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“Austerity’s Grim Legacy”: Deficit Fetishism Was Both Wrongheaded And Destructive

When economic crisis struck in 2008, policy makers by and large did the right thing. The Federal Reserve and other central banks realized that supporting the financial system took priority over conventional notions of monetary prudence. The Obama administration and its counterparts realized that in a slumping economy budget deficits were helpful, not harmful. And the money-printing and borrowing worked: A repeat of the Great Depression, which seemed all too possible at the time, was avoided.

Then it all went wrong. And the consequences of the wrong turn we took look worse now than the harshest critics of conventional wisdom ever imagined.

For those who don’t remember (it’s hard to believe how long this has gone on): In 2010, more or less suddenly, the policy elite on both sides of the Atlantic decided to stop worrying about unemployment and start worrying about budget deficits instead.

Some of us tried in vain to point out that deficit fetishism was both wrongheaded and destructive, that there was no good evidence that government debt was a problem for major economies, while there was plenty of evidence that cutting spending in a depressed economy would deepen the depression.

And we were vindicated by events. More than four and a half years have passed since Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles warned of a fiscal crisis within two years; U.S. borrowing costs remain at historic lows. Meanwhile, the austerity policies that were put into place in 2010 and after had exactly the depressing effects textbook economics predicted; the confidence fairy never did put in an appearance.

Yet there’s growing evidence that we critics actually underestimated just how destructive the turn to austerity would be. Specifically, it now looks as if austerity policies didn’t just impose short-term losses of jobs and output, but they also crippled long-run growth.

The idea that policies that depress the economy in the short run also inflict lasting damage is generally referred to as “hysteresis.” It’s an idea with an impressive pedigree: The case for hysteresis was made in a well-known 1986 paper by Olivier Blanchard, who later became the chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, and Lawrence Summers, who served as a top official in both the Clinton and the Obama administrations. But I think everyone was hesitant to apply the idea to the Great Recession, for fear of seeming excessively alarmist.

At this point, however, the evidence practically screams hysteresis. Even countries that seem to have largely recovered from the crisis, like the United States, are far poorer than precrisis projections suggested they would be at this point. And a new paper by Mr. Summers and Antonio Fatás, in addition to supporting other economists’ conclusion that the crisis seems to have done enormous long-run damage, shows that the downgrading of nations’ long-run prospects is strongly correlated with the amount of austerity they imposed.

What this suggests is that the turn to austerity had truly catastrophic effects, going far beyond the jobs and income lost in the first few years. In fact, the long-run damage suggested by the Fatás-Summers estimates is easily big enough to make austerity a self-defeating policy even in purely fiscal terms: Governments that slashed spending in the face of depression hurt their economies, and hence their future tax receipts, so much that even their debt will end up higher than it would have been without the cuts.

And the bitter irony of the story is that this catastrophic policy was undertaken in the name of long-run responsibility, that those who protested against the wrong turn were dismissed as feckless.

There are a few obvious lessons from this debacle. “All the important people say so” is not, it turns out, a good way to decide on policy; groupthink is no substitute for clear analysis. Also, calling for sacrifice (by other people, of course) doesn’t mean you’re tough-minded.

But will these lessons sink in? Past economic troubles, like the stagflation of the 1970s, led to widespread reconsideration of economic orthodoxy. But one striking aspect of the past few years has been how few people are willing to admit having been wrong about anything. It seems all too possible that the Very Serious People who cheered on disastrous policies will learn nothing from the experience. And that is, in its own way, as scary as the economic outlook.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columist, The New York Times, November 6, 2015

November 9, 2015 Posted by | Austerity, Economic Recovery, Financial Crisis | , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Why Liberals Have To Be Radicals”: Going After The Grotesquely Concentrated Wealth And Power At The Top

Just about nothing being proposed in mainstream politics is radical enough to fix what ails the economy. Consider everything that is destroying the life chances of ordinary people:

  • Young adults are staggered by $1.3 trillion in student debt. Yet even those with college degrees are losing ground in terms of incomes.
  • The economy of regular payroll jobs and career paths has given way to a gig economy of short-term employment that will soon hit four workers in 10.
  • The income distribution has become so extreme, with the one percent capturing such a large share of the pie, that even a $15/hour national minimum wage would not be sufficient to restore anything like the more equal economy of three decades ago. Even the mainstream press acknowledges these gaps.

