Thursday, August 22, 2019
Cheerleading for Austerity
Not content to follow a news strategy that maximizes Trump’s prospects for re-election, the New York Times leads today with a story that combines economic illiteracy and reactionary scaremongering in a preview of what we’re likely to see in the 2020 presidential race.
“Budget Deficit Is Set to Surge Past $1 Trillion” screams the headline, and the article throws around a mix of dollar estimates and vague statements about growth trends, leavened with quotes from budget scolds from both Republican and Democratic sides of the aisle. (That shows balance, right?) After terrorizing us with visions of a tide of red ink, the article concludes with a ray of sunshine in the form of prospects for a Grand Bargain under a lame duck Trump that would cut benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare to put us once again on a stable path.
Where to begin? Should we start by mentioning that nowhere in this lead article does it give the single most relevant statistic, the ratio of the federal budget deficit to the size of the overall economy—the money part, GDP. The raw size of the deficit itself is meaningless, and the trillion dollar line is meaningless squared. As Dean Baker likes to say, the article shows its respect for our powers of thought by informing us the deficit is a Very Big Number. Scared yet?
Measurement aside, the article simply assumes that “large” deficits are unsustainable and bad, and that only irresponsible political motives prevent action on them. In the name of a nebulous, unspecified Evil of Debt, the population of the US must be subjected to a regime of austerity, beginning with cuts in the programs many depend on to keep themselves and family members out of poverty. Worse, it opines, Democrats will run for office next year on a platform of spending increases, demonstrating they are the party of ruin. We can only hope, goes the argument, that they are just saying these things to get votes from the gullible public, and once in power they will join the deficit-cutting crusade.
No reason is given for the assumed Evil of Debt, and it’s no surprise, since it’s based on ignorance, willful or otherwise. To begin with, federal debt is denominated entirely in US dollars, so servicing is not a problem. Countries that borrow in foreign currencies, like Greece (which had no control over the euro) and Argentina, can default; that’s not a problem for the US. Second, government debt is private wealth, and the relevant question is whether there are too many or too few government bonds in private portfolios. If private wealth holders are satiated with public debt and prefer other securities, it would be a problem. But that would be a world in which interest rates on the debt would be high in order to sell them, and rates are about as low as they can go without flipping negative (as they have elsewhere).
Meanwhile, government debt is an injection of spending power into the economy that counterbalances the leakage of a significant, ongoing trade (and current account) deficit. That’s not quite the right way to put it, since private and public net deficits, taken together, are the current account deficit. Once you understand what this means, you can’t avoid the economic shrinkage—austerity—aspect of deficit-cutting, since that’s what keeps the identity identical at any point in time. Of course, that doesn’t mean the government’s deficit is at the right level, just that the pluses and minuses of adjusting it have to be considered concretely. Is it difficult to imagine that, at a time when interest rates are very low and the need for new infrastructure and other public investment is very high, that the current level of borrowing may well above that terrifying $1 trillion figure?
What we have today is just one article, by itself not very significant. We have seen, however, that the drumbeat of repeated media misinformation can create a climate of opinion that makes idiotic policies appear reasonable; just look across the Atlantic at Brexit. The time to expose ignorance and propaganda is always now.