Thus far 2014 has been a fertile year for really stupid economic ideas. But of all the half-baked doozies that have come down the pike (the perils of "lowflation," Thomas Piketty's claims about capitalism creating poverty, and President Obama's "pay as you earn" solution to student debt), an idea hatched last week by CNBC's reliably ridiculous Steve Liesman may in fact take the cake. In diagnosing the causes of the continued malaise in the U.S. economy he explained, "the problem is that consumers are not taking on enough debt." And that "historically the U.S. economy has been built on consumer credit." His conclusion: Consumers must be encouraged to borrow more money and spend it. Given that Liesman is CNBC's senior economic reporter, I would hate to see the ideas the junior people come up with.
Before I get into the historical amnesia needed to make such a statement, we first have to confront the question of causation. Just as most economists believe that falling prices cause recession, rather than the other way around, Liesman believes that economic growth is created when people tap into society's savings in order to buy consumer goods that they could not otherwise afford. But consumption does not create growth. Increasing productive output allows for greater consumption. Something needs to be produced before it can be consumed.
But even allowing for this misunderstanding, consumer credit does little to increase consumption. All it accomplishes is to pull forward future consumption into the present (while generating a fee for the banker). This is like giving yourself a blood transfusion from your left arm to your right. Nothing is accomplished, except the possibility of spilling blood on the floor. But it's not even that benign.