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Hullabaloo


Monday, December 17, 2012

 
Stop the austerity insanity

by digby

Krugman tries, once again, to educate people about the budget. I wish the Villagers in charge would listen.

He starts by pointing out that we have our current deficit cannot be helped by cutting the social insurance programs of the future. And then shows that the long term problem of health care costs and an aging population will not be solved through making the population sicker and poorer in their old age.

But then he takes on the present fiscal challenges:

[L]et’s talk about the numbers.

The first thing we need to ask is what a sustainable budget would look like. The answer is that in a growing economy, budgets don’t have to be balanced to be sustainable. Federal debt was higher at the end of the Clinton years than at the beginning — that is, the deficits of the Clinton administration’s early years outweighed the surpluses at the end. Yet because gross domestic product rose over those eight years, the best measure of our debt position, the ratio of debt to G.D.P., fell dramatically, from 49 to 33 percent.

Right now, given reasonable estimates of likely future growth and inflation, we would have a stable or declining ratio of debt to G.D.P. even if we had a $400 billion deficit. You can argue that we should do better; but if the question is whether current deficits are sustainable, you should take $400 billion off the table right away.

That still leaves $600 billion or so. What’s that about? It’s the depressed economy — full stop.

First of all, the weakness of the economy has led directly to lower revenues; when G.D.P. falls, the federal tax take falls too, and in fact always falls substantially more in percentage terms. On top of that, revenue is temporarily depressed by tax breaks, notably the payroll tax cut, that have been put in place to support the economy but will be withdrawn as soon as the economy is stronger (or, unfortunately, even before then). If you do the math, it seems likely that full economic recovery would raise revenue by at least $450 billion.

Meanwhile, the depressed economy has also temporarily raised spending, because more people qualify for unemployment insurance and means-tested programs like food stamps and Medicaid. A reasonable estimate is that economic recovery would reduce federal spending on such programs by at least $150 billion.

Putting all this together, it turns out that the trillion-dollar deficit isn’t a sign of unsustainable finances at all. Some of the deficit is in fact sustainable; just about all of the rest would go away if we had an economic recovery.

There has always been some fantasy, mostly held by people who are about to be fleeced by Wall Street sharpies, that this country should be run like a cash business. It cannot and should not be done that way. (Ask Mitt Romney about the role of debt in a modern economy.) The problem is that this focus on debt is making it impossible to do the things we need to do to spur economic growth in the short term, which would close the deficit, and apparently the only way anyone in Washington can see to get around that is to sell off the future security of American citizens as some sort of human sacrifice for no good reason. It simply is not necessary, as Krugman shows.

John Boehner came up with a new "offer" this week-end to raise the rates on those who make a million or more each year and also agreed to take the debt ceiling off the table for the next year. Krugman thinks this is a bad deal which Obama has no good reason to take --- and I would agree with him if I didn't still see a very dangerous possibility that the administration wants to pursue some unacceptable spending cuts in order to deliver on that "balanced approach." A looming debt ceiling fight is a very good excuse for them to do that. If kicking the can down the road another year will stop them from cutting more spending, then I'm inclined to say take the deal.

Obviously, this whole thing is ridiculous. They should get rid of this idiotic debt ceiling vote altogether: after all once they appropriate the funds they've agreed to pay for them whether through taxation or borrowing. This yearly vote allows them to get credit for the goodies and then later refuse to pick up the tab. But unless they are willing to give it up completely, I'd be glad to at least see it be delayed until the White House stops talking about cutting vital programs.

And yes, the taxes should go up for all income over $250,000. They can afford it. But not if the price is changing to the Chained CPI which will take the food out of the mouths of 90 year old women and squeeze veterans and disabled people who can't afford it. In other words, the devil is in the details. If Obama hangs tough as Krugman prescribes and wins on all these points without giving up the store (also known as "making tough choices " his own base "won't like") then I say go for it. I'm just not sure I have much faith that's the game plan. If it isn't, then maybe he should take Boehner's offer, repeal the sequester and put this to bed for the time being. There's been more than enough cutting already to drag this economy down. Let's see what happens if we stop the austerity insanity for a while.


