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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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Balance Provokes Outrage

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December 13 marked the launch date for an organization named No Labels.  The group describes itself this way:

No Labels is a 501(c)(4) social welfare advocacy organization created to provide a voice for America’s vital center, where ideas are judged on their merits, a position which is underrepresented in our current politics.  No Labels provides a forum and community for Americans of all political backgrounds interested in seeing the nation move not left, not right, but forward.  No Labels encourages all public officials to prioritize the national interest over party interest, and to cease acting on behalf of narrow, if vocal, special interests on the far right or left.

Although No Labels has both a Declaration and a Statement of Purpose, you will find the most useful information about the group on its Frequently Asked Questions page.

As a political centrist, I found most of what I read at the No Labels website appealing enough, although I disagreed with a bit of it.  First of all, the group would have been more aptly-named, “No Polarization” since they aren’t really opposed to labels, as they explained:

We are never asking people to give up their labels, only put them aside to do what’s best for America.

Besides – I enjoy using labels to describe people.  Some of my favorite labels include:  corporatist, plutocrat, oligarch and tool.  Another statement on the No Labels website with which I disagreed was the following remark, from their Statement of Purpose:

We can’t seem to break our addiction to foreign oil.

I would suggest:  “We can’t seem to break our addiction to carbon-based energy sources.”  There is no such thing as “foreign oil”.  The so-called, “American” oil companies are all incorporated in the Cayman Islands and none of them pay income taxes to our government.  All of our oil comes from multinational corporations and it is commingled with “Muslim oil” and “Venezuelan Communist oil” at storage depots.  If the people from No Labels insist on treating us as idiots in the same manner as the two major political parties, they will deservedly fail in their mission.

I was particularly amused by the fact that so many people expressed outrage about the founding of No Labels.  The new organization managed to draw plenty of ire from an assortment of commentators during the past week and it made for some fun reading.  One of the “Founding Leaders” of No Labels is John Avlon of the Huffington Post.  He recently wrote this essay in response to spleen-venting by Rush Limbaugh on the right and Keith Olbermann on the left – both of whom expressed displeasure with the inception of the new association:

“If we do this right, we can discredit this whole mind-set of the ‘moderate center’ being the defining group in American politics,” said Rush.  “Because this No Labels group is going to end up illustrating what a fraudulent idea that whole concept of, ‘There are people who decide issue by issue.  On the left they like certain things, on the right they like certain things.’ ”

So Rush believes that there are no principled Americans who decide what they believe on different policies issue-by-issue.  For someone who talks about freedom a lot, he doesn’t have much faith in free will or free-thinking.  He doesn’t believe that Americans — especially independent voters — can consider themselves fiscally conservative but socially liberal.  You either walk in lockstep as a social conservative and fiscal conservative or you are a ‘hard-core liberal’ — libertarians, apparently, need not apply.

*   *   *

Keith Olbermann named No Labels one of the “worst persons in the world” last night (a badge of honor he gave to me earlier this year).  He called us “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” and “a bunch of fraudulent conservative Democrats pretending to be moderates and a bunch of fraudulent Republicans pretending to be independents.”  Again, there’s the impulse to divide and deny the legitimacy of anyone who doesn’t conform to a hyper-partisan view of politics.

Conservative columnist George Will provided this amusing bit of speculation that the entire effort might simply be a pretext for Michael Bloomberg’s Presidential ambitions:

Often in the year before the year before the year divisible by four, a few political people theatrically recoil from partisanship.  Recently, this ritual has involved speculation about whether New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg might squander a few of his billions to improve America by failing to be elected president.

Oh, snap!  Good one, George!

The strangest reaction to the kick-off of No Labels came from Frank Rich of The New York Times.  The relevant portions of Mr. Rich’s rant seemed to be based on the theme that the Republican-dominated 112th Congress will be intransigent and therefore, President Obama along with his fellow Democrats, must fight intransigence with intransigence.  This formula for gridlock would ultimately prove more harmful to Democrats than Republicans.

The Frank Rich diatribe was particularly bizarre because it rambled all over the place, with rants about people and subjects having nothing to do with No Labels.  Peter Orszag has no connection to No Labels.  So, why did Frank Rich go off on the wild tangent about Orszag, Citigroup and Scott Brown’s contributions from the financial sector as though any of them might have had something to do with No Labels?  Forget about what John Avlon told you concerning Keith Olberman’s putting No Labels on his “worst persons in the world” list.  According to Frank Rich, the entire No Labels effort is actually a “a promotional hobby horse for MSNBC”.  It gets weirder:  Rich believes that because a political consultant (Mark McKinnon) and a fund-raiser (Nancy Jacobson) are “prime movers” for No Labels . . .  therefore “No Labels itself is another manifestation” of the syndrome wherein “both parties are bought off by special interests who game the system and stack it against the rest of us.”  At this point, the only factoid I can find to support that allegation is the inclusion of the term “foreign oil” in the group’s Statement of Purpose.  So, I’ll keep an open mind.  Besides, I enjoy a good conspiracy theory as well as Jesse Ventura’s television program with the same name.  Nevertheless, it becomes difficult to stick with Frank Rich’s theory that by failing to seek re-election as Senator of Indiana, Evan Bayh deliberately “facilitated the election of a high-powered corporate lobbyist, Dan Coats, as his Republican successor”.  The fact that Bayh’s father, former Senator Birch Bayh, is a lobbyist is interposed to emphasize the likelihood that Evan will also become a lobbyist.  Is this discussion being offered to explain that Evan Bayh “stepped aside” to allow Dan Coats to become Senator because Bayh has a genetic pre-disposition to the “Lobbyist Code of Dishonor”?  If so, in what manner does this impact No Labels?  Guilt by association?

The animosity generated by this group’s stand against what it calls “hyper-partisanship” demonstrates that the opponents of No Labels are advocates of hyper-partisanship.  In the days ahead, it will be interesting to see who else speaks out to “give acrimony a chance”.


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