The impact of language on understanding: two small examples

The morning Post is often the catalyst for my blogs. This morning’s edition provoked the following two comments.

According to the Post, in an article reviewing a speech by the justly highly respected Secretary of Defense, “President Obama has pledged to reduce projected spending on national security by $400 billion over the next 12 years, the ‘preponderance of which would come from the Department of Defense,’ Gates said.

That’s on top of $78 billion in long-term spending reductions that the defense secretary announced earlier this year, as well as $100 billion that he said would be cut from wasteful or inefficient programs and reallocated for new weapons and other purposes.”[1]

In the very next sentence the Post says: “All told, the cuts would leave the Pentagon with flat budgets — increasing just below the rate of inflation — until at least 2024.”[2] What does this mean? It means that on the basis of the proposed “cuts” defense spending would increase every year for the next twelve years at a rate slightly below the assumed inflation rate over that period, i.e. real spending would fall slightly. The $478 billion cut in spending over that same period, refers to cuts from currently budgeted or assumed increases over that period. Readers need to pay close attention to understand the meaning of such numbers.

Another article in today’s Post reports on a survey of public attitudes about raising the debt ceiling of the Federal government. The survey finds that more people are concerned about the dangers of raising the debt ceiling than of defaulting on the debt (77% to 73%).[3]  This is strange. The reason they worry about raising the debt ceiling is that it could lead to an even larger federal debt over time. The only reason to worry about that (aside from legitimate concerns about the negative effect on the economy of larger government expenditures, which, of course, could be paid for with tax revenue without an increase the debt) is that if the debt gets too large the government might default. So how is it that people worry more about something that might lead to default than they do about default itself?????

Trying to imagine the consequence of the U.S. government defaulting on its debt is rather like trying to imagine the affect of all out nuclear war. It is unimaginable. A short, temporary default (a failure to pay interest on and repay maturing debt for a few weeks) might not be catastrophic, but it would certainly destroy the high confidence the world now has in owning U.S. debt and would add a significant risk premium to any subsequent U.S. government borrowing. But a longer default would not only lock the U.S. out of domestic and international capital markets (no more borrowing), but would also destroy the dollar’s international reserve currency status (over half of dollar bank notes are held abroad) instantly, and bankrupt thousands of banks and other firms holding U.S. debt. The knock on effects to the world economy (of which we are very much a part) truly are beyond the world’s experience and beyond imagining.

Author: Warren Coats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My recent books are One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina; My Travels in the Former Soviet Union; My Travels to Afghanistan; My Travels to Jerusalem; and My Travels to Baghdad. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.

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