When you hear an orthodox economist, particularly one who was early to warn of the dangers of real estate bubbles around the world, speaking of a debt jubilee as the best of bad option, you know a crunch is coming. Here is the key quote from William White, former chief economist of the Bank of International Settlements, in an exclusive interview with Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Telegraph:
The only question is whether we are able to look reality in the eye and face what is coming in an orderly fashion, or whether it will be disorderly. Debt jubilees have been going on for 5,000 years, as far back as the Sumerians.
White gives a dire set of underlying causes, and one of them is what economists would call a lack of policy space, which in layspeak means “no remedies available to treat the disease.” Yet even though White is almost certainly correct as to the endgame, which is that many people who hold financial assets will find that they are worth a lot less than they believe, one of the reasons is that even people like White, as he exhibits in this interview, subscribe to economic beliefs that are part of the problem. In other words, there are treatments that would work, even now, but mainstream economist reject them and thus look as if they will have to relearn the lessons of the Great Depression.
Mind you, White is largely correct, most of all in his pointing out that debts need to be written down, and if they aren’t in a formal manner, they will be forcibly written down, via default. But where he errs is in deeming debt always and ever bad, and in further not acknowledging (or recognizing) that for a fiat currency issuer like the United States, using debt to finance government spending is a political requirement, not an economic one. The federal government could simply deficit spend, but our funding procedures are a holdover from the gold standard era. Thus some of the lack of policy space he complains about is due to self-imposed constraints, like the perverse and self-destructive fear of running deficits in economies that are tipping into deflation and have plenty of underutilized resources.
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