Public Debt



Budgetary deficits must be financed by either taxation, borrowing or printing money. Governments have mostly relied on borrowing, giving rise to what is called government debt. The concepts of deficits and debt are closely related. Deficits can be thought of as a flow which add to the stock of debt. If the government continues to borrow year after year, it leads to the accumulation of debt and the government has to pay more and more by way of interest. These interest payments themselves contribute to the debt.


Perspectives on the Appropriate Amount of Government Debt:
There are two interlinked aspects of the issue. One is whether government debt is a burden and two, the issue of financing the debt. The burden of debt must be discussed keeping in mind that what is true of one small trader’s debt may not be true for the government’s debt, and one must deal with the ‘whole’ differently from the ‘part’. Unlike any one trader, the government can raise resources through taxation and printing money.
By borrowing, the government transfers the burden of reduced consumption on future generations. This is because it borrows by issuing bonds to the people living at present but may decide to pay off the bonds some twenty years later by raising taxes. These may be levied on the young population that have just entered the work force, whose disposable income will go down and hence consumption. Thus, national savings, it was argued, would fall. Also, government borrowing from the people reduces the savings available to the private sector. To the extent that this reduces capital formation and growth, debt acts as a ‘burden’ on future generations.
Traditionally, it has been argued that when a government cuts taxes and runs a budget deficit, consumers respond to their after-tax income by spending more. It is possible that these people are short-sighted and do not understand the implications of budget deficits. They may not realise that at some point in the future, the government will have to raise taxes to pay off the debt and accumulated interest. Even if they comprehend this, they may expect the future axes to fall not on them but on future generations.
A counter argument is that consumers are forward-looking and will base their spending not only on their current income but also on their expected future income. They will understand that borrowing today means higher taxes in the future. Further, the consumer will be concerned about future generations because they are the children and grandchildren of the present generation and the family which is the relevant decision making unit, continues living. They would increase savings now, which will fully offset the increased government dissaving so that national savings do not change. This view is called Ricardian equivalence after one of the greatest nineteenth century economists, David Ricardo, who first argued that in the face of high deficits, people save more. It is called ‘equivalence’ because it argues that taxation and borrowing are equivalent means of financing expenditure. When the government increases spending by borrowing today, which will be repaid by taxes in the future, it will have the same impact on the economy as an increase in government expenditure that is financed by a tax increase today. It has often been argued that ‘debt does not matter because we owe it to ourselves’. This is because although there is a transfer of resources between generations, purchasing power remains within the nation. However, any debt that is owed to foreigners involves a burden since we have to send goods abroad corresponding to the interest payments.


Other Perspectives on Deficits and Debt:
One of the main criticisms of deficits is that they are inflationary. This is because when government increases spending or cuts taxes, aggregate demand increases. Firms may not be able to produce higher quantities that are being demanded at the ongoing prices. Prices will, therefore, have to rise. However, if there are unutilised resources, output is held back by lack of demand. A high fiscal deficit is accompanied by higher demand and greater output and, therefore, need not be inflationary. It has been argued that there is a decrease in investment due to a reduction in the amount of savings available to the private sector. This is because if the government decides to borrow from private citizens by issuing bonds to finance its deficits, these bonds will compete with corporate bonds and other financial instruments for the available supply of funds. If some private savers decide to buy bonds, the funds remaining to be invested in private hands will be smaller.
Thus, some private borrowers will get ‘crowded out’ of the financial markets as the government claims an increasing share of the economy’s total savings. However, one must note that the economy’s flow of savings is not really fixed unless we assume that income cannot be augmented. If government deficits succeed in their goal of raising production, there will be more income and, therefore, more saving. In this case, both government and industry can borrow more. Also, if the government invests in infrastructure, future generations may be better off, provided the return on such investments is greater than the rate of interest. The actual debt could be paid off by the growth in output. The debt should not then be considered burdensome. The growth in debt will have to be judged by the growth of the economy as a whole.

Deficit Reduction:
Government deficit can be reduced by an increase in taxes or reduction in expenditure. In India, the government has been trying to increase tax revenue with greater reliance on direct taxes (indirect taxes are regressive in nature – they impact all income groups equally). There has also been an attempt to raise receipts through the sale of shares in PSUs. However, the major thrust has been towards reduction in government expenditure. This could be achieved through making government activities more efficient through better planning of programmes and better administration. A recent study4 by the Planning Commission has estimated that to transfer Re1 to the poor, government spends Rs 3.65 in the form of food subsidy, showing that cash transfers would lead to increase in welfare. The other way is to change the scope of the government by withdrawing from some of the areas where it operated before. Cutting back government programmes in vital areas like agriculture, education, health, poverty alleviation, etc. would adversely affect the economy. Governments in many countries run huge deficits forcing them to eventually put in place self-imposed constraints of not increasing expenditure over pre-determined levels. These will have to be examined keeping in view the above factors. We must note that larger deficits do not always signify a more expansionary fiscal policy. The same fiscal measures can give rise to a large or small deficit, depending on the state of the economy. For example, if an economy experiences a recession and GDP falls, tax revenues fall because firms and households pay lower taxes when they earn less. This means that the deficit increases in a recession and falls in a boom, even with no change in fiscal policy.

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