Archive for the ‘Military Spending’ Category
The media continues to direct out attention to deficits and debt as our main problems. Yet, it does little to really highlight the causes of these deficits and debts.
The following two figures from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities help to clarify the causes. It is important to note that the projections underlying both figures were made before the recent vote making permanent most of the Bush-era tax cuts.
Figure 1, below, shows the main drivers of our large national deficits: the Bush-era tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our economic crisis and responses to it. Without those drivers our national deficits would have remained quite small.
Figure 2, below, shows the main drivers of our national debt. Not surprisingly they are the same as the drivers of our deficits.
Significantly, the same political leaders that scream the loudest about our deficits and debt have little to say about stopping the wars or reducing military spending and are the most adamant about maintaining the Bush-era tax cuts. That is because, at root, their interest is in reducing spending on non-security programs rather than reducing the deficit or debt.
Some of these leaders argue that the tax cuts will help correct our economic problems and thereby help reduce the deficit and debt. However, multiple studies have shown that tax cuts are among the least effective ways to stimulate employment and growth. In contrast, the most effective are sustained and targeted government efforts to refashion economic activity by spending on green conversion, infrastructure, health care, education and the like.
While Republicans and Democrats debate the extent to which taxes should be raised, both sides appear to agree on the need to reign in federal government spending in order to achieve deficit reduction. In fact, federal government spending has been declining both absolutely and, as the following figure from the St. Louis Federal Reserve shows, as a share of GDP.
In reality, our main challenge is not reducing our deficit or debt but rather strengthening our economy, and cutting government spending is not going to help us overcome that challenge. As Peter Coy, writing in BusinessWeek explains:
It pains deficit hawks to hear this, but ever since the 2008 financial crisis, government red ink has been an elixir for the U.S. economy. After the crisis, households strove to pay down debt and businesses hoarded profits while skimping on investment. If the federal government had tried to run balanced budgets, there would have been an enormous economy wide deficit of demand and the economic slump would have been far worse. In 2009 fiscal policy added about 2.7 percentage points to what the economy’s growth rate would have been, according to calculations by Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics. But since then the U.S. has underutilized fiscal policy as a recession-fighting tool. The economic boost dropped to just half a percentage point in 2010. Fiscal policy subtracted from growth in 2011 and 2012 and will do so again in 2013, to the tune of about 1 percentage point, Zandi estimates.
If we were serious about tackling our economic problems we would raise tax rates and close tax loopholes on the wealthy and corporations and reduce military spending, and then use a significant portion of the revenue generated to fund a meaningful government stimulus program. That would be a win-win proposition as far as the economy and budget is concerned.
With the election over, the news is now focused, somewhat hysterically, on the threat of the fiscal cliff.
The fiscal cliff refers to the fact that at the end of this calendar year several temporary tax cuts are scheduled to expire (including those that lowered rates on income and capital gains as well as payroll taxes) and early in the next year spending cuts are scheduled for military and non-military federal programs. See here for details on the taxes and programs.
Most analysts agree that if tax rates rise and federal spending is cut the result will be a significant contraction in aggregate demand, pushing the U.S. economy into recession in 2013.
The U.S. economy is already losing steam. GDP growth in the second half of 2009, which marked the start of the recovery, averaged 2.7% on an annualized basis. GDP growth in 2010 was a lower 2.4%. GDP growth in 2011 averaged a still lower 2.0%. And growth in the first half of this year declined again, to an annualized rate of 1.8%.
With banks unwilling to loan, businesses unwilling to invest or hire, and government spending already on the decline, there can be little doubt that a further fiscal tightening will indeed mean recession.
So, assuming we don’t want to go over the fiscal cliff, what are our choices?
Both Republicans and Democrats face this moment in agreement that our national deficits and debt are out of control and must be reduced regardless of the consequences for overall economic activity. What they disagree on is how best to achieve the reduction. Most Republicans argue that we should renew the existing tax cuts and protect the military budget. Deficit reduction should come from slashing the non-military discretionary portion of the budget, which, as Ethan Pollack explains, includes:
safety net programs like housing vouchers and nutrition assistance for women and infants; most of the funding for the enforcement of consumer protection, environmental protection, and financial regulation; and practically all of the federal government’s civilian public investments, such as infrastructure, education, training, and research and development.
The table below shows the various programs/budgets that make up the non-security discretionary budget and their relative size. The chart that follows shows how spending on this part of the budget is already under attack by both Democrats and Republicans.
Unfortunately, the Democrat’s response to the fiscal cliff is only marginally better than that of the Republicans. President Obama also wants to shrink the deficit and national debt, but in “a more balanced way.” He wants both tax increases and spending cuts. He is on record seeking $4 trillion in deficit reduction over a ten year period, with a ratio of $2.50 in spending cuts for every $1 in new revenue.
The additional revenue in his plan will come from allowing tax cuts for the wealthy to expire, raising the tax rate on the top income tax bracket, and limiting the value of tax deductions. While an important improvement, President Obama is also committed to significant cuts in non-military discretionary spending. Although his cuts would not be as great as those advocated by the Republicans, reducing spending on most of the targeted programs makes little social or economic sense given current economic conditions.
So, how do we scale the fiscal cliff in a responsible way?
We need to start with the understanding that we do not face a serious national deficit or debt problem. As Jamie Galbraith notes:
. . . is there a looming crisis of debt or deficits, such that sacrifices in general are necessary? No, there is not. Not in the short run – as almost everyone agrees. But also: not in the long run. What we have are computer projections, based on arbitrary – and in fact capricious – assumptions. But even the computer projections no longer show much of a crisis. CBO has adjusted its interest rate forecast, and even under its “alternative fiscal scenario” the debt/GDP ratio now stabilizes after a few years.
Actually, as the chart below shows, the deficit is already rapidly falling. In fact, the decline in government spending over the last few years is likely one of the reasons why our economic growth is slowing so dramatically.
As Jed Graham points out:
From fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2012, the deficit shrank 3.1 percentage points, from 10.1% to 7.0% of GDP. That’s just a bit faster than the 3.0 percentage point deficit improvement from 1995 to ’98, but at that point, the economy had everything going for it.
