Who’s Afraid of the Budget Deficit?

Democrats shouldn’t put themselves in a fiscal straitjacket.

On Thursday, the best House speaker of modern times reclaimed her gavel, replacing one of the worst. It has taken the news media a very long time to appreciate the greatness of Nancy Pelosi, who saved Social Security from privatization, then was instrumental in gaining health insurance for 20 million Americans. And the media are still having a hard time facing up to the phoniness of their darling Paul Ryan, who, by the way, left office with a 12 percent favorable rating.

There’s every reason to expect that Pelosi will once again be highly effective. But some progressive Democrats object to one of her initial moves — and on the economics, and probably the politics, the critics are right.

.. The issue in question is “paygo,” a rule requiring that increases in spending be matched by offsetting tax increases or cuts elsewhere.

You can argue that as a practical matter, the rule won’t matter much if at all. On one side, paygo is the law, whether Democrats put it in their internal rules or not. On the other side, the law can fairly easily be waived, as happened after the G.O.P.’s huge 2017 tax cut was enacted.

But adopting the rule was a signal of Democratic priorities — a statement that the party is deeply concerned about budget deficits and willing to cramp its other goals to address that concern. Is that a signal the party should really be sending?

.. Furthermore, there are things the government should be spending money on even when jobs are plentiful — things like fixing our deteriorating infrastructure and helping children get education, health care and adequate nutrition. Such spending has big long-run payoffs, even in purely monetary terms.

Meanwhile, the federal government can borrow money very cheaply — the interest rate on inflation-protected 10-year bonds is only about 1 percent. These low borrowing costs, in turn, reflect what seems to be a persistent savings glut — that is, the private sector wants to save more than it’s willing to invest, even with very low interest rates.

Or consider what happened after Democrats enacted the Affordable Care Act, going to great lengths to pay for the additional benefits with tax increases and spending cuts. A majority of voters still believed that it increased the deficit. Reality doesn’t seem to matter.

.. Anyway, the truth is that while voters may claim to care about the deficit, hardly any of them really do. For example, does anyone still believe that the Tea Party uprising was a protest against deficits? From the beginning, it was basically about race — about the government spending money to help Those People. And that’s true of a lot of what pretends to be fiscal conservatism.

.. In fact, even the deficit scolds who played such a big role in Beltway discourse during the Obama years seem oddly selective in their concerns about red ink. After all those proclamations that fiscal doom was coming any day now unless we cut spending on Social Security and Medicare, it’s remarkable how muted their response has been to a huge, budget-busting tax cut. It’s almost as if their real goal was shrinking social programs, not limiting national debt.

.. So am I saying that Democrats should completely ignore budget deficits? No; if and when they’re ready to move on things like some form of Medicare for All, the sums will be so large that asking how they’ll be paid for will be crucial.

Are Trump’s Policies Hurting Long-Term US Growth?

When it comes to economic performance, US presidents have considerably more influence over long-term trends than over short-term fluctuations. And it is by this standard that Donald Trump’s administration should be judged.

President Donald Trump regularly thumps his chest and claims credit for each new uptick of the fast-growing US economy. But when it comes to economic performance, US presidents have considerably more influence over long-term trends than over short-term fluctuations.
.. Still, it is not easy to speed up a $20 trillion economy, even by running a budget deficit of nearly $1 trillion, as Trump’s administration is doing.
.. In a cantankerous political environment, it is not easy to think about the long term. But, thanks to the magic of compound interest, measures that marginally raise long-term growth matter a lot. For example,
  • the transportation deregulation policies of President Jimmy Carter’s administration in the late 1970s set the stage for the Internet retail revolution.
  • President Ronald Reagan’s massive tax cuts in the 1980s helped restore US growth in the ensuing decades (but also exacerbated inequality trends). And
  • President Barack Obama’s efforts (and before him President George W. Bush’s) to contain the damage from the 2008 financial crisis underpin the strong economy for which Trump wants to take full credit.
.. The end-2017 corporate tax reform was one of those rare instances where the US Congress comprehensively streamlined and improved the US’s Byzantine tax system, though the corporate tax rate should have been set at 25%, not 21%.
.. Obama would likely have been very happy to pass a similar bill. But, during his presidency, the Republican-controlled Congress insisted that any proposal had to be “revenue neutral” even in the short term, which is a tough political hurdle for any fundamental tax reform.
..  a wide range of studies – from the work of the late economist David Landes to more recent research by MIT’s Daron Acemoglu and the University of Chicago’s James A. Robinson – find that
.. institutions and political culture are the single most important determinants of long-term growth.
.. political culture in the US may take years; if so, the economic costs could be considerable.
.. Moreover, in accordance with the administration’s disdain for science, the proposed budgets for basic research, including for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, were reduced sharply (fortunately, the US Congress rejected the cuts).
And anti-trust enforcement, needed to counter excessive monopoly power in many parts of the economy, is essentially dormant.
That will exacerbate inequality over the long term; Trump’s coal mines and trade tariffs are at best band-aids on a bullet wound.
.. many of the regulations that Trump is targeting ought to be strengthened, not eliminated. It is hard to imagine that gutting the Environmental Protection Agency and withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement are helpful for long-run growth, given that the costs of cleaning up pollution later vastly exceed the costs of mitigating it today.
.. As for financial regulation, the reams of new rules adopted after the 2008 financial crisis have been a dream come true for lawyers. Rather than try to micromanage banking, it would be far better to ensure that shareholders have more “skin in the game,” so that big banks are more inclined to avoid excessive risk. On the other hand, neutering existing legislation without putting anything adequate in its place sets the stage for another financial crisis.
.. although the US economy is indeed growing rapidly, the full extent of Trump’s economic legacy might not be felt for a decade or more. In the meantime, should a downturn come, it will not be Trump’s fault – at least according to Trump, who is already gearing up to blame the US Federal Reserve for raising interest rates and ruining all his good work.