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.

Savers are slowly choking off the life of the world economy

These days our accumulated wealth is our savings – and far from being a way to protect us from financial shocks, they are toxic and slowly killing the world’s economies.

Firstly there is the sheer scale of savings held by individuals, companies and governments. Earlier this year the International Monetary Fund felt the need to add it all up and declared it a savings glut.

It says institutional investors such as pension funds, insurance companies and mutual funds, along with the sovereign wealth funds of oil-rich nations and central banks, hold around $100 trillion in assets under management.

.. The unprecedented size of these savings might not matter if investors only wanted a modest return. Unfortunately investors are greedy and there are simply not enough things to invest in that can offer the high returns they demand.

.. Then there is the way most people, businesses and governments have accumulated their savings. Just a quick look at the $100tn total and we can see that most of it is the result of tax avoidance.

The Japanese are famous for their savings and investments. But middle-income families can only save because they don’t pay enough tax for officials in Tokyo to provide basic services. Every year the Japanese government runs a 10% budget deficit, such that its accumulated debt is worth almost 250% of GDP.

.. The next thing that makes savings toxic is the way investors have bullied governments into making them safe.

.. The protection offered to the stock market is illustrated by Janet Yellen, the boss of the US Federal Reserve, who said last year that the threat of a stock market slump was a key factor in the central bank keeping interest rates at historical lows.

.. But when investment banks demand between 10% and 15% returns and pension funds think we should be grateful they only want 6% to 9%, the IMF is supporting a rip-off perpetrated by today’s savers on tomorrow’s taxpayers. Instead it should use its intellectual muscle to shift the debate and support higher taxes on wealth.