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Deficit Witchhunt

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The Crisis That Wasn’t.

“It’s hard to escape the sense that debt panic was promoted because it served a political purpose — that many people were pushing the notion of a debt crisis as a way to attack Social Security and Medicare. And they did immense damage along the way, diverting the nation’s attention from its real problems — crippling unemployment, deteriorating infrastructure and more — for years on end.”

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.

Geithner: Wrong on Everything

“At every turn on housing — on mass refinancing, on principal reduction, on leverage for homeowners in the bankruptcy process, on forcing banks to write down mortgages, on a modern-day HOLC–the evidence points to Tim Geithner preferring whatever option put the least pressure on banks, rather than actually helping ordinary people. He made far more excuses to do nothing than any effort to make a difference…In fact, the programs were never meant to help homeowners, designed only to ‘foam the runway’ for the banks, to spread out foreclosures and allow banks to absorb them.”

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.”

The Can Likes Kickbacks.

“In 2014, for the first time in three years, the vote to extend the nation’s debt ceiling did not bring the US to the brink of default in a high-stakes game of slash and burn…It was a striking turnaround for the forces of austerity. One of the biggest losers? The Campaign to Fix the Debt, the $40 million AstroTurf austerity group, financed by Pete Peterson and other Wall Street big wigs, and fronted by Maya MacGuineas, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. Call it Alan Simpson’s last harrumph.”

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.'”

The Neverending Shutdown.

“[W]ith recovery still perilously weak in 2010, the obvious response would have been a second dose of stimulus spending. But the political world was already moving in the opposite direction…In the end, for reasons both political and ideological, Obama decided that he needed to demonstrate that he took the deficit seriously, and in his 2010 State of the Union address he did just that…The Beltway establishment may have applauded Obama’s pivot to the deficit, but much of the economic community saw it as nothing short of a debacle.”

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.”

Reign of Yoho.

“The power rests with Ted Yoho because the American political system has tolerated carefully cultivated ignorance and carefully tailored bigotry for far too long. Ted Yoho has been coming for years…The Republican party reveled in all the forces that are now tearing it apart. The Democratic party was criminally negligent and abdicated its profound responsibility to fight against those forces; indeed, it spent the better part of the 1980’s and 1990’s trying to surf the wave itself…”

“A great portion of the courtier press that now expresses horror at what is going on now went gleefully along for the ride as it became inevitable…This means all of you who went along for the ride on torture, and on Iraq, and who hid under the bed after 9/11. This is how the power came to rest with Ted Yoho, who is a fool and a know-nothing. This is how historical inevitability is created. This is how its momentum becomes unstoppable. This is how the wreckage piles up.”

With the government shutdown and threat of default receding — until January — Charlie Pierce names names for how we got to this sorry point. “‘Government is the problem,’ said Saint Reagan in his first inaugural. And everybody, all of you sorry bastards, cheered, and made completely predictable the moment in which the power of the government would come to reside in…Ted fking Yoho.”

What he said. I’d only add that, while the media moves on to other things (until we lurch into the next crisis a few months hence), all the GOP crazies who sent us over the cliff three weeks ago are still here. They’re still in power. They’re still making mischief. The budget is still underfunded. And this administration still seems all-too-inclined to give them a social insurance-slashing “Grand Bargain” for their troubles. This is not over.

For Want of a Spreadsheet Check…

“This error is needed to get the results they published, and it would go a long way to explaining why it has been impossible for others to replicate these results. If this error turns out to be an actual mistake Reinhart-Rogoff made, well, all I can hope is that future historians note that one of the core empirical points providing the intellectual foundation for the global move to austerity in the early 2010s was based on someone accidentally not updating a row formula in Excel.”

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.”

Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Kodos. | Deficits Now!

“Barack Obama proposes a painful hit to middle-class and working-class seniors, in return for an increase on taxes on the rich so small that they will hardly notice. Bargain? Yes. Grand? Not so much. By legitimating changes that could lead over time to the conversion of Social Security into a means-tested program for the elderly poor only, Barack Obama has proven himself to be a true and worthy successor of his predecessor, George W. Bush.”

