Modest Progress on the Deficit Is Just What the U.S. Economy Needs

One argument nearly entirely absent in the debate over the fiscal cliff issues is the effect on the economy.  True, some diehard conservatives warn that without drastic steps to privatize part of Social Security and much of Medicare, our national debt will soon make us pariahs in global capital markets, on the Greek model.  But there was never any economic evidence or reasoning behind their feverish scenario.  In fact, throughout our long fiscal debate, worldwide investors have been eager to lend the Treasury virtually unlimited funds in 10-year tranches and accept annual yields of less than 2 percent.  

Based on that, some diehard liberals insist that we do not have to cut spending at all, especially when there are plenty of well-heeled Americans around who can afford to pay higher income taxes.  Their position ignores economic history – namely, that whenever our deficits have climbed and the national debt has threatened to soar, we earned the confidence of global investors by addressing those problems in measured ways.  The only genuine economic imperative in this entire dismal fight is not that we should raise taxes on the wealthy or cut domestic spending, but simply that we once again have to take care of our fiscal business in a reasonable manner.

Despite the protestations of partisan economists, the economy is largely indifferent to whether we address these imbalances by cutting spending or raising taxes.  The first stage of this effort, in 2011, brought $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years. The verdict of the markets was, “well done.”  And despite the heated rhetoric of last year’s campaign, the 2011 deal was followed by a generally strengthening economy.  Stage two was resolved in this week’s agreement to raise nearly $700 billion in new revenues over 10 years, including substantially higher taxes on capital income.  The markets are satisfied with that, too, and the economy almost certainly will continue to strengthen.

Stage three will come in a few months, when the President and Congress will likely agree to modest entitlement changes in exchange for additional revenues raised through some version of corporate tax reform.  The economy will be fine with that resolution as well.

In fact, this process has been a quiet refutation of the slash-the-deficit chorus.  That includes those of the Paul Ryan variety who would upend entitlements to finance more tax cuts, and “responsible budget” types who would hike taxes and slash spending as much as possible to reduce the cost of business borrowing in years to come.  The truth is, the economy does not usually cotton to drastic measures that confound the expectations of investors and consumers.  For all of the complaints that rather than make a meal of the deficit, we take a nibble here, another nibble there and then a third nibble somewhere else, this tortured course allows businesses and households to adjust little by little.  And that is the best course for the economy.

So, setting aside politics and social policy, the economic imperative remains that Washington must manage to take care of its fiscal business in measured and reasonable ways, whether through taxes or spending cuts of almost any variety.  Looking ahead, this means that the debt limit can never again become a negotiating chip in fiscal politics.  The last time that House and Senate hyper-conservatives went down that path, it cost the U.S. government its triple-A rating from one of the three major credit-rating agencies.  A government capable of letting lapse its own legal authority to issue new debt and pay interest on its existing debts is one that, by definition, cannot take care of its basic business.  And that is especially so in the current circumstances, when there are no market pressures on the government to default and when the government’s debt securities comprise much of the reserves of most of the world’s central banks.

Global investors would be anything but indifferent to such contempt for predictable economic consequences.  A technical sovereign debt default triggered by a debt-ceiling stalemate would be a calamity for the U.S. and world economies.  Any political leader or party that helps to bring about such a catastrophe will prove themselves unfit to govern for a very long time.