Deficit-worriers portray a future in which we’re impoverished by the need to pay back money we’ve been borrowing. They see America as being like a family that took out too large a mortgage, and will have a hard time making the monthly payments.
This is, however, a really bad analogy in at least two ways.
First, families have to pay back their debt. Governments don’t — all they need to do is ensure that debt grows more slowly than their tax base…
Second — and this is the point almost nobody seems to get — an over-borrowed family owes money to someone else; U.S. debt is, to a large extent, money we owe to ourselves.
This was clearly true of the debt incurred to win World War II. Taxpayers were on the hook for a debt that was significantly bigger, as a percentage of G.D.P., than debt today; but that debt was also owned by taxpayers, such as all the people who bought savings bonds. So the debt didn’t make postwar America poorer.
Now some of you–I’m especially thinking of Daniel Kuehn and “Lord Keynes” if he swoops in–think this is great stuff, and that Krugman is making a very important point here that clarifies the typical discussions of fiscal policy. So my question: Why do governments issue savings bonds to their own citizens during wars?
To be sure, a Krugmanite would totally understand why a government in a wartime crisis would issue bonds to foreign capitalists in order to suck outside real resources into the country. But why–using the “we owe it to ourselves” mentality–would a government decide to finance a war through bonds issued to its own citizens, rather than levying higher taxes? Either way, the people alive “pay for” the war effort, right? The next generation as a whole is totally indifferent to whether they inherit $0 in government bonds or $1 trillion in government bonds, right? The level of the debt they inherit just affects the volume of the transfer payments among them, but can’t make the next generation poorer, right?
So to repeat, explain to me in a Krugmanite framework why governments historically resort to debt financing when they’re in a major war, even among their own citizens.