By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2004
The line is not likely to make this week's eulogies to Ronald Reagan, but when Vice President Cheney allegedly declared, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter," he summed up an enduring argument from the former president's economic legacy.
In late 2002, Cheney had summoned the Bush administration's economic team to his office to discuss another round of tax cuts to stimulate the economy. Then-Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill pleaded that the government -- already running a $158 billion deficit -- was careering toward a fiscal crisis. But by O'Neill's account of the meeting, Cheney silenced him by invoking his take on Reagan's legacy.
It wasn't that Reagan's policies proved that government borrowing had no impact on the economy. But his administration's record -- particularly with some years of hindsight -- did give reason to question traditional thinking and provided a new context for future arguments about deficit spending.
"The lesson we should have learned [from those years] is that deficits have little or no short-term economic impacts," said William A. Niskanen, a member of Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers.
As important, they appeared to have no impact politically, said Stephen Moore, a conservative economist at the Club for Growth who worked in Reagan's budget office.
"Voters and politicians became anesthetized to big deficits," Moore recalled. "Reagan was running these big deficits, and liberals argued it was going to be Armageddon. We were going to ruin the economy. Interest rates were going to go through the roof. And none of these things happened."
The fiscal shift in the Reagan years was staggering. In January 1981, when Reagan declared the federal budget to be "out of control," the deficit had reached almost $74 billion, the federal debt $930 billion. Within two years, the deficit was $208 billion. The debt by 1988 totaled $2.6 trillion. In those eight years, the United States moved from being the world's largest international creditor to the largest debtor nation.
To some economists, the impact was clear. Interest rates rose in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the economy slowed, then slipped into recession, and productivity barely advanced. Americans feared their nation had slipped into the shadows of Japan and Germany.
Reagan's "economic policy . . . was a disaster," University of California at Berkeley economic historian J. Bradford DeLong wrote this past weekend on his Web site. "The tax cuts made America a more unequal place, and the deficits slowed economic growth in the 1980s significantly."
But after the boom years of the 1990s, and the steady economic slides of those international rivals, some economists are reevaluating that version of history. The argument against deficits is more about self-righteous moralism than economics, they say.
The Reagan "experience changed the debate dramatically," said Kevin A. Hassett, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute. "Back then, it seems that everybody believed Reagan must be some kind of kook and the people who agreed with these views were flimflam artists. Not so anymore."
Indeed, since the Reagan years, the argument over the deficit has been turned on its head. In the 1980s, prominent liberal economists dismissed the significance of government red ink to head off the slashing of social welfare spending. Now, many liberal economists have become the fiercest deficit hawks to head off still more tax cuts.
But the shifts go beyond politics. For nearly a century, economic orthodoxy has held that federal borrowing harms the economy by driving up interest rates, diminishing investment and productivity, and placing an unfair burden on future generations, who will finance the spending and tax cuts of the present.
Traditional economists argue that as the government enters private capital markets to finance its deficits, it competes with private borrowers. A deficit equal to 1 percent of the size of the economy -- about $110 billion today -- would slap as much as a full percentage point on the interest rates consumers pay to finance a new home or new car. By that measure, today's deficit would account for nearly 4 percentage points of a 6 percent mortgage.
But the new argument holds that interest rates are set on a vastly larger global marketplace. With rising global prosperity, even a federal deficit as large as the United States' would present little competition for would-be investors. A soon-to-be-published paper by American Enterprise Institute economist Eric M. Engen and Columbia University economist R. Glenn Hubbard, the first chairman of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, concluded that the record budget deficit of 2004 should raise interest rates by 0.12 percent.
"The world's capital markets are lot more sophisticated and flexible than they were then," said N. Gregory Mankiw, the current chairman of Bush's economic council. "That probably means that other things being equal, changes in domestic fiscal situations have less impact."
Indeed, this school of thought is becoming something of a consensus, Engen said. Deficits equal to 1 percent of the size of the economy should raise interest rates by 0.3 percent, he said. That is the low end of the 0.3 to 0.6 percent range postulated by Brookings Institution economists William G. Gale and Peter R. Orszag when they argued deficits are economically significant.
Benjamin M. Friedman, a Harvard University economist who lamented Reagan's fiscal policies in his 1988 book "Day of Reckoning," said the expansion of foreign credit has tempered the feared hikes in long-term interest rates that he thought would cripple the economy. But, he said, "that doesn't let deficits off the hook."
"It's important to realize that interest rates are set on world capital markets; therefore, a large deficit need not impact capital formation," he said, referring to economic investments in new plants and equipment that drive growth. "But that's identical to saying we will continue to do capital formation, but we'll do it by forever borrowing abroad."
And that spells trouble, said Niskanen of Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers. Debt does have to be repaid, and foreign investors -- primarily the central banks of Japan, Britain and China -- own $1.7 billion of federal debt. That, he said, has made the country "terribly dependent" and "terribly vulnerable."
That is a bipartisan fear. "The key point is, even if it were sustainable, it's not desirable," said Orszag, a prominent Democratic economist. "We still will owe the money to foreigners. We're still mortgaging our future national income. Just because you can take out a larger mortgage to buy a bigger house doesn't mean you should."