Friday Reads: Dismal Scientist EditionPosted: January 18, 2013
I’ve got a few reads for you from economists on some of today’s economic policy questions. I always complain that we never hear from economists and always hear from politicians, journalists, and lawyers. So, here’s the take on the austerity fetish in the beltway from an economists’ perspective.
According to inside Washington gossip, Congress and the president are going to do exactly what voters elected them to do; they are going to cut Social Security by 3 percent. You don’t remember anyone running on that platform? Yeah, well, they probably forgot to mention it.
Of course some people may have heard Vice President Joe Biden when he told an audience in Virginia that there would be no cuts to Social Security if President Obama got reelected. Biden said: “I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security. I flat guarantee you.”
But that’s the way things work in Washington. You can’t expect the politicians who run for office to share their policy agenda with voters. After all, we might not like it. That’s why they say things like they will fight for the middle class and make the rich pay their fair share. These ideas have lots of appeal among voters. Cutting Social Security doesn’t.
While the politics of cutting Social Security are bad, it also doesn’t make much sense as policy. In Washington, the gang who couldn’t see an $8 trillion housing bubble until its collapse sank the economy, has now decided that deficit reduction has to be the preeminent goal.
They don’t care that we are still down more than 9 million jobs from our growth trend; deficit reduction must take priority. These whiz kids apparently also don’t care that the cuts that have already been made are slowing growth and costing us jobs.
Meanwhile, economist Paul Krugman shows–once again–that the deficit isn’t really that big of problem and is dwindling. Oh, just a reminder, Social Security has nothing to do with the Federal Budget, debt or deficit other than than the trust fund is invested in US Treasuries.
Recently the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities took Congressional Budget Office projections for the next decade and updated them to take account of two major deficit-reduction actions: the spending cuts agreed to in 2011, amounting to almost $1.5 trillion over the next decade; and the roughly $600 billion in tax increases on the affluent agreed to at the beginning of this year. What the center finds is a budget outlook that, as I said, isn’t great but isn’t terrible: It projects that the ratio of debt to G.D.P., the standard measure of America’s debt position, will be only modestly higher in 2022 than it is now.
The center calls for another $1.4 trillion in deficit reduction, which would completely stabilize the debt ratio; President Obama has called for roughly the same amount. Even without such actions, however, the budget outlook for the next 10 years doesn’t look at all alarming.
Now, projections that run further into the future do suggest trouble, as an aging population and rising health care costs continue to push federal spending higher. But here’s a question you almost never see seriously addressed: Why, exactly, should we believe that it’s necessary, or even possible, to decide right now how we will eventually address the budget issues of the 2030s?
Consider, for example, the case of Social Security. There was a case for paying down debt before the baby boomers began to retire, making it easier to pay full benefits later. But George W. Bush squandered the Clinton surplus on tax cuts and wars, and that window has closed. At this point, “reform” proposals are all about things like raising the retirement age or changing the inflation adjustment, moves that would gradually reduce benefits relative to current law. What problem is this supposed to solve?
Well, it’s probable (although not certain) that, within two or three decades, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted, leaving the system unable to pay the full benefits specified by current law. So the plan is to avoid cuts in future benefits by committing right now to … cuts in future benefits. Huh?
In today’s Wall Street Journal, Alan Blinder points out that running into the debt ceiling would provoke a severe fiscal contraction.
“At current rates of spending and taxation, federal receipts cover less than 74% of federal outlays. So if the government hits the debt ceiling at full speed, total outlays—which includes everything from Social Security benefits to soldiers’ pay to interest on the national debt—will have to be trimmed by more than 26% immediately. That amounts to more than 6% of GDP, far more than the fiscal cliff we just avoided,” Blinder writes.
The fiscal cliff, by contrast, would have erased 4.5 percent of GDP.