The New York Times’s Noam Scheiber, using Bureau of Labor Statistics data, calculated that raising the minimum wage to $15 for the period 2009 to 2014 would have increased the total income for the 44 million Americans who earn less than $15 an hour by a total of $300 billion to $400 billion. But during the same period, Scheiber reported, the top 10 percent increased its income by almost twice that amount.

Scheiber concludes:

So even if we’d raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, the top 10 percent would still have emerged from the 2009-2014 period with a substantially larger share of the increase in the nation’s income than the bottom 90 percent. Inequality would still have increased, just not by as much.

Restoring a more equal economy simply can’t be done by raising incomes at the bottom, even with a minimum wage high that seemed inconceivable just months ago. It requires going after the grotesquely concentrated wealth and power at the top.

Last week, another writer in the Times, Eduardo Porter, assessed Hillary Clinton’s eagerly anticipated speech on how to rescue the middle class.

Porter’s conclusion? Far from sufficient. He writes:

Mrs. Clinton’s collection of proposals is mostly sensible. The older ones — raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing child care to encourage women into the labor force, paying for early childhood education — have a solid track record of research on their side. The newer propositions, like encouraging profit-sharing, also push in the right direction.

But here’s the rub: This isn’t enough.

Nothing in mainstream politics takes seriously the catastrophe of global climate change. Few mainstream politicians have the nerve to call for a carbon tax.

The budget deadlock and the sequester mechanism, in which both major parties have conspired, makes it impossible to invest the kind of money needed both to modernize outmoded public infrastructure (with a shortfall now estimated at $3.4 trillion) or to finance a green transition.

The economy is so captive to financial engineers that even interest rates close to zero do not help mainstream businesses recover. There is still a vicious circle of inadequate purchasing power and insufficient domestic investment.

The rules of globalization and tax favoritism make it more attractive for companies to assemble products, export jobs and book profits overseas.

To remedy the problem of income inequality would require radical reform both of the rules of finance and of our tax code, as well as drastic changes in labor market regulation so that employees of hybrids such as Uber and TaskRabbit would have both decent earnings and the protections of regular payroll employees.

Congress would have to blow up the sequester deal that makes it impossible to invest money on the scale necessary to repair broken infrastructure and deal with the challenge of climate change.

Politicians would have to reform the debt-for-diploma system, not only going forward, as leaders like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have proposed, but also to give a great deal of debt relief to those saddled with existing loans.

Unions would need to regain the effective right to organize and bargain collectively.

This is all as radical as, well, … Dwight Eisenhower. Somehow, in the postwar era, ordinary people enjoyed economic security and opportunity; and despite the economy of broad prosperity, there were plenty of incentives for business to make decent profits. There just weren’t today’s chasms of inequality.

But the reforms needed to restore that degree of shared prosperity are somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders.

This is one of those moments when there is broad popular frustration, a moment when liberal goals require measures that seem radical by today’s standards. If progressives don’t articulate those frustrations and propose real solutions, rightwing populists will propose crackpot ones. Muddle-through and token gestures won’t fool anybody.

 

By: Robert Kuttner, Co-Founder and Co- Editor, The American Prospect, July 22, 2015

July 25, 2015 Posted by | Economic Recovery, Economy, Middle Class | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Voodoo, Jeb! Style”: Mr. Bush Imagines That He Is Privy To Secrets That Have Evaded Everyone Else

On Monday Jeb Bush — or I guess that’s Jeb!, since he seems to have decided to replace his family name with a punctuation mark — finally made his campaign for the White House official, and gave us a first view of his policy goals. First, he says that if elected he would double America’s rate of economic growth to 4 percent. Second, he would make it possible for every American to lose as much weight as he or she wants, without any need for dieting or exercise.

