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“The Making Of An Ignoramus”: Making America Great Again Means Running The Country Like A Failing Casino

Truly, Donald Trump knows nothing. He is more ignorant about policy than you can possibly imagine, even when you take into account the fact that he is more ignorant than you can possibly imagine. But his ignorance isn’t as unique as it may seem: In many ways, he’s just doing a clumsy job of channeling nonsense widely popular in his party, and to some extent in the chattering classes more generally.

Last week the presumptive Republican presidential nominee — hard to believe, but there it is — finally revealed his plan to make America great again. Basically, it involves running the country like a failing casino: he could, he asserted, “make a deal” with creditors that would reduce the debt burden if his outlandish promises of economic growth don’t work out.

The reaction from everyone who knows anything about finance or economics was a mix of amazed horror and horrified amazement. One does not casually suggest throwing away America’s carefully cultivated reputation as the world’s most scrupulous debtor — a reputation that dates all the way back to Alexander Hamilton.

The Trump solution would, among other things, deprive the world economy of its most crucial safe asset, U.S. debt, at a time when safe assets are already in short supply.

Of course, we can be sure that Mr. Trump knows none of this, and nobody in his entourage is likely to tell him. But before we simply ridicule him — or, actually, at the same time that we’re ridiculing him — let’s ask where his bad ideas really come from.

First of all, Mr. Trump obviously believes that America could easily find itself facing a debt crisis. But why? After all, investors, who are willing to lend to America at incredibly low interest rates, are evidently not worried by our debt. And there’s good reason for their calmness: federal interest payments are only 1.3 percent of G.D.P., or 6 percent of total outlays.

These numbers mean both that the burden of the debt is fairly small and that even complete repudiation of that debt would have only a minor impact on the government’s cash flow.

So why is Mr. Trump even talking about this subject? Well, one possible answer is that lots of supposedly serious people have been hyping the alleged threat posed by federal debt for years. For example, Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, has warned repeatedly about a “looming debt crisis.” Indeed, until not long ago the whole Beltway elite seemed to be in the grip of BowlesSimpsonism, with its assertion that debt was the greatest threat facing the nation.

A lot of this debt hysteria was really about trying to bully us into cutting Social Security and Medicare, which is why so many self-proclaimed fiscal hawks were also eager to cut taxes on the rich. But Mr. Trump apparently wasn’t in on that particular con, and takes the phony debt scare seriously. Sad!

Still, even if he misunderstands the fiscal situation, how can he imagine that it would be O.K. for America to default? One answer is that he’s extrapolating from his own business career, in which he has done very well by running up debts, then walking away from them.

But it’s also true that much of the Republican Party shares his insouciance about default. Remember, the party’s congressional wing deliberately set about extracting concessions from President Obama, using the threat of gratuitous default via a refusal to raise the debt ceiling.

And quite a few Republican lawmakers defended that strategy of extortion by arguing that default wouldn’t be that bad, that even with its access to funds cut off the U.S. government could “prioritize” payments, and that the financial disruption would be no big deal.

Given that history, it’s not too hard to understand why candidate Trump thinks not paying debts in full makes sense.

The important thing to realize, then, is that when Mr. Trump talks nonsense, he’s usually just offering a bombastic version of a position that’s widespread in his party. In fact, it’s remarkable how many ridiculous Trumpisms were previously espoused by Mitt Romney in 2012, from his claim that the true unemployment rate vastly exceeds official figures to his claim that he can bring prosperity by starting a trade war with China.

None of this should be taken as an excuse for Mr. Trump. He really is frighteningly uninformed; worse, he doesn’t appear to know what he doesn’t know. The point, instead, is that his blithe lack of knowledge largely follows from the know-nothing attitudes of the party he now leads.

Oh, and just for the record: No, it’s not the same on the other side of the aisle. You may dislike Hillary Clinton, you may disagree sharply with her policies, but she and the people around her do know their facts. Nobody has a monopoly on wisdom, but in this election, one party has largely cornered the market in raw ignorance.


By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, May 9, 2016

May 11, 2016 Posted by | Debt Crisis, Donald Trump, Economic Policy | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Buckle Your Seatbelt”: Obama Reminds Congress About Looming Showdowns

Much of the political world’s attention has focused on the presidential campaign trail of late, and for good reason. Congress takes August off; President Obama has been on vacation; and his would-be successors have put on quite a show.

But as August nears its end, the White House remains quite cognizant of the challenges facing federal policymakers. Just yesterday, the president published a message on Twitter, explaining, “Amidst global volatility, Congress should protect the momentum of our growing economy (not kill it).” Obama added that the United States “must avoid” a government shutdown and austerity measures.

