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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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Awareness Abounds

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November 12, 2009

When I started this blog in April of 2008, my focus was on that year’s political campaigns and the exciting Presidential primary season.  At the time, I expressed my concern that the most prominent centrist in the race, John McCain, would continue pandering to the televangelist lobby after winning the nomination, when those efforts were no longer necessary.  He unfortunately followed that strategy and went on to say dumb things about the most pressing issue facing America in decades: the economy.  During the Presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, James Carville was credited with writing this statement on a sign in front of Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Little Rock:  “It’s the economy, stupid!”  That phrase quickly became the mantra of most politicians until the attacks of September 11, 2001 revealed that our efforts at national security were inadequate.  Since that time, we have over-compensated in that area.  Nevertheless, with the demise of Rudy Giuliani’s political career, the American public is not as jumpy about terrorism as it had been — despite the suspicious connections of the deranged psychiatrist at Fort Hood.  As the recent editorials by Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune and Vincent Carroll of The Denver Post demonstrate, the cerebral bat guano necessary to get the public fired-up for a vindictive rampage just isn’t there anymore.

President Obama’s failure to abide by the Carville maxim appears to be costing him points in the latest approval ratings.  The fact that the new President has surrounded himself with the same characters who helped create the financial crisis, has become a subject of criticism by commentators from across the political spectrum.  Since Obama’s Presidential campaign received nearly one million dollars in contributions from Goldman Sachs, he should have known we’d be watching.  CNBC’s Charlie Gasparino was recently interviewed by Aaron Task.  During that discussion, Gasparino explained that Jamie Dimon (the CEO of JP Morgan Chase and director of the New York Federal Reserve) has managed to dissuade the new President from paying serious attention to Paul Volcker (chairman of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board) whose ideas for financial reform would prove inconvenient for those “too big to fail” financial institutions.  As long as JP Morgan’s “Dimon Dog” and Lloyd Bankfiend of Goldman Sachs have such firm control over the puppet strings of “Turbo” Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke, why pay attention to Paul Volcker?  The voting public (as well as most politicians) can’t understand most of these economic problems, anyway.  I seriously doubt that many of our elected officials could explain the difference between a credit default swap and a wife swap.

Once again, Dan Gerstein of Forbes.com has directed a water cannon of common sense on the malaise blaze that has been fueled by a plague of ignorance.  In his latest piece, Gerstein tossed aside that tattered, obsolete handbook referred to as “conventional wisdom” to take a hard look at the reality facing all incumbent, national politicians:

It’s the stupidity about the economy in Washington and on Wall Street that’s driving most voters berserk.  Indeed, the financial system is still out of whack and tens of millions of people are (or fear they soon could be) out of work, yet every day our political and economic leaders say and do knuckleheaded things that show they are unfailingly and imperviously out of touch with those realities.

Gerstein’s short essay is essential reading for a quick understanding of how and why America can’t seem to solve many of its pressing problems these days.  Gerstein has identified the responsible culprits as three groups:  the Democrats, the Republicans and the big banks — describing them as the “axis of cluelessness”:

We have gone long past “they don’t get it” territory.  It’s now unavoidably clear that they won’t get it — and we won’t get the responsible leadership and honest capitalism we want–until (as I have suggested before) we demand it.

Surprisingly, public awareness concerning the root cause of both the financial crisis and our ongoing economic predicament has escalated to a startling degree in recent weeks.  This past spring, if you wanted to find out about the nefarious activities transpiring at Goldman Sachs, you had to be familiar with Zero Hedge or GoldmanSachs666.com.  Today, you need look no further than Maureen Dowd’s column or the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live.  Everyone knows what the problem is.  Gordon Gekko’s 1987 proclamation that “greed is good” has not only become an acceptable fact of life, it has infected our laws and the opinions rendered by our highest courts.  We are now living with the consequences.

Fortunately, there are plenty of people in the American financial sector who are concerned about the well-being of our society.  A recent study by David Weild and Edward Kim (Capital Markets Advisors at Grant Thornton LLP) entitled “A wake-up call for America” has revealed the tragic consequences resulting from the fact that the United States, when compared with other developed countries, has fallen seriously behind in the number of companies listed on our stock exchanges.  Here’s some of what they had to say:

The United States has been engaged in a longstanding experiment to cut commission and trading costs.  What is lacking in this process is the understanding that higher transaction costs actually subsidized services that supported investors.  Lower transaction costs have ushered in the age of  “Casino Capitalism” by accommodating trading interests and enabling the growth of day traders and high-frequency trading.

The Great Depression in Listings was caused by a confluence of technological, legislative and regulatory events — termed The Great Delisting Machine — that started in 1996, before the 1997 peak year for U.S. listings.  We believe cost cutting advocates have gone overboard in a misguided attempt to benefit investors.  The result — investors, issuers and the economy have all been harmed.

The Grant Thornton study illustrates how and why “as many as 22 million” jobs have been lost since 1997, not to mention the destruction of retirement savings, forcing many people to come out of retirement and back to work.  Beyond that, smaller companies have found it more difficult to survive and business loans have become harder to obtain.

Aside from all the bad news, the report does offer solutions to this crisis:

The solutions offered will help get the U.S. back on track by creating high-quality jobs, driving economic growth, improving U.S. competitiveness, increasing the tax base, and decreasing the U.S. budget deficit — all while not costing the U.S. taxpayer a dime.

These solutions are easily adopted since they:

  • create new capital markets options while preserving current options,
  • expand choice for consumers and issuers,
  • preserve SEC oversight and disclosure, including Sarbanes-Oxley, in the public market solution, and
  • reserve private market participation only to “qualified” investors, thus protecting those investors that  need protection.

These solutions would refocus a significant portion of Wall Street on rebuilding the U.S. economy.

The Grant Thornton website also has a page containing links to the appropriate legislators and a prepared message you can send, urging those legislators to take action to resolve this crisis.

Now is your chance to do something that can help address the many problems with our economy and our financial system.  The people at Grant Thornton were thoughtful enough to facilitate your participation in the resolution of this crisis.  Let the officials in Washington know what their bosses — the people — expect from them.



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