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IMF report: ‘Debt is good’. What are these people smoking?

IMF report: ‘Debt is good’. What are these people smoking?.

February 18, 2014
Sovereign Valley Farm, Chile

Probably every kid in the world has at some point dreamed of having a time machine and being able to travel back to the past… usually to see dinosaurs or something like that.

Time travel is an almost universal fantasy. And if I could snap my fingers and turn the pages of time, I’d be seriously curious to check out the thousand-year period between the decline of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of the Renaissance.

They used to refer to this period as ‘the Dark Ages’ (though historians have since given up that moniker), a time when the entire European continent was practically at an intellectual standstill.

The Church became THE authority on everything– Science. Technology. Medicine. Education. And they kept the most vital information out of the hands of the people… instead simply telling everyone what to believe.

People living in that time had to trust that the high priests were smart guys and knew what they were talking about.

Interpreting facts and observations for yourself was heresy, and anyone who formed original thought and challenged the authority of church and state was burned at the stake.

Granted, human civilization has come a long way since then. But the basic building blocks are not terribly different than before.

Anyone who challenges the state is still burned at the stake. And our entire monetary system requires that we all trust the high priests of central banking and economics. Those that stray from the state’s message and spread economic heresy are cast down and vilified.

You may recall the case of Harvard professors Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart who wrote the seminal work: “This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly”.

The book highlighted dozens of shocking historical patterns where once powerful nations accumulated too much debt and entered into terminal decline.

Spain, for example, defaulted on its debt six times between 1500 and 1800, then another seven times in the 19th century alone.

France defaulted on its debt EIGHT times between 1500 and 1800, including on the eve of the French Revolution in 1788. And Greece has defaulted five times since 1800.

The premise of their book was very simple: debt is bad. And when nations rack up too much of it, they get into serious trouble.

This message was not terribly convenient for governments that have racked up unprecedented levels of debt. So critics found some calculation errors in their Excel formulas, and the two professors were very publicly discredited.

Afterwards, it was as if the entire idea of debt being bad simply vanished.

Not to worry, though, the IMF has now stepped up with a work of its own to fill the void.

And surprise, surprise, their new paper “[does] not identify any clear debt threshold above which medium-term growth prospects are dramatically compromised.”

Translation: Keep racking up that debt, boys and girls, it’s nothing but smooth sailing ahead.

But that’s not all. They go much further, suggesting that once a nation reaches VERY HIGH levels of debt, there is even LESS of a correlation between debt and growth.

Clearly this is the problem for Europe and the US: $17 trillion? Pish posh. The economy will really be on fire once the debt hits $20 trillion.

There’s just one minor caveat. The IMF admits that they had to invent a completely different method to arrive to their conclusions, and that “caution should be used in the interpretation of our empirical results.”

But such details are not important.

What is important is that the economic high priests have proven once and for all that there are absolutely no consequences for countries who are deeply in debt.

And rather than pontificate what these people are smoking, we should all fall in line with unquestionable belief and devotion to their supreme wisdom.

Here it comes– more leading economists call for capital controls

Here it comes– more leading economists call for capital controls.

As the saying goes, ‘desperate times call for desperate measures.’

The phrase is bandied about so frequently, it’s generally accepted truth. But I have to tell you that I fundamentally disagree with the premise.

Desperate times, in fact, call for a complete reset in the way people think. Desperate times call for the most intelligent, effective, least destructive measures. But these sayings aren’t as catchy.

This old adage has become a crutch– a way for policymakers to rationalize the idiotic measures they’ve put in place:

  • Inflation-adjusted interest rates that are… negative.
  • Trillion dollar deficits.
  • Endless wars and saber-rattling
  • Unprecedented expansion of central bank balance sheets.
  • DIRECT CONFISCATION of people’s bank accounts.

But hey… desperate times call for desperate measures. I guess we’re all just supposed to be OK with that.

One of those desperate measures that’s been coming up a lot lately is the re-re-re-introduction of capital controls.

It started in late 2012, when both the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund seperately endorsed the use of capital controls.

For the IMF, it was a staunch reversal of its previous position, and Paul Krugman lauded the agency’s “surprising intellectual flexibility” a few days later.

