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“The Biggest Losers”: Conservatives Continue To Impose Gratuitous Suffering On Working Americans

The pundit consensus seems to be that Republicans lost in the just-concluded budget deal. Overall spending will be a bit higher than the level mandated by the sequester, the straitjacket imposed back in 2011. Meanwhile, Democrats avoided making any concessions on Social Security or Medicare. Call this one for Team D, I guess.

But if Republicans arguably lost this round, the unemployed lost even more: Extended benefits weren’t renewed, so 1.3 million workers will be cut off at the end of this month, and many more will see their benefits run out in the months that follow. And if you take a longer perspective — if you look at what has happened since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010 — what you see is a triumph of anti-government ideology that has had enormously destructive effects on American workers.

First, some facts about government spending.

One of the truly remarkable things about American political discourse at the end of 2013 is the fixed conviction among many conservatives that the Obama era has been one of enormous growth in government. Where do they think this surge in government spending has taken place? Well, it’s true that one major new program — the Affordable Care Act — is going into effect. But it’s not nearly as big as people imagine. Once Obamacare is fully implemented, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that it will add only about 3 percent to overall federal spending. And, if you ask people ranting about runaway government what other programs they’re talking about, you draw a blank.

Meanwhile, the actual numbers show that over the past three years we’ve been living through an era of unprecedented government downsizing. Government employment is down sharply; so is total government spending (including state and local governments) adjusted for inflation, which has fallen almost 3 percent since 2010 and around 5 percent per capita.

And when I say unprecedented, I mean just that. We haven’t seen anything like the recent government cutbacks since the 1950s, and probably since the demobilization that followed World War II.

What has been cut? It’s a complex picture, but the most obvious cuts have been in education, infrastructure, research, and conservation. While the Recovery Act (the Obama stimulus) was in effect, the federal government provided significant aid to state and local education. Then the aid went away, and local governments began letting go of hundreds of thousands of teachers.

Meanwhile, public investment fell sharply — so sharply that many observers refer to it as a “collapse” — as state and local governments canceled transportation projects and deferred maintenance. Researchers, like those at the National Institutes of Health, also took large cuts. And there was a major cut in spending on land and water conservation.

There are three things you need to know about these harsh cuts.

First, they were unnecessary. The Washington establishment may have hyperventilated about debt and deficits, but markets have never shown any concern at all about U.S. creditworthiness. In fact, borrowing costs have stayed at near-record lows throughout.

Second, the cuts did huge short-term economic damage. Small-government advocates like to claim that reducing government spending encourages private spending — and when the economy is booming, they have a point. The recent cuts, however, took place at the worst possible moment, the aftermath of a financial crisis. Families were struggling to cope with the debt they had run up during the housing bubble; businesses were reluctant to invest given the weakness of consumer demand. Under these conditions, government cutbacks simply swelled the ranks of the unemployed — and as family incomes fell, so did consumer spending, compounding the damage.

The result was to deepen and prolong America’s jobs crisis. Those cuts in government spending are the main reason we still have high unemployment, more than five years after Lehman Brothers fell.

Finally, if you look at my list of major areas that were cut, you’ll notice that they mainly involve investing in the future. So we aren’t just looking at short-term harm, we’re also looking at a long-term degradation of our prospects, reinforced by the corrosive effects of sustained high unemployment.

So, about that budget deal: yes, it was a small victory for Democrats. It was also, possibly, a small step toward political sanity, with some Republicans rejecting, provisionally, the notion that a party controlling neither the White House nor the Senate can nonetheless get whatever it wants through extortion.

But the larger picture is one of years of deeply destructive policy, imposing gratuitous suffering on working Americans. And this deal didn’t do much to change that picture.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 12, 2013

December 15, 2013 Posted by | Budget, Unemployment Benefits | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Someone Please, Alert The Media!”: The Budget Deficit Is Shrinking Rapidly And Most Americans Don’t Know It

The deficit is down 37.6 percent for the first 10 months of the 2013 budget year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But a new survey conducted by Google at Paul Krugman’s request finds that more than 50 percent of Americans think it’s still growing.

Last year the government spent $973.8 billion more than it took in for the first 10 months of the budget year. The deficit for the same period this year is $607.4. This year’s deficit is projected to be $670 billion.

