Four Deformations of the Apocalypse

By DAVID STOCKMAN, New York Times, July 31, 2010

IF there were such a thing as Chapter 11 for politicians, the Republican push to extend the unaffordable Bush tax cuts would amount to a bankruptcy filing. The nation’s public debt — if honestly reckoned to include municipal bonds and the $7 trillion of new deficits baked into the cake through 2015 — will soon reach $18 trillion. That’s a Greece-scale 120 percent of gross domestic product, and fairly screams out for austerity and sacrifice. It is therefore unseemly for the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, to insist that the nation’s wealthiest taxpayers be spared even a three-percentage-point rate increase.

More fundamentally, Mr. McConnell’s stand puts the lie to the Republican pretense that its new monetarist and supply-side doctrines are rooted in its traditional financial philosophy. Republicans used to believe that prosperity depended upon the regular balancing of accounts — in government, in international trade, on the ledgers of central banks and in the financial affairs of private households and businesses, too. But the new catechism, as practiced by Republican policymakers for decades now, has amounted to little more than money printing and deficit finance — vulgar Keynesianism robed in the ideological vestments of the prosperous classes.

This approach has not simply made a mockery of traditional party ideals. It has also led to the serial financial bubbles and Wall Street depredations that have crippled our economy. More specifically, the new policy doctrines have caused four great deformations of the national economy, and modern Republicans have turned a blind eye to each one.

The first of these started when the Nixon administration defaulted on American obligations under the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement to balance our accounts with the world. Now, since we have lived beyond our means as a nation for nearly 40 years, our cumulative current-account deficit — the combined shortfall on our trade in goods, services and income — has reached nearly $8 trillion. That’s borrowed prosperity on an epic scale.

It is also an outcome that Milton Friedman said could never happen when, in 1971, he persuaded President Nixon to unleash on the world paper dollars no longer redeemable in gold or other fixed monetary reserves. Just let the free market set currency exchange rates, he said, and trade deficits will self-correct.

It may be true that governments, because they intervene in foreign exchange markets, have never completely allowed their currencies to float freely. But that does not absolve Friedman’s $8 trillion error. Once relieved of the discipline of defending a fixed value for their currencies, politicians the world over were free to cheapen their money and disregard their neighbors.

In fact, since chronic current-account deficits result from a nation spending more than it earns, stringent domestic belt-tightening is the only cure. When the dollar was tied to fixed exchange rates, politicians were willing to administer the needed castor oil, because the alternative was to make up for the trade shortfall by paying out reserves, and this would cause immediate economic pain — from high interest rates, for example. But now there is no discipline, only global monetary chaos as foreign central banks run their own printing presses at ever faster speeds to sop up the tidal wave of dollars coming from the Federal Reserve.

The second unhappy change in the American economy has been the extraordinary growth of our public debt. In 1970 it was just 40 percent of gross domestic product, or about $425 billion. When it reaches $18 trillion, it will be 40 times greater than in 1970. This debt explosion has resulted not from big spending by the Democrats, but instead the Republican Party’s embrace, about three decades ago, of the insidious doctrine that deficits don’t matter if they result from tax cuts.

In 1981, traditional Republicans supported tax cuts, matched by spending cuts, to offset the way inflation was pushing many taxpayers into higher brackets and to spur investment. The Reagan administration’s hastily prepared fiscal blueprint, however, was no match for the primordial forces — the welfare state and the warfare state — that drive the federal spending machine.

Soon, the neocons were pushing the military budget skyward. And the Republicans on Capitol Hill who were supposed to cut spending exempted from the knife most of the domestic budget — entitlements, farm subsidies, education, water projects. But in the end it was a new cadre of ideological tax-cutters who killed the Republicans’ fiscal religion.

Through the 1984 election, the old guard earnestly tried to control the deficit, rolling back about 40 percent of the original Reagan tax cuts. But when, in the following years, the Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker, finally crushed inflation, enabling a solid economic rebound, the new tax-cutters not only claimed victory for their supply-side strategy but hooked Republicans for good on the delusion that the economy will outgrow the deficit if plied with enough tax cuts.

By fiscal year 2009, the tax-cutters had reduced federal revenues to 15 percent of gross domestic product, lower than they had been since the 1940s. Then, after rarely vetoing a budget bill and engaging in two unfinanced foreign military adventures, George W. Bush surrendered on domestic spending cuts, too — signing into law $420 billion in non-defense appropriations, a 65 percent gain from the $260 billion he had inherited eight years earlier. Republicans thus joined the Democrats in a shameless embrace of a free-lunch fiscal policy.