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.'”

***

“People really don’t like deficits…But hold on a second. Why do we hate deficits? ‘Balancing the budget’ sounds really nice, but what reason do we have to believe it’s actually valuable?” In the WP and in very related news, Dylan Matthews punctures the various talking points driving deficit hysteria:

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.”

***

Update: “The president’s major purpose is not to address mass unemployment, not to build a new foundation for the economy, not to revive the middle class or redress Gilded Age inequality. The president’s overriding priority is to cut a deal – and a deal that continues to impose austerity on an already faltering recovery.”

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 EuropeRobert 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.

The Dismal, Ignoble Science.

“The obvious medicine for a slump due to inadequate private-sector demand is to run government deficits large enough to restore the economy back to its potential. The private sector isn’t going to increase demand on its own, no matter how much we profess our love for job creators. That is the simple reality. But instead of preaching what the textbooks prescribe, much of the economics profession has become enamored of numerology, telling us that all hell will break loose if the debt-to-GDP ratio crosses some magical number.”

CEPR’s Dean Baker, one of the only economists to anticipate the collapse of the housing bubble, calls out his many colleagues currently collaborating in the deficit witchhunt. [Y]oung people today can expect many more years of dire labor market conditions, because the remedies that could turn around their job situations have been blocked by nonsense spewing from economists. Incidentally, this situation works out very nicely for those on top, who are enjoying the benefits of record-high profit shares, which have also helped to fuel a soaring stock market.”

Along very similar lines, here’s James K. Galbraith on the state of economics in 2002:

“Leading active members of today’s economics profession, the generation presently in their 40s and 50s, have joined together into a kind of politburo for correct economic thinking. As a general rule — as one might expect from a gentleman’s club — this has placed them on the wrong side of every important policy issue, and not just recently but for decades. They predict disaster where none occurs. They deny the possibility of events that then happen. They offer a “rape is like the weather” fatalism about an “inevitable” problem (pay inequality) that then starts to recede. They oppose the most basic, decent, and sensible reforms, while offering placebos instead. They are always surprised when something untoward (like a recession) actually occurs.

And when finally they sense that some position cannot be sustained, they do not re-examine their ideas. Instead, they simply change the subject. No one loses face, in this club, for having been wrong. No one is disinvited from presenting papers at later annual meetings. And still less is anyone from the outside invited in. Only the occasional top-insider-turned-dissident — this year the admirable Stiglitz — can reliably count on getting a hearing.

Things I’ve Learned from the Archives, 2002-03.

So, after more hours than I’d like to admit, I’ve made it through the first Movable Type year (2002-2003) of recategorizing and retagging the GitM archives. Among the things I’ve learned so far:

  • Paul Rudd will be playing Batman or Superman, against Christian Bale, in Wolfgang Petersen’s World’s Finest. Unless it’s Jude Law.

  • “Blue laser DVDs” are expected in the market by 2005…all models will be retro-compatible with red-laser DVD’s.

  • I had forgotten how this “pick-a-card” website could read my mind and had to figure it out all over again.

  • Lifetime’s Cinema Sequence is still quite a fun web game.

  • Over the past decade, GitM has gone from being worth nothing to $43,000 on the now-defunct Blogshares. Woot.

  • The Washington Post and Boston Globe have changed their link structures, so many old posts referencing their content are now dead ends.

  • I used to care more about deficits than I do now. (And, conversely, Republicans used to care much less.) In the parlance of the Beltway, “my views have evolved” on this subject.

    Part of the reason for the shift is the good versus bad spending dichotomy I talked about in 2010. But, more to the point, I’ve since read up on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). (See also: Warren Mosler’s Seven Deadly Innocent Frauds of Economic Policy.)

    Basically, I was parroting the conventional wisdom on “fiscal responsibility” back then, and didn’t know what I was talking about.

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