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“Why Obama’s Budget Matters”: Differences Within The GOP That Could Be Finessed In The Past Will Have To Be Dealt With Openly

When President Obama releases his budget on Monday, the words “dead on arrival” will be widely incanted because they are part of a quasi-religious Beltway ritual.

This year, those words will be misleading.

No one expects Obama’s budget to be enacted as he proposes it. Republicans responded even to early outlines of his plan with a wall of opposition. But this time around is different because, paradoxically perhaps, the fact that Republicans control both the House and Senate makes Obama’s role more rather than less important.

For the last four years, the budget game was three-cornered. The president played alongside an often radically conservative Republican House and a Democratic Senate with views of its own. Now, Obama’s plan will be the main public alternative to whatever the Republicans decide to do.

Moreover, the Republicans are responsible for passing a budget through two houses, so differences within the GOP that could be finessed in the past will have to be dealt with openly.

The most obvious will be on whether to continue cuts in the defense budget prescribed under the so-called sequester enacted in 2011. GOP defense advocates want to raise Pentagon spending substantially, libertarians want to keep both domestic and military spending low, and many mainstream conservatives will try to cut domestic spending even more to accommodate defense increases. The third option will almost certainly be a non-starter, not only with the president — he has a veto and will insist that any cuts be balanced between the two sides of the ledger — but also with many in the GOP rank-and-file.

Obama has declined to offer premature concessions to the Republicans in his own proposal, which further clarifies the stakes. At the same time, he has made things trickier still for his opponents by putting many of his ideas in a form that Republicans have supported in the past. That’s true even of some of his tax proposals.

The president is aware that the most damaging alliance in Washington has been the one between establishment deficit hawks, who continue to think that long-term deficits are the premier economic issue before the country, and Republican conservatives, who have used the legitimate concerns of the deficit hawks to justify deep cuts in government programs without any offsetting increases in revenues.

The president will call this bluff by putting $1.8 trillion in long-term deficit reduction on the table. But most of it will come on the revenue side. His argument here is straightforward: The bulk of the deficit reduction in the deals reached since 2011 has come from cuts in discretionary spending — that is, almost everything except the big retirement programs — which is now at its lowest level as a share of GDP in decades.

The deficit hawks who aren’t part of the ideological assault on the public sector know that the basic functions of government have already been cut too much and that some new domestic spending, particularly for infrastructure, is essential. Obama calls the question: If additional revenues are unacceptable, how is deficit reduction supposed to be achieved? There can’t be any “grand bargains” until conservatives acknowledge upfront that tax increases of some kind need to be part of any long-term solution.

But the biggest challenge to Republicans may be whether they are willing to go along with Obama on ideas that are plainly in their wheelhouse. One small but significant hope: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) have been pushing the idea that we need more evidence-based policymaking, and Obama is joining their campaign. This sounds like a no-brainer, but much needs to be done to integrate concerns about what works and what doesn’t into our governing routines.

Republicans have been trying hard to tout their concern about income stagnation and an increasingly frozen class structure. Obama will be pushing for a new initiative, “The Upward Mobility Project,” to provide more flexibility to local officials in a set of government programs if they can show how their efforts will help people climb occupational and income ladders. Projects of this sort are exactly what we should be thinking about.

When budget fights become melodramas over whether the government will shut down or default, we lose track of what the exercise is supposed to be about. Obama’s opening bid ought to be the start of a back-to-basics debate — an argument that will extend into the 2016 campaign — over what we actually want government to do, and how we propose to pay for it.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post; The National Memo, February 2, 2015

February 3, 2015 Posted by | Federal Budget, GOP, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Secret Deficit Lovers”: The GOP Deficit Scolds Are Having A Hard Time Letting Go

What if they balanced the budget and nobody knew or cared?

O.K., the federal budget hasn’t actually been balanced. But the Congressional Budget Office has tallied up the totals for fiscal 2014, which ran through the end of September, and reports that the deficit plunge of the past several years continues. You still hear politicians ranting about “trillion dollar deficits,” but last year’s deficit was less than half-a-trillion dollars — or, a more meaningful number, just 2.8 percent of G.D.P. — and it’s still falling.

So where are the ticker-tape parades? For that matter, where are the front-page news reports? After all, talk about the evils of deficits and the grave fiscal danger facing America dominated Washington for years. Shouldn’t we be making a big deal of the fact that the alleged crisis is over?

Well, we aren’t, and once you understand why, you also understand what fiscal hysteria was really about.