Other occasions when the federal deficit contracted by much more than 1 percentage point a year have coincided with recession. Some examples include 1937, 1960 and 1969.
In short, we do not face a serious problem of growing government deficits. Rather the problem is one of too fast a reduction in the deficit in light of our slowing economy.
As to the challenge of the fiscal cliff—here we have to recognize, as Josh Bivens and Andrew Fieldhouse explain, that:
the budget impact and the economic impact are not necessarily the same. Some policies that are expensive in budgetary terms have only modest economic impacts (for example, the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts aimed at high-income households are costly but do not have much economic impact). Conversely, other policies with small budgetary costs have big economic impacts (for example, extended unemployment insurance benefits).
In other words, we should indeed allow the temporary tax rate deductions for the wealthy to expire, on both income and capital gains taxes. These deductions cost us dearly on the budget side without adding much on the economic side. As shown here and here, the evidence is strong that the only thing produced by lowering taxes on the wealthy is greater income inequality.
Letting existing tax rates rise for individuals making over $200,000 and families making over $250,000 a year, raising the top income tax bracket for both couples and singles that make more than $388,350, and limiting tax deductions will generate close to $1.5 trillion dollars over ten years as highlighted below in a Wall Street Journal graphic .
However, in contrast to President Obama’s proposal, we should also support the planned $500 billion in cuts to the military budget. We don’t need the new weapons and studies are clear that spending on the military (as well as tax cuts) is a poor way to generate jobs. For example, the table below shows the employment effects of spending $1 billion on the military versus spending the same amount on education, health care, clean energy, or tax cuts.
And, we should also oppose any cuts in our non-security discretionary budget. Instead, we should take at least half the savings from the higher tax revenues and military spending cuts–that would be a minimum of $1 trillion–and spend it on programs designed to boost our physical and social infrastructure. Here I have in mind retrofitting buildings, improving our mass transit systems, increasing our development and use of safe and renewable energy sources like wind and solar, and expanding and strengthening our social services, including education, health care, libraries, and the like.
Our goal should be a strong and accountable public sector, good jobs for all, and healthy communities, not debt reduction. The above policy begins to move us in the right direction.
A big debate is underway about fiscal multipliers. Sounds esoteric but it is not—it reveals that economics is far from an exact science and the outcome appears to confirm what most working people thought, which is that government spending can help an economy grow.
A fiscal multiplier is an estimate of the economic impact of a change in government spending. The debate was triggered, surprisingly enough, by a small box in the International Monetary Fund’s annual publication, World Economic Outlook. There, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) admitted that its previous estimates of fiscal multipliers were too low.
Here is what the IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard wrote:
The main finding, based on data for 28 economies, is that the multipliers used in generating growth forecasts have been systematically too low since the start of the Great Recession, by 0.4 to 1.2, depending on the forecast source and the specifics of the estimation approach. Informal evidence suggests that the multipliers implicitly used to generate these forecasts are about 0.5. So actual multipliers may be higher, in the range of 0.9 to 1.7.
As part of the attack on the role of government in the economy, many economists, prior to the Great Recession, argued that fiscal multipliers were roughly equal to 1. That meant a 1% reduction in government spending would likely cause a 1% decline in GDP, and a 1% increase in government spending would likely generate a 1% increase in GDP.
As the Great Recession got under way, many economists, including those at the IMF, began arguing for substantially lower multipliers, on the order of 0.5%. On the basis of this reduced value, many forecasters argued for the benefits of austerity. Debt was seen as a major problem and if fiscal multipliers were only 0.5%, a $1 cut in government spending would reduce debt by $1 but GDP by only 50 cents.
Well, after watching how austerity policies collapsed many economies around the world, especially in Europe, the IMF acknowledged that it had badly misjudged the size of the fiscal multiplier. As Cornel Ban explains:
In contrast [to its previous low estimates], the October 2012 WEO found that in fact [fiscal multipliers] ranged between .9 to 1.7 (the Eurozone periphery is closer to the higher end of the range), an error that explained the IMF’s extremely optimistic growth projections for countries who front-loaded fiscal consolidation. Assuming the multiplier was 1.5, a fiscal adjustment of 3 percent of GDP-as much as Spain has to do next year- would lead to a GDP contraction of 4.5 percent. It was momentous finding and those who had been skeptical of the virtues of austerity felt vindicated.
Barry Eichengreen and Kevin H O’Rourke provide additional evidence for large fiscal multipliers, in fact for larger multipliers than those proposed by the IMF. According to them:
The problem is that standard theory doesn’t tell us much about the precise magnitude of the multiplier under [current] conditions. The IMF’s analysis, moreover, relies on observations for only a handful of national experiences. It is limited to the post-2009 period. And it has been criticized for its sensitivity to the inclusion of influential outliers.
Fortunately, history provides more evidence on the relevant magnitudes. In a paper written together with Miguel Almunia, Agustin Bénétrix and Gisela Rua, we considered the experience of 27 countries in the 1930s, the last time when interest rates were at or near the zero lower bound, and when post-2009-like monetary conditions therefore applied (Almunia et al. 2010).
Our results depart from the earlier historical literature. Generalizing from the experience of the US it is frequently said, echoing E Cary Brown, that fiscal policy didn’t work in the 1930s because it wasn’t tried. In fact it was tried, in Japan, Italy, and Germany, for rearmament- and military-related reasons, and even in the US, where a Veterans’ Bonus amounting to 2% of GDP was paid out in 1936. Fiscal policy could have been used more actively, as Keynes was later to lament, but there was at least enough variation across countries and over time to permit systematic quantitative analysis of its effects.
We analyze the size of fiscal multipliers in several ways. First, we estimate panel vector regressions, relying on recursive ordering to identify shocks and using defense spending as our fiscal policy variable. The idea is that levels of defense spending are typically chosen for reasons unrelated to the current state of the economy, so defense spending can thus be placed before output in the recursive ordering. We also let interest rates and government revenues respond to output fluctuations. We find defense-spending multipliers in this 1930s setting as large as 2.5 on impact and 1.2 after the initial year.
Second, we estimate the response of output to government spending using a panel of annual data and defense spending as an instrument for the fiscal stance.
