Deficit Reduction

Boehner's Debt-Limit Demands and No-Facts Zone

As I wrote Monday, House Speaker John Boehner gave a speech in New York on the state of the economy and our fiscal challenges. Today, the press reacted:

If you read one thing today, be sure to read the Bloomberg piece by James Rowley and Mike Dorning entitled "Boehner Builds Economic Case on Assertions at Odds with Markets, Studies."

In The Washington Post, Ruth Marcus takes a look at Boehner's lack of reality, and says he has an "incoherent, impervious-to-facts economic philosophy." Indeed.

And The New York Times Editorial Page similarly rips Boehner's speech, saying "There is no way to solve the country's fiscal ills without an accurate diagnosis and rigorous prescriptions for a cure. Mr. Boehner's speech was devoid of both."

The massive gulf in understanding between the two parties, either because of ignorance or ideology, about how the economy actually works and what drives the federal deficit, is a big reason why there's a gap between what Democrats and Republicans are willing to do. And it's why there are stories like this about the Biden-led deficit negotiations, because Republicans won't event come to the table in a serious manner. It's good that much of the media has stopped pretending that there is merely a difference of opinion; John Boehner has his own facts.

Memo to the President: Resist a Simpleminded Push to Cut Budget Deficits Now

A dangerous and infectious economic idea is spreading around the world. Last week, the liberal majority in the House of Representatives rejected efforts to inject a little more stimulus into the economy; and across much of Europe and Asia, presidents, prime ministers, parliaments and congresses are calling for tighter budgets. Many economies face serious problems these days; and one of the more troubling among them is the simplistic view of many public officials that their still weak economies need a strong dose of fiscal discipline. What they ought to worry about are the odds of another economic downturn and a chance that we all may face a second financial crisis. 

Here at home, we know from the most recent data that American businesses aren’t hiring new workers in any real numbers, nor are banks lending most classes of businesses much new capital.  All this tells us that the 2009 stimulus, which has just about run its course, was not enough to restore healthy, self-sustaining growth. Yet, most politicians still don’t appreciate how damaging fiscal stringency can be for an economy that remains too weak to generate decent job creation or business investment. They may have to rediscover the lesson that FDR and his top advisers learned back in 1937, when federal belt tightening sent the barely-recovering U.S. economy back into deep recession.

In a strong economy, a big dose of additional deficit spending may well crowd out private investment, push the Fed to raise interest rates, and create significant long-term costs for taxpayers who will have to finance the additional debt forever. But it’s obvious that this economy is still very far from being strong. The Fed, for example, will never raise rates under current conditions – a mistake which, as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has noted, was the lesson of 1930-1932. Under these conditions, additional spending for initiatives which also make sense in themselves can actually increase private investment and long-term growth, which in turn would substantially reduce the long-term financing costs of the additional debt. 

The current political passion for tight budgets, already in full play in Germany and Britain, may have been triggered by the sovereign debt crisis unfolding in Greece and, perhaps soon, across much of southern Europe. Yet, the ultimate sources of most sovereign debt crises are weak productivity and flagging competitiveness. Add an irresponsible government willing to run unsupportable deficits and loose monetary policies, instead of taking the difficult steps required to address the underlying problems, and a sovereign debt default becomes a real possibility. But the United States isn’t facing Greece’s dilemma, and neither are Germany or Britain. And the best policies to maintain the confidence of international investors even as our own national debt rises rapidly are measures to further bolster our underlying productivity and competitiveness.  That will be especially true if the European Union’s plan to address Greece’s sovereign debt problem fails – as it almost certainly will – and the ensuing chaos triggers new worldwide financial meltdown. At a minimum, the falling value of Greek bonds, along with those of Portugal, Spain, Hungary and Italy, will further slow our own recovery and growth, making premature deficit reduction even more damaging.  

Still, while the stimulus helped temper the 2008-2009 recession and hastened its end, it was never enough to restore healthy growth to an economy twisted out of shape by a historic housing bubble and then cracked open by a systemic financial meltdown. So, the administration and Congress need to do now what should have been done in 2009 to address the forces that drove the crisis. For example, Americans won’t start consuming again at the levels needed to drive jobs and investment until they stop feeling poorer, and that will still require measures to bring housing foreclosures back to normal levels and stabilize housing prices. Moreover, so long as foreclosures remain abnormally high, our banking system’s holdings of mortgage-backed securities and their derivatives will continue to deteriorate – and the continuing losses will keep banks from restoring normal business lending. The administration’s program of subsidies for banks to refinance troubled mortgages didn’t work, so we need stronger medicine. Here’s one approach:  Since the government now owns Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which continue to hold a decent share of the nation’s mortgages, Congress can direct them to help bring down foreclosures by renegotiating and refinancing the troubled ones in their portfolios.

Deficit anxieties also shouldn’t stop us from taking serious steps to help reboot job creation. The best course would be measures that can reduce the cost to businesses of creating those new jobs, so let’s cut in half the payroll taxes that employers pay on new employees. And since slow job creation was a serious problem for several years before the financial meltdown, there are good grounds for making this change permanent. But since the long-term trajectory of our deficits and national debt does matter, we should also take steps to pay for this change once the economy recovers. And perhaps the best way to offset the costs of lower payroll taxes for employers, two or three years from now, would be to phase in a new carbon-based energy fee, which also happens to be the most effective way to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.

