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“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

“Moment Of Truthiness”: Stuck With Politicians Who Gleefully Add To The Misinformation And Watchdogs Who Are Afraid To Bark

We all know how democracy is supposed to work. Politicians are supposed to campaign on the issues, and an informed public is supposed to cast its votes based on those issues, with some allowance for the politicians’ perceived character and competence.

We also all know that the reality falls far short of the ideal. Voters are often misinformed, and politicians aren’t reliably truthful. Still, we like to imagine that voters generally get it right in the end, and that politicians are eventually held accountable for what they do.

But is even this modified, more realistic vision of democracy in action still relevant? Or has our political system been so degraded by misinformation and disinformation that it can no longer function?

Well, consider the case of the budget deficit — an issue that dominated Washington discussion for almost three years, although it has recently receded.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that voters are poorly informed about the deficit. But you may be surprised by just how misinformed.

In a well-known paper with a discouraging title, “It Feels Like We’re Thinking,” the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels reported on a 1996 survey that asked voters whether the budget deficit had increased or decreased under President Clinton. In fact, the deficit was down sharply, but a plurality of voters — and a majority of Republicans — believed that it had gone up.

I wondered on my blog what a similar survey would show today, with the deficit falling even faster than it did in the 1990s. Ask and ye shall receive: Hal Varian, the chief economist of Google, offered to run a Google Consumer Survey — a service the company normally sells to market researchers — on the question. So we asked whether the deficit has gone up or down since January 2010. And the results were even worse than in 1996: A majority of those who replied said the deficit has gone up, with more than 40 percent saying that it has gone up a lot. Only 12 percent answered correctly that it has gone down a lot.

Am I saying that voters are stupid? Not at all. People have lives, jobs, children to raise. They’re not going to sit down with Congressional Budget Office reports. Instead, they rely on what they hear from authority figures. The problem is that much of what they hear is misleading if not outright false.

The outright falsehoods, you won’t be surprised to learn, tend to be politically motivated. In those 1996 data, Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to hold false views about the deficit, and the same must surely be true today. After all, Republicans made a lot of political hay over a supposedly runaway deficit early in the Obama administration, and they have maintained the same rhetoric even as the deficit has plunged. Thus Eric Cantor, the second-ranking Republican in the House, declared on Fox News that we have a “growing deficit,” while Senator Rand Paul told Bloomberg Businessweek that we’re running “a trillion-dollar deficit every year.”

Do people like Mr. Cantor or Mr. Paul know that what they’re saying isn’t true? Do they care? Probably not. In Stephen Colbert’s famous formulation, claims about runaway deficits may not be true, but they have truthiness, and that’s all that matters.

Still, aren’t there umpires for this sort of thing — trusted, nonpartisan authorities who can and will call out purveyors of falsehood? Once upon a time, I think, there were. But these days the partisan divide runs very deep, and even those who try to play umpire seem afraid to call out falsehood. Incredibly, the fact-checking site PolitiFact rated Mr. Cantor’s flatly false statement as “half true.”

Now, Washington still does have some “wise men,” people who are treated with special deference by the news media. But when it comes to the issue of the deficit, the supposed wise men turn out to be part of the problem. People like Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the co-chairmen of President Obama’s deficit commission, did a lot to feed public anxiety about the deficit when it was high. Their report was ominously titled “The Moment of Truth.” So have they changed their tune as the deficit has come down? No — so it’s no surprise that the narrative of runaway deficits remains even though the budget reality has completely changed.

Put it all together, and it’s a discouraging picture. We have an ill-informed or misinformed electorate, politicians who gleefully add to the misinformation and watchdogs who are afraid to bark. And to the extent that there are widely respected, not-too-partisan players, they seem to be fostering, not fixing, the public’s false impressions.

So what should we be doing? Keep pounding away at the truth, I guess, and hope it breaks through. But it’s hard not to wonder how this system is supposed to work.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, August 16, 2013

August 18, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Frontmen For American Austerity”: Sequestration Is Not Enough For Simpson And Bowles

Sequestration?

Cue the return of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, frontmen for American austerity.