Here too we control for the level of interest rates, although these were low virtually everywhere, reflecting the prevalence of economic slack and ongoing deflation. Using this approach, our estimate of the multiplier is 1.6 when evaluated at the median values of the independent variables.
These estimates based on 1930s data are at the higher end of those in the literature, consistent with the idea that the multiplier will be greater when interest rates do not respond to the fiscal impulse, whether because they are at the lower bound or for other reasons. The 1930s experience thus suggests that the IMF’s new estimates are, if anything, on the conservative side.
Some economists remain unconvinced—in fact, some actually argue that government spending is incapable of creating jobs. The economist Robert J. Samuelson was so upset to read a New York Times editorial which claimed that government spending creates jobs that he had to respond:
In 35 years, I can’t recall ever writing a column refuting an editorial. But this one warrants special treatment because the Times’ argument is so simplistic, the subject is so important and the Times is such an influential institution.
Here is the nub of his argument:
it’s true that, legally, government does expand employment. But economically, it doesn’t — and that’s what people usually mean when they say “government doesn’t create jobs.”
What the Times omits is the money to support all these government jobs. It must come from somewhere — generally, taxes or loans (bonds, bills). But if the people whose money is taken via taxation or borrowing had kept the money, they would have spent most or all of it on something — and that spending would have boosted employment.
In other words, because the government relies on the private sector for the money it spends, the jobs created by its spending cannot be a net addition to the economy. Said differently, jobs supported by public spending are not real jobs. There is a lot that can be said, but here is Dean Baker’s response:
Samuelson tells us that if the government didn’t tax or borrow or the money to pay its workers (he makes a recession exception later in the piece) people “would have spent most or all of it on something — and that spending would have boosted employment.”
Again, this is true, but how does it differ from the private sector? If the new iPhone wasn’t released last month people would have spent most or all of that money on something — and that spending would have boosted employment. Does this mean that workers at Apple don’t have real jobs either?
The confusion gets even greater when we start to consider the range of services that can be provided by either the public or private sector. In Robert Samuelson’s world we know that public school teachers don’t have real jobs, but what about teachers at private schools? Presumably the jobs held by professors at major public universities, like Berkeley or the University of Michigan are not real, but the jobs held at for-profit universities, like Phoenix or the Washington Post’s own Kaplan Inc., are real.
How about health care? Currently the vast majority of workers in the health care industry are employed by the private sector. Presumably these are real jobs according to Samuelson. Suppose that we replace our private health care system with a national health care service like the one they have in the U.K. Would the jobs in the health care no longer be real? . . .
How about when the government finances an industry by granting it a state sanctioned monopoly as when it grants patent monopolies on prescription drugs. Do the researchers at Pfizer have real jobs even though their income is dependent on a government granted monopoly? Would they have real jobs if the government instead paid for research out of tax revenue and let drugs be sold in a free market, saving consumers $250 billion a year?
Robert Samuelson obviously thinks there is something very important about the difference between working for the government and working in the private sector. Unfortunately his column does not do a very good job of explaining why. It would probably be best if he waited another 35 years before again attacking a newspaper editorial.
If people are confused about how our economy works, or doesn’t work, it is no wonder.
Greece has been in recession for close to four years and its economy continues its downward slide. Its unemployment stands at 20.9%, youth unemployment at 48%. In the words of the Guardian’s economic editor:
Greece is broke and close to being broken. It is a country where children are fainting in school because they are hungry, where 20,000 Athenians are scavenging through waste tips for food, and where the lifeblood of a modern economy – credit – is fast drying up.
According to the conventional wisdom, Greece’s current economic problems are the result of years of too much public spending on social programs and too little tax collection. Foreign borrowing enabled the Greek state to finance its ever larger budget deficits and sustain growth. However, this strategy reached its limits in 2008. The global crisis dramatically increased the country’s deficits and foreign lenders grew worried about Greece’s ability to pay its debts. Unable to tap credit markets, the Greek state and economy entered into crisis.
In response to the crisis, European institutions and the IMF have offered the Greek state special loans (so they can pay their debts to foreign banks—mostly German and French). In exchange, the Greek government has agreed to slash its spending. This has meant massive cuts in state employment and social programs and, of course, a worsening of the country’s economic downturn.
Interestingly, while the media has demonized Greek workers for creating the deficits and moralized about their need to readjust to the realities of Greek economic capacities, little attention has been paid to military spending as a cause of the deficits and the unwillingness of European leaders to demand a significant change in Greek defense spending.
Here is what a Guardian reporter has to say:
The current EU-IMF bailout remains conditional on further austerity measures, including reducing pensions, the minimum-wage and civil service jobs. However, one area of the Greek budget doesn’t seem to have received much scrutiny: its huge military spending. . . .
In 2006, as the financial crisis was looming, Greece was the third biggest arms importer after China and India. And over the past 10 years its military budget has stood at an average of 4% of GDP, more than £900 per person. If Greece is in need of structural reform, then its oversized military would seem the most logical place to start. In fact, if it had only spent the EU average of 1.7% over the last 20 years, it would have saved a total of 52% of its GDP – meaning instead of being completely bankrupt it would be among the more typical countries struggling with the recession.
So, what is driving this military spending—well just as German and French banks have been among the biggest lenders to the Greek state, German and French arms producers have been among the biggest arms sellers to the Greek state. As the Guardian article explains:
In the five years up to 2010, Greece purchased more of Germany’s arms exports than any other country, buying 15% of its weapons. Over the same period, Greece was the third-largest customer for France’s military exports and its top buyer in Europe. Significantly, when the first bail-out package was being negotiated in 2010, Greece spent 7.1bn euros (£5.9bn) on its military, up from 6.24bn euros in 2007. A total of £1bn was spent on French and German weapons, plunging the country even further into debt in the same year that social spending was cut by 1.8bn euros. It has claimed by some that this was no coincidence, and that the EU bail-out was explicitly tied to burgeoning arms deals.
Greece has finally begun to reduce its military spending, but the cuts in the military budget have been far smaller than those in social programs. In fact, Greece remains in the top spot in the EU for spending on the military as a percentage of GDP and is still one of the world’s biggest weapons importers.