Update: This is why I worry

The two men met for about 45 minutes, according to the White House, and neither side is providing any information. However, people in both parties say that Mr. Boehner, for the Republicans, is not pressing any more for an increase in the Medicare eligibility age to 67 from 65, while Mr. Obama has indicated that for the right deal he would support switching to a new inflation formula for federal programs, one that would have the effect of reducing future cost-of-living payments for Social Security beneficiaries.

No. That's a terrible, terrible idea. And it won't be fully mitigated by the so-called "bump-up":

As part of deficit-reduction negotiations, some policy makers have proposed switching to the chained consumer price index (CPI) to calculate the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for Social Security and other programs. The chained CPI would lower the annual COLA, reducing the value of Social Security benefits more and more over time. It is not a more accurate measure of inflation for the elderly – and it would be especially harmful to women, because on average they live longer than men, rely more on income from Social Security, and are already more likely to be poor.

Recognizing that the chained CPI targets the oldest, poorest Americans, some deficit-reduction plans propose an increase in Social Security benefits for long-term beneficiaries in an attempt to mitigate the cuts from the chained CPI. This analysis
examines how effective the “20-year benefit bump-up” proposed in the Bowles-Simpson Fiscal Commission report would be in protecting the typical single elderly woman – a woman with an initial benefit of $1,100 per month, the median benefit for single women 65 and older – and other vulnerable beneficiaries from the impact of the
chained CPI.

For the typical single elderly woman:

• The cut from the chained CPI would
reduce her monthly benefits by an
amount equal to the cost of one week’s
worth of food each month at age 80.
She would still have two years to wait
before receiving any help from the
bump-up.

• The Bowles-Simpson bump-up would
restore her monthly benefits to current law levels for only two years – and then
benefits would fall behind again.

• By age 95, the cut in her benefits would
equal the cost of three days’ worth of
food each month.

This is why we called it the "catfood commission".

There is no good reason to do this. There is plenty of money in our society for the most vulnerable to be adequately taken care of while still allowing the "job creators" the ability to buy their disposable luxury goods and pay the servants. Just say no to this.



Update II:

Never mind. If this is right, we're screwed:

Boehner offered to let tax rates rise for income over $1 million. The White House wanted to let tax rates rise for income over $250,000. The compromise will likely be somewhere in between. More revenue will come from limiting deductions, likely using some variant of the White House’s oft-proposed, oft-rejected idea for limiting itemized deductions to 28 percent. The total revenue raised by the two policies will likely be a bit north of $1 trillion. Congress will get instructions to use this new baseline to embark on tax reform next year. Importantly, if tax reform never happens, the revenue will already be locked in.

On the spending side, the Democrats’ headline concession will be accepting chained-CPI, which is to say, accepting a cut to Social Security benefits. Beyond that, the negotiators will agree to targets for spending cuts. Expect the final number here, too, to be in the neighborhood of $1 trillion, but also expect it to lack many specifics. Whether the cuts come from Medicare or Medicaid, whether they include raising the Medicare age, and many of the other contentious issues in the talks will be left up to Congress.

The deal will lift the spending sequester, but it will be backed up by, yes, another sequester-like policy. I’m told that the details on this next sequester haven’t been worked out yet, but the governing theory is that it should be more reasonable than the current sequester. That is to say, if the two parties can’t agree on something better, then this should be a policy they’re willing to live with.

On stimulus, unemployment insurance will be extended, as will the refundable tax credits. Some amount of infrastructure spending is likely. Perversely, the payroll tax cut, one of the most stimulative policies in the fiscal cliff, will likely be allowed to lapse, which will deal a big blow to the economy.

As for the debt ceiling, that will likely be lifted for a year, at least. In contrast to a week or so ago, when the White House was very intent on finishing the debt ceiling fight now, they’re sounding considerably less committed to securing a long-term increase in these negotiations. The argument winning converts, I’m told, is that since the White House won’t negotiate on the debt ceiling now and won’t negotiate on it later, there’s little reason to make it the sine qua non of a deal.

As is always the case, the negotiations could fall apart, or the deal could change. But right now, the participants sound upbeat, surprised at how quickly the process has moved from evident disaster to near-agreement, and fairly comfortable with where they think they’ll end up.

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