Why Debates About Public Debt Are Dumb

In the past few years, there have been countless op-ed pieces and spirited debates about the level of government debt in the U.S. and in the Eurozone, whether it is a problem, and what to do about it. But rarely does it seem that anyone changes their mind as a result of all this arguing. Indeed, many people walk away from debates about government debt frustrated or even hopping mad.

My experience as a marriage counselor taught me that for a discussion of a disagreement to be productive, the parties have to have a shared understanding of what is being debated. If a husband thinks a marital debate is about leaving the toliet seat up or not, and the wife thinks it is about why her husband never listens to, appreciates or loves her the way he should, expect fireworks and frustration. If you are in an argument that you think is about government debt and it’s going nowhere, it may be because the person you are debating isn’t really arguing about the current level of government debt. Rather, they are arguing about the size of government.

If you get into a debate that is ostensibly about the level of government debt, try the following tactic (or try it on yourself in your own mind): If your opponent says that government debt is too high and we therefore need to cut public spending, ask whether s/he has EVER favored under ANY economic conditions a nice, fat increase in public spending. If you are debating someone who says that government debt is no big deal and that we should be increasing public spending, ask if s/he has EVER favored under ANY economics conditions a big, fat cut in public spending. You are going to get a no answer most of the time; maybe almost all the time.

Why does this matter? If you think an argument is about public debt per se, but to the other person it’s really about the size of government, you are going to waste time hauling out debt data from Estonia and Swaziland and the U.S. Great Depression and whatnot that you think will advance the discussion. But it won’t, because the other person doesn’t care about debt really, they just believe government is too big or too small, and any debt-related data will be attended to only to the extent it supports that stance. Maybe you are in the same boat when you argue about debt, only caring about it as a proxy for what really matters to you: the size of government.

Is that wrong? No, it’s just frustrating when you are arguing about one thing and the other person is arguing about something else (or, when BOTH of you are actually arguing about something other than what on the face of it you think you are arguing about). The solution?: Drop the charade and get down to business. How big government should be is an essential political argument for the members of a society to have, so why not just have it up front? Such a debate will be more productive (and honest) if it isn’t filtered through the Kabuki Theater of excel charts on public debt.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.