In case it slipped your mind during all this talk of scandal and impeachment, official Washington has spent the last couple of years gnashing its teeth about the budget deficit. Even as European austerity policies threw the continent into a period of extended despair, Republicans and their allies in the well-appointed conference rooms of "centrist" think tanks told us sternly that unemployment would have to wait; the most immediate crisis was the deficit.
In 1984, CompuServe launched the first “Electronic Mall,” a Pleistocene-era Amazon with which owners of a TRS-80 personal computer could browse and buy goods over the Internet. Such modern retailers as “The Record Emporium” and “The Book Bazaar” were given prominent virtual storefronts. A full page ad in the May 1984 issue of Online Today boasted, “By the year 2000, the world may catch up with the way CompuServe’s new Electronic Mall lets you shop today.” The world took less time to catch up than that: By 1995, eBay and Amazon had been incorporated; in Amazon’s first two months as an online bookstore, it averaged $20,000 per week in sales. Americans would go on to spend around $700 million online in 1996, and by 1999 sales had grown to $20 billion. Figures released earlier this year by the Commerce Department revealed that Americans spent $225 billion online in 2012—a 400 percent increase in only a decade.
Deficit reduction has been Washington’s obsession for the past two years, and the main approach of both parties is austerity—any combination of policies that raises government revenue and reduces its expenditures.
This is a story about the deficit scolds who substitute attitude for argument and how they use the public’s ignorance about the federal budget to their advantage.
It comes from sparring over the House Republican budget, which Republicans claim will achieve a balanced budget within ten years, and Barack Obama’s budget, which he will be submitting to Congress this week. Neither gets us to a zero deficit. The White House spin has been that balancing the budget isn’t an important goal by itself—deficits, surpluses, or balance are only means to the end of a growing economy or creating jobs. In line with that thinking, last week White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said, “You don’t want to balance the budget for the purposes of just balancing the budget.”
There is something seriously off about the mission of the new Treasury secretary, Jack Lew, to Europe. Secretary Lew has been visiting European capitals to persuade leaders there to ease up on the austerity. He has not had a good reception.
Speaking at a joint press conference with the chagrined Lew in Berlin, Wolfgang Schauble, the German finance minister and uber-austerity enforcer, dressed down Lew thusly: “Nobody in Europe sees this contradiction between fiscal consolidation and growth.”
Nobody among the elite, that is.
Ordinary people in Greece, where output has declined by nearly 25 percent since the austerity tonic began, surely see the contradiction. So do young people in Spain, where the youth unemployment rate has reached 56 percent.
For accounting purposes, it makes sense to count programs like Social Security, disability insurance, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families as government spending. But these kinds of programs are not really government spending because the government does not actually direct how the money is spent. Unlike building a road, for instance, where the government decides that a road should be built and then pays to make it happen, cash benefit programs involve the government distributing money to people and allowing them to decide where to spend it.
The latest fiscal showdown concerns the “sequester”—across the board cuts to (almost entirely) discretionary spending that will total just over $1 trillion in the next decade, and which are set to take effect on March 1. What should those who have better things to do with their life than follow fiscal policy debates know about the sequester?
Yesterday afternoon at the National Press Club (the standard Washington venue for events that need a little class), the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget—a bipartisan debt-reduction group—rolled out its “Fix the Debt” campaign, an attempt to push deficit reduction to the top of the congressional priority list. It's hard to overstate the extent to which this was an almost stereotypical gathering of Beltway deficit scolds.
The top marginal income tax rate, a testament to our oppression. (Flickr)
When the Tea Party movement started in 2009, some of its adherents made signs that read, "Taxed Enough Already!", since the movement defined itself in large part as a reaction against the oppressive tax policies of the federal government, sucking ordinary people dry in its endless search for cash to fund its freedom-destroying schemes. This was always an insane inversion of actual reality—the truth is that as part of the stimulus bill, President Obama actually cut taxes for almost everyone, and the only tax increase he imposed in his first term was a hike in cigarette taxes. It's true that the Affordable Care Act contains a number of different tax increases (on things like "Cadillac" health plans), but those have not taken effect yet. But to many conservatives, it just feels like they're paying more taxes, because...well, because there's a Democrat in the White House.
Today, the Congressional Budget Office released a report on the taxes we have actually been paying, and guess what: the average federal taxes paid by Americans are at their lowest point in the last 30 years:
To a large degree, the stimulus was hampered by budget cuts on the state and local level. States have to balance their budgets, and in a recession, this means deep cuts to payrolls and existing services. Economists estimate that if public employment had stayed steady through the recession and into the recovery, the joblessness rate would be at or below 7 percent. As it stands, states are on a cutting spree—state and local spending is at its lowest point since the 1980s—and as USA Todayreports, this is exacerbated by receding aid from the federal government:
Barack Obama did a bunch of big things in his first term—passed health care reform and ended the war in Iraq, most notably. If he wants to do something big domestically in his second term (especially since he seems to have lost any inclination to do anything about climate change), one natural area to try would be tax reform. It might actually be possible to arrive at something both Democrats and Republicans could live with, if we put aside Republicans' desire to make sure he never accomplishes anything, ever (which will continue into his second term). Republicans already have their own tax plan, which lays out some goodies they'll give people (especially wealthy people, you'll be shocked to learn) while conveniently avoiding any specificity on how the goodies will be paid for.
In today’s New York Times, David Brooks has an extended meditation on debt that relies on one giant omission:
Recently, life has become better and more secure. But the aversion to debt has diminished amid the progress. Credit card companies seduced people into borrowing more. Politicians found that they could buy votes with borrowed money. People became more comfortable with red ink.
Today we are living in an era of indebtedness. Over the past several years, society has oscillated ever more wildly though three debt-fueled bubbles. First, there was the dot-com bubble. Then, in 2008, the mortgage-finance bubble. Now, we are living in the fiscal bubble.
BRUSSELS—Depending on whose narrative you believe, the deepening economic crisis in Greece proves (a) that the dysfunctional and dissolute Greeks just couldn’t get their act together and keep the reform commitments that they made in exchange for debt relief from the European authorities; or (b) it only proves that austerity breeds more austerity.
Cut public spending and wages, and raise taxes in a recession, and you just dig yourself a deeper hole. Since only about 20 percent of the Greek economy is exports and less than 40 percent of export costs are wages, slashing wages just doesn’t produce much of a bounce, especially when the rest of Europe’s economy is contracting too.
Despite the Camp David G8 summit’s support for a shift from austerity to growth, there is no agreement among major western leaders on what growth requires.
Here is an idea whose time has come: a Financial Transactions Tax.
The tax would do two things urgently required by the crisis. It would take some of the profit out of the pure speculation that has created such hardship for countries like Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland whose economies have already been pummeled by recession and by perverse demands for belt tightening.
And a tax on financial trades could raise some serious revenue, which could be put back into green investment and other forms of economic stimulus to help the economies of Europe revive.