(This is guest post from New Deal 2.0 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States licence.)
How the elites are vying to undo the social safety net — and hurt our chances for recovery.
Harold Meyerson is spot on: “Of all the gaps between elite and mass opinion in America today, perhaps the greatest is this: The elites don’t really believe we’re still in recession. Or maybe, they just don’t care.” What is even more galling is that, having been the greatest beneficiaries of the government’s largesse over the past 2 years, these very same people now decry the government’s “irresponsible” and “unsustainable” fiscal policy.
The collective amnesia and moral turpitude of these elites is truly mind-boggling.
Why do we have a deficit of about 10% of GDP right now when it was less than 2% about 3 years ago? The reasons are: the Obama stimulus, the TARP, and the slower economy (which arose in response to a major financial crisis, not because the government began an irrational and irresponsible spending binge). A slower economy leads to lower revenues (less income=less taxes paid since most tax revenue is based on income, and lower tax brackets) and higher spending on the social safety net.
Conveniently lost in all of this furor about the deficit are the beneficiaries of this recent government largesse. It’s certainly not the unemployed or the vast majority of people who do not work in the financial services industry.
And let’s stop with the now prevailing meme (regurgitated most recently in John Heilemann’s New Yorker Magazine piece, “Obama is from Mars, Wall Street is from Venus”) that the costs of the financial bailout are minimal thanks to the “successful” measures taken to “save” our financial system (as if it is worth saving in its current incarnation). With the conspicuous exception of Simon Johnson, virtually all analysts fail to factor in the fact that our public debt to GDP ratio has moved from 40% of GDP to 90% in the space of 2 years, directly as a consequence of the crisis of 2008.
Naturally, the deficit terrorists are now out in force about this fact, conveniently forgetting the underlying cause of this increase. So are the journalists who cover it, Meyerson being a conspicuous exception. In a market economy, where most of us have to work to make a material living, the threats posed by the likes of Pete Peterson and the deficit hawk brigade represent a true impingement on our right to work. As my friend Bill Mitchell notes, “the neo-liberals deliberately undermine the right to work of millions and force them into a state of welfare dependence and then start hacking into the welfare system to deny them the pittance that the system delivers.”
The elites who decry this government spending (especially the ones from Wall Street) are akin to a person providing someone with 5 packs of cigarettes a day and then bemoaning the fact that the recipient irresponsibly contracted lung cancer.
What will happen to the deficit as and when the economy finally improves? The Obama stimulus and TARP go away in a few years regardless. Tax revenues increase and safety net spending falls. We’re back to “norma,l” with deficits around 2-4% depending on the state of the economy, which is where we’ve been for the past 30 years aside from 1998-2001. Even CBO agrees, though what happens to the Bush tax cuts will have an effect of about + or – 2% of GDP (depending on whether they are extended or ended, respectively).
In fact, full employment is also the best “financial stability” reform we could implement, because with jobs growth comes higher income growth and a corresponding ability to service debt. That means less write-offs for banks and a correspondingly smaller need to provide government bailouts.
Fiscal austerity, by contrast, won’t cut it. Our elites seem think that you can cut “wasteful government spending” (that is, reduce private demand further) and cut wages and hence private incomes and not expect major multiplier effects to make things significantly worse. Of course, that “wasteful”, “unsustainable” spending never seems to apply to the Department of defence, where we always seem to be able to appropriate a few billion, whenever necessary. “Affordability” principles never extend to the Pentagon, it appears.
Our policy-making elites also seem to have bought the IMF line that the fiscal multipliers are relatively low and that the automatic stabilizers (working to increase deficits as GDP falls) will not drown out the discretionary cuts in net spending arising from the austerity packages. The overwhelming evidence is that this viewpoint is wrong and implementation of policies based on it cause generational damages in lost output, lost incomes, bankruptcy and lost employment (especially denying new entrants from the schooling system a robust start to their working life).
The real issue is that those who are better off don’t want to have government intervention in economic affairs unless it benefits them. With typical ingratitude, Wall Street is now threatening to cut campaign donations for Obama and the Democrats because of their proposals to impose more regulation on the financial sector. However, when the government intervenes with bailouts, Wall Street stands first in the queue, cap in hand. No one wants to bear the actual discipline of markets if that means losses. Those at the high end of income distribution aren’t against every kind of government intervention, but are frequently against certain types of government intervention that might make the workers stronger, or create competition for private businesses (in the case of a public option in health care reform, for example).
Full employment is the real value that should guide economic policy, not the bogus emphasis on financial ratios that just play into the hands of the financial sector. Somehow, I doubt that this is the underlying principle guiding our “counsel of wise men” who are deliberating the future of Social Security and Medicare behind closed doors as the rest of us debate this issue in the open.
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Marshall Auerback is a market analyst and commentator.