Answering the question of how she’ll fund the cradle-to-grave welfare state programs she desires for America had been a question that Alexandria Ocasio Cortez shied away from on the campaign trail. As Congresswomen, she’s at least conjured up one idea – taxing incomes above $10 million at 70% per year – though even taxing all incomes above $1 million at 100% wouldn’t pay for a quarter of what she wants to fund.
So what is a socialist to do? Simple – just ignore that debt has consequences.
In an interview with Business Insider, Ocasio endorsed Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), an economic theory that deficits don’t matter since money can also be printed to pay off that debt (hello Zimbabwe and Venezuela). Because the government can print at will, not only do deficits not matter according to MTT, the only purpose of maintaining a level of taxation relative to government spending is simply to regulate inflation and unemployment. As quoted in Business Insider:
She [Cortez] said she was open to Modern Monetary Theory, a burgeoning theory among some economists positing that the federal debt is not an economic restraint for the US. She said the idea, which holds that the government doesn’t need to balance the budget and that budget surpluses actually hurt the economy, “absolutely” needed to be “a larger part of our conversation.”
Ironically, I agree. With our national debt nearing $22 trillion, it absolutely needs to be a larger part of the national conversation, just for the opposite reasons that Ms. Cortez thinks. As you would expect, deficits (and debt) do indeed matter.
More Debt, More Problems
Larger debt (relative to the size of an economy) depresses the size of that nation’s economy. A famous study by Harvard economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart titled “Growth in a Time of Debt” concluded that once a nation’s debt exceeds 90% of GDP, growth turns negative (on average) by -0.1%. In what was widely publicized in the economics community at the time, several issues were uncovered in the study that challenged the notion that growth turns negative once debt exceeds 90%. However, the same trend held, that more debt depresses growth.
Note that the difference between an economy growing at 3.1% per year and 2.2% year is the difference between one that doubles every 22 years vs. one that doubles every 33 years.
The same trend holds true when it comes to the size of government as a percentage of GDP. A review in the Research Institute of Industrial Economics examined all the existing literature on the relationship between government size and growth since 2000 in rich counties and concluded that ” The most recent studies find a significant negative correlation: An increase in government size by 10 percentage points is associated with a 0.5 to 1 percent lower annual growth rate.”
And a study by economists from Duke University and Wheaton College which examined OECD nations found the same trend: more debt, less growth.
Debt and Income
Given the effects of massive debt on the economy, it’s only natural that it’s the American taxpayer ultimately bearing the burden. New estimates from the Congressional Budget Office found that reducing our nation’s debt-to-GDP ratio to its historical average within three decades would increase incomes by $6,000. An extra $6,000 per year could certainly help the average American pay for many of the “freebies” that Cortez wants to fund through government.
By CBO’s estimate, every $1 increase in deficits reduces private domestic investment by 15 to 50 cents and increases foreign holdings of American assets by another 20 to 25 cents. Under current law, CBO projects that real Gross National Product (GNP) per capita – a proxy for average income – will grow from $63,000 today to $92,000 (in 2019 dollars) by 2048. If policymakers simply stabilize the debt at today’s high levels of 78 percent of GDP, CBO projects per-person income will rise to $96,000. That’s a $4,000 (4.3 percent) increase in income per person, per year.
Likewise, if we rack up the tens of trillions of dollars we’d need to fund Cortez’s socialist pipedream, Americans can expect the exact opposite effect on their incomes.
At least we’d all be equal in poverty.