If sequestration is not averted by the end of the month, America will experience an arbitrary austerity agenda that shifts burdens from the wealthy onto working families. It makes across-the-board cuts to vital services. As President Obama noted Tuesday, sequestration would impose “automatic brutal spending cuts” to job creation, infrastructure and education initiatives. It would, as well, slash funding for air traffic control, federal prosecutions and Federal Emergency Management Agency grants that make it possible for states and local governments to hire needed firefighter and emergency personnel.

Even the parts of the sequester that are appealing—squeezing the bloated Department of Defense budget—will tend to harm low-wage federal employees rather than billionaire defense contractors.

Most troublingly, sequestration will slow, and perhaps stall, the economic recovery. “This is not an abstraction,” says President Obama. “People will lose their jobs.”

By any measure, the sequester is austerity.

But it’s not enough austerity for Simpson and Bowles.

The former Republican senator and defeated Democratic senate candidate who praises Paul Ryan’s budget don’t particularly like the death-by-slow-cuts of sequestration. They prefer a full frontal assault on the most vulnerable Americans and a redistribution of the wealth upward.

As President Obama has noted, Washington has already reduced the deficit by $2.5 trillion.

But the co-chairs of the failed National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform now want another $2.4 trillion.

To wit, in a “rehashed” plan to “Fix the Debt,” Simpson and Bowles are busy promoting schemes to “modernize…entitlement programs to account for” an aging population. That’s code for schemes to delay the point at which the hardest working Americans can get access to Social Security and Medicare.

Simpson and Bowles are arguing specifically for the adoption of “chained CPI.” That’s the assault on Social Security cost-of-living increases that Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, correctly identifies as “a benefit cut.”

“It’s a bad idea and it’s a stealth way to give people less,” Ellison explained in a recent interview. “It is a benefit cut—and here’s the real problem with it being a benefit cut: It would be absolutely horrible if it were a benefit cut but the cut was designed to extend the life of Social Security and to make the program more solvent. But that’s not why they’re doing it. They’re doing it so that they can preserve somebody else to have a tax cut and to not raise taxes on the top 2 percent.”

Ellison is right. As is invariably the case with austerity schemes, Simpson and Bowles—and the billionaire-funded “Fix the Debt” group they head—are proposing cuts to the top marginal tax rate for wealthy individuals and corporations.

The United States can and should address debts and deficits. And there are sound plans to do so, including the “Balancing Act” advanced by Ellison and other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. That initiative rejects austerity and proposes a growth agenda based on tax fairness and investments in education and job creation.

That’s not Simpson-Bowles, which Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman dismisses as “terrible” economics. That’s responsible policy that avoids the “brutal cuts” of sequestration and the even more brutal cuts of full-fledged austerity.

“Almost $2 trillion has been cut over the past two years from teachers, firefighters, police officers, loans for college students, and infrastructure investments,” the congressman says of the warped federal budget priorities proposed by austerity advocates. “The American people shouldn’t continue to pay the price for massive tax breaks for millionaires and billions of dollars in subsidies to oil companies.”

 

By: John Nichols, The Nation, February 19, 2013

February 21, 2013 Posted by | Sequestration | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Who’s Behind “Fix The Debt”?: Just Another Corporate Fraud Using A Collection Of Former Congress Members

Look out… the “fixers” are coming.

Top corporate chieftains and Wall Street gamblers want to tell Washington how to fix our national debt, so they’ve created a front group called “Fix the Debt” to push their agenda. Unfortunately, they’re using “fix” in the same way your veterinarian uses it — their core demand is for Washington to spay Social Security, castrate Medicare and geld Medicaid.

Who’s behind this piece of crude surgery on the retirement and health programs that most Americans count on? Pete Peterson, for one. For years, this Wall Street billionaire, who amassed his fortune as honcho of a private equity outfit named Blackstone, has run a political sideshow demanding that the federal budget be balanced on the backs of the middle class and the poor. Fix the Debt is just his latest war whoop, organized by a corporate “think tank” he funds.

This time, Peterson rallied some 95 CEOs to his plutocratic crusade, including the likes of General Electric boss Jeffrey Immelt and Honeywell chief David Cote. (Note: Both Immelt and Cote, while cheering for cuts to programs that we working Americans pay into, are themselves taking money hand over fist from taxpayers in terms of military contracts and corporate subsidies for their corporations. But they aren’t concerned about defense spending and ending subsidies that benefit their bottom line.)

