We Have A Debt-Ceiling Deal. The Economy Loses.

Earlier this week the absurd and totally unnecessary debate in Washington over raising the national debt-ceiling came to an agreement, both houses of Congress passed it, and the President signed it.  Earlier this week I gave this metaphor for the deal, wondering why we need enemies with “friends” like our representatives in Washington.  Now that I’ve had a little more time to reflect, read some more on the details, comment on radio & TV about it, I think I was too easy on it.  It’s worse than it first appears.

This deal doesn’t “guarantee” that the U.S. government will reduce it’s deficit and maintain “solvency” (a non-concept for a sovereign country with a central bank).  Instead, this deal is more likely to guarantee that our economic non-recovery does, indeed, become at least a lost decade, if not a depression.  Right now I want to look at the economic impact of the deal.  In another post I’ll look at another casualty of the deal and the probably political-economy impact.

So what does the deal do specifically?  Well the details are fairly complex, even by Washington standards.  Right now the debt ceiling rises by $400 billion – enough to last for probably 3-4 months.  No real cuts will happen for maybe 60 more days.  Then starting in October 2011, which is the start of the government’s fiscal year 2012 budget (see here for definition of fiscal year), the action begins. Caps on spending start.  There are no tax or revenue changes in the deal.  It starts modestly with only $21 billion in spending cuts in 2012, although many of those cuts will be felt painfully by many citizens.  Students in graduate school in particular will feel the pinch in their pocket. Then in the remaining 9 years of the deal, there will be at least another $896 billion in reduced spending, amounting to about $100 billion less spending per year than currently planned.

This total of $917 billion in reduced spending is only the start though.  Congress is going to appoint a “special joint committee” of 12 members to recommend and additional $1.2-1.5 trillion in either spending cuts or tax revenue increases over the next 10 years.  (if you believe that committee with half Republicans will allow any revenue increases, I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale).  If Congress doesn’t adopt those cuts, then Medicare payments, defense spending, and other discretionary spending would automatically by cut across the board. Either way spending gets cut another $1.2 trillion for the years 2013-2022.

This deal is supposed to raise the debt ceiling enough to get us through the end  of 2012 and the presidential election before the debt ceiling has to be raised again, sparing us this debate.  Don’t bet the your house on that though because House Republicans are betting they can keep this debate alive through then.  Basically Congress has created an elaborate mechanism in this law that increases the debt ceiling in several steps between now and the end of 2012.  But the way it’s done is that the debt ceiling keeps going up unless Congress votes to stop it (which the President would then veto).  It’s  a way for Republicans to keep talking about the debt and deficit, to keep recording “votes” against it, but all the time knowing that the debt ceiling will rise because it has to.  Pure politics at the expense of the country.

Right now the economy has over 9% unemployment.  Inflation is so low that deflation is actually the threat. The economy has effectively stalled or at least reached “stall speed”, threatening another double-dip recession.  This is not the time to be cutting spending.  To the degree spending cuts are necessary, they should happen when the economy is at or nearing full employment, not now.  At this time the economy needs all the spending it can find whether it’s from consumers, firms, or government.  And right now, firms and consumers are pulling back and keeping their wallets closed.  The government needs to step up and fill the gap.

So bottom-line, what should we expect?  I’ve seen several estimates from folks with more sophisticated econometric models than I can access.  My own back-of-the-envelope calculations and intuition say the drag on the economy is significant.  In 2012, this deal is probably going to take up to another 0.4 percentage points off of GDP growth.  The real damage starts in 2013 with a reduction closer to 1%.  Remember we’ve only grown at 0.8% rate so far in the first half of 2011, so 2012 will be close to zero growth and 2013 will likely be negative unless some other source of growth and spending can be found.  Looking around, it’s hard to imagine where that could be.  Instead I see nothing but possible negative risks: Europe imploding in a currency and austerity crisis, China having to pull back to slow their inflation, the housing mess in the U.S. is still bad, U.S. banks aren’t as healthy as they claim.

The estimates I’ve seen are similar.  Economic Policy Institute says the debt ceiling deal with cost us 1.8 million jobs in 2012 alone. The same article reports:

Top economists and CEO’s have also weighed in against the deal and said that GOP concessions to the Tea Party will cost our economy dearly. Pimco CEO Mohamed El-Erian warned that the deal will lead to less growth, more unemployment, and more inequality. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman called the plan “a disaster” and “an abject surrender” that will “depress the economy even further.”

The Center for American Progress’s Michael Ettlinger and Michael Linden argue that while the deal “goes straight in the wrong direction,” Congress can redeem itself by using the so-called “super committee” mandated by the bill to focus on job creation. The committee, made up of six Republicans and six Democrats, is tasked with finding an additional $1.5 trillion of deficit reduction over the next 10 years, and must report a plan by Thanksgiving.

It’s noteworthy that J.P.Morgan Chase Bank’s research department, as representative of Wall Street as any, says that overall with this deal, government budget policy in 2012 subtract at least 1.5% points from GDP growth rate in 2012.  Since  it takes at least 2% growth in GDP to keep unemployment stable and we haven’t even had a single quarter of growth at more than a 4% rate since the end of 2006, things look grim for employment.

The cutters and austerians have won.  They will make a wasteland of the economy in the name of fighting the deficit.

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.