Robert Kuttner

Must Austerity Keep Winning?

T he EU’s extreme version of budget cutting has pushed the European economy ever deeper into its worst recession since World War II. The United States, pursuing a bipartisan target of $4 trillion in budget cuts over a decade, is mired in an economy of slow growth and inadequate job creation. Our government’s failure to give debt relief to indentured college students and underwater homeowners functions as a multitrillion-dollar twin drag on a feeble recovery. The smart money knows just how weak this economy is. Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke had only to suggest that he might nudge interest rates up a bit, and markets panicked. So austerity is the wrong medicine for the prolonged aftermath of a financial collapse. Case closed. But hold on. Winning the intellectual debate doesn’t matter, because we keep losing the politics. Until we start changing the policies, or at least begin causing more political embarrassment for the budget hawks, austerity will reign, no matter how perverse...

Brave Words, Awaiting a Stronger Program

AP Photo/Susan Walsh P resident Barack Obama gave a fine speech at Knox College, the scene of one of his most effective pre-presidential moments—a 2005 commencement address he gave as an Illinois senator. Now we need to see whether he follows up with a clear and comprehensive program and brave politics to match. On the plus side, he did not shrink from calling out the Republicans for their sheer negativity and their embrace of trickle down economics. If you ask some of these Republicans about their economic agenda, or how they’d strengthen the middle class, they’ll shift the topic to “out-of-control” government spending—despite the fact that we have cut the deficit by nearly half as a share of the economy since I took office. Or they’ll talk about government assistance for the poor, despite the fact that they’ve already cut early education for vulnerable kids and insurance for people who’ve lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Or they’ll bring up Obamacare, despite the fact...

Nothing to Hide, Much to Fear

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
I n reviewing the public’s ambivalent reaction to the disclosures of NSA data mining , I find that some people conclude that it’s no big deal, while others are uneasy but can’t quite explain why. It’s just a modest generic invasion of privacy that is not even activated in most cases. Presumably, this is a weapon that the authorities need to keep us safe. After closed-door hearings yesterday, some skeptics on Capitol Hill were somewhat reassured that safeguards are adequate. If you are in this camp, here are three good reasons to reconsider. First, the history of such surveillance is that it tends to be abused. As heedless of civil liberties as Attorney General Eric Holder has been, he is surely better than whoever the next Republican Attorney General might be. Remember Alberto Gonzalez? Secondly, the authorities tend to define terrorism down. After the Patriot Act was passed, Attorney General Gonzalez kept assuring the Congress and the American public that its sweeping powers would...

The End of the Austerity Crusade?

Rex Features via AP Images
I s President Obama planning to reverse course on deficit reduction? You will recall that the president joined the deficit-hawk crowd in calling for more than $4 trillion of deficit reduction over the next decade; that he has offered to cut Social Security and Medicare as part of a grand bargain (that the Republicans mercifully rejected); that it was Obama who appointed the Bowles-Simpson Commission; and that his own budget for FY 2014 includes substantial spending cuts. But, with the 2014 midterm election looming and the recovery stuck in second gear with mediocre job creation, there is zero chance of a grand-budget bargain that includes tax increases, and interest rates are creeping up (which will slow the recovery further). Europe demonstrates that austerity economics are a proven failure. Even the International Monetary Fund says so . So let us read the tea leaves. First, the president has just named Jason Furman to chair the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). Furman was a...

Jobs: The Bigger Picture

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The government’s April jobs report produced some happy headlines and a big stock market rally. The dismal March jobs tally was revised upwards from under 100,000 new jobs to a still feeble 138,000. In April, the economy created 165,000 jobs. The nominal unemployment rate dropped all the way from 7.9 percent to 7.5 percent. But look a little deeper and you’ll appreciate just how crummy these numbers are. The typical new job pays far less than the jobs that have been lost. We are still down a net 2.8 million jobs from the number of people who were employed in 2007 before the recession started. All told, there are 22 million Americans either unemployed or under-employed—looking for full-time work and not finding it. One telling indicator is the very low percentage of people who are in the labor force. Before the recession, in 2007, the employment-to-population ratio was above 63 percent, down slightly from its peak of over 64 percent in 2000. Since the great collapse, the ratio has been...