The third ominous change in the American economy has been the vast, unproductive expansion of our financial sector. Here, Republicans have been oblivious to the grave danger of flooding financial markets with freely printed money and, at the same time, removing traditional restrictions on leverage and speculation. As a result, the combined assets of conventional banks and the so-called shadow banking system (including investment banks and finance companies) grew from a mere $500 billion in 1970 to $30 trillion by September 2008.

But the trillion-dollar conglomerates that inhabit this new financial world are not free enterprises. They are rather wards of the state, extracting billions from the economy with a lot of pointless speculation in stocks, bonds, commodities and derivatives. They could never have survived, much less thrived, if their deposits had not been government-guaranteed and if they hadn’t been able to obtain virtually free money from the Fed’s discount window to cover their bad bets.

The fourth destructive change has been the hollowing out of the larger American economy. Having lived beyond our means for decades by borrowing heavily from abroad, we have steadily sent jobs and production offshore. In the past decade, the number of high-value jobs in goods production and in service categories like trade, transportation, information technology and the professions has shrunk by 12 percent, to 68 million from 77 million. The only reason we have not experienced a severe reduction in nonfarm payrolls since 2000 is that there has been a gain in low-paying, often part-time positions in places like bars, hotels and nursing homes.

It is not surprising, then, that during the last bubble (from 2002 to 2006) the top 1 percent of Americans — paid mainly from the Wall Street casino — received two-thirds of the gain in national income, while the bottom 90 percent — mainly dependent on Main Street’s shrinking economy — got only 12 percent. This growing wealth gap is not the market’s fault. It’s the decaying fruit of bad economic policy.

The day of national reckoning has arrived. We will not have a conventional business recovery now, but rather a long hangover of debt liquidation and downsizing — as suggested by last week’s news that the national economy grew at an anemic annual rate of 2.4 percent in the second quarter. Under these circumstances, it’s a pity that the modern Republican Party offers the American people an irrelevant platform of recycled Keynesianism when the old approach — balanced budgets, sound money and financial discipline — is needed more than ever.

David Stockman, a director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan, is working on a book about the financial crisis.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/opinion/01stockman.html?_r=3&th&emc=th&

The real deficit argument

By E.J. Dionne Jr., Published: January 6, 2013

Should our politicians dedicate themselves to solving the problems we face now? Or should they spend their time constructing largely theoretical deficit solutions for years far in the future to satisfy certain ideological and aesthetic urges?

This is one of the two central choices the country faces at the beginning of President Obama’s second term. The other is related: Will the establishment, including business leaders and middle-of-the-road journalistic opinion, stand by silently as one side in the coming argument risks cratering the economy in an effort to reverse the verdict of the 2012 election? Yes, I am talking about using the debt ceiling as a political tool, something that was never done until the disaster of 2011.

My first questions are, admittedly, loaded. They refer to a difference of opinion we need to face squarely.

It is entirely true that in the wake of two budget agreements, in 2011 and the just-passed deal on the “fiscal cliff,” we have not reduced the deficit enough. The issue is: How much is enough?

Contrary to all the scare talk you keep hearing, Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, notes that we could put the deficit on a sustainable path for the next 10 years with one more deficit-reduction package equal to about $1.2 trillion, plus the resulting interest savings.

By sustainable, I mean keeping the debt from growing as a share of gross domestic product and holding it at around 73 percent of GDP for the next decade. This is a more than reasonable number by international standards. To put it in perspective: According to the International Monetary Fund, in 2011 Canada’s debt was at 85 percent of GDP, Germany’s was at 81.5 percent — and Greece’s was at 163.3 percent.

Holding the debt ratio in the low 70s is well within our sights. It could be achieved through a combination of $600 billion in cuts and $600 billion in additional revenue through tax reform — or through modest taxes on carbon or on financial transactions. (Okay, for now, I am dreaming on the last two, but they are still good ideas.) The cuts could be made without wrecking Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, and without eviscerating government’s capacity to invest in the future.

We could then shelve our deficit obsession for a while and confront the problems that should be center-stage over the next few years: restoring shared economic growth, spurring the creation of good jobs, dealing with gun violence, reforming immigration laws, improving our education system, and taking steps on climate change.

But there is the other side of this debate, pushed not only by conservatives but also by a deficit-reduction industry that sees the only test of seriousness as a willingness to slash Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security for those who will retire 10, 20 or 30 years from now. They want to be able to admire nice predictions on a computer screen that show the debt dropping to 60 percent of GDP.

