How economic theory came to ignore the role of debt

Published on Real-World Economics Review Blog, by Michael Hudson, September 6, 2011.

Starting from David Ricardo in 1817, the historian of economic thought searches in vain through the theorizing of financial-sector spokesmen for an acknowledgement of how debt charges (1) add a non-production cost to prices, (2) deflate markets of purchasing power that otherwise would be spent on goods and services, (3) discourage capital investment and employment to supply these markets, and hence (4) put downward pressure on wages.  

What needs to be explained is why government, academia, industry and labor have not taken the lead in analyzing these problems. Why have the corrosive dynamics of debt been all but ignored? … //

… Today’s popular press writes as if production and business conditions take the lead, not finance. It is as if stock and bond prices, and interest rates, reflect the economy rather than influencing it. There is no hint that financial interests may intrude into the “real” economy in ways that are systematically antithetical to nationwide prosperity. Yet it is well known that central bank officials claim that full employment and new investment may be inflationary and hence bad for the stock and bond markets. This policy is why governments raise interest rates to dampen the rise in employment and wages. This holds back the advance of living standards and markets for consumer goods, reducing new investment and putting downward pressure on wages and commodity prices. As tax revenue falls, government debt increases. Businesses and consumers also are driven more deeply into debt.

The antagonism between finance and labor is globalized as workers in debtor countries are paid in currencies whose exchange rate is chronically depressed. Debt service paid to global creditors and capital flight lead more local currency to be converted into creditor-nation currency. The terms of trade shift against debtor countries, throwing their labor into competition with that in the creditor nations.

If today’s economy were the first in history to be distorted by such strains, economists would have some excuse for not being prepared to analyze how the debt burden increases the cost of doing business and diverts income to pay interest to creditors. What is remarkable is how much more clearly the dynamics of debt were recognized some centuries ago, before financial special-interest lobbying gained momentum. Already in Adam Smith’s day it had become a common perception that public debts had to be funded by tax levies that increased labor’s living costs, impairing the economy’s competitive position by raising the price of doing business. The logical inference was that private-sector debt had a similar effect. (full text).
You may download the whole paper here.

Comments are closed.