O.K., he didn’t actually make that second promise. But he might as well have. It would have been just as realistic as promising 4 percent growth, and considerably less irresponsible.

I’ll get to Jeb!onomics in a minute, but first let me tell you about a dirty little secret of economics — namely, that we don’t know very much about how to raise the long-run rate of economic growth. Economists do know how to promote recovery from temporary slumps, even if politicians usually refuse to take their advice. But once the economy is near full employment, further growth depends on raising output per worker. And while there are things that might help make that happen, the truth is that nobody knows how to conjure up rapid productivity gains.

Why, then, would Mr. Bush imagine that he is privy to secrets that have evaded everyone else?

One answer, which is actually kind of funny, is that he believes that the growth in Florida’s economy during his time as governor offers a role model for the nation as a whole. Why is that funny? Because everyone except Mr. Bush knows that, during those years, Florida was booming thanks to the mother of all housing bubbles. When the bubble burst, the state plunged into a deep slump, much worse than that in the nation as a whole. Taking the boom and the slump together, Florida’s longer-term economic performance has, if anything, been slightly worse than the national average.

The key to Mr. Bush’s record of success, then, was good political timing: He managed to leave office before the unsustainable nature of the boom he now invokes became obvious.

But Mr. Bush’s economic promises reflect more than self-aggrandizement. They also reflect his party’s habit of boasting about its ability to deliver rapid economic growth, even though there’s no evidence at all to justify such boasts. It’s as if a bunch of relatively short men made a regular practice of swaggering around, telling everyone they see that they’re 6 feet 2 inches tall.

To be more specific, the next time you encounter some conservative going on about growth, you might want to bring up the following list of names and numbers: Bill Clinton, 3.7; Ronald Reagan, 3.4; Barack Obama, 2.1; George H.W. Bush, 2.0; George W. Bush, 1.6. Yes, that’s the last five presidents — and the average rate of growth of the U.S. economy during their time in office (so far, in Mr. Obama’s case). Obviously, the raw numbers don’t tell the whole story, but surely there’s nothing in that list to suggest that conservatives possess some kind of miracle cure for economic sluggishness. And, as many have pointed out, if Jeb! knows the secret to 4 percent growth, why didn’t he tell his father and brother?

Or consider the experience of Kansas, where Gov. Sam Brownback pushed through radical tax cuts that were supposed to drive rapid economic growth. “We’ll see how it works. We’ll have a real live experiment,” he declared. And the results of the experiment are now in: The promised boom never arrived, big deficits did, and, despite savage cuts to schools and other public services, Kansas eventually had to raise taxes again (with the pain concentrated on lower-income residents).

Why, then, all the boasting about growth? The short answer, surely, is that it’s mainly about finding ways to sell tax cuts for the wealthy. Such cuts are unpopular in and of themselves, and even more so if, like the Kansas tax cuts for businesses and the affluent, they must be paid for with higher taxes on working families and/or cuts in popular government programs. Yet low taxes on the rich are an overriding policy priority on the right — and promises of growth miracles let conservatives claim that everyone will benefit from trickle-down, and maybe even that tax cuts will pay for themselves.

There is, of course, a term for basing a national program on this kind of self-serving (and plutocrat-serving) wishful thinking. Way back in 1980, George H.W. Bush, running against Reagan for the presidential nomination, famously called it “voodoo economic policy.” And while Reaganolatry is now obligatory in the G.O.P., the truth is that he was right.

So what does it say about the state of the party that Mr. Bush’s son — often portrayed as the moderate, reasonable member of the family — has chosen to make himself a high priest of voodoo economics? Nothing good.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, June 19, 2015

June 21, 2015 Posted by | Economic Growth, Economic Recovery, Jeb Bush | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“When Things Go Well”: Republicans Now Take Credit For The Recovery They Sabotaged

This is unlikely to prompt anyone to break out the bubbly in the Oval Office, but last week’s poll numbers are nevertheless good news for President Obama. Since Democrats were thrashed in November’s midterm elections, the president’s approval ratings have been on the upswing.

