By L. Randall Wray
(cross-posted with Benzinga.com)
The press is filled with speculation about the impact of Japan’s earthquake and its nuclear disaster on government finances. Prime Minister Naoto Kan said that his government is exploring sources of funding, and two-thirds of surveyed citizens are willing to accept higher taxes to pay for relief. Corporate tax cuts might be rescinded, and Japan has always favored consumption tax surcharges to reduce budget deficits. Recovery spending might add $250 to $300 billion to the government’s likely budget of $1 trillion
. As everyone knows, Japan’s government debt is already 200% of GDP, and with the extra spending as well as loss of tax revenue due to the economic slowdown that is likely to befall the economy (at least temporarily), the budget shortfall will get bigger.
In a touching display of charity, the global community has responded by promising to provide funds for relief. Everyone’s favorite auto-tune singer, Britney Spears, is donating some VIP tickets to her concert; My Chemical Romance is donating a song; Adam Ant is headlining a relief show; and sports stars around the world are leading efforts to raise funds. Now, I do not want to be a killjoy, but even after two decades of economic depression, the “secret savings” of Japanese wives still average over $37,000 per household
. Folks, this is not Haiti or the New Orleans that was abandoned by President Bush. This is one of the richest societies that has ever graced planet earth. What the Japanese do not need is money from abroad. They do need expertise and supplies. I was horrified to find that some of my friends in California were downing iodine pills. OMG—send THOSE to Japan, not greenbacks, songs, or concert tickets.
I do not intend to minimize Japan’s real problems, after suffering from a triple whammy of Biblical proportions: earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. It will take a very long time to recover.
But, it would only add insult to injury to raise taxes now. It would make economic recovery much harder to attain and sustain. As a sovereign nation with its own sovereign currency, Japan can “afford” recovery—government can afford to buy anything for sale in yen that might help in the relief efforts. Japan has unemployed labor and other idle resources—both for sale in yen. To be sure, the massive destruction will create bottlenecks—it will take time to reopen some factories, to get workers back into a stable home environment so that they can work, and to mobilize productive capacity. Japan will need to increase imports of some strategic materials and supplies. But it has all the yen it needs to undertake the massive recovery effort. As in all sovereign nations, the Japanese government spends by keystrokes and so long as it can find electrons, it can credit balance sheets. And if it needs to buy some stuff in dollars, it’s got those, too.
If the recovery really gets underway, aggregate demand (to replace housing, autos, factories, and infrastructure lost in the catastrophe) could superheat the economy. Inflation pressures might build. Now, THAT would be the time to raise taxes. Not to “pay for” government spending, but to take some of the fire out of an overheated economy. Better yet, relief and reconstruction will need to be planned. Yes, I know that scares the pants off the neolibs, but neither war nor reconstruction can be left to “market forces”. The aforementioned bottlenecks will generate price pressures—and, worse, price gouging—long before full employment is reached. Coordination together with wage and price controls (or “guidelines”) will let the economy generate sufficient steam to rebuild the nation without excessive inflation.
Unfortunately, Japanese policymakers have shown over the past two decades that they usually lose nerve long before they produce a sustainable recovery. They frequently adopt consumption taxes and/or spending constraints, and rely on monetary policy to overcome fiscal drag. It never does. Japan has been test-running Chairman Bernanke’s quantitative easing for 20 years, with exactly the same results that we observe now in the US: nada, zip, niente. Zero interest rates, if anything, depress the economy—especially if you have a whole lot of household saving (and no debt) in the form of government bonds that earn you little income. Sound familiar? If Helicopter Ben has his way, we will see another 17 years of this in the US.
But what about the mountains of Japanese government debt? There is no solvency risk—it is sovereign debt, denominated in yen and serviced by keystrokes. Isn’t that inflationary? Need you ask, after 20 years of deflation? Doesn’t it cause currency depreciation? If only it would! Burden the grandkids? They are inheriting the treasuries—all they want is for the BOJ to raise interest rates so they can clip some coupons.
Clearly, it is not all hunky dory in Japan. Aside from the current calamity, Japan is aging and losing its workforce. Its firms have been offshoring production for four decades so that even the non-elderly are not working. Jimmy Carter’s “national malaise” jumped the American ship and took up home in Japan—with households responding by ramping up savings. If it weren’t for American consumers, Japan Inc. would have practically no markets.
But these problems cannot be resolved by efforts to downsize government and its deficit. Indeed, the rational response to both the immediate problems as well as the longer-term trends is more government spending and less taxes.