Balanced Budget Amendments are Bad Policy

I always have to cover this topic in any introductory macroeconomics class I teach because usually one nutjob or another running for office always brings this up and people fall for it.  The arguments are usually based on complete fallacies and misunderstanding of the math of economics, but hey, for some reason balanced budgets sound ‘reasonable’ when they are anything but.

I used to talk theoretically about how balanced budget amendments will kill state economies when the next real recession hits.  Well, it hit a few years ago and we’re there.  States continue to make their own economies worse day in and day out but there’s still those people that insist that if a family has to balance its budget, then so should the country.  That’s even stupid considering most families have mortgages and car payments and probably student loans. Take Michele Bachmann as an example. She’s got all of the above plus farm subsidies and government grants.  Even the President is guilty of that false equivalency.  No person or family exists in perpetuity.  No person or family can print money.  No person or family has the power of taxation.  Because of these three things, you cannot compare government to a family.  Nor can you compare government to a business.  Businesses exist to make a profit.  Government exists to provide services and goods that the private sector will not provide or provides at an outrageous cost.  It exists to administer justice and ensure level playing fields and fair play exists.  Everything about a government is unique and is no way comparable to either businesses or households.

Macroeconomists know from years of study that the federal government can influence the economy at large.  It does so through its spending and taxing priorities and policies.  This is called fiscal policy.  We have found several economic laws that guide the relationship between taxes and government spending and the behavior of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which roughly measures all the legal and reported spending by households, governments, foreigners, and businesses.  In our economy, household spending comprises about 68% of all GDP.

Investment or purchases by businesses is the smallest and most erratic component of GDP.  Keynes said that it is easily spooked and subject to animistic spirits.  Because it’s an unreliable source of growth, Keynes argued that in down turns, government should use its power to spend.  Business investment usually only does fine in good economies. Please note,  Keynes said deficit spend in recessions.  Keynes’ prescription also said that Federal governments should run balanced budgets during times when the economy is fully employed and surpluses during bubble or boom times to relieve inflationary pressure.  As usual, conservative politicians completely lie about the nature of Keynes and his highly proven and credible theories on fiscal policy.  A lot of what we know about Monetary Policy comes from Milton Friedman, however, that is not the subject today.  What I want to emphasize is that both men spent a lot of time analyzing panics and the Great Depression and are very much at the heart of accepted theory.  We are seeing a classical lack of aggregate demand today.  It is what’s driving the budget deficit.  It is what’s driving the joblessness. It is what’s driving the slow recovery.  Government must and will by automatic stabilizers be in a deficit position during downturns.  It is simple math.  More revenues come in during good times than bad.  More safety net spending increases during bad times than good.  We naturally run towards deficit in bad economies and towards surplus in good.

However, show me an economy that’s booming with high revenues and lower safety net spending and I will show you a group of politicians spending wildly.  This tends to create inflation and can lead to bubbles.  However, you never hear them complain at that point in time.   That’s because it should be relatively easy to balance a budget then, but they do not do so or if they do its by expanding programs that cannot be sustained without borrowing during bad economies.

With that short explanation, let me cite you some folks that tell you why balanced budget amendments are bad policy.  This first quote is from Simon Johnson who is the former chief economist for the IMF.  He asks us to keep in mind that GDP is a measurement that is fraught with problems.   He also mentions the fact that a balanced budget amendment makes the government make recessions worse.

Second and more seriously, imagine that this constitutional amendment were in place and that federal spending were roughly at its limit relative to the size of the economy. Then, what happens should the financial sector blow up again — either through no fault of its own (which, believe it or not, is the current prevailing myth on Wall Street about 2007-9) or because of some toxic combination of malfeasance and malpractice (the current predominant view of 2007-9 among many other people)?

The blame game is irrelevant when G.D.P. drops 10 percent; the issue is how to prevent a Great Depression. But note that with such a decline in G.D.P., a level of nominal spending that was 18 percent of G.D.P. is suddenly 20 percent, and now a constitutional crisis awaits – even before we get to the question of whether tax cuts or other forms of stimulus might be appropriate.

It makes no sense to take aim, as a matter of constitutional process, at two numbers that are both outcomes of deeper economic processes.

And to be frank, sometimes it makes a great deal of sense to apply an economic stimulus to an economy in free fall. One such moment was 1930 (and 1931 and 1932), when no stimulus was applied. Other moments were 2008 and 2009; both President Bush and President Obama initiated stimulus packages. When credit for and confidence in the private sector evaporates, do you really want the government sector to be forced to make quick cuts — or to raise taxes?

