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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

“It’s Time For Republicans To Get Serious”: Spending Cuts In President Obama’s Budget Put Onus On Paul Ryan

When it comes to deficit reduction, President Barack Obama may have correctly taken the measure of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles and U.S. corporate leaders; that’s a reason why any deficit deal is more remote than ever.

Two and a half years ago, when the president refused to embrace the recommendations of his own deficit-reduction panel, he was criticized by the authors, Bowles, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, and Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, as well as by business leaders.

The plan proposed a balance of spending reductions and tax increases of about $4 trillion over almost a decade; that would bring the long-term debt to a sustainable level, according to proponents, who said the president was abdicating leadership.

Privately, Obama saw the proposal as a trap. If he embraced it, Republicans would say, “let’s focus on areas where we agree — spending, including entitlement cuts — and return later to raising revenue.” Then, he feared, Simpson, Bowles and those worried executives would provide aid and comfort for that position, handing a devastating defeat to Democrats.

In these recurring budget battles, Obama deserves his share of blame. At the turn of the year, he was unwilling to hang tough for an entitlements-revenue deal as tax increases loomed for all Americans. He blinked and accepted a smaller tax increase on the wealthy. The White House then miscalculated that the mindless across-the-board spending cuts under sequestration were so bad that an alternative would emerge.

Yet, a month ago, Obama took a risk and proposed a budget containing cuts to entitlements cherished by his party. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, and his cohorts were unmoved; they wouldn’t give an inch on new revenue.

Simpson and Bowles gave Obama a pat on the back and largely refrained from criticizing Ryan or House Speaker John Boehner, while corporate leaders ducked.

Moreover, Simpson and Bowles have revised their plan and moved to the right, proposing proportionately more spending cuts and less in new revenue. Obama is playing ball, Ryan isn’t, and the two deficit hawks, and their CEO supporters, are rewarding the guy who is stiffing them.

Simpson and Bowles have been admirably persistent, open to some modifications and correctly insistent on the need to curb long-term health-care costs. A spokesman offered this explanation for their latest move to the right: Republicans now control the House. Sorry, Republicans had just won a huge victory, taking control of the House, and were on a high when Bowles-Simpson was first offered in December 2010.

What’s really going on is that their fervent hope for a deal rests on a naïve assumption that the able Ryan will strike a responsible compromise, even though he has made clear that he won’t.

The Republican position is that taxes went up as part of the deal on the so-called fiscal cliff, and there will be no more increases. In reality, all the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush were slated to expire anyway, and Republican congressional leaders, their backs against the wall, had to accept some higher levies on the wealthy.

Moreover, that $600 billion, over a decade, is only a little more than half of what Bowles-Simpson proposed. In addition, the new revenue is dwarfed by spending cuts, which have been more than twice as large.

Obama, for all his earlier timidity, showed political guts with his budget last month. He would lower cost-of-living adjustments for most Social Security recipients, means-test Medicare benefits for wealthier senior citizens and enact other reforms to entitlements that would amount to about as much as the deficit commission recommended.

This has infuriated the Democratic base, some of whom, unreasonably, oppose any cuts to Social Security or Medicare. Others warned that, whatever the merits, there was a political risk to a unilateral gesture, which would be rejected by the Republicans and rob the Democrats of a good issue.

So far, that’s proven to be the case.

Other Republican criticisms are equally dubious. The charge that Obama doesn’t deal with long-term health-care spending would be more credible if a stronger alternative were on the table. Obama’s Medicare cutbacks, over 20 years, are larger than Ryan’s. The sequestration cuts, now accepted by many Republicans, as the White House notes, provide no permanent entitlement changes. None.

There’s also sniping that the entitlement changes would be phased in only gradually. Well, that’s the only way to make entitlement changes politically viable. Consider the much-praised 1983 commission led by future Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan that made Social Security more solvent with spending cuts and higher taxes. It takes full effect in 2022, almost 40 years after it was enacted.

Corporate executives say they’re pessimistic about any long-term deficit changes and thus it’s better not to rock the boat. Who’s abdicating now?

Senate Democrats, after legitimate criticism for failing to pass a budget for years, did so this year. Now, it’s Ryan and the House Republicans who refuse to go to a conference to try to reconcile differences.

In Washington, there’s a propensity to find bipartisan fault in most conflicts. Often, that is on the mark.

Now, however, if Simpson and Bowles and the CEOs who warned about the dire need to get America’s fiscal house in order are serious, they have a clear target: Paul Ryan.

 

By: Albert R. Hunt, The National Memo, May 16, 2013

May 19, 2013 Posted by | Budget, Deficits | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Sequester Of Fools”: We Should Be Spending More, Not Less, Until We’re Close To Full Employment

They’re baaack! Just about two years ago, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairmen of the late unlamented debt commission, warned us to expect a terrible fiscal crisis within, um, two years unless we adopted their plan. The crisis hasn’t materialized, but they’re nonetheless back with a new version. And, in case you’re interested, after last year’s election — in which American voters made it clear that they want to preserve the social safety net while raising taxes on the rich — the famous fomenters of fiscal fear have moved to the right, calling for even less revenue and even more spending cuts.

But you aren’t interested, are you? Almost nobody is. Messrs. Bowles and Simpson had their moment — the annus horribilis of 2011, when Washington was in thrall to deficit scolds insisting that, in the face of record-high long-term unemployment and record-low borrowing costs, we forget about jobs and concentrate exclusively on a “grand bargain” that would supposedly (not actually) settle budget disputes for ever after.