The IMF then followed up in 2013 with another little ditty proposing a global wealth tax. The good idea factory is clearly working ’round the clock over there.

Lately, two more leading economists– Harvard professors Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff– have joined the debate.

In a speech to the American Economic Association earlier this month, the pair suggested that rich economies may need to resort to the tactics generally reserved for emerging markets.

This is code for financial repression and capital controls.

The idea behind capital controls is simple: create barriers to restrict the free flow of capital. And if you’re on the receiving end, capital controls can be enormously destructive.

But for politicians, capital controls are hugely beneficial; once they trap funds within their borders, the money can be easily taxed, confiscated, or inflated.

Historically, capital controls have been used in ‘desperate times’. Too much debt. Too much deficit spending. Wars. Huge trade deficit. Intentional currency devaluation. Etc.

Does any of this sound familiar? It’s no surprise that policymakers have once again turned to this ‘desperate measure’. They’re already here.

Iceland has capital controls, over five years after its spectacular meltdown. We can also see capital controls in Cyprus, India, Argentina, etc.

I’ve been writing for years that capital controls are a foregone conclusion. This is no longer theory or conjecture. It’s happening. And every bit of objective evidence suggests that the march towards capital controls will quicken.

This is a HUGE reason to consider holding a portion of your savings overseas in a strong, stable foreign bank where your home government won’t as easily be able to trap your savings.

Other options including storing physical gold (even anonymously) at an overseas depository. Or if you’re inclined and tech savvy, you can also own digital currency.

But perhaps the best way to move some capital abroad is to own foreign real estate, especially productive land.

Foreign real estate is not reportable. It’s a great store of value. It generates both financial profits and personal resilience. It’s a LOT harder to forcibly repatriate. And it ensures that you always have a place to go in case you need to get out of Dodge.

Even if nothing ‘bad’ ever happens, you won’t be worse off for owning productive land in a thriving economy.

Like I said– desperate times don’t call for desperate measures. More than ever, it’s time for a complete reset in the way we look at the most effective solutions. These options are certainly among them.

by Simon Black

Simon Black is an international investor, entrepreneur, permanent traveler, free man, and founder of Sovereign Man. His free daily e-letter and crash course is about using the experiences from his life and travels to help you achieve more freedom.

Unintended Consequences by David Howden | Prices & Markets

Unintended Consequences by David Howden | Prices & Markets.

Rogoff, Reinhart and Ricardian Equivalence
David Howden
St. Louis University – Madrid Campus
Email: dhowden@slu.edu

Volume 1, Issue 1, pages 5 – 8

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The largest economics controversy of the year belonged to Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart for their research describing the relationship between economic growth and government debt. Their research, based on their popular book looking at the striking similarities between recurring booms and busts, argued that there is a critical level of debt above which economic growth is compromised (Rogoff and Reinhart 2009, 2010). Loosely stated, they argued that government debt above 90 percent of a country´s GDP is harmful to economic growth.

Earlier this year this conclusion was brought into disrepute when a review article argued that Rogoff and Reinhart’s study was plagued by “coding errors, selective exclusion of available data, and unconventional weighting of summary statistics lead to serious errors that inaccurately represent the relationship between public debt and GDP growth among 20 advanced economies in the post-war period” (Herndon, Ash and Pollin 2013).

In the melee that ensued there was a critical point all but lost. There is a relationship between debt and growth, and whether Reinhart and Rogoff massaged their numbers to get the result in question is of only secondary importance. Like all great laws in economics, the quantitative relationship is never fixed though the qualitative relationship is definitively identifiable (Mises 1962: 62-63). Just as the basic logic of a binding price floor implies that, for example, a minimum wage will cause some marginal workers to be unemployed, the same logic yields no definitive result.

No self-respecting economist would argue that a 5 percent increase in the minimum wage will decrease employment by 2 percent. By the same reasoning, it befuddles belief that otherwise respectable economists Reinhart and Rogoff would invoke the same reasoning with their 90 percent debt-to-GDP cutoff. (In their defense, this figure was less important in their work than the popular press later made it out to be.)

