On a borrowed dime

Jonathan Shaw in Harvard Magazine:

Screenhunter_01_aug_16_1246“When a country gets a capital inflow [such as the United States has now], generally speaking things are pretty good,” observes Jeffry Frieden, Stanfield professor of international peace. “It allows you to invest more than you save, and consume more than you produce. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that,” he notes. Firms do it all the time, and so do households. They borrow on the expectation that they will be more productive and better able to pay the money back in the future. The United States, for example, was “the world’s biggest debtor for a hundred years,” Frieden notes, “but the money was used to build the railroads and the canals and the factories and to improve the ports and to build our cities. It was used productively, and it worked. The question to ask now is not, ‘Is the country living beyond its means?’ The question is, ‘Is the money going to increase the productive capacity of the economy?’ Because if it just goes to getting everybody another iPod,” he warns, “then unless iPods make people more productive, there is going to be trouble down the road when the debt has to be serviced.”

More here.