mykeystrokes.com

"Do or Do not. There is no try."

“Austerity’s Grim Legacy”: Deficit Fetishism Was Both Wrongheaded And Destructive

When economic crisis struck in 2008, policy makers by and large did the right thing. The Federal Reserve and other central banks realized that supporting the financial system took priority over conventional notions of monetary prudence. The Obama administration and its counterparts realized that in a slumping economy budget deficits were helpful, not harmful. And the money-printing and borrowing worked: A repeat of the Great Depression, which seemed all too possible at the time, was avoided.

Then it all went wrong. And the consequences of the wrong turn we took look worse now than the harshest critics of conventional wisdom ever imagined.

For those who don’t remember (it’s hard to believe how long this has gone on): In 2010, more or less suddenly, the policy elite on both sides of the Atlantic decided to stop worrying about unemployment and start worrying about budget deficits instead.

Some of us tried in vain to point out that deficit fetishism was both wrongheaded and destructive, that there was no good evidence that government debt was a problem for major economies, while there was plenty of evidence that cutting spending in a depressed economy would deepen the depression.

And we were vindicated by events. More than four and a half years have passed since Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles warned of a fiscal crisis within two years; U.S. borrowing costs remain at historic lows. Meanwhile, the austerity policies that were put into place in 2010 and after had exactly the depressing effects textbook economics predicted; the confidence fairy never did put in an appearance.

Yet there’s growing evidence that we critics actually underestimated just how destructive the turn to austerity would be. Specifically, it now looks as if austerity policies didn’t just impose short-term losses of jobs and output, but they also crippled long-run growth.

The idea that policies that depress the economy in the short run also inflict lasting damage is generally referred to as “hysteresis.” It’s an idea with an impressive pedigree: The case for hysteresis was made in a well-known 1986 paper by Olivier Blanchard, who later became the chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, and Lawrence Summers, who served as a top official in both the Clinton and the Obama administrations. But I think everyone was hesitant to apply the idea to the Great Recession, for fear of seeming excessively alarmist.

At this point, however, the evidence practically screams hysteresis. Even countries that seem to have largely recovered from the crisis, like the United States, are far poorer than precrisis projections suggested they would be at this point. And a new paper by Mr. Summers and Antonio Fatás, in addition to supporting other economists’ conclusion that the crisis seems to have done enormous long-run damage, shows that the downgrading of nations’ long-run prospects is strongly correlated with the amount of austerity they imposed.

What this suggests is that the turn to austerity had truly catastrophic effects, going far beyond the jobs and income lost in the first few years. In fact, the long-run damage suggested by the Fatás-Summers estimates is easily big enough to make austerity a self-defeating policy even in purely fiscal terms: Governments that slashed spending in the face of depression hurt their economies, and hence their future tax receipts, so much that even their debt will end up higher than it would have been without the cuts.

And the bitter irony of the story is that this catastrophic policy was undertaken in the name of long-run responsibility, that those who protested against the wrong turn were dismissed as feckless.

There are a few obvious lessons from this debacle. “All the important people say so” is not, it turns out, a good way to decide on policy; groupthink is no substitute for clear analysis. Also, calling for sacrifice (by other people, of course) doesn’t mean you’re tough-minded.

But will these lessons sink in? Past economic troubles, like the stagflation of the 1970s, led to widespread reconsideration of economic orthodoxy. But one striking aspect of the past few years has been how few people are willing to admit having been wrong about anything. It seems all too possible that the Very Serious People who cheered on disastrous policies will learn nothing from the experience. And that is, in its own way, as scary as the economic outlook.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columist, The New York Times, November 6, 2015

November 9, 2015 Posted by | Austerity, Economic Recovery, Financial Crisis | , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Yes He Could”: Health Care And Climate, President Obama’s Big Deals

Several times in recent weeks I’ve found myself in conversations with liberals who shake their heads sadly and express their disappointment with President Obama. Why? I suspect that they’re being influenced, often without realizing it, by the prevailing media narrative.

