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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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I Knew This Would Happen

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May 27, 2010

It was almost a year ago when I predicted that President Obama would eventually announce the need for a “second stimulus”.  Once the decision was made to drink the Keynesian Kool-Aid with the implementation of last year’s economic stimulus package, we were faced with the question of how much to drink.  As I expected, our President took the half-assed, yet “moderate” approach of limiting the stimulus effort to less than what was admitted as the cost of the TARP program, as well as approving  the waste of stimulus funds on “pork” projects, ill-suited to stimulate economic recovery.  In that July 9, 2009 piece, I discussed the fact that liberal economist, Paul Krugman, was not alone in claiming that $787 billion would not be an adequate amount to jump-start the economy back to firing on all cylinders.  I pointed out that a survey of economists conducted by Bloomberg News in February of 2009 revealed a consensus opinion that an $800 billion stimulus would prove to be inadequate.  The February 12, 2009 Bloomberg article by Timothy Homan and Alex Tanzi revealed that:

Even as Obama aims to create 3.5 million jobs with a stimulus plan, economists foresee an unemployment rate exceeding 8 percent through next year.

As we now reach the mid-point of that “next year”, the unemployment rate is at 9.9 percent.  Those economists were right.  Beyond that, some highly-respected economists, including Robert Shiller, are discussing the risk of our experiencing a “double-dip” recession.  As a result, Larry Summers, Director of the President’s National Economic Council, is advocating the passage of a new set of spending measures, referred to as the “second stimulus”.  To help offset the expense, the President has asked Congress to grant him powers to cut unnecessary spending, as would be accomplished with a “line item veto”.  The Financial Times described the situation this way :

The combined announcements were made amid rising concern that centrist Democrats, or those representing marginal districts, might vote against the spending measures, which include more loans for small businesses, an extension of unemployment insurance and aid to states to prevent hundreds of thousands more teachers from being laid off.

*   *   *

Taken together, Mr Summers’s speech and Mr Obama’s announcement show an administration walking a fine line between the need to signal strong medium-term fiscal discipline and not jeopardising what they fear may be a fragile recovery.

Because they couldn’t get it right the first time, the President and his administration have placed themselves in the position of seeking piecemeal stimulus measures.  If they had done it right, we would probably be enjoying economic recovery and a boost in the ranks of the employed at this point.  As a result, this half-assed, piecemeal approach will likely prove more costly than doing it right on the first try.  With mid-term elections approaching, deficit hawks have their knives sharpened for anything that can be described as an “entitlement” (unless that entitlement inures to the benefit of a favored Wall Street institution).  Harold Meyerson of The Washington Post challenged the logic of the deficit hawks with this argument:

Those who oppose the jobs bills in the House and Senate this week should be compelled to answer some questions, starting with:  Absent more stimulus, what do they see as the plausible engine of economic recovery?  What effect will laying off as many as 300,000 teachers have on the education of American children?  And, more elementally, don’t they know there’s a recession on?

Marshall Auerback of the Roosevelt Institute picked up where Harold Meyerson left off, as this recent posting at the New Deal 2.0 website demonstrates:

In fact, full employment is also the best “financial stability” reform we could implement, because with jobs growth comes higher income growth and a corresponding ability to service debt.  That means less write-offs for banks and a correspondingly smaller need to provide government bailouts.

Fiscal austerity, by contrast, won’t cut it.  Our elites seem think that you can cut “wasteful government spending” (that is, reduce private demand further) and cut wages and hence private incomes and not expect major multiplier effects to make things significantly worse.  Of course, that “wasteful”, “unsustainable” spending never seems to apply to the Department of  Defense, where we always seem to be able to appropriate a few billion, whenever necessary.  “Affordability” principles never extend to the Pentagon, it appears.

The fact that we are still in the midst of a severe recession (rather than a robust economic recovery as is often claimed) accounts for the rationale asserted by Larry Summers in advocating a second stimulus amounting to approximately $200 billion in spending measures.  Here’s how Summers explained the proposal in a May 24 speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies:

It has in recent years been essential for the federal deficit to increase as the economy has gone into recession and has been severely constrained by demand.

And I cannot agree with those who suggest that it somehow threatens the future to provide truly temporary, high-bang-for-the-buck jobs and growth measures.

Rather, assuring as rapid a recovery as possible strengthens our future economy, our future prosperity, with many benefits, including a greater ability to manage our debts.

On the other hand, those who recognize the fiscal and growth benefits of strong expansionary policies must also recognize that it is simultaneously desirable to provide confidence that deficits will come down to sustainable levels as recovery is achieved.  Such confidence both spurs recovery by reducing capital costs and reduces the risk of financial accidents.

To put the point differently:  It is not possible to imagine sound budgets in the absence of economic growth and solid economic performance.

*   *   *

It is important to recognize that the ultimate consequences of stimulus for indebtedness depend critically on the macroeconomic conditions.  When the economy is demand constrained, the impact of a dollar of tax cuts or expansionary investment will be at its highest and the impact on deficits at its lowest.
*   *   *

In areas where the government has a significant opportunity for impact, it would be pennywise and pound foolish not to take advantage of our capacity to encourage near-term job creation.   This explains the logic of the Recovery Act’s success and the rationale for taking additional targeted actions to increase confidence in our economic recovery.

Consider the package currently under consideration in Congress to extend unemployment and health benefits to those out of work and support to states to avoid budget cuts as a case in point.

It would be an act of fiscal shortsightedness to break from the longstanding practice of extending these provisions at a moment when sustained economic recovery is so crucial to our medium-term fiscal prospects.

So, here we are at the introduction of the second stimulus plan.  Despite the denial by President Obama that he would seek a second stimulus, he has Larry Summers doing just that.  Last year, the public and the Congress had the will – not to mention the sense of urgency – to approve such measures.  This time around, it might not happen and that would be due to the leadership flaw I observed last year:

President Obama should have done it right the first time.  His penchant for compromise — simply for the sake of compromise itself — is bound to bite him in the ass on this issue, as it surely will on health care reform — should he abandon the “public option”.  The new President made the mistake of assuming that if he established a reputation for being flexible, his opposition would be flexible in return.  The voting public will perceive this as weak leadership.  As a result, President Obama will need to re-invent this aspect of his public image before he can even consider presenting a second economic stimulus proposal.

At this point, Obama’s “flexibility” is often viewed by the voting public as a lack of existential authenticity, sincerity or — worse yet —  credibility.  As a result, I would expect to see more articles like the recent piece by Carol Lee at Politico, entitled, “Obama:  Day for ‘partnership’ passed”.

Here comes the makeover!






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