Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Great Binge is Over

From the dot.com bust in 2000 to the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-09, Americans of all stripes engaged in a great financial binge. Private individuals bought homes and ran up credit card bills they couldn’t afford. Not to be outdone, the federal government turned a series of federal budget surpluses into a string of burgeoning deficits. State and local governments issued bonds, taxed, and spent like drunken sailors, falling deeper and deeper into a black hole. The Great Binge was aided and abetted by the Federal Reserve Board which strained the limits of ink and paper in producing an endless bounty of virtually free money. Think of it as counterfeit currency. The entire country was chronically drunk on fiscal alcoholism.

Then one day the Fed began to burn counterfeit notes. Homeowners couldn’t refinance to meet their mortgage payments. More than forty books on the Great Financial Crisis chronicled how sub-prime mortgages brought down the entire financial house of cards. Unlike Humpty-Dumpty, the Fed and the government have been trying to put it all back together again. Spending in the trillions and new bursts of free money are trying, but with limited success, to ease the withdrawal pains of the Great Binge.

Now there is engaged a tug of war between the stimulators and the debt reducers. The stimulators worry about the creation of a semi-permanent unemployed class that loses job skills. The debt reducers worry that the economy will crumble under a further loss of confidence and an intolerable burden of debt.

There is a great moral lesson to be learned. Sobering up requires painful rehabilitation. Easing the pain makes it more, not less, likely that “The Great Lesson” will not be learned. Taking on debt requires understanding the golden mean: not too little, not too much, just right. Burning into the synapses of the American brain the consequences of reckless debt and spending will do wonders for a future of sense and sensibility. Three years of economic misery, however painful, could be worth several decades of prudence and greater stability. The claim that more free money can cure the addiction brought about by free money seems, on its face, a dubious economic and moral proposition.

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