James Ledbetter at Reuters argues that even conservatives should oppose a balanced budget amendment (BBA).  His reasons are more pragmatic.  He argues that it won’t work.

Historically, conservatives have opposed extending government authority in places where it is not effective. You can find all the evidence you need to conclude that balanced budget requirements are useless by simply investigating the oft-repeated claim that 49 states have laws requiring a balanced budget. Leave aside the falsity of the claim and just consider the logic: if so many states are required to balance their budgets, why are so many states in the red?

The answer is that requiring state governments to annually balance their books simply encourages them to find clever ways to disguise debt and deficits. For example: California has both a Constitutional and a statutory requirement that its budgets be balanced. Would any sane person maintain that the state’s books have been anything resembling healthy for at least a decade? This year, after some brutal spending cuts, the governor’s office found that the state still had a short-term deficit of more than $9 billion and $35 billion in long-term debt. The governor’s budget report noted that California’s “massive budget deficits for most of the past decade…have been largely the result of a reliance on one-time solutions, borrowing, accounting maneuvers, and cuts or revenues that were illusory and therefore did not materialize.”

If that sounds familiar, it may be because, as Richard Quest pointed out on CNN Sunday evening, we’ve witnessed numerous Congressional attempts in recent decades to rein in federal deficits—including Gramm-Rudman in 1985 and the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990—all of which fell victim to legislative legerdemain. Why would a federal balanced budget amendment be any different?

Here’s something from The Economist on “Fiscal Rules”.  Some fiscal rule–rather than a balanced budget amendment–would better stop congress from spending during booms and full employment cycles rather than balancing its budget via a BBA. This would be a rule that attaches the spending mandates to what’s going on in the economy.  But again, I doubt they’d follow it since they’ve ignored a good portion of the Keynesian prescription for years any way.

It is difficult for Congress to tie its own hands. Any law that can pass Congress can later be undone or changed. In the rare cases that Congress puts together a near-perfect piece of legislation, that’s a bad thing. In the vastly more common occurrence that Congress passes highly imperfect legislation in need of significant future tweaks, that’s a very good thing. Support for an amendment to the constitution is a spectacular vote of confidence in the ability of a legislature to design near-perfect legislation, because the only thing rarer than an amendment to the constitution is a subsequent amendment undoing or clarifying a previous amendment.

I see the argument for a well-designed, over-the-business-cycle balanced-budget amendment. But the idea of enshrining this Congress’ pathologies into the constitution is terrifying. Let’s see Congress design some quality fiscal rules using the normal legislative process first, and then we can talk about adding those to the constitution.

Bruce Bartlett has some excellent analysis up for the current go round of balanced budget amendments.  Mark Thoma explains how a BBA is a very bad idea. His analysis includes looking at the destabilizing effects that states’ BBAs have had on their economies. There’s a nifty graph that I did not include here if you’d like to go view it.

I’ve argued on many occasions that one of the big lessons we need to learn from this recession is that state-level balanced budget requirements are highly destabilizing. When a recession hits, spending goes up for social services and taxes fall as income, sales, property values, and other sources of revenue for state and local governments decline.

The result is a big hole in state and local government budgets, and that forces either increases in taxes or cuts in spending both of which make things even worse. And though some state and local governments were an exception to this, far and away the choice is to cut spending. We can see this in the state and local government employment statistics:

That’s not what we want to have happening when we are trying to recover from a recession. It would be much better if states had rainy day funds to rely upon, and if the rainy day funds fall short, the federal government could backfill the budget holes to prevent the destabilizing downsizing.

So have we learned the lesson? Nope, at least not if you are a Republican. They’d like to impose the same destabilizing rules on the federal government:

You really would have to search high and low for an economist that actually supports a BBA.  The more conservative ones go for the fiscal rule that attaches spending to business cycles but even they believe that it would be unenforceable and easy to avoid. Can you imagine some District Judge trying to look over a complex macroeconomic model and figure out if the government forecast was correct or not?

A group of leading economists, including five Nobel Laureates in economics, today publicly released a letter to President Obama and Congress opposing a constitutional balanced budget amendment. The letter outlines the reasons why writing a balanced budget requirement into the Constitution would be “very unsound policy” that would adversely affect the economy. Adding arbitrary caps on federal expenditures would make the balanced budget amendment even more problematic, the letter says. The Economic Policy Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities organized the letter.

“A balanced budget amendment would mandate perverse actions in the face of recessions,” the letter notes. By requiring large budget cuts when the economy is weakest, the amendment “would aggravate recessions.”

