 2012

Debt and Boom

The slogan for this post is: don't think debt, think safe assets.

(This post is partly provoked by this post by Paul Krugman responded to by Scott Sumner and by Marcus Nunes.)

In my Debt, Doom and Despair post I noted that a hugely debt-burdened post-Napoleonic Wars UK (where the national public debt was probably about 250% of GDP or about 25 times the revenue of the British government) went on to an amazing surge in population and mass prosperity.  (In fact, by far the most remarkable in all of human history up to that time.)

What if it was not a coincidence? What if the debt burden actually encouraged said surge?  After all, WWII left the British, Australian and US governments all highly indebted (at about 240%, 150% and 120% of GDP respectively) yet all experienced amazing postwar surges in population and prosperity. All surges marked by high rates of productivity increases from expanding technology and global trade.

One's persons debt is another person's asset.What were the British, US and Australian governments doing in running up such huge debts? They were creating a huge level of safe assets, given that none of these three governments have defaulted on their bonds, ever.  One reason why Britain went back on gold in 1925 at the pre-war (over-valued) parity was to "keep faith" with its bondholders.

So, those high levels of public debt were also creating high levels of income from safe assets. If you are, for example, 1815 Britain, and debt is 250% of GDP, then a significant amount of income, compared to total production, is flowing from said safe assets.

Expropriating risk managers
There are two basic things states do: they expropriate and they manage risk. The latter is necessary for the former and goes back to the origins of rulership--dead farmers cannot pay taxes.  In ibn Kaldun's definition, cited and admired by Ernest Gellner, government is:
an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself.
This the paradox of politics or the paradox of rulership--we need the state to protect us from social predators but the state itself is the most potentially dangerous of social predators. It is a paradox that can never be fixed, only managed more or less well.

One of the tricks of rulership, refined by medieval rulers such as Alfonso IX of Leon, and Edward I of England, is that, if you get consent for your taxation, you can do a higher level of taxation because it lowers the "resistance cost". Democratic welfare states have taken the consent-benefit trade-off up to record levels (for any non-patrimonial or totalitarian polities; i.e. for societies with any free element). Welfarism is the domestic aggrandisement of the expropriating state as imperialism is its external aggrandisement. (One of the ways we can tell that welfarism is, at least in part, an excuse for state aggrandisement is how weakly expenditure is tested against effectiveness in improving social outcomes; conversely if there is less inherent nobility in welfarism than appears, there were also positives in imperialism, albeit at wildly varying levels.)

But the public goods, and latterly welfare, provided by the state in return for implicit or explicit consent for its expropriations are overwhelmingly about risk-management. And risk management is a genuine service. Consider protection of life, person and property; or mitigating the risks of unemployment, sickness, disability, old age.

Balancing risks
For any given level of risk aversion by potential investors, creating a safe income stream raises the risk threshold for further investment. People will be more willing to tolerate higher levels of risk in their other investments.

Such as in highly uncertain investment in new technology. True, that leaves one open to asset booms and busts (pdf). Nevertheless, net economic outcome is likely to be a long term acceleration in productivity (pdf). And the surge in population and prosperity such involves.

[Read the rest at Skepticlawyer or at Critical Thinking Applied.]

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