Over time Thriftville accumulates an enormous amount of these bonds, which at their core represent claim checks on the future output of Squanderville. A few pundits in Squanderville smell trouble coming. They foresee that for the Squanders both to eat and to pay off-or simply service – the debt they’re piling up will eventually require them
to work more than eight hours a day. But the residents of Squanderville are in no mood to listen to such doomsaying.
Meanwhile, the citizens of Thriftville begin to get nervous. Just how good, they ask, are the IOUs of a shiftless island? So the Thrifts change strategy: Though they continue to hold some bonds, they sell most of them to Squanderville residents for Squanderbucks and use the proceeds to buy Squanderville land. And eventually the Thrifts own all of Squanderville.
At that point, the Squanders are forced to deal with an ugly equation: They must now not only return to working eight hours a day in order to eat – they have nothing left to trade – but must also work additional hours to service their debt and pay Thriftville rent on the land so imprudently sold. In effect, Squanderville has been colonized by
purchase rather than conquest.
It can be argued, of course, that the present value of the future production that Squanderville must forever ship to Thriftville only equates to the production Thriftville initially gave up and that therefore both have received a fair deal. But since one generation of Squanders gets the free ride and future generations pay in perpetuity for it, there are in economist talk some pretty dramatic “intergenerational inequities.”
Let’s think of it in terms of a family: Imagine that I, Warren Buffett, can get the suppliers of all that I consume in my lifetime to take Buffett family IOUs that are payable, in goods and services and with interest added, by my descendants. This scenario may be viewed as effecting an even trade between the Buffett family unit and its creditors. But the generations of Buffetts following me are not likely to applaud the deal (and, heaven forbid, may even attempt to welsh on it).
Think again about those islands: Sooner or later the Squanderville government, facing ever greater payments to service debt, would decide to embrace highly inflationary policies that is, issue more Squanderbucks to dilute the value of each. After all, the government would reason, those irritating Squanderbonds are simply claims on specific
numbers of Squanderbucks, not on bucks of specific value. In short, making Squanderbucks less valuable would ease the island’s fiscal pain.
That prospect is why I, were I a resident of Thriftville, would opt for direct ownership of Squanderville land rather than bonds of the island’s government. Most governments find it much harder morally to seize foreign-owned property than they do to dilute the purchasing power of claim checks foreigners hold. Theft by stealth is preferred to
theft by force.
So what does all this island hopping have to do with the U.S.? Simply put, after World War II and up until the early 1970s we operated in the industrious Thriftville style, regularly selling more abroad than we purchased. We concurrently invested our surplus abroad, with the result that our net investment that is, our holdings of foreign assets less foreign holdings of U.S. assets increased (under methodology, since revised, that the government was then using) from $37 billion in 1950 to $68 billion in 1970. In those days, to sum up, our country’s “net worth,” viewed in totality, consisted of all the wealth within our borders plus a modest portion of the wealth in the rest of the world.
Additionally, because the U.S. was in a net ownership position with respect to the rest of the world, we realized net investment income that, piled on top of our trade surplus, became a second source of investable funds. Our fiscal situation was thus similar to that of an individual who was both saving some of his salary and reinvesting the dividends from his existing nest egg.
In the late 1970s the trade situation reversed, producing deficits that initially ran about 1% of GDP. That was hardly serious, particularly because net investment income remained positive. Indeed, with the power of compound interest working for us, our net ownership balance hit its high in 1980 at $360 billion.
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