The signatories of the letter are Nobel Laureates Kenneth Arrow, Peter Diamond, Eric Maskin, Charles Schultze, William Sharpe and Robert Solow; Alan Blinder, former Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve System’s Board of Governors and former member of the Council of Economic Advisors; and Laura Tyson, former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors and former Director of the National Economic Council.

I’ll let former Reagan economist Bruce Bartlett have the last word here. He looks at the recent debate in Congress on the BBA.

Next week, House Republicans plan to debate a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Although polls show overwhelming public support, it is doubtful that many Americans realize that the measure to be debated is not, in fact, a workable blueprint to enforce a balanced budget. In fact, it’s just more political theater designed to delight the Tea Party.

We really need improved economic literacy in this country.  I genuinely can’t get over what some of the morons in congress can get away with saying.  Economists call them on it but it appears no one every listens.


Deficit Debacle: Live Blog on the Murder of Middle Class America

Everything is on the table.  Except taxes.  WTF?

I’m watching Bernie Sanders trying defend our precious safety nets right now.  The debate over this horrible capitulation to right wing extremists is carried on CSPAN .  Sanders is reminding the president that all the polls call for shared sacrifice.  He’s saying the proposal is bad and unfair.  He’s just announced on the floor he will not vote for the package.  What were getting is sacrificed on the alter of greed. At least some one recognizes this.

They’re taking a senate quorum call right now.

Here’s some headlines for you to  think about.

From former Biden economic adviser Jared Bernstein: Lousy Negotiation skills are not the problem.

What did we just go through and what does it mean for our national politics, our fiscal and economic policy?

–First, a small but influential group of extreme conservatives are so intent on shrinking the federal government that they would credibly threaten national default;

–Second, Democrats, including the president, do not have a strategy to counteract such extremism, so they accepted a plan far less balanced than they would have liked—the final deal could well turn out to be $3 trillion in spending cuts over ten years, with no revenue increases to offset the cuts.

–Third, and perhaps most importantly, like every debate about the size of government, it’s impossible for normal people, if not the “experts,” to figure out what anyone is really talking about and therefore to judge the deal.

What does it mean to cut $3 trillion in government spending?  How will it affect retirement security?  Education? Jobs in the short run and investment over the long run?  Does it put us on a sustainable fiscal path.

We’re about to agree to cut $1 trillion from something called discretionary spending.  That probably sounds great to some folks and bad to others.  But what does it mean?

The President bragged on this very point last night, telling America that discretionary spending as a share of the economy will come down to its lowest level since Eisenhower.  As if we’ve all been walking around thinking, “if only we could get this budget category down to Ike levels, everything would fall into place.”

In fact, these cuts will hurt our ability to pursue what I view as most positive aspects of the President’s economic agenda—investment in infrastructure, clean energy, research, education.  They will pinch programs that are already budget constrained…programs that help low income people with child care, housing, and community services.  (One piece to watch for here—defense spending is also in this category, and is supposed to account for about one-third of the cuts…that helps, of course, take pressure of these other parts.)

Then, in part two of the deal, we unleash the gang-of-twelve who are assigned to come up with $1.5 trillion more in deficit savings.

They’ll be hitting the entitlements—Social Security, Mcare, Mcaid—and more defense, but if they deadlock—a non-trivial probability—automatic cuts ensue.

My thought is that the political game has become all important in this negotiation and no one is really thinking about the outcome.  The Teabots are insane so they can be discounted, but all of this fall-in by senators and representatives that know what’s going on has got to be the most painful thing I’ve ever watched.  Can’t some of them use their brains and consciences for a change instead of checking their labels and owner dog tags?

Paul Krugman: The President Surrenders

For the deal itself, given the available information, is a disaster, and not just for President Obama and his party. It will damage an already depressed economy; it will probably make America’s long-run deficit problem worse, not better; and most important, by demonstrating that raw extortion works and carries no political cost, it will take America a long way down the road to banana-republic status.

Start with the economics. We currently have a deeply depressed economy. We will almost certainly continue to have a depressed economy all through next year. And we will probably have a depressed economy through 2013 as well, if not beyond.

The worst thing you can do in these circumstances is slash government spending, since that will depress the economy even further. Pay no attention to those who invoke the confidence fairy, claiming that tough action on the budget will reassure businesses and consumers, leading them to spend more. It doesn’t work that way, a fact confirmed by many studies of the historical record.

Indeed, slashing spending while the economy is depressed won’t even help the budget situation much, and might well make it worse. On one side, interest rates on federal borrowing are currently very low, so spending cuts now will do little to reduce future interest costs. On the other side, making the economy weaker now will also hurt its long-run prospects, which will in turn reduce future revenue. So those demanding spending cuts now are like medieval doctors who treated the sick by bleeding them, and thereby made them even sicker.

