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Morgenson Watch Continues

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I was recently reminded of the late Tanta (a/k/a Doris Dungey) of the Calculated Risk blog, who wrote the recurring “Morgenson Watch” for that site.

As soon as I saw the title of Gretchen Morgenson’s most recent article at the top of the Sunday link list at Real Clear Politics, I suspected there would be trouble:  “U.S. Has Binged.  Soon It’ll Be Time to Pay the Tab.”  After reading as far as the first sentence of the second paragraph, my concern was validated.  Here’s how the piece began:

SAY this about all the bickering over the federal debt ceiling:  at least people are talking openly about our nation’s growing debt load.  This $14.3 trillion issue is front and center – exactly where it should be.

Into the fray comes a thoughtful new paper by Joseph E. Gagnon, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which studies economic policy.

The Peterson Institute was formerly the Institute for International Economics, founded by C. Fred Bergsten.  It was subsequently taken over by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a foundation established and managed by Richard Nixon’s former Commerce Secretary (and co-founder of Blackstone Group), Pete Peterson.  The Peterson Institute is a “think tank” (i.e. propaganda mill) most recognized for its advocacy of “economic austerity” (which usually involves protecting the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the middle class and the impoverished).

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, is always quick to rebut the pronouncements of those economists, acting as “hired guns” to spread the gospel of the Peterson Institute.  Needless to say, once Gretchen Morgenson began to parrot the Peterson Institute dogma in her aforementioned article, Yves Smith didn’t hesitate to pounce:

I’m generally a Gretchen Morgenson fan, since she’s one of the few writers with a decent bully pulpit who regularly ferrets out misconduct in the corporate and finance arenas. But when she wanders off her regular terrain, the results are mixed, and her current piece is a prime example. She also sometimes pens articles based on a single source, which creates the risk of serving as a mouthpiece for a particular point of view.

(As an aside, a good example of this process has been Ms. Morgenson’s continuing fixation on “mortgage mania” as a cause of the financial crisis after having been upbraided by Barry Ritholtztwice – for “pushing the Fannie-Freddie CRA meme”.)

After pointing out Morgenson’s uncritical acceptance of the economic model used in the Peterson Institute report (by Gagnon and Hinterschweiger) Yves Smith directed our attention to the very large elephant in the room:  the proven fact that au-scare-ity doesn’t work in our post-financial crisis, anemic-growth milieu.  Ms. Smith focused on this aspect of the Peterson Institute report:

It also stunningly shows the howler of the Eurozone showing improvements in debt to GDP ratios as a result of the austerity programs being implemented. The examples of Latvia and Ireland have demonstrated that austerity measures have worsened debt to GDP ratios, dramatically in both cases, and the same deflationary dynamics look to be kicking in for Spain.

The article repeats the hoary cliche that deficit cuts must be made to “reassure the markets” as in appease the Bond Gods. Gee, how is that working out in Europe, the Peterson Institute’s obedient student?

Ms. Smith supported her argument with this report, which appeared in Bloomberg News on May 27:

European confidence in the economic outlook weakened for a third straight month in May as the region’s worsening debt crisis and surging commodity costs clouded growth prospects.

An index of executive and consumer sentiment in the 17- member euro region slipped to 105.5 from 106.1 in April, the European Commission in Brussels said today. Economists had forecast a drop to 105.7, the median of 27 estimates in a Bloomberg survey showed. The euro-area economy is showing signs of a slowdown as governments toughen austerity measures to lower budget gaps as investors grow increasingly concerned that Greece may default, while oil-driven inflation squeezes household incomes. European manufacturing growth slowed this month….

Be sure to read Yves Smith’s entire essay, which addressed the tired canard about those phantom “bond vigilantes”, etc.  Ms. Smith’s closing paragraph deserves repetition:

But the idea of government spending has become anathema in the US, despite plenty of targets (start with our crumbing infrastructure).  The banks got first dibs on the “fix the economy” money in the crisis, and continue to balk at measures that would shrink a bloated and highly leveraged banking sector down to a more reasonable size.  Evidence already shows the size of the banking sector is constraining growth, yet a full bore campaign is on to gut social spending out of a concern that sometime down the road the size of the government sector will serve as a drag on the economy.  In addition, the banksters need to preserve their ability to go back to the well the next time they crash the markets for fun and profit.  So the attack on deficits is financial services industry ideology, packaged to make it look like it’s good for the little guy. We have too many people who should know better like Morgenson enabling it.

The reader comments to Ms. Smith’s essay were quite interesting.  Many of the readers who have been outraged by Smith’s ongoing rebuttals to the Peterson Institute gospel and other Austerian dogma would do well to familiarize themselves with this bit of legalese:

EXCLUSION OF SOCIAL SECURITY FROM ALL BUDGETS Pub. L. 101-508, title XIII, Sec. 13301(a), Nov. 5, 1990, 104 Stat. 1388-623, provided that:  Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the receipts and disbursements of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund and the Federal Disability Insurance Trust Fund shall not be counted as new budget authority, outlays, receipts, or deficit or surplus for purposes of – (1) the budget of the United States Government as submitted by the President, (2) the congressional budget, or (3) the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.

I include myself among those who are “generally” Gretchen Morgenson fans.  Nevertheless, it has become obvious that with Tanta gone, the spirit of “Morgenson Watch” shall endure for as long as the frailties of being a New York Times pundit continue to manifest themselves.


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Why Au-scare-ity Still Has Traction

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Many economists have been watching Britain’s experiment with austerity for quite a while.  Britain has been following a course of using cuts in government programs along with mass layoffs of public sector workers in attempt to stimulate economic growth.  Back in February, economist Dean Baker made this observation:

Three months ago, I noted that the United States might benefit from the pain being suffered by the citizens of the United Kingdom.  The reason was the new coalition government’s commitment to prosperity through austerity.  As predicted, this looks very much like a path to pain and stagnation, not healthy growth.

