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The Progressive Fix

Why Obama Needs to Cut and Invest

This article is part of a a series of international responses to Policy Network‘s discussion paper In the black Labour: Why fiscal conservatism and social justice go hand-in-hand.

To most Americans, fiscal responsibility is a question of political morality. If Democrats allow the debate to be framed as a choice between more deficit spending and debt reduction, they lose

Much to the perplexity of US liberals, the politics of debt reduction dominated Washington in 2010, despite a faltering economic recovery.

No one was more incensed by the seeming illogic of this than Paul Krugman. The influential New York Times columnist railed often against “premature austerity” and urged President Obama instead to open the spigots of federal spending. It was the standard Keynesian prescription, but it betrayed a political tin ear. To a public alarmed by large-scale public borrowing and spending, it sounded like throwing good money after bad.

After 2007, US budget deficits ballooned as the Bush and Obama administrations spent heavily to bail out the big banks (plus insurance and auto companies) and counter the worst recession since the 1930s. The federal deficit, $469 billion in 2008, zoomed to an eye-popping $1.3 trillion in 2011. Coming on top of the Bush tax cuts and two costly wars, this emergency spending pushed the US national debt over 70% of GDP.

Had this torrent of spending – reinforced by generous doses of monetary “easing” – unlocked business investment and cut the jobless rate, all might have been forgiven. But it didn’t, and public apprehension about exploding debts amid a jobless recovery rose steadily, reaching a crescendo in the 2010 elections. Republicans swept House races and, lashed on by the Tea Party, stormed into Washington determined to cut government down to size.

Thus 2011 became a year of fiscal brinkmanship. First the government was almost shut down last spring when budget talks broke down. Then came the summer showdown over raising the debt ceiling, which ended when Obama blinked and agreed to GOP demands for spending cuts rather than let America default on its debts for the first time ever. In the fall, a bipartisan “supercommittee” that was granted extraordinary powers to rein in deficits failed to reach agreement, triggering automatic domestic spending cuts in 2013.

Despite such nips and tucks, US leaders thrice failed to come to grips with the structural causes of America’s debt crisis: tax revenues well below historic norms, and the rapid growth of public health and pension costs as the baby boomers throng into retirement. This ensures that the debate over how to control the national debt – $15 trillion and growing – will be front and centre in the 2012 presidential election.

The public’s top priorities are jobs and reviving US competitiveness. But fiscal discipline also matters to most voters, especially the moderates and independents who hold the balance in close races. Only by embracing both goals can progressives forge an electoral majority in 2012. If Obama and the Democrats allow the fiscal debate to be framed as a choice between more deficit spending or debt reduction, they lose. If instead they champion fiscal restraint and focus the debate on the fairest and most growth-friendly way to achieve it, they can win.

That’s because Republicans have painted themselves in a corner by refusing to raise any new tax revenue to help solve the debt crisis. Americans don’t relish paying higher taxes, but they do want their elected leaders to work together to solve the country’s problems. House Republicans have repeatedly put their anti-tax dogma before their responsibility to govern, and have seen their public approval ratings tumble as a result.

In contrast, Obama appears eminently reasonable in calling for “shared sacrifice”, which in practice means reducing the debt with a mix of spending cuts and tax revenues. He has also put Republicans on the defensive for opposing tax hikes on the rich, even to pay for tax relief for working families.

But Obama can’t let his own party off the hook, either. If Republicans are in denial about the need for higher revenues, Democrats have yet to get serious about the other side of the fiscal equation – slowing the unsustainable cost growth of the big “entitlement” programmes: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Washington has promised more to future retirees than it can afford to pay; the government recently put the funding gap at $34 trillion, many times larger than the entire US economy.

There’s nothing “progressive” about denying hard fiscal facts, yet many liberals cling to the habit of opposing any cuts in future benefits – even for wealthy Americans – as a breach of faith, if not a plot to kill social insurance in America. Not only is this stance blind to demographic and budget realities, it’s morally dubious as well.

If benefits for the elderly are deemed untouchable, then Congress will have to either raise taxes on everyone, including working families, or cut domestic spending to the bone, or both. Domestic spending (including defence) has already borne the brunt of the spending cuts agreed to last year. It is only 12% of the budget, but it includes all the key public investments progressives should be for – in infrastructure, education and workforce skills, science and technology – not to mention public health and safety and measures to alleviate poverty. To shield entitlements from cuts is, in effect, to give priority to retirees’ consumption over strategic investments in a more prosperous and equitable society.

There is little mystery over what it will take to solve America’s debt crisis. President Obama’s own Fiscal Commission says $4 trillion in debt reduction over the next decade is necessary to stabilise the national debt at around 60% of GDP. Hitting that ambitious target will require a political “grand bargain” in which Republicans accept increased tax revenues, and Democrats agree to trim benefits for affluent retirees in the future. Unfortunately, Obama’s reluctance to endorse his Commission’s blueprint has left his own party as well as the public in doubt about the depth of his commitment to fiscal stabilisation.

As the presidential race begins in earnest, Obama will come under growing pressure to offer bigger and more specific ideas for spurring economic growth and shrinking the national debt. He needs a concrete plan for restoring fiscal responsibility gradually, through a combination of tax and entitlement reform, while also boosting public investment. Properly sequenced, a “cut and invest” approach can attenuate the dilemma Krugman and others point to – the collision between the stimulative effect of public spending (and tax cuts) and the contractionary impact of fiscal retrenchment.

Adopting a 10-year framework for debt reduction will reassure nervous investors that Washington is determined to get its borrowing under control and protect the nation’s credit. By cutting debt service payments, it will redirect public spending from consumption to productive investment. It will reduce America’s dependence on foreign lenders (especially China) and rebuild the nation’s “fiscal reserve” so that it can borrow to meet future emergencies or downturns without plunging into Greek-style levels of debt.

The economic case for providing certainty about debt reduction is compelling. But most Americans don’t wear green eyeshades; for them, fiscal responsibility is a question of political morality. They see the nation’s runaway debt as emblematic of a corrupt political class that doles out slices of the public weal to privileged interests and rent-seekers in return for campaign contributions. The image of a bloated state that lives beyond its means powerfully buttresses the anti-government populism that resonates not only with Tea Partiers but also with the independent voters that progressives need to win back this year.

The good news for Obama is that the demands of economic growth and fiscal rectitude point in the same direction – away from America’s old economic model of debt-fueled consumption, towards a new progressive growth strategy based on higher levels of investment, faster innovation and expanded production.

Photo credit: Andrew.Speight


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