The message didn’t come out of the blue. Current funding for the federal government expires at the end of September, and though Republican leaders intended to make progress with talks over their summer break, there’s no indication that officials are any closer to a solution than they were in July. On the contrary, as was the case in 2013, some far-right members seem eager for a fight that would result in a shutdown.

And then, of course, there’s the debt ceiling. On the one hand, we received some good news on this front from the Congressional Budget Office this week. The Washington Post reported:

Congressional leaders may have more time to work out a deal this fall to increase the federal borrowing limit, after new projections from Congress’ scorekeeper showed tax revenues have been greater than expected this year. […]

In July, the Treasury Department estimated the government would hit its $18.1 trillion borrowing limit at the end of October. CBO, however, now projects the debt ceiling will not need to be increased until mid-November or early December, while noting there is a level of uncertainty when determining the exact date.

On the other hand, the delayed deadline won’t necessarily help. The Huffington Post reported:

[The debt-ceiling] deadline is nearing. And the mixture of an ongoing presidential campaign – which encourages lawmakers to play to their base – and the itching for more spending cuts from conservative groups suggests it won’t pass without drama. […]

 Asked if he expected debt-ceiling fireworks, longtime GOP consultant Craig Shirley replied: “Without a doubt.”

In fairness, it’s important to note that GOP leaders want no part of this – House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell haven’t expressed any interest whatsoever in a replay of the 2011 hostage fight in which Republicans threatened to crash the economy on purpose unless President Obama met the GOP’s demands.

But as we’ve seen many times, party leaders often feel as if they have no choice but to follow. And in this case, amid economic uncertainty and market volatility, far-right Republicans see conditions that give them a twisted sense of leverage.

The broader timing doesn’t help, either. The race for the GOP presidential nomination will be pretty intense by the time December rolls around, and it’s likely we’ll see most, if not all, of the Republican field pushing the party to be as radical as possible – each candidate will try to prove to right-wing activists that they’re “tougher” than their rivals.

Buckle your seatbelt.


By: Steve Benen, The Madow Blog, August 28, 2015

August 29, 2015 Posted by | Congress, Debt Crisis, Federal Budget, Government Shut Down | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Fiscal Fizzle”: An Imaginary Budget And Debt Crisis

For much of the past five years readers of the political and economic news were left in little doubt that budget deficits and rising debt were the most important issue facing America. Serious people constantly issued dire warnings that the United States risked turning into another Greece any day now. President Obama appointed a special, bipartisan commission to propose solutions to the alleged fiscal crisis, and spent much of his first term trying to negotiate a Grand Bargain on the budget with Republicans.

That bargain never happened, because Republicans refused to consider any deal that raised taxes. Nonetheless, debt and deficits have faded from the news. And there’s a good reason for that disappearing act: The whole thing turns out to have been a false alarm.

I’m not sure whether most readers realize just how thoroughly the great fiscal panic has fizzled — and the deficit scolds are, of course, still scolding. They’re even trying to spin the latest long-term projections from the Congressional Budget Office — which are distinctly non-alarming — as somehow a confirmation of their earlier scare tactics. So this seems like a good time to offer an update on the debt disaster that wasn’t.

About those projections: The budget office predicts that this year’s federal deficit will be just 2.8 percent of G.D.P., down from 9.8 percent in 2009. It’s true that the fact that we’re still running a deficit means federal debt in dollar terms continues to grow — but the economy is growing too, so the budget office expects the crucial ratio of debt to G.D.P. to remain more or less flat for the next decade.

Things are expected to deteriorate after that, mainly because of the impact of an aging population on Medicare and Social Security. But there has been a dramatic slowdown in the growth of health care costs, which used to play a big role in frightening budget scenarios. As a result, despite aging, debt in 2039 — a quarter-century from now! — is projected to be no higher, as a percentage of G.D.P., than the debt America had at the end of World War II, or that Britain had for much of the 20th century. Oh, and the budget office now expects interest rates to remain fairly low, not much higher than the economy’s rate of growth. This in turn weakens, indeed almost eliminates, the risk of a debt spiral, in which the cost of servicing debt drives debt even higher.

Still, rising debt isn’t good. So what would it take to avoid any rise in the debt ratio? Surprisingly little. The budget office estimates that stabilizing the ratio of debt to G.D.P. at its current level would require spending cuts and/or tax hikes of 1.2 percent of G.D.P. if we started now, or 1.5 percent of G.D.P. if we waited until 2020. Politically, that would be hard given total Republican opposition to anything a Democratic president might propose, but in economic terms it would be no big deal, and wouldn’t require any fundamental change in our major social programs.

