“The Story Of Our Time”: The Most Crucial Thing To Understand Is The Economy Is Not Like An Individual Family.
Those of us who have spent years arguing against premature fiscal austerity have just had a good two weeks. Academic studies that supposedly justified austerity have lost credibility; hard-liners in the European Commission and elsewhere have softened their rhetoric. The tone of the conversation has definitely changed.
My sense, however, is that many people still don’t understand what this is all about. So this seems like a good time to offer a sort of refresher on the nature of our economic woes, and why this remains a very bad time for spending cuts.
Let’s start with what may be the most crucial thing to understand: the economy is not like an individual family.
Families earn what they can, and spend as much as they think prudent; spending and earning opportunities are two different things. In the economy as a whole, however, income and spending are interdependent: my spending is your income, and your spending is my income. If both of us slash spending at the same time, both of our incomes will fall too.
And that’s what happened after the financial crisis of 2008. Many people suddenly cut spending, either because they chose to or because their creditors forced them to; meanwhile, not many people were able or willing to spend more. The result was a plunge in incomes that also caused a plunge in employment, creating the depression that persists to this day.
Why did spending plunge? Mainly because of a burst housing bubble and an overhang of private-sector debt — but if you ask me, people talk too much about what went wrong during the boom years and not enough about what we should be doing now. For no matter how lurid the excesses of the past, there’s no good reason that we should pay for them with year after year of mass unemployment.
So what could we do to reduce unemployment? The answer is, this is a time for above-normal government spending, to sustain the economy until the private sector is willing to spend again. The crucial point is that under current conditions, the government is not, repeat not, in competition with the private sector. Government spending doesn’t divert resources away from private uses; it puts unemployed resources to work. Government borrowing doesn’t crowd out private investment; it mobilizes funds that would otherwise go unused.
Now, just to be clear, this is not a case for more government spending and larger budget deficits under all circumstances — and the claim that people like me always want bigger deficits is just false. For the economy isn’t always like this — in fact, situations like the one we’re in are fairly rare. By all means let’s try to reduce deficits and bring down government indebtedness once normal conditions return and the economy is no longer depressed. But right now we’re still dealing with the aftermath of a once-in-three-generations financial crisis. This is no time for austerity.
O.K., I’ve just given you a story, but why should you believe it? There are, after all, people who insist that the real problem is on the economy’s supply side: that workers lack the skills they need, or that unemployment insurance has destroyed the incentive to work, or that the looming menace of universal health care is preventing hiring, or whatever. How do we know that they’re wrong?
Well, I could go on at length on this topic, but just look at the predictions the two sides in this debate have made. People like me predicted right from the start that large budget deficits would have little effect on interest rates, that large-scale “money printing” by the Fed (not a good description of actual Fed policy, but never mind) wouldn’t be inflationary, that austerity policies would lead to terrible economic downturns. The other side jeered, insisting that interest rates would skyrocket and that austerity would actually lead to economic expansion. Ask bond traders, or the suffering populations of Spain, Portugal and so on, how it actually turned out.
Is the story really that simple, and would it really be that easy to end the scourge of unemployment? Yes — but powerful people don’t want to believe it. Some of them have a visceral sense that suffering is good, that we must pay a price for past sins (even if the sinners then and the sufferers now are very different groups of people). Some of them see the crisis as an opportunity to dismantle the social safety net. And just about everyone in the policy elite takes cues from a wealthy minority that isn’t actually feeling much pain.
What has happened now, however, is that the drive for austerity has lost its intellectual fig leaf, and stands exposed as the expression of prejudice, opportunism and class interest it always was. And maybe, just maybe, that sudden exposure will give us a chance to start doing something about the depression we’re in.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, April 28, 2013
“That Terrible Trillion Deficit”: Another Disingenuous Attempt To Scare And Bully The Body Politic Into Abandoning Social Programs
As you might imagine, I find myself in a lot of discussions about U.S. fiscal policy, and the budget deficit in particular. And there’s one thing I can count on in these discussions: At some point someone will announce, in dire tones, that we have a ONE TRILLION DOLLAR deficit.
No, I don’t think the people making this pronouncement realize that they sound just like Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies.
Anyway, we do indeed have a ONE TRILLION DOLLAR deficit, or at least we did; in fiscal 2012, which ended in September, the deficit was actually $1.089 trillion. (It will be lower this year.) The question is what lesson we should take from that figure.
What the Dr. Evil types think, and want you to think, is that the big current deficit is a sign that our fiscal position is completely unsustainable. Sometimes they argue that it means that a debt crisis is just around the corner, although they’ve been predicting that for years and it keeps not happening. (U.S. borrowing costs are near historic lows.) But more often they use the deficit to argue that we can’t afford to maintain programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. So it’s important to understand that this is completely wrong.
Now, America does have a long-run budget problem, thanks to our aging population and the rising cost of health care. However, the current deficit has nothing to do with that problem, and says nothing at all about the sustainability of our social insurance programs. Instead, it mainly reflects the depressed state of the economy — a depression that would be made even worse by attempts to shrink the deficit rapidly.
So, let’s talk about the numbers.
The first thing we need to ask is what a sustainable budget would look like. The answer is that in a growing economy, budgets don’t have to be balanced to be sustainable. Federal debt was higher at the end of the Clinton years than at the beginning — that is, the deficits of the Clinton administration’s early years outweighed the surpluses at the end. Yet because gross domestic product rose over those eight years, the best measure of our debt position, the ratio of debt to G.D.P., fell dramatically, from 49 to 33 percent.
Right now, given reasonable estimates of likely future growth and inflation, we would have a stable or declining ratio of debt to G.D.P. even if we had a $400 billion deficit. You can argue that we should do better; but if the question is whether current deficits are sustainable, you should take $400 billion off the table right away.
That still leaves $600 billion or so. What’s that about? It’s the depressed economy — full stop.
First of all, the weakness of the economy has led directly to lower revenues; when G.D.P. falls, the federal tax take falls too, and in fact always falls substantially more in percentage terms. On top of that, revenue is temporarily depressed by tax breaks, notably the payroll tax cut, that have been put in place to support the economy but will be withdrawn as soon as the economy is stronger (or, unfortunately, even before then). If you do the math, it seems likely that full economic recovery would raise revenue by at least $450 billion.
Meanwhile, the depressed economy has also temporarily raised spending, because more people qualify for unemployment insurance and means-tested programs like food stamps and Medicaid. A reasonable estimate is that economic recovery would reduce federal spending on such programs by at least $150 billion.
Putting all this together, it turns out that the trillion-dollar deficit isn’t a sign of unsustainable finances at all. Some of the deficit is in fact sustainable; just about all of the rest would go away if we had an economic recovery.
And the prospects for economic recovery are looking pretty good right now — or would be looking good if it weren’t for the political risks posed by Republican hostage-taking. Housing is reviving, consumer debt is down, employment has improved steadily among prime-age workers. Unfortunately, this recovery may well be derailed by the fiscal cliff and/or a confrontation over the debt ceiling; but this has nothing to do with the alleged unsustainability of the deficit.
Which brings us back to ONE TRILLION DOLLARS.
We do indeed have a big budget deficit, and other things equal it would be better if the deficit were a lot smaller. But other things aren’t equal; the deficit is a side-effect of an economic depression, and the first order of business should be to end that depression — which means, among other things, leaving the deficit alone for now.
And you should recognize all the hyped-up talk about the deficit for what it is: yet another disingenuous attempt to scare and bully the body politic into abandoning programs that shield both poor and middle-class Americans from harm.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 16, 2012
“Failing The Test Of Courage, Integrity And Loyalty”: Romney Messes Up And Tells The Truth About Austerity
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.
Romney, however, has not opposed Boehner’s threat to use extortion to force austerity on the nation. Romney has the nomination sown up, but I predict that he will stand by and let Boehner try to throw us into a Great Depression rather than upset the Tea Party-wing of the Republican Party. Indeed, Romney will attack Democrats who have the political courage to defend our nation against his Party’s demands for austerity that would throw the nation into recession or depression. What does one call a politician who, solely to advance his personal political ambition, supports his Party’s efforts to coerce austerity even though he knows that the austerity would cause a national economic catastrophe and states that he, “of course,” would never adopt such self-destructive austerity if he were president? Romney is failing the tests of courage, integrity, and loyalty to our nation and people.
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. Fewer children will be able to get college degrees. Austerity is the great enemy of children – it is the epitome of a self-destructive, immoral economic policy.
Listen for the sounds of silence from Romney in coming months. I predict that he will not act to protect our children or our economy from the suicidal and “immoral” austerity his Republican allies are trying to coerce the Democrats to inflict on our economy and our children.
By: William K. Black, New Economic Perspectives, May 25, 2012
I’ve said this before, but in light of Mitt Romney’s economic speech today, it bears repeating: Virtually his entire case against Obama’s economic record rests on the assumption that the American people have developed a case of mass amnesia about the depth and severity of the economic crisis the President inherited.
A few months ago, Romney liked to claim that Obama made the economy “worse.” But the good economic news forced Romney to revise that argument, and he took to claiming that, yes, okay, the economy is getting better, but only in spite of Obama’s policies, which are slowing down the natural recovery.
Today Romney upped the ante yet again, offering still another explanation for why Obama should be denied a second term, even though the economy is recovering: It’s all about freedom! From the prepared remarks:
The Obama administration’s assault on our economic freedom is the principal reason why the recovery has been so tepid — why it couldn’t meet their projections, let alone our expectations. If we don’t change course now, this assault on freedom could damage our economy and the well-being of American families for decades to come…
The proof is in this weak recovery. This administration thinks our economy is struggling because the stimulus was too small. The truth is we’re struggling because our government is too big.
