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Cliff Notes

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On May 22, the Congressional Budget Office released its report on how the United States can avoid going off the “fiscal cliff” on January 1, 2013.  The report is entitled, “Economic Effects of Reducing the Fiscal Restraint That Is Scheduled to Occur in 2013”.  Forget about the Mayan calendar and December 21, 2012.  The real disaster is scheduled for eleven days later.  The CBO provided a brief summary of the 10-page report – what you might call the Cliff Notes version.  Here are some highlights:

In fact, under current law, increases in taxes and, to a lesser extent, reductions in spending will reduce the federal budget deficit dramatically between 2012 and 2013 – a development that some observers have referred to as a “fiscal cliff” – and will dampen economic growth in the short term.

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Under those fiscal conditions, which will occur under current law, growth in real (inflation-adjusted) GDP in calendar year 2013 will be just 0.5 percent, CBO expects – with the economy projected to contract at an annual rate of 1.3 percent in the first half of the year and expand at an annual rate of 2.3 percent in the second half.  Given the pattern of past recessions as identified by the National Bureau of Economic Research, such a contraction in output in the first half of 2013 would probably be judged to be a recession.

As the complete version of the report explained, the consequences of abruptly-imposed, draconian austerity measures while the economy is in a state of anemic growth in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, could have a devastating impact because incomes will drop, shrinking the tax base and available revenue – the life blood of the United States government:

The weakening of the economy that will result from that fiscal restraint will lower taxable incomes and, therefore, revenues, and it will increase spending in some categories – for unemployment insurance, for instance.

An interesting analysis of the CBO report was provided by Robert Oak of the Economic Populist website.  He began with a description of the cliff itself:

What the CBO is referring to is the fiscal cliff.  Remember when the budget crisis happened, resulting in the United States losing it’s AAA credit rating?  Then, Congress and this administration just punted, didn’t compromise, or better yet, base recommendations on actual economic theory, and allowed automatic spending cuts of $1.2 trillion across the board, to take place instead.  These budget cuts will be dramatic and happen in 2012 and 2013.

Spending cuts, especially sudden ones, actually weaken economic growth.  This is why austerity has caused a disaster in Europe.  Draconian cuts have pushed their economies into not just recessions, but depressions.

The conclusion reached by Robert Oak was particularly insightful:

This report should infuriate Republicans, who earlier wanted to silence the CBO because they were telling the GOP their policies would hurt the economy in so many words.  But maybe not.  Unfortunately the CBO is not breaking down tax cuts, when there is ample evidence tax cuts for rich individuals do nothing for economic growth.  Bottom line though, the CBO is right on in their forecast, draconian government spending cuts will cause an anemic economy to contract.

Although the CBO did offer a good solution for avoiding a drive off the fiscal cliff, it remains difficult to imagine how our dysfunctional government could ever implement these measures:

Or, if policymakers wanted to minimize the short-run costs of narrowing the deficit very quickly while also minimizing the longer-run costs of allowing large deficits to persist, they could enact a combination of policies:  changes in taxes and spending that would widen the deficit in 2013 relative to what would occur under current law but that would reduce deficits later in the decade relative to what would occur if current policies were extended for a prolonged period.

The foregoing passage was obviously part of what Robert Oak had in mind when he mentioned that the CBO report would “infuriate Republicans”.  Any plans to “widen the deficit” would be subject to the same righteous indignation as an abortion festival or a national holiday for gay weddings.  Nevertheless, Mitt Romney accidentally acknowledged the validity of the logic underlying the CBO’s concern.  Bill Black had some fun with Romney’s admission by writing a fantastic essay on the subject:

Romney has periodic breakdowns when asked questions about the economy because he sometimes forgets the need to lie.  He forgets that he is supposed to treat austerity as the epitome of economic wisdom.  When he responds quickly to questions about austerity he slips into default mode and speaks the truth – adopting austerity during the recovery from a Great Recession would (as in Europe) throw the nation back into recession or depression.  The latest example is his May 23, 2012 interview with Mark Halperin in Time magazine.

Halperin: Why not in the first year, if you’re elected — why not in 2013, go all the way and propose the kind of budget with spending restraints, that you’d like to see after four years in office?  Why not do it more quickly?

Romney: Well because, if you take a trillion dollars for instance, out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5%.  That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression.  So I’m not going to do that, of course.”

Romney explains that austerity, during the recovery from a Great Recession, would cause catastrophic damage to our nation.  The problem, of course, is that the Republican congressional leadership is committed to imposing austerity on the nation and Speaker Boehner has just threatened that Republicans will block the renewal of the debt ceiling in order to extort Democrats to agree to austerity – severe cuts to social programs.  Romney knows this could “throw us into recession or depression” and says he would never follow such a policy.

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Later in the interview, Romney claims that federal budgetary deficits are “immoral.”  But he has just explained that using austerity for the purported purpose of ending a deficit would cause a recession or depression.  A recession or depression would make the deficit far larger.  That means that Romney should be denouncing austerity as “immoral” (as well as suicidal) because it will not simply increase the deficit (which he claims to find “immoral” because of its impact on children) but also dramatically increase unemployment, poverty, child poverty and hunger, and harm their education by causing more teachers to lose their jobs and more school programs to be cut.