The truth is that these days much of the commentary you see on the Obama administration — and a lot of the reporting too — emphasizes the negative: the contrast between the extravagant hopes of 2008 and the prosaic realities of political trench warfare, the troubles at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the mess in Iraq, and so on. The accepted thing, it seems, is to portray Mr. Obama as floundering, his presidency as troubled if not failed.

But this is all wrong. You should judge leaders by their achievements, not their press, and in terms of policy substance Mr. Obama is having a seriously good year. In fact, there’s a very good chance that 2014 will go down in the record books as one of those years when America took a major turn in the right direction.

First, health reform is now a reality — and despite a shambolic start, it’s looking like a big success story. Remember how nobody was going to sign up? First-year enrollments came in above projections. Remember how people who signed up weren’t actually going to pay their premiums? The vast majority have.

We don’t yet have a full picture of the impact of reform on the previously uninsured, but all the information we do have indicates major progress. Surveys, like the monthly survey by Gallup, show a sharp drop in the percentage of Americans reporting themselves as uninsured. States that expanded Medicaid and actively promoted the new exchanges have done especially well — for example, a new survey of Minnesota shows a 40 percent drop in the number of uninsured residents.

And there’s every reason to expect a lot of additional progress next year. Notably, additional insurance companies are entering the exchanges, which is both an indication that insurers believe things are going well and a reason to expect more competition and outreach next year.

Then there’s climate policy. The Obama administration’s new rules on power plants won’t be enough in themselves to save the planet, but they’re a real start — and are by far the most important environmental initiative since the Clean Air Act. I’d add that this is an issue on which Mr. Obama is showing some real passion.

Oh, and financial reform, although it’s much weaker than it should have been, is real — just ask all those Wall Street types who, enraged by the new limits on their wheeling and dealing, have turned their backs on the Democrats.

Put it all together, and Mr. Obama is looking like a very consequential president indeed. There were huge missed opportunities early in his administration — inadequate stimulus, the failure to offer significant relief to distressed homeowners. Also, he wasted years in pursuit of a Grand Bargain on the budget that, aside from turning out to be impossible, would have moved America in the wrong direction. But in his second term he is making good on the promise of real change for the better. So why all the bad press?

Part of the answer may be Mr. Obama’s relatively low approval rating. But this mainly reflects political polarization — strong approval from Democrats but universal opposition from Republicans — which is more a sign of the times than a problem with the president. Anyway, you’re supposed to judge presidents by what they do, not by fickle public opinion.

A larger answer, I’d guess, is Simpson-Bowles syndrome — the belief that good things must come in bipartisan packages, and that fiscal probity is the overriding issue of our times. This syndrome persists among many self-proclaimed centrists even though it’s overwhelmingly clear to anyone who has been paying attention that (a) today’s Republicans simply will not compromise with a Democratic president, and (b) the alleged fiscal crisis was vastly overblown.

The result of the syndrome’s continuing grip is that Mr. Obama’s big achievements don’t register with much of the Washington establishment: he was supposed to save the budget, not the planet, and somehow he was supposed to bring Republicans along.

But who cares what centrists think? Health reform is a very big deal; if you care about the future, action on climate is a lot more important than raising the retirement age. And if these achievements were made without Republican support, so what?

There are, I suppose, some people who are disappointed that Mr. Obama didn’t manage to make our politics less bitter and polarized. But that was never likely. The real question was whether he (with help from Nancy Pelosi and others) could make real progress on important issues. And the answer, I’m happy to say, is yes, he could.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, June 16, 2014

June 17, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Climate Change, Politics | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Obama Gets Real”: A Growing Deficit Of Opportunity Is A Bigger Threat To Our Future Than Our Rapidly Shrinking Fiscal Deficit

Much of the media commentary on President Obama’s big inequality speech was cynical. You know the drill: it’s yet another “reboot” that will go nowhere; none of it will have any effect on policy, and so on. But before we talk about the speech’s possible political impact or lack thereof, shouldn’t we look at the substance? Was what the president said true? Was it new? If the answer to these questions is yes — and it is — then what he said deserves a serious hearing.

