Commentary: Our fiscal fever finally breaks
In 2012, President Barack Obama, ever hopeful that reason will prevail, predicted that his re-election would finally break the GOP’s “fever.” It didn’t.
But the intransigence of the right wasn’t the only disease troubling America’s body politic in 2012. We were also suffering from fiscal fever: the insistence by virtually the entire political and media establishment that budget deficits were our most important and urgent economic problem, even though the federal government could borrow at incredibly low interest rates. Instead of talking about mass unemployment and soaring inequality, Washington was almost exclusively focused on the alleged need to slash spending (which would worsen the jobs crisis) and hack away at the social safety net (which would worsen inequality).
So the good news is that this fever, unlike the fever of the tea party, has finally broken.
True, the fiscal scolds are still out there, and still getting worshipful treatment from some news organizations. As the Columbia Journalism Review recently noted, many reporters retain the habit of “treating deficit-cutting as a non-ideological objective while portraying other points of view as partisan or political.” But the scolds are no longer able to define the bounds of respectable opinion. For example, when the usual suspects recently piled on Sen. Elizabeth Warren over her call for an expansion of Social Security, they clearly ended up enhancing her stature.
What changed? I’d suggest that at least four things happened to discredit deficit-cutting ideology.
First, the political premise behind “centrism” — that moderate Republicans would be willing to meet Democrats halfway in a Grand Bargain combining tax hikes and spending cuts — became untenable. There are no moderate Republicans. To the extent that there are debates between the tea party and non-tea party wings of the GOP, they’re about political strategy, not policy substance.
Second, a combination of rising tax receipts and falling spending has caused federal borrowing to plunge. This is actually a bad thing, because premature deficit-cutting damages our still-weak economy — in fact, we’d probably be close to full employment now but for the unprecedented fiscal austerity of the past three years. But a falling deficit has undermined the scare tactics so central to the “centrist” cause. Even longer-term projections of federal debt no longer look at all alarming.
Speaking of scare tactics, 2013 was the year journalists and the public finally grew weary of the boys who cried wolf. There was a time when audiences listened raptly to forecasts of fiscal doom — for example, when Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairmen of Obama’s debt commission, warned that a severe fiscal crisis was likely within two years. But that was almost three years ago.
Finally, over the course of 2013 the intellectual case for debt panic collapsed.
Normally, technical debates among economists have relatively little impact on the political world, because politicians can almost always find experts — or, in many cases, “experts” — to tell them what they want to hear. But what happened in the year behind us may have been an exception.
For those who missed it or have forgotten, for several years fiscal scolds in both Europe and the United States leaned heavily on a paper by two highly respected economists, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, suggesting that government debt has severe negative effects on growth when it exceeds 90 percent of GDP. From the beginning, many economists expressed skepticism about this claim. In particular, it seemed immediately obvious that slow growth often causes high debt, not the other way around — as has surely been the case, for example, in both Japan and Italy. But in political circles the 90 percent claim nonetheless became gospel.
Then Thomas Herndon, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, reworked the data, and found that the apparent cliff at 90 percent disappeared once you corrected a minor error and added a few more data points.
Now, it’s not as if fiscal scolds really arrived at their position based on statistical evidence. As the old saying goes, they used Reinhart-Rogoff the way a drunk uses a lamppost — for support, not illumination. Still, they suddenly lost that support, and with it the ability to pretend that economic necessity justified their ideological agenda.
Still, does any of this matter? You could argue that it doesn’t — that fiscal scolds may have lost control of the conversation, but that we’re still doing terrible things like cutting off benefits to the long-term unemployed. But while policy remains terrible, we’re finally starting to talk about real issues like inequality, not a fake fiscal crisis. And that has to be a move in the right direction.