That moment has now passed; even Mr. Bowles concedes that the search for a grand bargain is on “life support.” Let’s convene a death panel! But the legacy of that year of living foolishly lives on, in the form of the “sequester,” one of the worst policy ideas in our nation’s history.

Here’s how it happened: Republicans engaged in unprecedented hostage-taking, threatening to push America into default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless President Obama agreed to a grand bargain on their terms. Mr. Obama, alas, didn’t stand firm; instead, he tried to buy time. And, somehow, both sides decided that the way to buy time was to create a fiscal doomsday machine that would inflict gratuitous damage on the nation through spending cuts unless a grand bargain was reached. Sure enough, there is no bargain, and the doomsday machine will go off at the end of next week.

There’s a silly debate under way about who bears responsibility for the sequester, which almost everyone now agrees was a really bad idea. The truth is that Republicans and Democrats alike signed on to this idea. But that’s water under the bridge. The question we should be asking is who has a better plan for dealing with the aftermath of that shared mistake.

The right policy would be to forget about the whole thing. America doesn’t face a deficit crisis, nor will it face such a crisis anytime soon. Meanwhile, we have a weak economy that is recovering far too slowly from the recession that began in 2007. And, as Janet Yellen, the vice chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, recently emphasized, one main reason for the sluggish recovery is that government spending has been far weaker in this business cycle than in the past. We should be spending more, not less, until we’re close to full employment; the sequester is exactly what the doctor didn’t order.

Unfortunately, neither party is proposing that we just call the whole thing off. But the proposal from Senate Democrats at least moves in the right direction, replacing the most destructive spending cuts — those that fall on the most vulnerable members of our society — with tax increases on the wealthy, and delaying austerity in a way that would protect the economy.

House Republicans, on the other hand, want to take everything that’s bad about the sequester and make it worse: canceling cuts in the defense budget, which actually does contain a lot of waste and fraud, and replacing them with severe cuts in aid to America’s neediest. This would hit the nation with a double whammy, reducing growth while increasing injustice.

As always, many pundits want to portray the deadlock over the sequester as a situation in which both sides are at fault, and in which both should give ground. But there’s really no symmetry here. A middle-of-the-road solution would presumably involve a mix of spending cuts and tax increases; well, that’s what Democrats are proposing, while Republicans are adamant that it should be cuts only. And given that the proposed Republican cuts would be even worse than those set to happen under the sequester, it’s hard to see why Democrats should negotiate at all, as opposed to just letting the sequester happen.

So here we go. The good news is that compared with our last two self-inflicted crises, the sequester is relatively small potatoes. A failure to raise the debt ceiling would have threatened chaos in world financial markets; failure to reach a deal on the so-called fiscal cliff would have led to so much sudden austerity that we might well have plunged back into recession. The sequester, by contrast, will probably cost “only” around 700,000 jobs.

But the looming mess remains a monument to the power of truly bad ideas — ideas that the entire Washington establishment was somehow convinced represented deep wisdom.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, February 21, 2013

February 26, 2013 Posted by | Sequester | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Still More BS”: The Bowles-Simpson Commission Is The Fiscal Zombie That Just Won’t Die

We all do things that we regret. President Obama must surely regret that he ever listened to the extreme deficit hawks back in early 2010, when he appointed the Bowles-Simpson Commission, the fiscal zombie that just won’t die.

The commission is long defunct. The recommendations of its majority report never became law (because that required a super-majority). But the dreams and schemes of B-S have become the gold standard of deflationists everywhere. The test of budgetary soundness is: does it meet the recommendations of Bowles and Simpson?

On Tuesday, the depressive duo were at it again, calling for additional deficit reductions of $2.4 trillion over a decade. This is almost a trillion dollars beyond what President Obama and Congress are considering.

This clarion call was issued under the aegis of the corporate group, “Fix the Debt,” a bunch of millionaires and billionaires urging regular people to tighten their belts for the greater good.

Quite apart from the impact of particular cuts (Social Security, Medicare, domestic discretionary spending), this is economic lunacy—because it sandbags an already depressed economy. The Congressional Budget Office has calculated that growth would be 3 percent this year, but will only be half that rate because of the effects of the sequester (or cuts of a similar magnitude)—and Bowles and Simpson are calling for annual cuts of twice the scale of the sequester, and over a whole decade.

President Obama has focused on heading off the sequester—$85 billion of mandatory cuts in the next ten months. But he has bought into the deeper mischief wrought by Bowles and Simpson, by embracing further cuts of $1.5 trillion over a decade.

As the latest pronouncement by the B-S boys shows, the cuts are never enough. If Obama accepts $1.5 trillion, they counter with $2.4 trillion.

They are more gentlemanly than Grover Norquist, but the ideological goal is the same—a government small enough to drown in a bathtub. Even worse, deflationary cuts slow growth, making the debt load larger in real terms, no matter how much we cut.

We’ve now had a real-time experiment, in countries as diverse as Greece, Spain, and Britain. Austerity only breeds more austerity.

 

By: Robert Kuttner, The American Prospect, February 21, 2013

February 22, 2013 Posted by | Economic Recovery, Sequester | , , , , , | 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

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