“The Big Fail”: Too Many Republicans Responsible For Economic Failure Retain Power And Refuse To Learn From Experience
It’s that time again: the annual meeting of the American Economic Association and affiliates, a sort of medieval fair that serves as a marketplace for bodies (newly minted Ph.D.’s in search of jobs), books and ideas. And this year, as in past meetings, there is one theme dominating discussion: the ongoing economic crisis.
This isn’t how things were supposed to be. If you had polled the economists attending this meeting three years ago, most of them would surely have predicted that by now we’d be talking about how the great slump ended, not why it still continues.
So what went wrong? The answer, mainly, is the triumph of bad ideas.
It’s tempting to argue that the economic failures of recent years prove that economists don’t have the answers. But the truth is actually worse: in reality, standard economics offered good answers, but political leaders — and all too many economists — chose to forget or ignore what they should have known.
The story, at this point, is fairly straightforward. The financial crisis led, through several channels, to a sharp fall in private spending: residential investment plunged as the housing bubble burst; consumers began saving more as the illusory wealth created by the bubble vanished, while the mortgage debt remained. And this fall in private spending led, inevitably, to a global recession.
For an economy is not like a household. A family can decide to spend less and try to earn more. But in the economy as a whole, spending and earning go together: my spending is your income; your spending is my income. If everyone tries to slash spending at the same time, incomes will fall — and unemployment will soar.
So what can be done? A smaller financial shock, like the dot-com bust at the end of the 1990s, can be met by cutting interest rates. But the crisis of 2008 was far bigger, and even cutting rates all the way to zero wasn’t nearly enough.
At that point governments needed to step in, spending to support their economies while the private sector regained its balance. And to some extent that did happen: revenue dropped sharply in the slump, but spending actually rose as programs like unemployment insurance expanded and temporary economic stimulus went into effect. Budget deficits rose, but this was actually a good thing, probably the most important reason we didn’t have a full replay of the Great Depression.
But it all went wrong in 2010. The crisis in Greece was taken, wrongly, as a sign that all governments had better slash spending and deficits right away. Austerity became the order of the day, and supposed experts who should have known better cheered the process on, while the warnings of some (but not enough) economists that austerity would derail recovery were ignored. For example, the president of the European Central Bank confidently asserted that “the idea that austerity measures could trigger stagnation is incorrect.”
Well, someone was incorrect, all right.
Of the papers presented at this meeting, probably the biggest flash came from one by Olivier Blanchard and Daniel Leigh of the International Monetary Fund. Formally, the paper represents the views only of the authors; but Mr. Blanchard, the I.M.F.’s chief economist, isn’t an ordinary researcher, and the paper has been widely taken as a sign that the fund has had a major rethinking of economic policy.
For what the paper concludes is not just that austerity has a depressing effect on weak economies, but that the adverse effect is much stronger than previously believed. The premature turn to austerity, it turns out, was a terrible mistake.
I’ve seen some reporting describing the paper as an admission from the I.M.F. that it doesn’t know what it’s doing. That misses the point; the fund was actually less enthusiastic about austerity than other major players. To the extent that it says it was wrong, it’s also saying that everyone else (except those skeptical economists) was even more wrong. And it deserves credit for being willing to rethink its position in the light of evidence.
The really bad news is how few other players are doing the same. European leaders, having created Depression-level suffering in debtor countries without restoring financial confidence, still insist that the answer is even more pain. The current British government, which killed a promising recovery by turning to austerity, completely refuses to consider the possibility that it made a mistake.
And here in America, Republicans insist that they’ll use a confrontation over the debt ceiling — a deeply illegitimate action in itself — to demand spending cuts that would drive us back into recession.
The truth is that we’ve just experienced a colossal failure of economic policy — and far too many of those responsible for that failure both retain power and refuse to learn from experience.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, January 6, 2013
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was asked about an extension of the payroll tax break yesterday, but instead of answering the question, the Republican changed the subject. The subject on McConnell’s mind was the debt.