A Crossroads for Hillary

Titanic Belfast / Flickr
Titanic Belfast / Flickr H illary Clinton is making all the early moves of someone preparing to run for president, though she has given herself plenty of time to rest, rejuvenate, and review a final decision. Now, however, President Obama’s ill-conceived plan to cut Social Security benefits via a “technical” change in the inflation index will force Clinton to make an awkward choice. Most Democrats in both houses of Congress are not happy with this backdoor cut in Social Security. It is both fiscally unnecessary and spectacularly bad politics. Republican leaders are already bashing Obama for selling out retirees. After Obama released his budget, Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon went on CNN to accuse the president of "a shocking attack on seniors." Resolutely defending Social Security in the face of periodic Republican forays at cutting or privatizing America’s most popular program has always been one of the Democrats’ great appeals. Obama gave that away...

Jack Lew: Obama’s Austerity Ambassador

AP Images
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. Even if the cure should eventually work—which it won’t—we will have lost a whole generation. Only in the rarified power precincts of Brussels and Berlin is austerity “working.” But Jack Lew doesn’t exactly come to this mission with clean hands...

Destroying the Economy and the Democrats

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
AP Photo/Susan Walsh President Barack Obama speaks at the Police Academy in Denver yesterday. J ob creation slowed to just 88,000 in March, signaling a sluggish economy. And President Obama, with unerring timing, picked this moment to put out an authorized leak that he is willing to put Social Security and Medicare on the block as part of a grand budget bargain that will only slow the economy further. The deterioration in economic performance was all too predictable, given the combined lead weights of the March 1 $85 billion of budget cuts in the sequester and the January deal to raise payroll taxes by about $120 billion. (The tax hike on working people was almost double the much-hyped tax increase on the top one percent, which totaled a little over $60 billion.) Taken together, these twin deflationary deals cut the deficit by around $270 billion dollars this year. That’s close to two percent of GDP. And according to the Congressional Budget Office, this combined contractionary...

Cyprus's Big Bluff

AP Photo/Petros Karadjias
The Cyprus banking crisis presents, in microcosm, everything that is perverse about the European leaders’ response to the continuing financial collapse. And bravo to the Cypriot Parliament for rejecting the EU’s insane demand to condition a bank bailout on a large tax on small depositors. If this crisis threatens to spread to other nations, it’s a good object lesson. Here is the punch line of this column: It's time for Europe’s small nations, who are getting slammed into permanent depression by the arrogance of Berlin and Brussels, to think about abandoning the euro. At least the threat would strengthen their bargaining position, and if they actually quit the euro, the result could hardly be worse than their permanent sentence to debtors’ prison. More on that in a moment. The back story: Cyprus, with just over a million people, is not a poor country. Its per capita GDP is actually above the European Union average. Cyprus has only used the euro since 2008. Once Cyprus was in the...

Grover Norquist’s Last Laugh

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When President Obama got Republicans to raise taxes on the top one percent of income earners as part of the January deal that ended the threat of the fiscal cliff, some Democrats gloated that Republicans had been made to go back on the famous Grover Norquist pledge never to raise taxes. It appeared that Obama, fresh from his November victory and taking advantage of Republicans’ divisions, had won big. Well, think again. If you compare the leverage that Obama had in that set of bargaining with the leverage he has now in the post-sequester budget negotiations, it is like night and day. Had Obama hung tough and demanded a lot more in the way of tax increases on the wealthy, Republicans were just stuck—because no action would have caused taxes to increase on everyone. Obama had begun the bargaining requesting a reversion to the pre-Bush tax levels on the top two percent, targeting revenue increases of at least $1.6 trillion over a decade. Instead, he settled for just $620 billion—meaning...