And then there are the reported terms of the deal, which amount to an abject surrender on the part of the president. First, there will be big spending cuts, with no increase in revenue. Then a panel will make recommendations for further deficit reduction — and if these recommendations aren’t accepted, there will be more spending cuts.

They are killing any hope we have of a decent recovery.  We don’t have one now.  The US Manufacturing Index just fell to a two year low.  This is one of the first leading indicators to show a looming recession. One of the most telling signs this morning about this is that the stock market is going down and now there is a flight to safety.  Oddly enough, the flight to safety is to US Treasury bonds.

“We’ve turned from budget crisis to economic crisis,” said Paul Horrmann, a broker in New York at Tradition Asiel Securities Inc., an interdealer broker. “We’ve gone from worrying about a budget and default to the economy long term. Higher prices are bringing in buyers, not sellers.”

Still, what about the JOB crisis?

Kevin Drum at MOJO: Why the Debit Ceiling Deal Sucks

It’s a shit sandwich no matter how you look at it. And it’s a shit sandwich in at least two very specific ways: (1) It means we’ll continue to live in a fantasyland that says we don’t need any tax increases even though our population is aging and we’re plainly going to need higher revenues to support this demographic reality; and (2) we’ll continue to live in a fantasyland that says our problems are primarily caused by discretionary spending. This is, of course, exactly the opposite of reality, which means we’re going to screw the poor and do nothing serious about the long-term deficit. Nice work, adults.

Easy-to-Hate Debt-Ceiling Compromise Called “Sugar-Coated Satan Sandwich” By Some

Cuts to Social Security and Medicare are also possible within the plan. Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, called the deal a “sugar-coated Satan sandwich,” which itself deserves $1.2 trillion.

We’re seriously f’d on this one folks.

Notable tweets:

daveweigel

I haven’t seen this many pissed off Democrats since the last time I saw some Democrats. #beenatoughyear
tbogg

Gene Sperling: Obama ‘didn’t give one inch’ : politico.com/news/stories/0… So Obama’s people say he owns this shit sandwich. Jesus. #Quitdigging

SatanSandwichSugar Coated
The moment I convinced President Obama of the virtues of austerity: bit.ly/nbv5C6 #FYEAH
ThePlumLineGSGreg Sargent

House Dem leaders NOT pressing Dems to vote for the debt deal, potentially complicating passage: http://wapo.st/o3wyDP

nytimes The New York Times
How the Debt Plan Would Work

Read this CBO letter to Congressional Leaders.  They’re putting discretionary funding caps on Social Security, Medicare, SCHIP, Medicaid, et.  Iraq and Afghanistan are exempt from spending caps.  This is AWFUL!!!  Worse than I thought … Please read this analysis from the CBO to congress!!!

House DEBATE and vote on package: running here at CSPAN. They are voting on the debate rules right now at 3:30 pm cst.  Progressive Caucus leaders talking right now saying they will not support the deal because it’s incredibly wrong and worse than the Reid Compromise.  Lynn Woolsey and Barbara Lee announcing they will vote no.


Please report on who you know is voting for or against below so we can keep track of who needs to face a real democrat in a primary,


Friday Reads: What Fresh Hells?

Good Morning!

Well, the extremist Christianists are still at it.  While our military is off fighting against religioust extremism in the middle east, we need to start fighting it at home.  Once again, religious hysteria overtakes reason, reality, and women’s and medicine’s ability to make decisions.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) announced today that he will not veto an anti-abortion bill that restricts doctors and hospitals from performing an abortion on a “viable fetus.” The new law eliminates Missouri’s “general health exception” that allowed abortions to preserve the life or health of the woman. Come Aug. 28 when the law goes into effect, abortions will only be allowed “to save the woman’s life or when the pregnancy poses a serious risk of permanent physical harm to a major bodily function.” This narrow exception effectively eliminates a woman’s mental health as a justifiable reason and runs headlong into the Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey which only permits such bans “provided the life or health of the mother is not at stake,” a much more comprehensive definition of a woman’s health. Doctors who violate this new law “could face prison sentences of up to seven years, fines up to $50,000 and the loss of their medical licenses.

This week the NRC has released a report outlining the problems with the nation’s aging nuclear plants that could give us a Fukushima-style meltdown.

Last month, we reported on the widespread deficiencies found in the procedures and equipment the country’s 104 commercial nuclear reactors are supposed to rely on in the event of a catastrophe like the one that hit the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant in Japan.

