Yes, total debt in the U.S. economy, public and private combined, has risen dramatically relative to G.D.P. No, this doesn’t mean that we as a nation have been living far beyond our means, and must drastically tighten our belts. While we have run up a significant foreign debt (although not as big as many imagine), the rise in debt overwhelmingly represents Americans borrowing from other Americans, which doesn’t make the nation as a whole any poorer, and doesn’t require that we collectively spend less. In fact, the biggest problem created by all this debt is that it’s keeping the economy depressed by causing us collectively to spend too little, with debtors forced to cut back while creditors see no reason to spend more.
So what should we be doing? By all means, let’s restore the kind of effective financial regulation that, in the years before the Reagan revolution, helped deter excessive leverage. But that’s about preventing the next crisis. To deal with the crisis that’s already here, we need monetary and fiscal stimulus, to induce those who aren’t too deeply indebted to spend more while the debtors are cutting back.
But that prescription is, of course, anathema to Mellonites, who wrongly see it as more of the same policies that got us into this trap. And that, in turn, tells you why liquidationism is such a destructive doctrine: by turning our problems into a morality play of sin and retribution, it helps condemn us to a deeper and longer slump.
The bad news is that sin sells. Although the Mellonites have, as I said, been wrong about everything, the notion of macroeconomics as morality play has a visceral appeal that’s hard to fight. Disguise it with a bit of political cross-dressing, and even liberals can fall for it.
But they shouldn’t. Mellon was dead wrong in the 1930s, and his avatars are dead wrong today. Unemployment, not excessive money printing, is what ails us now — and policy should be doing more, not less.
Krugman perfectly distills conservative stupidity about the debt into five paragraphs. He calls this mindset ‘Mellonism’ after Andrew Mellon told Hoover to ‘liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers. … It will purge rottenness out of the system.’
We don’t have a debt crisis, we have a jobs crisis. But Mellonist moralizing is holding back the progress we need, and even Obama seems to have fallen into that black hole.