In Defense of Public Debt
Kris Mitchener, Barry Eichengreen, Rui Esteves, and Asmaa El-Genainy
A dive into the origins, management, and uses and misuses of sovereign debt through the ages.
Public debts have exploded to levels unprecedented in modern history as governments responded to the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis. Their dramatic rise has prompted apocalyptic warnings about the dangers of heavy debts—about the drag they will place on economic growth and the burden they represent for future generations. In Defense of Public Debt offers a sharp rejoinder to this view, marshaling the entire history of state-issued public debt to demonstrate its usefulness.
Authors Barry Eichengreen, Asmaa El-Ganainy, Rui Esteves, and Kris James Mitchener argue that the ability of governments to issue debt has played a critical role in addressing emergencies—from wars and pandemics to economic and financial crises, as well as in funding essential public goods and services such as transportation, education, and healthcare. In these ways, the capacity to issue debt has been integral to state building and state survival. Transactions in public debt securities have also contributed to the development of private financial markets and, through this channel, to modern economic growth.
None of this is to deny that debt problems, debt crises, and debt defaults occur. But these dramatic events, which attract much attention, are not the entire story. In Defense of Public Debt redresses the balance. The authors develop their arguments historically, recounting two millennia of public debt experience. They deploy a comprehensive database to identify the factors behind rising public debts and the circumstances under which high debts are successfully stabilized and brought down. Finally, they bring the story up to date, describing the role of public debt in managing the Covid-19 pandemic and recession, suggesting a way forward once governments—now more heavily indebted than before—finally emerge from the crisis.