First, ordinary Americans aren’t celebrating the deficit’s decline because they don’t know about it.

That’s not mere speculation on my part. Earlier this year, YouGov polled Americans on fiscal issues, asking among other things whether the deficit had increased or declined since President Obama took office. (In case you’re wondering, the pollsters carefully explained the difference between annual deficits and the level of accumulated debt.) More than half of those polled said it had gone up, while only 19 percent correctly said that it had gone down.

Why doesn’t the public know better? Probably because of the way much of the news media report this and other issues, with bad news played up and good news downplayed if it’s reported at all.

This has been glaringly obvious in the case of health reform, where every problem with the Affordable Care Act has been the subject of headlines, while in right-wing media — and to some extent in mainstream news sources — favorable developments go unremarked. As a result, many people — even, in my experience, liberals — have the impression that the rollout of Obamacare has been a disaster, and have no idea that enrollment is above expectations, costs are lower than expected, and the number of Americans without insurance has dropped sharply. Surely something similar has happened on the budget deficit.

But what about people who pay a lot of attention to the budget, the self-proclaimed deficit hawks? (Some of us prefer to call them deficit scolds.) They’ve spent the past few years telling us that budget shortfalls are the most important issue facing the nation, that terrible things will happen unless we act to stem the flow of red ink. Are they expressing satisfaction over the fading of that threat?

Not a chance. Far from celebrating the deficit’s decline, the usual suspects — fiscal-scold think tanks, inside-the-Beltway pundits — seem annoyed by the news. It’s a “false victory,” they declare. “Trillion dollar deficits are coming back,” they warn. And they’re furious with President Obama for saying that it’s time to get past “mindless austerity” and “manufactured crises.” He’s declaring mission accomplished, they say, when he should be making another push for entitlement reform.

All of which demonstrates a truth that has been apparent for a while, if you have been paying close attention: Deficit scolds actually love big budget deficits, and hate it when those deficits get smaller. Why? Because fears of a fiscal crisis — fears that they feed assiduously — are their best hope of getting what they really want: big cuts in social programs. A few years ago they almost managed to bully the nation into cutting Social Security and/or raising the Medicare eligibility age; they even had hopes of turning Medicare into an underfinanced voucher program. Now that window of opportunity is closing fast.

But isn’t the falling deficit just a short-term blip, with the long-run outlook as dire as ever? Actually, no. Falling deficits right now have a lot to do with a strengthening economy plus some of that “mindless austerity” the president condemned. But there has also been a dramatic slowdown in the growth of health spending — and if that continues, the long-run fiscal outlook is much better than anyone thought possible not long ago. Yes, current projections still show a rising ratio of debt to G.D.P. starting some years from now, and uncomfortable levels of debt a generation from now. But given all the clear and present dangers we face, it’s hard to see why dealing with that distant and uncertain prospect should be any kind of policy priority.

So let’s say goodbye to fiscal hysteria. I know that the deficit scolds are having a hard time letting go; they’re still trying to bring back the days when Bowles and Simpson bestrode the Beltway like colossi. But those days aren’t coming back, and we should be glad.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, October 9, 2014

October 13, 2014 Posted by | Austerity, Deficits, Federal Budget | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Big Shrug”: A Combination Of Complacency And Fatalism By Fiscal Policy Makers That Nothing Need Be Done Or Can Be Done

I’ve been in this economics business for a while. In fact, I’ve been in it so long I still remember what people considered normal in those long-ago days before the financial crisis. Normal, back then, meant an economy adding a million or more jobs each year, enough to keep up with the growth in the working-age population. Normal meant an unemployment rate not much above 5 percent, except for brief recessions. And while there was always some unemployment, normal meant very few people out of work for extended periods.

So how, in those long-ago days, would we have reacted to Friday’s news that the number of Americans with jobs is still down two million from six years ago, that 7.6 percent of the work force is unemployed (with many more underemployed or forced to take low-paying jobs), and that more than four million of the unemployed have been out of work for more than six months? Well, we know how most political insiders reacted: they called it a pretty good jobs report. In fact, some are even celebrating the report as “proof” that the budget sequester isn’t doing any harm.

In other words, our policy discourse is still a long way from where it ought to be.

For more than three years some of us have fought the policy elite’s damaging obsession with budget deficits, an obsession that led governments to cut investment when they should have been raising it, to destroy jobs when job creation should have been their priority. That fight seems largely won — in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like the sudden intellectual collapse of austerity economics as a policy doctrine.

