Intelligence Squared debate: Should we stop worrying about national deficits?

The U.S. Capitol dome in Washington on June 12, 2019.
The U.S. Capitol dome in Washington on June 12, 2019.
Patrick Semansky | AP Photo 2019

Governments around the world have spent unprecedented sums — trillions of dollars — to combat the economic impacts of coronavirus. In the United States alone, the national deficit surpassed $3 trillion this year. That’s three times larger than in 2019 and some $2 trillion more than the White House projected back in February. But just what does rising government debt mean for our future?

A new crop of economists — adherents to Modern Monetary Theory — have a bold proposition: Don't worry about it. In a modern economy, they argue, deficits are no bogeyman. And they're certainly no excuse to halt state spending on things like education and health care.

But others are more wary. They warn that unless political leaders balance the books, soaring federal debt will undermine the nation's economic future and compromise national security and its sovereignty. So, are rising national deficits cause for concern? 

The motion

Stop worrying about national deficits.

For the motion:

  • James Galbraith: Professor of public affairs and former executive director, Congressional Joint Economic Committee.

“As Keynes said, anything we can actually do, we can afford. If you haven't started worrying about deficits don't start. If you have started, stop.”

  • Stephanie Kelton: Economist and author of "The Deficit Myth."

“Mark Twain famously told us that it’s often easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled. And the American people are often fooled into getting confused about government deficits. The word itself sounds like a problem.”

Against the motion:

  • Todd Buchholz: Former White House director of economic policy and author of "The Price of Prosperity."

“I wish I believed in the tooth fairy. I wish I believe that Elvis still lived, and I wish you could scoff at government debt. I've got a historical question: Was Alexander Hamilton a fool?”

  • Otmar Issing: Former chief economist, European Central Bank.

“Without constraints, public spending will run out of control. Expecting public politicians to resist the temptation of free public spending, it's like expecting a dog to sit disciplined before a box of sausages.”

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