As a share of gross domestic product, the deficit was recently as high as 10.1 percent in 2009, when the deficit was $1.4 trillion. It is now closer to 2 percent of GDP, which means the deficit has been cut by more than half since then, in both actual dollars and as a share of GDP.

A poll in February found that only 6 percent of Americans were aware the deficit was shrinking. The new survey finds that a little over 17 percent of those polled know the deficit is shrinking, with only 8.3 percent giving the correct answer: that it has decreased by a lot.

Deficit poll

The perception that the deficit is still growing has been fed by Republicans including House Minority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), who recently said the deficit is growing and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who said last week that we have trillion-dollar deficits.

What’s causing the deficit to drop so drastically? Probably even too quickly?

Economic growth, lower spending, increased taxes, and windfalls from government-sponsored mortgage corporations Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac brought on by the resurgent housing market.

Republicans are intent on keeping the so-called sequester in place, which will cut government spending by $85 billion, leading to the loss of up to 1,600,000 jobs. The government is only funded through September 30 and the debt limit will need to be raised soon after that. House Republicans have vowed to use both deadlines to demand even more cuts in spending, along with a delay in or defunding of Obamacare.

 

By: Jason Sattler, The National Memo, August 13, 2013

August 14, 2013 Posted by | Deficits, Public Opinion | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Story Of Our Time”: The Most Crucial Thing To Understand Is The Economy Is Not Like An Individual Family.

Those of us who have spent years arguing against premature fiscal austerity have just had a good two weeks. Academic studies that supposedly justified austerity have lost credibility; hard-liners in the European Commission and elsewhere have softened their rhetoric. The tone of the conversation has definitely changed.

My sense, however, is that many people still don’t understand what this is all about. So this seems like a good time to offer a sort of refresher on the nature of our economic woes, and why this remains a very bad time for spending cuts.

Let’s start with what may be the most crucial thing to understand: the economy is not like an individual family.

Families earn what they can, and spend as much as they think prudent; spending and earning opportunities are two different things. In the economy as a whole, however, income and spending are interdependent: my spending is your income, and your spending is my income. If both of us slash spending at the same time, both of our incomes will fall too.

And that’s what happened after the financial crisis of 2008. Many people suddenly cut spending, either because they chose to or because their creditors forced them to; meanwhile, not many people were able or willing to spend more. The result was a plunge in incomes that also caused a plunge in employment, creating the depression that persists to this day.

Why did spending plunge? Mainly because of a burst housing bubble and an overhang of private-sector debt — but if you ask me, people talk too much about what went wrong during the boom years and not enough about what we should be doing now. For no matter how lurid the excesses of the past, there’s no good reason that we should pay for them with year after year of mass unemployment.

So what could we do to reduce unemployment? The answer is, this is a time for above-normal government spending, to sustain the economy until the private sector is willing to spend again. The crucial point is that under current conditions, the government is not, repeat not, in competition with the private sector. Government spending doesn’t divert resources away from private uses; it puts unemployed resources to work. Government borrowing doesn’t crowd out private investment; it mobilizes funds that would otherwise go unused.

Now, just to be clear, this is not a case for more government spending and larger budget deficits under all circumstances — and the claim that people like me always want bigger deficits is just false. For the economy isn’t always like this — in fact, situations like the one we’re in are fairly rare. By all means let’s try to reduce deficits and bring down government indebtedness once normal conditions return and the economy is no longer depressed. But right now we’re still dealing with the aftermath of a once-in-three-generations financial crisis. This is no time for austerity.

O.K., I’ve just given you a story, but why should you believe it? There are, after all, people who insist that the real problem is on the economy’s supply side: that workers lack the skills they need, or that unemployment insurance has destroyed the incentive to work, or that the looming menace of universal health care is preventing hiring, or whatever. How do we know that they’re wrong?

Well, I could go on at length on this topic, but just look at the predictions the two sides in this debate have made. People like me predicted right from the start that large budget deficits would have little effect on interest rates, that large-scale “money printing” by the Fed (not a good description of actual Fed policy, but never mind) wouldn’t be inflationary, that austerity policies would lead to terrible economic downturns. The other side jeered, insisting that interest rates would skyrocket and that austerity would actually lead to economic expansion. Ask bond traders, or the suffering populations of Spain, Portugal and so on, how it actually turned out.

