There Is An Efffective Way to Reduce Government Deficit: Employment. But They Won’t Take That Route.

In the whole crazy, unnecessary debate over raising the debt-ceiling law, politicians, reporters, and commentators all spoke as if there were only two ways to reduce the government deficits.  Nearly everyone took it as an article of “serious thinking” that to reduce a deficit requires either reducing spending or increasing taxes.  But rather than being evidence of “serious thinking”, such talk is evidence of sloppy, imprecise, and ignorant thinking.  Such talk totally ignores the role of economic growth in determining government budgets and it ignores the role of the government in the economy.  It’s evidence of the government-as-household fallacy, the idea that government is just like a big household and subject to the same constraints as you and I.

There is a way to balance the budget that doesn’t require cutting major spending programs.  And it doesn’t require big tax increases.  It’s called economic growth and putting people back to work.  The major cause of the deficit is because we have very high unemployment.  We have over 9% reported unemployment.  That number rises to approximately 16% if we count all the people working part-time jobs but that desperately want full-time work and more hours.  And finally, both numbers totally ignore the fact that since we fell into this depression in 2007 well over 5% of adult Americans have chosen to drop out of the labor force altogether for now.  If we put those people back to work, they pay taxes. Government revenues will increase even without a tax rate increase.  If we put those people back to work, then government spending on unemployment compensation, Medicaid, welfare, and a host of other safety net programs goes down.  Automatically. Without cutting any programs or harming anyone.

This idea that economic growth and full employment will reduce deficits isn’t some theoretical possibility that only exists in the models of some economists.  We’ve done it before.  Other countries have done it.  In fact, everytime the U.S. has reduced it’s deficit it’s been by increasing employment.  The route to a small deficit or even a balanced budget lies in achieving full employment first, not in contrived artificial balanced budget amendments.

It wasn’t until the debt-ceiling debate was practically finished (for now – it will be back like zombie or vampire) that any in the media took notice that growth and employment is the key.  Last Sunday, July 31, as the President and the Republican Speaker announced their deal to cut spending and raise the debt ceiling, the New York Times finally runs a decent article about how growth is the real answer (bold emphases are mine):

 We wouldn’t need any of that [reduce spending, raise taxes, inflation, or default] if we could restore economic growth. If that happened, Americans would become richer and pay more taxes. Et voilà! — we’d pay down the debt painlessly.

Crazy as that might sound, particularly given Friday’s figures, the possibility isn’t some economic equivalent of that nice big farm where your childhood dog Skip was sent to run free. There are precedents.

Before its economy crashed, Ireland was a star of this sort of debt reduction. In the 1980s, Ireland’s debt dwarfed its economy. Over the next two decades, though, that debt shrank to about a quarter of gross domestic product, largely because the economy went gangbusters.

“Ireland went from being, you know, the emerging market in a European context, to a very dynamic economy,” says Carmen Reinhart, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and co-author of “This Time Is Different,” a history of debt crises.

The United States has done the same in the past, too. After World War II, gross federal debt reached 122 percent of G.D.P., the highest ratio on record. But over the next 40 years, it fell to about 33 percent. That wasn’t because some blue-ribbon panel prescribed austerity; it was because the American economy became much, much richer.

The same happened during the prosperous 1990s, which began with deficits and ended with surpluses. Former President Bill Clinton is often credited for that turnabout, as he engineered higher tax rates. But most economists attribute the surplus years primarily to extraordinarily rapid growth.

It would be lovely to repeat that experience today, and send our federal debt off to that farm with Skip…

Usually after a recession, growth snaps back quickly and the economy makes up for ground lost — and then some. That’s not the case this time, at least so far. In the 60 years before the Great Recession, the economy expanded at an average annual rate of 3.5 percent. In the second quarter of this year, it grew at less than half of that pace, putting us further and further behind where we would be if the economy were functioning normally.

Unfortunately the article still tries to give the reader the impression that growth/full employment is difficult or unlikely this time.  It tries to give the impression that the growth during the Clinton years was somehow extraordinarily fast.  It was only fast by comparison with either the Bush I, Bush II or the first Reagan terms.  In fact, the growth during the Clinton years was only average at best when compared to what was achieved routinely during 1950-1973 or even during the Carter years.  The article also falsely claims that our “aging population” will require unusually large demands on government resources.  In fact the demands of the aging baby boomers on either Social Security or Medicare aren’t any greater than the resources we devoted to educating those baby boomers in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Nonetheless, the point of the article is right on:  growth and growth in employment is the way to go if you’re worried about the deficit & debt (which I’m not, but that’s another issue).  The deficit we have is a jobs deficit, not a fiscal or budget deficit.  That’s what we need to worry about.

Washington and the chattering political classes have it wrong.  Their “serious” talk is anything but.

CEO’s Pay Grows, Average Worker Pay Stagnates

The top end of the income distribution has recovered from any ill effects of the Great Recession, but the average worker has not.  CEO’s in particular saw their compensation increase 27% in 2010, while the workers at the corporations these CEO’s “lead” has barely moved.  Wonkroom notes:

Households across the country are still feeling the effects of the Great Recession, with unemployment falling very slowly, while foreclosuresarestillincreasing, along with poverty rates and oil prices. Family wealth is currently down $12.8 trillion from its 2007 peak.