That’s bad news for the citizens of the United Kingdom.  They will be forced to suffer through years of unnecessarily high unemployment.  They will also have to endure cutbacks in support for important public services like healthcare and education.

But the pain for the people in England could provide a useful example for the United States.

*   *   *

Prior to this episode, there was already a solid economic case that large public deficits were necessary to support the economy in the period following the collapse of an asset bubble. The point is simply that the private sector is not prepared to make up the demand gap, at least in the short term.  Both short-term and long-term interest rates are pretty much as low as they can be.

*   *   *

From this side of the pond, though, the goal is simply to encourage people to pay attention.  The UK might be home to 60 million people, but from the standpoint of US economic policy, it is simply exhibit A:  it is the country that did what our deficit hawks want to do in the US.

The takeaway lesson should be “austerity does not work; don’t go there.”  Unfortunately, in the land of faith-based economics, evidence does not count for much.  The UK may pursue a disastrous austerity path and those of us in the United States may still have to follow the same road anyhow.

After discussing the above-quoted commentary by Dean Baker, economist Mark Thoma added this:

Yes — it’s not about evidence, it’s about finding an excuse to implement an ideology.  The recession got in the way of those efforts until the idea that austerity is stimulative came along. Thus, “austerity is stimulative” is being used very much like “tax cuts increase revenues.”  It’s a means of claiming that ideological goals are good for the economy so that supporters in Congress and elsewhere have a means of rationalizing the policies they want to put in place.  It’s the idea that matters, and contrary evidence is brushed aside.

There seems to be an effort in many quarters to deny that the financial crisis ever happened.  Although it will eventually become absolutely imperative to get deficits under control, most sober economists emphasize that attempting to do so before the economy begins to recover and before the unemployment crisis is even addressed – would destroy any chance of economic recovery.  Barack Obama’s opponents know that the easiest route toward subverting the success of his re-election campaign involves undermining any efforts toward improving the economy to any degree by November of 2012.  Beyond that, the fast-track implementation of a British-style austerity program could guarantee a double-dip recession, which could prove disastrous to Obama’s re-election hopes.  As a result, the pressure is on to initiate some significant austerity measures as quickly as possible.  The propaganda employed to expedite this effort involves scaring the sheeple into believing that the horrifying budget deficit is about to bite them in the ass right now.  There is a rapidly increasing drumbeat to crank-up the scare factor.

Of course, the existence of this situation is the result of Obama’s own blunder.  Although he did manage to defeat Osama bin Laden, President Obama’s February, 2009 decision to “punt” on the economic stimulus program – by holding it at $862 billion and relying on the Federal Reserve to “play defense” with quantitative easing programs – was a mistake, similar in magnitude to that of allowing Bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora.  In his own “Tora Bora moment”, President Obama decided to rely on the advice of the very people who helped cause the financial crisis, by doing more for the zombie banks of Wall Street and less for Main Street – by sparing the banks from temporary receivership (also referred to as “temporary nationalization”) while spending less on financial stimulus.  Obama ignored the 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, who warned that an $800 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.  In April of 2009, Obama chose to parrot the discredited “money multiplier” myth, fed to him by Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner, in order to justify continuous corporate welfare for the megabanks.  If Obama had followed the right course, by pushing a stronger, more infrastructure-based stimulus program through the Democrat-controlled Senate and House, we would be enjoying a more healthy economy right now.  A significant number of the nearly fifteen million people currently unemployed could have found jobs from which they would now be paying income taxes, which reduce the deficit.  But that didn’t happen.  President Obama has no one else to blame for that error.  His opponents are now attempting to “snowball” that mistake into a disaster that could make him a one-term President.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich saw this coming back in March:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently stated the Republican view succinctly:  “Less government spending equals more private sector jobs.”

In the past I’ve often wondered whether they’re knaves or fools.  Now I’m sure.  Republicans wouldn’t mind a double-dip recession between now and Election Day 2012.

They figure it’s the one sure way to unseat Obama.  They know that when the economy is heading downward, voters always fire the boss.  Call them knaves.

What about the Democrats?  Most know how fragile the economy is but they’re afraid to say it because the White House wants to paint a more positive picture.

And most of them are afraid of calling for what must be done because it runs so counter to the dominant deficit-cutting theme in our nation’s capital that they fear being marginalized.  So they’re reduced to mumbling “don’t cut so much.”  Call them fools.

Professor Simon Johnson, former Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund, recently brought the focus of the current economic debate back to where it belongs:

In the nation’s latest fiscal mood swing, the mainstream consensus has swung from “we must extend the Bush tax cuts” (in December 2010) towards “we must immediately cut the budget deficit.”  The prevailing assumption, increasingly heard from both left and right, is that we already have far too much government debt – and any further significant increase will likely ruin us all.

This way of framing the debate is misleading – and very much at odds with US fiscal history.  It masks the deeper and important issues here, which are much more about distribution, in particular how much are relatively wealthy Americans willing to transfer to relatively poor Americans?

*   *   *

The real budget debate is not about a few billion here or there – for example in the context of when the government’s “debt ceiling” will be raised.  And it is not particularly about the last decade’s jump in government debt level – although this has grabbed the headlines, this is something that we can grow out of (unless the political elite decides to keep cutting taxes).

The real issue is how much relatively rich people are willing to pay and on what basis in the form of transfers to relatively poor people – and how rising healthcare costs should affect those transfers.

As the Tea Partiers flock to movie theaters to watch Atlas Shrugged, perhaps it’s time for a porno send-up, based on a steamy encounter between Ayn Rand and Gordon Gekko called, Greed Feels Good.


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