If Reinhart and Rogoff are guilty of anything, it is of an overly narrow analysis that ignores some important variables. In particular, the exclusive focus on the role of debt on growth, while useful within the restricted confines of their study, lacks practical importance when viewed in isolation.

1. What´s Debt Good For?

Consider the four uses an individual has for his money: consumption, investment, taxes and debt repayment. Consumption improves a person’s well-being in the present, and investment does so in the future. Taxes fund either government consumption or investment, with the usual problem in identifying how valued either of those activities are. One fact is clear: to the extent that taxes reduce private income they hamper the ability for private individuals to use their earnings to improve their well-being. Debt repayment does the same. (My own article “The Quantity Theory of Money” in this issue further explores the implications of debt repayment on consumption and investment activity.)

An individual’s well-being will be unambiguously highest when he has the largest portion of his income available to spend on consumption or investment activities. This implies that tax and debt minimization are both key factors. Note also that well-being is not just the social property of having a satisfied and content population; it also translates into higher levels of economic growth. More consumption expenditure today means that businesses must hire more employees and increase production to satisfy these demands. Increasing consumption expenditure might lead to more jobs in the present, but at the expense of the investment needed to increase the rate of economic growth in the future. Investment expenditure has a similar result, though it is aimed at satisfying consumption demands expected to prevail at some future time. The more investment expenditure we made in the present, the greater the rate of economic growth in the future (assuming all goes well, of course).

Taxes and debt repayment, to the extent that they reduce the amount of funding available for consumption and production activities, reduce economic growth and the well-being of society’s members in the present.

Rogoff and Reinhart look at debt levels and the relationship to growth, and from this they get a crude measure of the effect of debt repayment on economic growth. I say it is a crude measure because the total level of debt is not the key factor. The amount of debt being repaid each period is vital, and this results from the total amount of debt scheduled for repayment and the prevailing interest rate.

However, taxes are also important and Rogoff and Reinhart largely sidestep this issue. This is not to criticize the Harvard economists, as their goal was narrowly focused on looking at the historical role of debt in times of crisis. In drawing policy conclusions, something the press was eager to tease out of their research, one needs to have a comprehensive look at the greater facts at hand.

Very few countries run high public deficits and levy high tax rates. The reason is, as we shall see, that it is difficult to do so and the result is often detrimental to growth. Instead, most countries treat the choice as binary: either high taxes and low deficits, or high deficits with low taxes.

One end of the spectrum might be Norway. Well known for its high tax regime, total Norwegian tax receipts totaled 42.2 percent of its economy last year. This small Scandinavian country has chosen to finance its public spending exclusively through taxes. Indeed, last year the Norwegian government ran a budget surplus of 13.9 percent of GDP thus reducing the amount of government debt outstanding. High taxes have removed the necessity for the government to finance itself through borrowing.

Take the opposite end of the spectrum. The United States is widely viewed as a low tax regime, and at 24 percent of its GDP the total tax collections from all levels of government are low relative to many of its developed counterparts. This low level of tax receipts has left the U.S. government dependent on borrowing to make up the remainder. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the United States runs one of the largest government deficits in the developed world, at 11 percent of GDP in 2012. Americans pay low taxes today for their services, but at some point in the future the bill will come due.

2. Quibbling about Ricardian Equivalence 

In one sense, taxes and deficits are two sides of the same coin. Indeed, the British political economist David Ricardo first hypothesized such a relationship, only to downplay its practical relevance. In a nutshell, the hypothesis that now bears his name as “Ricardian equivalence” states that since governments can either raise money through taxes or bond issuances, and that these bonds must be eventually repaid (through taxes), the choice is not binary but unique – taxes now or taxes later.

Under one strict formulation, if a government incurs a large debt today individuals will bolster their savings in the expectation of future higher taxes to pay off the debt. This increase in savings decreases consumption by a similar amount, thus having the same effect as increased taxes would.

I´m not so sure it´s as simple as that (and neither did Ricardo). The people who benefit from the deficit spending today may not live to see their taxes pay off that same debt in the future (Buchanan 1976). Perhaps most importantly, the strict interpretation of Ricardian equivalence views savings and investment as lost economic activity. Similar to how Keynes´ paradox of thrift argued that only consumption expenditure can stimulate an economy, savings are viewed as a “leakage” from the system, and a form of lost income. Yet as Hayek (1931) so succinctly put it, investment in production must come prior to consumption, and thus savings is a necessary step in enabling demand to be fulfilled.