This week, a special task force of Nuclear Regulatory Commission experts proposed to do something about those problems and other safety issues raised by the Fukushima disaster, where the fuel in three reactors melted down and an unknown amount of radioactive materials escaped into the surroundings.

The NRC’s Japan Task Force said that U.S. nuclear plants are safe but called for potentially sweeping and costly changes to protect against catastrophic events like earthquakes and long-term blackouts.

The panel’s 83-page report calls for upgrades at many plants and broad revisions to what it called a “patchwork” of NRC regulations governing catastrophic events that need to be streamlined.

Groups ranging from nuclear industry representatives to nuclear power critics and regulators cautioned that the NRC report is only the first step in what will almost certainly be a long process of adopting lessons from the Fukushima disaster, where three reactors partially melted down.

That’s not very high on the list of priorities for GOP rep Sandy Adams from the backwoods of Florida.  She’s shocked and upset that the DOE teaches children about energy efficiency and those damned light bulbs.  Out! OUT! Damned light bulbs!

Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.) has introduced an amendment to the Energy and Water spending bill that would limit funds for any DOE website “which disseminates information regarding energy efficiency and educational programs to children or adolescents.”

The “Energy Kids!” site has a potpourri of energy-related information for kids, parents and teachers, ranging from science fair project suggestions to puzzles, an activity book and scavenger hunt. Kids can even earn a certificate for completing an expedition with “Energy Ant.”

In introducing her amendment Thursday night, Adams flipped through blown-up charts of cartoons and jokes from various DOE websites, including the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s “Kids Saving Energy.”

“How did Benjamin Franklin feel when he discovered electricity? He was shocked,” she said, reading from a poster.

It’s unclear how much money taxpayers would save from removing the sites, and Adams said she was frustrated with Energy Secretary Steven Chu for not providing her with those details.

The House is set to vote on the amendment Friday.

The House is adding this important issue to it’s agenda that includes passing a Dirty Water Act and evidently those damned lightbulbs that Republicans like Adams and Bachmann have become obsessed with have to go too!!  I guess caring about the environment is an act of Satan.

On Wednesday, the House approved the cynically named “Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act,” a bill that would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to oversee state water quality standards and to take action when the states fail to measure up. This bill is not about protecting states’ powers. It is about allowing industries, farmers and municipalities to pollute.

Among its chief sponsors are John Mica, Republican of Florida, who is angry at the E.P.A.’s recent crackdown on the agricultural pollutants that are destroying the Everglades, and Nick Rahall, Democrat of West Virginia, who is furious at the agency’s effort to stop mountaintop mining from poisoning his state’s rivers and streams.

President Obama has rightly threatened to veto the bill if it survives the Senate. Absent federal oversight, states are likely to engage in a race to the bottom, weakening environmental rules to attract business.

This assault on the Clean Water Act reminded us, briefly, of 1995, when a Republican-controlled House under Newt Gingrich tried to undermine the same law. That effort enraged independent voters and energized moderate Republicans.

One of the most interesting stories is the seemingly inevitable fall of the media empire built by Murdoch.  The FBI has opened an inquiry on wiretapping if 9-11 families similar to ones that plague Murdoch’s holdings in the UK. Murdoch is using the Wall Street Journal as his mouthpiece at the moment.

While it is unclear if the review will expand into a full investigation, the FBI’s involvement heightens the scrutiny faced by the media giant, which is under intense fire in Britain over allegations that its journalists hacked into the phones of thousands of people.

The FBI probe also raises the politically delicate possibility that the Obama administration— which has questioned the objectivity of News Corp.’s Fox News — could bring criminal charges against employees of the network’s parent company. Murdoch is a political conservative, and last year he directed a $1 million contribution to the Republican Governors Association on behalf of News Corp.

U.S. officials cautioned that it is too soon to tell if charges will be filed, and they indicated that the probe could face a range of complexities, including jurisdictional issues and statutes of limitation that may have expired. Federal investigators also are expected to consult with their counterparts in Britain, which could slow their pace.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry is unfolding.

Here’s hoping we lose enough Murdoch franchises in the world to bring back some truth and honesty in media.  If Roger Ailes goes down in all of this, that will just be frosting on the triple chocolate brownies. Speaking of Fox and egos from the fascist right, Bill O’Reilly has offered to broker the debt talks.  What’s next?  Rush Limbaugh painting smoke messages across the skies of Tripoli stating surrender Ghadafi?

“So now I am offering to broker the debt compromise. I’ll go down there. I’m ready to answer the call. Because I’m looking out for you. Not some crazed ideology or political party,” O’Reilly said.