Relatedly, this morning, Romney said: “The economy always comes back after a recession, of course. There’s never been one that we didn’t recover from. The problem is this one has been deeper than it needed to be and a slower recovery than it should have been, by virtue of the policies of this president.”
The common thread here is obvious, and it’s important. The pace of this recovery, according to Romney, is sluggish compared to that of previous ones — proving that Obama’s policies, or his “assault on freedom,” are the reason why. Missing from this telling, of course, is the most important reason this recovery is different from previous ones: It came after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Romney’s argument that the recovery’s pace would otherwise have been normal if not for Obama’s polices rests on a bet that the American people will forget about this, or won’t factor it into their decision this fall. Perhaps some enterprising reporter will ask Romney the obvious follow-up questions: What would you have done as president in early 2009? Is it really your contention that the economy would have recovered at a typical pace from the worst financial crisis since the 1930s if government had done nothing at all?
By: Greg Sargent, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, March 19, 2012
Newt Gingrich has rightly earned the derision he’s been getting for his performance last Monday night when he threw red meat wrapped in black skin to South Carolina Republicans who gave Gingrich a standing ovation for calling Barack Obama “the greatest food-stamp president in American history.”
When the master propagandist said President Obama “put” more people on food stamps than any president in American history he was deliberately confusing cause with effect.
Obama “put” no one on food stamps, as the New York Times rightly notes. People did that to themselves when they signed up for food assistance because they were poor, jobless or hungry. And the reason they were hungry was because America is suffering the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Indeed, as former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum helpfully reminds us, in South Carolina where Newt Gingrich is now slyly insinuating his poison, residents may be hungrier than most since portions of the state suffer the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the nation and where 100,000 households now depend on food stamps for their daily diet.
By waving foods stamps around like the Confederate Battle Flag which flies aloft the South Carolina statehouse, Gingrich is clearly trying to “feed the prejudice of people who already believe that blacks and other poor people don’t really like to work,” argues the Times.
But the facts belie the bigotry since whites far outnumber blacks who receive foods stamps, notes the Times, and where 30% of those depend on food stamps to supplement the income they earn from working.
So, if you’re looking for the logic behind Gingrich’s raising of the food stamp non-issue forget about it, says the Times, because it just isn’t there.
Gingrich’s comments have been singled out for the scurrilous dog-whistle politics they are, and rightly so. But more important than the racially-charged implications of his coded messaging against minorities is the fact that Gingrich’s impugning of food stamps as a collective response to collective suffering is another manifestation of the larger Republican strategy to blame the current crisis entirely on government itself.
Newt Gingrich’ argument that the President of the United States would deliberately “put” millions of Americans on food stamps, like some drug pusher trying to get the public hooked on government the same way addicts get hooked on crack cocaine, is not all that different in its underlying assumptions and premises from the charges global warming deniers level against climatologists who deniers say exploit fears of the earth’s impending doom to grab power for themselves – or to make life miserable for oil magnets Charles and David Koch, whichever comes first.
It turns out the big banks weren’t the only ones whose failures the government bailed out in 2006 and 2008. Conservatives and Republicans, too, discovered that government can be a life-saver.
For, just as banks dubbed “Too Big To Fail” were able to press the government to cover their losing bets with taxpayer money, so too were true-believing conservatives able to target the government as a ready-made scapegoat for their own grievous blunders and so keep intact their blind faith in economic orthodoxies thought to be Too Veritable to Fail.
Be that as it may, never before had a worldview been more thoroughly repudiated than was the infallibility of unregulated markets by the economic calamity of 2008.
That left Republicans with an important choice to make. They could either man up and defend their record and supply-side principles against mounting evidence they had failed. Or, they could oppose everything the in-coming president did or stood for, and thereby take the emergency steps Barack Obama was forced to make to rescue the country from the disasters bequeathed to him by his retreating Republican predecessors and recast them as steps down some nightmarish path as America’s ancient liberties succumbed to a hostile government takeover.
The GOP left no doubt about which fork in the road it intended to take when right out of the gates House Republicans on a unanimous party line vote rejected Obama’s first $780 million stimulus bill at the height of the economic crisis in early 2009. This set the tone for all that has transpired in the preceding three years as Republicans execute their strategy of “blame the government first.”
While Republicans in Congress dig in with their rear-guard action to prevent President Obama from governing except on Republican terms, conservatives outside government are engaged in the task of feverishly rewriting history.
