In the NYT, Paul Krugman reviews the waning of the deficit witchhunt. “I’m not sure whether most readers realize just how thoroughly the great fiscal panic has fizzled — and the deficit scolds are, of course, still scolding.” Of course they are. Now would be the time for embarrassment, if the Simpson-Bowles types out there were capable of it.
In the wake of Tim Geithner’s new rehab book tour — currently being aided and abetted by Wall Street’s usual court stenographer, Andrew Ross Sorkin — Dave Dayen says not so fast. “I don’t have to just focus on housing; this is indicative of Geithner’s worldview, which sees protecting the financial system at all costs as the only thing that matters.”
Yves Smith has also ably eviscerated Geithner’s game of “Three Card Monte”: “The entire edifice of the piece is a sleight of hand…The focus on TARP (and to a lesser degree, Lehman) allows Sorkin to omit mention of actions that were clearly Geithner’s doing…The bigger point, which is not lost on the public, was there were plenty of other options for saving the system. The one chosen, that left the banks largely unreformed and no one of any consequence punished, was clearly just about the worst of the available options, unless, of course, you are, like Geithner, a banker.”
And here’re economics and finance professors Atif Mian and Amir Sufi: “Whatever reasons he had for opposing assistance to underwater homeowners, a careful evaluation of the policy effects was not among them. The evidence is pretty clear: an aggressive bold attack on household debt would have significantly reduced the horrible impact of the Great Recession on Americans. The fact that Secretary Geithner and the Obama administration did not push for debt write-downs more aggressively remains the biggest policy mistake of the Great Recession.”
Noam Scheiber has his say in TNR: “[The article] inadvertently highlights something deeper about Geithner, which is the shocking extent to which he’s accepted financialization of the economy as a benign, even admirable, development. The people who spend their days shuffling trillions of dollars around the globe are really just like you and me, except with nicer offices. They deserve the same sympathy and respect, notwithstanding their abysmal track record. That blinkered view colors pretty much every one of Geithner’s utterances as he makes the rounds hawking books.”
Also of note: Geithner doesn’t seem to understand how Social Security works, and, in classic #ThisTown fashion, he — the Secretary of the Treasury! — just parrots the same ignorant Beltway line about zomg out-of-control entitlements as all Very Serious People™ do. To wit, from Geithner’s book:
“I remember during one Roosevelt Room prep session before I appeared on the Sunday shows, I objected when Dan Pfeiffer [a senior advisor to the Obama White House] wanted me to say Social Security didn’t contribute to the deficit. It wasn’t a main driver of our future deficits, but it did contribute. Pfeiffer said the line was a ‘dog whistle’ to the left…code to the Democratic base, signaling that we intended to protect Social Security.”
And here’s the LA Times’ Michael Hiltzik: “But let’s get to the nub. Does Social Security ‘contribute to the deficit’? The answer is, bluntly, no. By law, it can’t contribute to the federal deficit, because Social Security isn’t allowed to spend more than it takes in. Those who claim — as Geithner has at one point or another — both that the program contributes to the deficit yet will be forced to reduce benefits to retirees once its trust fund is depleted are trying to have things both ways: The reasoning behind the threat of reduced benefits is that Social Security can’t engage in spending money it doesn’t have, i.e., deficit spending. Pick one, fellas. If it can contribute to the deficit, then there’s no reason to cut benefits.”
So is there’s anything positive about Geithner’s rewriting of history here? Well, the Sorkin piece does include this telling anecdote: “At another point, [Geithner] cheerfully relayed a story that also appears in his book about the time he sought advice from Bill Clinton on how to pursue a more populist strategy: ‘You could take Lloyd Blankfein into a dark alley,’ Clinton said, ‘and slit his throat, and it would satisfy them for about two days. Then the blood lust would rise again.'”
Could somebody please tell me again why I should be excited about Hillary 2016?
Update: Sheila Bair offers her take. “On his book tour, to explain the need for bailouts, Tim has used a clever analogy of a pilot trying to land a plane that is on fire and in the back, sit the terrorists who started it. He argues that the pilot can’t leave the cockpit to put them in handcuffs. He first has to land the plane. The problem with this analogy is that the plane landed at the end of 2008. And let’s face it, instead of handcuffing the terrorists, we escorted them to the executive lounge.”
