Mr. Fertig is the author of the book, Prosperity Through Freedom, and economic columnist for Columbia Features, Inc. This article is from his column of February 24, 1963.
In George Orwell’s famous novel, 1984—a frightening account of life under an ironfisted communist tyranny—the historical record of the past is periodically rewritten by the ruling commissars. They order some events completely expunged from history and others radically altered to suit their propaganda objectives. In addition, the meaning of important words is fundamentally changed under a system of "Newspeak." So people come to believe that "war is peace," "freedom is slavery," "ignorance is strength."
This kind of brainwashing can’t happen here, of course—as long as constitutional guarantees of free speech are enforced and economic power is not concentrated in Washington. But it is interesting to note how the Orwellian technique has been adopted even for our times.
The word which New Frontier officials and economists would like to expunge or completely change is the plain, simple word "deficit." If they are successful, will the words "federal deficit" some day be defined in economic textbooks as "fiscal responsibility—a method of achieving prosperity for everyone"?
In my column last November I pointed out the first significant effort toward this planned objective by Professor Emeritus Alvin II. Hansen of Harvard University, who for more than a generation has urged more federal spending and bigger deficits. In an essay published last year he said: "As a nation we Americans firmly believe in the expanding use of credit by families, businesses, and even state and local governments.
But for some strange reason we refuse to view with the same munificence deficit financing by the government."
Hansen adroitly concealed the vast difference between business borrowing and government deficits. Corporations borrow to improve productive facilities, to produce more and better goods or services, to operate more efficiently and thus (they hope) to make a profit. The government borrows in large measure in order to increase federal payrolls, to grant more subsidies (like farm subsidies), to give more aid to foreign nations, or to make armaments like missiles (essential as the last item may be). Business borrowing encourages economic growth and future employment and improves everyone’s standard of living. Government deficit-borrowing certainly does not have this effect. Business borrowers are subject to the laws of the market. They must earn a financial return on borrowed money to remain creditworthy. The federal government is under no such restriction. Finally, the federal government can repay the loan by printing money. Business officials would go to jail for that.
After Hansen stated the main theme, others quickly followed. A few weeks ago, Walter Heller, chief of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, deplored the public’s attitude toward deficits and ascribed it to our "basic puritan ethic." Plainly this ethic is old-hat, according to him, and encourages "a failure to understand" the importance of government deficits. Another government official, Budget Director Kermit Gordon, told a Senate committee in January that "a balanced budget would lead to increased unemployment, higher taxes, and a general economic decline." Coming from a man who is supposed to encourage fiscal responsibility such a statement has frightening implications.
It remained for Yale Professor James Tobin, formerly a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, to make the boldest statement and the biggest howler. Recently, in an article in the New Republic advocating big government deficits he said: "If you would like the federal deficit to be smaller, the deficits of business must be bigger."
By "deficits of business" the professor does not mean business losses, the commonly accepted meaning; he means business borrowing for productive purposes—a twisted interpretation and a pure exercise in semantics. Also note that he equates wasteful government spending for any purposes with business borrowing for the more efficient production of goods and services for the public. He equates spending with investment. He does not allow for the fact that if government spending were cut and government deficits eliminated, the burden on business and on the consumer would be less and the chances for economic growth would be greater.
This attempt to change the meaning of a simple word is being thwarted by the common sense of the American public. They know that a deficit is a deficit is a deficit.