Despite some arguments as to what degree Ricardian equivalence holds quantitatively true, there is a basic truism in its qualitative message. Spending in the present that is not directed towards consumption and investment activity – including taxes and debt repayment – are net negatives that reduce our well-being. In this light we can agree with Mises´ prescient analysis almost one hundred years ago: “it is fundamentally a matter of indifference whether [the government] … imposes a one-time tax on him of half his wealth or takes from him every year as a tax the amount that corresponds to interest payments on half his wealth” (Mises 1919: 168, as quoted in Garrison 2001: 89).

Consumption improves our well-being today, and investment is aimed at improving it in the future. At times government expenditure can take on the appearance of consumption or investment activity, though it can never be valued as highly as voluntarily activities can be. People act to relieve their most pressing needs, and only by voluntarily directing their own income can we be certain that the most dire of these needs has been fulfilled.

Income spent repaying debt, especially public debt, removes the possibility of improving our well-being by expenditure on consumption that would directly provide satisfaction. Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart have done a great service in making this apparent, and showing that too much debt (and more importantly, debt repayment) compromises growth. A look at the pernicious effects of taxes in reducing our well-being would tell a much more complete story.

References

Buchanan, James M. 1976. Perceived Wealth in Bonds and Social Security: A Comment. Journal of Political Economy 84(2): 337–342.

Garrison, Roger W. 2001. Time and Money: The Macroeconomics of Capital Structure. New York: Routledge.

Hayek, Freidrich A. 1931. The “Paradox” of Saving. Economica 32: 125-69.

Herndon, Thomas, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin. 2013. Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff. PERI working paper 322.

Howden, David. 2013. The Quantity Theory of Money. The Journal of Prices & Markets 1(1): 17-30.

Mises, Ludwig von. [1919] 1983. Nation, State, and Economy: Contributions to the Politics and History of Our Time, trans. L. Yeager, New York: New York University Press.

Mises, Ludwig von. 1962. The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science: An Essay on Method. Princeton: D. van Nostrand.

Reinhart, Carmen and Kenneth Rogoff. 2010 .Growth in a Time of Debt. American Economic Review 100(2): 573–78.

Reinhart, Carmen and Kenneth Rogoff. 2009. This Time is Different: Eight centuries of financial folly. Princeton University Press.

Rothbard, Murray N. [1963] 2004. Man, Economy, and State, Scholar’s Edition. Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute.

 

Global Power Project: The Group of Thirty, Architects of Austerity | Occupy.com

Global Power Project: The Group of Thirty, Architects of Austerity | Occupy.com.

The Group of Thirty, a preeminent think tank that brings together dozens of the world’s most influential policy makers, central bankers, financiers and academics, has been the focus of two recent reports for Occupy.com’s Global Power Project. In studying this group, I compiled CVs of the G30’s current and senior members: a total of 34 individuals. The first report looked at the origins of the G30, while the second examined some of the current projects and reports emanating from the group. In this installment, I take a look at some specific members of the G30 and their roles in justifying and implementing austerity measures.

Central Bankers, Markets and Austerity

For the current members of the Group of Thirty who are sitting or recently-sitting central bankers, their roles in the financial and economic turmoil of recent years is well-known and, most especially, their role in bailing out banks, providing long-term subsidies and support mechanisms for financial markets, and forcing governments to implement austerity and “structural reform” policies, notably in the European Union. With both the former European Central Bank (ECB) President Jean-Claude Trichet and current ECB President Mario Draghi serving as members of the G30, austerity measures have become a clearly favored policy of the G30.

In a January 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Jean-Claude Trichet explained that he had been “involved personally in numerous financial crises since the beginning of the 1980s,” in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Soviet Union, having been previously the president of the Paris Club – an “informal” grouping that handles debt crisis and restructuring issues on behalf the world’s major creditor nations. In this capacity, Trichet “had to deal with around 55 countries that were in bankruptcy.”