“We have this problem at the risk of being repetitious, because we spend way too much. We now have a debt the size of our economy. We look a lot like Greece. We’re heading toward western Europe. If you want to see what happens, just look across the Atlantic. That’s the direction we’re headed in.
“Under this administration, we’ve run the national debt up 43 percent in just three years.”
McConnell first started equating the U.S. and Greece last summer, and the argument is not improving with age.
In every meaningful way, the comparison is just silly. The U.S. has extremely low interest rates and foreign investors are happy to loan us money; Greece has extremely high interest rates and no one is eager to loan the country money. The U.S. has its own currency; Greece has the euro. We have a manageable debt; Greece has a debt crisis. We’re a large country with an enormous economy; Greece is a small country with a small economy. We have one of the world’s most stable systems of government (at least for now); Greece’s government structure is suspect.
For a leading senator to tell a national television audience that the United States looks “a lot like Greece” is a clear reminder: McConnell is not to be taken seriously on these issues.
Incidentally, there’s also the matter of McConnell’s credibility on fiscal issues, or in his case, the lack thereof. The Republican leader voted for the Bush tax cuts, and added the costs to the national debt. He voted to finance the war in Afghanistan by adding the costs to the national debt. McConnell voted to put the costs of the war in Iraq onto the national debt. He supported a massive expansion of the government’s role in health care (Medicare Part D) and voted to pile all of its costs right onto the national debt. The GOP leader even backed the Wall Street bailout and added the bill to the national debt.
Perhaps Mitch McConnell should choose something else to complain about.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, January 30, 2012
In 2011, as in 2010, America was in a technical recovery but continued to suffer from disastrously high unemployment. And through most of 2011, as in 2010, almost all the conversation in Washington was about something else: the allegedly urgent issue of reducing the budget deficit.
This misplaced focus said a lot about our political culture, in particular about how disconnected Congress is from the suffering of ordinary Americans. But it also revealed something else: when people in D.C. talk about deficits and debt, by and large they have no idea what they’re talking about — and the people who talk the most understand the least.
Perhaps most obviously, the economic “experts” on whom much of Congress relies have been repeatedly, utterly wrong about the short-run effects of budget deficits. People who get their economic analysis from the likes of the Heritage Foundation have been waiting ever since President Obama took office for budget deficits to send interest rates soaring.
Any day now!
And while they’ve been waiting, those rates have dropped to historical lows. You might think that this would make politicians question their choice of experts — that is, you might think that if you didn’t know anything about our postmodern, fact-free politics.
But Washington isn’t just confused about the short run; it’s also confused about the long run. For while debt can be a problem, the way our politicians and pundits think about debt is all wrong, and exaggerates the problem’s size.
Deficit-worriers portray a future in which we’re impoverished by the need to pay back money we’ve been borrowing. They see America as being like a family that took out too large a mortgage, and will have a hard time making the monthly payments.
This is, however, a really bad analogy in at least two ways.
First, families have to pay back their debt. Governments don’t — all they need to do is ensure that debt grows more slowly than their tax base. The debt from World War II was never repaid; it just became increasingly irrelevant as the U.S. economy grew, and with it the income subject to taxation.
Second — and this is the point almost nobody seems to get — an over-borrowed family owes money to someone else; U.S. debt is, to a large extent, money we owe to ourselves.
This was clearly true of the debt incurred to win World War II. Taxpayers were on the hook for a debt that was significantly bigger, as a percentage of G.D.P., than debt today; but that debt was also owned by taxpayers, such as all the people who bought savings bonds. So the debt didn’t make postwar America poorer. In particular, the debt didn’t prevent the postwar generation from experiencing the biggest rise in incomes and living standards in our nation’s history.
But isn’t this time different? Not as much as you think.
It’s true that foreigners now hold large claims on the United States, including a fair amount of government debt. But every dollar’s worth of foreign claims on America is matched by 89 cents’ worth of U.S. claims on foreigners. And because foreigners tend to put their U.S. investments into safe, low-yield assets, America actually earns more from its assets abroad than it pays to foreign investors. If your image is of a nation that’s already deep in hock to the Chinese, you’ve been misinformed. Nor are we heading rapidly in that direction.
Now, the fact that federal debt isn’t at all like a mortgage on America’s future doesn’t mean that the debt is harmless. Taxes must be levied to pay the interest, and you don’t have to be a right-wing ideologue to concede that taxes impose some cost on the economy, if nothing else by causing a diversion of resources away from productive activities into tax avoidance and evasion. But these costs are a lot less dramatic than the analogy with an overindebted family might suggest.
And that’s why nations with stable, responsible governments — that is, governments that are willing to impose modestly higher taxes when the situation warrants it — have historically been able to live with much higher levels of debt than today’s conventional wisdom would lead you to believe. Britain, in particular, has had debt exceeding 100 percent of G.D.P. for 81 of the last 170 years. When Keynes was writing about the need to spend your way out of a depression, Britain was deeper in debt than any advanced nation today, with the exception of Japan.
Of course, America, with its rabidly antitax conservative movement, may not have a government that is responsible in this sense. But in that case the fault lies not in our debt, but in ourselves.
So yes, debt matters. But right now, other things matter more. We need more, not less, government spending to get us out of our unemployment trap. And the wrongheaded, ill-informed obsession with debt is standing in the way.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, January 1, 2012
CNN’s Candy Crowley made a noteworthy comment on the air last night, and we’ve heard similar remarks from other media figures quite a bit lately. The subject was President Obama’s prospects for a second term.
“He has to buck history, number one, a president with that kind of high unemployment rate has never been re-elected at 9 percent.”
At first blush, the observation is plainly false. Franklin Delano Roosevelt won a second term when unemployment was at 17%.
In fairness, though, Crowley probably just misspoke, and meant to refer to the post-Depression era. But even if we give her the benefit of the doubt here, the observation is largely pointless.
As a factual matter, it’s true that every president since FDR who’s won re-election has seen an unemployment rate below 7.2%. Will the unemployment rate fall below 7.2% by Election Day 2012? No one, anywhere, believes this is even remotely realistic.
But the context matters, and the media routinely pretends it doesn’t exist. No president since FDR has won with a high unemployment rate because no president since FDR has had to govern at a time of a global economic crisis like the Great Depression or the Great Recession. The U.S. has seen plenty of downturns over the last eight decades, but financial collapses are fairly rare, produce far more severe conditions, and take much longer to recover from.
Of course the unemployment rate won’t be below 7.2%. Under the circumstances and given the calamity Obama inherited, that’s impossible.
The more relevant question is what Americans are willing to tolerate and consider in context. In 1934, during FDR’s first midterms, the unemployment rate was about 22%. The public was thrilled — not because a 22% unemployment rate is good news, but because it had come down considerably from 1932. By 1936, when FDR was seeking re-eleciotn, the unemployment rate was about 17%. How can an incumbent president win re-election with a 17% unemployment rate? Because things were getting better, not worse.
That’s obviously the challenge for President Obama. The numerical thresholds are largely irrelevant — comparing the current economic circumstances to what other modern presidents have dealt with is silly. The more relevant metric is directional — are things better or getting worse by the time voters head to the polls, and if worse, who gets the blame.
What’s more, let’s also not lose sight of sample sizes. CNN’s Crowley made it seem as if no American president has ever won a second term with this high an unemployment rate. But even if we limit the analysis to the post-FDR era, as Dana Houle explained a couple of months ago, “Since FDR only Eisenhower, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and the two Bush’s have been elected president and then sought reelection. It’s hard to draw big conclusions from a sample of seven.”
If the media is preoccupied with this metric, it will shape the public’s perceptions and help drive the campaign. Here’s hoping news outlets come to realize how incomplete this picture is.
By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, September 4, 2011