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“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

“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

“When Prophecy Fails”: It’s Time To Stop Taking The Members Of The Doomsday Cult Seriously

Back in the 1950s three social psychologists joined a cult that was predicting the imminent end of the world. Their purpose was to observe the cultists’ response when the world did not, in fact, end on schedule. What they discovered, and described in their classic book, “When Prophecy Fails,” is that the irrefutable failure of a prophecy does not cause true believers — people who have committed themselves to a belief both emotionally and by their life choices — to reconsider. On the contrary, they become even more fervent, and proselytize even harder.

This insight seems highly relevant as 2012 draws to a close. After all, a lot of people came to believe that we were on the brink of catastrophe — and these views were given extraordinary reach by the mass media. As it turned out, of course, the predicted catastrophe failed to materialize. But we can be sure that the cultists won’t admit to having been wrong. No, the people who told us that a fiscal crisis was imminent will just keep at it, more convinced than ever.

Oh, wait a second — did you think I was talking about the Mayan calendar thing?

Seriously, at every stage of our ongoing economic crisis — and in particular, every time anyone has suggested actually trying to do something about mass unemployment — a chorus of voices has warned that unless we bring down budget deficits now now now, financial markets will turn on America, driving interest rates sky-high. And these prophecies of doom have had a powerful effect on our economic discourse.

Thus, back in May 2009 the Wall Street Journal editorial page seized on an uptick in long-term interest rates to declare that the “bond vigilantes,” the “disciplinarians of U.S. policy makers,” had arrived, and would push rates inexorably higher if big budget deficits continued. As it happened, rates soon went back down. But that didn’t stop The Journal’s news section from rolling out the same story the next time rates rose: “Debt fears send rates up,” blared a headline in March 2010; the debt continued to grow, but the rates went down again.

At this point the yield on the benchmark 10-year bond is less than half what it was when that 2009 editorial was published. But don’t expect any rethinking on The Journal’s part.

Now, you could say that The Journal’s editors didn’t give a specific date for the fiscal apocalypse, although I doubt that any of their readers imagined that they were talking about an event at least three years and seven months in the future.

In any case, some of the most prominent deficit scolds have indeed been willing to talk about dates, or at least time horizons. In early 2011 Erskine Bowles confidently declared that we would face a fiscal crisis within around two years unless something like the Bowles-Simpson deficit plan was enacted, and Alan Simpson chimed in to say that it would be less than two years. I guess he has about 10 weeks left. But again, don’t expect either Mr. Simpson or Mr. Bowles to admit that there might have been something fundamentally wrong with their analysis.

No, very few of the prophets of fiscal doom have acknowledged the failure of their prophecies to come true so far. And those who have admitted surprise seem more annoyed than chastened. For example, back in 2010 Alan Greenspan — who is, for some reason, still treated as an authority figure — conceded that despite large budget deficits, “inflation and long-term interest rates, the typical symptoms of fiscal excess, have remained remarkably subdued.” But he went on to declare, “This is regrettable, because it is fostering a sense of complacency.” How dare reality not validate my fears!

Regular readers know that I and other economists argued from the beginning that these dire warnings of fiscal catastrophe were all wrong, that budget deficits won’t cause soaring interest rates as long as the economy is depressed — and that the biggest risk to the economy is that we might try to slash the deficit too soon. And surely that point of view has been strongly validated by events.

The key thing we need to understand, however, is that the prophets of fiscal disaster, no matter how respectable they may seem, are at this point effectively members of a doomsday cult. They are emotionally and professionally committed to the belief that fiscal crisis lurks just around the corner, and they will hold to their belief no matter how many corners we turn without encountering that crisis.

So we cannot and will not persuade these people to reconsider their views in the light of the evidence. All we can do is stop paying attention. It’s going to be difficult, because many members of the deficit cult seem highly respectable. But they’ve been hugely, absurdly wrong for years on end, and it’s time to stop taking them seriously.

