Posts Tagged ‘franklin d. roosevelt’

The deficits between politicians’ ears

17 August 2011

‘This isn’t hard. Hire people to build things with the free money the world is offering us.’

— Jay Ackroyd, at Eschaton (Hat tip: Brad DeLong)

Well, yeah. We should worry about the long-term deficit, but when the world is ready to lend us more money at zero real interest rates, the world clearly has other priorities. And so should we — like the 16% of the labor force that’s either unemployed or underemployed. What might we do with all this money the world is so eager to lend us?

The closest thing to a proposal to build things that’s come out of Washington lately is an infrastructure bank, to fund various improvements in the nation’s roads, bridges, levees, and such. A recent Bloomberg editorial praises the idea, and Pres. Obama is urging Congress to create such a bank. The obstacle, not surprisingly, is Congressional Republicans who view all domestic spending as “pork.” In this case, however, the pork is more like bacon bits. From the WSJ:

‘Under the White House plan, the infrastructure bank would augment current highway and transit programs. The bank would receive $30 billion over six years and would issue grants, loans and other financial tools.’

$5 billion a year? Barely a drop in the giant bucket that is the U.S. output gap. And barely a dent in our nation’s gaping infrastructure needs, which the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates as costing $2.2 trillion over 5 years. Way to think big, Mr. President. As Krugman wrote recently, the battle in Washington is between Republicans who want to do nothing and Democrats who want to do very, very little. And outside the beltway, we have a Republican presidential front-runner who thinks that doing anything to help the economy before November 2012 is not only wrong but treasonous.

But heroically assuming for a minute that Washington actually wanted to employ people to fix the nation’s infrastructure, the ASCE’s website provides ample details about where to do it. Talk about “shovel-ready projects.” Meanwhile, my former professor David F. Weiman recounts some of the infrastructural marvels of the New Deal. Even a longtime Great Depression researcher (me) was amazed:

‘The New Deal’s Public Works and Works Progress administrations spurred rapid productivity growth in the midst of the Depression. New roads and electrical power networks paved the way for post-World War II economic expansion built around the automobile and the suburban home. Astonishing 21st-century innovations such as next-day FedEx deliveries and Wi-Fi still rely on these aging investments. We associate FDR with massive hydroelectric dam projects — including the Grand Coulee and Hoover dams in the West, and the Tennessee Valley Authority in the South — but the New Deal also electrified rural America through cooperatives that distributed cheap, reliable power. Nearly 12 percent of Americans still belong to these collectives. Without the New Deal, they would be stuck in the much darker 1920s.

‘As would modern travelers. Without the New Deal, New York commuters would be without the FDR Drive, the Triboroughand Whitestone bridges, and the Lincoln and Queens-Midtown tunnels. There would be no air traffic at LaGuardia and Reagan National airports. D.C.’s Union Station, wired for electricity during the New Deal, would have a very different food court. Between New York and Washington, Amtrak runs on rails first electrified during the New Deal.

‘Out West, the New Deal gave us Golden Gate Bridge access ramps, the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge, the first modern freeways, and San Francisco and LAX airports. Between the coasts, it brought more than 650,000 miles of paved roads, thousands of bridges and tunnels, more than 700 miles of new and expanded runways, improvements to railroad lines, and scenic routes such as the mid-South’s Natchez Trace Parkway. Without the New Deal, of course, some of these would have eventually been built by state and local governments or the private sector — years after America’s recovery from the Depression.

‘Moreover, private infrastructure improvements would have bypassed poor regions such as the South. Because of its vision and virtually unlimited borrowing capacity, the New Deal underwrote Southern modernization with new roads, hospitals, rural electrification and schools. These public investments paid off. After 50 years of stagnation, average Southern incomes began to catch up with the national average during the New Deal era.’

Granted, economic historians have long criticized FDR’s New Deal deficits as being too small to restore the economy to full employment, but neither were they insignificant. An average of 3.5 million workers a year worked in New Deal jobs. From the above it’s clear that a great many of those jobs produced great gains for America’s infrastructure, economy, and society.

The beatings will continue until morale improves

4 August 2011

The stock markets are looking pretty Keynesian today. A 512-point (4.3%) drop in the Dow Jones average today, and drops of 4.8% and 5.1% in the S&P 500 and Nasdsaq; overall a drop of more than 10% (a.k.a. a “market correction”) in the past 10 days. Might it have something to do with the fact that Washington is obsessed with deficit-cutting while the rest of the world is obsessed with jobs and economic growth, or the lack thereof?

Jeff Macke of Yahoo! Finance’s Breakout blog puts it this way:

‘There’s a growing realization among even the most optimistic investors that the United States is entering a new recession — a dreaded “double-dip.” Adding to the pain is the sense that the government and Federal Reserve are out of both ideas and ways to stimulate the economy. Corporate America is sitting on record amounts of cash but is refusing to make new investments with so little end demand for its products. Consumers and corporations are hoarding cash, and the economy appears to be seizing. The debt ceiling debate was a fiasco, snuffing any remaining confidence traders had for help from Washington, D.C.’

Yes, Mr. President (and happy birthday, by the way), the time-suck that was the debt-ceiling negotiations was a “self-inflicted wound,” as you said last night. Now why couldn’t you have said the same about the debt ceiling itself? Worldwide investor confidence could not possibly have been inspired by this fight over a redundant institution that no other democratic country (besides Denmark) has and which serves no purpose besides political grandstanding. You may have looked like the only grownup in the room during that whole travesty, but I think the world would like to see a grownup with a clue. You’re talking about focusing on jobs now, but how on earth are you going to do that having just committed yourself to cutting government spending? If you were a Republican, the (specious) answer would be deregulate the hell out of everything, but traditionally Democrats have looked to fiscal stimuli, be they spending programs (Roosevelt), tax cuts (Kennedy-Johnson), or both (you in 2009). It looks to me like you’ve let the Republicans box you into a corner, and you’ve boxed yourself in even further by parroting their rhetoric about the primacy of deficit reduction and how government, like a family, has to spend less in hard times.