There is no objection in principle to discussing the modest changes that could improve the long-term stability of Social Security. But when it comes to health-care cost projections, there is so much we don’t know that it is truly foolish to make decisions now for, say, 2040.

Health-care cost inflation has been dropping. We can’t be sure how sustainable this trend is, but economists who study the matter think the cost curve may be bending downward for the longer run. The Affordable Care Act contains measures that could further restrain health expenditures.

Is it either sensible or humane to decide in 2013 on the basis of such limited knowledge to toss future seniors and low-income Medicaid recipients under the bus? Health-care costs are something we must keep working on. We can buy time for this difficult undertaking by getting the deficit down to a sustainable level.

And that brings us to the debt ceiling. The central weakness of a largely helpful fiscal cliff deal is that it did not save us from a debt-ceiling fight. It would be colossally stupid — there is no other word — to derail an economic recovery that is slowly but steadily taking hold with another battle over a silly provision in our law. Will all the respectable people who know this sit on the sidelines and let it happen, or will they speak out now?

We are finally on a promising path. Only politics of a very degraded kind can keep us from moving forward.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/ej-dionne-jr-the-real-deficit-argument/2013/01/06/7e07b314-5830-11e2-9fa9-5fbdc9530eb9_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines

The National Debt and Our Children: How Dumb Does Washington Think We Are?

by Dean Baker, Huffington Post, 10/15/2012

While much of the country is focused on the presidential race, the Wall Street gang is waging a different battle; they are preparing an assault on Social Security and Medicare. This attack is not exactly secret. There have been a number of pieces on this corporate-backed campaign in the media over the last few months, but the drive is nonetheless taking place behind closed doors.

The corporate honchos are not expecting to convince the public that we should support cuts to Social Security and Medicare. They know this is a hopeless task. Huge majorities of people across the political spectrum strongly support these programs.

Instead they hope that they can use their power of persuasion, coupled with the power of campaign contributions and the power of high-paying jobs for defeated members of Congress, to get Congress to approve large cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other key programs. This is the plan for a grand bargain that the corporate chieftains hope can be struck in the lame duck Congress.

Most of the media have been happy to cooperate with the corporate chieftains in this plan. There are two main ways in which they have abandoned objectivity to support the plan for cutting Social Security and Medicare.

First they continually run stories about how the deficit and debt are the biggest problems facing the country. They routinely use phrases like “crisis” and other hyperboles to scare their audience about the risks that the debt poses to the country.

The whole notion of a “fiscal cliff” is an invention that implies an urgency that does not exist. There is almost no consequence to not having a deal in place by the end of 2012. The dire projections of recession and rising unemployment assume that we don’t ever get a deal on the budget.

The fixation on the debt certainly cannot be justified by any objective standard. Clearly the most pressing economic problem facing the country is the tens of millions of people who are unemployed or underemployed as result of the collapse of the housing bubble. These people and their families are seeing their lives ruined due to a monumental failure by policymakers.

Furthermore, it is easy to show that the large budget deficits of recent years are entirely the result of the economic collapse. If the economy were back near full employment, the deficits would be relatively small as was the case before the collapse. Yet it is the deficits and debt that dominate news reporting and debate questions, not the overall state of the economy.

The other way in which the media have been pushing the agenda of the corporate honchos is by refusing to press candidates on their support for the cuts to Social Security that are a likely part of a grand bargain. Does President Obama support reducing Social Security benefits by 3 percent by cutting the annual cost-of-living adjustment? Does he support raising the age of Medicare eligibility to 67? How about your candidates for the Senate or the House?

It’s unlikely that many people know the answers to these questions because the reporters have not been asking them. Yet these policies and other cuts that would likely be part of a grand bargain would have a much more direct impact on most people’s lives that the tax proposals being touting by President Obama and Governor Romney.

To be specific, the reduction in Social Security benefits from the cut in the in the cost-of-living adjustment that is being pushed as part of a grand bargain would have more impact on most future retirees living standards than ending the Bush tax cuts on the richest 2 percent would have on their living standards. While the media have done endless pieces on the impact of this possible tax increase on the wealthy, they have done almost nothing on the impact of cutting the cost-of-living adjustment on the living standards of retirees.

This, of course, fits the needs of the corporate honchos who are pushing the agenda for cutting Social Security and Medicare. They don’t want these cuts to become an issue before the election because it will make it harder for members of Congress to vote for them.

