By Ghassan Karam, Special to Ya Libnan
Sovereign debt, as a potentially crippling fiscal problem world wide, has risen to the forefront over the past few months. Whether it is the US, Europe, Japan or many other developed and developing countries the sovereign debt watch is on.
The major metrics of a pending sovereign debt crisis that have been in vogue for decades used to be applied only to developing countries. Unfortunately this is no longer the case. The Herculian efforts by governments all over the world; the developed in particular; to avoid a repeat of the debilitating depression of the 1930’s has forced these countries to increase substantially their fiscal stimulus programs. In a sense the monetary and fiscal policies adopted by the officials of all of these countries have been very successful. A worst case scenario has been avoided.
But as economics has always taught us, There Ain’t No Such Thing AS A Free Lunch; TANSTAAFL. Yes we avoided a deep recession and the top officials can pat themselves on the back for this. But maybe not. Is the cure at least as expensive or maybe even more so than the ailment that it saved us from? That is , currently, the $64,000 question or maybe I should say the $64 billion question?:-)
Often, our efforts at prescribing remedies are counter productive because of what is inherent in problem solving. We always seem to target the symptom rather than the disease. As a result we inevitably move from one crisis to the next as a result of the law of unintended consequences.
In our efforts to save the system and to prevent a major economic depression we proceeded to throw money at the problem in order to generate more final demand and thus put more people to work. What we did not stop to consider is the major question of how are we going to pay back all of these funds that we have borrowed? It seems that governments did what governments always do, shift the burden onto the future generations. The debt will not come due for some decades ,right? Wrong. Well informed investors know that more debt implies more taxes in the future and so they take corrective by refusing to own the highly risky debt. Once it becomes obvious that debt service is too large and that debt cannot be continuously rolled over unto the future then these governments will have no choice but to become deadbeats. That is where we are at the moment. The question is which country is going to go under first? Would it be Greece or would it be one of the other PIIGS? How about the UK, or even Japan or the US? If any of these countries default would they set up a contagion that will devastate all the current international financial system as we know it?
Believe it or not there is a potential mechanism that if adopted could go a long way towards addressing the real cause of this issue and not only the surface phenomenon. The solution that I am about to propose is not new, actually,N.G Mankiw wrote about it in 2007.
“The scientists tell us that world temperatures are rising because humans are emitting carbon into the atmosphere. Basic economics tells us that when you tax something, you normally get less of it. So if we want to reduce global emissions of carbon, we need a global carbon tax. …
The idea of using taxes to fix problems, rather than merely raise government revenue, has a long history. The British economist Arthur Pigou advocated such corrective taxes to deal with pollution in the early 20th century. In his honor, economics textbooks now call them “Pigovian taxes.”…some taxes align private incentives with social costs and move us toward better outcomes.”
I would love to see a carbon tax levied not only in the major industrial countries but all over the globe with all the proceeds dedicated to lowering the sovereign debt. Such a tax could be a first step towards internalizing the negative externalities of all the production in the world economy. If that leads to less and more efficient production then all of us will be winners.
Note: Lebanon with a national debt of over 160% of its GDP is proportionally more in debt than Greece, it has arguably already reached the point of no return. The current sovereign debt burden is so large that it will be impossible to avoid a cataclysmic crisis if we do not seek an immediate renegotiation of some of the debt and at least a partial write off in addition to very tight fiscal policy. If we do not change course then we will get where we are heading, the financial abyss.