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 22, 2012

December 24, 2012 Posted by | Budget, Deficits | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Another Republican Insult”: Paul Ryan’s Dangerous Obsession With Ayn Rand

Honestly, grown men who swear by Ayn Rand might be locked up inside the house—and not the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan. I mean back home in Janesville, Wis., where your new stature as presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate has raised a hullabaloo all the way up to Baraboo. The venerable Alan Greenspan should be put under honorary house arrest, too, for his lifelong disciple-like embrace of Rand’s ideas, which has cost the country more dearly than we shall ever know.

As chairman of the Federal Reserve during four presidencies, Greenspan displayed a laissez-faire ferocious faith in the free marketplace. This caused him to completely ignore signs of the economy going soft and awry on his watch. Remember when the dot com bubble burst?

The late Rand’s entrance into this presidential election, thanks to Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, is more serious than it seems. Sweet reason has a hard time with Rand glorifying selfishness as political doctrine. Now that “selfishness ethic” happens all the time, accompanied by vicious attacks on the federal government and people who work for it, in the Republican-run House. It’s not all the author’s fault, but Ryan’s devotion to Rand is yet another Republican insult and injury to classic American ideas of fairness, squareness, and civic-mindedness.

In fact, the Ryan-authored House Republican budget document, which cuts the heart out of our body politic, ripping social services and Medicare to shreds, is a pledge to the Rand coat of arms, standing against people who need a little help from other people. And in turn, Rand gives him a rationale for the intellectual poverty of his ideas.

I don’t know grown women mean enough to believe in Rand’s lunar-like worldview. Her “objectivism” is portrayed in glittering novels, including We The Living, Atlas Shrugged, and The Fountainhead. Then again, she was not much interested in reaching women. Let’s be real: In life and work, this woman cared about having men in her thrall. She succeeded beyond what you might expect of a nice girl from St. Petersburg, born in 1905.

Trouble was, she got stuck in the Russian Revolution upheaval at an impressionable age. Scarred by communist collective ideals and the violence of change, she created the uber-capitalist myth of the strong man standing alone years after emigrating to the United States as a young woman. She also worked as a screenwriter.

Some would say Rand actually devolved from Social Darwinism. As despicable as her influence is, Greenspan can say he was caught up in a vanguard of his younger days, when the Soviet Union set off waves of alarrm and opposition to Communism as practiced by the ruthlesss Joseph Stalin.

But Ryan, 42, has lived his life on the right side of the tracks in the serene peace of Janesville, so why is he so sharp-edged with our social contract? So far, his mark on the 2012 race is allowing Rand to skip down two generations, from the octogenarian Greenspan to himself. Rand died in 1982, but hey, she lives on in a real way to this day.

 

By: Jamie Stiehm, Washington Whispers, U. S. News and World Report, August 14, 2012

August 15, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Philosophy Of A Psychopath”: How Ayn Rand Became The New Right’s Version Of Marx

It has a fair claim to be the ugliest philosophy the postwar world has produced. Selfishness, it contends, is good, altruism evil, empathy and compassion are irrational and destructive. The poor deserve to die; the rich deserve unmediated power. It has already been tested, and has failed spectacularly and catastrophically. Yet the belief system constructed by Ayn Rand, who died 30 years ago today, has never been more popular or influential.

Rand was a Russian from a prosperous family who emigrated to the United States. Through her novels (such as Atlas Shrugged) and her nonfiction (such as The Virtue of Selfishness) she explained a philosophy she called Objectivism. This holds that the only moral course is pure self-interest. We owe nothing, she insists, to anyone, even to members of our own families. She described the poor and weak as “refuse” and “parasites”, and excoriated anyone seeking to assist them. Apart from the police, the courts and the armed forces, there should be no role for government: no social security, no public health or education, no public infrastructure or transport, no fire service, no regulations, no income tax.

Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, depicts a United States crippled by government intervention in which heroic millionaires struggle against a nation of spongers. The millionaires, whom she portrays as Atlas holding the world aloft, withdraw their labour, with the result that the nation collapses. It is rescued, through unregulated greed and selfishness, by one of the heroic plutocrats, John Galt.