This is why the reporters covering this election deserve nothing but contempt from the public. It is their job to highlight the issues that will matter to people’s lives, not to help push the agenda of corporate America. But clearly they have decided to do the latter.

Dean Baker is Co-director, CEPR; author, ‘The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive’

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dean-baker/national-debt_b_1968868.html?utm_hp_ref=daily-brief?utm_source=DailyBrief&utm_campaign=101612&utm_medium=email&utm_content=BlogEntry&utm_term=Daily%20Brief

Add It Up: Taxes Avoided by the Rich Could Pay Off the Deficit by Paul Buchheit

 Common Dreams, August 27, 2012

Conservatives force the deficit issue, ignoring job creation, and insisting that tax increases on the rich wouldn’t generate enough revenue to balance the budget. They’re way off. But it takes a little arithmetic to put it all together. In the following analysis, data has been taken from a variety of sources, some of which may overlap or slightly disagree, but all of which lead to the conclusion that withheld revenue, not excessive spending, is the problem.

1. Individual and small business tax avoidance costs us $450 billion.

The IRS estimates that 17 percent of taxes owed were not paid, leaving an underpayment of $450 billion. In way of confirmation, an independent review of IRS data reveals that the richest 10 percent of Americans paid less than 19% on $3.8 trillion of income in 2006, nearly $450 billion short of a more legitimate 30% tax rate. It has also been estimated that two-thirds of the annual $1.3 trillion in “tax expenditures” (tax subsidies from special deductions, exemptions, exclusions, credits, capital gains, and loopholes) goes to the top quintile of taxpayers. Based on IRS apportionments, this calculates out to more than $450 billion for the richest 10 percent of Americans.

2. Corporate tax avoidance is between $250 billion and $500 billion.

There are numerous examples of tax avoidance by the big companies, but the most outrageous fact may be that corporations decided to drastically cut their tax rates after the start of the recession. After paying an average of 22.5% from 1987 to 2008, they’ve paid an annual rate of 10% since. This represents a sudden $250 billion annual loss in taxes. Worse yet, it’s a $500 billion shortfall from the 35% statutory corporate tax rate.

3. Tax haven losses range from $337 billion to $500 billion.

The Tax Justice Network estimated in 2011 that $337 billion is lost to the U.S. every year in tax haven abuse. It’s probably more. A recent report placed total hidden offshore assets at somewhere between $21 trillion and $32 trillion. Using the lesser $21 trillion figure, and considering that about 40% of the world’s Ultra High Net Worth Individuals are Americans, and factoring in an annual 6% stock market gain based on historical records, the tax loss comes to $500 billion.

4. That’s enough to pay off a trillion dollar deficit. Reasonable tax changes could pay it off a second time:

(a) A non-regressive payroll tax could produce $150 billion in revenue.

Get ready for some math. The richest 10% made about $3.84 trillion in 2006. A $110,000 salary, which is roughly the cutoff point for payroll tax deductions, is also the approximate minimum income for the richest 10%. A 6.2% tax paid on $1.43 trillion ($110,000 times 13 million payees) is about $90 billion. The lost taxes on the remaining $2.41 trillion come to about $150 billion.

(b) A minimal estate tax brings in another $100 billion.

The 2009 estate tax, designed to impact only the tiny percentage of Americans with multi-million dollar estates that have never been taxed, returns about $100 billion per year.

(c) A financial transaction tax (FTT): up to $500 billion.

The Bank for International Settlements reported in 2008 that annual trading in derivatives had surpassed $1.14 quadrillion (a thousand trillion dollars!). The Chicago Mercantile Exchange handles about 3 billion annual contracts worth well over 1 quadrillion dollars. One-tenth of one percent of a quadrillion dollars could pay off the deficit on its own.

More conservative estimates by the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the Chicago Political Economy Group suggest FTT revenues of a half-trillion dollars annually.

Add it all up, and we’ve paid off the deficit, almost twice. More importantly, the avoided taxes and a few other sensible taxes could provide sufficient revenue for job stimulus without cutting the hard-earned benefits of middle-class Americans. 

Paul Buchheit is a college teacher, an active member of US Uncut Chicago, founder and developer of social justice and educational websites (UsAgainstGreed.org, PayUpNow.org, RappingHistory.org), and the editor and main author of “American Wars: Illusions and Realities” (Clarity Press). He can be reached at paul@UsAgainstGreed.org.