In the meantime, the administration also can lay the groundwork to restore long-term fiscal sanity by addressing the two big forces driving large U.S. deficits even before the world’s current problems. There’s no mystery about what those forces are – sharply-rising health care costs and substantial cuts in the tax base. The political challenge is to leave the deficit alone until the economy regains its strength, while building a new national consensus for greater revenues and much stronger steps to contain health care costs.

A New, Progressive Economic Strategy, Part 2: Spending Reforms

You don’t have to be a Nobel economist to see that the United States needs a new economic plan if we hope to restore what once seemed part of the American birthright – ample job opportunities, strong and widespread income gains, and broad upward mobility. Last week, we sketched a package of initiatives to equip businesses and workers with the resources and incentives that such a strategy requires. This week, in part 2, we turn to a more general condition for sustained economic progress, a plan to control long-term deficits and national debt.  

Bringing down the trillion dollar-plus annual deficits now projected for the next decade is straight-forward conceptually – you cut federal spending, raise taxes, and do both in ways that promote faster growth and so further increase revenues and further reduce spending. Moreover, serious steps to reduce these deficits should be a clear goal for progressives, so long as it’s phased-in a few years from now when the economy is stronger. Once the economy recovers from the neglect and mistakes of the Bush administration and those who ran Wall Street, the current trajectory of massive deficits will push up interest rates and slow investment, incomes and growth. Tolerating these long-term deficits, then, would consign average Americans to another lost decade economically – and perhaps even worse, lay the toxic foundations for another crisis. 

In practice, serious deficit reduction is always a difficult business, since who wants to pay higher taxes or accept fewer benefits? The challenge is to rethink and reconfigure federal spending and taxes, so we can channel spending and raise revenues in ways which reinforce job creation and income gains, and so help families and businesses prosper. This week, we focus on the spending reforms; next week, we will rethink taxes.  

Progressives should approach this challenge in three ways. First, end not only earmarks but their larger and more permanent version, the major subsidy programs for influential industries. These subsidies arbitrarily tilt the economy towards companies with political clout and so reduce the jobs and wealth the economy is capable of producing. These industry entitlements range, for example, from much of the farm program which ends up raising food prices, and export promotion efforts that give selected exporters artificial advantages without affecting the overall trade deficit, to the below-market fees for mineral rights and other natural resources. Make a clean sweep of these ongoing taxpayer bailouts, and we could save between $100 billion and $150 billion per-year.  

The second area involves the inescapable reforms of individual entitlements. Unlike industry entitlements, these programs serve clear and compelling social interests. As the boomers begin to retire, however, these programs in their current forms will become plainly unsustainable. Social Security reforms are the more manageable part, analytically and politically. The program’s long-term deficit would melt away, for example, if Congress enacted three fairly modest adjustments: Shift the pension’s annual cost-of-living adjustment to reflect the actual inflation recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the elderly people who receive it; link increases in the retirement age to increases in life expectancy for those age 65 and over; and tax all of the benefits of retirees with incomes above the national average. And all of these changes reflect the progressive values of fairness.

Fixing Medicare and Medicaid is much tougher. As this year’s wrenching debate over health care reform demonstrated, nothing inspires greater public anxiety than changes in the arrangements which people consider matters of life and death. Yet, the current arrangements are also plainly unsustainable, especially as boomers enter the phase of their lives when heart diseases and cancers, the most common and expensive conditions to treat, become much more common. The general path is clear: We need reforms that go considerably beyond this year’s changes to substantially slow the rates of increase for all health care costs. 

By taking this broad approach, we can not only preserve Medicare but also produce large economic dividends. First, smaller annual increases in health care costs will reduce pressures on businesses to hold down wages. That’s just what happened in the 1990s, when the shift to HMOs produced several years of much slower health care inflation, and average incomes grew more than 2 percent annually, after inflation. Moreover, slower health care costs also will help the overall economy. Since other advanced countries produce health care outcomes comparable to our own at less cost, our additional spending is flagrantly inefficient, stealing wealth and jobs from more economically-productive areas.  

Happily, this year’s health care debate aired a catalog of strategies to help contain these costs without compromising the quality of care; and the bill, as enacted, provides a credible beginning for a more extended process to control future increases. The insurance exchanges should reduce costs in the individual and small-group insurance market, and the investments in IT should help slow costs across the system. Both can be expanded and beefed up. The new law also begins to move the Medicare program from volume-based payments to reimbursements based on the value of the treatments. That can be substantially strengthened as well. This year’s reforms also create a new advisory board to propose new ways to cut Medicare costs, with a process to fast-track the recommendations through Congress. Eventually we can apply this kind of arrangement to all of health care.  

Finally, both parties will have to accept the most difficult changes advanced by the other.  Democrats will have to live with taxing a share of the value of employer-provided coverage, along with serious malpractice reforms. And Republicans will have to accept a public option, in order to introduce real competition for insurers in areas where one or two of them comprise an effective monopoly or duopoly.

Looking out several years, these reforms for industry and individual entitlements should be able to pare several hundred billion dollars per-year from our structural national deficits. And if that’s not enough, there’s still a third area of large, potential savings in defense spending. For a start, eliminate any weapon system that the Pentagon says it doesn’t need or want. These programs have become geographic entitlements, sustained to keep taxpayers dollars flowing to the districts of those who sit on the defense appropriations subcommittees. That’s hardly a sufficient reason to weaken a broad plan with the promise of restoring economic opportunities and prosperity for average Americans.

Read Part 1 of a New, Progressive Economic Strategy here.

Syndicate content