Saturday, December 10, 2011

Our Govt Must Do As We Do

Most of us know what it's like to have to spend money to make money. So why do so many find it counter-intuitive that our nation might have to do the same? We should all know that need from our own lives. Perhaps it's just that our personal vocational spending strikes us as more obvious because we know so directly that we need it.

Oil draining during auto maintenance
We live with many ways we must spend money to maintain our income, let alone increase it. For many, we start by taking out loans for a college degree, but that's only the beginning. Some of us have to purchase training or educational materials every year to keep current. And some must pay annual license or certification fees. Commuters, the vast majority of Americans, must travel to work to keep earning a paycheck, so the car payments must go out every month, the tank must be filled, and the maintenance must be done. Those in snow-prone states must buy shovels and often find ice-melting products an income-preserving investment. Telecommuters have a different set of bills for virtually getting to work, but the costs are no less necessary. Various craftsmen must spend significant amounts on raw materials. Often, the total annual material cost dwarfs the profit from the craft after covering material costs. Most shopkeepers know that story well, as it's a lucky business indeed whose net profits from selling products are significantly larger than the wholesale costs paid year after year.

What's this have to do with our government? Our government's income comes from the economy at large. That economy at large has needs just as we do individually. Commerce grows on better roads and stagnates on worse roads. Businesses thrive on an availability of healthy, qualified workers who can concentrate on their work confident that govt services such as fire and police protection will be there for their homes. And some of those workers are available during the day because after decades of honest work their parents were able not only to retire and get by in a reasonably dignified manner but also with basic medical needs covered. These things cost money. Without them, our nation's commerce would stagnate, reducing tax revenues. We can only maintain our federal income by spending on a variety of national necessities that keep our system of commerce working.

How much spending to make money is reasonable? Individually, that depends on the profession. But the simple answer is: that which at least covers what's necessary to get by but beyond that is not so much we can't profit. With all the attention on our debt, one might think we've been spending more than we can call profit. But there's more than one way to profit. The masters of finance and investment don't focus just on leveraging costs alone but also consider rates of return as well as inflation when deciding where to place bets and for how much. As Ezra Klein pointed out recently, negative real yields on Treasuries can mean "the government is getting paid to keep money safe." This implies that our safe-haven status could -- at least for a while -- mean we're profiting from our borrowing even before considering what we might be doing with that money to increase commerce. But then add in what we can be doing with the money to improve infrastructure, access to healthy, qualified workers, and more. If we do the basic maintenance on our economy plus some efforts at improvement, we should generally expect better growth. If that spending helps national income growth outpace the growth of the debt, what more justification should it need? After all, most of us invest in increasing our own incomes even when it's an ongoing cost.

But how much debt can we manage to juggle to keep oiling the gears? While that's a difficult question to answer, one might consider that historically the full faith and credit of the US govt has been more stable than houses, especially recently. Let's imagine our national govt were looking for a new home loan. We're currently taking what amounts to a voluntary pay-cut with the temporary tax cuts. Given the 2010 GDP of $14.5 trillion and our historical average revenue of 18% of GDP, we should theoretically have had a 2010 revenue around $2.61 trillion. For 2010, playing it safe by using a conservative 28% payment-to-income ratio for affordability, our theoretical govt-as-homeowner loan could have been around $14.5 trillion. In 2010, our debt was $13.5 trillion, around 7% lower than we could have afforded by traditional home purchase standards. And that's not even accounting for the full faith and credit being more solid than houses.

No comments:

Post a Comment