Will Deficit Reduction Trump Investments In Economic Recovery?

It seems that conservatives have scored a big win. They’ve got the federal deficit in the bull’s eye. The debt we’re supposedly leaving to our children has become the unimpeachable reason for curtailing, if not altogether ditching, further investments to cushion the impacts of this prolonged recession and jump-start growth in the labor market.

Consider that Congress still hasn’t extended the expanded unemployment benefits and COBRA subsidies created by the economic recovery act beyond early June.

Nor has it acted on the looming crises resulting from the shortfalls in state and local budgets. The House is scheduled to vote on an extension of the enhanced federal match for state Medicaid programs tomorrow, but the outcome is uncertain because Members are queasy about the cost. This  is also the case with key provisions in Congressman George Miller’s Local Jobs for America bill.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that at least 45 states and the District of Columbia have cut back spending in core areas like public health, elementary and secondary education and services for elderly and disabled people.

Virtually all these will cause further job losses–not only in the programs themselves, but in businesses that supply the programs with goods and services. Thirty states and the District have also instituted hiring freezes and/or layoffs in their own workforces.

All these and a host of other cuts will feed a vicious cycle. More unemployed people exerting pressures on the safety net, spending less and, of course, paying less in taxes. Perhaps, in fact, eligible for more in refundable tax credits than they pay into the states’ coffers. Retailers buying less from their suppliers, and all of them paying less in taxes too.

But, we’re told, the federal government has to address the rising deficit and related level of federal debt. No doubt about that. If we just keep on keepin’ on, spending will outpace revenues, even after the economy fully recovers.

So we’ll borrow more. The Congressional Budget Office says that the ratio of federal debt to the nation’s gross domestic product (the total value of all goods and services produced) will rise from somewhat below 60% during the coming decade to 79% by 2035. Looking ahead to 2050, CBPP projects a debt level in excess of 300% of GDP.

The consensus view is that sustained high levels of government borrowing drive up inflation and interest rates, making borrowing more expensive for individuals and businesses, as well as the government itself. And revenues that could otherwise be spent on domestic investments must be diverted to paying interest on the debt.

Economic growth slows. And ultimately, some say, investors will lose confidence and shift their funds out of investments based on the U.S. dollar. Today Greece. Tomorrow America.

But that tomorrow is a hypothetical long way off. Right now, we’ve got a jobs crisis and a lot of collateral damage. So it’s very disturbing to see concerns about the long-term, structural deficit override concerns about the here and now.

In February, Lawrence Mishel, president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, and David Walker, CEO of the fiscally-conservative Peterson Foundation, co-authored an answer to the President’s quandary on the deficit. Address jobs now and the deficit later, they said.

CBPP seems to come from the same place. It recommends that Congress allow the 2001/3 tax cuts for high-income filers to expire and, in the short term, use the revenues generated to fund policies that will stimulate economic growth and job creation.

But any proposed tax increases, even those that would affect only the top 2% of the wealthiest households, stir up a maelstrom of opposition–as, in fact, has the President’s entire Fiscal Year 2011 budget, notwithstanding its selective freeze on discretionary domestic spending.

Perhaps the President’s new fiscal commission will come up with a balanced plan to control the long-term deficit. But the need for that shouldn’t be used to block spending needed now to keep the devastating impacts of this recession from getting worse.

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