An article in the German press offers the following picture of how military spending is being handled relative to social programs:
In 2010 the military spending budget should have been cut by only 0.2 percent of economic output, or by €457 million. That sounds like a lot, but the same document proposed to cut back on social spending by €1.8 billion. In 2011, according to the EU Commission, Greece was to strive for “cutbacks in defense spending”. The Commission, though, didn’t make it explicit.
The Greek Parliament was quick to exploit this freedom. The 2012 budget proposes cuts to the social budget of another nine percent, or about €2 billion. The contributions to NATO, on the other hand, are expected to rise by 50 percent, to €60 million, and current defense spending by up to €200 million, to €1.3 billion – an increase of 18.2 percent.
And the German Federal Government’s stance? According to a spokesman, responding to an enquiry, the German government supports “the policy of consolidation of the Greek Prime Minister Papademos. The government’s guiding assumption is that the Greek government will, on its own responsibility, contemplate meaningful cuts in military spending.”
On June 17, Greece will hold national parliament elections. As the Washington Post explains:
Let’s recall the background. Greece owes a whole bunch of money it can’t repay. In February, the country received a $140 billion bailout from the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. In exchange, Greece is supposed to make a bunch of sharp spending cuts. Greek voters don’t like this, given that their country’s economy is already in tatters. But if they don’t accept further austerity, they might not get the bailout. . . . So that’s the context for the upcoming Greek parliamentary elections.
The two parties leading in the opinion polls are Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left), which rejects the austerity agreement and is promoting a restructuring of the Greek economy (of course, more is at issue than just military spending), and Nea Dimokatia (New Democracy), which has basically endorsed the status quo. Here is an article that provides some background on the main parties contesting the upcoming election and here is a statement of Syriza’s program for economic transformation. The statement is well worth reading; it includes policies that would be helpful for people in many countries.
Representative Paul Ryan (Wisconsin), the chairman of the House Budget Committee, recently put forward his party’s budget plan. Dean Baker reports on the Washington Post story which says of the plan that it “calls for spending cuts and tax changes that would put the nation on course to wipe out deficits and balance the budget by 2040.” He notes that unfortunately the Post forgot to mention that the plan also largely does away with the government.
The following table comes from the Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Ryan budget plan.
In 2011, spending on “health care” came to 5 percent of GDP, spending on “social security” equaled 4.75 percent of GDP, and spending on “other mandatory and defense and nondefense discretionary spending” totaled 12.5 percent of GDP. Congressional Budget Office estimates are that by 2040, the Ryan plan will have reduced spending on “other mandatory and defense and nondefense discretionary spending” to 4.75 percent of GDP. By 2050, that category will be down to 3.75 percent of GDP.
As Baker explains:
The defense budget is currently over 4.0 percent of GDP and Representative Ryan has indicated that he wants to leave it at this level. That would leave little for the Justice Department, Education Department, Park Service, education, transportation and everything else government does in 2040 and nothing in 2050. That fact would have been worth pointing out in this article.
It is worth adding that the Congressional Budget Office noted in its report that “The amounts of revenues and spending to be used in these calculations for 2012 through 2022 were provided by Chairman Ryan and his staff.” In other words, the Congressional Budget Office has taken no position on whether Ryan’s plan would actually produce the balanced budget it predicts. This outcome is especially questionable since his plan projects increases in revenue along with cuts in taxes. The Congressional Budget Office just extended the plan’s assumed values into the future using standard modeling procedures.
At some point we really need to get serious about the destructive nature of private profit driven economic activity and the importance of strengthening the capacity of the state to regulate and redirect economic activity in line with majority needs.
Here is a short (less than 4 minute) video that illustrates the fact that 53% of our tax dollars, conservatively estimated, go to finance our military.
[youtube] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFeduoDWKj4 [/youtube]
And here is a link to a recent study by Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier on the employment effects of military spending versus alternative domestic spending priorities, in particular investments in clean energy, health care, and education.
The authors first examine the employment effects of spending $1 billion on the military versus spending the same amount on clean energy, health care, education or tax cuts. The chart below shows their results.
Moreover, even though jobs in the military provide the highest levels of compensation, the authors still find that “investments in clean energy, health care and education create a much larger number of jobs across all pay ranges, including mid-range jobs (paying between $32,000 and $64,000) and high paying jobs (paying over $64,000).”
Let’s see if these facts come up in the next Congressional budget debate.
The deficit commission failed to produce a plan to cut deficit spending by $1.2 trillion over the next ten years. According to the ground rules of the agreement that created the commission, its failure is supposed to trigger approximately $1 trillion in “automatic” spending cuts that will go into effect beginning January 2013.
The agreement included the following stipulations for guiding the automatic cuts:
Approximately 50% of the required reduction is to come from the so-called security budget (national security operations and military costs).
Approximately 32% is to come from non-defense discretionary programs (health, education, drug enforcement, national parks and other agencies and programs).
About 12% is come from Medicare (reduced payments to Medicare providers and plans).
The rest is to come mostly from agricultural programs.
To be clear, these are reductions to be made in projected budget lines. In other words, the cuts to the security budget will not produce an actual decline in security spending, only a slowdown in the projected increase previously agreed to by Congress.
As previously discussed the failure of the commission is a good thing. The commission was actively considering structural changes to a number of key social programs. One was to change the formula for calculating social security payments so as to reduce them. Another was to raise the age at which people could access Medicare. The automatic cuts, if enacted, will reduce spending on important programs, but at least they do not include steps towards their dismantling. In fact, Social Security and Medicaid are exempt.
The next stage of the budget battle has been joined. Political forces are maneuvering to change the formula for the automatic cuts mandated by the budget agreement. In fact, this maneuvering began weeks before the commission formally announced its failure to agree on a deficit cutting plan. According to a November 5, 2011 New York Times report:
Several members of Congress, especially Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, are readying legislation that would undo the automatic across-the-board cuts totaling nearly $500 billion for military programs, or exchange them for cuts in other areas of the federal budget.