In short, the debt apocalypse has been called off.

Wait — what about the risk of a crisis of confidence? There have been many warnings that such a crisis was imminent, some of them coupled with surprisingly frank admissions of disappointment that it hadn’t happened yet. For example, Alan Greenspan warned of the “Greece analogy,” and declared that it was “regrettable” that U.S. interest rates and inflation hadn’t yet soared.

But that was more than four years ago, and both inflation and interest rates remain low. Maybe the United States, which among other things borrows in its own currency and therefore can’t run out of cash, isn’t much like Greece after all.

In fact, even within Europe the severity of the debt crisis diminished rapidly once the European Central Bank began doing its job, making it clear that it would do “whatever it takes” to avoid cash crises in nations that have given up their own currencies and adopted the euro. Did you know that Italy, which remains deep in debt and suffers much more from the burden of an aging population than we do, can now borrow long term at an interest rate of only 2.78 percent? Did you know that France, which is the subject of constant negative reporting, pays only 1.57 percent?

So we don’t have a debt crisis, and never did. Why did everyone important seem to think otherwise?

To be fair, there has been some real good news about the long-run fiscal prospect, mainly from health care. But it’s hard to escape the sense that debt panic was promoted because it served a political purpose — that many people were pushing the notion of a debt crisis as a way to attack Social Security and Medicare. And they did immense damage along the way, diverting the nation’s attention from its real problems — crippling unemployment, deteriorating infrastructure and more — for years on end.


By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, Julo 20, 2014

July 22, 2014 Posted by | Debt Crisis, Deficits, Federal Budget | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Hell Bent On Another Crisis”: Will Congress Ever Grasp That The Debt Crisis Is Fake?

As the American people tried to celebrate last year’s holiday season while mourning the loss of 26 lives in Newtown, Connecticut, Congress and the White House were duking it out over the “fiscal cliff.”

Our leaders reached a temporary solution on New Year’s Day that averted some of the self-imposed toxic mix of mandated tax increases and discretionary spending cuts that threatened to trigger a new recession. In the end, they couldn’t agree on a comprehensive deal, so the sequester went into effect two months later with relatively little fanfare.

We’re still living with those $80 billion across-the-board cuts, which slashed research spending, kicked nearly 60,000 kids out of Head Start and forced Meals on Wheels to provide less help for the elderly and others in need.

Now they’re at it again. After October’s government shutdown, a new congressional committee got a Friday, December 13 deadline to reach an agreement on a budget for the 2014 fiscal year — which began more than two months ago. Come January 15, federal spending authority will run out again and we could begin 2014 with another shutdown.

On the surface, the conflict between President Barack Obama and the Republican Party is over how to cut yearly federal deficits, which pile up over time and increase the national debt. Republicans cite a “debt crisis” and construct economic doomsday scenarios to justify their insistence that Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security should be cut.

Obama says no — we need more revenue, and it needs to come from the very wealthy and corporations who don’t pay their fair share in taxes. Besides, the deficit is already much smaller – thanks to the ongoing sequester and two provisions in that New Year’s fiscal deal: a payroll tax cut for all workers and the end of the Bush-era tax cuts for the very richest Americans.

There are a couple of things wrong with this picture. To begin with, while the government is indeed operating at a deficit (albeit a much lower one) and as a consequence piling up debt, there is no debt “crisis.”

According to leading economists like Nobel Prize winner and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, deficit spending can improve ailing economies, and we should actually have more of it until ours fully recovers from the deepest crisis we’ve seen since the Great Depression.

Secondly, Republicans don’t really care about deficits and debt. After all, they created both — largely through tax cuts for the wealthy and unpaid-for wars during the George W. Bush administration. Their whole argument is a smokescreen for their core agenda — massive wealth transfers from the poor and what’s left of the middle class to the rich — through regressive tax policies and dismantling the safety net.

This isn’t new. It’s been the Republican agenda for at least 30 years.

In 2011, Republicans brought the country to the brink of default for the first time in history by insisting that a raise in the debt ceiling (historically bipartisan and routine) be offset by program cuts. This year, they shut down the government because they didn’t get their way.

Obama has said that strategy won’t work again, and the current need to once again raise the amount the government can borrow is non-negotiable. And he has upped the ante with a new demand that any future cuts be offset by tax increases on the wealthiest and corporations.