The Budget Control Act of 2011 took another hit today when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that the Pentagon could not absorb any more cuts beyond the $350 billion over 10 years in the first round of cuts. The second round calls for across-the-board cuts of $1.5 trillion, including $600 billion from the defense budget, if Congress can’t agree on specific cuts. Panetta said that would “do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our ability to protect the nation.” I’ll pass on whether or not he’s right, but I’m pretty sure his objection and the military-industrial complex will carry the day. Which makes it more likely that (a) the budget ax falls even harder on ordinary families who would spend the money they’d receive from the government, or (b) the spending cuts just don’t happen, which is better for the economy but bad for the government’s credibility. The battle over that second round of cuts looks to be nasty, brutish, and horrifying.

Uh oh, the 14th amendment might not help here

30 July 2011

Many, including Bill Clinton, have said the debt ceiling is unconstitutional because it goes against the 14th amendment’s clause that the validity of the public debt shall not be questioned. However, it’s also been pointed out that interest on the debt is a relatively small obligation of the government and can easily be paid for out of incoming revenues ($29 B in interest, $172 B in revenues, for August after the 2nd). So it seems to me that a reasonable interpretation of the 14th amendment is that it applies to the government’s debt obligations but not to their obligations to anyone else — government employees, contractors, retirees, veterans, etc. Perhaps that’s why President Obama has said his lawyers don’t think invoking the 14th amendment is a promising solution.

Tom Geoghegan, one of my favorite writers on politics and the law (his book Which Side Are You On? even manages to make organized labor funny), suggests a different “constitutional option”: Article I. Sections 8 and 9 of Article I list the powers of Congress and the limits on those powers, which are quite limited. Article 10, Powers Prohibited of States, says no state shall pass any “Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts.” (Geoghegan’s March article on the subject is also worth reading.) Geoghegan says it’s implied that this would extend to Congress, too, but I’m not so sure — Section 8 gives Congress all sorts of powers that are prohibited of states, as well as the power to “provide for .. the general welfare of the United States,” and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the “general welfare” clause became a lot more expansive around 1937 (after the kerfuffle over the Court’s resistance to the New Deal and FDR’s attempt to pack the court by increasing the number of justices; the so-called “switch in time that saved nine”). The conservative majority on the Court could conceivably rule that keeping the debt ceiling constant would aid the general welfare by forcing reductions in the size of government or in the burden of the debt on future generations. Lame, far-fetched arguments, to be sure, but those have carried the day rather recently with the Court.

So it’s unclear what the way out of this morass will be. If the debt ceiling is not raised, we most likely get a partial government shutdown, which will go on until the Republicans in Congress decide that it’s hurting them at least as much as it’s hurting Obama and the Democrats (see: 1995-96). If we’re lucky, the Republicans realize that before Aug. 2, and the nation is spared a shutdown.

Feeling 1932 (updated, Aug. 1)

28 July 2011

I’ve written already that the best deal on the debt ceiling would simply be to raise it (or better still, abolish it), without attaching it to a bill that punishes the economy further by slashing spending and/or raising taxes. The last thing this ailing economy needs is a Grand Bargain to reduce the current deficit. It was disastrous policy during the Great Depression — first by Congress and President Hoover in 1932, then by Congress and President Roosevelt in 1937. I would have thought those historic blunders would not be repeated, but I guess it’s always a mistake to assume that politicians know economics or history. But I’ve said all that before.

What I want to point out here is that we’re due for some ill-timed spending cuts (and maybe tax increases), regardless of what Congress does in the next week. Remember that $787 billion stimulus package that Congress passed in early 2009? It was spread out over two years, so roughly $400 billion a year, about $250 billion of which was spending and $150 billion tax cuts, almost all in 2009-2011. So that stimulus is just about “spent.” The main tax cuts, like extending the patch for the alternative minimum tax, will probably be maintained because they’re politically popular, but the spending almost surely will not. So that’s an abrupt drop of about $250 billion in government spending, or about 2% of GDP, over the next year. This chart from James Fallows’ blog for The Atlantic shows the projected big drop in fiscal stimulus from “Relief measures.” That’s the trouble with stimulus — it’s finite. Congress passes these things reluctantly, and if the economy still needs stimulating when it’s over, people are more likely to conclude that it failed rather than that it was too small (which it was) or that it spared us even worse devastation (which it did).

Now it is possible, perhaps even probable, that Congress will fail to pass any deficit-reduction deal and will end up raising the debt ceiling anyway — after all, that’s what’s happened virtually every previous time that a debt-ceiling vote has come up. But even if Congress ends up not inflicting any new wounds on the economy, we’re looking at big-time deficit reduction that will do plenty of damage on its own.

UPDATE, 1 Aug. 2011: Actually, it looks like it’s already happened. In the dismal GDP figures released last week, the government’s contribution to real GDP growth was negative 1.2 percentage points in the first quarter of 2011, with about two-thirds of the decline coming from the federal government. Government purchases account for about 20% of GDP, so cuts in government purchases reduce GDP. “Fiscal drag,” the economists call it. Federal government purchases fell 9.4% in the first quarter (the unwinding of the stimulus surely had much to do with this), and state and local government purchases fell 3.4%. (In the second quarter federal purchases rose 2.2% and state and local purchases again fell 3.4%.)

P.S. The title’s musical inspiration is forty years off and I’ve used it before, but hey, it’s a good song.