Any sustained captivity below the debt ceiling, in other words, means that the economy will enter a severe recession. This recession will be made far worse because the so-called automatic stabilizers that kick in when the economy slumps—think unemployment insurance—will not be able to function because of the budget constraint. So unemployment will grow while unemployment insurance contracts. This will not only pose a hardship on the people out of work, it will mean that the spending power of the American consumer will shrink rapidly.
Where the fiscal cliff might have led to a recession, this is downward spiral toward depression. The shrinking economy will shrink the government’s tax revenues. And since the budget deficit cannot increase, the spiral will go unchecked. Falling taxes will trigger falling spending. “Downward spiral” may be too mild. Economic black hole better fits the bill.
“In short, the consequences of hitting the debt ceiling are too awful to contemplate—worse even than going over the fiscal cliff. A sane Congress wouldn’t even think about it,” Blinder writes. He’s absolutely correct.
Blinder goes on to propose a plan to avoid a crises based on the assumption that Congress is sane. Let’s hope that assumption is correct.
House Republicans are discussing a short-term debt ceiling increase to buy time for broader deficit reduction negotiations with Democrats, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters Thursday.
“We’re discussing the possible virtue of a short-term debt limit extension so that we have a better chance of getting the Senate and the White House involved in discussions in March,” Ryan told reporters gathered at the pricey Kingsmill resort in Williamsburg, where the House GOP is holding its annual retreat.
“All of those things are the kinds of things we’re discussing,” said Ryan, the party’s budget chief and 2012 vice presidential candidate.
A small hike in the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling would give the government more time to make payments on its responsibilities as lawmakers and the White House haggle over federal spending. A GOP leadership aide said there was no consensus on the size of a debt limit hike, and that it would have to be coupled with entitlement reforms or spending cuts.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has told Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that the nation hit its borrowing limit at the end of 2012 and will run out of ways to avoid a first-ever default sometime between mid-February and early March. $85 billion in across-the-board 2013 cuts to defense and domestic spending are set to begin taking effect in March, and the government will run out of funding a month later.
Formulating a good metaphor for Obama’s second term is itself a task for intuitive creative thought that entails rethinking what he will propose in his second term. A good metaphor might embody the idea of an “inclusive economy.” The word “inclusive” resonates strongly: Americans do not want more government per se; rather, they want the government to get more people involved in the market economy. Opinion polls show that, above all, what Americans want are jobs – the beginning of inclusion.
The parallel to Chase’s book today is the 2012 bestseller Why Nations Fail by the economist Daron Acemoglu and the political scientist James Robinson. Acemoglu and Robinson argue that in the broad sweep of history, political orders that include everyone in the economic process are more likely to succeed in the long term.
The time seems ripe for that idea, and it fits with the triumph of inclusiveness symbolized by Obama himself. But another step in metaphor-building is needed to encapsulate the idea of economic inclusion.
The biggest successes of Obama’s first term concerned economic inclusion. The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is providing more people with access to health care – and bringing more people to privately-issued insurance – than ever before in the United States. The Dodd-Frank financial reforms created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, so that privately issued financial products would serve the public better, and created incentives for derivatives to be traded on public markets. And he signed the JOBS Act, proposed by his Republican opponents, which aims to create crowdfunding Web sites that allow small investors to participate in start-up ventures.
We have not reached the pinnacle of economic inclusion. There are hundreds of other possibilities, including improved investor education and financial advice, more flexible mortgages, better kinds of securitization, more insurance for a broader array of life’s risks, and better management of career risks. Much more progress toward comprehensive public futures and derivatives markets would help, as would policies to encourage the emerging world to participate more in the US economy. (Indeed, the inclusion metaphor is essentially global in spirit; had Obama used it in the past, his economic policies might have been less protectionist.)
The right metaphor would spin some of these ideas, or others like them, into a vision for America’s future that, like the New Deal, would gain coherence as it is transformed into reality. On January 29, Obama will give the first State of the Union address of his new term. He should be thinking about how to express – vividly and compellingly – the principles that have guided his choices so far, and that set a path for America’s future.