However, one group of Americans is doing very well — corporate CEOs, whose pay is returning to pre-recession levels:

At a time most employees can barely remember their last substantial raise, median CEO pay jumped 27% in 2010 as the executives’ compensation started working its way back to prerecession levels, a USA TODAY analysis of data from GovernanceMetrics International found. Workers in private industry, meanwhile, saw their compensation grow just 2.1%in the 12 months ended December 2010, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Median CEO pay last year was $9 million, the highest since 2007. The median CEO bonuswas $2.2 million. These gains come as income inequality in the U.S. is already the worst its been since 1928. “We have the recipe for controversy over CEO pay: big increases in CEO pay that show up following run-ups in stock prices coupled with high unemployment rates,” said Kevin Murphy, professor of finance at the University of Southern California…

But raising taxes on millionaires is not, in fact, the same as raising taxes on job creators. According to a recent Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, an overwhelming majority of Americans (81 percent) say that adding a surtax on millionaires is an acceptable way to reduce the budget deficit. …

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) recently released a bill that would implement a graduated income tax on millionaires that would raise $78 billion. Allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for those making more than $1 million could, in one instant, reduce eight percent of the medium-term budget deficit.

If the goal is truly to reduce or eliminate the deficit (a goal I do not share), then restoring taxes on these millionaires and CEO’s must be part of the agenda.  As noted previously, if we simply do nothing and let the existing laws on the books, especially letting the Bush-era preferential tax treatments for the highest bracket taxpayers expire, we can eliminate the primary deficit.

In the past, prior to the Reagan years, we had high marginal  tax rates for the highest income brackets.   For much of the 1950’s and 1960’s and early 1970’s, the highest marginal tax rates were between 70% and often as high as 91%. (source: Tax Foundation) Now this is marginal rates, the rate paid on income above the specified level, not the average paid on all income. Nobody pays the marginal rate on all their income.  At the time, the top bracket started at $200,000 or $250,000 for a married filing jointly return.  Given inflation, these are brackets that would be comparable to a $1,000,000 or so today.  The nation did not suffer for job creation in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Yet, once we brought the top tax rates down into the 33-36% range during the Reagan years and ever since, we have suffered from low job formation relative to the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Even if we limit ourselves to just the 30 years since Reagan radically reduced the top marginal tax rates, we see that Clinton, who raised the top rate to 39% in 1993 had the best job creation record.  Clearly, low marginal tax rates on CEO’s and millionaires does not help create jobs. But, it does make the government deficit bigger.  Just a little food for thought as you file your taxes this year.

Obsessing on Deficit When Unemployment Is 9% Is Silly

From Alan Blinder via Brad deLong (bold emphasis mine):

Alan Blinder: The Economic Silly Season Is Upon Us: Debt ceilings’ and ‘job killing’ spending are two dumb ideas. Obsessing on the deficit while unemployment is at 9% is another:

Our country seems mired deeply in the silly season…. The silliness comes in at least four parts. The first is the debate over raising the national debt ceiling…. The increase in the debt each year is simply the difference between total expenditures and total receipts, both of which come from the annual budget. If Congress wants a smaller national debt, it must either spend less or tax more…. [N]either party can just command the national debt to stop growing. Some people see the debt ceiling as a way to force spending cuts that Congress would otherwise refuse to make. Maybe. But it’s a clumsy and risky way that, among other things, could endanger the credit-worthiness of the United States government if our inability to float new debt made it impossible to raise needed cash. And for what purpose? To accomplish something that Congress has the power to do anyway?

The second element of silliness is the belief that the American public stands solidly behind rapid and large budget cuts. Sure, and they also want better weather…. The public wants smaller deficits, lower taxes and less spending in the abstract. But when it comes to specifics, it finds few spending cuts that it likes….

The necessity to choose among various spending cuts and tax increases brings me to the third element of silliness—the one that seems to afflict only Republicans. How many times have you heard Speaker of the House John Boehner (and others) refer to “job-killing government spending”? That phrase has become an official GOP mantra, on a par with “death taxes” and “death panels”—and it’s just about as truthful…. [T]he government should be a smart steward of the public’s money…. [But] when there is so much unused capacity and so many unemployed people hungry for work, “job-killing government spending” is oxymoronic. Virtually any type of spending, public or private, will create jobs.

The final element of silliness is… the popular notion that we need deficit reduction urgently, right now, even though the unemployment rate is still 9%…. The federal budget deficit is on an irresponsibly unsustainable path…. We need to both restrain spending and raise more revenue—and by large amounts. But not right this minute, because doing either would shrink the economy. Despite recent increases, Treasury borrowing rates remain low. There is no evidence that investors are fleeing the dollar. Our economy is still in desperate need of more demand.

Alan Simpson – FAIL again

More from Alan Simpson, the man who wants to cut your social security:

Simpson said that while every interest group that testified before his committee agreed that the mounting federal debt is a national tragedy, they would then talk about why government funding to their area of interest shouldn’t be touched.

“We had the greatest generation — I think this is the greediest generation,” he said.

Source: his home state newspaper.

Apparently it is lost on Mr. Simpson that the huge Social Security trust fund balance (over $2.5 trillion and still building) is actually the baby boom generation paying for both the previous generation’s retirement AND pre-paying their own.  According to Mr. Simpson, that’s just “greed” – wanting to get back what you already paid in.

For more from Mr. Simpson see Watch the Dealer, you “Lesser People”. The Deck is Stacked.