When Public Is Better

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L ong before we thought of founding The American Prospect in 1989, I came to know Paul Starr through a prescient article titled “Passive Intervention.” The piece was published in 1979, in a now-defunct journal, Working Papers for a New Society . As Paul and his co-author, Gøsta Esping-Andersen, observed, the American welfare state is built on terrible, even disabling compromises. Progressives often lack the votes to pass legislation to deliver public benefits directly. So they either create tax incentives or bribe the private sector to do the job, thus inflating a bloated system. “The problem is not too much government activism,” they wrote, “but too much passivity.” Their two emblematic examples were housing and health care. In housing, tax advantages became an inflation hedge for the affluent and drove up prices. Low-income homeownership programs, run through the private sector, had huge default rates. In health care, the political compromises necessary to enact Medicare excluded...

The Sequester: Now What?

flickr/Penn State news
flickr/Penn State news President Obama gambled that the threat of the automatic sequester of $85 billion in domestic and defense cuts would force the Republicans to accept major tax increases, and so far he is losing the wager. The Republican leadership, which was badly divided over the New Year’s deal that delayed the fiscal cliff, is now re-united around the proposition that Republicans will accept no further tax increases. So the president is left to court individual Republican House members to support loophole closures in exchange for the restoration of some popular domestic and military spending. But for the moment, Republicans got what they wanted—big spending cuts, party unity around no tax increases, and a weakening of a newly re-elected president. For Obama and the Democrats, there are three big risks going forward. First, the sequester slows down economic growth—cutting it in half this year from about 3 percent to 1.5 percent according to the Congressional Budget Office...

The Sequester, Now What?

Flickr/Justin Sloan
President Obama gambled that the threat of the automatic sequester of $85 billion in domestic and defense cuts would force the Republicans to accept major tax increases, and so far he is losing the wager. The Republican leadership, which was badly divided over the New Years deal that delayed the fiscal cliff, is now re-united around the proposition that Republicans will accept no further tax increases. So the president is left to court individual Republican House members to support loophole closures in exchange for the restoration of some popular domestic and military spending. But for the moment, Republicans got what they wanted—big spending cuts, party unity around no tax increases, and a weakening of a newly re-elected president. For Obama and the Democrats, there are three big risks going forward. First, the sequester slows down economic growth—cutting it in half this year from about 3 percent to 1.5 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Obama, more than the...

Dear White House, You'll Regret This

Olivier Douliery/AP Images
The latest dust-up in the descent of Bob Woodward from fearless investigative reporter to manipulative media celebrity began with his contention in a Washington Post column that President Obama, by asking for revenue increases as part of a deal to defer the sequester, was “moving the goal posts” from the 2011 budget deal (in which Obama got thoroughly hosed by the Republicans). When the White House pushed back and an unnamed “senior official” told Politico that Woodward would “regret” those comments, someone, presumably Woodward, leaked an e-mail between himself and White House top economic strategist Gene Sperling. Since then, the political class has been abuzz with chatter about Woodward’s modus operandi, the ethics of burning a source, his longstanding strategy of trading access for friendly treatment, and so on. But far more revealing (and appalling) is the content of the e-mails . Here's what Sperling told Woodward: The idea that the sequester was to force both sides to go back...

The Sequestering of Barack Obama

AP Photo/Susan Walsh
AP Photo/Susan Walsh President Barack Obama urges Congress to come up with a plan to avert the automatic spending cuts set to kick in on March 1, 2013 last week. P resident Obama has miscalculated both the tactical politics of the sequester and the depressive economic impact of budget cuts on the rest of his presidency. The sequester will cut economic growth in half this year. But it’s now clear, one way or another, that we will get cuts in the $85 billion range that the sequester mandates this fiscal year. All that remains are the details. Obama’s miscalculation began in his fist term, with his embrace of the premise that substantial deficit cutting was both politically expected and economically necessary, and his appointment of the 2010 Bowles-Simpson Commission as the expression of that mistaken philosophy. Although the Commission’s plan was never carried out, its prestige and Obama’s parentage of it locked the president into a deflationary deficit reduction path. This past week,...

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