Earlier in the segment, O’Reilly bashed the president and congressional Democrats’ “spending madness” as well as Michele Bachmann and other tea party-affiliated Republicans, whose current stance is against raising the U.S. debt limit no matter the deal.

O’Reilly’s debt plan would eliminate tax loopholes — with no increase in income taxes — as well as at least $2 trillion in immediate spending cuts. He believes discussion on entitlement spending must wait until after the 2012 election.

On Wednesday, Carney name-dropped the influential commentator as a constructive voice during the discussions.

“There is a growing chorus out there, of Republicans and Conservatives who acknowledge that we need to do this in a balanced way,” Carney said. “Bill O’Reilly on Fox News expressed that sentiment last night.”

Okay, with that, I’ll ask what’s on your blogging and reading list today?


Can you charge the country’s top elected officials with Treason?

It seems as though our nation’s “leaders” are looking to bring down our country.  It’s the only explanation that I have. Also, I’m at the point where I think Joe Biden is the only sane one in the room.  Pinch me!  Please!

Headlines of note to prove my case:

Boehner Says The Debt Limit Increase Is Obama’s Problem

Speaker of the House John Boehner introduced a new argument to the debt ceiling and deficit reduction talks Tuesday, saying raising the borrowing limit is Republicans’ concession in the negotiations.”This debt limit increase is [Obama’s] problem,” he said.

Boehner is trying to force a deficit reduction package entirely based on spending cuts, saying Obama’s demands for new revenues would only be considered if Obama accepted deep cuts to entitlements.

My guess is that Boehner has absolutely no control over the Republicans in the House.  Some one from Wall Street needs to take a few of them to the wood shed.   Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell appears to be interested in nothing but political play.   Some senate Republicans would obviously join the president but it appears that will happen over McConnell’s dead mind and conscious.  McConnell still  refuses to admit the Republicans lost the White House 3 years ago.  He’s become some kind of Captain Queeg who gets in front of the press then rattles ball bearings in his fist while muttering “one term president, strawberries, one term president, it’s the strawberries, I tell you …” repeatedly.

McConnell: Obama can’t deliver major deficit-reduction deal

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) on Tuesday said a comprehensive deficit-reduction deal is not attainable as long as Barack Obama is president.

McConnell declared that deficit-reduction talks have come to an unsolvable deadlock.

“After years of discussions and months of negotiations, I have little question that as long as this president is in the Oval Office, a real solution is unattainable,” he said.McConnell has called for reforms to curb the future growth of Social Security and Medicare since taking over as Republican leader at the end of 2006.

So, what’s the response of the leader of the free world?  Would you call this riling up or scaring seniors?

Obama says he cannot guarantee Social Security checks will go out on August 3

President Obama on Tuesday said he cannot guarantee that retirees will receive their Social Security checks August 3 if Democrats and Republicans in Washington do not reach an agreement on reducing the deficit in the coming weeks.

“I cannot guarantee that those checks go out on August 3rd if we haven’t resolved this issue. Because there may simply not be the money in the coffers to do it,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley, according to excerpts released by CBS News.

The Obama administration and many economists have warned of economic catastrophe if the United States does not raise the amount it is legally allowed to borrow by August 2.

This is insane.  No one’s made any sense in this discussion since Joe Biden told his gang of six to get real. Meanwhile, we’re beginning to see financial economists question this game of chicken.This extremely good analysis is written by Jeffrey Frankel the James W. Harpel Professor of Capital Formation and Growth at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

In the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean and a teenage rival race two cars to the edge of a cliff in a game of chicken.  Both intend to jump out at the last moment.  But the other guy miscalculates, and goes over the cliff with the car.

This is the game that is being played out in Washington this month over the debt ceiling.  The chance is at least 1/4 that the result will be similarly disastrous.

It is amazing that the financial markets continue to view the standoff with equanimity.   Interest rates on US treasury bonds remain very low, barely above 3% at the ten-year maturity.   Evidently it is still considered a sign of sophistication to say “This is just politics as usual.  They will come to an agreement in the end.”  Probably they will.  But maybe not.   (I’d put a ½ probability on an agreement that raises the debt limit, but just muddles through in terms of the genuine long term fiscal problem.  That leaves at most a ¼ probability of a genuine long-term solution of the sort that President Obama apparently proposed last week – described as worth $4 trillion over ten years.)

My advice to investors is to shift immediately out of US treasuries and into high-rated corporate bonds.  If the worst happens, you will probably save yourself from a big capital loss within the next month.  If not, there is no harm done.

The game is not symmetric.  The Republicans are the ones who are miscalculating.   Evidently they are confident of prevailing:  they rejected the President’s offer, even though he was willing to cut entitlement programs.