But while insiders no longer seem determined to worry about the wrong things, that’s not enough; they also need to start worrying about the right things — namely, the plight of the jobless and the immense continuing waste from a depressed economy. And that’s not happening. Instead, policy makers both here and in Europe seem gripped by a combination of complacency and fatalism, a sense that nothing need be done and nothing can be done. Call it the big shrug.

Even the people I consider the good guys, policy makers who have in the past shown real concern over our economic weakness, aren’t showing much sense of urgency these days. For example, last fall some of us were greatly encouraged by the Federal Reserve’s announcement that it was instituting new measures to bolster the economy. Policy specifics aside, the Fed seemed to be signaling its willingness to do whatever it took to get unemployment down. Lately, however, what one mostly hears from the Fed is talk of “tapering,” of letting up on its efforts, even though inflation is below target, the employment situation is still terrible and the pace of improvement is glacial at best.

And Fed officials are, as I said, the good guys. Sometimes it seems as if nobody in Washington outside the Fed even considers high unemployment a problem.

Why isn’t reducing unemployment a major policy priority? One answer may be that inertia is a powerful force, and it’s hard to get policy changes absent the threat of disaster. As long as we’re adding jobs, not losing them, and unemployment is basically stable or falling, not rising, policy makers don’t feel any urgent need to act.

Another answer is that the unemployed don’t have much of a political voice. Profits are sky-high, stocks are up, so things are O.K. for the people who matter, right?

A third answer is that while we aren’t hearing so much these days from the self-styled deficit hawks, the monetary hawks — economists, politicians and officials who keep warning that low interest rates will have dire consequences — have, if anything, gotten even more vociferous. It doesn’t seem to matter that the monetary hawks, like the fiscal hawks, have an impressive record of being wrong about everything (where’s that runaway inflation they promised?). They just keep coming back; the arguments change (now they’re warning about asset bubbles), but the policy demand — tighter money and higher interest rates — is always the same. And it’s hard to escape the sense that the Fed is being intimidated into inaction.

The tragedy is that it’s all unnecessary. Yes, you hear talk about a “new normal” of much higher unemployment, but all the reasons given for this alleged new normal, such as the supposed mismatch between workers’ skills and the demands of the modern economy, fall apart when subjected to careful scrutiny. If Washington would reverse its destructive budget cuts, if the Fed would show the “Rooseveltian resolve” that Ben Bernanke demanded of Japanese officials back when he was an independent economist, we would quickly discover that there’s nothing normal or necessary about mass long-term unemployment.

So here’s my message to policy makers: Where we are is not O.K. Stop shrugging, and do your jobs.

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, June 9, 2013

June 10, 2013 Posted by | Economy, Jobs | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Grounded In Even Less Reality”: Paul Ryan’s Make-Believe Budget

If Rep. Paul Ryan wants people to take his budget manifestos seriously, he should be honest about his ambition: not so much to make the federal government fiscally sustainable as to make it smaller.

You will recall that the Ryan Budget was a big Republican selling point in last year’s election. Most famously, Ryan proposed turning Medicare into a voucher program. He offered the usual GOP recipe of tax cuts — to be offset by closing certain loopholes, which he would not specify — along with drastic reductions in non-defense “discretionary” spending.

If the plan Ryan offered had been enacted, the federal budget would not come into balance until 2040. For some reason, Republicans forgot to mention this detail in their stump speeches and campaign ads.

Voters were supposed to believe that Ryan was an apostle of fiscal rectitude. But his real aim wasn’t to balance the budget. It was to starve the federal government of revenue. Big government, in his worldview, is inherently bad — never mind that we live in an awfully big country.

Ryan and Mitt Romney offered their vision, President Obama offered his, and Americans made their choice. Rather emphatically.

Now Ryan, as chairman of the House Budget Committee, is coming back with an ostensibly new and improved version of the framework that voters rejected in November. Judging by the preview he offered Sunday, the new plan is even less grounded in reality than was the old one.

Voters might not have focused on the fact that Ryan’s original plan wouldn’t have produced a balanced budget until today’s high school students reached middle age, but the true deficit hawks in the House Republican caucus certainly noticed. They demanded a budget that reached balance much sooner. Hence Ryan’s revised plan, which claims to accomplish this feat of equilibrium within a decade.

