The Progressive Fix

A Fiscal Dr. Strangelove

Paul Krugman wants Americans to stop worrying and learn how to love the bomb – the fiscal bomb that is.

Just as Dr. Strangelove in the eponymous film classic assures the president that America can survive thermonuclear war, Krugman professes blithe disregard for the impact of massive government borrowing on U.S. fiscal stability.

The public and a good many economists may beg to differ, but what do they know? Voter concern about deficits has grown salient over the past year, as Washington has spent trillions to prop up the economy. Last March, a slight majority approved of President Obama’s handling of the federal budget deficit; in January, a CNN/Opinion Research poll found that 62 percent disapprove.

Krugman dismisses such concerns as “hysteria” and puts them down to a combination of economic ignorance and Republican propaganda.

On one point, the intensely partisan Krugman is dead right: GOP credibility on fiscal discipline is shot to pieces. The Bush Republicans squandered the budget surplus President Clinton bequeathed them on tax cuts and profligate spending. In 2003, they rammed through Congress a trillion-dollar prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients but somehow forgot to pay for it. Quite a contrast to President Obama, who took pains to insist that Congress fully offset the costs of his health reform plan – with Republicans all the while hooting inanely about “socialism” from the peanut gallery.

But on the fundamental question – whether progressives should ignore America’s huge and growing fiscal imbalances – Krugman is flat wrong. GOP hypocrisy aside, plenty of progressive economists are sounding the fiscal alarm.

Jeff Garten, for example, believes America’s ballooning national debt will lead to “the slow but inexorable decline of the U.S. dollar,” undermining a key source of U.S. prosperity and influence in the world.

In a compelling Time essay, Jeffrey Sachs argues that the mounting public debt is symptomatic of a breakdown in political responsibility in Washington that stymies the nation’s progress. Republicans won’t abandon their anti-tax fetish, Democrats won’t rein in spending, especially on fast-growing entitlements, and the result is paralysis. “Until both political parties make a serious effort to improve the performance of government while shrinking its swelling deficits, Americans will watch both their quality of life and their country’s standing in the world erode,” he maintains.

Liberals, says Sachs, are wrong to cite deficit spending during the New Deal as proof that Americans shouldn’t worry about government borrowing today. During the height of the Depression, he notes, the federal government was running deficits of around about 5 percent of GDP as opposed to 10 percent today. Back then, he notes, we financed our debts domestically. Today about half of our national debt is held by foreign creditors, especially China and Japan.

Now, Sachs is neither an economic ignoramus nor a Republican stooge. He believes, as Krugman does, that public investment is an imperative to create jobs, rebuild U.S. infrastructure, and restore shared prosperity. But unlike Krugman, he recognizes that Washington’s unwillingness to defuse the public debt bomb is relentlessly squeezing out fiscal space for such investment.

President Obama gets it too. He is trying to strike a balance between massive, short-term spending (although not massive enough for Krugman) to stimulate the economy, and the need to restore fiscal discipline over the long haul by freezing domestic spending and creating a bipartisan commission to tackle entitlement reform.

That’s not easy, and he deserves more help than he is getting from liberals like Krugman who pose a false choice between progressive reform and fiscal responsibility.

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