As he prepares to deliver his sixth State of the Union address on Jan. 20, Obama’s approval has crept up to 47 percent, according to a new survey from Pew Research. That’s up 5 points since December.

Most analysts believe Obama’s recovering fortunes are the result of a much-improved economy — the one gauge that’s reliably important to voters. It’s taken a few years, but average workers are finally beginning to put the Great Recession behind them.

Take note of this now. Keep it in a spare file in your memory bank. Remember that the economy has been advancing for the six years of Obama’s tenure — a frustratingly slow process that is finally bearing fruit. The unemployment rate is now at 5.6 percent, the lowest since 2008. Foreclosures are down to pre-recession levels. The stock market is in historically high territory.

Why do I want you to remember this? In a stunning show of chutzpah, the president’s harshest critics, the hyper-conservatives who’ve done everything they could to wreck his presidency, want to take credit for the recovery they tried to sabotage.

Just take a look at the speech Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell gave on the day he took the helm of the Senate as the new majority leader.

“After so many years of sluggish growth, we’re finally starting to see some economic data that can provide a glimmer of hope. The uptick appears to coincide with the biggest political change of the Obama administration’s long tenure in Washington: the expectation of a new Republican Congress,” he said.

According to his logic, consumers spent more money and businesses hired more workers starting back in the summer because they expected Republicans to win a majority in Congress. That’s nonsense.

Obama inherited a mess from George W. Bush — a financial crisis brought on by the excesses of Wall Street. President Bush started the bailout, but most of the work was left for the Obama administration. Obama continued the Wall Street bailout, passed a massive stimulus package and rescued the auto industry. Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, fought him every step of the way. That the economy has bounced back anyway is testament to its underlying resiliency.

Perhaps the greatest driver of consumers’ new optimism is the free-fall in gas prices, which haven’t been this low since the Great Recession drove down demand worldwide. Obama didn’t spur the investment in domestic oil drilling, but he has encouraged it, noting that it would help to free us from a dependence on foreign oil.

None of these hard-won gains have come a moment too soon. And, yes, there’s still much work to be done to revive the American middle class. The growing gap between the comfortable and everybody else remains one of the biggest threats to domestic tranquility. Wages are still stagnant.

Obama is well aware of that. In his State of the Union speech, he is expected to announce an ambitious new proposal to provide free access to the nation’s two-year community colleges. It’s an excellent plan.

Education experts say there are about 8 million community college students, and their average annual tuition is around $3,800. To the comfortable classes, that might not seem like much. But it presents a barrier to many working-class students trying to change their circumstances. It’s an investment that the nation can afford to make — and should make.

But like the other proposals the president has made to boost the economy, this one is likely to meet resistance from the Republicans in Congress. They want to take credit when things go well, but they’re only too willing to block a good idea if it comes from Obama.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, January 17, 2015

January 19, 2015 Posted by | Economic Recovery, Economy, Great Recession | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It’s The Facts Stupid”: The GOP Should Stop Lying About Obama’s Economy

Friday’s boffo jobs report—the 58th straight month of jobs growth in an expansion that has now entered its 67th month—was only the latest in a long string of positive economic data.

This recovery, which started in July 2009, has been the most politicized, partisan expansion I can recall. Indeed, for the last six years, monthly data like the employment report –as well as new initiatives and proposals to get the economy rolling—have been greeted by critics with apocalyptic declarations. For the last six years, we’ve seen a continuing response from Republicans: Under the set of policies pursued by President Obama (some of them continuations of policies enacted by President Bush) and of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke (a Bush appointee) and Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen, the U.S. economic ship is like the Titanic—rudderless in dangerous seas, bound for doom, about to sink.

Let’s review some of the greatest hits. In March 2009, at the depths of the recession, when the stimulus bill passed Michael Boskin, economic adviser to the first President Bush, took to the Wall Street Journal editorial page on March 6, 2009, to proclaim ”Obama’s Radicalism is Killing the Dow.” Were his budget and stimulus plans to be adopted, the U.S. would risk becoming a “European-style social welfare state with its concomitant long-run economic stagnation.” That day, the Dow touched, 6,600. Almost immediately, the markets commenced a raging, historical bull run. The Dow closed Friday at 17,737, an increase of 168 percent from March 2009.