Is the story really that simple, and would it really be that easy to end the scourge of unemployment? Yes — but powerful people don’t want to believe it. Some of them have a visceral sense that suffering is good, that we must pay a price for past sins (even if the sinners then and the sufferers now are very different groups of people). Some of them see the crisis as an opportunity to dismantle the social safety net. And just about everyone in the policy elite takes cues from a wealthy minority that isn’t actually feeling much pain.

What has happened now, however, is that the drive for austerity has lost its intellectual fig leaf, and stands exposed as the expression of prejudice, opportunism and class interest it always was. And maybe, just maybe, that sudden exposure will give us a chance to start doing something about the depression we’re in.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, April 28, 2013

April 29, 2013 Posted by | Economy | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mooching Off Medicaid”: Conservatives Like Big Government Just Fine When It Lines Their Pockets

Conservatives like to say that their position is all about economic freedom, and hence making government’s role in general, and government spending in particular, as small as possible. And no doubt there are individual conservatives who really have such idealistic motives.

When it comes to conservatives with actual power, however, there’s an alternative, more cynical view of their motivations — namely, that it’s all about comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted, about giving more to those who already have a lot. And if you want a strong piece of evidence in favor of that cynical view, look at the current state of play over Medicaid.

Some background: Medicaid, which provides health insurance to lower-income Americans, is a highly successful program that’s about to get bigger, because an expansion of Medicaid is one key piece of the Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare.

There is, however, a catch. Last year’s Supreme Court decision upholding Obamacare also opened a loophole that lets states turn down the Medicaid expansion if they choose. And there has been a lot of tough talk from Republican governors about standing firm against the terrible, tyrannical notion of helping the uninsured.

Now, in the end most states will probably go along with the expansion because of the huge financial incentives: the federal government will pay the full cost of the expansion for the first three years, and the additional spending will benefit hospitals and doctors as well as patients. Still, some of the states grudgingly allowing the federal government to help their neediest citizens are placing a condition on this aid, insisting that it must be run through private insurance companies. And that tells you a lot about what conservative politicians really want.

Consider the case of Florida, whose governor, Rick Scott, made his personal fortune in the health industry. At one point, by the way, the company he built pleaded guilty to criminal charges, and paid $1.7 billion in fines related to Medicare fraud. Anyway, Mr. Scott got elected as a fierce opponent of Obamacare, and Florida participated in the suit asking the Supreme Court to declare the whole plan unconstitutional. Nonetheless, Mr. Scott recently shocked Tea Party activists by announcing his support for the Medicaid expansion.

But his support came with a condition: he was willing to cover more of the uninsured only after receiving a waiver that would let him run Medicaid through private insurance companies. Now, why would he want to do that?

Don’t tell me about free markets. This is all about spending taxpayer money, and the question is whether that money should be spent directly to help people or run through a set of private middlemen.

And despite some feeble claims to the contrary, privatizing Medicaid will end up requiring more, not less, government spending, because there’s overwhelming evidence that Medicaid is much cheaper than private insurance. Partly this reflects lower administrative costs, because Medicaid neither advertises nor spends money trying to avoid covering people. But a lot of it reflects the government’s bargaining power, its ability to prevent price gouging by hospitals, drug companies and other parts of the medical-industrial complex.

For there is a lot of price-gouging in health care — a fact long known to health care economists but documented especially graphically in a recent article in Time magazine. As Steven Brill, the article’s author, points out, individuals seeking health care can face incredible costs, and even large private insurance companies have limited ability to control profiteering by providers. Medicare does much better, and although Mr. Brill doesn’t point this out, Medicaid — which has greater ability to say no — seems to do better still.

You might ask why, in that case, much of Obamacare will run through private insurers. The answer is, raw political power. Letting the medical-industrial complex continue to get away with a lot of overcharging was, in effect, a price President Obama had to pay to get health reform passed. And since the reward was that tens of millions more Americans would gain insurance, it was a price worth paying.

But why would you insist on privatizing a health program that is already public, and that does a much better job than the private sector of controlling costs? The answer is pretty obvious: the flip side of higher taxpayer costs is higher medical-industry profits.