In July of 2010, Trichet wrote in the Financial Times that “now is the time to restore fiscal sustainability,” noting that “consolidation is a must,” which is a different way of saying austerity. In each of E.U. government bailouts – of which the ECB acted as one of the three central institutions responsible for negotiating and providing the deal, alongside the European Commission and the IMF, forming the so-called Troika – austerity measures were always a required ingredient, which subsequently plunged those countries into even deeper economic, social and political crises (Spain and Greece come to mind).

The same was true under the subsequent ECB president and G30 member, Draghi, who has continued to demand austerity measures, structural reforms (notably in dismantling the protections for labor), and extended support to the banking system, even to a greater degree than his predecessor. In a February 2012 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Draghi stated that “the European social model has already gone,” noting that countries of the Eurozone would have “to make labour markets more flexible.” He meant, of course, that they must have worker protections and benefits dismantled to make them more “flexible” to the demands of corporate and financial interests who can more easily and cheaply exploit that labor.

In a 2012 interview with Der Spiegel, Draghi noted that European governments will have to “transfer part of their sovereignty to the European level” and recommended that the European Commission be given the supranational authority to have a direct say in the budgets of E.U. nations, adding that “a lot of governments have yet to realize that they lost their national sovereignty a long time ago.” He further explained, incredibly, that since those governments let their debts pile up they must now rely on “the goodwill of the financial markets.”

Another notable member of the Group of Thirty who has been a powerful figure among the world’s oligarchs of austerity is Jaime Caruana, the General Manager of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), which serves as the bank for the central banks of the world. Caruana was previously Governor of the Bank of Spain, from 2000 to 2006, during which time Spain experienced its massive housing bubble that led directly to the country’s debt crisis amid the global recession. In 2006, a team of inspectors within the Bank of Spain sent a letter to the Spanish government criticizing then-Governor Caruana for his “passive attitude” toward the massive bubble he was helping to facilitate.

As head of the BIS, Caruana delivered a speech in June of 2011 to the assembled central bankers at an annual general meeting in Basel, Switzerland, in which he gave his full endorsement of the austerity agenda across Europe, noting that “the need for fiscal consolidation [austerity] is even more urgent” than during the previous year. He added, “There is no easy way out, no shortcut, no painless solution – that is, no alternative to the rigorous implementation of comprehensive country packages including strict fiscal consolidation and structural reforms.”

At the 2013 annual general meeting of the BIS, Caruana again warned that attempts by governments “at fiscal consolidation need to be more ambitious,” and warned that if financial markets view a government’s debt as unsustainable, “bond investors can and do punish governments hard and fast.” If governments continue to delay austerity, he said, the markets will have to use “market discipline” to force governments to act, “and then the pain will be large indeed.” In further recommending “structural reforms” to labor and service markets,Caruana noted that “the reforms are critical to attaining and preserving confidence,” by which, of course, he meant the confidence of markets.

The ‘Academic’ of Austerity: Kenneth Rogoff

Kenneth Rogoff is an influential academic economist and a member of the Group of Thirty. Rogoff currently hold a position as professor at Harvard University and as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He sits on the Economic Advisory Panel to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and previously Rogoff spent time as the chief economist of the IMF as well serving as an adviser to the executive board of the Central Bank of Sweden. Rogoff is these days most famous – or infamous – for co-authoring (with Carmen Reinhart) a study published in 2010 that made the case for austerity measures to become the favored policy of nations around the world.

The study, entitled, “Growth in a Time of Debt,” appeared in the American Economic Review in 2010 to great acclaim within high-level circles. One of the main conclusions of the paper held that when a country’s debt-to-GDP ratio hits 90%, “they reach a tipping point after which they’ll start experiencing serious growth slowdowns.” The paper was cited by the U.S. Congress as well as by Olli Rehn, the European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and one of Europe’s stalwart defenders of austerity, who has demanded themeasures be instituted on multiple countries in the E.U. in return for bailout funds.

Google Scholar search for the terms “Growth in a Time of Debt” and “Rogoff” turned up approximately 828 results. In 2013, Forbesreferred to the paper as “perhaps the most quoted but least read economic publication of recent years.” The paper was also cited in dozens of media outlets around the world, multiple times, especially by influential players in the financial press.