It will, in fact, do nothing of the sort, because it appears to depend on at least one ridiculous assumption and two glaring contradictions. That’s for starters; I’m confident we’ll see more absurdities when the full proposal is released soon.

Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Ryan said his plan assumes that the far-reaching reforms known as Obamacare will be repealed. Host Chris Wallace reacted with open disbelief: “That’s not going to happen.”

Indeed, to take Ryan seriously is to believe that legislation repealing the landmark Affordable Care Act would be approved by the Senate, with its Democratic majority, and signed by Obama. What are the odds? That’s a clown question, bro.

As he did in the campaign, Ryan attacked Obama’s health reforms for cutting about $700 billion from Medicare over a decade, not by slashing benefits but by reducing payments to providers. Ryan neglected to mention that his own budget — the one he convinced the party to run on in 2012 — would cut Medicare by the same amount. Actually, by a little more.

This was hypocrisy raised to high art. How could anyone who claimed to be so very worried about the crushing federal debt blithely renounce $700 billion in savings? Ryan suggested Sunday that once Obamacare is repealed, this money can be plowed back into Medicare. Which, as you recall, will never happen.

While Ryan’s new budget assumes that Obamacare goes away, it also assumes that the tax increase on high earners approved in the “fiscal cliff” deal remains in place. “That’s current law,” he said, as if Obamacare were not.

Ryan’s sudden respect for a tax increase that had to be — metaphorically — crammed down Republicans’ throats is easily explained. He needs the $600 billion in revenue it produces to make his new fantasyland budget appear to reach balance.

Ryan is likely to reprise — and even augment — the hundreds of billions of dollars in cuts he proposed last year for social programs. He indicated that he still believes Medicare should be voucherized, although he objects to the word and insists that what he advocates is “premium support.” And he asserted that Obamacare’s expansion of Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor, is “reckless” — even as tea party-approved Republican governors such as Rick Scott of Florida announce their states’ participation.

From the evidence, Ryan cares less about deficits or tax rates than about finding some way to dramatically reduce the size of the federal government. He has every right to hold that view. But it’s hard to take him seriously as long as he refuses to come clean about his intentions.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, March 11, 2013

March 12, 2013 Posted by | Budget, Medicare | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Heads-up: Deficit Reduction Won’t Create Jobs

It’s budget time, and that means that we can expect to hear the Washington elite wailing about the budget deficit for the next several weeks. When hearing the cries about out-of-control deficits, people would be  best advised to turn off their television sets, put down their newspaper, and  smash their computers. (Okay, don’t smash your computer.)

The economy has one major problem right now and that is a serious lack of jobs. We still have more than 25 million people unemployed, underemployed, or who have given up looking for work altogether because there are no jobs. This should be the issue that everyone in Washington  is talking  about.

Instead, many politicians and pundits want to distract people’s attention from unemployment by complaining about the deficit. They have deceived many people into thinking that the economy would somehow be stronger and there would be more jobs if the deficit was reduced, either  due to  spending cuts or increased taxes.

This view makes no sense. There are no businesses that are  going to hire additional workers because the government laid off school teachers or firefighters and we cut back spending on food stamps. Businesses hire more workers when they see more demand for their product. All of these  actions that reduce the deficit, either on the spending or tax side, translate into  less demand and therefore less employment. In short, those who want to cut the deficit now are lobbying for fewer jobs and  higher unemployment.

This is only part of the story that they got wrong. The other part is the cause of the deficit. There are thousands of people running around Washington blaming the deficit on out-of-control spending or irresponsible tax cuts. Both sides are way off the mark.

It is easy show from the data that the huge deficits of the last three years are the direct result of the economic plunge caused by the collapse of the housing bubble. The budget deficit was actually quite modest in 2007, and it was projected to remain low in 2008-2010, even before the Bush era  tax cuts expired.

However, the deficits came in much higher than projected because the collapse of the economy sent unemployment soaring and tax revenues plummeting. There is an irony in this situation. Back in the years 2002-2007 some of us were warning about the housing bubble, but our  voices were largely  drowned out by the big deficit hawks.

Of course now that the bubble has collapsed and the deficit has exploded we are still hearing the same complaints from the deficit hawks. If the country had paid less attention to the deficit hawks back  in the bubble years, and more attention to the bubble, then we would not have had such a  horrible recession and the deficit hawks would not have a large budget deficit to complain about today.

 

By: Dean Baker, U. S.ews and World Report, February 10, 2012

February 13, 2012 Posted by | Budget, Deficits | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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