“Deleveraging” and Debt Scolds

Matt Yglesias makes an extremely interesting point today–one made more briefly on January 20 by Paul Krugman–about the interaction of public- and private-sector debt in the United States. With relatively few non-economists noting it, the U.S. has been rapidly shedding private-sector debt–or “deleveraging”–during the Great Recession, to the point where total debt is actually declining.

Both Yglesias and Krugman bring this up to point out that all the alarums about public-sector debt are being raised in isolation from total debt trends, and the risk of “deleveraging” the economy too rapidly. Not being an economist, I’m interested in a somewhat different issue: the political power of the argument (beloved of such chronic debt scolds as Robert Samuelson) that Americans (especially middle-income Americans) are slothful, selfish louts who refuse to understand the country’s future depends on their willingness to give up luxuries like Medicare, Social Security, public education and collective-bargaining rights. It’s the closest most conservatives can get to a politics of common national purpose, even though it’s an argument that is intimately connected to policies encouraging wealthy “job creators” to chow down on the good things in life with all their might.

If we are not in fact a society on the brink of collapse because we are impossibly “overleveraged,” then the moral and poltical argument for “shared sacrifice” in which the sacrifice is mainly shared by those at the middle and bottom of the wealth distribution scales, then the whole game gets a lot more complicated for conservative politicians.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.