All of them are not merely “One Percenters,” but the top one-tenth of One Percenters. Of course, a group of pampered, narcissistic billionaires would not make a credible sales argument for this dirty work. Having elites piously preach austerity to the masses would be as ineffective as having Col. Sanders invite a flock of chickens to Sunday dinner.

Presented with this image problem, Fix the Debt needed to give their campaign a more benign image, and Peterson and Co. followed a tried-and-true formula of political deceit. As described by Mary Bottari of the Center for Media and Democracy, the trick is to “gather a bipartisan group of ‘serious’ men, hire a PR firm to place them on TV shows, blanket the media with talk of a looming crisis and pretend to have grassroots support.”

In this case, a collection of former member of Congress, each of whom had a reputation for being moderate to the extreme, were recruited to give the campaign a sheen of high public purpose. Backed by a $40 million budget put up by the corporate interests, these “elder statesmen” are now the face of Fix the Debt, doing dozens of TV interviews, hosting breakfast sessions with members of Congress, making speeches about “mutual sacrifice” and generally going all-out to sell the financial elite’s snake oil.

But wait — being an elder does not automatically mean you’re a statesman. Let’s peek at the résumés of these so-called public-spirited fixers of the debt. Start with Jim McCrery, a former GOP lawmaker from Louisiana. While urging Congress to cut people’s programs, he’s also a top-paid lobbyist pushing Congress to give more tax subsidies to America’s richest people and to such multinational corporations as General Electric.

Former Democratic senator Sam Nunn is a fixer, too — but he’s also paid $300,000 a year to be on the board of directors for General Electric. Likewise, Democrat Erskine Bowles, a co-founder of the fixers’ front group, is on the board of Morgan Stanley, drawing $345,000 a year. And former GOP senator Judd Gregg takes about a million bucks a year as advisor to and board member for such giants as Goldman Sachs and Honeywell.

Fix the Debt is nothing but another corporate fraud. I wouldn’t let this gang of fixers touch my dog, much less my Social Security!

By: Jim Hightower, The National Memo, January 16, 2013

January 18, 2013 Posted by | Budget, Corporations | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Public Goals, Private Interests”: In Debt Campaign, Business Executives And Former Legislators Defending Their Narrower Interests

When Jim McCrery, a former Louisiana congressman, urged lawmakers last month to pursue entitlement cuts and tax reform, he was introduced on television as a leader of Fix the Debt, a group of business executives and onetime legislators who have become Washington’s most visible and best-financed advocates for reining in the federal deficit.

Mr. McCrery did not mention his day job: a lobbyist with Capitol Counsel L.L.C. His clients have included the Alliance for Savings and Investment, a group of large companies pushing to maintain low tax rates on dividend income, and the Win America Campaign, a coalition of multinational corporations that lobbied for a one-time “repatriation holiday” allowing them to move offshore profits back home without paying taxes.

In Washington’s running battles over taxes and spending, Mr. McCrery and his colleagues at Fix the Debt have lent a public-spirited, elder-statesman sheen to the cause of deficit reduction. Leading up to the fiscal negotiations, they set up grass-roots chapters around the country, met with President Obama and his aides, and hosted private breakfasts for lawmakers on Capitol Hill. In recent days, Fix the Debt has redoubled its efforts, starting a new national advertising campaign and calling on Mr. Obama and Congress to revise the tax code and reduce long-term spending on entitlement programs.

But in the weeks ahead, many of the campaign’s members will be juggling their private interests with their public goals: they are also lobbyists, board members or executives for corporations that have worked aggressively to shape the contours of federal spending and taxes, including many of the tax breaks that would be at the heart of any broad overhaul. While Fix the Debt criticized the recent fiscal deal between Mr. Obama and lawmakers, saying it did not do enough to cut spending or close tax loopholes, companies and industries linked to the organization emerged with significant victories on taxes and other policies.

“Some of these folks who are trying to be part of the solution have also been part of the problem,” said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning advocacy group, and a former economic adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “They’ve often fought hard against the kind of balance that we need on the revenue side. Many of the people we’re talking about are associated with policies that would make it a lot harder to fix the debt.”

