The dangers of deficit fever

The Thinker by Rodin

Why study history? After all, many people (particularly students) find history boring. However, there are excellent reasons for studying history. By observing our actions in the past and their effect we can predict with a fair amount of confidence whether they will work again. For example, based on our experience during the Great Depression, cutting spending lead to less economic activity and prolonged the Great Depression. Lesson: the government should keep spending in ways that stimulate the economy until a recovery is sustainable.

So what are we doing as we just begin to emerge from the Great Recession? Why, we are cutting spending! With history as our example, we now know that we are almost guaranteeing a double dip recession. Moreover, what we are cutting suggests profoundly stupid choices. It appears that whenever we finally emerge from our economic doldrums and near double-digit unemployment, our status of still being a superpower will be problematical.

It is easy to look at countries like Greece, which is in the midst of a terrible deficit-driven crisis, and figure we need to buckle down ourselves. Greece is buckling down, largely because it had no choice. Here is what austerity is also bringing in Greece: a sharp and marked drop in standards of living, a rise in already high unemployment rates, and credit that is hard to get and when available only at usury rates. There is also a lot of civil strife. Students, pensioners and government employees are marching in the streets. Rioters have already killed some people and damaged considerable property. Greece is on the edge of anarchy.

However, here in the United States both our “welfare state” and our total debt as a percentage of GDP is a fraction of Greece’s. This suggests we are in no danger immediate danger from excessive debt. In fact, as financial markets now look shaky again, even more money is flowing into U.S. Treasury bills. So our country is still seen as a safe haven for money, and our debt is seen as good debt, at least compared with other investments. Unlike in Greece, only a small percentage of us retiring at fifty-five or sixty are retiring on a pension. Most of those retiring are retiring only because they lost their jobs and no one will hire them.

Having lost their jobs, they have far less money in their pocket, so they are spending less. When people spend less and earn less, governments collect less in the way of taxes. For the most part, state and local governments cannot raise taxes enough to make up the difference, so they must cut services instead. And since states and local governments have little in the way of bloat, essential services are being cut. Firefighters, police and teachers that thought they had steady jobs are finding themselves unemployed. Here is a real trickledown effect. Because they have less to spend, retailers receive less and perhaps cut their workforce, or reduce hours. When retailers sell less, they need less from wholesalers who also cut jobs. When wholesalers need less, producers and manufacturers make less so they cut jobs. So the economic effect keeps trickling down, exacerbating unemployment, reducing tax revenues and extending our economic doldrums.

Moreover, our supposedly precious children are getting inferior educations. They are stuffed into classrooms with more students, lose opportunities for extracurricular activities and in at least 120 school districts have four-day school weeks. We will depend on their income in our own retirements, but it’s hard to understand how. By teaching them less today, they will likely be behind children in other countries. All these negative effects are because we are now alarmed over short-term deficits that it appears we can comfortably sustain over the short term.

If you have trouble starting your car, you might pump the accelerator hoping the engine will start. The same is true with our economy. What you don’t do is the moment it sputters to life stop giving it gas.

Deficits remain important in the long term. However, Republicans don’t seem to understand that raising taxes is a viable way to solve deficits. If deficits are truly more important than anything else is, then raising taxes has to be on the table. Otherwise, keeping taxes low is more important than deficits, which is the philosophy they have traditionally embraced. It is also important to get spending in line with revenues. But first things first. First the economy has to be vibrant enough so that economic activity reduces unemployment and drives wealth. When this happens, tax collections also increase, reducing deficits.

Unquestionably, we waste and misdirect much of our tax dollars. Our spending on war in Afghanistan is an egregious waste of money because it is a lost cause. A lot of the money given to the Afghan government instead lines the pockets of its largely corrupt Afghan officials. It also goes to pay off warlords who look the other way so our supply trucks carry cargo safely to remote locations. Aside from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, huge amounts of money are wasted within the Department of Defense. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates agrees. There is also huge waste in the Medicare system. Some of these expenditures, like building aircraft engines we don’t need, do feed American families. However, but they don’t go to buy things we need to make our country stronger and safer.

It’s pretty clear what we do need to do.  We need to create jobs for the unemployed that will leave us with a stronger country. Jobs provide money, but also feed faith in the future. You don’t get there by laying off teachers, policemen and firemen. These are our first priorities, which is why it makes no sense for Republicans (and one turncoat Democrat) to kill a bill that keeps them employed. You also get there by building and rebuilding bridges and roads, funding innovative research for the 21st century and by investing in the educational needs of all our citizens, activities that are underway but where more money is likely needed. You don’t get there by cutting off unemployment benefits because people have been two years without a job. All that does is breed poverty and homelessness. However, if a chronically unemployed person at least has a check coming in, maybe he can pay his rent and buy food and clothing. That money stimulates a lot of economic activity.

You also raise taxes where it makes sense to do so. Aside from the poor economy, what is feeding the deficit? Mostly tax cuts that we gave to the richest Americans. These are people who can certainly afford to pay more taxes and in some cases genuinely want to pay more taxes. These huge tax cuts drove the problem that caused our deficits to explode. Certainly now is not the time to raise taxes on middle and lower income people, but those who can afford to pay more in taxes certainly should, particularly when richer Americans historically have paid much higher tax rates and still maintained a great standard of living.

Perhaps to achieve fiscal solvency it will be necessary to extend retirement ages or cut benefits in social programs like Medicare and Medicaid. These cuts become much more likely though in a hampered economy. I know my lifestyle would take a severe hit if I lived on half my income. The same is true with our government. A thriving economy will be the engine that creates this wealth again, as it did under Bill Clinton.

We need to spend more to get this economy moving again, even if the debt numbers look scary in the short term. Just as importantly, we need to spend wisely, investing on essentials like education, our state and local governments, and our infrastructure. Doing so prepares us for the economic challenges of the 21st century. To narrow the deficit, we need to repeal tax cuts given to the rich. At the very least, we need to redirect wasted money from places like Afghanistan into useful activities, like maintaining basic services for our citizens. What we do not need is what we have now: a panicky and foolish Congress that cannot see that their version of austerity is just another word for continued recession, unemployment and our quick descent into a second world country.