The situation is complicated because there are a number of different people crammed into the Republican car.    There is one guy who is obsessed with the theory that, come August 3, the federal government could retain its top credit rating if it continued to service its debt by ceasing payment on its other bills.  But this would mean failing to honor legal obligations that have already been incurred (paying suppliers for paper clips that have already been bought, paying soldiers their wages for last month’s service, sending social security recipients their checks, etc.).  This is like observing that the cliff is not a 90 degree drop-off, but only 110 degrees.   It doesn’t matter: the car would still go crashing into the ocean far below.   The government’s credit would still be downgraded and global investors would still demand higher interest rates to hold US treasuries, probably on a long-term basis.

There are other guys (and gals) in the car who are even more delusional.   They are dead set on a policy of immediately eliminating the budget deficit (e.g., those opposed to raising the debt ceiling no matter what, or those campaigning for a balanced budget amendment), and doing it primarily by cutting nondefense discretionary spending.  This is literally impossible, arithmetically.  But they honestly don’t know this.   It is as if they were insisting that the car can fly.   Sometimes it can be a good bargaining position to adopt a very extreme position.  But if you are demanding that the car flies, you are not going to get your way no matter how determined you are.

What we have here are a group of rebels with self-serving causes.   Again, the President should just invoke the 14th amendment,pay the bills, and send the DOJ after the many folks here that appear to be willing to tank our country for their personal political gain.  Threatening seniors’ social security is not leadership. It’s just a matter of time before the financial markets start noticing these folks are not acting in the best interest of our country, our economy, or our ability to deal with our economic challenges.   We’re lucky that they still think this is the chicken dance right now instead of a chicken race.  It’s going to be a lot harder to pay off the debt with the interest rates that go along with junk bonds. This is not the place for political grandstanding.

update: Okay, this is weird … what’s McConnell up to now?

The Big Blink? McConnell Proposes Giving Obama Authority To Raise Debt Limit Alone

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has proposed a sort of escape hatch for Congressional Republicans, who have threatened not to raise the national debt limit — and trigger a default — if Democrats don’t agree to trillions of dollars in cuts to popular social programs.

The plan is designed to give President Obama the power to raise the debt limit through the end of his first term on his own, but to force Democrats to take a series of votes on the debt limit vote in the months leading up to the election.

This still leaves me wondering if Boehner can deliver enough Republican votes to actually head off a purposeful debt default.


President Hornswoggle and the Debted Hallows

So, you know me.  I’m out looking for exactly how bad this debt ‘deal’ is going to austere our economy in to the Great Recession Redux.   BostonBoomer has been writing about President Hornswoggle putting Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security–not even part of the federal budget–on the table.  I’ve searched and searched and can’t find the details on the great American Give Away other than a few articles showing a beaming Boehner saying we’re at a 50-50 chance of reaching a deal now.   If Boehner is beaming, all but the richest among us should be holding on to our personal liberties and wallets.

We know that the President has caved on a bunch of things during both the HRC negotiations and the extension of the Dubya Tax Breaks for Billionaires pogrom.  However, the Democratic leadership was aware of this, grumbled some, and backed his usurpation of responsibility for our future.  Imagine my surprise when I watched Chuck Schumer on Andrea Mitchell say that he had no idea about the details of the current deal so he couldn’t really comment on it.  The most noticeable detail was his face that said “I’ve got a sick tummy, mommy”.  Senator Schumer is on the Senate  Committee on Finance that handles all of these things and is supposedly a key person on the budget deal.   You would think he would know.  But, he doesn’t and neither does any other Democratic Senator or Congressman.  It appears the press told them what Obama was handing over to the Republicans.

Senate Democrats reacted angrily Thursday to a report that President Obama has proposed significant cuts to Medicare and Social Security in closed-door talks with GOP leaders.

Democratic lawmakers said they were dismayed to read about Obama’s offer in the press rather than hearing it from the president himself. Their frustration is exacerbated by Obama’s snub of their invitation to speak to the Senate Democratic caucus Wednesday.

Instead, Obama is meeting with Democratic and Republican leaders from both chambers Thursday morning.

“We would have preferred to hear it from the president instead of from the press,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (Md.), a senior member of the Senate Democratic conference. “We first have to go after tax earmarks.”

Mikulski said cuts to Medicare and Social Security should be a solution of last resort. She said closing tax loopholes and pulling back from Libya should be considered before entitlement cuts.

She said Obama should not assume Democratic support for a deficit reduction plan that cuts entitlements.