Sam Nunn, a former Democratic senator from Georgia who is a member of Fix the Debt’s steering committee, received more than $300,000 in compensation in 2011 as a board member of General Electric. The company is among the most aggressive in the country at minimizing its tax obligations. Mr. McCrery, the Louisiana Republican, is also among G.E.’s lobbyists, according to the most recent federal disclosures, monitoring federal budget negotiations for the company.

Other board members and steering committee members have deep ties to the financial industry, including private equity, whose executives have aggressively fought efforts to alter a tax provision, known as the carried interest exception, that significantly reduces their personal income taxes.

Erskine B. Bowles, a co-founder of Fix the Debt, was paid $345,000 in stock and cash in 2011 as a board member at Morgan Stanley, while Judd Gregg, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire and a co-chairman of Fix the Debt, is a paid adviser to Goldman Sachs. Both companies have engaged in lobbying on international tax rules.

Mr. Gregg also sits on the boards of Honeywell and IntercontinentalExchange, a company that has warned investors that a tax on financial transactions would lower trading volume and curtail its profits. The two companies paid Mr. Gregg almost $750,000 in cash and stock in 2011.

In all, close to half of the members of Fix the Debt’s board and steering committee have ties to companies that have engaged in lobbying on taxes and spending, often to preserve tax breaks and other special treatment.

Fix the Debt does not endorse specific tax proposals. Instead, it advocates broad principles for debt reduction, including “comprehensive and pro-growth tax reform, which broadens the base, lowers rates, raises revenues and reduces the deficit.” A spokesman, Jon Romano, said that the executives involved with the campaign were committed to tax reform, even if it closed loopholes that benefited their companies.

“All the people involved in this campaign have said from the beginning that everything has to be on the table,” Mr. Romano said. “Our C.E.O.’s, our state chapters, our small-business leaders — they are all willing to give something up for the sake of the country.”

Those involved with the campaign say they have tried to separate their advocacy for Fix the Debt and their private work for clients. Vic Fazio, a former Democratic congressman from California who is on the campaign’s steering committee, is a lobbyist at Akin Gump, a firm whose clients include KKR, a leading private equity shop, and the Private Equity Growth Capital Council, an industry trade group.

Mr. Fazio said that he and other people involved with the campaign had tried to set aside their parochial interests and had assumed that any grand bargain between Mr. Obama and Congress would include some elements they did not like.

“The people who have signed up to work with Fix the Debt are people with lots of tax preferences that are important to their business model,” Mr. Fazio said. “But they go along with it because they think there is an overriding benefit to their companies and to the country.”

But so far, at least, the companies and industries most closely linked to Fix the Debt have been aggressive in defending their narrower legislative interests.

The fiscal deal preserved the carried interest loophole, eliminated most of a large prospective increase in dividends taxes and preserved a tax break, known as the active financing exception, that allows G.E. and other multinational companies to avoid paying United States taxes on overseas profits.

The deal also forestalled large automatic cuts in military spending, a boon to contractors like Honeywell. The company’s chief executive, David M. Cote, is a co-founder of Fix the Debt; the group’s “core principles,” which call for retrenchment in entitlement programs like Social Security, make no mention of military spending, which constitutes about a fifth of the federal budget.

“It’s easier to get face time in Washington as a deficit hawk than as a corporate hack,” said Kevin Connor, the director of the Public Accountability Initiative, a watchdog group. “They are spending millions, but they are protecting billions in defense contracts and tax giveaways that would otherwise be on the chopping block.”

Yet after an election in which many industries, including Wall Street, bet heavily against Mr. Obama, Fix the Debt has also had more credibility among Democrats than some traditional business groups like the United States Chamber of Commerce. The chamber, by far the largest business advocacy group in Washington, staunchly opposed proposals to raise taxes before the fiscal deal.

At a news conference in New York on Tuesday, Mr. Bowles suggested that Fix the Debt was just getting started.

“I’m not a quitter,” he said at the event, which was sponsored by Nasdaq, the country’s second-largest stock exchange. “We’re going to stay until we get the job done.”

By: Nicholas Confessore, Nelson Schwartz, Contributor; The New York Times, January 9, 2013

January 13, 2013 Posted by | Debt Ceiling, Deficits | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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