We need to enter this budget battle with our own plan. That plan must include blocking further cuts to non-defense discretionary programs and Medicare. It is worth recalling that the agreement that established the deficit commission already included approximately $1 trillion in cuts to non-defense discretionary programs.
It is the security budget that we need to focus on. And we need to be clear that our aim in demanding cuts to that budget, as well as tax increases on the wealthy and corporations, is to help generate funds to support an aggressive federal program of economic restructuring not deficit reduction.
The table below makes clear just how important it is to target the security budget. It shows the pattern of federal spending on discretionary programs, defense and non-defense, over the years 2001 to 2010. The big winner was the Department of Defense, which captured 64.6% of the total increase in discretionary spending over those years. It was still the big winner, at 36.9%, even if one subtracts out war costs.
While the defense gains are staggering, they do not include spending increases enjoyed by other key budget areas dedicated to the military. For example, many costs associated with our nuclear weapons program are contained in the Energy Department budget. Many military activities are financed out of the NASA budget. And then there is Homeland Security, Veteran Affairs, and International Assistance Programs. It would not be a stretch to conclude that more than 75% of the increase in spending on discretionary programs over the period 2001 to 2010 went to support militarism and repression. No wonder our social programs and public infrastructure has been starved for funds.
There is no way we can hope to reshape our economy without taking on our government’s militaristic foreign and domestic policy aims and the budget priorities that underpin them.
The Congressional deficit commission (also known as the super-committee), which is charged which recommending ways to reduce the national deficit by some $1.2 trillion over the next ten years, appears headed for failure. And that is a good thing.
The commission has until Monday, November 21, to submit a plan to the Congressional Budget Office for evaluation. The plan must then go to the full Congress for an up-or-down vote no later than Wednesday November 23. Anything can happen but the reports suggest that the six Republicans and six Democrats remain deeply divided, with the Republicans demanding that deficit reduction be achieved only through spending cuts and the Democrats demanding that tax increases be a part of the plan.
The History of the Deficit Commission
The deficit commission was established in August as part of the deal that secured an increase in the national debt ceiling, giving the Treasury authority to borrow enough money to cover approved expenditures through fiscal 2012. Republicans and Democrats both agreed that projected future deficits had to be reduced but then, as now, the Republicans wanted to achieve that goal only through spending cuts while the Democrats wanted some tax increases in addition to the spending cuts.
In order to win Republican support for an increase in the debt ceiling and avert a federal default a compromise was struck. The two parties agreed to reduce spending by some $1 trillion, with 35% of the spending reduction coming from security related budgets (military and homeland security) and the rest coming from non-security discretionary budgets (infrastructure, clean energy, research, education, as well as programs that help low income people with child care, housing, community service, etc.). The compromise also included the creation of the deficit commission, which was given the charge of recommending ways to reduce future deficits by an additional $1.2-1.5 trillion.
What made the commission especially dangerous is that both Republicans and Democrats agreed that the committee would be free to consider a full range of options, including permanent changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid programs. In fact, Democrats made clear that they would support cuts in those programs if Republicans would only accept some tax increases on the wealthy and corporations.
If the commission failed to agree on a plan, which required only majority support, Congress would have until January 15 to approve its own plan. And if they failed, automatic spending cuts would be triggered, with approximately half of the reduction coming from security budgets and the other half from non-security discretionary budgets. Significantly, the automatic budget cuts would not take effect until fiscal 2013, meaning not until after the next presidential election.
A False Crisis
The premise underlying the creation of the super-committee is that federal spending is out of control, especially on social programs, and that if real deficit reduction is not achieved we face economic chaos. More recently some supporters of deficit reduction point to European government debt problems as an omen of what awaits us if we don’t act quickly and decisively.
The fact of the matter is that social spending is not driving our deficit and debt problems. The primary drivers are our military spending, including our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the Bush-era tax cuts; and our economic crisis. If we truly want to stabilize our national finances we need to halt our wars, raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations, and engage in serious public spending to generate equitable and sustainable economic growth.
Moreover, there is no reason to believe that we are facing a debt crisis. The ratio of public debt to GDP is predicted to remain comfortably below the 100% level for at least a decade, the level that some experts claim marks the danger zone. The U.S. government has no trouble borrowing money to fund its operations. Actually, investors throughout the world want U.S. Treasures because of their safety. Moreover, as Paul Krugman points out, even high debt ratios are not automatically dangerous if countries are able to borrow in their own currency, which is the situation for the U.S. government:
You hear that claim all the time. America, we’re told, had better slash spending right away or we’ll end up like Greece or Italy. Again, however, the facts tell a different story.
First, if you look around the world you see that the big determining factor for interest rates isn’t the level of government debt but whether a government borrows in its own currency. Japan is much more deeply in debt than Italy, but the interest rate on long-term Japanese bonds is only about 1 percent to Italy’s 7 percent. Britain’s fiscal prospects look worse than Spain’s, but Britain can borrow at just a bit over 2 percent, while Spain is paying almost 6 percent.
What has happened, it turns out, is that by going on the euro, Spain and Italy in effect reduced themselves to the status of third-world countries that have to borrow in someone else’s currency, with all the loss of flexibility that implies. In particular, since euro-area countries can’t print money even in an emergency, they’re subject to funding disruptions in a way that nations that kept their own currencies aren’t — and the result is what you see right now. America, which borrows in dollars, doesn’t have that problem.
Why “Failure” Is A Good Thing
Our biggest danger is not runaway debt but austerity. And that brings us back to the deficit commission.
Nothing good can possibly come out of the work of the deficit commission. If an agreement is reached it will include proposals to reduce the deficit through significant spending cuts and as a consequence we can expect two bad outcomes. First, the cuts will weaken our economic recovery, and a weaker economic recovery will worsen the budget deficit, triggering demands for further spending reductions. Second, the cuts will include damaging changes to our social programs, including Social Security and Medicare, which will be hard to undue. And there is no need to weaken either program. In fact, there are many reasons for increasing Social Security payments and expanding Medicare.
If the deficit commission fails to agree on a plan, we can be reasonably sure that Congress will do no better, and the automatic cuts will be triggered. But, these automatic cuts will have only limited effect on our social programs. For example, Social Security cannot be touched. Most importantly they will not take place for over a year, giving us time to demand new policies.