In general, I think victory laps are a bad idea, especially since sequestration continues and it’s not like austerity is suddenly out of fashion in this godforsaken town. Nonetheless, The Nation‘s Mary Bottari looks at how citizen and netroots activism helped beat back (for now) the deficit witchhunt, and much of the corporate rapacity and profiteering attending it.
The pic above is my friend Alex Lawson crashing a Pete Peterson Astro-Turf event a few months ago. “‘Aaar!’ he said. ‘Fix the debt, but let me keep my corporate booty! Fix the Debt’s founders have more than $500 million in offshore corporate booty.'”
It’s the Austerity, Stupid: In Mother Jones, Kevin Drum surveys the rise of deficit hysteria in the Beltway over the past several years, with particular attention paid to the Reinhart-Rogoff debacle. “It’s not as if we needed the skills of Nostradamus to predict the consequences of austerity. It’s pretty much textbook economics.” (Rhino via here.)
“It was an awful time. Federal employees had to take unpaid furlough days. Beneficiaries were thrown off of federal programs. Courthouses had to be sold. Federal agencies like the FBI, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health strained to meet commitments, leading to more crime, more outbreaks of disease and less basic research, among other horrors. This may sound like a description of the recent government shutdown, which ended October 16. But this describes the fallout from sequestration, the across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending that took effect March 1—arbitrary reductions that closely parallel the effects of the shutdown.”
Meanwhile, as David Dayen recently noted in The New Republic, the deficit witchhunt is continuing to wreak havoc across America, in the form of the sequestration budget. “Sequestration and artificial spending caps have become the new normal, and it’s redefining the role of government, rolling back the ambitions of the past, and constraining needed investments in the future. So let’s call it what it is: a government shutdown that’s infinitely worse than the one that just ended.”
Another dispatch from the madhouse: In a fine piece of reporting, Rolling Stone‘s Tim Dickinson delves inside the Republican suicide machine. “Having backed the GOP into a shutdown fight that congressional leaders never wanted, the insurgents are winning, and establishment leaders are running scared. America is now careening toward a catastrophic voluntary default on our debt because no one in the Republican Party with the authority to put on the brakes has the guts to apply them, for fear of being toppled from power.”
An important point Dickinson makes here that cannot be emphasized enough: We didn’t just stumble into this crisis: Taking the government and the debt ceiling hostage was the strategy all long, and the right-wing insurgents have been planning for this for months. “They’d drawn a dangerous lesson from the previous battle: Brinksmanship works…In February, the House temporarily suspended the debt ceiling — intending to give the president’s poll numbers three months to come back to earth.”
Hey, speaking of polling numbers coming back to Earth…
So we’re not in this hostage crisis by accident. The GOP even changed the House rules so they could maximize this confrontation. Republicans saw Obama fold in December 2010 on the Bush tax cuts and in August 2011 on the last debt ceiling hike. They think they can make him fold again here, and on every subsequent debt ceiling hike, and sadly, history is on their side on this. As Ted Cruz put it a few months ago: “If you have an impasse, you know — one side or the other has to blink. How do we win this fight? Don’t blink.”
Another small digression: If, like Ralph Nader this morning, you’re wondering why the right-wing of the GOP always seems to pull these sorts of stunts off while the left-wing of the Dems are usually completely marginalized, two quick answers: 1) The lefties don’t have billionaires backing their plays, and 2) we’re the People’s Front of Judea. They’re the right, they’re inherently better at the goose-stepping.
That being said, this whole episode also illustrates why it’s useless for Democrats to try to meet these fools halfway on policy: Republicans have now spent almost three years voting constantly to end the Affordable Care Act. To break a health care law originally penned by the Heritage Foundation and enacted by Mitt Romney, they have shut down the government and sent us to the brink of an economic default. So, how, exactly, would things be different if we had just passed Medicare for all, and/or a public option? They were going to lose their shit regardless, just like they did on Social Security, on Medicare, and any other progressive issue you can think of. There’s no point in trying to placate people who aren’t bargaining in good faith.
