The Boston Review, November 11, 2010
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The country in which most people live is experiencing an economic disaster. More than 25 million people are unemployed, underemployed, or have given up looking for work altogether. Tens of millions are now underwater on their mortgages, with millions facing the imminent loss of their homes. Furthermore, there is little prospect that the situation will improve anytime soon.
Many fewer live in the other America, the world of Wall Street and Washington lobbyists. This is where you’ll find former Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson and investment banker-turned-Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, the co-chairs of President Obama’s deficit commission, which on Wednesday outlined its plans for what it calls “fiscal responsibility.” In their world the key fact is that, today, corporate profits are back to their pre-recession peaks. As long as the bonuses on Wall Street are again hitting record highs, the economy must be just fine, so what else is there to do but worry about deficits?
It would be hard to understand how ostensibly serious people could be concerned about the deficit right now, unless we realize that they stand apart from the economic calamity that has engulfed most of the country. The suffering caused by this recession simply does not register on their radar screens.
This is not just a moral complaint, although it is troubling that the people most responsible for the economic wreckage are doing just fine. More important is that there is no evidence that Simpson, Bowles, and the rest of the deficit cutters have the slightest understanding of the economy. If they did they would be looking at the deficit in a completely different way.
First, the current deficit should not even be viewed as a problem. Yes, a deficit of $1.4 trillion is big, but this is a direct result of the loss of demand stemming from the collapse of an $8 trillion housing bubble. This bubble was driving the economy until its collapse. There were two channels through which the bubble generated demand in the economy: bubble-inflated house prices led to a boom in construction, bubble-inflated wealth led consumers to increase their spending, pushing saving rates to almost zero.
This demand has disappeared now that the bubble has deflated. The economy has lost more than $600 billion in annual construction demand as builders cut back in response to an enormous over-supply of both residential and non-residential property. Similarly, consumption has plummeted. This left an enormous gap in demand that, at least in the near-term, can only be filled by the government. If the government were to spend less—say it instantly balanced its budget—the primary result would be a further decline in demand and more job loss.
We are in a peculiar situation where the main problem for the economy is a lack of demand. More demand will mean more growth and more jobs. Government must supply demand because there is no other entity that can step forward to do it—unless someone gets very good at counterfeiting hundred dollar bills.
The failure to understand current deficits also leads to a misunderstanding of the debt burden. Simpson and Bowles raise fears of an exploding debt reaching 90 percent of GDP by the end of the decade. They have raised the prospect of a crushing interest burden facing future generations of taxpayers.
Simpson and Bowles decided to include cuts to Social Security in the mix, even though Social Security has not contributed to the deficit.
But there is no real basis for this concern. There is no reason that the Fed can’t just buy this debt (as it is largely doing) and hold it indefinitely. If the Fed holds the debt, there is no interest burden for future taxpayers. The Fed refunds its interest earnings to the Treasury every year. Last year the Fed refunded almost $80 billion in interest to the Treasury, nearly 40 percent of the country’s net interest burden. And the Fed has other tools to ensure that the expansion of the monetary base required to purchase the debt does not lead to inflation.
This means that the country really has no near-term or even mid-term deficit problem. The current deficit is a positive. In fact, if it were larger we would have more jobs and growth. Furthermore, there is no reason that the debt being accumulated at present should pose any interest burden on future generations. In this vein, it is worth noting that Japan’s central bank holds debt amounting to almost 100 percent of that country’s GDP. As a result, Japan’s interest burden is considerably smaller than the United States’s, even though Japan’s debt is almost four times as large relative to the size of its economy.
Over the longer term the United States is projected to face a deficit problem, but this is almost entirely attributable to the explosive rate at which private-sector health-care costs are likely to grow. More than half of health-care costs are paid by the government, hence the public budgetary impact of our private system.
Of course, those increasing costs will lead to enormous problems for the private sector, too. Rapidly rising health-care costs were a big part of the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies. If per-person health-care costs in the United States were the same as in Canada, then General Motors’ profits would have been $20 billion higher over the last decade. If, on the other hand, health-care costs follow the projected path, we will have many more General Motors and Chryslers.
Simpson and Bowles’s report seeks saving in public-sector health programs, primarily by making patients pay more for care. But there is no discussion of the private health-care system that is the root of the problem.
To no one’s surprise the co-chairs decided to include cuts to Social Security in the mix, even though Social Security has not contributed to the deficit. The program has a designated payroll tax and is prohibited from spending beyond the money provided by the tax. It is structurally impossible for the program to affect the deficit.
The Simpson-Bowles approach involves raising the retirement age, cutting benefits for middle- and higher-income workers, and reducing the annual cost-of-living adjustment so that retirees would no longer see their benefits rise in step with the consumer price index (CPI). Raising the retirement age seems more than a bit unfair, since most of the gains in life expectancy have been going to workers in the top half of the income distribution. Workers in the bottom half have seen minimal gains in life expectancy over the last three decades.
The cuts in the benefit formula will hit anyone who has average wage earnings over their lifetime of more than $36,000. This is not most people’s definition of affluent.
Simpson and Bowles do not seem interested in accuracy; they want to cut benefits.
Finally, the co-chairs want to peg the cost-of-living adjustment to a new CPI that regularly shows a lower rate of inflation than the current measure. The gap is about 0.3 percent, which means that benefits will rise by about 0.3 percent less rapidly than would otherwise be the case.
This effect seems small, but it adds up over time. A retiree who collecting benefits for ten years would have a benefit in their tenth years that was 3.0 percent lower than would otherwise be the case. After 20 years the gap would be 6.0 percent and after thirty years the gap would be 9.0 percent. This policy has the effect of hitting the oldest hardest. These are precisely the people (mostly women) with the least resources.
It is often argued that the new CPI would be a better measure of inflation, but if we are concerned about actually measuring the cost of living for retirees, Simpson and Bowles could have recommended that Congress use a measure constructed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics explicitly to measure the increase in the cost of living for the elderly. This CPI for the elderly consistently shows a rate of inflation that is 0.2-0.4 above the standard CPI that is used now. But Simpson and Bowles do not seem interested in accuracy; they want to cut benefits.
There is one item worth noting for its absence. Simpson and Bowles apparently never considered a Wall Street financial-speculation tax. This is an obvious source of revenue that even the International Monetary Fund is now advocating in recognition of the enormous amount of waste and rents in the financial sector. It is possible to raise large amounts of revenue from such a tax.
University of Massachusetts professor Robert Pollin and I calculated the potential revenue at more than $100 billion a year, with little impact on productive economic activity. The main impact would be to reduce the shuffling of financial assets. The refusal to consider this source of revenue is striking since at least one member of the commission has been a vocal advocate of financial-speculation taxes. Bowles is a director of Morgan Stanley, one of the Wall Street banks that would be seriously affected by such a tax.
There are some positive items in the report. It would limit the mortgage interest-rate deduction and get rid of the deduction for “cafeteria” benefit plans. But the report is fatally flawed because its authors, principally Simpson and Bowles, never seriously reflected on their basic economic assumptions. It would be best if this is yet another one of those Washington commissions that is quickly forgotten.