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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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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.



 

Obama Presidency Continues To Self-Destruct

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It’s been almost a year since the “Velma Moment”.  On September 20, 2010, President Obama appeared at a CNBC town hall meeting in Washington.  One of the audience members, Velma Hart, posed a question to the President, which was emblematic of the plight experienced by many 2008 Obama supporters.  Peggy Noonan had some fun with the event in her article, “The Enraged vs. The Exhausted” which characterized the 2010 elections as a battle between those two emotional factions.  The “Velma Moment” exposed Obama’s political vulnerability as an aloof leader, lacking the ability to emotionally connect with his supporters:

The president looked relieved when she stood.  Perhaps he thought she might lob a sympathetic question that would allow him to hit a reply out of the park.  Instead, and in the nicest possible way, Velma Hart lobbed a hand grenade.

“I’m a mother. I’m a wife.  I’m an American veteran, and I’m one of your middle-class Americans.  And quite frankly I’m exhausted.  I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are.”  She said, “The financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family.”  She said, “My husband and I have joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot-dogs-and-beans era of our lives.  But, quite frankly, it is starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we are headed.”

The President experienced another “Velma Moment” on Monday.  This time, it was Maureen Dowd who had some fun describing the confrontation:

After assuring Obama that she was a supporter, an Iowa mother named Emily asked the president at a town hall at the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah what had gone wrong.

*   *   *

“So when you ran for office you built a tremendous amount of trust with the American people, that you seemed like someone who wouldn’t move the bar on us,” she said.  “And it seems, especially in the last year, as if your negotiating tactics have sort of cut away at that trust by compromising some key principles that we believed in, like repealing the tax cut, not fighting harder for single-payer.  Even Social Security and Medicare seemed on the line when we were dealing with the debt ceiling.  So I’m just curious, moving forward, what prevents you from taking a harder negotiating stance, being that it seems that the Republicans are taking a really hard stance?”

President Obama can no longer blame the Republicans and Fox News for his poor approval ratings.  He has become his own worst enemy.  As for what Obama has been doing wrong – the title of Andrew Malcolm’s recent piece for the Los Angeles Times summed it up quite well:  “On Day 938 of his presidency, Obama says he’ll have a jobs plan in a month or so”.

Lydia Saad of the Gallup Organization provided this report on the President’s most recent approval ratings:

A new low of 26% of Americans approve of President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy, down 11 percentage points since Gallup last measured it in mid-May and well below his previous low of 35% in November 2010.

Obama earns similarly low approval for his handling of the federal budget deficit (24%) and creating jobs (29%).

*   *   *

President Obama’s approval rating has dwindled in recent weeks to the point that it is barely hugging the 40% line. Three months earlier, it approached or exceeded 50%.

The voters have finally caught on to the fact that Barack Obama’s foremost mission is to serve as a tool for Wall Street.  In Monday’s edition of The Washington Post, Zachary Goldfarb gave us a peek at Obama’s latest gift to the banksters:  a plan to provide a government guarantee of mortgage backed securities:

President Obama has directed a small team of advisers to develop a proposal that would keep the government playing a major role in the nation’s mortgage market, extending a federal loan subsidy for most home buyers, according to people familiar with the matter.

The administration’s reaction to curiosity about the plan was a tip-off that the whole thing stinks.  Mr. Goldfarb’s article included the official White House retort, which was based on the contention that the controversial proposal is just one of three options outlined earlier this year in an administration white paper concerning reform of the housing finance system:

“It is simply false that there has been a decision to move forward with any particular option,” said Matt Vogel, a White House spokesman.  “All three options remain under active consideration and we are deepening our analysis around how each would potentially be implemented.  No recommendation has been made to the president by his economic advisers.”

And if you believe that, you might be interested in buying some real estate located in  . . .

Zachary Goldfarb explained the plan:

Fannie, Freddie or other successor firms would charge a fee to mortgage lenders and banks and use the money to create an insurance pool to cover losses on mortgage securities caused by defaults on the underlying loans.  The government would be the last line of defense in case of another housing market meltdown, using taxpayer money to cover losses only if the insurance pool ran dry.

The Washington Post report inspired economist Dean Baker to expose the ugly truth about this scheme:

It would be difficult to find an economic rationale for this policy other than subsidizing the financial industry. The government can and does directly subsidize the purchase of homes through the mortgage interest deduction.  This can be made more generous and better targeted toward low and moderate income families by capping it and converting it into a tax credit (e.g. all homeowners can deduct 15 percent of the interest paid on mortgages of $300,000 or less from their taxes).

There is no obvious reason to have an additional subsidy through the system of mortgage finance.  Analysis by Mark Zandi showed that the subsidy provided by a government guarantee would largely translate into higher home prices.  This would leave monthly mortgage payments virtually unaffected.  The diversion of capital from elsewhere in the economy would mean slower economic growth and would kill jobs for auto workers, steel workers and other workers in the manufacturing sector.

For these reasons, if President Obama was really against big government and job killing measures, he would oppose this new scheme to subsidize mortgage securitization.  On the other hand, if the goal is to ensure high profits and big salaries for top executives in the financial sector, then a government subsidy for mortgage securitization is good policy.

Frustration with the inevitability that the 2012 Presidential Election will ultimately become a choice between two corporatists has inspired a movement to encourage a Democratic Primary challenge to Obama.  The organization – StopHoping.org – is based on this simple objective:

The majority of U.S. citizens favor protecting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; taxing the rich; cutting military spending; and protecting the environment.  We don’t have a candidate . . . yet.  Potential candidates supported on this site will be notified and encouraged to run.

I hope they succeed!


 

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