The Fiscal Guillotine

Shortly after Bill Clinton was elected president, he asked me to head up his economic transition team. He had promised during his campaign to "put people first" by reducing America's two deficits: the yawning budget deficit and the growing deficit of public investment in the nation's schools, health care, infrastructure, and environment.

"To reclaim our future," he intoned over and over again, "we must strive to close both the budget deficit and the investment gap."

But the economic transition team discovered that the budget deficit was so much larger than expected that Clinton would have to put the investment deficit on hold. It remained on hold for the next … well, it's now been 14 years.

In the late 1990s, when the budget deficit turned into a fat budget surplus, Clinton ignored his original investment agenda. By then Alan Greenspan's interest-rate cuts had buoyed the economy enough for most Americans to forget the long-term problems that lay behind the business cycle. Clinton was worried that Republicans would try to turn the surplus into tax cuts, so he used the ever-reliable scare tactic of telling the nation to "save Social Security first." In 2000, as budget surpluses continued to mount, candidate Al Gore demanded that the money be put in a "lockbox." When the surpluses overflowed even the lockbox, Gore said they should be used to reduce America's national debt.

Thus did Clinton and Gore tee up a $5 trillion surplus for George W. Bush to give away mostly to America's very wealthy -- without the nation ever so much as considering that it might be used to finance what Clinton and Gore were elected to do in 1992. While Republicans continued to spout the nonsense of supply-side economics, Democrats became the official party of fiscal austerity. The choice became either trickle-down economics or Calvin Coolidge economics.

Fast-forward to the present. The nation's investment deficit is now much larger than it was in 1992. The No Child Left Behind Act has raised school standards but hasn't provided nearly enough money to implement them. Meanwhile, almost all the net growth in the labor force has come from immigrants, many of whom lack the basics. There's less money for job training, and it's harder for families of modest means to afford college for their kids. Millions more Americans lack health insurance than in the early '90s. And according to a recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, America's roads, bridges, transit and drinking-water systems, and power grids are in worse shape than they were 15 years ago. On top of all this, the nation will need to invest tens of billions to cope with global warming.

Bush has put rich people and big corporations first -- spending like mad on fat contracts for military contractors, price supports for big agriculture, bloated subsidies for oil companies, and subsidized research for pharmaceutical companies. Yet measured as a percent of the gross domestic product, the current budget deficit is still less than it was in the early '90s. Cut the corporate welfare, raise taxes on the top, allow the deficit to move up to 3 percent of GDP, and there would be plenty of money to invest in the nation's future.

Yet the Democrats don't seem to know how to let go of Calvin Coolidge economics. Somehow, they got it in their heads that cutting budget deficits and balancing budgets -- and maybe, if everything goes really well, creating budget surpluses that can be used to reduce the debt -- is a sure-fire formula for prosperity. Flush from their midterm victory, congressional Democrats have flung themselves headlong into the guillotine of fiscal austerity. They've promised to shrink the deficit and enacted "pay-go" rules that make it impossible for them to do much of anything without raising taxes, yet they've been unwilling to commit themselves to raising taxes on the rich.

Democratic presidential candidates, meanwhile, have been assiduously vague about how to finance their plans for affordable health care or anything else. John Edwards has suggested that he's not overly concerned about budget deficits, but hasn't given any details. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have so far avoided bold ideas that would cost real money. All are careful to sound as if they believe that fiscal privation is the road to salvation.

Bill Clinton had it right in 1992: Inadequate public investment in the nation's future will condemn us to slower growth and shrinking prosperity. It's already happening.

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