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美国债务问题的6大误解与真相

Bill White 2014年03月06日

美国债务问题一直是全球经济的热点。关于这个问题,存在许多误解。实际情况怎么样?我们来听听美国政府前高官深入浅出的解释。

    根据美国国会预算办公室(Congressional Budget Office)的最新预测,未来六年,每个美国家庭的年均偿债支出将增长一倍以上,达到约7,000美元。不过,美国总统奥巴马在周二提交的这份预算中所预见的债务大幅增长并没有引起太多争议。美国共和党议会领导人早已采纳了一项预算决议,提高债务上限以允许用债务来支付日常联邦支出。

    奥巴马总统表示,赤字下降速度比二战结束以来的任何时候都快。鉴于美国已经结束了两场战争,以及美国经济正在从2008年起的严重经济衰退中复苏,这一点或许原本也是意料之中的事。但在二战债务创下新高后,美国很快就实现了预算平衡,时常还有盈余。相比之下,除了信托基金,未来两年的债务将用于支撑一个季度多的联邦基金预算,即开支和收入。

    关于联邦债务的其他创造性解释经过多次重复,已经成为常识。每个人都有权拥有自己的观点,但不是每个人都了解历史事实。我们不妨来看看下面六种误解:

    误解一:联邦政府从不平衡预算。

    事实上,在美国前180年的历史中,民选联邦官员只有在四种特殊情况下才会借钱:打仗,经济不景气时填补预算窟窿,扩张及连接疆土,阻止各州脱离联邦。通常议会会在每次危急情况之后偿还债务。

    误解二:举债始于罗斯福新政。

    始于1819年大恐慌的严重经济衰退期间,联邦政府就曾经举过债。富兰克林•罗斯福出任总统第一年就削减了“常规”联邦支出。他在总统任期内曾否决多达665项议案,目的就是为了维持财政自律。

    误解三:社保是真正的问题所在。

    相比联邦资金预算,社保信托基金的状况很好。社保信托基金的支出并不是完全来自于拨给信托基金的收入。

    误解四:党派主义是真正的问题所在。

    今天的党派主义相比美国内战之后已经非常温和。美国内战之后,民主党和共和党的领导人们经常为了数百万美国人生命的消逝而互相指责,但仍然合作实现了盈余,用于偿付内战欠下的债务。近些年来,党派领导人们经常妥协。但这些妥协常常导致增支降税,结果就是债务增长。

    误解五:反恐战争和大萧条带来了今日的债务危机。

    举债以应付紧急事务所需,这种传统需求构成了2001年至2004年间美债的一半左右,包括两场战争支出以及在经济不景气时填补预算窟窿。自从2000年美国上一次实现预算平衡以来,除了直接战争支出以及联邦医疗保险成本的增加,美国债务也源于金融税削减和军费开支增加。

    误解六:平衡预算会损害经济。

    推动经济长期增长的是劳动力市场的扩张、投资增长和生产率提升,而不是债务增长。联邦预算平衡时,美国经济增速通常不错。与此形成对比的是,从2001年联邦政府大举借债开始,私营部门的就业增长就远远落后于历史平均水平。

    有关联邦债务的误解或许能在党派之争中用于添油加醋,但会误及责任的承担。问题如果界定不清,往往也会更难解决。(财富中文网)

    本文作者比尔•怀特即将出版新书《美国财政制度的成与败》 (PublicAffairs,2014年4月), 他同时也是Lazard的高级顾问。2004-2010年期间,他曾任职休斯顿市长,1993-1995年任职美国能源部副部长。

    The annual cost of debt service will more than double in the next six years, rising to about $7,000 annually for the average American household, according to the Congressional Budget Office's recent forecast. Nonetheless, the substantial increase in debt envisioned byPresident Obama's budget, released Tuesday, has prompted little controversy. Republican congressional leaders have already adopted a budget resolution and increased the debt ceiling in a manner allowing the use of debt to fund routine federal spending.

    The President notes that deficits have come down at a faster rate than at any time since the end of World War II, as might be expected at the end of the two wars and recovery from the severe recession beginning in 2008. But after the World War II peak in debt, the U.S. immediately balanced its budget and often had surpluses. In the next two years, in contrast, debt will be used to fund over a quarter of the federal funds budget -- that is, spending and revenues apart from trust funds.

    Other creative explanations of federal debt have been repeated so often that they have become conventional wisdom. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, not everyone is entitled to their own historical facts. Consider the following myths:

    Myth #1: The federal government never balances its budget.

    In fact, for the nation's first 180 years federal elected officials borrowed for only four extraordinary purposes -- waging war, plugging budget holes during downturns, expanding and connecting the nation's territory, and preventing states from leaving the Union. Congress usually paid down debt after each emergency.

    Myth #2: It all started with the New Deal.

    The federal government borrowed during severe downturns beginning with the Panic of 1819. In his first year in office Franklin Roosevelt cut "normal" federal spending. Throughout his presidency he vetoed a record 665 bills in an attempt to maintain fiscal discipline.

    Myth #3: Social Security is the real problem.

    The Social Security trust funds are in great shape compared to the federal funds budget -- that is, spending not fully funded by revenues dedicated to trust funds.

    Myth #4: Partisanship is the real problem.

    Partisanship today is mild compared to the situation after the Civil War. Democratic and Republican leaders then routinely blamed each other for the deaths of millions of Americans, yet still cooperated to produce surpluses used to pay down Civil War debts. In recent years party leaders have often compromised. Those compromises, however, have tended to increase debt by raising outlays and lowering tax revenues.

    Myth #5: The War on Terror and the Great Recession led to today's debt crisis.

    Traditional emergency uses of borrowed funds -- fighting two wars and filling budget holes during a downturn -- account for about half of the debt incurred between 2001 and 2014. Since the budget last balanced in 2000, debt has been incurred to finance tax cuts, higher military spending apart from the direct costs of war, and the rising cost of Medicare.

    Myth #6: Balancing the budget will hurt the economy.

    Gains in the size of the workforce, investment and productivity -- rather than greater debt -- drive long-run economic growth. The U.S. economy has often flourished when federal budgets balanced. In contrast, after the federal government borrowed massive amounts beginning in 2001, private sector job growth lagged far behind historical averages.

    Myths about federal borrowing may embellish partisan narratives, but they undermine accountability. And poorly defined problems are always more difficult to solve.

    Bill White is author of the forthcoming book, America's Fiscal Constitution: Its Triumph and Collapse (PublicAffairs, April 2014), and is a senior advisor to Lazard. He is a former a mayor of Houston from 2004 to 2010 and U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy from 1993 to 1995.

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