In short, we must resist the media’s attempt to panic us into rooting for a bad deal. We don’t face any budgetary crisis. The collapse of the deficit commission is our best possible outcome given the current political environment. The occupy movement is beginning to influence our national dialogue and that means growing power to change our choices.
Our demands must remain focused on economic transformation. We need more and better directed government spending, spending that doesn’t just support our existing economic structure but is designed to reshape existing patterns of employment, production, and investment. And that spending needs to be financed by slashing our military budget, changing our foreign policy, and boosting taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Someday maybe we can have a super-committee that will be charged with recommending the best way to accomplish those goals.
Congress has finally agreed on a deficit reduction plan that President Obama supports. As a result, the debt ceiling is being lifted, which means that the Treasury can once again borrow to meet its financial obligations.
Avoiding a debt default is a good thing. However, the agreement is bad and even more importantly the debate itself has reinforced understandings of our economy that are destructive of majority interests.
The media presented the deficit reduction negotiations as a battle between two opposing sides. President Obama, who wanted to achieve deficit reduction through a combination of public spending cuts and tax increases, anchored one side. The House Republicans, who would only accept spending cuts, anchored the other. We were encouraged to cheer for the side that we thought best represented our interests.
Unfortunately, there was actually little difference between the two sides in terms of the way they engaged and debated the relevant issues. Both sides agreed that we face a major debt crisis. Both sides agreed that out-of-control social programs are the main driver of our deficit and debt problems. And both sides agreed that the less government involvement in the economy the better.
The unanimity is especially striking since all three positions are wrong. We do not face a major debt crisis, social spending is not driving our deficits and debt, and we need more active government intervention in the economy not less to solve our economic problems.
Before discussing these issues it is important to highlight the broad terms of the deficit reduction agreement. The first step is limited to spending cuts. More specifically, discretionary spending is to be reduced by $900 billion over the next ten years. Approximately 35% of the reduction will come from security related budgets (military and homeland security), with the rest coming from non-security discretionary budgets (infrastructure, clean energy, research, education, as well as programs that help low income people with child care, housing, community service etc.). In exchange for these budget cuts the Congress has agreed to raise the debt ceiling by $1 trillion.
The agreement also established a 12 person committee (with 6 Democrats and 6 Republicans) to recommend ways to reduce future deficits by another $1.2-1.5 trillion. Its recommendations must be made by November 23, 2011 and they can include cuts to every social program (including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid), as well as tax increases.
Congress has to vote on the committee’s package of recommendations by December 23, 2011, up or down. If Congress approves them they will be implemented. If Congress does not approve them, automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion will be made; 50% of the cuts must come from security budgets and the other 50% must come from non-security discretionary budgets and Medicare. Regardless of how Congress votes on the recommendations, it must also vote on whether to approve a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. Once this vote is taken, the debt ceiling will be raised again by an amount slightly smaller than the deficit reduction.
Check out the following flowchart from the New York Times if you want a more complete picture of the process. If you are content with the above summary skip to the text below the flowchart for some analysis.
Many commentators, trying to explain why President Obama embraced an agreement so heavily weighted towards spending cuts (potentially including cuts in Social Security benefits), claim that he was outmaneuvered by Republicans. In reality, President Obama has long supported deficit reduction along the lines of this agreement.
As early as March 2009, his staff told David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, that the President was “extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security as well as health spending.” In fact, according to Brooks:
The White House has produced a chart showing nondefense discretionary spending as a share of GDP. That’s spending for education, welfare, and all the stuff that Democrats love. Since 1985, this spending as hovered around 3.7% of GDP. . . . The White House claims that it is going to reduce this spending to 3.1%, lower than at any time in any recent Republican administration. I was invited to hang this chart on my wall and judge them by how well they meet these targets.
The White House Fact Sheet issued to explain why the President supports the recently negotiated deficit reduction agreement reveals the consistency in Obama’s position. It notes favorably that this agreement “puts us on track to reduce non-defense discretionary spending to its lowest level since Dwight Eisenhower was President.”
Those who favor reducing spending on government programs generally argue that we have no choice because our public spending and national debt are out of control, threatening our economic future. But, the data says otherwise.
The chart below, from the economist Menzie Chinn at Econbrowser, shows the movement in the ratio of publically held debt to GDP over the period 1970 to 2011; the area in yellow marks the Obama administration. While this ratio has indeed grown rapidly, it remains well below the 100% level that most economists take to be the warning level. In fact, according to Congressional Budget Office predictions, we are unlikely to reach such a level for decades even if we maintain our current spending and revenue patterns.
The sharp growth in the ratio over the last few years strongly suggests that our current high deficits are largely due to recent developments, in particular the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Great Recession. Their contribution can be seen in the chart below from the New York Times.
The effects of the tax cuts and economic crisis on our deficits (and by extension debt) are especially visible in the following chart (again from Menzie Chinn), which plots yearly changes in federal spending and federal revenue as a percentage of GDP (the shaded areas mark periods of recession). As we can see, the recent deficit explosion was initially driven more by declining revenues than out of control spending. Attempts to close the budget gap solely or even primarily through spending cuts, especially of social programs, is bound to fail.
Tragically, the debate over how best to reduce the deficit has encouraged people to blame social spending for our large deficits and those large deficits for our current economic problems. As a result, demands for real structural change in the way our economy operates are largely dismissed as irrelevant.
Recent economic data should be focusing our attention on the dangers of a new recession. According to the Commerce Department our economy grew at an annual rate of just 1.3% in second quarter of this year, following a first quarter in which the economy grew by only 0.3%. These are incredibly slow rates of growth for an economy recovering from a major recession. To put these numbers in perspective, Dean Baker notes that we need growth of over 2.5% to keep our already high unemployment rate from growing.
Cutting spending during a period of economic stagnation, especially on infrastructure, research, and social programs, is a recipe for greater hardship. In fact, such a policy will likely further weaken our economy, leading to greater deficits. This is what happened in the UK, Ireland, and Greece—countries with weak economies that tried to solve their deficit problems by slashing public spending.