I now fully expect President Cave-in to hand the keys to the nation over to a bunch of punch-drunk Republicans.  What I don’t get is why the Democratic members of Congress continue to let him get away with it.  They are the very face of “sound and fury signifying nothing”.  Let me ask you if you’d want to be a congress member from some solid Democratic district facing re-election by having to defend a Democratic President that’s happy to cut Medicare and Social Security?  Social Security doesn’t even need to be on the table.  He’s just offered it up for some reason that I can’t fathom. How on earth could you face your electorate and back such a  deal?

Let me remind you, all of the economic data gathered in the last 80 years tells us that this austerity agenda is just going to tank the economy. We continue t0 enact the very same crap that put us in the worst economic position we’ve seen since the Great Depression.  Why oh why are they doing this to us?  Here’s a taste of Noble Prize winning Joseph Stiglitz for some perspective.

A decade ago, in the midst of an economic boom, the United States faced a surplus so large that it threatened to eliminate the national debt. Unaffordable tax cuts and wars, a major recession, and soaring health care costs—fueled in part by the commitment of George W. Bush’s administration to giving drug companies free rein in setting prices, even with government money at stake—quickly transformed a huge surplus into record peacetime deficits.

The remedies to the U.S. deficit follow immediately from this diagnosis: Put America back to work by stimulating the economy; end the mindless wars; rein in military and drug costs; and raise taxes, at least on the very rich. But the right will have none of this, and instead is pushing for even more tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, together with expenditure cuts in investments and social protection that put the future of the U.S. economy in peril and that shred what remains of the social contract. Meanwhile, the U.S. financial sector has been lobbying hard to free itself of regulations, so that it can return to its previous, disastrously carefree, ways.

Here’s a thorough, peer-reviewed, strong methodology-based  IMF study–cited by Paul Krugman–that provides evidence that austerity programs are recessionary and bring on worse budget problems.

The paper corrects this by using the historical record to identify true examples of deliberate austerity — and it turns out that they are contractionary. The multiplier is less than one, but that may reflect the fact that these austerity programs did not take place in the face of a zero lower bound, so they were partly offset by monetary expansion.

The paper also provides a tentative answer to the apparent tendency of spending cuts to be less contractionary than tax increases: it looks as if central banks take more aggressive action to offset spending cuts than tax hikes, reflecting some combination of inflation concerns, belief that spending cuts are more durable, and (the paper doesn’t say this) bankerly ideology.

If we were discussing a politically neutral subject, the evidence here would long since have been considered definitive: expansionary austerity is a doctrine that failed. But since we’re in the political realm, of course, such a convenient doctrine can’t be abandoned. On the contrary, it now seems to be the official doctrine of both the GOP and the White House.

Also, let me remind you that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are very successful programs.  They have successfully stopped the elderly from being the poorest segment of society.  Just as an example, the majority of single, elderly women would be in poverty without Social Security.

Elderly unmarried women — including widows — get 51 percent of their total income from Social Security. Unmarried elderly men get 39 percent, while elderly married couples get 36 percent of their income from Social Security. For 25 percent of unmarried women, Social Security is their only source of income, compared to 9 percent of married couples and 20 percent of unmarried men. Without Social Security benefits, the elderly poverty rate among women would have been 52.2 percent and among widows would have been 60.6 percent.

Here’s a recent,  powerful, academic study showing the benefits of providing Health Insurance for the poor.

When poor people are given medical insurance, they not only find regular doctors and see doctors more often but they also feel better, are less depressed and are better able to maintain financial stability, according to a new, large-scale study that provides the first rigorously controlled assessment of the impact of Medicaid.

While the findings may seem obvious, health economists and policy makers have long questioned whether it would make any difference to provide health insurance to poor people.

It has become part of the debate on Medicaid, at a time when states are cutting back on this insurance program for the poor. In fact, the only reason the study could be done was that Oregon was running out of money and had to choose some people to get insurance and exclude others, providing groups for comparison.

I continually feel as though we’ve all been drug down the rabbit hole. It is like the President is purposefully enabling  joblessness, poverty, and public health problems.  No amount of research, historical data, and polls appear to be able to penetrate the Washington, D.C. group think these day. The biggest issue is that the President himself believes in the confidence fairy, the bipartisan elves, and the high priests of voodoo economics.  He’s not just part of the problem, he is THE problem.  Can  just one or two members of the Democratic caucus please stand up to this man and his notion that bipartisanship that surrenders the country to right wing reality-deniers is better than any form of principled leadership?   Can at least one of the please be brave and start talking some sense and representing the will of the people for a change?

Invoke the 14th Amendment and end the damned sell outs now!