We don’t yet know if the latest standoff will trigger a new round of cuts to programs low-income Americans depend on most. Right now the House is asking for a $40 billion cut in food stamps over the next decade, and Medicare and Social Security are always on their hit list.

What we do know is that Republicans seem bent on causing one “crisis” after another, and the country loses in the bargain.


By: Martha Burk, Director of the Corporate Accountability Project for the National Council of Women’s Organizations; Published in  The Bill Moyers Blog, December 4, 2013

December 9, 2013 Posted by | Congress, Debt Crisis | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Addicted To The Apocalypse”: Scaremongers Can’t Bring Themselves To Let Go

Once upon a time, walking around shouting “The end is nigh” got you labeled a kook, someone not to be taken seriously. These days, however, all the best people go around warning of looming disaster. In fact, you more or less have to subscribe to fantasies of fiscal apocalypse to be considered respectable.

And I do mean fantasies. Washington has spent the past three-plus years in terror of a debt crisis that keeps not happening, and, in fact, can’t happen to a country like the United States, which has its own currency and borrows in that currency. Yet the scaremongers can’t bring themselves to let go.

Consider, for example, Stanley Druckenmiller, the billionaire investor, who has lately made a splash with warnings about the burden of our entitlement programs. (Gee, why hasn’t anyone else thought of making that point?) He could talk about the problems we may face a decade or two down the road. But, no. He seems to feel that he must warn about the looming threat of a financial crisis worse than 2008.

Or consider the deficit-scold organization Fix the Debt, led by the omnipresent Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. It was, I suppose, predictable that Fix the Debt would respond to the latest budget deal with a press release trying to shift the focus to its favorite subject. But the organization wasn’t content with declaring that America’s long-run budget issues remain unresolved, which is true. It had to warn that “continuing to delay confronting our debt is letting a fire burn that could get out of control at any moment.”

As I’ve already suggested, there are two remarkable things about this kind of doomsaying. One is that the doomsayers haven’t rethought their premises despite being wrong again and again — perhaps because the news media continue to treat them with immense respect. The other is that as far as I can tell nobody, and I mean nobody, in the looming-apocalypse camp has tried to explain exactly how the predicted disaster would actually work.

On the Chicken Little aspect: It’s actually awesome, in a way, to realize how long cries of looming disaster have filled our airwaves and op-ed pages. For example, I just reread an op-ed article by Alan Greenspan in The Wall Street Journal, warning that our budget deficit will lead to soaring inflation and interest rates. What about the reality of low inflation and low rates? That, he declares in the article, is “regrettable, because it is fostering a sense of complacency.”

It’s curious how readily people who normally revere the wisdom of markets declare the markets all wrong when they fail to panic the way they’re supposed to. But the really striking thing at this point is the date: Mr. Greenspan’s article was published in June 2010, almost three and a half years ago — and both inflation and interest rates remain low.

So has the ex-Maestro reconsidered his views after having been so wrong for so long? Not a bit. His new (and pretty bad) book declares that “the bias toward unconstrained deficit spending is our top domestic economic problem.”

Meanwhile, about that oft-prophesied, never-arriving debt crisis: In Senate testimony more than two and half years ago, Mr. Bowles warned that we were likely to face a fiscal crisis within around two years, and he urged his listeners to “just stop for a minute and think about what happens” if “our bankers in Asia” stop buying our debt. But has he, or anyone in his camp, actually tried to think through what would happen? No, not really. They just assume that it would cause soaring interest rates and economic collapse, when both theory and evidence suggest otherwise.

Don’t believe me? Look at Japan, a country that, like America, has its own currency and borrows in that currency, and has much higher debt relative to G.D.P. than we do. Since taking office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has, in effect, engineered exactly the kind of loss of confidence the debt worriers fear — that is, he has persuaded investors that deflation is over and inflation lies ahead, which reduces the attractiveness of Japanese bonds. And the effects on the Japanese economy have been entirely positive! Interest rates are still low, because people expect the Bank of Japan (the equivalent of our Federal Reserve) to keep them low; the yen has fallen, which is a good thing, because it make Japanese exports more competitive. And Japanese economic growth has actually accelerated.

Why, then, should we fear a debt apocalypse here? Surely, you may think, someone in the debt-apocalypse community has offered a clear explanation. But nobody has.

So the next time you see some serious-looking man in a suit declaring that we’re teetering on the precipice of fiscal doom, don’t be afraid. He and his friends have been wrong about everything so far, and they literally have no idea what they’re talking about.


By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, October 24, 2013

October 26, 2013 Posted by | Budget, Debt Crisis, Fiscal Policy | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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