And once you realize that, you also realize that the speech may matter a lot more than the cynics imagine.

First, about those truths: Mr. Obama laid out a disturbing — and, unfortunately, all too accurate — vision of an America losing touch with its own ideals, an erstwhile land of opportunity becoming a class-ridden society. Not only do we have an ever-growing gap between a wealthy minority and the rest of the nation; we also, he declared, have declining mobility, as it becomes harder and harder for the poor and even the middle class to move up the economic ladder. And he linked rising inequality with falling mobility, asserting that Horatio Alger stories are becoming rare precisely because the rich and the rest are now so far apart.

This isn’t entirely new terrain for Mr. Obama. What struck me about this speech, however, was what he had to say about the sources of rising inequality. Much of our political and pundit class remains devoted to the notion that rising inequality, to the extent that it’s an issue at all, is all about workers lacking the right skills and education. But the president now seems to accept progressive arguments that education is at best one of a number of concerns, that America’s growing class inequality largely reflects political choices, like the failure to raise the minimum wage along with inflation and productivity.

And because the president was willing to assign much of the blame for rising inequality to bad policy, he was also more forthcoming than in the past about ways to change the nation’s trajectory, including a rise in the minimum wage, restoring labor’s bargaining power, and strengthening, not weakening, the safety net.

And there was this: “When it comes to our budget, we should not be stuck in a stale debate from two years ago or three years ago.  A relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit.” Finally! Our political class has spent years obsessed with a fake problem — worrying about debt and deficits that never posed any threat to the nation’s future — while showing no interest in unemployment and stagnating wages. Mr. Obama, I’m sorry to say, bought into that diversion. Now, however, he’s moving on.

Still, does any of this matter? The conventional pundit wisdom of the moment is that Mr. Obama’s presidency has run aground, even that he has become irrelevant. But this is silly. In fact, it’s silly in at least three ways.

First, much of the current conventional wisdom involves extrapolating from Obamacare’s shambolic start, and assuming that things will be like that for the next three years. They won’t. HealthCare.gov is working much better, people are signing up in growing numbers, and the whole mess is already receding in the rear-view mirror.

Second, Mr. Obama isn’t running for re-election. At this point, he needs to be measured not by his poll numbers but by his achievements, and his health reform, which represents a major strengthening of America’s social safety net, is a huge achievement. He’ll be considered one of our most important presidents as long as he can defend that achievement and fend off attempts to tear down other parts of the safety net, like food stamps. And by making a powerful, cogent case that we need a stronger safety net to preserve opportunity in an age of soaring inequality, he’s setting himself up for exactly such a defense.

Finally, ideas matter, even if they can’t be turned into legislation overnight. The wrong turn we’ve taken in economic policy — our obsession with debt and “entitlements,” when we should have been focused on jobs and opportunity — was, of course, driven in part by the power of wealthy vested interests. But it wasn’t just raw power. The fiscal scolds also benefited from a sort of ideological monopoly: for several years you just weren’t considered serious in Washington unless you worshipped at the altar of Simpson and Bowles.

Now, however, we have the president of the United States breaking ranks, finally sounding like the progressive many of his supporters thought they were backing in 2008. This is going to change the discourse — and, eventually, I believe, actual policy.

So don’t believe the cynics. This was an important speech by a president who can still make a very big difference.

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 5, 2013

December 7, 2013 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Income Gap | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Simpson-Bowles Rebaked”: Playing To The Peanut Gallery

Simpson and Bowles have returned to the stage with a far worse plan than the one they had before. Their old formula sought $2.9 trillion in cuts and $2.6 trillion in revenues, while this new one that they touted at a Politico breakfast this morning seeks just $1.3 trillion in revenues and jacks the cuts up to $3.9 trillion.