It’s what author Thomas Frank in his new book, Pity the Billionaire, calls “the classic switcheroo.” Republicans have been successful, says Frank, because they’ve been able to lay down a “thick smokescreen of deliberate bewilderment” that replaces real economic fears among middle class families facing job loss and foreclosure with false ones about the impending government takeover of society. It’s a bait and switch tactic being used so that a new villain (the government) can be pushed on stage as target for all those rotten eggs and tomatoes meant for the real villain (Wall Street).
A falsity this vast requires an all-consuming effort to round up and smash any incriminating evidence that might expose the nonsense behind the resurgent Right’s fairy tale for what it is, much like a criminal syndicate does when it ties up loose ends.
And so, says Frank, when the Right refused to accept that the infallibility of “free markets” was a myth, the only other road available to it in 2008 and 2009 was to “declare their true faith in the myth” and then to preserve the delusion by casting out as heretics all those unwelcome reminders conservatism and capitalism had failed — which meant in real life purging from Republican ranks most of the previous generation of people who also called themselves “conservative.”
That is why George W. Bush is a forgotten man and likely to remain a silent one all throughout the 2012 campaign. It is also why so many veteran Republican incumbents were consumed in the purifying fires of the Tea Party or beaten by Tea Party challengers whose single claim on political virtue was that they had virtually no political experience at all.
“Many Americans who had never been politically active, never walked a precinct, never interrupted their golf games, family gatherings or vacations to discuss politics, government or the Constitution were suddenly gripped with the sense that their government, nation and way of life were being stolen from them.”
Listening to that you might think the source of the writer’s worries was the growing concentration of wealth at the top, the theft of our government by Wall Street, the attacks on unions and the right to vote or a Supreme Court that had unleashed an unchecked flood of corporate cash with which to swallow our democracy.
But you’d be wrong. The words above are by right wing Red State blogger Erick Erickson, who gives voice to Tea Party paranoia that providing a lifeline to states to keep teachers in the classroom or cops on the beat or to extend unemployment insurance another few weeks to those who have lost jobs in the worst economic downturn in a century, wasn’t part of the rescue mission we’d expect from any decent government in a crisis like this but was instead a milestone that marked the way as President Obama and lead us down the perilous road to “European-style socialism.”
When Roger Ailes hired Glenn Beck shortly after conservatives were booted from all three branches of government in 2008, he told his new host: “I see this as the Alamo. If I just had somebody who was willing to sit on the other side of the camera until the last shot is fired, we’d be fine.”
Beck’s assignment was to take Barack Obama’s recovery challenge — that by logical implication exposed the Republican Party’s manifest failures with every problem President Obama managed to solve — and to turn that rescue effort into some vast left wing conspiracy to usher in a new “era of socialism.”
We were soon to learn what that assignment meant. Typical was a show aired in March 2010 when Beck said: “Most people will dread economic recessions and depressions. But some people don’t dread them. Some people are a little more opportunistic. They view this as their big chance, a window of opportunity to seize power to fundamentally transform things. They don’t see this as, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re struggling.’ They see this is as, ‘Now is our time.’”
You’ve got to hand it to Republicans. After their worldview collapsed in a pile of rubble around them they did not retreat or take time to rethink the fundamentals of their major premises. Instead, they responded like French Marshal Ferdinand Foch at the First Battle of the Marne when he declared: “Hard pressed on my right. My center is yielding. Impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent. I attack.”
Watching the way the Republican Party pursues power, I’m reminded of another quote, this one from the character Matt Hooper in the Spielberg classic, Jaws, when the marine biologist calls the Great White Shark a “machine” – a machine that does nothing all day but swim and eat and make little sharks. And that’s all.
Republicans today are just that single-minded — and also that ruthless and unsentimental — just like those Manifest Destiny expansionists that historian Robert W. Merry describes as rallying behind President James K. Polk and his war of conquest against Mexico to divest that often tragic country of its American possessions.
Unlike those Northern Whigs like Abraham Lincoln who opposed the Mexican war on moral grounds, or Southern Democrats like John C. Calhoun who opposed it for disturbing the delicate balance of power between slave state and free, Polk’s land-grabbing supporters understood that ethical considerations miss the fundamental truth about history, which Merry says is this: History does not turn on “normal suasion or concepts of political virtue” but instead moves forward “with a crushing force,” based on “differentials of power, will, organization and population.”
And so from the point of view of history, says Merry, the dismemberment of a “weak and dysfunctional” country like Mexico by a “vibrant, expanding and exuberant” democracy like America was not so much justified as inevitable.
These are the narratives and propensities that Newt Gingrich embodies with a vengeance with his dog-whistle references to food stamps that feed not only racist appetites but also the right wing/Fox News survival-of-the-fittest storyline that doing anything to repair the damage Republicans and free market capitalism have wrought — short of applying an even purer and more robust version of unregulated, untaxed capitalism – is nothing more than socialism and so contrary to the American Way of Life.
By: Ted Frier, Salon, Open Salon Blog, January 20, 2012