I have spoken about this before, but I think the subject needs a post that directly addresses the question, and that question is as follows:
Exactly what will be the source of economic growth that will pay back the huge borrowing that is being undertaken by governments?
I have just posted on the Guardian newspaper's 'Comment is Free' forum, asking this question (you can find it here - I post under the name MarkinChina). It is the second time that I have asked the question. The first time, nobody responded to the question. So far, at this early stage, I have had the following response, which inadvertently points out the problem:
I will not criticise this person for this response, as what they are actually doing is recognising that the price of the profligacy of today will be paid tomorrow. At least in this case, the poster recognises that borrowing without any way of paying it back will have unpleasant prospects down the line.
MarkinChina - I fear your question - while well-meaning - is a crass one. We are now painfully aware of the problem you succinctly outline - what we want is some sorta answer to get us out of the mess the idiots got us into. Just to rephase the problem as you have done is too easy.
For the record I believe the debt will almost certainly be repaid off by massive inflation a few years down the line.Meantime - while our money is still worth something - borrowing more to give us a better future is probably the least bad solution.
For my consideration of this question, I will focus on the UK. For the (many) US readers, I think that you will find that many of my points will apply to the US as much as the UK. The starting point for this question is to return to 'A Funny View of Wealth' and consider what actually might produce wealth. In a Funny View of Wealth, I listed the following:
- Commodities extraction and processing
- Export of services
- Inbound Tourism
- Services (provided that they are not paid for through borrowing)
Agriculture is mature, but may see some improvements of output, but only if GM technology is widely adopted. This is controversial and, even were this course to be followed, the improved output would probably not make a significant difference to UK output pverall. With regards to tourism I pointed out that we spent more on outbound tourism than we received on inbound tourism. The relative impoverishment of the UK may serve to reduce that imbalance, but is unlikely to see the sector generate a surplus. Our greatest export of services was in the financial sector, and I think very few people would suggest any growth, even to pre-crisis levels, for a very long time. Finally, for services, this growth is built upon the growth of the others.
None of this is to discount the discovery of a new technology or process. In recent years, Vodaphone emerged on the back of a new technology, and is now a global giant. These kinds of developments are always possible. However, it would require the emergence of many such companies to start to provide the wealth required to pay back the borrowing that is now being undertaken. Perhaps a better example than Vodaphone, in the context of this discussion, is Dyson. The founder of the company famously committed to manufacturing in the UK, only to later move operations to Malaysia. He could simply not remain profitable whilst manufacturing in the UK. As such, there is always the possibility of the emergence of new companies, but how much wealth they will generate in the UK is questionable. The Vodaphone and Dyson stories do not make a case, but do serve to illustrate that whilst growth is possible, it will not be easy. The ongoing decline in manufacturing serves to illustrate the point more clearly.
Whichever way that you look at the UK there is no certain area of growth that can currently offer a way of repaying the borrowing. Whilst we can not discount an amazing Renaissance in business, and the growth of whole new sectors, there is nothing to indicate that these are about to happen. Instead, what we are seeing is the massive contraction in the inflated (bubble) service economy, with no commensurate growth in other sectors. More to the point, we are starting to see a severe contraction in sectors such as manufacturing.
When I first wrote a 'Funny View of Wealth', I was painfully aware that the UK was not providing the new businesses to ensure the long term future for the UK's wealth. Since I wrote the essay, the situation has become worse, rather than better. At the time of writing, the UK already had a major debt problem, but that problem is now becoming huge. None of that increase in debt has gone into the development of wealth creation activity, and the problem is that the borrowing will now be a further constraint on the prospects of economic growth, as the productive sectors of the economy will be required to service the debt. Under such circumstances, the emergence of another Vodaphone becomes less likely, and the probability of another case like Dyson more likely. The weight of servicing the debt, will just be a further weight on the economy as a whole.
It is at this point we return to the commentator on 'Comment is Free'. He is quite right that the only solution to the debt problem would be 'massive inflation', but that is not the future that I believe that he really wishes for. I have posted at some length on this and related subjects in other posts, so will not repeat myself.
I have just returned to the 'Comment is Free' forum, and I find none of those praising the use of borrowing for scheme x, y or z are answering the question of how it will all be paid for. The only other reply that acknowledges the problem of repayment of the debt is as follows:
Markinchina - the reason no-one has answered you is that the answer is rather unpalatable, both for the UK economy and because of our size, the world economy; these debts will never be repaid. Ecomonies with enfeebled manufacturing bases and significant imports of foods and manufactured goods will see their currencies collapse, their standard of living relative to the rest of the world eroded, and the debt inflated away. I think you have to look at Argentina from about 1930 to 2000 to see the way the UK is heading. And they could feed themselves!
Me and my partner will probably leave this country (nothing too adventurous - Oz/NZ or US for us) in the next 2 years and I would advise anyone who can to do the same.
Note 1: I published the tax reform post, as promised, but a strange quirk of blogger means that it was not published on the home page. The post can be found here. Apologies for that.
Note 2: The next project on the subject of reform will I guess be a subject of particular interest to many regular readers. I will be taking a look at the central bank system, banking regulation, fractional reserve banking and how the system might be reformed. It may take me a while as I have many commitments at the moments, and it is also a very complex subject. In the meantime I will comment on any particularly developments, provided that they are of broad significance.
Note 3: There have been many interesting comments on the last post I made. I will try to address some of these as soon as I have time.