Anyway, as it happens, and as Andrew Sullivan recently pointed out, we’ve seen a minority party in America rejected at the polls try to take the entire nation hostage before. Here’s Abe Lincoln in 1861:
“What is our present condition? We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us, or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass, till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union.”
So too here: This time the scalp the GOP wants is the Affordable Care Act, or the Ryan budget, or social insurance cuts, or Malia Obama. “‘The girl. Bring us the girl,’ said Congressman Steve King (R-IA)..’The bill may pass, but the firstborn shall be ours.'” It’ll be something else the next time and the time after that.
That’s why John Judis is calling this “one of the worst crises in American history“, and why Jon Chait wrote that “Allowing Republicans to default on the debt now is better than trading something that allows them to threaten it later.” Because if Obama buckles this time — and, let’s remember, we already gave the GOP their sequester-funding-levels — the Republicans will just keep taking the American government and economy hostage to get whatever they want. And quicker than you can say he-said, she-said, the rest of the lazy Beltway media will come to treat this sort of hostage-taking as politics as usual. It has to end here, or it never will.
“You’re a President with a very tough set of fiscal fights coming up. You’ve wanted entitlement reforms for five years, but cannot get it worked out. You’ve been playing footsie with the Senate Republican caucus all year. Now you’re in a situation where you need Republican votes…I mean, any rational human would have given up on grand bargaineering by now…[but now] the White House can argue that they simply had to go along with, I don’t know, the chained CPI measure they put in their own budget, because it was a way to ‘get’ Larry Summers, among other things.” Frighteningly plausible.
As Mike Konczal of Rortybomb explains, the Reinhart-Rogoff paper “Growth in a Time of Debt,” which argued that high debt-to-GDP ratios stymie growth and has been one of the key economic foundations for recent deficit hysteria, turns out to be fundamentally flawed.
“This has been one of the most cited stats in the public debate during the Great Recession,” embraced by both Paul Ryan and the Washington Post. And it’s totally upside down. As Konczal says, “[t]he past guides us…it tells us that a larger deficit right now would help us greatly.”
Update: Dean Baker weighs in. “If facts mattered in economic policy debates, this should be the cause for a major reassessment of the deficit reduction policies being pursued in the United States and elsewhere. It should also cause reporters to be a bit slower to accept such sweeping claims at face value.”
As Obama — to no one’s surprise who was watching the last two years closely — definitively reveals he wants to go all Nixon-in-China on Social Security, Michael Lind notes the many similarities between Bush and Obama on social insurance. “Both Bush and Obama crafted their Social Security plans solely with an eye to the approval of the bipartisan economic elite, most of whom prefer cutting Social Security benefits, which they don’t need, to raising taxes on members of their class.”
One key difference: When Dubya tried to slash Social Security benefits in 2005, Democrats stood up as one against him. Now that an ostensible Dem is in the White House and wants to enact social insurance benefit cuts for ridiculous reasons, not so much. But this time, we can’t countenance the usual Third Way spinelessness. As PCCC’s Stephanie Taylor said: “‘You can’t call yourself a Democrat and support Social Security benefit cuts…The President has no mandate to cut these benefits, and progressives will do everything possible to stop him.'”
“We’re broke! America is going to be bankrupt! We’re really not. The U.S. Treasury never has to default on any of its debts. That’s because we control our own currency. If we owe debts and don’t have the tax revenue to pay them, we can always just print the money and hand it over. That may not be the best approach, and in the very worst-case scenario this leads to hyperinflation so bad that defaulting is the less-bad option. But we’re so far from that situation today that worrying about it doesn’t seem worthwhile.”
As Obama’s budget is officially released — $2 of spending cuts for every dollar in revenue is NOT a good thing. See also: Austerity in Europe — Robert Borosage reads the administration the riot act. See also Bob Kuttner: “You can understand Republicans wanting to crush government and hoping to slow the recovery in a way that harms the Democrat in the 2014 midterm elections. But what is the president thinking?…Now voters can conclude that they can’t trust either party.”
Oh yeah, and all that happy talk about addressing climate change and raising the minimum wage in the State of the Union? You won’t see it in this budget. Meanwhile, the GOP are loading up the cannons.
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