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Spending Cuts, Jobs, Growth: The GOP Austerity Delusion

Portugal’s government has just fallen in a dispute over austerity proposals. Irish bond yields have topped 10 percent for the first time. And the British government has just marked its economic forecast down and its deficit forecast up.

What do these events have in common? They’re all evidence that slashing spending in the face of high unemployment is a mistake. Austerity advocates predicted that spending cuts would bring quick dividends in the form of rising confidence, and that there would be few, if any, adverse effects on growth and jobs; but they were wrong.

It’s too bad, then, that these days you’re not considered serious in Washington unless you profess allegiance to the same doctrine that’s failing so dismally in Europe.

It was not always thus. Two years ago, faced with soaring unemployment and large budget deficits — both the consequences of a severe financial crisis — most advanced-country leaders seemingly understood that the problems had to be tackled in sequence, with an immediate focus on creating jobs combined with a long-run strategy of deficit reduction.

Why not slash deficits immediately? Because tax increases and cuts in government spending would depress economies further, worsening unemployment. And cutting spending in a deeply depressed economy is largely self-defeating even in purely fiscal terms: any savings achieved at the front end are partly offset by lower revenue, as the economy shrinks.

So jobs now, deficits later was and is the right strategy. Unfortunately, it’s a strategy that has been abandoned in the face of phantom risks and delusional hopes. On one side, we’re constantly told that if we don’t slash spending immediately we’ll end up just like Greece, unable to borrow except at exorbitant interest rates. On the other, we’re told not to worry about the impact of spending cuts on jobs because fiscal austerity will actually create jobs by raising confidence.

How’s that story working out so far?

Self-styled deficit hawks have been crying wolf over U.S. interest rates more or less continuously since the financial crisis began to ease, taking every uptick in rates as a sign that markets were turning on America. But the truth is that rates have fluctuated, not with debt fears, but with rising and falling hope for economic recovery. And with full recovery still seeming very distant, rates are lower now than they were two years ago.

But couldn’t America still end up like Greece? Yes, of course. If investors decide that we’re a banana republic whose politicians can’t or won’t come to grips with long-term problems, they will indeed stop buying our debt. But that’s not a prospect that hinges, one way or another, on whether we punish ourselves with short-run spending cuts.

Just ask the Irish, whose government — having taken on an unsustainable debt burden by trying to bail out runaway banks — tried to reassure markets by imposing savage austerity measures on ordinary citizens. The same people urging spending cuts on America cheered. “Ireland offers an admirable lesson in fiscal responsibility,” declared Alan Reynolds of the Cato Institute, who said that the spending cuts had removed fears over Irish solvency and predicted rapid economic recovery.

That was in June 2009. Since then, the interest rate on Irish debt has doubled; Ireland’s unemployment rate now stands at 13.5 percent.

And then there’s the British experience. Like America, Britain is still perceived as solvent by financial markets, giving it room to pursue a strategy of jobs first, deficits later. But the government of Prime Minister David Cameron chose instead to move to immediate, unforced austerity, in the belief that private spending would more than make up for the government’s pullback. As I like to put it, the Cameron plan was based on belief that the confidence fairy would make everything all right.

But she hasn’t: British growth has stalled, and the government has marked up its deficit projections as a result.

Which brings me back to what passes for budget debate in Washington these days.

A serious fiscal plan for America would address the long-run drivers of spending, above all health care costs, and it would almost certainly include some kind of tax increase. But we’re not serious: any talk of using Medicare funds effectively is met with shrieks of “death panels,” and the official G.O.P. position — barely challenged by Democrats — appears to be that nobody should ever pay higher taxes. Instead, all the talk is about short-run spending cuts.

In short, we have a political climate in which self-styled deficit hawks want to punish the unemployed even as they oppose any action that would address our long-run budget problems. And here’s what we know from experience abroad: The confidence fairy won’t save us from the consequences of our folly.

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, March 24, 2011

March 25, 2011 Posted by | Banks, Congress, Democrats, Economy, Federal Budget, GOP, Jobs, Politics, Republicans | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Whatever Happened To Uncertainty?

With the House passing a two-week funding extension and Harry Reid promising the Senate will do likewise, it looks like we have at least until March 18th before any federal agencies have to shut their doors. But then there’s a shutdown risk. And there’s another one coming as early as April 15th, when the Treasury bumps into the the debt ceiling and needs Congress to lift it in order to avoid default. Federal budget policy over the next few months is going to be like a weekend with Charlie Sheen: A constant effort to avoid blackouts (yes, Wonkbook went there).

Prior to winning the election in November, the GOP spoke often about the pressing need to reduce “uncertainty” in the economy. This was a core principle of their plan to restore economic confidence and create jobs. As Rep. Paul Ryan put it to me in July, “uncertainty is a new economic buzzword, but for good reason: If we can reduce it, we’ll unlock capital.” If businesses and individuals could be confident about what government was doing, what taxes would look like, and what regulators would ask of them, they could start investing again.

So are they succeeding at their own promise of reducing uncertainty? It’s hard to see how. Budget experts on both sides of the aisle have sharply upgraded their estimate of how likely a government shutdown is in the next few months, either over the continuing resolution for 2011 or the debt limit or both. There’s an ongoing effort to starve health-care reform of implementation funds and a promise to “replace” it with some policy that hasn’t yet been written — no one in the health space would say that the shape of health-care policy over the coming years looks more certain now than it did six months ago. The GOP chose a tax deal that lowered all rates for two years rather than a tax deal that lowered most rates permanently, so there’s uncertainty over future tax rates. The tax and health-care policies would both do much more to increase the deficit than anything else on the list would do to reduce it, ensuring that concern continues to loom. So for what definition of “uncertainty” has the GOP succeeded in reducing its prevalence in the economy?

In each case, of course, the GOP has a good argument for the choice it’s made: Lower tax rates on large estates and income over $250,000 were judged more important than tax certainty or deficit reduction. The health-reform law is so unwise that repealing it should be a top priority. The prospect of a government shutdown and/or default provides leverage to extract spending cuts, which are more important right now than assuring the market that there won’t be some sort of shutdown or default. It’s all fair enough, at least on its own terms. But it’s meant that the post-election GOP takes the risk of uncertainty a lot less seriously than the pre-election GOP did. It’s a tension I’d like to hear more of them comment on.

By: Ezra Klein-The Washington Post, March 2, 2011

March 2, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Deficits, Government Shut Down | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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