Mitt Romney is beginning to sound as though he has his own inner Biden, who spontaneously speaks out in an unrestrained manner, sending party officials into “damage control” mode.

This could turn out to be an interesting Presidential campaign, after all.



 

Troublesome Creatures

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A recent piece by Glynnis MacNicol of The Business Insider website led me to the conclusion that Shepard Smith deserves an award.  You might recognize Shep Smith as The Normal Guy at Fox News.  In case you haven’t heard about it yet, a controversy has erupted over a 20-minute crank telephone call made to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker by a man who identified himself as David Koch, one of two billionaire brothers, famous for bankrolling Republican politicians.  The caller was actually blogger Ian Murphy, who goes by the name, Buffalo Beast.  In a televised discussion with Juan Williams concerning the controversy surrounding Wisconsin Governor Walker, Shep Smith focused on the ugly truth that the Koch brothers are out to “bust labor”.  Here are Smith’s remarks as they appeared at The Wire blog:

It’s all political isn’t it?  Isn’t it just 100% politics? … Have you looked at the list of the top 10 donors to political campaigns?  Seven of those 10 donate to Republicans.  The other three that remain of those top 10, they all donate to Democrats and they are all unions.  Bust the unions, it’s over … . And this started when?  It started with the Koch brothers.  The Koch brothers were organizing…

*   *   *

I’m not taking a side on this, I’m telling you what’s going on … The facts!  But people don’t want to hear the facts … let them get angry, facts are troublesome creatures from time to time.  The Koch brothers, and others, were organized to bust labor, it’s what big business wants to do … this isn’t a new concept.  So they gave a bunch of money to the governor’s campaign.  The governor’s campaign is over.  Now, away we go!  We’re going to try to bust this union up, and that’s what they’re doing … this is political and everyone in the middle is a pawn.

Those “troublesome creatures” called facts have been finding their way into the news to a refreshing degree lately.  Emotional rhetoric has replaced news reporting to such an extreme level that most people seem to have accepted the premise that facts are relative to one’s perception of reality.  The lyrics to “Crosseyed and Painless” by the Talking Heads (written more than 30 years ago) seem to have been a prescient commentary about this situation:

Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to
Facts just twist the truth around
Facts are living turned inside out

Budgetary disputes are now resolved on an emotional battlefield where facts usually take a back seat to ideology.  Despite this trend, there are occasional commentaries focused on fact-based themes.  One recent example came from David Leonhardt of The New York Times, entitled “Why Budget Cuts Don’t Bring Prosperity”.  The article began with the observation that because so many in Congress believe that budget cuts are the path to national prosperity, the only remaining question concerns how deeply spending should be cut this year.  Mr. Leonhardt provided those misled “leaders” with the facts:

The fundamental problem after a financial crisis is that businesses and households stop spending money, and they remain skittish for years afterward.  Consider that new-vehicle sales, which peaked at 17 million in 2005, recovered to only 12 million last year.  Single-family home sales, which peaked at 7.5 million in 2005, continued falling last year, to 4.6 million.  No wonder so many businesses are uncertain about the future.

Without the government spending of the last two years — including tax cuts — the economy would be in vastly worse shape.  Likewise, if the federal government begins laying off tens of thousands of workers now, the economy will clearly suffer.

That’s the historical lesson of postcrisis austerity movements.  The history is a rich one, too, because people understandably react to a bubble’s excesses by calling for the reverse.  When Franklin Roosevelt was running for president in 1932, he repeatedly called for a balanced budget.

But no matter how morally satisfying austerity may be, it’s the wrong answer.

Leonhardt’s  objective analysis drew this response from Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism:

Did a memo go out?   Leonhardt almost always hews to neoclassical orthodoxy.  This is a big change for him.

Those “troublesome creatures” called facts became the subject of an opinion piece about the budget, written by Bill Schneider for Politico.  While dissecting the emotional motivation responsible for “a dangerous political arms race where the stakes keep escalating”, Schneider set about isolating the fact-based signal from the emotional noise clouding the budget debate:

Many of the programs targeted for big cuts by the House Republicans have a suspiciously ideological tinge:  Planned Parenthood, the Environmental Protection Agency, funds to implement the new health care reform law, National Public Radio, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, President Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps program, money for a White House climate change czar.  The Washington Post calls the House budget “an assault on bedrock Democratic priorities.’’

The public is certainly worried about the deficit.  But do people believe the deficit is a crisis demanding immediate and radical action?  That’s not so clear.

In a Pew Research Center poll taken this month, the public was split over whether the federal government’s priority should be reducing the deficit (49 percent) or spending to help the economic recovery (46 percent).  What economic issue worries people the most? Jobs tops the list (44 percent). Fewer than half that say the deficit (19 percent).

Yes, there is an economic crisis in the country.  The crisis is jobs.  So Republicans have to argue that spending cuts will create jobs — an argument that mystifies many economists.

Let’s hope that those “troublesome creatures” keep turning up at debates, “town hall” meetings and in commentaries.  If they cause widespread allergic reactions, let nature run its course.


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