Monday, December 17, 2012

Deficit Economics

Thirty years ago, I published an article in The Freeman entitled, "Deficits are Not the Only Problem," and in it I challenged the notion that federal budget deficits in and of themselves are the major economic problem in our society. The deficits, I argued were symptoms of the larger problem of out-of-control government expansion and the spending that accompanies that expansion.

On the surface, it seems that Paul Krugman agrees with me that the federal deficit by itself is not THE economic problem. Furthermore, I will go further and agree with him that much of the current deficit is due to the depressed state of the U.S. economy, and that a stronger economy would, in fact, provide more tax revenues from current tax rates than is now the situation.

Like always, however, I disagree vehemently with Krugman on (1) the role of federal deficits in "providing" or at least enabling economic recovery, and (2) the efficacy of government spending itself. Krugman believes that we need large deficits so that the government spending generated by them can help jump-start the economy; I believe that the very spending he believes provides overall economic benefits actually hampers economic recovery.

Krugman says that out of the current trillion-dollar deficit, about $600 billion of it is due to the depressed economy, and that the remaining $400 billion is "sustainable." (Funny, he wasn't making that claim when George W. Bush was running large deficits. Then Krugman claimed that the cut in the top income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 35 percent was causing huge economic problems and was dragging us into economic hell. Yes, a relatively small cut in tax rates was destroying the economy, which would have been a first in economic history.)

He writes:
First of all, the weakness of the economy has led directly to lower revenues; when G.D.P. falls, the federal tax take falls too, and in fact always falls substantially more in percentage terms. On top of that, revenue is temporarily depressed by tax breaks, notably the payroll tax cut, that have been put in place to support the economy but will be withdrawn as soon as the economy is stronger (or, unfortunately, even before then). If you do the math, it seems likely that full economic recovery would raise revenue by at least $450 billion.

Meanwhile, the depressed economy has also temporarily raised spending, because more people qualify for unemployment insurance and means-tested programs like food stamps and Medicaid. A reasonable estimate is that economic recovery would reduce federal spending on such programs by at least $150 billion.

Putting all this together, it turns out that the trillion-dollar deficit isn’t a sign of unsustainable finances at all. Some of the deficit is in fact sustainable; just about all of the rest would go away if we had an economic recovery.

He continues:
And the prospects for economic recovery are looking pretty good right now — or would be looking good if it weren’t for the political risks posed by Republican hostage-taking. Housing is reviving, consumer debt is down, employment has improved steadily among prime-age workers. Unfortunately, this recovery may well be derailed by the fiscal cliff and/or a confrontation over the debt ceiling; but this has nothing to do with the alleged unsustainability of the deficit.

Yes, we are supposed to believe that things are just fine, and if President Obama is permitted to stick it to some taxpayers (with the middle class to be stuck at a future date) and spend a few billion here and there, that the economy will recover because of it. Furthermore, if the so-called Fiscal Cliff (yet another idiotic slogan from Washington that the media recites in its usual Pavlovian style) kicks into action, then the economy will tumble down the hill like Sisyphus's boulder.

Notice that this contradicts what Krugman claimed a couple of years ago when the tax cuts were supposed to expire and the government extended them. Back then, Krugman said that if it were up to him, he would allow all of the rates to go back to their pre-2003 levels and use the newfound revenues for more current spending projects. For that matter, he claimed in 2010 that even if all rates were raised, the negative effect would be minimal to the economy.

Today, he sings a different tune. If the Republicans don't give Obama everything he wants, then the Republicans will solely be responsible for plunging the economy into something akin to the Dark Ages. Why he claims that Obama's prescription for recovery -- tax, borrow, print, and spend -- will be effective it beyond my comprehension.

When George W. Bush was president, Krugman claimed over and over that the economy was moribund because Bush got Congress to cut the top rate from 39.6 percent to 35 percent, and that the marginal tax rates for everyone else were cut as well. A while back, he was claiming that these tax cuts were "unaffordable" to the tune of four trillion dollars. With Obama in the White Hosue, he has claimed that it doesn't matter how much the government borrows, since interest rates are at "historic lows" and we "owe it all to ourselves," anyway.

In other words, Krugman gives us mixed signals that on the surface seem to be confusing. There is an easy translation, however: Democrats (and especially Obama) always good, Republicans always bad. If Republican administrations borrow and spend, they are dragging us into Hades; if Democrat administrations borrow and spend, they are bringing economic recovery.

So, in his attempt to be the world's most politically-partisan economist, Paul Krugman calls for the very things that in the long run are economically destructive, but claims that if a Democrat implements those things, then the result will be prosperity. I'm not sure how all of this will take place, but I must say that following Krugman does prove to be an interesting ride.


dinero said...

Krugman's "owe it to ourselves" idea is just simply wrong.

The identity of who the money is owed to is not relevant to deciding whether or not government debt is a burden.

There is not a gain to the lender by the capital repayment it is the recipient of government spending who has that gain and the tax payer that has that loss therefore
the identity of who the money is owed to is not relevant to how money is transfered by deficit spending and the "owe it to ourselves" idea is wrong.

Anonymous said...

"if it weren’t for the political risks posed by Republican hostage-taking."

The hyperbolic use of the term "hostage-taking" to refer to Republicans is all the proof any rational, skeptical person needs that Paul Krugman is a pathetic and miserable partisan hack. This is the kind of terminology used by spittle flecked MSNBC talking heads and professional political hacks like Debbie Wasserman Schultz. With every column the miserable wretch sinks deeper and deeper into the idiotic Red Team vs. Blue Team partisan fever swamp. Truly and abjectly pathetic.

Dennis said...

I find it ironic that Krugman now speaks approvingly of the decline in consumer debt. I thought Krugman believed that greater debt was always a positive factor in the economy, no matter who accumulates it. Sometimes I wonder if he even proofreads his own work.

Pulverized Concepts said...

Why are taxes such an issue with Krugman, who insists that the answer to whatever the problem might be is to simply get more money into the system?

If you do the math, it seems likely that full economic recovery would raise revenue by at least $450 billion.

What math would that be? And what's a "full economic recovery"? Is it anything like the exuberant boom that inflated real estate prices to the point where a crash was inevitable?

If people get off unemployment and the SNAP program then the government will save $150 billion. So what? That's $500 for every man, woman and child in the country, even if they're employed and buying their victuals with Visa cards. What will yanking that kind of money out of the alimentary chain do to everyone from migrant farm workers to supermarket clerks?