We need more active government intervention, which means more spending to redirect and restructure the economy; a new, more progressive tax structure; and a major change in our foreign policy, if we are going to solve our economic problems. Unfortunately for now we don’t have a movement powerful enough to ensure our side has a player in the struggles that set our political agenda.
On May 6, 2011, I spoke at the First Unitarian Church in Portland along with Chuck Collins (from the Institute for Policy Studies) as part of a program sponsored by the church’s Real Wealth of Portland group. We both addressed the following theme: “Economic Insecurity Continues…and Communities Respond.”
Chuck talked about a very important initiative: Common Security Clubs. The First Unitarian Church has sponsored similar clubs for approximately one year.
What follows is the talk I gave:
The Challenges Ahead
I want to begin by summarizing my three main points—
First, our economic problems are serious and structural, and a long time in the making. They did not start with the 2007 collapse of the housing bubble, which means that we should not assume that so called “normal market forces” will eventually return us to an acceptable economic state. In other words, without major structural changes in the way our economy works we face a future of stagnation with ever worsening conditions for growing numbers of people.
Second, business and political leaders are not committed to making any serious changes in our economic structure. That is not because they are stupid. Rather it reflects a real class interest in maintaining the status quo. It is not that they are unaware of or unconcerned with our current social problems but rather that they view the cost of making necessary changes to our economy as too high.
Third, meaningful solutions will require building a movement that challenges our current reliance on profit driven market outcomes. This movement has to be built by organizing strong social and community institutions, ones that give people the chance to develop in common a correct understanding of the causes of our problems and the organizational weight and confidence to promote the needed transformation of our economy.
The National Bureau of Economic Research, the official designator of recessions and expansions, declared that our economy went into recession in December 2007 and that this recession ended and an expansion began in June 2009. In other words we have been in an expansion for almost two years. Normally, the deeper the recession, the stronger the recovery. However, as I am sure you are aware, the recession was very deep and to this point the recovery has been extremely weak.
The federal government has poured trillions of dollars into the economy to end the recession and boost the recovery. The government’s great accomplishment has been a strong recovery of profits. In fact, total domestic corporate profits are now about as high as they were in 2006 before the start of the crisis, and financial profits as a share of total profits are pushing 35%, which is close to the pre-crisis high of 40%.
But beyond this restoration of corporate profitability, and the recovery of finance as our leading economic sector, little has happened to generate sustained and beneficial growth for the great majority of us. For example, total bank excess reserves averaged around $10 billion a year in the decades prior to the crisis. Now they are pushing $1.4 trillion. The banks are just holding this money. One reason is that since October 2008 the Federal Reserve Board is paying them interest on those reserves. Similarly non-financial corporations now have the highest ratio of cash to assets in post-war history; they are not using that money to invest in new plant and equipment.
What this means is that our leading financial and non-financial corporations have plenty of money, but see no privately profitable productive investment opportunities. At the same time, they are in no hurry to pursue policy changes because despite the slow recovery they are doing quite well. Thus, as things stand, there is little reason to believe that this government supported expansion will be long lasting or beneficial for working people.
I cannot emphasize enough the fact that we are in an expansion; these are the good times—the period of recovery, when our income is supposed to go up, when unemployment is supposed to significantly decline, when we have money to rebuild our infrastructure, fund our health care and other social programs, and build a solid collective nest egg to cover the hard times which will of course come. The fact that this is not happening—that we continue to struggle during this period of economic expansion—is indicative of the fact that our economic system as presently structured is not one we can count on; in other words it is a flawed system.
With this perspective, you can see why the small increases in employment and production that are cheered by policy makers mean little—of course we are going to see some increases. But for how long and with what effect? Given the lack of corporate interest in investment or lending I think that there is little reason to be optimistic. And now, there is even an increasingly strong movement to slash government spending. Those who support that policy claim that we just have to put the collapse of the bubble economy behind us, tighten our fiscal belts, and let market forces return our economy to normal—but what is normal?
Let us consider the previous economic expansion. That expansion lasted from 2001 to 2007. If we compare it to the nine other post-war expansions, it ranks dead last in terms of the growth in GDP, investment, employment, wage and salary income, and compensation. It ranks highly in only one category—and that was the growth in profits. In fact, median household income actually fell over this period of economic expansion. And it is important to recall that this expansion was long lasting only because it was supported by a debt-driven housing bubble. We no longer have that bubble to support growth. Therefore, the new normal appears to be ever weaker growth and deteriorating living and working conditions for the great majority of us. I don’t find that to be acceptable.
Significantly, more and more people are arguing that our current problems are caused by government deficits that are too big, taxes that are too high, and unions that are too strong,. They are therefore pushing for a major reduction and privatization of government social programs, tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, and a weakening of unions, especially those in the public sector.
This would be a recipe for disaster. Where these policies have been implemented, in places like Ireland, Greece, and the UK, the result has been only more problems: lower growth, greater deficits, and of course worsening social conditions. That is not a surprising outcome. If you have an economy where there is weak domestic demand because banks will not lend and corporations will not invest, workers are deep in debt, unemployment is high, and exports are limited, and then you cut government spending—it should not surprise anyone that things go from bad to worse.
And, it is not like we haven’t tried similar policies here in the United States. We have been cutting taxes, government programs, and union strength for more than two decades, and we can see the effects—ever weaker growth, greater inequality, and worsening living and working conditions for the great majority.
The fact is that government spending is one of the main reasons that we still have an economic expansion. Debt fears are being hyped to scare us.
So, why are there powerful social forces arguing for these policies? I think there are two main reasons. The first is to ensure that our anger is not directed at the corporate sector. When this crisis broke in 2008 people were angry, and they were angry at our corporations. There were demands for nationalization of the banks and auto industry and calls for greater government intervention in the economy to save homes, employ people, in short, chart a new economic course for the country.
What happened was quite different. The president immediately made clear that he was not going to interfere with market processes—in finance, in auto production, in the housing market, in health care, or in job creation. Rather he did all he could to bail out those corporations that were in trouble because of their own reckless pursuit of profit. And his efforts succeeded. Profits are back up and finance continues to dominate. Unfortunately for us, those efforts did little to address our needs.
