All signs point to doing more

While the debt crisis in Greece threatens Europe and markets all over the world, many Americans want to draw parallels between the United States and Greece. The story goes like this: The Greeks borrowed too much, Americans are doing the same and the only way out is to cut back spending. Sharply.

But as Paul Krugman points out, we aren’t Greece and we aren’t facing their fate:

But the truth is that policy makers aren’t doing too much; they’re doing too little. Recent data don’t suggest that America is heading for a Greece-style collapse of investor confidence. Instead, they suggest that we may be heading for a Japan-style lost decade, trapped in a prolonged era of high unemployment and slow growth.

Let’s talk first about those interest rates. On several occasions over the past year, we’ve been told, after some modest rise in rates, that the bond vigilantes had arrived, that America had better slash its deficit right away or else. Each time, rates soon slid back down. Most recently, in March, there was much ado about the interest rate on U.S. 10-year bonds, which had risen from 3.6 percent to almost 4 percent. “Debt fears send rates up” was the headline at The Wall Street Journal, although there wasn’t actually any evidence that debt fears were responsible.

Since then, however, rates have retraced that rise and then some. As of Thursday, the 10-year rate was below 3.3 percent. I wish I could say that falling interest rates reflect a surge of optimism about U.S. federal finances. What they actually reflect, however, is a surge of pessimism about the prospects for economic recovery, pessimism that has sent investors fleeing out of anything that looks risky — hence, the plunge in the stock market — into the perceived safety of U.S. government debt.

What’s behind this new pessimism? It partly reflects the troubles in Europe, which have less to do with government debt than you’ve heard; the real problem is that by creating the euro, Europe’s leaders imposed a single currency on economies that weren’t ready for such a move. But there are also warning signs at home, most recently Wednesday’s report on consumer prices, which showed a key measure of inflation falling below 1 percent, bringing it to a 44-year low.

This isn’t really surprising: you expect inflation to fall in the face of mass unemployment and excess capacity. But it is nonetheless really bad news. Low inflation, or worse yet deflation, tends to perpetuate an economic slump, because it encourages people to hoard cash rather than spend, which keeps the economy depressed, which leads to more deflation. That vicious circle isn’t hypothetical: just ask the Japanese, who entered a deflationary trap in the 1990s and, despite occasional episodes of growth, still can’t get out. And it could happen here.

Given the state of politics in Washington, there isn’t much chance we’ll see any Stimulus Package 2.0 in the near future. Democrats, as usual, are afraid of hypocritical Republican attacks calling for fiscal restraint. The Fed is the only actor capable of acting outside Congressional gridlock, but it’s currently led by an inflation hawk, so we aren’t likely to get any help there.

Like Krugman says, all we’ve got right now is hope.