So ignore all the talk about too much government spending and too much aid to moochers who don’t deserve it. As long as the spending ends up lining the right pockets, and the undeserving beneficiaries of public largess are politically connected corporations, conservatives with actual power seem to like Big Government just fine.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, March 3, 2013

March 5, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Medicaid | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Big Fail”: Too Many Republicans Responsible For Economic Failure Retain Power And Refuse To Learn From Experience

It’s that time again: the annual meeting of the American Economic Association and affiliates, a sort of medieval fair that serves as a marketplace for bodies (newly minted Ph.D.’s in search of jobs), books and ideas. And this year, as in past meetings, there is one theme dominating discussion: the ongoing economic crisis.

This isn’t how things were supposed to be. If you had polled the economists attending this meeting three years ago, most of them would surely have predicted that by now we’d be talking about how the great slump ended, not why it still continues.

So what went wrong? The answer, mainly, is the triumph of bad ideas.

It’s tempting to argue that the economic failures of recent years prove that economists don’t have the answers. But the truth is actually worse: in reality, standard economics offered good answers, but political leaders — and all too many economists — chose to forget or ignore what they should have known.

The story, at this point, is fairly straightforward. The financial crisis led, through several channels, to a sharp fall in private spending: residential investment plunged as the housing bubble burst; consumers began saving more as the illusory wealth created by the bubble vanished, while the mortgage debt remained. And this fall in private spending led, inevitably, to a global recession.

For an economy is not like a household. A family can decide to spend less and try to earn more. But in the economy as a whole, spending and earning go together: my spending is your income; your spending is my income. If everyone tries to slash spending at the same time, incomes will fall — and unemployment will soar.

So what can be done? A smaller financial shock, like the dot-com bust at the end of the 1990s, can be met by cutting interest rates. But the crisis of 2008 was far bigger, and even cutting rates all the way to zero wasn’t nearly enough.

At that point governments needed to step in, spending to support their economies while the private sector regained its balance. And to some extent that did happen: revenue dropped sharply in the slump, but spending actually rose as programs like unemployment insurance expanded and temporary economic stimulus went into effect. Budget deficits rose, but this was actually a good thing, probably the most important reason we didn’t have a full replay of the Great Depression.

But it all went wrong in 2010. The crisis in Greece was taken, wrongly, as a sign that all governments had better slash spending and deficits right away. Austerity became the order of the day, and supposed experts who should have known better cheered the process on, while the warnings of some (but not enough) economists that austerity would derail recovery were ignored. For example, the president of the European Central Bank confidently asserted that “the idea that austerity measures could trigger stagnation is incorrect.”

Well, someone was incorrect, all right.

Of the papers presented at this meeting, probably the biggest flash came from one by Olivier Blanchard and Daniel Leigh of the International Monetary Fund. Formally, the paper represents the views only of the authors; but Mr. Blanchard, the I.M.F.’s chief economist, isn’t an ordinary researcher, and the paper has been widely taken as a sign that the fund has had a major rethinking of economic policy.

For what the paper concludes is not just that austerity has a depressing effect on weak economies, but that the adverse effect is much stronger than previously believed. The premature turn to austerity, it turns out, was a terrible mistake.

I’ve seen some reporting describing the paper as an admission from the I.M.F. that it doesn’t know what it’s doing. That misses the point; the fund was actually less enthusiastic about austerity than other major players. To the extent that it says it was wrong, it’s also saying that everyone else (except those skeptical economists) was even more wrong. And it deserves credit for being willing to rethink its position in the light of evidence.

The really bad news is how few other players are doing the same. European leaders, having created Depression-level suffering in debtor countries without restoring financial confidence, still insist that the answer is even more pain. The current British government, which killed a promising recovery by turning to austerity, completely refuses to consider the possibility that it made a mistake.

And here in America, Republicans insist that they’ll use a confrontation over the debt ceiling — a deeply illegitimate action in itself — to demand spending cuts that would drive us back into recession.

The truth is that we’ve just experienced a colossal failure of economic policy — and far too many of those responsible for that failure both retain power and refuse to learn from experience.

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, January 6, 2013

January 10, 2013 Posted by | Debt Crisis, Economic Recovery | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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