I think that the corporate sector is getting nervous. They are fearful that their large profits in the face of our deteriorating social conditions might lead to a renewal of demands for social change. And lets be clear—any significant social change is going to require a significant change in government policy. For example, strengthening our economy will require an end to free trade agreements; rebuilding our infrastructure; a new green industrial policy directed at retrofitting our buildings, developing solar and wind power and mass transit; and a shrinking and redirection of finance. Rebuilding our communities will require new labor laws to support unionization and higher minimum wages; support for education, health care, and transportation rather than military activity; and an increase in taxes on corporations and the wealthy to help pay for many of the needed initiatives.
This is not what the corporate sector wants. Therefore, they are trying to steer us in a different direction—to encourage us to believe that the reason our economy is not doing better is that our government deficits are too great and workers have too much power. It is ironic. We have government deficits not because of runaway social programs but because the government had to bail out the private sector. It was this spending that kept us out of depression and enriched our corporations. And now the leading lights of the private sector are trying to convince us that the main cause of our slow growth is this very same deficit spending. So, the first reason for this anti-government offensive is to keep us from focusing on corporate behavior and the contradictions of market processes by encouraging us to blame the government and unions for our problems.
The second reason is that the push for marginalizing government programs will likely open up new private profit making opportunities for our large corporations. For example, the privatization of our military, our education system, our health care system, our retirement and social insurance systems all mean public dollars flowing into private coffers. And as a bonus corporations would likely get new tax breaks.
To state the obvious: corporations are defending policies that help them make profits at majority expense. I think the best way to grasp this reality is to focus on General Electric. GE is not only one of our nation’s largest corporation, its head, Jeffrey Immelt, was picked by President Obama to head his President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. President Obama said he picked him because “He understands what it takes for America to compete in the global economy.”
That may be true, but what is GE’s competitiveness strategy?
First, it is to avoid taxes. GE reported worldwide profits of $14.2 billion in 2010, including $5.1 billion from its operations in the United States. Yet, it paid no US taxes; in fact it claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion.
It accomplished this through a very aggressive working of our tax policy. Here is what the New York Times said:
G.E.’s giant tax department, led by a bow-tied former Treasury official named John Samuels, is often referred to as the world’s best tax law firm. Indeed, the company’s slogan “Imagination at Work” fits this department well. The team includes former officials not just from the Treasury, but also from the I.R.S. and virtually all the tax-writing committees in Congress.
Second, it is to shift operations from production to finance. According to the New York Times:
General Electric has been a household name for generations, with light bulbs, electric fans, refrigerators and other appliances in millions of American homes. But today the consumer appliance division accounts for less than 6 percent of revenue, while lending accounts for more than 30 percent. . . . Because its lending division, GE Capital, has provided more than half of the company’s profit in some recent years, many Wall Street analysts view G.E. not as a manufacturer but as an unregulated lender that also makes dishwashers and M.R.I. machines.
Third, it is to move its operations and profits outside the US. Since 2002, the company has eliminated a fifth of its work force in the United States while increasing overseas employment. Over that same period G.E.’s accumulated offshore profits have risen from $15 billion to $92 billion.
GE is far from unique in employing this strategy. For example, the Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. MNCs cut their work forces in the United States by 2.9 million during the 2000s while increasing employment overseas by 2.4 million.
So, we are in a battle over the nature and direction of our economy. Successive governments, in response to corporate demands, have worked to promote more mobility for corporations, lower taxes for corporations, and the growing power of finance—all at our expense. And despite our current economic problems, our government continues to push for more of the same. In sum, while we might be experiencing a crisis caused by capitalism it is not a crisis for capitalism.
So, what shall we do? In fact, we are not short of ideas. We have all sorts of progressive policy suggestions. The problem is that those with power are not interested in our suggestions. This means that we need to organize if we are to succeed in making a real change. Here are a few of my suggestions about next steps.
First, we need to make sure that people understand the structural nature of the problems we face. We have to make sure that unions, neighborhood associations, and places of worship become venues where people can talk, learn, develop their understandings and most importantly connections.
Second, we need to build alliances around critical demands—changes in government priorities, for example, such as cutting military spending in favor of social programs, raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations, and defending Medicare and Social Security. These alliances shouldn’t be hard to build.
Third, we need to be creative in who and how we organize. We need organizations where people can produce themselves more fully as actors. In the 1930s, for example, we had councils of the unemployed. They fought for greater government spending, unemployment insurance, and in support of unionization for workers with jobs. Now, we have large numbers of homeless and hungry. We need to do more that take food to food banks—we need to help the hungry and homeless organize themselves into powerful social movements.
We also need to help students, for example, see that their likely future of job insecurity, low wages, and lack of health care can be changed if they join with others, including unions, and health care advocates, and perhaps their parents, to demand a change in the direction of the economy. And we need our unions to recognize that many of our young workers will be moving from job to job, and company to company, in temporary positions, which means that unions will have to develop new forms of organization.
Fourth, we need to focus our attention on the public sector. I think that one of our key challenges is to develop new coalitions between public sector unions and those who use public services. While I believe that we need to fight against spending cuts for important programs I also know that our existing programs are far from perfect. Moreover, just maintaining the same level of spending is not the same as transforming our economy. We need more accountable and responsive public programs and I think the key to that, to the democratizing of the state, is a community-public sector worker alliance.
For example, imagine if those that cared about the environment; worker rights; an end to militarization; and gay, lesbian, transgender rights could engage public school teachers who were responsive to these views and collectively develop curriculum that advanced those views, thereby producing young people able and eager to contribute to making a better society. And also imagine that in return, those in the community committed to working to ensure good funding for schools and political protection and decent salaries for our teachers. We would not only help to improve the school system but also develop a new and positive understanding of the benefits of public services. The same process can be encouraged around transportation by finding ways to bring bus riders and bus drivers together. The same for social workers and their clients. You get the idea. Public sector workers could become our defenders—blowing the whistle if our money is not being property spent and helping us find ways to play a meaningful role in determining the actual nature and delivery of the services we want and pay for.
We really have little choice but to help build resistance to current political tendencies and shape more positive visions. There are very few of us that can avoid the consequences of failure.