The poor die like flies as a result of government programmes and their own sloth and fecklessness. Those who try to help them are gassed. In a notorious passage, she argues that all the passengers in a train filled with poisoned fumes deserved their fate. One, for instance, was a teacher who taught children to be team players; one was a mother married to a civil servant, who cared for her children; one was a housewife “who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing”.

Rand’s is the philosophy of the psychopath, a misanthropic fantasy of cruelty, revenge and greed. Yet, as Gary Weiss shows in his new book, Ayn Rand Nation, she has become to the new right what Karl Marx once was to the left: a demigod at the head of a chiliastic cult. Almost one third of Americans, according to a recent poll, have read Atlas Shrugged, and it now sells hundreds of thousands of copies every year.

Ignoring Rand’s evangelical atheism, the Tea Party movement has taken her to its heart. No rally of theirs is complete without placards reading “Who is John Galt?” and “Rand was right”. Rand, Weiss argues, provides the unifying ideology which has “distilled vague anger and unhappiness into a sense of purpose”. She is energetically promoted by the broadcasters Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santelli. She is the guiding spirit of the Republicans in Congress.

Like all philosophies, Objectivism is absorbed, secondhand, by people who have never read it. I believe it is making itself felt on this side of the Atlantic: in the clamorous new demands to remove the 50p tax band for the very rich, for instance; or among the sneering, jeering bloggers who write for the Telegraph and the Spectator, mocking compassion and empathy, attacking efforts to make the word a kinder place.

It is not hard to see why Rand appeals to billionaires. She offers them something that is crucial to every successful political movement: a sense of victimhood. She tells them that they are parasitised by the ungrateful poor and oppressed by intrusive, controlling governments.

It is harder to see what it gives the ordinary teabaggers, who would suffer grievously from a withdrawal of government. But such is the degree of misinformation which saturates this movement and so prevalent in the US is Willy Loman syndrome (the gulf between reality and expectations) that millions blithely volunteer themselves as billionaires’ doormats. I wonder how many would continue to worship at the shrine of Ayn Rand if they knew that towards the end of her life she signed on for both Medicare and social security. She had railed furiously against both programmes, as they represented everything she despised about the intrusive state. Her belief system was no match for the realities of age and ill health.

But they have a still more powerful reason to reject her philosophy: as Adam Curtis’s BBC documentary showed last year, the most devoted member of her inner circle was Alan Greenspan, former head of the US Federal Reserve. Among the essays he wrote for Rand were those published in a book he co-edited with her called Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal. Here, starkly explained, you’ll find the philosophy he brought into government. There is no need for the regulation of business – even builders or Big Pharma – he argued, as “the ‘greed’ of the businessman or, more appropriately, his profit-seeking … is the unexcelled protector of the consumer”. As for bankers, their need to win the trust of their clients guarantees that they will act with honour and integrity. Unregulated capitalism, he maintains, is a “superlatively moral system”.

Once in government, Greenspan applied his guru’s philosophy to the letter, cutting taxes for the rich, repealing the laws constraining banks, refusing to regulate the predatory lending and the derivatives trading which eventually brought the system down. Much of this is already documented, but Weiss shows that in the US, Greenspan has successfully airbrushed history.

Despite the many years he spent at her side, despite his previous admission that it was Rand who persuaded him that “capitalism is not only efficient and practical but also moral”, he mentioned her in his memoirs only to suggest that it was a youthful indiscretion – and this, it seems, is now the official version. Weiss presents powerful evidence that even today Greenspan remains her loyal disciple, having renounced his partial admission of failure to Congress.

Saturated in her philosophy, the new right on both sides of the Atlantic continues to demand the rollback of the state, even as the wreckage of that policy lies all around. The poor go down, the ultra-rich survive and prosper. Ayn Rand would have approved.

 

By: George Monbiot, The Guardian, March 5, 2012

March 7, 2012 Posted by | Right Wing | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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