KIRIL SOKOLOFF: Well, coming back to David Hume’s famous paper, and you’ve referred to me a number of times. His conclusion was that governments should essentially run surpluses because there’s always a crisis or problematic. If you look at corporations coming into this with the worst balance sheets in history, with profits having been flat since 2012, 40% of Americans barely able to get $500 in an emergency, it seems to me that as we come out of this, one of the implications is going to be we need to be better prepared for the future. Do you think that that’s the way we’re going to go, that we will be, look, we got a real wakeup call here, we need to have money for a rainy day?
LACY HUNT: I think that’s the case for the private sector, but I don’t feel that that’s the case for the government sector. Remember, net national saving has the private sector and the private sector saving was fine. 8.50%, not bad. The problem was that we had a 6.50% government dissaving and so we only ended up with two. The real problem is that you have to have a net saving from the private, the government, the net foreign sector, and if the government, even though maybe well-intended, maybe the actions are very popular.
All of these measures that were taken to deal with the pandemic, they were very popular. The measures– and they were essential. They were humane, they had to be done. It would have been far better if we’ve been following Hume’s advice, which is you run surpluses so when you have an emergency, you have– and by the way, Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations followed Hume, made the same recommendation. Of course, no one remembers that anymore. No one reads Hume and Smith.
KIRIL SOKOLOFF: To get to a positive net national savings, presumably that’s– I’m not saying it’s a governmental objective, but it should be a national objective in some form based on your point that in order to have money to invest, you’ve got to be able to save out of income. If government is going to keep on running deficits, at pick the number, 15 plus percent GDP, in order to have a positive net savings rate, that implies very significant private savings rate.
LACY HUNT: Unachievable, and let’s say that we bring back a lot of our operations, in other words. If that happens, then the current account deficit will start to shrink, but the current account deficit is always the opposite of the capital account. When you have a current account deficit, you have a capital account surplus, but the capital account surplus is net foreign saving. This is one of the problems. If you repatriate businesses, and you shrink the current account deficit, then you’re going to shrink net foreign saving. It’s quite possible that we will have two of saving movements. One for the increased level of government dissaving and also less positive foreign saving. We import a lot of saving from the rest of the world.
KIRIL SOKOLOFF: Given the output cap, not having the savings to invest, is that better than it might otherwise have been? Because we got five, six, seven years to fill that output gap, or is the transformative event that is the easiest way out, if that’s the right word. Is that dependent on having the capital and savings to invest? Does that mean that in order to have that transformative, new economy, we’re going to have to have a net national savings? Am I taking that–
LACY HUNT: The thing about those transformative events is that they often create a surge in income, and thus in saving that they finance themselves, but that’s why I use the term transformative. It cannot be evolutionary. Let’s think about the situation that we were in the late 1920s, early 1930s. We take on a great deal of debt in the ’20s and ’30s. We struggle throughout the 1930s. When Germany invades Poland, we still have an unemployment rate of 17% or 18%. We’ve come off the peak levels, but we still have a very high unemployment rate and we have a substantial number of people underemployed.
In other words, we really made very little progress to turning the economy. We stabilized things, and we ended the worst aspects of the Great Depression. Then World War II comes along. A lot of folks including the great JM Keynes believe that it was the deficit spending of World War II that shored the problems of the Great Depression. That’s not my reading. It is true that on a national income accounts basis, we ran deficits of 14%, 15% which is what we’re now running again by my calculation, national product account basis.
However, we had two other events that occurred simultaneously. Number one,
- we had a surge in our exports, and
- we had mandatory rationing.
If you wanted to buy 10 pounds of sugar, you couldn’t. You could buy one maybe, you had a ration, and so people were paid to produce exports and to produce military goods. The private saving rate went up to 25% of net national income. We were able to cover the federal budget dissaving and we paid off the debts of the 1920s and 1930s. When World War II ended, Keynes suggested if we didn’t continue running the budget deficits of World War II, we would go back into the Great Depression, but that didn’t happen.
The budget was basically balanced all the way through and to the early 1960s. We ran small deficits, but we ran small surpluses on balance. It was close to balance. We opened up our export market, we opened up markets to the US, we financed the reconstruction in Europe and Japan, we had a tremendous resurgence. If you look at McKinsey’s 24 cases of overindebted economies and how they got out of it by austerity, one of their cases is the US during World War II. They labeled it a fortuitous circumstance. We didn’t go into World War II to get rid of the debt problem of the 1920s and ’30s.
It was something that happened as a result of the policy mixes but the folks in America were okay with the austerity because it was a great national endeavor. I don’t think that they would be willing to do that today. Everyone is relying on more government activity to solve the problem, not realizing that that’s the source of our deteriorating rate of economic performance.
KIRIL SOKOLOFF: Well, on that note, it’s been a really instructive ending [?].