In 2012, Gideon Rachman, writing in the Financial Times, said Rogoff was “much in demand to advise world leaders on how to counter the financial crisis,” and noted that while the economist had been attending the World Economic Forum meetings for a decade, he had become “more in demand than ever” after having “written the definitive history of financial crises over the centuries” alongside Carmen Reinhart. Rogoff was consulted by Barack Obama, “and is known to have spent many hours with George Osborne, Britain’s chancellor,” wrote Rachman, noting that Rogoff advised government’s “to get serious about cutting their deficits, [which] strongly influenced the British government’s decision to make controlling spending its priority.”

The praise became all the more noteworthy in April of 2013 when researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, published a paper accusing Rogoff and Reinhart of “sloppy statistical analysis” while documenting several key mistakes that undermined the conclusions of the original 2010 paper. The report from Amherst exploded across global media, immediately forcing Rogoff and Reinhart on the defensive. The New Yorker noted that “the attack from Amherst has done enormous damage to Reinhart and Rogoff’s credibility, and to the intellectual underpinnings of the austerity policies with which they are associated.”

As New York Times columnist and fellow G30 member Paul Krugman noted, the original 2010 paper by Reinhart and Rogoff “may have had more immediate influence on public debate than any previous paper in the history of economics.” After the Amherst paper, he added, “The revelation that the supposed 90 percent threshold was an artifact of programming mistakes, data omissions, and peculiar statistical techniques suddenly made a remarkable number of prominent people look foolish.” Krugman, who had firmly opposed austerity policies long before Rogoff’s paper, suggested that “the case for austerity was and is one that many powerful people want to believe, leading them to seize on anything that looks like a justification.”

Indeed, many of those “powerful people” happen to be members of the Group of Thirty who are, with the notable exception of Krugman, largely in favor of austerity measures. Krugman himself tends to represent the limits of acceptable dissent within the G30, criticizing policies and policy makers while accepting the fundamental concepts of the global financial and economic system. He commented that he had been a member of the G30 since 1988 and referred to it as a “talk shop” where he gets “a chance to hear what people like Trichet and Draghi have to say in an informal setting,” adding, “while I’ve heard some smart things from people with a role in real-world decisions, I’ve also heard a lot of very foolish things said by alleged wise men.”

Andrew Gavin Marshall is a 26-year old researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, chair of the Geopolitics Division of The Hampton Institute, research director for Occupy.com’s Global Power Project and World of Resistance (WOR) Report, and hosts a weekly podcast show with BoilingFrogsPost.

– See more at: http://www.occupy.com/article/global-power-project-group-thirty-architects-austerity#sthash.Dcw3LyiK.dpuf

 

Paul Krugman: Canadian Economy Vulnerable To ‘Shock’ Due To Debt Levels, House Prices

Paul Krugman: Canadian Economy Vulnerable To ‘Shock’ Due To Debt Levels, House Prices.

Everyone’s Missing the Bigger Picture in the Reinhart-Rogoff Debate | Zero Hedge

Everyone’s Missing the Bigger Picture in the Reinhart-Rogoff Debate | Zero Hedge.

 

Reinhart and Rogoff – Responding to Our Critics – NYTimes.com

Reinhart and Rogoff – Responding to Our Critics – NYTimes.com.

 

Philip Pilkington: Defrocking Reinhart and Rogoff – Controversy Ignores Fundamental Issues in the Use and Abuse of Statistical Studies « naked capitalism

Philip Pilkington: Defrocking Reinhart and Rogoff – Controversy Ignores Fundamental Issues in the Use and Abuse of Statistical Studies « naked capitalism.

 

HAP vs. RR vs. the Pundits: Scoring the Reinhart, Rogoff Dispute | CYNICOMOMICS

HAP vs. RR vs. the Pundits: Scoring the Reinhart, Rogoff Dispute | CYNICOMOMICS.

 

Les Leopold: Is the Entire Deficit Debate Based on a Big Mistake?

Les Leopold: Is the Entire Deficit Debate Based on a Big Mistake?.

 

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