The change is driven not so much by any kind of ideological shift or decision that we need more pain as it is driven, or so says Ezra Klein, by their apparent decision this time not to create their own new thing wholly from scratch irrespective of what the pols are saying, but to use Obama’s and Boehner’s latest offers as sort of starting points and guides:

This isn’t meant to be an update to Simpson-Bowles 1.0. Rather, it’s meant to be an outline for a new grand bargain. To that end, Simpson and Bowles began with Obama and Boehner’s final offers from the fiscal cliff deal. That helps explain why their tax ask has fallen so far: Obama’s final tax ask was far lower than what was in the original Simpson-Bowles plan, while Boehner’s tilt towards spending cuts was far greater than what was in the original Simpson-Bowles.

That said, while this plan doesn’t include more tax increases than Obama asked for, it does include significantly more than the $1 trillion in spending cuts than Boehner asked for — about $500 to $700 billion more, if I’m reading it right. In increasing the total deficit reduction, Simpson and Bowles have put the weight on the spending side of the budget.

But why would they shift so dramatically in the Republicans’ direction? Derek Thompson of The Atlantic sees two reasons:

First, there aren’t enough people in Washington who want to raise taxes on anybody making less than $250,000 to make the original $2.6 billion figure work. Second, Congress has demonstrated a fairly strong appetite for scheduling budget cuts.

Well, alas, he’s undoubtedly right about that. But really, this is not to be taken seriously. I’m not usually part of the Entitlement Chicken Little Caucus, because I concede that something needs to be done, provided that “something” is first and foremost to change the way Medicare reimbursements are made, which would save many trillions over the years, and then see what else needs to be done. But to be “responsible” people inside the Beltway you must thirst for seniors and future seniors and poor people and future poor people to sacrifice more. Simpson and Bowles are just playing to that peanut gallery, for which a Politico breakfast is the perfect audience.

One might generously say that Simpson and Bowles are just bowing to the extant political reality. But I thought their job was to suggest the most responsible way forward. They of all people should be standing up to GOP intransigence, not accepting it.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, February 19, 2013

February 21, 2013 Posted by | Budget | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Ideology Displacing Facts”: Simpson-Bowles “Spending Problem” Voodoo Economics Ignores The Lack Of “Crowding Out”

Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles – co-founders of the corporate lobby Campaign to Fix the Debt – were on Meet the Press this morning. I couldn’t drag myself to watch it because I am sick and tired of hearing every oligarch’s favorite lackeys argue that the national debt is a reason to gut the welfare state. Which is exactly what they were doing this morning:

“Yes, the president has taken some steps forward on the entitlement programs, but has he done enough? Absolutely not,” Bowles said.

But they and their disciples couldn’t be more wrong. The U.S. government has no “spending problem” from a macroeconomist’s point of view. Of course, the country can’t indefinitely continue to borrow more than it earns, but the idea that we must somehow tackle debt by cutting spending — and do it right now — is voodoo economics of the highest order.

For spending to be an immediate problem, it would have to be problematic. And the primary reason that government spending is problematic is due to “the crowding out effect.”

I could find some haughty economist to quote on the issue, but for simplicity’s sake here’s Wikipedia:

“…crowding out is a phenomenon occurring when expansionary fiscal policy causes interest rates to rise, thereby reducing investment spending.”

Yet interest rates are rock bottom and aren’t expected to rise anytime soon, and demand for U.S. Treasury bonds remains high.

Thus, government spending appears to be having no averse effect on financial markets, which, according to Treasury yields, actually seem to think that lending the U.S. government money is a wise idea. The debt “crisis” is only caused by a “spending problem” when one considers government spending to be an issue from an ideological standpoint.

If Simpson and Bowles were serious about tackling the debt without completely undermining the economy, they’d advocate higher taxes on those that can afford to pay more. Corporations are awash with cash, and capital is taking a larger slice of the pie than ever. But aggregate demand is lagging, and to undermine social safety nets would further weaken it. Sound economic policy would, therefore, have the rich finance deficit reduction — if it must be done in this fragile economy.

 

By: Samuel Knight, Washington Monthly Political Animal, January 6, 2013

January 7, 2013 Posted by | Budget, Deficits | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: