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© 2008 – 2017 John T. Burke, Jr.

The Monster Is Eating Itself

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Back on February 10, 2009 – before President Obama had completed his first month in office – two students at the Yale Law School, Jeffrey Tebbs and Ady Barkan, wrote an article which began with the point that the financial crisis was caused by the recklessness and greed of Wall Street executives.  Tebbs and Barkan proposed a “windfall bonus tax” on those corporate welfare queens of Wall Street, at the very moment when budget-restrained states began instituting their own economic austerity measures so that The Monster could be fed:

Last week, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed a state budget that slashes crucial public services, including deep cuts to health care for kids and pregnant women, higher education and consumer protection.  She says that the cuts are necessary to close our state’s budget shortfall, but she’s apparently unwilling to increase taxes on Connecticut’s millionaires.

That is to say, while your hard-earned tax dollars are funding Christmas bonuses for Wall Street’s jet-set, Connecticut’s government will be cutting the programs and services that are crucial to your health and safety and to the vitality of our communities.

Since that time, “reverse Robin Hood” economic policies, such as the measures proposed by Governor Rell, have become painfully widespread.  As an aside:  Despite the fact that Governor Rell announced on November 9, 2009 that she would not seek re-election, the conservative Cato Institute determined that Rell was the only Republican Governor worthy of a failing grade on the Institute’s 2010 Fiscal Policy Report Card.

The entity I refer to as “The Monster” has been on a feeding frenzy since the financial crisis began.  Other commentators have their own names for this beast.  Michael Collins of The Economic Populist calls it “The Money Party”:

The Money Party is a very small group of enterprises and individuals who control almost all of the money and power in the United States.  They use their money and power to make more money and gain more power.  It’s not about Republicans versus Democrats.  The Money Party is an equal opportunity employer.  It has no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests.  Democrats are as welcome as Republicans to this party.  It’s all good when you’re on the take and the take is legal.  Economic Populist

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The party is also short on compassion or even the most elementary forms of common decency.  It’s OK to see millions of people evicted, jobless, without health care, etc., as long as short term profits are maintained for those CEO bonuses and other enrichment for a tiny minority.  It’s perfectly acceptable for this to go on despite available solutions.  If you don’t look, it’s not there should be their motto.

Beyond that, The Monster’s insensitivity has increased to the point where it has actually become too numb to realize that the tender morsel it is feasting on happens to be its own foot.  Until last year, The Monster had nearly everyone convinced that America would enjoy a “jobless recovery”, despite the fact that the American economy is 70 percent consumer-driven.  Well, the “jobless recovery” never happened and the new “magic formula” for economic growth is deficit reduction.  As I discussed in my last posting, Bill Gross of PIMCO recently highlighted the flaws in that rationale:

Solutions from policymakers on the right or left, however, seem focused almost exclusively on rectifying or reducing our budget deficit as a panacea. While Democrats favor tax increases and mild adjustments to entitlements, Republicans pound the table for trillions of dollars of spending cuts and an axing of Obamacare.  Both, however, somewhat mystifyingly, believe that balancing the budget will magically produce 20 million jobs over the next 10 years.

Simon Johnson, who formerly served as Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund, conducted a serious analysis of whether such “fiscal contraction” could actually achieve the intended goal of expanding the economy.  The fact that the process has such an oxymoronic name as “expansionary fiscal contraction” should serve as a tip-off that it won’t work:

The general presumption is that fiscal contraction – cutting spending and/or raising taxes – will immediately slow the economy relative to the growth path it would have had otherwise.

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There are four conditions under which fiscal contractions can be expansionary.  But none of these conditions are likely to apply in the United States today.

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The available evidence, including international experience, suggests it is very unlikely that the United States could experience an “expansionary fiscal contraction” as a result of short-term cuts in discretionary domestic federal government spending.

Economist Stephanie Kelton explained that the best way to lower the federal budget deficit is to reduce unemployment:

The bottom line is this:  As long as unemployment remains high, the deficit will remain high.  So instead of continuing to put the deficit first, it’s time get to work on a plan to increase employment.

Here’s the formula:  Spending creates income.  Income creates sales.  Sales create jobs.

If you think you can cut the deficit without destroying jobs, dream on.

Dr. Kelton has identified the problem:  Deficit reduction schemes which disregard the impact on employment.  Nevertheless, The Monster is determined to press ahead with a “deficits first” agenda, regardless of the consequences.  The Monster will have its way because its army of lobbyists has President Obama under control.  As a result, we can expect increased unemployment, a diminished tax base, less consumer spending, less demand, decreased corporate income, lower GDP and more deficits.  The Monster’s gluttony has placed it on a course of self-destruction.  Perhaps that might be a good thing – if only it wouldn’t cause too much pain for the rest of us.


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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.

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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.

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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?

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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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