In February, 2011, Rep. Paul Ryan, the former vice presidential candidate, took out after Bernanke, arguing that the Fed’s efforts to support an economy still laboring under the fallout of a financial crisis and a deep recession were poison. Specifically, Ryan assured the public that the Fed’s bond-buying  efforts would ignite runaway inflation and tank the dollar. “There is nothing more insidious that a country can do to its citizens than debase its currency.” Whoops. Since then, inflation has been remarkably tame. The consumer price index, the official measure of inflation, actually fell .3 percent in November, and is up a mere 1.3 percent in the previous 12 months—far below the historical norm.  And the dollar? Far from depreciating, it has been going gangbusters. The trade-weighted dollar index, which measures the strength of our currency against those of our major economic partners and competitors, has soared 15 percent since early 2011 and now stands at a nine-year high.

As the Bureau of Labor Statistics started pumping out reports that showed the economy adding jobs starting in early 2010, the response was generally to ignore them, or worse.  In October, 2012, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch famously tweeted, “Unbelievable jobs numbers…these Chicago guys will do anything..can’t debate so change numbers.” In fact, we now know that the September 2012 jobs report  was one of a continuing series—59 straight months and counting—in which the economy has added jobs. More than 10 million in all, more than recouping all the positions lost in the deep recession.

In 2011, candidate Mitt Romney claimed that, were he to be elected, the unemployment rate would fall below 6 percent by the end of his first term in 2016. Last month, under Obama, the rate fell to 5.6 percent, the lowest level since June 2008.

Next we were assured, the botched rollout of Obamacare was certain to manage the twin tasks of tanking the economy as a whole and resulting in a massive loss of insurance. In March 2014, House Speaker John Boehner noted “there are less people today with health insurance than there were before this law went into effect.” In fact, as countless studies and the continuing series of Gallup polls have shown, the percentage of people without health insurance has declined dramatically—from 18 percent in the third quarter of 2013, to 12.9 percent in the final quarter of 2014, a decline of nearly 30 percent. Oh, and in the year since Obamacare formally launched, the U.S. economy has posted solid growth while adding 2.95 million jobs—the best such performance since 1999.

Look. The recovery is nowhere near complete—there are still too many people who want and need jobs but can’t find them. And wages remain stagnant. But the larger narrative that has played out in front of our eyes has defied the one predicted by Republican establishment economists and economic thinkers, and vindicated those who argued America was coming back (like me). The stock market is booming, not tanking; interest rates are muted, not out of control; the deficit is shrinking, not expanding; the economy is adding lots of jobs, not shedding them; the dollar is robust, not weak; inflation is nonexistent, not out of control; energy prices have plummeted, not soared; millions of people have gained health insurance, not lost it.

Virtually everything GOP critics have told us would follow from the policies put in place has not come to pass. You would think that this would occasion a few mea culpas, some rethinking, an admission of poor prognostication. But, alas, it continues. Rep. Paul Ryan is now warning in a column that Obamacare “is weighing down our economy and discouraging hiring” and will ultimately “collapse under its own weight.”

I shouldn’t say nothing has changed. Efforts to deny economic gains have been increasingly difficult to carry off the longer the expansion continues. And so we’re now seeing a slight shift in narrative. Rather than argue that the economy and everything associated with it is in the crapper, Republicans are conceding that things might be looking up. But it’s only because the GOP won control of the House and Senate in November. “After so many years of sluggish growth, we’re finally starting to see some economic data that can provide a glimmer of hope,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week. “the uptick appears to coincide with the biggest political change of the Obama Administration’s long tenure in Washington: the expectation of a new Republican Congress.”

 

By: Daniel Gross, The Daily Beast, January 12, 2014

 

January 13, 2015 Posted by | Economic Recovery, Economy, GOP | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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