America's national debt has been stomach churning for a long time, and politicians have always talked about taming it, but suddenly the issue has real political currency.
Fears that the U.S. could be the next Greece, and suffer a sovereign debt meltdown, means that anti-deficit politicians are running very hot in the early going of this year's political season.
But let's ignore the politics of deficit reduction and talk about deficit reduction itself -- what would it mean to small businesses?
There are two schools of thought on this:
The first is that deficit reduction would be a great pro-business move. After all, if you think the country is a few years away from a major debt crisis, then the last thing you're going to do is invest for any kind of long-term growth.
You probably won't spend on capital equipment that would require a decade or more of steady income to justify. You probably wouldn't hire very much, either. Even if you didn't foresee a meltdown, it would be reasonable to suspect that high deficits will lead to sky-high taxes at some point in the future. When people talk about "uncertainty" being a negative for business, this is exactly what they mean. Were the government to take credible steps towards deficit reduction, this might go ways to relieving just that uncertainty.
But this is hardly the only argument.
The uncertainty argument may be vastly overstated, as there are good reasons to believe that the problem with the economy right now is simply a lack of end consumer demand. Houses used to be a source of cash for consumers, and so the bursting of the housing bubble has had a clear damaging effect on consumer buying power. Although the rest of the economy has stabilized, to some extent, the housing situation continues to be a major drag. Consumers remain immobile and underwater on their most important assets. The connection between housing, spending and jobs (especially in the construction industry) is pretty clear. Suddenly, "uncertainty" doesn't really fly as being the fundamental problem.
This debate could go round and round in circles, and we won't try to adjudicate it here. But a recent NFIB survey did indicate that demand -- not taxes, not uncertainty, not inflation -- was the biggest new worry for small businesses. And deficit reduction would at least, in the short-term, mean less cash coming into the economy, probably fewer jobs (even if they're just government ones), and thus less demand. Initially, it's very easy to imagine small businesses experiencing pain under a regime of government austerity.
All that being said, it's easily conceivable that the medium- and long-term benefits of lower government spending, particularly if these moves allowed certain areas of the private economy to flourish, would end up being just what the doctor ordered for business.