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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.

*   *   *

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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Time For Another Victory Lap

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I’m no cheerleader for President Obama.  Since he first became our Disappointer-In-Chief, I have vigorously voiced my complaints about his decisions.  At the end of President Obama’s first month in office, I expressed concern that his following the advice of “Turbo” Tim Geithner and Larry Summers was putting the welfare (pun intended) of the Wall Street banks ahead of the livelihoods of those who voted for him.  I lamented that this path would lead us to a ten-year, Japanese-style recession.  By September of 2010, it was obvious that those early decisions by the new President would prove disastrous for the Democrats at the mid-term elections.  At that point, I repeated my belief that Obama had been listening to the wrong people when he decided to limit spending on the economic stimulus package to approximately half of what was necessary to end the economic crisis:

Even before the stimulus bill was signed into law, the administration had been warned, by way of an article in Bloomberg News, that a survey of fifty economists revealed that the proposed $787 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.

Last week, I was about to write a piece, describing that decision as “Obama’s Tora Bora moment”.  When I sat down at my computer just after 11 p.m. on Sunday, I realized that the timing wouldn’t have been appropriate for such a metaphor.  The President was about to make his historic speech, announcing that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.  Just as many have criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the disaster in the Gulf of Corexit as “Obama’s Katrina Moment”, I believe that the President’s decision to “punt” on the stimulus – 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.  The consequences have been enormously expensive (simply adding the $600 billion cost of QE 2 alone to a better-planned stimulus program would have reduced our current unemployment level to approximately 5%).  Beyond that, the advocates of “Austerian” economics have scared everyone in Washington into the belief that the British approach is somehow the right idea – despite the fact that their economy is tanking.  Never mind the fact Australia’s stimulus program was successful and ended the recession in that country.

The Fox Ministry of Truth has brainwashed a good number of people into believing that Obama’s stimulus program (a/k/a the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) was a complete failure.  You will never hear the Fox Ministry of Truth admit that prominent Republican economist Keith Hennessey, the former director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush, pointed out that the 2009 stimulus “increased economic growth above what it otherwise would have been”.  The Truth Ministry is not likely to concede that John Makin of the conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, published this statement at the AEI website:

Absent temporary fiscal stimulus and inventory rebuilding, which taken together added about 4 percentage points to U.S. growth, the economy would have contracted at about a 1 percent annual rate during the second half of 2009.

On the other hand, count me among those who are skeptical that the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy can have any impact on our current unemployment crisis (it hasn’t yet).

Many of Obama’s critics have complained that the Presidential appearance at Ground Zero was an inappropriate “victory lap” – despite the fact that George W. Bush was invited to the event (although he declined).  Not only was that victory lap appropriate – Obama is actually entitled to run another.   As E.J. Dionne pointed out, the controversial “nationalization” of the American auto industry (what should have been done to the Wall Street banks) has become a huge success:

The actual headlines make the point. “Demand for fuel-efficient cars helps GM to $3.2 billion profit,” declared The Washington Post.  “GM Reports Earnings Tripled in First Quarter, as Revenue Jumped 15 Percent,” reported The New York Times.

*   *   *

“Having the federal government involved in every aspect of the private sector is very dangerous,” Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., told Fox News in December 2008.  “In the long term it could cause us to become a quasi-socialist country.”  I don’t see any evidence that we have become a “quasi-socialist country,” just big profits.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, called the bailout “the leading edge of the Obama administration’s war on capitalism,” while other members of Congress derided the president’s auto industry task force.  “Of course we know that nobody on the task force has any experience in the auto business, and we heard at the hearing many of them don’t even own cars,” declared Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, after a hearing on the bailout in May 2009. “And they’re dictating the auto industry for our future? What’s wrong with this picture?”

*   *   *

In the case of the car industry, allowing the market to operate without any intervention by government would have wiped out a large part of the business that is based in Midwestern states.  This irreversible decision would have damaged the economy, many communities and tens of thousands of families.

And contrary to the predictions of the critics, government officials were quite capable of working with the market in restructuring the industry. Government didn’t overturn capitalism.  It tempered the market at a moment when its “natural” forces were pushing toward catastrophe. Government had the resources to buy the industry time.

In fairness, President Obama has finally earned some bragging rights, after punting on health care, the stimulus and financial “reform”.  He knows his Republican opponents will never criticize him for his own “Tora Bora moment” – because to do so would require an admission that a more expensive economic stimulus was necessary in 2009.  As a result, it will be up to an Independent candidate or a Democratic challenger to Obama (less likely these days) to explain that the persistent economic crisis – our own “lost decade” – lingers on as a result of Obama’s “Tora Bora moment”.


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